The Burden of Boredom

I was just writing up a list of books I want to read in the next year, ranging from Muriel Rukeyser to Alice Fulton to Yusef Komunyakaa, and it got me thinking about my response to poetry that doesn't engage me.

For example, when I was required to read Elizabeth Biship's Collected Poems from cover to cover for my program, my eyes spent most of the book glazed over with boredom. Her cold, detached mode of writing doesn't connect with me. I'm not judging the quality of her work, mind you, just the fact that I don't relate to it or find it to be a valuable resource for me per se.

But, I moved my glazed eyes over every page in the book. I thought, maybe, if I stick with it, something will catch. I'll pull something away from this, understand something better.

My question is, though—with so many other books I want to read and that will possibly resonate with me, should I bother reading books that don't engage me?

I can't say that my experience with Bishops has done much for me since then (it was a year or so ago), other than to help me better understand the poets who revere her. I was recently directed by a close friend to read Laura Jensen's work, but again, I felt disconnected and read only about 20 pages before I stopped. I haven't gone back. Should I?

On the one hand, I recognize the importance of being a trooper and "eating my lima beans," but what if these books that seeminly don't help me are actually keeping me from finding the work that energizes me, invigorates me, makes me want to write through the night? The D. A. Powells, the Frank O'Haras, Tony Hoaglands, Lynn Emanuels, David Trinidads, David St. Johns, James Wrights, Chase Twichells...

Does a poet need to read the work that tastes bad just to grow up big and strong?


  1. Charlie,

    YES. Eat your Lima Beans. They are Good For You.

    So is E. Bishop.


  2. C.R.,
    I won't pretend that I'm successful enough to speak in any type of authoratative manner on this subject, but I would tend to agree with Tony. Of course, there are lots of poets who I don't really enjoy or that don't appeal to me. However, I look at it like this: I may not take away anything that I particularly like from the reading, but it will help me discover more what I don't like, thereby working negatively, or backwards, toward a better understanding of my own aesthetic. For instance, langpo has never turned me on, but I continue to read it so that I can further understand what it is exactly about langpo that is contrary to my taste. Doing this has helped me figure out a lot about myself and my work, though it has been as painful as lima beans. I hope you're doing well. Best, Ryan

  3. C--I had 2 similar experiences: the first was with Emily Dickinson's work. I spent my whole undergraduate education thinking, sure, it's neat, but what does it really say to me? Then we had a "Dead Poet's Slam" at the Boston/Cambridge poetry slam, where I went every week to try out new poems. I had to pick a dead poet's work to read, and not only to read, but to slam with. I was on the Green Line (the long one--B) in Boston, heading home from work one day, and wow, if thinking about her work in a performance poetry way made it come alive for me.

    The second experience was with Louise Gluck's work. I glazed over, and then I made the mistake of going to hear her read. I was completely turned off from that point on (it could have been because she had a cold, but she reads with every line-end turned up, and I couldn't follow anything but the meter). Then Beckian "made me" read Gluck again, and pay attention. Wow--things started popping out at me that I never heard in her work before.

    Last point: The Imaginary Iceberg is one of my favorite poems now.... re-read it. Imagine what it's like to be on a boat, seeing those bergs. I had the same reaction as you to most of Bishop's poems, but that one.... I revisited it on board the Icebreaker in the Southern Ocean, and now I have to explicate it for everyone who passes my desk at work.

    Leave the stuff you don't like for a while. Then come back to it to see if you're tastes (or visions) have changed. Long story, short advice.

  4. Ditto what Tony said. Norman Dubie MADE me read Life Studies and For the Union Dead. Then he MADE me read John Crowe Ransom.

    Then he told me, after I read them all, "Don't write like them."

    It took me years to figure out why, but I figured it out eventually.