Owning Ignorance

A lot of people have been blogging lately about reading poetry exstensively, and I have some thoughts to add to the overall conversation.

An admission: I'm definitely not the most well-read poet. I know this about myself. I was not an English major and I mostly avoided taking English classes in college, but I did take creative writing classes. Those creative writing instructors were really the only people who pointed me toward reading certain things. It was in those classes that I first read Frank O'Hara, for example. Fumbling, I would buy and read anthologies, mostly because I was so poor then and wanted the widest exposure possible for the least amount of money.

I'm not the most widely-read poet, but as I read, I tend to read exhaustively instead of expansively. To wit, I've read every poem collected by Frank O'Hara, his juvenilia, his essays on writing and art, the "background" book written by Joe LeSeur about Frank's poems, and the first several chapters of the Gooch biography. When I find a poet I like, I read that poet until there's nothing left to read, and then I try to read about that poet.

Because of this tendency and my own aesthetic biases, I haven't read nearly any of the Romantics, only tangentially from the Moderns, and more liberally from the contemporaries. And pre-Romantic poetry? Well, once I bought a book by Cavafy, but I still haven't read it. I have about 100 books purchased that I mean to read someday.

Is it more beneficial to be widely read or deeply read? Deeply reading one poet, I think, gives me a better picture of how they're doing what they're doing. There's more internalization of work that way, and a broader understanding of career shifts and voice changes. Wide reading has its benefits, and, knowing my reading tendency, I am constantly looking for new people to read. I carry a list in my wallet of books to buy or check out from libraries. I have a new list growing on a post-it based on what I read about in blogs and online interviews or journals. I ask my friends who they are reading, who they recommend. I ask my favorite poets who their favorite poets are.

I don't consider there to be poets I haven't read; only poets that I haven't read yet.

I sometimes get annoyed that there have to be expectations about the poets that "count" toward some greater poet-ness. If I read all of Ron Silliman's work, is that of less value than reading Pound's Cantos? Or, if I decide, for example, that I've read enough white men for a while, that I can choose to explore poetry by women, gay men, etc?

I definitely feel like at this point in my life I'm reading poetry to answer my own questions, not the questions posed by a cultural exam. But I see value in reading as much as possible, which is why, ultimately, I will work on reading the Cantos, why I'll grudgingly reread The Collected Poems of Elizabeth Bishop. Just because I haven't done it yet doesn't mean I won't. It just means that time isn't right for me. When it's time for me to work with those poets, I'll know. The first time I read Louise Glück, I hated her work. I came back to it later and found Meadowlands to be one of my favorite books ever. We arrive at certain poetries at certain times for certain reasons: we find what we need there. And every poet who's on a path is on their own path.


  1. Charles, I fear my blog is one of the ones causing anxiety. Well, it shouldn't. All that matters is that we, as poets, read and read voraciously. Reading deeply or far and wide; it doesn't matter which one, just as long as we read and read actively. And please pick up that Cavafy and read it. Cavafy changed me as a poet. Almost all the poetry that taught me new ways of "seeing" were poetries from other countries. The English language sculpts our imaginations in ways other languages don't. That is what fascinates me about poems from other languages and cultures.

  2. Charles,

    The key to Bishop is to remember she had a sense of humor. I completely missed this the first time I read her. I read her as "BISHOP" instead "~Bishop~." It made a huge different of my enjoyment of her. Now, I love her work, but there was a time when I could hardly get through a page.

  3. C Dale, no worries. It wasn't one blog or another on a certain day but a conversation I've noticed unfolding for several months. I recognize some poets are considered "fundamental" reading by academia, by other poets, by critics, etc—but I'm sort of critical of that necessity in some ways. I appreciate other people's perspective on who's valuable to read, and I respect the values of my poetry peers. :) I will read the Cavafy soon, I promise. And then we can exchange responses?

    Kelli, thanks for the tip on Bishop. When I last read her, I found most of her work to be flat and "mannish" in a lot of ways. I'll look at it again—so many people have encouraged me to go back and give her a second chance.

  4. Well, glad it wasn't me (alone). Anyway, you are a young whipper-snapper. You have your whole life ahead of you to read everything under the stars. But please read Cavafy. And if you want the antithesis of WheMa poetry, read Rimbaud!

  5. Just wanted to say, I was in my late 20's before I started reading poetry of any sort, and I didn't "get it," so I read aimlessly, across periods and without knowledge of a canon, towards something that spoke to me or moved me, even if I didn't know why. That path led me to complete a Ph.D. in Romantic poetry, eventually (for which I am grateful and with which I am still in love). I remember Doris Lessing once saying that writers should read and put things down as they are moved, even half through a novel. It was good advice for me--so irresponsible, so needful. I needed permission to explore widely or deeply as the work and/or my mood dictated. Gracias D.L.

    Thanks for this post. It reminds me of my own on-going reading journey. If you ever want to talk Romantic poetry, let me know. I'd love to.

    Gina Franco

  6. Charles, Where are you?! I hope you aren't curled up in a room reading every poet we all recommended. Come back! Some of us are having withdrawal. Even Jacob commented to me that you have been mysteriously absent this past week.

  7. Dear Charles,

    Sounds like you’re apologizing and you certainly need not. Each person reads at his/her pace and what moves some, puts others asleep. (That might not be where you are now—sleeping away the week? :-) ) We should obviously read for many reasons, but pure joy is also fundamental. Come back soon.


  8. Are you watching the Project Runway marathon? (wink) I miss you too. xo