The New York Review of Books has my attention again. Every issue lately has something I want to read. The March 1, 2007, issue had two poems by Adam Zagajewski, translated by Clare Cavanagh. I like this one in particular:
I read your poetry once more,
poems written by a rich man, understanding all,
and by a pauper, homeless,
an emigrant alone.
You always want to say more
than we can, to transcend poetry, take flight,
but also to descend, to penetrate the place
where our timid, modest realm begins.
Your voice at times
if only for the moment,
that every day is holy
and that poetry, how to put it,
rounds our life,
completes it, makes it proud
and unafraid of perfect form.
I lay the book aside
at night and only then
the city’s normal tumult starts again,
somebody coughs or cries, somebody curses.
Wonderful stuff, isn’t it? Not definitively, or exclusively, or in the sense of everything-a-poem-could-ever-be, but in itself, for what it is: wonderful stuff.
The phrase “poetry … rounds our life” made me think of Prospero’s speech in Act 4, Scene 1 of The Tempest:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
Did Zagajewski consider this connection? Did his translator, Clare Cavanagh? I say they did.
Years ago, I took a class in poetic meter and form taught by the poet Richard Tillinghast. We wrote poems in different forms just to show we knew how to work the levers and cranks, and Tillinghast would comment on our efforts in the manner I mentioned once before. Anyhow, in one poem I took as my subject the art of laying sewer pipe. In that poem I used the word “impediment,” and Tillinghast wrote in the margin a few lines from Sonnet 116.
That’s a stretch, I thought to myself.
Eventually it dawned on me what Tillinghast was trying to convey. No one writing a poem in English can use the word impediment without thinking of Sonnet 116. If you are, it might be said that you aren’t writing poetry at all. Does it also hold true that if you don’t think of Prospero’s speech when you see that word in Zagajewski’s poem, you aren’t reading poetry at all? I think I would say that. I would. I just did.
I suppose this question occurs to most people when they begin reading literature and also start to read literary reviews and criticism. Is all that stuff is really in here? Assuming that it is, how much am I supposed to notice? How much is anyone supposed to notice?
Literary allusions, references, and intertextuality of all kinds I refer to collectively (and colloquially) as “jokes.” And, like any normal person, I want to “get” all the jokes.
However, I’ve realized over the years that no one gets all the jokes. There are some jokes that only the author gets. (We have some access to these through the efforts of diligent critics and biographers.) There are others that are accessible only to a small group of initiates, which include the writer’s family and colleagues, his or her most devoted critics, etc. Neither class of joke need bother us “laymen” or “civilian” readers, nor are truly even available through what we’d normally call reading, as distinguished from study, analysis, interpretation, hermeneutics, deconstruction, etc.
Still, there are an awful lot of jokes to be got, even by regular readers. You get more of them as you get older, but mostly you get more of them as you read more. Do they matter to the regular reader? Yeah, of course. They add the fun of the book. But they matter to writers too, because if you don’t know the jokes that your readers get, you can end up looking pretty foolish.
I think that’s what Coetzee was talking about not long ago when he mentioned that young writers today don’t read. Or rather, that they read more of each other than they do of Conrad or Woolf or Melville or Bronte or Defoe or Cervantes. Coetzee was saying, I think: you can’t be a serious writer if you don’t know all the jokes.