“To write good poetry,” he said, that cold afternoon, the kind where the fall burns to winter, our bodies huddled in bulky sweaters, feet crammed into rain boots a bit too small for us, pens and pencils out and at the ready over the white spaces, “you must read good poetry.”
This was not the first time he said these words, not even the first time he had reminded us that most of the work of poetry is reading it.
We were ready to slice sentences like bread into fragments tripping over the page, to pair words the rhymed with precise, clean movements. We wanted the ease of the clicking consonants and the sticky slow rhythm of iambic pentameter. We were ready to be poets – but perhaps most of us thought poetry was the easiest art, since it had the most silence?
He told us to read.
It was Mary Oliver and Pablo Neruda and Ellen Bass. It was Katha Pollitt and Tom Hennen and Donald Hall and Richard Wilbur and Linda Pastan and a hundred others who write into the vast world without our knowing, most of the time. Every day, a poem. Every day, a person who saw the world and who spoke it back, its absence, its presence, its earthy goodness, its salt.
He told us to read, and for the first time I became hungry for words, for the way they each sound and how they flow into one sound which is many which is one meaning which is many, again. I wanted to read as I had never read before, savor the pages of the thinnest books, not the hefty pages of great American novels and trying physics textbooks. No, give me the lightest touch of pen to paper, the silence of Emily Dickinson’s dashes and the desperate yawning chasm of Edward Hirsch’s “Self-Portrait as Eurydice”. There is something deep in the words, something I would start to grasp just as I finally let the book slip from my fingers, and with it, the memorized neatness and the words and all that was left was the impression that I had met something, been asked a question, been gifted a bit of living fire.
He told us to read, and I have been reading.
And not just the books in the old poetry bookshop down the side street in the heat of summer when I am falling in love with Preston, not just the poetry I find and write and make, no, I have begun to read the world.
I have begun to see the way the sun rises slow in the April and too fast in fall, how there is a dance to rain against a windshield, a hypnotic, unending chaos that draws you in. I have begun to read the steps between home and the pond, the wind like Braille against my fingertips, hands moving like scissors as I run. I have begun to believe that to read the world like this is, indeed, to love the world, as it is, as it must be, as it yearns to be.
It is this way with the man who shovels snow too early in the morning to talk back to the silent trees. It is this way with the woman I see making her way nervously, heels-clicking, down the sidewalk towards the post office on Saturday, the way it is with the bird chatter or the dog and his patient tail thumping the song of our mornings.
All I know how to do is read, for poetry does not teach you to write, only to see everything new through the ache between your eyes and your pen, between the word you must delete despite your love of it, its syllables and sounds, because the poem itself does not need the word. I know how to read and, if I am patient even with myself, the world who is patient with me still will read me, open me up like the well-worn copy of Farmer Boy that I watched my father open, night after night, years ago.
This is the most brazen command of and to the poet – read.