I’ve been hearing & reading a recurring sentiment since the election: I can’t read fiction right now. That I hear it most commonly from those I consider “serious readers” (those who don’t read fiction strictly for entertainment or diversion), is cause for concern — as I understand both the importance they place on reading and the mournful loss they’re experiencing at not being able to do so.
I have a suggestion. It will sound so pithy that some of you will stop reading. But here goes: try poetry.
Let me stop you at the first all-too-common, immediate objection: “But I don’t know how to read poetry.” Nonsense. You’re not dead. If you’re this far into this post, you’re obviously still breathing: that’s all it takes. The rest is negotiable.
Some poems are meant to be read quickly, the ideas seemingly less important than their expression. I’m not going to tell you whose or which these are. Because like anything worth reading, poems beg to be read askew (I like that word): at different paces, in many places, and in enclosed (for a moment, like a photo) by as many frames as there are minds. The poem will tell you when to breathe — but here’s a secret, you can tell the poem, “No … not just yet … not here.” The poet might object, but the poem won’t suffer for it. It’s really okay.
Some poems are stuffed with ideas. They’re in a rage about something, even if you don’t know quite what. You’re not even sure if they do. The good ones are talking their way into a problem; beware the ones with solutions you immediately agree with. The ones that too quickly talk themselves out of trouble are usually not to be trusted. They’re either a huckster or a friend — though possibly both. Poets like C.D. Wright, my obsession this year, don’t want to be your friend — and the aces up their sleeves are clearly from another deck. They want you inhabiting the ideas. With or without them, they’ll nudge you further along, in search of the last reference, until you’re alone with it. From there, you’re on your own. But only until the next page — really, trust me, it’s okay.
But why poetry at all, you might be wondering? There’s political theory! There’s philosophy! There’s work to be done, Brad!
Because from time to time, you need to eat.
Who should you read now? I’m asked this from time to time. My interest and evangelism for the section at the store is known. It’s usually a question asked by people who are not already reading poetry. Once you are, oh, you become the best browser ever! At Diesel, we don’t carry a lot of multiple copies in our poetry section. I want to pack in as much as possible. Hulking epics flank the wispiest seventy-page masterpiece. You’re going to miss things — your eyes will not seize them that time around. Poetry readers get this — it happens every time they open a book. Just as we read in order to re-read, we return to the shelves of our bookshops often. We keep discovering things that were already there. (Or, yes, sometimes sold out. The Revolution hasn’t happened yet, we suddenly recall from that political theory.)
But seriously, who should you read right now?
- Your local poets. Ask booksellers and librarians if you don’t any know. Go to a reading. If it’s not to your liking, sneak peeks at the books everybody brought with them. Here in Oakland, I’m fortunate to have places like Small Press Distribution, Commune Editions & Timeless, Infinite Light. Fortunately, for you, they all have websites.
- C. D. Wright — There are so many places you can start with C.D. Or you can do like me, and just read it all. If you’re not like me, grab what you can find. It doesn’t matter if it looks more like essays or lectures either — it’s poetry all the same. What’s more, it’ll turn into an encyclopedia of poetry before your very eyes. Humane: it’s such a dry, dull word. And yet the one I keep associating with her, and realizing it’s become so foreign.
- Robert Creeley — He is C.D.’s titanic lion … and in many respects opened many ears (mine anyway) for the poets we so desperately need to be reading today.
- Daniel Borzutzky — He won the National Book Award for poetry this year. I know, you don’t trust award committees. (Maybe reassess that with poetry, by the way. There’s not a ton of people reading it seriously [or at all]. Usually, I feel like Fiction prize juries really should hang out more with Poetry prize juries. Do some trust-falls at a camp or something. Grab a coffee at the very least.) There is a rawness to Borzutzky’s anger (principally at a capitalist system not meant to fit the living world) that could, with a lesser writer, slip out of his control. It never does.
- Solmaz Sharif — I thought her debut collection Look would win the National Book Award this year. I was wrong about that, but certainly not at its enduring place in our thinking about role language places in assessing, processing, admitting, and denying identity.
- Ari Banias — There’s a wonderful funny tenderness to a lot of Ari’s poems in his debut collection, Anybody. But not in a facile sort of way. Rather, more like that of a body — wonderful because it is so permeable and present, but precarious for the very same reason.
- Harryette Mullen — A co-worker, a poet (naturally), got me to read Sleeping With the Dictionary. Oh my . . . some books change not simply the way you see the word, but the way it sounds.
- Dawn Lundy Martin / Tonya Foster / Robin Coste Lewis — Again, lumping together for the sake of space. These three rocked my world, in the sense of opening it to each of theirs. They remind me that my greatest political contribution might be to shut up and listen.
- Susan Howe / Tess Taylor / Etel Adnan — Wildly different, all three, but I thought of them together. They all orbit that brilliant star called by the scientists “Emily Dickinson,” and contain multitudes. .
- Mary Ruefle — Ah, dear Mary! Quirky and funny, until you realize she’s gone pitch black dark on you in a second. Kind of like life.
Okay . . . that’s enough right now, I think. There’s so many more — Fred Moten, Nathaniel Mackey, Douglas Kearney, Eileen Myles . . . somebody stop me.
Basically, the answer to “What poets should I read now?” is simple: read the poet who at any given moment doesn’t so much take your breath away (again, you need to keep doing that if you want to read poetry at all) . . . but rather seizes it, holds it but for a moment, and returns it, changed into oxygen.
The fiction you’re not able read right now builds worlds; poetry breathes.