Reading poetry requires both a great deal of effort and a great deal of stillness, which is probably one of the reasons so many people are afraid of it. It requires effort because there’s no easing into it. You must come to a poem ready to pay attention from the first word. And as you read, deciphering upended syntax and coping with the semantic shock of poetic juxtapositions and new images, you can’t really relax and enjoy it until you’ve worked through it. But it also requires stillness: you haven’t really read a poem until you’ve received its effect in a single impression. It reminds me of playing the piano. From inside a piece, as a pianist, you don’t really hear it properly until you’ve so thoroughly mastered it that you can let yourself play it while some other part of you, somehow, sits back and listens. Likewise the stillness of poetry is the stillness of a performance contemplated from within. What Nabokov said about books in general applies even better to poetry: you can only reread a poem.
The demands of poetry not only make it difficult, they make it dangerous.
First there is the danger of bad poetry. Because you can only reread a poem, you can’t really prejudge a poem. Some of the best poems aren’t very appealing until you’ve put in the work. But a bad poem makes you angry if you’ve worked at it, understood it, and stilled yourself to receive it. Encountering an inferior poem with the intensity of a poetry reader is liking gulping down a large mouthful of bad milk. It’s vile; but it’s too late.
Second there is the danger of exposing yourself to something genuinely traumatizing. By the time you’re receiving a poem as a single impression, you’ve essentially turned yourself into a single, large, thrumming nerve. You’ve opened yourself to the language and imagination of another person in a way that leaves you defenseless against the emotions and ideas their constellation of words might introduce into your delicate system. In a way, the process of reading poetry is the process of melting your own defenses, exposing the tender, gasping animal whose preferred tactical relationship to life is to be frozen away from it, safe behind the ice of indifference and inattention.
In the summer of 2016, a long-frozen reindeer carcass thawed out and almost caused an anthrax epidemic. It had been buried in the Siberian soil for perhaps 70 years, until a deep layer of permafrost temporarily melted, turning up the rotting meat. Two thousand living reindeer were infected, as well as dozens of humans. Populations had to be airlifted, herds of reindeer quarantined. At least one child died. It could happen again, since the permafrost will surely melt in coming summers, as we continue to break heat records. Perhaps this summer. More anthrax, or worse, could be waiting in the ice, waiting for the next big melt.
I’m writing a dissertation in defense of evil stories. I use the term “evil stories” to mean stories that portray evil characters or evil actions. Moralists of various stripes have targeted such stories at least since Plato, claiming that they are wrong to experience, that they normalize evil, or that they contaminate their audience. (That language of contamination shows up everywhere: evil is a disease, moralists think, a contagious disease.) There are so many dimensions to the question — from whether one’s response to a work of art is even amenable to moral judgment, to how our autonomic tendency to imitate what we see or imagine might make unrelenting exposure to violence, for example, psychologically dangerous for anyone, no matter how gentle or ideologically opposed to violence they are. So I’ve had to focus on one very narrow subset of the problem, on what is called secondary simulative imagination. That’s the way you inhabit a character’s perspective to make sense of narrative statements about them — is it morally dangerous to inhabit an evil perspective? (I don’t think it is, with certain exceptions, and provided it’s not the only kind of imagining you do.) But I could very easily have written about poems, or rather about the types of literature that entail melting.
In some ways, I wish I had. Simulative imagination requires you to adopt certain perspectives, to mentally mime attitudes and actions you might abhor and pretend to believe propositions you might reject, but what I’m calling “melting” isn’t about the content of consciousness at all, but its quality. Melting is exposure, openness, receptivity. Is it susceptibility? Perhaps someday I’ll investigate the question more formally.
Memory itself is a form of numbness; it cheats the senses. You feel neither sorrow nor joy. You feel that you’re feeling nothing. —André Aciman, from “Rue Delta”
Does writing […] seek out words the better to stir and un-numb us to life—or does writing provide surrogate pleasures the better to numb us to experience? —André Aciman, from “Intimacy”
When I was a weird, homeschooled child, I read C.S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy. For a long time it was my favorite book. It’s an autobiography / bildungsroman / conversion story. Lewis describes feeling an intense pang, a mixture of longing and pleasure, which first surprised him in relation to Norse Mythology and the romantic idea of “the north” in general. When I read this I sat up. I’d had this exact pang myself. And not just for northerness — though I knew exactly what he was talking about — but in relation to other things as well. Certain kinds of science fiction that made me aware of deep time and vast spaces gave this mixture of longing and pleasure; likewise a selection of pictures in an atlas on my parent’s shelves; also Madagascar, the name and what I imagined the place to be like.
Ultimately, Lewis claims that “joy”—his rather inexact name, I think, for “wonder”—is a sort of clue that you should love god. He makes a very Augustinian argument to the effect that all love is more or less indirect love for god. Ho hum; I found this to be untrue.
When I first read Surprised by Joy I had been suppressing my inclination to dwell on the things that gave me this mixture of pleasure and longing, because it also tended to make me sad and lonely. But Lewis lead me to think I should dig up the feeling if I could. This was probably the first time I tried to make myself feel something — or rather, to make myself feel more intensely in general — and so I encountered for the first time that very adult problem of numbness.
I tried to feel “joy” for a whole day, and got absolutely nowhere with it. The inaccessibility of a feeling scared me. Was I becoming hardened and insensible, withdrawing from life at a wizened thirteen years old? By evening all my projects and plans seemed insignificant beside the over-riding necessity of getting that feeling back. I got out all the books and music and images that had ever made me feel “joy.” It’s a good thing I didn’t have access to alcohol. And I read some poetry. I’d just discovered serious poetry, and owned a large collection of Dover Classics of the Romantics. I think I read from Wordsworth that night, or some other poet whom I now find laughably innocuous, but to whom I was, then, insanely susceptible.
Anyway it worked. But it worked too well. Undoubtedly I was aided by the fact that my stress had produced a migraine variant, the bane of my youth, during which I’d hallucinate or undergo intense mood swings, followed by head-splitting pain. This might have helped, but I’d tenderized my soul with poetry, and things went profoundly to shit. I had, I think, the poetic equivalent of a bad trip.
I remember lying cowering in bed that night, torn apart inside with terror and gusts of emotion, hallucinating that I could hear a small child’s voice in the wind outside my window muttering an endless string of obscenities. I couldn’t sleep and it was unbearable, and finally I banished the mood by writing about it in my journal (I still have it, a shaky entry describing a waking nightmare). Which was how I discovered the prophylactic possibilities of writing.
But the larger point here is: I’ve been careful with this business of melting ever since.
I have to laugh when people claim that reading’s on the way out because it can never compete with the vividness of other media. I don’t see it. Perhaps you can only make that claim if you’ve never put in the effort to read poetry, never melted. As an adult with access to the full pharmaceutical, social, and interpersonal range of techniques for combatting numbness, I’ve never found a solvent as reliable as poetry.
After Trump was elected, everybody started reading poetry. Some great stuff was written on the subject, but I couldn’t help thinking the deepest explanation for this sudden, collective turn to a specific form of literature had to do with melting. The trauma of the onset of our very own kakistocracy, and the unexpected and disturbing way it happened, put us in an exposed state we normally have to work to arrive at. Imagine trying to read a story when your nerves are primed for poetry. What you need is the explosive force of compressed imagery and subtle words, not analysis or narration: you need the fountain of poetry not the river of prose.
Our numbness isn’t the only thing that’s melting. As half the world, it seems, makes its way ideologically left or right, the frozen assumption that there is a “center” in matters of poverty and environmental catastrophe, justice and respect for difference, has revealed itself to be an illusion for the first time to many people.
We live in a melting time. Our icebergs are melting, our hearts are melting, our illusions are melting. It’s dangerous, a little heady, and unavoidable.
What will we find when the ice has fully melted, I wonder. The toxic carcasses of dead reindeer? Poetry?