Thursday, June 28, 2018

A Patient Search for Meaning

The danger with any obsessive reading of poetry is that close attention can tighten your focus to individual words or, in moments of relaxation, to phrases: a narrow perspective well-suited to poetry but not one that works with longer forms, where many writers tend to rely on paragraphs, or even (pity the reader!) a full page as the fundamental unit of meaning. The result can be a lack of patience for loose and bloated wordage.

Even with poetry, this narrow focus can lead to a neglect of meaning. As I read the first of the Duino Elegies by Rilke, my narrow grasp of German allows me to linger over words and phrases ("Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich," or "wenn der Wind voller Weltraum / uns am Angesicht zehrt"), but of the bigger picture, of the Elegy itself, I have only the vaguest idea of what's going on. I have no excuse of language incompetence to read this way when I pick up an English poem, but is my sense of the whole any better?

And so, for example, as I read Keats, I pause at Ruth, "when, sick for home, / She stood in tears amid the alien corn." When I think of Herrick, I recall "that liquefaction" of Julia's clothes. Words and phrases like these can become live wires under the fingertips, but patience and the search for meaning are skills that must be exercised, or lost.

I seem to be losing them.

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