8.21.2017

On Poetry

In the July 31st issue of the New Yorker, Louis Menand asks “Can Poetry Change Your Life?” It’s a long and discursive discussion of pop culture, pop criticism, pop music and pop philosophy among other things.

He cites Ben Lerner who in his book, The Hatred of Poetry, says that “poems simply can’t do what people want them to do—create timeless moments, or express individual experiences with universal appeal, or create a sense of communal identity, or overturn existing social mores, or articulate a measure of value beyond money.”

If they can’t do any of these things, what can they achieve? My own view is that questions of this sort, can’t be answered in any general terms. You have to look at the particulars of each individuals experience of reading poetry or even a single poem.

Some might be moved by a poem and want to read more by the same author. Others might learn an important lesson from a poem. And then others might never want to read a poem again. But what about Menand who raised the question about the effects of poetry in the first place?

He finally confronts this matter in the last paragraphs of his essay. He says a book of “Immortal Poems of the English Language” changed his life. “It made me want to become a writer.”

He says he started out as a poet, but soon realized his poems weren’t very good. Then he switched to writing prose, where he learned “the pleasure of trying to put the right words in the right order. And I took away from my experience with poetry something else. I understood the reason people write poems is the reason people write. They have something to say.”

It’s not only that they have something to say but also that they want to try to say it as clearly as possible. And the only way to try to do that is put it to the page.

I also take Menand’s question to mean something broader. Namely, Can Literature Change Your Life? It may have changed my life. When I came across a striking sentence or paragraph in the early days of my reading experience, I wondered if I could write like that. So, I would copy down the sentences and eventually began trying to imitate them. I’ve been writing ever since.

Can literature change lives? was one of the questions I began investigating when I was doing academic work in psychology. Very early on, I found experimental attempts to answer this question wanting, largely on methodological grounds. The samples were too small, mostly conducted in the laboratory under highly artificial conditions, with an unrepresentative sample of readers.

It seemed clear to me that academic research on the effects of literature might best examine anecdotal reports of individuals, as well as the analysis of the literary influences on particular writers. Charles Darwin described a paradigm case of this kind in recalling how Thomas Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population influenced his own work:

I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observations of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of a new species. Here, then I had at last got a theory by which to work…

In commenting on this example, Edwin Castagna noted:

This was one of the most significant reading experiences in the history of science. A bright light had been kindled in the brain of an obscure young scientist. The tinder was a book in another field. Where can one find a clearer or more convincing illustration of the powerful impact of reading on intellectual progress?

It appears that the effort to determine the effects of reading on the life and work of individuals will have to be content with examples of this sort. Some have claimed that even trying to answer this question in a more systematic manner is folly: that it is impossible to disentangle the various effects of reading experiences. Others have suggested it is unlikely that literature of any form can change a person's life, but that every now and then a book comes along that simply reinforces the way the person already thinks and acts.

The truth probably lies somewhere between these extremes. Lorrie Moore put it this way: "Everything one reads is nourishment of some sort—good food or junk food—and one assumes it all goes in and has its way with your brain cells." When put this way, I think most persons could hardly take issue with such a claim: that even though it is difficult to say much more, they are surely influenced in one way or another by the literature they read, no doubt by some books more than others.





8.14.2017

Near Death Experience

In an excerpt from her book, The Art of Death, Edwidge Danticat writes about the power of near death experiences (New Yorker blog, 7/10/17). Although Danticat hasn’t had such an experience, she says she has come close.

She describes an experience she once had while driving an old used car. Suddenly the car turned on its own and headed directly for a garbage truck coming in the opposite direction. She writes: There were only a few inches between us when both the truck and my car miraculously stopped. If the truck had hit me at the speed we were both going, I might have died.

On another occasion, she was standing on a landing of steps in front of a friend’s apartment. It was a snowy day, ice covered the steps, when she started slipping. “My arms flailed, and for a moment I felt as though I was flying.” Somehow, she managed to catch the railing before falling down those icy steps. Had she not, once again, she might have died or at least been brain dead.

She describes a somewhat similar near death experience that Montaigne had while riding his horse. One day he was thrown off his horse and was unconscious for several hours. Then, as he recovered from his accident, Montaigne realized that dying might not be so bad. He’d felt no pain, no fear.

I felt the same way when I had a near death experience one day in Florence. At breakfast several years ago I drank too much of the strong coffee they make around there and experienced what later was diagnosed as a vasovagal reaction, a mild form of fainting. I desperately wanted to lie down and sleep for a bit. Frankly, I thought it might be the end.

Luckily, I happened to be passing by the Palazzo Strozzi, a center of cultural events in Florence. The Palazzo is furnished on three of its sides with large stone benches originally intended as a shady resting place for servants and the motley assortment of characters the palace attracted long ago. The bench now gives everybody a welcome opportunity to rest for a moment and let their latest vasovagal reaction fade away.

I remember feeling at peace, a sense of serenity overcame me. I didn’t travel to heaven, have my past unfold before me or was not the least bit frightened. I realized then that dying wasn’t so bad after all. To feel such contentment at what I thought was the end was quite simply a perfect moment.

Although there are several ways to describe a near-death experience the dictionary defines it this way:

Noun: an unusual experience taking place on the brink of death and recounted by a person after recovery, typically an out-of-body experience or a vision of a tunnel of light.

Have you ever had a such an experience? If so, what was it like?

8.07.2017

My Life With Bob

The more you read, the more you realize you haven’t read; the more you yearn to read more, the more you understand that you have, in fact, read nothing. Pamela Paul

Pamela Paul’s My Life with Bob is not about her long marriage to her husband, Bob. Nor is it about the special relationship she has with the rapper, Bobby Ray Simmons Jr., known professionally as B.o.B or even about her devoted dog, who I imagine might be called Bob.

Rather My Life With Bob is about her book of books, or Bob for short, the journal she has kept of every book she has read since she was a teenager. Bob is simply a list of those books, without commentary, analysis or even a brief review.

Bob is not a commonplace book that lists the author and title of a book along with passages that in the best tradition also includes some annotation.

Paul is the current editor of the New York Times Book Review and it is clear that reading has always played a central role in her very bookish life. Everywhere she travels, and she travels a lot—France, Thailand, England, China --she takes a load of printed books. She never mentions digital versions or a digital reader, just printed books.

There is no narrative tale that unfolds in her book, no particular relationship between one book and the next or one chapter and the next. But along the way, we learn a little about her life, her husband, children, and yes, all the places she’s visited and why she went there, as well as the books she was reading then.

She admits she doesn’t always remember much about the books themselves. But the list helps her to recall certain periods of her life with clarity. “Whether the emotions are tied to what happed in a book, or what I was going through at the time, somehow everything just comes rushing back.”

Given the importance of books in her life and the fact that she usually remembers very little about them, I find it odd that she never mentions re-reading any book. The reason I’ve started to re-read the books I recall enjoying is because I too remember little of the books I’ve read, especially those I’ve read long ago.

For Paul reading is fundamentally about the relationship between a book and a reader, about the way books provide a reader with the perspective and sensibility of others. Of course, you can’t truly know how something feels unless you experience it, but reading about those experiences gives you a semblance.

It is also, or can be, a way to better understand ourselves. And toward the end she cites Kafka’s often quoted view that:

“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?...We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more that ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”