Reading Has to Do with Poetry
By Eli Siegel
I’ve called today’s talk “Reading Itself Has to Do with Poetry,” by which I mean that the process of reading—from the very beginning and also in its elaborateness—is always concerned with what poetry is. I’m using a book very much in circulation: Good Reading: A Helpful Guide for Serious Readers, edited by J. Sherwood Weber. It has gone through many editions; this one is of 1964. The book is useful. And it has some things about reading that should be looked into.
First, in the prefatory note there is this sentence:
Random reading is usually not as useful as organized reading.
So reading is like the world itself, and that means it is like poetry: it has random and plan. There’s such a thing as planned reading and random reading, just as there is such a thing, sometimes, as planned birth and random birth. Often with a musical instrument you let your fingers drift: you were “seated one day at the organ” and your “fingers wandered idly”.* Then, also, sometimes you play very knowingly. That is present in everything in reality. There’s an aspect of mathematics that is called mathematics of randomness. There’s an attempt to study what goes on in chance.
And reading is like that. Most of our reading, we don’t intend. For instance, I’ve seen people read advertisements on subway cars with more intent than they ever read Aristotle. It’s there, and you read it. Or somebody gives something to you to read, and you go to it. Of course, occasionally the other thing happens: you just drop it.
The matter of random reading and planned reading is like reality itself. In philosophy, there has been the philosophy of contingency, which is related to the philosophy of chance. There has been the idea that the whole universe is simply some chance manifestation of the Great All. Random and plan are in everything one does. I don’t know what I’m doing, said the blood as it was busy circulating.
So, “Random reading is usually not as useful as organized reading.” One doesn’t know. One can get to something casually and it can be more important than one foresaw; or it can be the other way around. There is no telling which is more important. It’s like Robinson Crusoe coming upon the footprint. It was very important, but he wasn’t looking for footprints. In fact, he felt there would be none at all.
The Great Danger
Random reading is necessary, because the danger of concentration is specialization, and the danger of specialization is limitation, and the danger of limitation is narrowness, and the danger of narrowness is insanity. So you can go from planning to insanity, because planning is likely not going to take in everything. A specialist is usually a little bit cracked—in fact, a good deal—because he has a tendency to take his specialty for the universe. And the greatest danger in man is to take his ego, or what his ego is interested in, to be the same as the universe. It may very well not be, because the ego accents and mutes in a way that is not praiseworthy.
Shortly we have in this book something that takes back the statement against random reading. Professor Weber says:
But do not specialize too much.
What does specialize mean? There are people who read nothing but books on chess. Then, there’s a person who’s very proud: he read nothing but Sports Illustrated for the last few years. Why should he be interested in anything else? It’s so depressing. What does it mean to “specialize too much”?
People do not know what they want to read. For a couple of hundred years, what people have read has been what is talked about most and what is newest. That is still so. It hasn’t changed. With the reviews of the 1770s and ’80s, there was a feeling that one ought to be au courant. There’s a feeling even in Pepys’s Diary: What’s this latest book, Hudibras? Everybody’s talking about it. Better see it.
There Is Keats
I said that reading has to do with poetry. All poems, and for that matter all paintings, are concentration and background or expansion—which means there is something determined, the concentration, and something easy and surrounding, which here is the random. If you read a very careful sonnet and felt it was all planned and nothing but planned, that there wasn’t anything spontaneous, something unlooked for, you wouldn’t like it. We can think of John Keats in 1816 writing “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” the sonnet that begins “Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold.” It doesn’t sound like a dreadfully planned poem.
So it would be well to look at it and get into the Keats mood when he didn’t know what he was writing. It seems to have been very late at night, after having looked at a copy of Chapman’s translation of Homer, a book that Charles Cowden Clarke had. I have a notion it was a very old edition; the older the edition, the better Chapman looks. If you read him in a contemporary edition, you wonder what Keats saw. Matthew Arnold didn’t like the translation. Going to what Keats wrote about it: you have the sonnet, seemingly, in one sonnetic souffle, or breath. And we can feel that on this day of 1816, knowing what a sonnet was, Keats wrote that way.
“Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold.” Now, I have a notion Keats liked that. Calling poetry “the realms of gold”—well, that would be nice. And it’s cheerful even today.
Keats went on: “Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold, / And many goodly states and kingdoms seen.” There’s some relation between “goodly states and kingdoms” and “realms of gold.” With the next line, I think he was feeling very good and got himself a little spinning: “Round many western islands have I been.” I don’t think Keats, in his reading, had been around many western islands, and I don’t think he was so interested in islands. But if you say “Round many western islands have I been,” you feel a little giddy and quite happy. So I think that’s a cause of the third line—the desire to be giddy. Meantime, it goes along with the other two lines.
“Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.” Bards were aware that Apollo was a god of poetry, but I don’t think Keats saw bards having islands that they were holding as a feudal person held some land in relation to a lord—“Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.” But it has sounded good ever since, and there’s something honest about it, with the sounds of “western islands” and “bards in fealty.”
“Oft of one wide expanse had I been told / That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne.” That is, there is a great territory—of Homer. And he is “deep-brow’d.” It’s not “high-brow’d” but “deep-brow’d”; that’s better. Keats says he’s “been told” of Homer, but he likely did see some of Homer. It was almost impossible to miss Pope’s Homer in those days. There were so many editions. There are some books you can’t miss, just as you couldn’t miss, for a while, Mr. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage. No matter how much you wanted to avoid it, you couldn’t. There are a few other books you can’t avoid. You can’t avoid Love Story now.
“Yet did I never breathe its pure serene / Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold.” But when you read Chapman’s Iliad, you don’t think he’s very bold. You think he’s more winding than not. He uses that 14-syllable line and the things that happen in it are too many. It’s like having a caravan with two families’ furniture in it—a long caravan. The Chapman translation was known, but nobody had praised it too much before.
Then, the great part of the sonnet:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
There is a comparison of poetry to science: “Then felt I like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken”; you get a new book and you feel like an astronomer.
In the next line, Keats made a most lucky mistake, and it has been talked about: it wasn’t Cortez who discovered the Pacific. But if Keats had written “stout Balboa,” he would have torn up the sonnet. “Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes / He star’d at the Pacific.”
There Are Spontaneity & the Immortal
The lines of this poem seem to be forever, but at one time they were pouring forth from John Keats’s non-fountain pen, non-ballpoint pen. Likely it was a quill pen—it might not even have been a metal pen, because there weren’t so many then.
“Look’d at each other with a wild surmise— / Silent, upon a peak in Darien”: at one time this was spontaneous. And spontaneous is next to random. It’s not the same, but it’s close. And we have this sonnet now in the amber of eternity. That’s a cliché, although it sounds wonderful: in the amber of eternity. It’s fixed in foreverness. It is now safe in verbal immortality. Shall I give one more synonym? It is now at rest in unquestionable beauty.
Every poem at one time was not written. Even the play Hamlet—if you said Hamlet to somebody in 1580 they would say, “That’s an unusual name.” Even if you said it in 1620, persons wouldn’t be sure what you were talking about. There is a quality of both at-randomness and inevitability in this matter. It happens that nearly everything that is in reality could have been something else. You can look at an insect and think it could have been different.
This has been an excursion on randomness and planning. And they are present in theology too. For instance, we cannot think that God plans everything, because if he does he’s not as carefree as we think he is—if he has to plan everything it means he’s a little worried. When you have to plan everything, it does hint at some incertitude. Yet if he’s careless, we don’t like that either. Then, the more God planned us, the less free we are, while the more careless he was, the more worried we should be. The matter of planning and carelessness or randomness is in everything. All budgets are in danger because the universe is indeterminate. All schedules are.
Professor Weber, having said “Random reading is usually not as useful as organized reading,” then “But do not specialize too much,” unbends again:
Also take a chance once in a while: try a book you happen to see on a library shelf or that someone casually recommended.
Where are we? First we’re going to plan: we’re going to see how much we know of Asian history, how much we know the culture of the Dravidians (who are of India), how much we know of Etruscan culinary art. Of course, we know all about Etruscan sculpture, because that’s been a popular subject for years; but Etruscan epistles, letter-writing—that’s something else. Then: “Take a chance...: try a book you happen to see on a library shelf.”
In Dogs Too
Again, every poem is a mingling of something free, undetermined, and something also that had to be the way it is. The inevitable and the tail-wagging are together. As we look at the tail of a happy dog wagging, we can think it’s not so planned. But it’s also not random. I think any dog would be annoyed if we said that he was wagging his tail at random. He’d say he was wagging it out of principle, though he wasn’t planning it (there’s a difference). So there are principle and spontaneity and randomness. But if you said he was going up and down on a mattress at random, I think he wouldn’t mind. Tail-wagging—no, that’s principle. Going up and down on a mattress—I think an honest dog would say that was a little at random. These are grave questions and should be inquired into more.