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Anxious gatekeeping

Analogous to nervous cluelessness is something we might call “anxious gatekeeping.”   This is desire to police the borders of poetry, or of...

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Ambition

I've had a secret ambition for a while: to be the greatest ever reader of poetry.

Now, this is a kind of absurd ambition, obviously, because what would that even mean? How would you even know if you were such a thing? Even if it were possible to be such a thing, what makes me think that I could ever do that?

Yet there is a hidden purpose in this absurdity. First of all, much as I disagree with a lot of the criticism of Helen Vendler or Harold Bloom, it is obvious that they spend a lot of time reading with a deep sense of engagement with what they are reading. So the idea of emulating that--without even wanting to agree with anything in particular that they say, or even with their general approaches, is a worthy ambition.

Secondly, just to be able to define what it would mean to be a great reader is useful. A great reader would know at least a few languages well enough to have a deep engagement; would have a sense of historical depth (not read only poetry of the last 30 years, or even the last 100 years); a great ear for verse in at least a few languages; would have "gone to school" with many, many poets, reading them exhaustively and obsessively; would have a fairly wide-ranging set of tastes, in the plural: would not like, say, only a narrow tradition of poetry in a single language; would have read a great deal of translations of poetry, and have a keen sense of translation itself as an art-form; the great reader would also have some dislikes or areas where interest in not so strong, some fierce resistance even to poets that might seem unquestionably worthy of attention. A great reader would also be able to talk and write articulately about what has been read, would be a good judge of literary criticism... And so on...

You see the possibility that the concept of being a great reader can open up.

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