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Thursday, March 18, 2010


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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