Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Art of Reading Poetry

On impulse, I bought Harold Bloom's "The Art of Reading Poetry" this week -- part of its appeal was surely the brochure size of the book. I could -- and did -- read it in a matter of two or three hours. If I understand him correctly, Bloom claims that the art of reading poetry is the art of comprehending the meaning of poetry, learning the ways the meaning is constructed in poetry, and then learning to interpret the meaning. No argument from me there, except maybe Bloom's "cognitive" quality is not sufficient to characterize the ways poetry affects us on the level of sound.

I'm struggling to find English-language poetry that I could connect with on an emotional rather than intellectual level. The best way I've figured out to approach this project is to read a lot quickly, until something catches my eye, and then read that something more attentively. The line that stopped me in Bloom's book was from Tennyson's poem "Ulysses": "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield." Something about this line struck me as deeply familiar, and after a moment's pause -- I suppose I translated the line automatically in my head -- I realized that this line was a motto of a character from my favorite novel growing up. "The Two Captains" by Veniamin Kaverin was favorite to several generations of Soviet children the way children of different generations grew up with Jules Verne or Mark Twain.

The connection between Tennyson and Kaverin immediately made sense when google helped me remember that this line was used on the gravestone of the British explorer of the Antarctica, Robert Scott. Kaverin's main character, Sanya, made it his life quest to find out what happened to an explorer of the North, a fictional figure modeled largely on the British explorer of Antarctica. Scott had reached the South Pole only to discover that he had been preceded there by a Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Dispirited, Scott and his team died on the journey back to their ship. The words on his grave come from the concluding stanza to the Tennyson poem:
"One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

This phrase, "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield," -- or its Russian translation, "Бороться и искать, найти и не сдаваться" -- has accompanied me through life in a very literal sense. At the age of nine, I, copying my hero, Sanya, took it up as my motto and wrote it on the first page of my diary -- and have been ritualistically rewriting it on the first page of every new book I've since designated as my diary. (I am very loyal to my rituals).

I've now gone back to Tennyson and reread "Ulysses" several times -- slowly, it's starting to develop some meaning for me on the emotional level. The sentiment -- Ulysses's striving for something to do after the Trojan war and his return to Ithaca -- is colored by what I perceive as the meaning of the sentiment on Robert Scott's memorial and is colored by Sanya's quest -- it signifies to me on all of these levels, and cannot be separated from the later interpretations. Perhaps, to truly commit to this poem, I should memorize it.

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