Monday, June 06, 2005

Carver: a life in poems

I have bad news. I didn't like it. I liked learning about George Washington Carver, and finding out that he was a pretty cool scientist, with a vision. (He found uses for peanuts in order to help the new black farmers product sccessful crops-- peanut plants replenish the soil.) And I admit that poetry is an interesting way to present history without fictionalizing it. (When you have names, dates, and not much actual experience, it's hard to tell a complete story.) But I feel like I got more out of the paragraph on the dust jacket than from the poems.

I don't like having to dissect every sentence and consider the meaning of each word in order to understand the author's point. I applaud the careful word choice. In scientific writing, careful word choice is essential to construct a concise and clear message. Our readers want to get the point without the fluff. I think that's why poetry is foreign to me. I'm not used to hearing the words I'm reading.

This reminds me of an Engines of Our Ingenuity I heard recently about the Gutenberg Bible (a copy of which is housed in Yale's Beineke Rare Books Library):

But people didn't read 500 words a minute in silence, as we might. They read aloud -- at a third that rate. (Reading in silence was considered spooky when anyone tried it.)

Oh, how times have changed.


  1. I don't think it's bad news. I think it's good news that you tried it, and that you came to your own strong conclusion about it even though I handed it to you telling you you'd like it. Poetry is a very personal thing -- certain combinations of words speak clearly to one reader and seem completely obtuse to another. For me, the book is very transparent (not "obvious," or "simple," but transparent in that for me the words don't obscure the meaning). But that it wasn't so for you isn't bad news except that it might mean you're predisposed to dislike our June book.

    Anyway, I think as long as you know that poetry is a tremendous variety of things, and not one entity that you either enjoy or not, I'll be happy. No one can agree on how to define it, so there's always the possibility that some corner of it will be meaningful to you.

    I do think hearing the words is a big part of it, and very pleasurable. And that part of your frustration might be that you're not used to listening without worrying about teasing out meaning. I think of poetry as being very visual/aural. If I listen to a symphony I don't worry about what it means, necessarily.

    And there's always narrative poetry, which can be very cool and which you probably like better.

    I shut up now.

  2. When I was in high school, I had friends who liked country music, in which the lyrics have meaning (as opposed to most pop, in which the lyrics are mostly filler). I tried it, and found that they pay a lot more attention to lyrics than I do (unless I really try). When I listen to music, I hear the melody, the beat, and the harmony, in that order. I only pick up the words after hearing a song repeatedly or if someone points them out. Sometimes I have to take the time to write or type out the lyrics, so I can read them and understand them.

    I think that has something to do with my aversion to most poetry-- I'm torn between listening to it and understanding it, because I can't do both at the same time.

    Maybe soon I'll write an entry about poetry that I've enjoyed.

    However, I have a feeling I'm not going to get around to this month's book. I just started Holes, and so far it's much more enjoyable.

  3. Interesting. Even in that case I think it's possible to travel back and forth between listening and understanding, lightly enough that it's enjoyable -- but it still depends on the poem.

    And Holes is a good read.