“I couldn't read prose in any sustained fashion. Nothing held my attention. One day my wife […] came back from the library and gave me a book of Robert Bly's poetry that a well intentioned librarian recommended. I gave it a go and though I'm not schooled enough to offer insightful criticism I have to say I found Bly's stuff to be gibberish. But there were a few phrases in Bly that gave me something to chew on. Next my wife brought home a library edition of Blake and he was great fun and I was hooked. My youngest daughter asked me the other day what it was about poetry that I liked so much. As best I could explain it, I said that poetry helps me see my world from an unexpected angle.”
So writes a reader facing a nightmarish reality – severe vision impairment, despite multiple surgeries. How many of us similarly challenged would turn to poetry for solace – particularly those not formerly readers of verse? For most, I suspect, mysteries and other genres renowned for their “escapist” powers would prove likelier fare, if not television. Now he’s reading Les Murray, Zbigniew Herbert and Constantine Cavafy, reminiscent of Mill recovering from his “mental crisis” by reading the Romantic poets. That my reader recognizes Bly’s flatulence as “gibberish” almost restores one’s faith in humanity.
Not long ago I reread Guy Davenport’s A Balthus Notebook, which contains a paragraph I at first found gnomic but, after actively living with it for some time, feels celebrative of art and its place in our lives:
“A work of art, like a foreign language, is closed to us until we learn how to read it. Meaning is latent, seemingly hidden, There is also the illusion that the meaning is concealed. A work of art is a structure of signs, each meaningful. It follows that a work of art has one meaning only. For an explicator to blur an artist’s meaning, or to be blind to his achievement, is a kind of treason, a betrayal. The arrogance of insisting that a work of art means what you think it means is a mistake that closes off curiosity, perception, the adventure of discovery.”
A masterful reader and critic, Davenport is warning off predatory, proprietary critics (and like-minded readers in general) who come between a work of art and its readers, viewers, listeners, etc. My reader above, blessed with “curiosity, perception, the adventure of discovery,” has, on his own, charted a course that mingles confidence and humility. When he writes that “poetry helps me see my world from an unexpected angle,” he implies this is a rare and valuable quality, something to be sought for its strangeness, something from which he can learn. In The Triumph of Love, Geoffrey Hill asks, “What ought a poem to be?” “Answer, a sad and angry consolation.”