I was supposed to babysit a high-school kid suspended for cussing out a female teacher in two languages. I’d spent a day with him two months ago after he’d shoved a female teacher, and the prospect of another seven and a half hours in his company felt like waking up in a Wallace Shawn play. After waiting almost three hours I was reprieved: He never showed up and I was reassigned to the special-education program where the kids have real problems.
At lunch I shared a table with seven teachers, all but one talking about television shows I had never heard of. The seventh, older than the rest of us, was silent, eating his Lean Cuisine Chicken Enchilada with Mexican-Style Rice. Out of admiration I kept quiet too and finished reading William Logan’s Our Savage Art: Poetry and the Civil Tongue. When you read Logan and have smart friends, you want call them up and share his best lines, and laugh until the snot runs from your nose. But I controlled myself and silently savored, among other things, this from his review of a Gary Snyder volume:
“This compassionate, benign, grizzled patriarch, supporter of just causes, sensitive to the land around him, a Buddhist (more or less), is the sort of man you’d call if you had to overhaul a tractor engine or drag a cow out of the mud (he’s also the sort of man who asks a mountain for help and thinks that it answers). If you want someone to write you a decent poem, however, you’d better look elsewhere. A lot of readers buy poetry books because they agree with the author’s character or politics and like to be thought of as people who read such things…”
Then I pulled out Deborah Warren’s Meridian Zone, which I’m enjoying inordinately. The author bio says she only started writing poetry in 1996 and that she and her husband have nine children and raise heifers on a farm in Vermont. I hope she calls Gary Snyder if one of them – child, heifer -- gets stuck in the mud.
Warren often writes about the centrality of reading in our lives, though never specifically about the reading of poetry (except The Aeneid). The first section of Zero Meridian, “Silent Reading,” includes “Dialogue with Myself,” a defense of reading – fiction in particular:
“I spend a lot of time in haunts not only
off the beaten track – they don’t exist:
Chez Swann, in Casterbridge, at Troy, at nowhere –
“Get a life! you say. God! What you’ve missed!
Hey, yeah – let’s spend the even in a chair.
Let’s live it up with dim protagonists.
Let’s dally on the sofa with Voltaire.
It’s kind of scary (not to mention lonely)
when your entire social life consists
of ghosts and venues like a blasted heath.
Besides – I have to tell you – it’s escapist.
Life? Your life’s a kind of living death,
“you say. So do your living. As for me,
maybe I’ve seen some things you’ll never see.”
We recognize the inner scold – the voice of parents, real and imagined – nagging us to close the book, go out and get some fresh air. It’s not healthy. You’re living in a fantasy world. Think what you’re doing to your eyes. They may be right but I know Odette better than some former girlfriends, and the same goes for Michael Henchard and Achilles. “Maybe I’ve seen some things you’ll never see.”