Monday, May 17, 2010

`I Read for Aesthetic Pleasure'

My kids were splashing in the pool at the YMCA and I was seated on a poolside bench reading when a seven-year-old girl holding a clipboard walked up to me and asked, “May I read you a poem?” “Of course,” I said, and she recited “Sand” by Meish Goldish, mostly from memory but with peeks at the printed-out poem on her clipboard. The rhythm is both sing-song and irregular, and swimming pool acoustics are less than optimal, but she belted out the final stanza with a gesture I associate with hoisting a beer stein:

“Sand on an island,
Sand in the sea.
Sand in a sandbox
For you and me!”

She was grinning and pleased with herself, I applauded and patted her on the shoulder, and could see her mother near the door, grinning and pleased with her daughter. She asked me to add my name to a list of her other poetry auditors and a comment if I wished. I wrote, “You are a charming little girl. Thank you for the poetry reading.” She read it and said, “You’re welcome. I like poetry,” and I said I did too. The book I happened to be rereading was Narcissus Leaves the Pool, Joseph Epstein’s essay collection from 1999. In “The Pleasures of Reading” he writes:

“My motives in reading are thoroughly mixed, but pure pleasure is always high among them. I read for aesthetic pleasure. If anything, with the passing of years, I have become sufficiently the aesthetic snob so that I can scarcely drag my eyes across the pages of a badly or even pedestrianly written book.”

Lousy writing in prose or verse is disproportionately unpleasant, like listening to singer with no sense of rhythm or pitch. The little girl at the pool and I may share few tastes but we would agree that we know what we like, and that when we hear it or read it, it gives us unrivalled pleasure. That’s how I feel when reading Basil Bunting. A reader in England has given me more pleasure than I have a right to expect. He shipped the deluxe edition of Briggflatts recently published by Bloodaxe Books. The book includes the poem, photos of Bunting, excerpts from his prose, a biography of the poet and other goodies. Also in the package are a CD with an audio recording of Bunting reading the poem in 1967 and a DVD of Peter Bell’s 1982 film about the poet. I lusted after this indulgence but frugality held me back. My reader has performed a minor miracle of generosity, one of those rare alignments of ideal gift with ideal recipient. Quoted in the book is an interview Bunting gave Jonathan Williams and Tom Meyer in 1976:

“I believe that the fundamental thing in poetry is the sound, so that, whatever the meaning may be, whatever your ultimate intention in that direction might be, if you haven’t got the sound right, it isn’t a poem. And if you have got it right, it’ll get across, even to the people who don’t understand it.”

At the end of the paragraph I quoted above Epstein writes:

“Along with the love of style, I read in the hope of laughter, exaltation, insight, enhanced consciousness, and dare I say it, wisdom; I read, finally, hoping to get a little smarter about the world.”

1 comment:

John Olson said...

This is inspiring. Violet words in a violent world awaken a healing and redeeming hedonism.