Literary pleasure is multi-form. George Eliot delivers it. So do Gibbon and O. Henry. But the sensuous sort, rooted in the body, the kind that stimulates salivation and moves you to lick your lips, is most often found in poetry. Think of Shakespeare and Keats. They beg to be read aloud, and move you to do so for the sheer swoon of it, apart from any sense or “message” they carry. Eric Ormsby is given Walter Scott’s Marmion for his eighth birthday by his grandmother. He puts it aside at first, disappointed. He picks it up again and discovers that “the forceful rhythms of the lines held me at first as much as the stirring tale.” For Ormsby, that early sensation remains fresh:
“Powerful stuff, this, for an eight-year-old (even now, I confess, quaint and outmoded though Scott’s manner may be, the verses can tingle my blood). For weeks I perched on our balcony in the blazing sun and declaimed whole stanzas to indifferent mockingbirds. I was drunk on the language which struck me then as valorous and charged in a way I couldn't comprehend.”
This is why some of us still read Tennyson’s poems, for instance. They tingle our blood and we want more of it. As Ormsby puts it, “I was infected, deliciously so, by the poetry bug, and to this day I haven't recovered from its bite.” Sadly, one finds such pleasures more reliably in the past. Today we inhabit what Ormsby calls the “Land of Dreadful Earnestness.” Poets seem to go out of their way to scant language. Ormsby goes on to celebrate the late Herbert Morris, a poet who seems to have been forgotten, if he was ever known, even before his death in 2001. (I’ve written about him here and here, and Poetry has a generous selection of his poems.)
Ormsby remains among the dwindling ranks of poets who unapologetically seek to give readers pleasure. The book to find is Time’s Covenant: Selected Poems (Biblioasis, 2007). Now read his “Rooster,” which concludes:
“Chiefly I love the delicate attention
Of the waking light that falls
Along his shimmery wings and bubbling plumes
As though light pleasured in tangerine and gentian
Or sported like some splashy kid with paints.
But Rooster forms his own cortège, gowns
Himself in marigold and shadow, flaunts
His scintillant, prismatic tints -
The poorest glory of a country town.”
Now read it aloud.