A Year of Reading: 2010

It’s been a memorable year in my reading life, more concentrated than most years. The high points have been extraordinary, the lows few and forgettable.

The unexpected revelation of my year are the novels, letters, essays and diaries of Virginia Woolf. After the thrilling discovery of A Writer’s Diary, The Waves, Mrs. Dalloway and the climax of my year’s reading To the Lighthouse, I intend to read much more of her writing. My thanks to Frances for the motivation to tackle Woolf.

I’ve been slowly acquiring decent editions of Woolf’s diaries and plan to start on these next year, dipping into the other novels, essays and letters as the mood suits. Reading (and rereading) more deeply into a writer’s output, over a few months, is proving more satisfying than my recently acquired habit of flitting from author to author.

My plan next year is to read a lot more Woolf. I expect also to immerse myself into the literary output of Coetzee, Flaubert, Kafka and Bellow, each of whom, to different degrees, I am mildly obsessed with at present.

My other fictional landmark of this year is undoubtedly Ulysses. My reading began as a provocation and ended as an unveiling. That a novel can capture the agony and beauty of life so coherently shook me, continues to agitate me. It is a book I dip into weekly.

Finnegans Wake has replaced Ulysses as a delayed, taxing challenge, but not one I wish to accept at the moment. My only Joycean plan for next year is to read Richard Ellmann’s Biography.

The third in the trio of books that set my head on fire this year is What Ever Happened to Modernism? Offering a personal perspective on literature and Modernism, Josipovici enabled me to understand why some forms and styles of novel electrify me and others leave me still hungry, or worse, nauseous.

Other books that left an indelible mark during the year were Coetzee’s trilogy of fictionalised memoirs, Leigh Fermor’s short but very beautiful A Time to Keep Silence, Yiyun Li’s The Vagrants, John Williams’  brilliant Stoner, Josipovici’s The Singer on the Shore and Andrei Codrescu’s The Poetry Lesson. Don Quixote, of course, is also sublime but that will not be news to any serious readers.

Revisiting Kafka this year, unbelievably reading The Trial for the first time, and now slowly digesting the Collected Stories and Diaries, occupy a different cavity than everything mentioned above. His writing is the ‘axe for the frozen sea’ inside me.

Uniquely this year, there is only one book that I completed (though several I threw aside after fifty pages) that I regret, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. Out of a misplaced love of Mrs. Dalloway I finished the book but cannot reclaim the hours I devoted to this execrable book.

The Poetry Lesson by Andrei Codrescu

In the narrator’s own words, “this story is not a novel or poetry, and it’s no essay or memoir either, though it mimics aspects of both.” An English professor takes his last semester of “Intro to Poetry Writing” and assigns each student a Ghost-Companion. But he digresses wildly, into the lives and deaths of poets, his thoughts about the sex lives of his students and their futures.

In an interview Codrescu explains:

As for what this book is, I’m convinced that I invented a new form. I wrote it at Highlands Coffee in Baton Rouge, after my three-hour undergraduate poetry seminar. In the morning, before class, at the same coffee house, I wrote The Posthuman Dada Guide. After class, I had fun using the class to expand into a kind of synthetic expression of all my classes and teaching poetry for a quarter of a century. I shouldn’t even call it “teaching poetry,” because it was mostly playing and instructing students in the poetic mode, in thinking poetically, and even living that way if they had strong livers. I used some composite of youths of the 21st century and wrote without fear of digression because I would inevitably return to class the next week and come back to my characters. So, it’s a lived piece of reportage, in one sense, an autobiographical invention on the other, and a meditation on poetry scenes that had a bearing on the “lesson.” Writing this it occurred to me just how boring “teaching creative writing” is these days, and how many unimaginative drones who were themselves “taught” by unimaginative drones are fouling the air in our institutions of so-called “higher” learning. Most teacher-poets of the last four decades in America were dull bastards who nearly destroyed the art. Maybe they did.

If Codrescu was teaching “Intro to Poetry Writing” locally, I would sign up without hesitation. I read this wonderful book in two bites, and could have read twice as much. It made me want to read poetry, it almost made me want to write poetry, again. Almost.

A Ghost-Companion

I need a Ghost-Companion, seventh on Andrei Codrescu‘s list of ten tools of poetry in The Poetry Lesson. As the narrator explains to his “Introduction to Poetry Class”:

[A Ghost-Companion] is a poet, dead or alive from this big poetry book, whose last name begins with the same letter as yours. This is a poet that you will study all semester, read deeply, understand well, google till you’re satisfied, and call on when you feel some difficulty. Any difficulty. Your Ghost-Companion will be a great and generous soul, who will come to your aid not just for assignments, but also in other situations that neither you nor I can now imagine.

My needs are different. I don’t plan to write poetry anytime soon. I wrote plenty of adolescent angst-inspired poetry, and was sufficiently mortified to unearth one when clearing out some boxes recently. But I do want to extend my poetry reading beyond my favourites. Discovering Anne Carson’s work last year was thrilling. I need to discover a new poet, a Ghost-Companion.

Who to choose?

I abide by  Codrescu’s criteria, the narrator offers me, “Bachmann, Balestrini, Baraka, Beckett, Bei Dao, Bernstein, Berrigan, Blackburn, Brecht, Breton, Burroughs and more Bs than that. An embarrassment of riches.” Tempted by Brecht, scared of Burroughs, I remember spotting a Bei Dao book at the wonderful Nonsuch Book blog. Inspired by a moment’s serendipity I select Bei Dao. I have my Ghost-Companion.

Dry Season

First it’s the wind from home
the father like a bird flying
over a river of drowsy haze
suddenly changes course
but you’re already sunk in the fog

supposing memory wakes
like the night sky in an observatory
you clip your fingernails
close the door open the door
friends are hard to recognize

until letters from the old days
completely lose their shadows
at sunset you listen closely
to a new city
built by a string quartet

What Matters in the End

Slowly reading Andrei Codrescu‘s curious The Poetry Lesson, with that hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck sensation that promises a major engagement. The narrator and Laura make a visit, in wet weather, to Ezra Pound’s grave:

We crouched on the ground and passed a notebook back and forth, writing old Ez a poem in a hurry, afraid that the rain might start up again. We filled a memorial page with panegyric and nostalgia, forgotten now, though I remember Laura writing at least two lines to Olga [Ezra’s mistress] that ignored old Ez entirely. When I stuck our rolled-up hommage under the driest part of the bush, I noticed a not-so-soggy roll there, the work of another recent visitor. I unrolled it and read: “Nothing matters but the quality of affection in the end.” That was from one of Pound’s later Cantos, after the war, when he entered into the deep silence that few outsiders breached before his death. There it was, the strange diction that prevented one from feeling wholehearted affection, despite the message. My generous memory quoted that line later as “What matters in the end is the quality of affection,” a gift to a man whose even most conciliatory and “human” line begins with “nothing” and ends with “the end.”