Tuesday, July 14, 2009

An open letter regarding my big dumb pompous self.

Hello, Mrs. Sistamamma. I come to you as a student to his English teacher. I know you are such, and a fan of poetry as well. I am neither, I'm afraid. I can scrape by with the English language, but poetry takes so much damn patience to make sense of it that I hardly feel the trouble is justified. Maybe this is a mistake, the seed of which was sewn during a childhood tended to by the likes of Night Court and Bugs Bunny, now only exacerbated by the instant informational availability (and subsequent transience) provided by the Web. I feel comfortable in concrete narrative. I can consume vast volumes of prosaic literature. But the poem continues to elude me. As much as I would like to be proud of this, I am not. Perhaps I'm intellectually lazy. Or maybe I am genuinely and honorably uninterested. Either way, I haven't given poetry a fair shake, so I come to you for help. Consider this my last best effort to be open-minded to the poem.

(Ironically, the works of Homer are perhaps my favorite all-time literature. Furthermore, Shakespeare fascinates me, even if I don't understand a tenth of it. But Ulysses had swords and monsters, while William has intrigue and corruption. At any rate, maybe there's hope for me yet.)

So it all started this afternoon while in a fit of wanting something quick and easy to read. I picked up Franny and Zooey, which I haven't read in 16 years. Nice round number, given my age is 32. And the initial printing of the story was almost 16 years before my birth. So it's a sextantiversary if you will. But on page 6 the first character, Lane Coutell, is asked by a dull classmate if he knows what this bastard Rilke is all about. I'll link the poem now;


The Duino Elegies. Duino being a town and castle in Northeastern Italy where Rilke received his first inspiration for the work.

I've read through the first elegy, and I did so quickly. In past experience I've read poems thusly: frustration during the first pass, dawning realization through the second, and finally comprehension upon the third time through. This time-consuming and difficult process has proven useful, but unrewarding. Maybe it would be more satisfying if I knew before-hand that I was getting into something to which I would ultimately feel an attachment. But who has that sort of ambition? It's like not being able to know if you like a person until you've spent a great deal of time with them. Maybe that's a bad analogy, given how complicated people are. But the gist is there. I can tell whether or not I want to get to know someone almost immediately. And in looking over this Rilke cycle, I am almost sure I want to become the closest of beer-swilling bowling friends with it, if for no other reason than it references ancient Greek mythology. But I'm a bit wary as well, given its philosophical themes which, on their face at least, read as the luxurious contemplations of an aristocratic mind. Such rambling generally turn me off. But I'm certainly aware that I could be totally full of it, and just judging a mirror image which I have yet to recognize.

And given the amount of time I've spent even getting these thoughts down, I probably could have just made my way through the First Elegy enough times to know well enough what I think of it. But this writing serves two purposes. First and foremost it gives me the opportunity to publicly announce my intention to read something like this. A pat on the back for the courage of my intellectual curiosity (or pomposity) seems to be just the thing to get me going. Secondly, I really am a complete idiot about poetry, and I want to know how to read it well. I'm looking for tips here. So anything you have would be greatly appreciated.

edit: Lane Coutell was initially listed here as protagonist. Reading a few pages in reveals he's more the opposite. I don't remember how much more of a role he plays in the story, though, so I've opted for the title "first character".