7.23.2011

Making Your Own Days

A while back JM wrote about five books that changed her, inspired by a post here.

I revisited Kenneth Koch's Making Your Own Days and would classify this as a book that changed me. It made me realize(?), recognize(?), remember(?) that I love poetry.

I read first two parts of the book as coursework in college. Koch takes Paul Valéry's idea that poetry is a "language within a language" and runs with it. Poetry is a language in which the sound of words is as important as their meaning, as important as syntax. It is a language where the music of words is important. It's a language inclined to comparison, where people talk to the moon and winds and Death, it's a language where people are encouraged to lie. Um, awesome.

The first part of the book deals with "the language of poetry," and I think this is the strongest section. It seems like a better introduction to poetry than any textbook that tried to tackle the subject in high school. Later, Koch shoots down the "Hidden Meaning assumption, which directs one to more or less ignore the surface of the poem in a quest for some elusive and momentous significance that the poet has buried." You can enjoy a poem because the language is beautiful. That was an important lesson. In school they always focus on what it all means and how many syllables there are and what the rhyme scheme is. No wonder we get turned off.

For me, the weakest link was the chapter on inspiration in Part II on writing and reading poetry. The conversation is vague. I feel like other books on writing cover the subject better.

The third part of the book is an anthology of poems. The book introduced me to Frank O'Hara. (In fact, the title of the book comes from "A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island.") I couldn't help falling in love with him. This time around, I was attracted to Wallace Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird."

The book was a jumping off point. It introduced writers I'd like to read, it made me think it's okay to respond to poems in the same way I respond to paintings or other art: I can enjoy it for its own beauty, even if I don't "get" it.

Reading inevitably recalled Dead Poets Society:

We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.

I agree.

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