Responding to RonF’s Question about Reading, Plus, Just for the Hell of It, a Reading List

RonF, in my recent post on reading, Because Reading is Fundamental, asked if I could give an example of the kind of reading I was talking about when I wrote

but it has been years since I have been able to create at the center of my life a space for the kind of reading that nourishes me as a writer, reading that puts me back in touch with myself just for the sake of that experience, that connects me to language in ways that are challenging and revitalizing, that affirms my right to claim a place in this world simply because I am, that shapes who I am and shows me possibilities of being I would not otherwise have imagined.

His question is a good one, but I don’t really have the time to dig into any of the books I was thinking about when I wrote that passage, so I thought I would answer him by sharing an excerpt of an essay I am working on. The excerpt, though not the essay, tells the story of how I began to read poetry and how that reading led me to want to write poetry, and so it is about reading that took place a long time ago, but the experience it talks about is the kind of experience I was talking about in the post. Regular readers of this blog will likely not need any background to understand some of the larger context, since I have written about it many times before, but for those of you who may not have read some of my previous post, it may be useful to know that part of the context for the excerpt is the fact that I was sexually abused as a boy and that reading and writing played a central role in my coming to terms with that fact. Here’s the excerpt:

The first volume of poetry I remember taking down from the shelf in the public library across the street from where I lived was Conrad Aiken’s Selected Poems. I was fourteen or fifteen years old. I read the first eighteen lines or so of the first poem in the book, “Palimpsest: The Deceitful Portrait” (Aiken’s poem is the first one in the pdf), and I knew I needed to make poetry part of my life.

Well, as you say, we live for small horizons:
We move in crowds, we flow and talk together,
Seeing so many eyes and hands and faces,
So many mouths, and all with secret meanings,—
Yet know so little of them; only seeing
The small bright circle of our consciousness,
Beyond which lies the dark. Some few we know—
Or think we know. Once, on a sun-bright morning,
I walked in a certain hallway, trying to find
A certain door: I found one, tried it, opened,
and there in a spacious chamber, brightly lighted,
A hundred men played music, loudly, swiftly,
While one tall woman sent her voice above them
In powerful incantation… Closing then the door
I heard it die behind me, fade to whisper,—
And walked in a quiet hallway as before.
Just such a glimpse, as through that opened door,
Is all we know of those we call our friends.

To say that I identified with the woman in these lines would be an understatement. I might have been keeping my own door well hidden and tightly locked—I did, after all, have real secrets to keep—but I also needed someone to open it who would hear my voice, as Aiken’s speaker had heard the woman’s, carrying it back into his own life and thus reducing, by however small a degree, her isolation. What I thought consciously at the time, however, was that I wanted to understand how Aiken had made that woman so real for me, how his words had left me feeling that his speaker had heard me too; and so I started reading a lot of poetry, taking books off the library shelf pretty much at random, jumping from Aiken to Frost to Sandberg to Eliot to Williams—I don’t remember if I read any women at the time—and finally to e. e. cummings, whose work, especially his sexual love poems, spoke to me at least as powerfully as Aiken’s poem did. Take, for example, the first three lines of the last poem in & [And], cummings’ second published volume:

i like my body when it is with your
body. It is so quite a new thing.
Muscles better and nerves more.

Nowhere else in my life—not in the pornography I was looking at or the sex education clas-ses I’d taken, not in what my male friends who’d had sex had to say or in the sexual wisdom the adult men I knew occasionally chose to share, and certainly not in own experience—nowhere else had I heard a man state so plainly that, whatever else it might mean, being sexual with someone could also be about liking his own body. I desperately wanted to feel that way myself, and so I de-voured as much cummings as I could, trying to internalize his vocabulary and technique and then to use them in my own poems about sex, which I failed at for years, well into my early twenties, when I was sitting in the workshop where my teacher told us about her “cunt poem” challenge. In part, this failure had to do with my immaturity both as a poet and as a lover, but it also had to do with the fact that I couldn’t just write the consequences of having been sexually abused away. Learning to like my body meant unlearning the self-hatred, physical and otherwise, that I’d been taught by my abusers, and that meant puzzling through the particular form this self-hatred took in me.

I also thought it might be fun to list some of the books and writers that have had this kind of effect on me since then, even though the specifics might be very different. Here are some, in no particular order, that I see on my bookshelves right now, though most of them are books I read years, and some of them decades, ago:

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3 Responses to Responding to RonF’s Question about Reading, Plus, Just for the Hell of It, a Reading List

  1. 1
    Simple Truth says:

    I like what I’ve experienced of Aiken’s poetry. My ex had a recording of Aiken reading his poem Tetelestai that was profoundly moving.
    Thanks for sharing your book list!

  2. 2
    fannie says:

    Nice list! I see a lot of overlap with my bookshelf.

  3. 3
    RonF says:

    The intent of my question was to understand what you meant by how reading norishes you as a writer. This post gives me a pretty good explanation. Thanks!