Terence, a playwright who lived a couple of hundred years before Christ, famously said, “I consider nothing that is human alien to me.” (Clearly this was before the Internet and daytime TV!) It’s a generous, egalitarian stance and one I try to live by when it comes to reading. Basically, Terence reminds me to read anything and everything.
I live across the street from a library, so it’s easy to wander over, check out three or four things at random, and — often — return them the next day. (A kind of speed dating, now that I think of it.) I judge a book by its blurbs, read a page or two (or a poem or two), and move on.
When it comes to poetry, I’m usually an omnivore, but I run into someone like John Ashbery and I never understand — in the traditional sense of the word — what’s going on in his poems. ("It was domestic thunder,/ The color of spinach. ") But I often get the drop on myself and, gun to my back, prod myself into one of his books. I’m never sorry. They’re really batshit crazy sometimes, but, man, can he handle language. Then there’s John You (What a great name! Now I long for Bob Me and Sarah Us). And let’s not forget the very readable Dean Young.
But after an unsteady diet of surrealists (neo and otherwise), I stumble over a Rebecca Hazelton poem that begins like this – “I want to spend a lot but not all of my years with you” – and I’m really glad I regularly drop in to the Poetry Foundation website and see what’s cooking in a less surreal world.
Man does not live by poetry alone and if a library is full of anything, it’s fiction. I think The Great Gatsby is a terrific book, compact and resonant. The rest of Fitzgerald not so much, but if I go back to him there’s always something I can use as a writer. The short stories from Esquire — called, I believe, The Lost Decade — remind me of what a solid short story looks like, one written by a talented guy for a large audience. When I’ve had enough experimental hi-jinx, Fitzgerald is an antidote.
I’m not a fan of lush prose. It tends to get overripe fast, even if I put it in my (metaphorical) refrigerator. However, recently I read All Our Pretty Songs by Sarah McCarry. The prose is, to my mind, lavish leaning toward juicy. I needed a bib — one of those with a lobster on it — because the adjectives tended to run off the page onto my good shirt. Though I put the book down ten times I always went back to it. I’ll never write like that, but I admire somebody who can. And what if I wanted to write like that, even for a little while? Now, in a way, I know how. Or at least I know whom to turn to.
And then there’s this:
"Of course you can't out-travel sadness. You will find it has smuggled itself along in your suitcase. It coats the camera lens, it flavors the local cuisine. In that different sunlight, it stands out, awkward, yours, honking in the brash vowels of your native tongue in otherwise quiet restaurants.”
That’s from Elizabeth McCracken, and she had me — as they used to say — at “. . . you can’t out-travel sadness,” and then I fell at her feet with “. . . honking in brash vowels of your native tongue . . .”
How did I discover her? I’m not a fan of memoirs. Lots of times they’re dirigibles with LOOK AT ME written on the side. Then my friend Chris suggested McCracken’s An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination and I was smitten.
Okay, I’m smitten easily. (It says so on the bathroom wall in the Metaphysical Saloon.) I have the time and inclination to read and, following Terence, I find a lot of things that aren’t my cup of oolong. They may be strange or bizarre or downright wacky but few, if any, are truly alien.
One last thing: poetry and prose may not, in the long or short run, matter. But poetry and prose are matter. Be polite to them.