Saturday, January 23, 2010

Sibling Assignment #115: The Best Book That Changed/Is Changing My Thinking

This sibling assignment comes from InlandEmpireGirl:

Tell about the best book you've read recently that helped change your thinking about something.


You can read about the impact Anna Quindlen had on IEGirl, here, and once Silver Valley Girl gets all her Tony Awards put in the right spots in her house, she'll be making her contribution.


Fall 1972. It struck me. It struck me as odd. Why are these young Lutherans from Coeur d'Alene carrying Bibles? And why are the Bibles so conspicuous? And who did the leather work for the covers protecting the Bibles? Is there a competition going on here as to who has the best looking Bible cover? What's the deal?

I never really got my questions answered.

But, I did have a conversion experience that school year. In late winter, 1973, to be a bit precise.

To poetry.

Then, during the school year of 1973-74, I bought a copy of the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry.

I carried it with me all the time at school and always had it in my car. It was as conspicuously a part of my identity as the Bible was for my Lutheran friends.

I never encased it in leather, but Eileen, whom I would marry a few years later, encased it in clear contact paper, the way they did it at the Coeur d'Alene Public Library, so my paperback copy was, and still is, protected.

This book changed my thinking. And still does.

Here's what happened first: I couldn't believe I was reading words that expressed feelings, thoughts, responses to the world, and insights that I thought were mine alone and that I had kept to myself.

Longing.

Bitterness.

Fear.

Apocalyptic warnings.

Rapture.

Joy.

In poetry, I found companionship for feelings I had been feeling alone with since about puberty.

In poetry, I found form and expression given to feelings and thoughts I had that were formless inside me.

In poetry, these feelings and thoughts took shape. I could see them outside me. I learned that other minds were at work, working over these same thoughts and feelings...or at least similar ones.

Central to this experience: Richard Hugo. He wrote a poem, "Cataldo Mission" about the place I grew up and in the degradation of the air and the water, he saw the apocalypse. I couldn't believe another person had responded to the place I was born and raised, and that I loved, in this way, much like I had in my own adolescent way.

I found comfort, somehow, in his poetry and its exploration of small towns in Montana, small towns he endowed with grief, sadness, rage, and, sometimes, a dash of courage or hope. The feelings he endowed these small towns with were feelings that I knew all too well, young as I was, and, in Hugo, I found a voice and a mind and spirit and a guide I needed, and still do.

Back to The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry.

Slowly, as I read more poets in Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, I began to experience language in a new way.

I'd never given any thought to language as music. But, Hugo's poems had an emphatic sound, selected words came on strong. It was music. It created feeling in me. Language was doing more than telling me the news of the day or giving me directions or explaining a war or the telling me how to understand B. F. Skinner. Language was singing.

In the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, I started reading poetry I didn't understand but that sounded beautiful or haunting or confused. I started letting the poetry's music work on me.

I didn't really "get" Roethke or Stevens or Yeats or Eliot, but I could hear feelings in their work, or I could hear delight. I read some Dylan Thomas and his poetry was strange to me and then I heard a recording of him reading his poetry and the melodies became fixed in my memory and I fell deeper in love with the musical experience of poetry.

I let go of figuring out poems. I didn't have to know what they meant, if they meant anything.

I was entering the world of beauty.

Lines echoed in my mind:

"The world is charged with the grandeur of God."

"Do not go gentle into that good night."

"And I live alone in the bee-loud glade."

"O body swayed to music, O brightening glance/How can we know the dancer from the dance?"

"I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow."


These lines echoed inside me. I didn't know what they meant. I knew what baseball box scores meant, but these lines were more like tunes to hum, not conveyors of information or meaning.

One poem especially haunts me to this day, a poem I first read in the spring of 1976, while a teaching assistant for Dr. Laura Bloxham at Whitworth College.

It's by Edith Sitwell.

It's about the 1940 bombing raids of London.

"Still falls the Rain."

The music of those words is grim. The words loaded: still=it continues; still=motionless; rain=coming from the sky; rain=reign....both still and Rain make "falls" loaded.

But the music stayed with me. I'd repeat that line, just as Sitwell does in her poem, and I'd feel the persistent bombing, but also feel the hope of the poem, rain (not the bombs) as cleansing, the cleansing as enduring, more enduring than the Blitz, more enduring than bombs, more enduring than a war.

Even if I don't take my copy of the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry off my shelf, I'm reading it every day as I read more poems, echoes from my Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry carrying days ring in my mind.

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry rang in my mind a week ago when Kate came to my office to talk about T.S. Eliot and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock".

It was the first poem I turned to when I bought The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry nearly forty years ago.

When I was nineteen, I reveled in the bleak existential hollowness of Prufrock's spirit, in how empty the world feels to him, how alien he feels.

At nineteen, I was looking for whatever sources I could that would justify and illuminate my own feelings of hollowness.

I'm not sure what Kate's attraction to the poem is. She's eighteen. She's really smart and loves to learn and is on fire with poetry. I loved helping her see what I see happening in the poem.

And as with hundreds of poems in the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, it continues to change my thinking.

Now I'm not so blown away by the poem's honesty. It no longer seems to me a poem that is speaking the unspeakable as it seemed to me in 1973, when no one I knew talked about life in existential terms. In 1973, "Prufrock" was a relief to me. I wasn't alone in my feelings of emptiness, in my fears that life was meaningless.

In 2010, I am fifty-six years old, probably even older than J. Alfred himself. When I was 19, I promised myself I would never let myself become like Prufrock.

I wouldn't let myself be tired.

I wouldn't let myself lose my romantic zeal.

I wouldn't let myself see the world as rundown, a tired repetition of words and meaningless gestures.

I would always be alive, I told myself, never paralyzed.


I wish I could say I succeeded.


I'm not J. Alfred Prufrock.

I know that.

But, I feel the fatigue.

Meaningless repetitions of words and gestures weary me.

Sometimes it's hard to see the freshness in things.

Romantic zeal. I love the idea of it, still. But....

So, even today, the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry is shaping my thinking. Poems like "Prufrock" that I've read for nearly forty years look different to me.

I'm not excited by existential bleakness.

It sobers me.

It reflects me in ways I don't particularly like.

I no longer need to know that I'm not alone in my feelings of emptiness.

I see "Prufrocks" all around me.

As I go back to The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry the poems are richer, more beautiful, sometimes staggering.

My passion for poetry, therefore, has changed.

It's greater than ever.

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