Reading is a two-way activity. As such, it stands at the door of poetry, looking both in, and out. Like the Roman god Janus.
I’ve written elsewhere about how important it is to read your poetry aloud to yourself as you’re writing it and revising. If you can’t read it naturally, if you get tripped or stumble, your readers will have the same problem. Poetry doesn’t have to sound like normal conversation –it rarely does – but the English language has stressed and unstressed syllables that suggest patterns that we need to respect. When Louis MacNeice wrote
The sunlight in the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold…
He got it absolutely right. Imagine if he’d written
In the garden the sunlight
Grows cold and hardens…
How limp it sounds. Those first two unstressed syllables in the first line of the second version just don’t get our attention. And ‘Grows cold’ doesn’t have the edge and sharpness of MacNeice’s ‘Hardens’… Poetry needs to sound right, and listening to yourself read it helps you to get it right.
Reading is also what we do when we’re not writing poetry. We read the traffic lights; we read the landscape and the weather; we read other people’s faces, and when we listen to them talking we’re also reading. Reading with our ears, just as we are when we read our poetry aloud to ourselves. But what kind of reading, in the normal sense of reading books or magazines or things on the internet, is useful for a poet?
Clearly, reading other poetry is useful. There’s little point in reinventing the wheel, and if other poets have done things you were thinking of doing, have got there first, then it might be a good idea to try something else. But other poets can also teach us how to write, even about what one should write. I believe that poetry can write about anything, anything whatever, but it can be useful to learn from others some of the ways this can be done. Very few people would set up a dental practice without some prior training, and if you needed a dentist, I’m sure you’d avoid anyone without it. Poetry is as delicate and precise as dentistry, brain surgery, cancer therapy. It’s not done just by inspiration, whatever that is. It has to be learned as well as practiced, and the wider and deeper one’s knowledge of poetry, the better.
What I’ve just written might also suggest the other kinds of reading I do. I don’t read about dentistry, but certainly, two of the most engrossing and enlightening books I’ve read in the last two years had nothing to do with poetry. One was Siddharta Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies, a history of cancer which traces it and its various medical interventions from Ancient Egypt up to the present day. (His most recent book, The Gene: An Intimate History, is equally engrossing.) The other is Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field by Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon, a double biography of the two extraordinary eighteenth-century British/Scottish scientists who created our modern understanding of electricity.
Like a number of other poets I know, I subscribe to and avidly read, the British weekly New Scientist. I read articles and books on cosmology, particle and nuclear physics, quantum mechanics (without the maths though), complex adaptive systems, Roman history, crime and the natural world. Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks is another wonderful book. Does all this stuff have any relevance to poetry?
Well, not in any obvious sense. I don’t write about complex systems, or Roman history, though I might write about dentistry if I’d had any recently. I write about landscape at times, but I’ll leave that for another article. Cosmology comes into my poems a bit, and I’ve made reference to the Higgs Boson and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. But I don’t actually write about them.
My reading is really a way of learning about the world in which I live. About the cosmos, of which our world is such a tiny part. About our understanding of the time we know, which is minuscule in comparison with geological time, which is hardly discernable when placed in cosmological time. And scientists are still uncertain about what time actually is anyway.
My advice to poets is to read anything, everything you can, no matter what it is. And the wider you read, the better. Reading widely is a way of exercising the mind, of making it confront the unfamiliar, of challenging our preconceptions and forcing us to think anew. Reading in this way is not just a way of getting information or passing the time, it’s an act of imagination. Which is what poetry is too.