Let’s begin with a basic claim, not as truth or fact, but as possibility: reading is a form of experience. Hands hold the book’s heft; eyes read the words; the body is involved, though we forget so. Reading seems something more than or less than experience, occurring, as it does, in some two-fold world, happening simultaneously in the author’s mind and the reader’s mind with only the thin printed page as conduit between. Of course, that page is no pure conduit: a word is an imperfect conductor, as given to insulating properties as to conductive ones. Somewhere in Shakespeare’s language lingers the remnant heat of Shakespeare’s thoughts; somewhere in those words is the blast-furnace of his genius. At times that genius burns through the page into the mind, but at other times the language holds its heat, and the page seems only to warm by virtue of the living hands in which it’s held. Those hands are our hands. Reading forges experience inside of experience; the book unfolds in the mind, unfolds in the imagination, not as book but as world, as life or a form of life, even as the book sits in the hands, even as it speaks into the eyes that read it. Reading, at times, is an experience that obscures experience—an experience that mars itself—when we feel we’re reading successfully, that is deeply and vividly, we forget there is a book being read, we forget our hands hold the book, we see with different eyes than the eyes through which we see. It is like a dream, reading.
That word, dream, invokes in me a memory of a passage that speaks to the doubtful nature of experience reading offers. The passage is from the opening of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress:
As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a Den, and I laid me down in that place to sleep; and as I slept, I dreamed a Dream. I dreamed, and behold I saw a man clothed with Rags, standing in a certain place, with his face from his own house, a Book in his hand, and a great Burden upon his back. I looked, and saw him open the Book, and read therein; and as he read, he wept and trembled; and not being able longer to contain, he brake out with a lamentable cry, saying, What shall I do? (11)
I can see certain things in this certain place in which the dreamer and the reader coexist. The reader lives within the dreamer’s mind. It is an exquisite reversal: to find within the mind itself the book open in the hands. I see that the book isn’t the burden, but the book is not release from that burden. Perhaps the book is the burden we choose to hold, and when we hold it, we do so always so that the book is in front of us. Perhaps the book is what makes us aware that on our backs is a burden; perhaps what the reader reads is the awful information that on our backs we bear a great burden, and our comfort shifts to discomfort, our ease to difficulty, and the shock is that what we just now sense, by virtue of the book, has always been so. The burden has never not been on our backs. A book contains a world; it is a world we carry in our hands. It is a burden different from the back’s burden. The book is the burden we read, and that is heavier than the burden we bear. The book does not give us an answer, but gives voice to our weeping and trembling. The book lets us know that we don’t know what we are doing. The book doesn’t bewilder us; the book gives us our bewilderment; it is a kind of gift. We read the book, and then we ask what it is we shall do.
Some of what we do is we think. One of the curious aspects of reading is that it fills the mind with a peculiar resource. It is as if the convolutions of the brain were some sort of multidimensional library, in which Melville’s “late-consumptive usher at a grammar school” pulls books that thought itself unbidden requests, and brings them to mind. Sometimes I think the doubled-I of Descartes’ I think, therefore I am includes in the first utterance a librarian self who brings forth those texts that confirm the existence of the latter.
It is a strange library—thinking—where nothing arrives complete.
Often, when I think about what it means to read, what arrives in response is not a book. It is a photograph, and though what I know of the picture undoubtedly came from the explanation posted beside it, I have no memory of reading the placard. What I know of it seems written within the picture itself.
I saw this photo in the museum in which I used to work. It is of a boy who seems quite young. He is curled up so that his knees are near his chin, and resting on his knees is an open book. The boy’s eyes stare haphazardly at the sky, the blank-pupil stare of the blind. The boy has no arms: he lost them to a bomb or grenade. And what the boy is doing is this: having been born blind, and having learned Braille, he is bending his face down to the book so that he can read the bumps on the page with his lips.
I don’t know what reading is; I know this picture says much about reading.
The next unbidden thought, a thought I haven’t been able to shake for many weeks now, is Bede’s story of Caedmon and his hymn. Reading asks a question of origins, a question beneath itself. This story of the first poem written in the language in which I write poems exerts on me a mysterious pull. Caedmon, among his fellow herdsmen, feels he cannot participate in their singing; he feels that he can sing no song. He leaves the revelry and goes to the hut in which the animals are kept, and among the animals he falls asleep. He dreams a dream, and in that dream a man appears to him and asks him to sing his song. Caedmon replies that he cannot sing. The man says, “Nevertheless you must sing. You must sing me a song of the first Creation.” And Caedmon, whose mind before could not fill his mouth with words, finds in him his song. That song begins: “Now we must praise.” When he wakes from his dream, he remembers this song and all the songs that in his sleep he sang.
That the first song is a song of praise means much to me—that lyric impulse to recognize and attend to that which already exists, but exists newly in the poem’s praise. What I like more, and take more seriously, is that such songs begin in impossibility, in not being able to sing. The beginning of poetry is in this failure, this saying that “I cannot do it,” and leaving to go to the hut and sleep with the animals—animals whose lives, too, are a song they cannot sing for themselves. This hut is also the hut of poetry. In that hut, when conscious failure relents to unconscious sleep, a visitor appears, and commands us to readdress our failure. It is within this failure that we find our song. We cannot do it ourselves. We need a stranger to guide us. We are given our voices by others.
Books are also these visitors to us, entering into our minds where our minds are asleep, that place where reason lets down its guard, and a world awakens unbidden within us. And that world also asks of us who read, and in reading, let that world occur, to sing of it, and in it. And where we have no song, the book puts in us song. And that song is always a song of creation.
I am not an expert on the issues I’m trying to write about. Far more simply, I’m a practitioner—and these meditations on the ways in which reading and writing coexist as two activities so interrelated as to be aptly considered one—are merely a result of that practice. My poetry life has been deeply devoted to the act of reading. At times, even at most times, writing feels to me a work that aims at reading as its most hopeful end—not a poem’s being read, but that by the work of writing, I can more accurately turn my attention back to the inspiring text that is not my own. Emerson’s suggestion in The American Scholar, that “there is creative reading as well as creative writing,” has become the primary touchstone of my creative life. What I would like to do is think about what some of the implications within a notion of “creative reading” might be—and how those implications might reexert themselves in the work of writing. Sometimes I think that the gift of writing is that it makes reading more possible, as if written expression were somehow the sacrifice necessary to be let into the open field of another’s pages, not merely as a reader of them, but a participant in them. A poem is a kind of Charon’s coin: it is the price for passage. And make no doubt, as with Charon’s boat, the passage we undergo, between the shore of writing and the far shore of reading, is one that also passes between life and death, that complicates the ease of that most basic of oppositions—but more on that later, when we’ve more properly gotten aboard the boat, after we’ve paid our fare.
Reading, by its nature, is a receptive activity, but for the poet, reading is miraculously a perceptive one as well. I take Keats all too seriously when he suggests that intelligences are “atoms of perception.” “Intelligences” for him implies both an ideal and anonymous capacity of mind that only a “world of pains and troubles” can transmute into identity. We are alive to the degree we are woundable, and the most basic wound which offers us experience is the wound of the eye—that hole, that pupil (where the pun of the eye as a student must be present to be appreciated) which lets in light, and the world, and those words, light reveals.
But to read threatens the identity of the reader as directly as reading informs it. That is, reading adds a world to a world, adds a self to a self, and the awful pain of reading is that it takes that which is sufficient in us (self, world) and makes of it a surplus. Generosity is also a type of violence. When reading turns perceptive, when the words on the page become the world in the mind, when we realize that reading itself is an activity as rife with reality as is going for a walk or working in the garden, and in some ways is more real than those—for it includes the grammar that patterns perception, for it forces the mind into an awareness of its strategies of making of the world the reality that is the world, for it requires a consideration of the methods by which we make meaning—then we are confronted with the double-vision of a world that is and is not our own.
Writing asks a question about that double-world, and the double-self that therein dwells. (Here I am suddenly and remarkably reminded of Thoreau standing on Walden Pond in early spring, when he sees in the melt-water on the ice a reflection of himself with another self on top of him.) We perceive through pages well-read another world; it does not exactly belong to us but it belongs to no other. Should that world simply tumble into the head, simply become an image, then reading ceases to be a creative activity and becomes merely an imaginative one. But writing takes advantage of this excess of self, this excess of world, which reading offers. Writing becomes the creative means of approaching such a world, of entering into it, and in so doing, positing its reality as a kind of destination—a place in which thought and experience occur within one another, though the reality of it isn’t simply tangible. Writing into that space of reading reifies a world that otherwise would be lost—it sustains, it is a form of sustenance.
When the god Hermes—god of language and lyric, god of gambling and lying—is but a day old, he leaves his mother’s cavern and crawls outside. He sees a tortoise, and says: “If you were to die you’d sing most beautifully.” He then invites the animal in, scoops out its insides with a silver spoon, and creates from its shell the lyre. As with Caedmon, here is a tale whose power is in providing an archetype for lyric song. It is by playing this same instrument, whose notes are accompanied by infant Hermes’ singing, that Hermes soothes Apollo’s anger at the theft of the sun-god’s sacred cattle.
This tale is much shortened here, and there is much in what’s left out that could also pertain to our concern, but what interests me most is the song that Hermes sings—the first lyric poem that bends the sun-god from his fury. The song that Hermes sings is a theogony: a song that recounts how the world formed, the lineage of the gods that filled that world, how chaos became cosmos. What strikes me most deeply about this song isn’t simply how it simultaneously recognizes Apollo and places Apollo in his proper sphere (and so the lyric poem is a form of recognition), nor how Hermes cunningly includes himself in his song, and so joins the ranks of the immortal gods (and so lyric poetry is also a form of trickery and inclusion); what strikes me most deeply is that the song sings of what it cannot know.
As with Caedmon, in Hermes we find a singer whose song possesses a knowledge the singer himself cannot contain. The song contains experience the singer himself has not lived; the song itself is the experience. It sounds like a riddle, but it is no riddle, to realize that song gives us the experience we live only after having sung the song. The song posits the world the singer lives in, regardless of the impossibility that the singer must first live outside of that world, existing in some nowhere or some nothing language cannot express. The song gives us experience the limits of our own lives deny us, disrupts the limit between the a priori and a posteriori, transforms the unlived into the lived, and shows how world follows from word. There is a way in which we must live inside the song to live inside the world.
I’m not sure to what degree the preceding thoughts have taken us to any closer scrutiny of what reading is to a certain kind of writer, or more generally, and more important, what the complex relationship is that interfuses the work of reading with the work of writing and vice versa. There is another story that comes to mind that, I hope, can begin to braid together these loose strands of thought. The story is Middle Eastern, and is found in Daniel Heller-Roazen’s Echolalias.
Abu Nuwas asked Khalaf for permission to compose poetry, and Khalaf said: “I refuse to let you make a poem until you memorize a thousand pages of ancient poetry, including chants, odes, and occasional lines.” So Abu Nuwas disappeared; and after a good long while, he came back and said, “I’ve done it.”
“Recite them,” said Khalaf.
So, Abu Nuwas began, and got through the bulk of the verses over a period of several days. Then he asked again for permission to compose poetry. Said Khalaf, “I refuse, unless you forget all one thousand lines as completely as if you had never learned them.”
“That’s too difficult,” said Abu Nuwas. “I’ve memorized them quite thoroughly!”
So Abu Nuwas disappeared into a monastery and remained in solitude for a period of time until he forgot the lines. He went back to Khalaf and said, “I’ve forgotten them so thoroughly it’s as if I never memorized anything at all.”
Khalaf then said, “Now go compose!” (191)
As with Caedmon’s hymn, and Hermes’ theogony, I find in this anecdote some expression of the mystery I feel when I’m involved in the work of poetry. I say “work of poetry” because, as is perhaps becoming clear, I feel unable to cipher out the work of reading from the work of writing, and so seek out places in which that strange complexity can be half-lit, brought into some sort of expression, some form of thought.
Here, reading precedes the ability to write. One can guess that to memorize those thousand pages of poetry, those epics and those treatises and those occasional lines, is to both teach the issues of prosody as well as to build a resource of what’s been written. That reading here is a resource is unquestionable—it is the kind of work, memorization, that forges in the mind the paths by which it will think, and what it will think of; these poems are the works that carve in the mind the ability to think in the first place. The work of memorization here is so intense as to preclude any other activity—for those years, Abu Nuwas did nothing but memorize what he read, to exclusion of any other world than the world of the page.
Where the tale grows remarkable is that this feat, the marvel of this poetic feat, is only half the work—and the next half, before one can begin to compose verse, is to forget all that is memorized. It seems that whatever the poetic mind is, it is one in which fullness must be transformed into emptiness. That, of course, is a recipe for desire. The mind sated on pages, rife with poems, must lose every page and every poem in order to be subject to that desire which, on seeing an empty page, wants to fill it with song. We must be full before we are empty: full of words not our own before we can suffer the emptiness of needing our own words. It may be true that this desire for our own words is more profoundly a desire for those words that were once ours but never our own, those words others gave us. I am reminded of the fact that there is no private language, that linguistic fate is to think of myself in a language that can never be “my own.” The first motion—reading—denies the self; the second motion—forgetting—reveals the self. But that self isn’t in surplus, but in absence. That self is one who desires a world in words.
But there is another lesson here, more intimate to our topic. I have found it curious for some time now that the Greek root for forgetting, –lethe, rhymes with, and so shares some bond with, the root for truth, –alethe. Hidden within this discovery is the same realization: the truth contains within it its own disappearance.
One of the differences between a scholar’s relationship to text and a poet’s relationship to the same is that where the scholar wishes to remember, and must do so, the poet reads to remember and to forget, and must do so. We shouldn’t assume that reading is learning—at least not in any normal sense. Reading is discovering truth, or what feels in text like truth, so that truth can return to nothing.
But in the poem, nothing is sensible. Reading gives the poet this sensibility of and in nothingness. Forgetting is an initiation into that which exists in the text but does not express itself. Emily Dickinson’s “Poem 340” has been, and continues to be, my introduction to such perplexity.
I felt a funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading—treading—till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through—
And when they all were seated,
A service, like a Drum—
Kept beating—beating—till I thought
My mind was going numb—
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space—began to toll,
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here—
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down—
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing—then— (355-56)
Thinking, it seems, is a funereal activity. This funeral occurs pointedly in the brain, and those mourners wearing their boots of lead are figures in the brain. To think is to let the mourners in; to think is to let the mourners pace—and they pace until it seems “that Sense was breaking through.” That first sense of “sense” hints at analytic meaning rather than sensory perception, but that first sense is not the full sense of the poem. The mourners sit down, as if sense bids them do so, and then a beating service turns the mind numb. While thinking conducts its mournful business in the brain, the “sense” of sense alters, becomes not an intellectual figure but a heightened capacity for attention. In this death the heart keeps beating, beating; in this death it is the mind that goes numb. And when in the mind that box—filled with what (knowledge, fact, conclusion, judgment) I don’t exactly know—is buried, then all of space, then the heavens, begin to toll. Being, Dickinson claims, is here but an ear to that Universal Bell. When the mind ceases thinking about the world, when the capacity to rationalize, to reason, our way through the crisis of the world is buried, then being becomes a form of listening, then being is resonant with the sound it receives from the tolling cosmic spheres. That final ground of reason is merely a plank, and beneath that plank exists worlds, and to know these worlds one must plunge into them, plunge through them, and knowledge isn’t fact, isn’t category, but more profoundly, is a form of collision, a type of momentum, and a result of gravity. But there is a second meaning in that last line—a line that is itself a poem within the poem—which is not to finish in knowing, but to finish with knowing. That is: knowledge isn’t the end but is itself at an end. There is no more knowing to do.
One could argue—and I am tempted to argue—that such non-knowing is knowing in the deepest sense, but that feels a little glib to me, a little easy. Rather, I’ve come to think of this poem as strangely accurate to what the actual work of reading is. That reading the poem activates within the reader the same processes which the poem describes is but one sign of its genius. Reading tricks us into thought, into thinking, and that thinking is a deathly, death-like activity. To think is to die, but such a death is not a finality, not an end, but a reopening of the mind to perception so radically wide that it hears the world ringing. Reason dies and sensibility is reborn. In that sensibility in which Being becomes an Ear, consciousness ceases to be a construction reliant on language to both recognize and express itself, and becomes instead a kind of body that resonates with the tolling bell that is the world. Then one is what one thinks about, one is implicated in the existence ringing through oneself, and one finishes “knowing—then—.”
I think reading might be exactly this work. Dickinson has written a poem that forgets itself, and its forgetting is a consequence of the thinking it does. The end of that for us is not simply a knowing that is at an end, but the ongoing perception that occurs beneath reason’s broken plank—a form of perception that triggers a next thinking, that reestablishes those broken worlds once plunged through, and that seals again those splinters in the broken board of thought to become again a solid ground. That is, perception once again precedes thought, and that thinking that occurs in direct consequence of the sensible world becomes that form of expression, that writing, that confirms the world it names. It does so by burying the mind, and the thoughts that filled the mind, and the book that gave the mind its mourners—those thoughts. Death is a form of forgetting. But in the book, forgetting is a form of life.
I have a little daughter, just four years old, and when I put her to sleep at night I read her a book. Most parents, I’m sure, repeat the same ritual every night. Every night before I go to sleep, as I’m sure many parents do, I read. This moment of reading before sleep has been for me, almost for as long as I can remember, one of the great pleasures of my life. I want my daughter to have the same pleasure.
But I never thought about the nature of that pleasure, about the necessity of reading before sleep. My daughter, as with many children, did not, and still does not, like going to sleep. Her mother or I need to stay in the darkened room, after the books are closed, after the stories are done, and sing songs until she drifts off to sleep. I wonder why a child fears sleep, resists it so fully, with such effort. I suppose it might be because sleep is a little death-like, and when the world disappears, before dreams fill in and destroy the blank they also must exist within, there is no guarantee the world will exist, nor the self that thinks about the world it also must exist within, when the eyes open once again.
A book prepares a child for sleep because, like sleep, it is also a little death-like, a little death. In the midst of the waking world the book gives the child another world, a dream within the world that slowly becomes more real than the world itself. That book-born dream seems to say to the child: don’t worry, if what is here now ceases to be here in sleep, you’ll still have this world I’m granting you. The blank space below the words on the page is also a kind of sleep, a kind of death, and it is only against that blankness that the words can be read. A child’s book goes to great lengths to deny that blank. Pictures cover the page from margin to margin. But even in the child’s book, the words must find a blank space in order to be read. Those words give the child a world more profound than do the pictures—and it is the echo of those words that not only allow a child to fall asleep, but secretly instruct her how to do so. The book begins sleep’s work as sleep begins death’s work. This sleep does not deny the world but lets the world go, trusts that in abyss another world will appear, reminiscent of the waking one but altered, a world in which every figure is born from the self-dreaming, a dream that in turn makes the dreamer into a self. I like to think the eye closes as do the covers of a book. The world is gone, but the words that speak the world exist still, even if unreadable, in the darkness.
I have often thought of poetry as the work one must do alone that no one can do alone. The gift of the book, and the work of reading, encompass that paradox, and make of its convolutions a simpler thought. I mentioned the phrase “the hut of poetry” to make a claim about the space in which Caedmon slept and dreamt among the warm animals, but now I’d like to think more distinctly about the phrase, about the possibility that reading a poem isn’t a mental activity as much as it is an elemental one. To read is to seek entrance, and fluency in a language isn’t a mark of intelligence so much as it is knowing how to wield a key. A poem is remarkably a door that is also a dwelling, a plank that is also a hut. Knock your mind against it in the right way and the line opens. To be let in also predicts one’s fate; that fate is to be kicked out. For Emerson is right, a poem’s value is vehicular—but we should not forget that we can dwell, too, inside a motion. A poem is that dwelling-in-motion. Inside it, we suffer meaning. That suffering, as I’ve tried to suggest, is not death exactly, but is death inexactly. It is also a form of wonder.
Ancient initiation rites almost invariably mimicked, as part of their ordeal, the death of the initiate. The initiate would be brought to a hut. Sometimes the door of the hut was considered the mouth of a monster, and the initiate, after undergoing what ordeals he must—being wrapped in dark shrouds, having teeth knocked out, incisions in genitalia or scarification of limbs, and so on—would be pushed out through a hole in the back of the hut, as if the monster had digested him. The idea is that the initiate lives in a sacred world but cannot recognize its sacredness. The end of initiation, and the death initiation symbolizes, is to be reborn, to have new eyes, so as to see the world as if for the first time. That is a whole and holy vision. I would like to suggest that poetry offers us just such an initiation, and the process of reading is an initiatory ordeal, and the result of that reading is the world seen through renewed eyes.
That word, eyes, it brings me back to the blind boy missing arms but holding a book propped up on his knees. It does not feel true or right to say that reading the book with his lips will allow him to see, nor that reading will give him a world to grasp despite his having no arms, no hands. Such notions seem like a hollow comfort. But what I would like to think is that reading, and the world that fills his head when reading, doesn’t undo his injury but makes his injuries meaningful. I’m still not saying it right. I mean to say his injuries become his means for making the world. Reading doesn’t deny injury, nor heal it, but makes injury of use.
I have a little wound in my eye, and the light comes in. The page is a reminder of that wound. What reading gives us is a miraculous forgetting, and the end of that miracle is the world that appears in the wound.
Bunyan, John. Pilgrim’s Progress. New York: Penguin Classics, 1965. 11.
Dickinson, Emily. “Poem 340.” The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. R.W. Franklin. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1999. 355-56.
Heller-Roazen, Daniel. Echolalias: On the Forgetting of Language. New York: Zone Books, 2008. 191.