Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Reading for pleasure vs. reading as obligation

I had a fractured conversation on Twitter today (with players including Matt Walker, Sandra Simonds, Anne Boyer, Man Suit -- I still don't know who this actually is, but I love her/it -- Michael Robbins, and Alex Estes) about Frederick Seidel. It started when Matt said "i would think flarf poets, of all people, would appreciate seidel." I took this to mean that both flarf and Seidel's poetry, in terms of their content, are potentially offensive. I pointed out that the reason I "don't love" the Seidel poems I've read (indicating something between vague dislike and indifference, I suppose) has less to do with the content than the form; I find them sing-songy and the end rhymes lazy. Matt said, like flarf, they are "bad on purpose." Michael Robbins, who thinks Seidel is "the best poet we have," later backed this up, calling the "sing-songy" effect deliberate; "he's making a sophisticated point," he said.

This is interesting and I certainly trust that it's true, though I really don't know what that sophisticated point might be, if it's not that poets and readers of poetry are frauds. (Reading a Seidel poem in The New Yorker feels something like a Sokal hoax, the poems published therein are so often doggerel of the unintentional type.) But I noted that knowing this didn't really make the poems more enjoyable to me. This took the conversation to a different place -- we were no longer talking about how good or bad Seidel is, but whether or not "enjoyment" should be a factor in what one reads:


I agree with Michael in principle. Art shouldn't simply make us feel good! It should challenge us and make us uncomfortable. Sometimes it should hurt. I've used the exact same argument to convince people to read things they claim not to like. And certainly, the problem with most literary criticism is that it revolves around the "Did I like it or not" question, as if it were just a glorified recommendation system. I agree with Daniel Mendelsohn that good criticism teaches us how to think.

But in practice, when it comes to how I live my actual life, it's more complicated than that, for all kinds of reasons:

  • "Pleasure" is fuzzily defined, especially for highly educated snobs like ourselves. There are simple pleasures (like trash TV) and there are complex pleasures. By choosing to read poetry at all, I'm already choosing a complex pleasure (a more active, challenging, and intellectual kind) over a simple one. Is that enough? Do I need to further complicate matters by choosing poetry I don't even like? What exactly would be motivating that choice? A pure desire for self betterment? (I doubt it.) 
  • When I say I "like" a poem I mean that I find it stimulating in a very specific way that is both aesthetic and philosophical, and it's difficult to tease apart how much is aesthetic and how much philosophical, because both arise simultaneously from language. If something doesn't hit this particular spot for me, it's almost like it's not even poetry. Not only is my experience of reading bad poetry nothing like my experience of reading good poetry, the experience of reading poetry that I know to be "good" but don't especially like is nothing like reading poetry I do enjoy. 
  • If I'm not in the right mood/mindset to read poetry it will be lost on me entirely. 
  • As an adult, a number of my interests, hobbies, pleasures, whatever you want to call them, exist in a space that is part pleasure and part obligation. This is true of both reading and writing. At times I can  fall into the much-sought-after "flow state" where you are so absorbed in what you're doing you lose all sense of time and self outside of that activity, but 90-95% of the time it feels at least partially like work, and I can't stop myself from glancing at the clock. Cooking falls into the same category; I love cooking but it's also an obligation (as they say, you gotta eat). Perfume is an almost-pure pleasure, but because I'm a writer, I often feel obligated to write about perfume. Honestly, drinking is one of the few things I do for pleasure that is completely free of any sense of obligation. Choosing and opening a bottle of wine requires almost no effort, and if I intellectualize the experience at all (describing the taste of the wine to myself), I feel no need to commit my impressions to paper or memory. 
  • I work 8 hours a day at a job that requires me to read and write a lot. This makes it even harder to choose "difficult" pleasures when it comes to picking up a book. I can't help wondering if my "extra-curricular" reading patterns would be different if I had a different kind of job. My attention span often feels shot at night, my tolerance for words of any kind stretched thin. 
Do you read purely for pleasure? And how is that pleasure different from what you get out of, say, music or movies or ... ? Do you find your hobbies are often tainted with a sense of obligation? 

50 comments:

  1. I wouldn't say "obligation." I just think pleasure is only one of the reasons we read.

    As for what Seidel's point is, that's what the review you link to is about!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. And I agree with you, but/and I wish reading for reasons-other-than-pleasure didn't feel like an obligation...

      Shamelessly but complexly provocative. Got it!

      Delete
    2. Well, more the part about taste. I claim Seidel is challenging us to defend a morality of taste (he feels we can't consistently do so), where taste is figured as both aesthetic & ethical.

      Sure it feels like obligation sometimes. God knows I force my way thru enough pages in my life. "But it's good for you!"

      Delete
    3. Hmm. Maybe the reason I don't respond to that is because I don't think taste is ethical in the first place? In which case, I should enjoy that he's published in the New Yorker whether or not I "like" him, because the right people are reading him.

      Unless I'm still misunderstanding you; forgive me in advance.

      Delete
    4. Yeah, the taste you mean ("sing-songy lame") is what I'm calling aesthetic.

      But there is also a different sort of taste, one that responds to his ugliness, his "racism," his "sexism," & says, That's disgusting, that's offensive, that's in bad taste.

      I know you're too sophisticated to have the latter response—which is in part why he also offends on the aesthetic level (he rhymes "benevolent" w/ "malevolent," for Christ's sake! it's terrible!).

      Seidel "argues" (through his poems) that while these are distinct forms, they amount to the same thing. On my argument, he writes "offensive" verse (sexist, &c.) for the same reason he writes "offensive" verse (sing-songy, lame rhymes, &c.).

      Delete
    5. P.S. But one shouldn't dismiss Wittgenstein's "Ethics & aesthetics are one" too quickly. (For one thing, there's the whole part where you have to try to figure out what the hell he meant.)

      Delete
    6. On my argument, he writes "offensive" verse (sexist, &c.) for the same reason he writes "offensive" verse (sing-songy, lame rhymes, &c.

      I think that's really fascinating, and I'm sorry I only read the short review linked above as opposed to the longer (I assume) LRB review to refer to below. I'll look for it. But notice you only made me want to read your review, not more of Seidel's poetry! Criticism FTW

      Delete
  2. Elisa: "I agree with Michael in principle. Art shouldn't simply make us feel good! It should challenge us and make us uncomfortable. Sometimes it should hurt. I've used the exact same argument to convince people to read things they claim not to like." Michael: " ... I read to understand the art better."

    I am 61 years old, and at best have say 15 years of hard writing and reading ahead of me before it all goes to hell. If I read a book a week I will read maybe what, 750 books. And I read less than a book a week, because I read a lot of long books. So, let's say I have 500 books to go. How much of that time should I spend reading stuff I think blows?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I would probably spend no time on stuff I think blows, but what about stuff you suspect has merit but that just personally doesn't do it for you? I have read plenty of books like that in my life, either for academic reasons or for review or whatever, but I do it less and less because so often it feels like a struggle to read anything worthwhile at all, as opposed to, you know, Martha's Month.

      Delete
    2. Elisa, long long ago, I went to a club in LA to hear the James Cotten Blues Band. There was this strange woman opening for them, of whom I'd never heard (of whom no on had ever heard): Joni Mitchell. I didn't really like her music all that much, but I knew she was great at the same time. So what you're describing is what I call my Joni Mitchell problem. The problem is the realization that my taste does not define merit. So all my life I have spent at least some time trying to stretch, to read work that is different from what I might normally read (same goes for music, gallery art, etc). I know, for instance, that you have a great passion for perfume. If we were to meet, and if it were appropriate, I'd ask you to teach me about perfume. So it's always been important to me to push myself out of my comfort zone. What saves me, with books at least, is that I don't have to finish them. I can read 50 pages and say OK, you are not doing it for me but I have learned what you can do. I know more about the art now (to paraphrase Michael). Since I practice the art it's good to know all I can. But it's also been important to remember the kind of lesson Frank O'Hara taught in Personism, "Forced feeding leads to excessive thinness (effete). Nobody should experience anything they don't need to, if they don't need poetry bully for them. I like the movies too."So it's a balancing act. And most of it is pleasure (but then again, I think Hegel's Logic is pleasure reading). By the way, I think Seidel blows.

      Delete
    3. "My Joni Mitchell problem" -- I like that.

      I have a "Shakespeare problem" -- in theory I think he's brilliant, of course, blah blah, but I usually hate seeing productions of his plays, because actors tend to accentuate all his negative qualities, like his absolutely corny sense of humor, and speak too quickly for you to grasp the subtleties. But then I never feel like reading the plays. And some of his poems I find downright bad.

      Delete
    4. I saw a production of Coriolanus once in which an extra carrying a torch set one of the character's headdresses on fire. A complete accident, of course. But by far, by far my most memorable Shakespeare moment. Except for the wonderfully over-the-top scene in the movie Independence Day where the President (Bill Pullman) repeats a watered down version of the famous St Crispin's Day speech from Henry V just before attacking the alien's spaceships. And then again, there's Titus Andronicus, in which, if I recall correctly, the mangled daughter crawls across the stage with her father's lopped off hand between her teeth. Which is all to say there's plenty else to read and see.

      Delete
    5. The problem with avoiding stuff you think "blows" is that yr taste, like anyone's, is limited & changes over time precisely through exposure to stuff you previously thought bad. One learns to admire more broadly, to be more omnivorous, by reading with a proper humble recognition that yr personal tastes might be deficient in some way. Lots of stuff I used to think "blows" I now love (& vice versa). Don't believe everything you think.

      Delete
    6. "Don't believe everything you think" -- love that.

      Delete
    7. I think I saw it on a bumper sticker.

      Delete
    8. No doubt, right next to VISUALIZE WHIRLED PEAS

      Delete
  3. "I find them sing-songy and the end rhymes lazy"--Seidel was born about the same time Plath was. Doesn't he sound like a poet of that era? Plath's childlike rhyming, T.S. Eliot's ironic rhyming (Eliot influenced poets of that era), Robert Lowell's obvious sound effects ("Chucked helter-skelter into the river, Even its cork sucked under. Stubbed before- breakfast cigarettes Burn bull's-eyes on the bedside table;..."). Poets back then tended to think sound effects and obsessive internal and external rhyming were very important. Many of them--e.g., Dylan Thomas-- thought poetry was almost all sound and almost no meaning. They got all excited about Wilfred Owen's pararhyming & things like that. I'm sure it's all deliberate in Seidel's case. He knows what he's doing. But that doesn't mean you have to like it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Er, no, I don't think Seidel sounds anything like Plath or Eliot or Lowell. Have you ever read him?! This is Seidel, from the New Yorker:

      We knocked back shots of single malt all night.
      Beer chasers gave dos caballeros double vision, second sight—
      Twin putti pissing out the hotel window on the Scottish dawn.
      A crocodile has fallen for a fawn.
      I live flap copy for a children’s book.
      He wants to lick. He wants to look.
      A tiny goldfinch is his Cupid.
      Love of cuntry makes men stupid.

      Pretty far cry from "Your shelled bed I remember. / Father, this thick air is murderous. / I would breathe water."

      Delete
    2. Ah, but Elisa, he didn't just arrive at that style sui generis. I compare Seidel to Plath in my LRB review, for what I take to be pretty obvious reasons (Plath is hilariously sing-songy & outrageous).

      But everyone compares him to Lowell, because he started out, in Final Solutions, as a Lowell copycat. He was Lowell's friend & epigone. He used to sound (& can still sound) EXACTLY like Lowell. Intriguing story, actually, the development of his style.

      Delete
    3. Sorry, to further qualify my qualifications above (I tried to make it clear I'm no Seidel expert) I've only read some of his more recent stuff. As for Plath, when she's bad she can be very bad, etc., but I don't see them as being bad in the same ways. Plath, to me, fails when she's melodramatic or just boring. But I think formally she almost always has a certain finesse.

      Delete
  4. I read mostly for pleasure. Even when I'm reading to learn -- for instance, when I read poetry, or when I read literary criticism or essays (something I'm really selective about) -- I'm reading mostly for pleasure.

    For a book of poems (or anything else I'm reading) to really hold my interest, it has to make me feel something. This is true even for relatively dry non-emotional stuff like physics or math or economics. Some people approach life putting themselves in situations that cause them to act. Some people put themselves in situations that cause them to think. I put myself in situations that cause me to feel.

    (I'm generalizing and oversimplifying, but in general that's how I most often approach things: what am I feeling?)

    I'm not sure if I can even remember the last time I read something because of obligation. Many professional comedians talk about how when they were younger, they found that they could get through difficult situations by using humor, and that this was one of the things that led them to start really trying to do comedy.

    I found that I could get myself through many situations by using words. When I wouldn't do the homework assignment in high school, when I hadn't done the required reading, I could talk (and, especially, write) my way through it.

    The last thing I can remember reading, or attempting to read, that I really disliked, was Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. I didn't have to read it in school, and I'd been curious about it, and tried reading it. It died of boredom for me halfway through.

    I will, sometimes, read something (a magazine article, or whatever) just to find out what it says, not specifically for pleasure; I'll read it whether or not I'm enjoying reading it. I've read some of Ezra Pound's prose (for instance) once in a while for this sort of reason.

    I mentioned that I'm really selective in reading literary criticism and essays and that sort of thing. Just by way of giving a little sense of who and what I do like to read of this type of writing:

    The literary criticism I've liked best for a long time is the work of Robert Bly, also (usually) Kenneth Rexroth, though in the case of Rexroth it took me a while to warm to his prose, because of his tendency to do heavy intellectual namedropping.

    Also, sometimes, Adrienne Rich. And Denise Levertov, quite often. Sharon Doubiago. Thomas McGrath (his prose is widely scattered, often hard to find, he didn't write a great deal of it, but what I've found of his essays and literary criticism, I've really liked.) Audre Lorde. Muriel Ruykeyser's The Life of Poetry. Judy Grahn, sometimes. Julia Stein. Elliot Weinberger now and then.

    Lorca's Duende essay. Mayakovsky's How to Make Verse.

    And the art criticism and other essays of John Berger.

    For instance.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I had to read The Scarlet Letter in high school. Hated it! My boyfriend loves Hawthorne though.

      Delete
  5. "Er, no, I don't think Seidel sounds anything like Plath or Eliot or Lowell. Have you ever read him?!" I'm not sure I should reply to someone who apparently doesn't respect my critical acumen (and why should she? I'm not in a position to advance or retreat anyone's career via publication, criticism, or award, and no one in her coterie of poet-bloggers has a link to anything by me; ergo, I can't know shit and am not worth ingratiating), but Lowell & Plath & Seidel are allied in their confessionalism, among other ways I didn't mention earlier. I talked only about sound. They're different poets; it's easy enough to copy dissimilar passages by them and claim that they're totally unlike one another. But you really don't hear a similarity between Seidel's singsonginess and Plath's? Between "shiny china vagina" and "pants factory Fatso"? Between "The English girl Louise, his latest squeeze, was being snide./Easy to deride/The way he stayed alive to stay inside/His women with his puffed-up pride" and "O maiden aunt, you have come to call./Do step into the hall!/With your bold/Gecko, the little flick!/All cogs, weird sparkle and every cog solid gold./And I in slippers and housedress with no lipstick"? These aren't even the best examples...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I didn't mean to offend you. I respect you plenty, I just didn't agree. I responded casually because you comment here all the time so I thought I had earned some degree of familiarity.

      Delete
    2. I still think the Seidel I've seen is clumsy and clunky in a way that Plath almost never is, when it comes to rhyme/rhythm. I've been informed that Seidel is clumsy on purpose. Plath does sometimes imitate nursery rhyme rhythms but it's intended to be unsettling and creepy (given the content), whereas Seidel's rhythms don't really seem nursery-rhyme-like to me, and for that reason "sing-songy" was probably the wrong word to use in the first place -- it implies more regularity.

      Delete
    3. I didn't expect that. I'm touched--really.

      Address me with casual familiarity, by all means. Don't worry about being tactful. I apologize for my irritability.

      Delete
    4. What came off as rude, exactly -- the interrobang?

      Delete
    5. The interrobang, the question preceding it, & the "Er, no." But when someone writes you, you can't see her face, hear her voice, or be sure of the emotional subtext of the message. Then too, the standard of civility/propriety for cyberspace correspondence & face-to-face conversation seems to be a little looser for Generation Y than for my generation. & that's probably a good thing! Let's not stodgily stand on ceremony. But sometimes I forget about the difference when I'm dealing with people a little younger--or a lot younger--than i am.

      For many years I was practically a Luddite. I didn't grow up reading & writing youtube badinage.

      I respect you plenty, too. You're smart & you're a good writer, a good poet.

      Delete
    6. I thought it was challenging but in a friendly way. But I just assumed you would know I was being friendly, which obviously doesn't always work.

      Yesterday someone chided me on my work blog for using "WTF" in a sentence. He said he thought I was too "classy" for that. I'm surprised anyone would mistake me for "classy," honestly ...

      Delete
    7. Oh, you're classy, definitely. Nothing declasse about "fuck"--but maybe he was objecting to the internet abbreviation.

      Delete
  6. I read purely for pleasure. If I don't like a book, I won't bother to finish it because I have no desire to waste time on something that is such a necessary self-indulgence.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. When I was young I used to force myself to finish books I'd started. It was like a compulsion. Now I usually know within the first 20 pages if I am going to finish it or not, and I don't feel bad about setting books aside. If I feel committed to a book I'm not enjoying, I end up not reading at all, so I think abandoning books freely allows me to read more. Often it's just a case of something not being the right fit for my mood at the time. I'll put it back on the shelf and try it again in a couple of years.

      Delete
  7. Although, true, it's not exact--and this is tricky with multisyllabic rhymes, tho grins Thomas Stearns and Melvin Tolson sure have some steallar multisyllabic rhyme moments which are exact, I do think "(he rhymes "benevolent" w/ "malevolent," for Christ's sake! it's terrible!)" the pairing in the quotations works pretty well, as it aligns with Hopkins' criteria for better rhymes--that they not match each other semantically to any great degree. He cites mother and lover as a bad rhyme, and lover and other as a good one, for example. Lol, I wldn't be surprised if GMH wld not enjoy FS.

    Adam Strauss



    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I hate the most when a word is rhymed with a word that contains it -- like, well, to bounce of your example, "mother" and grandmother." That's no OK! It seems to happen in raps a fair amount.

      Delete
    2. I think Lowell does a ton of that in Life Studies--"father" with "grandfather," "Boston" with "Dunbarton," etc. Ton ton.

      Benevolent/malevolent is a true rhyme, I think. Be-nev-o-lent/ma-lev-o-lent: the stressed syllable in the former is nev, in the latter lev. The initial sounds of the stressed syllables are different, and all succeeeding sounds are the same. That's legit.

      Delete
    3. Except the -evolent part of the word is not only identical, it means the same thing. I mean regardless of the way you pronounce the words, the first meaningful part of each word is ben- (good) and mal- (bad), so, root-wise, it's almost like rhyming grandfather with godfather or whatever. But in this case they're opposites.

      Delete
    4. Yeah, I kind of see your point, but I think whether benevolent/malevolent is a ben or mal rhyme depends on context. It's about as surprising as moon/June, but if it were in a W.S. Gilbert libretto, for ex--or an Ira Gershwin lyric--would anyone object?

      As for Lowell, after writing that comment I flipped thru Life Studies and saw that words like father and grandfather aren't in the end-rhyme position very often; they're just repeated words, mostly. They're like the repetition of mustard in "the antiquated/refrigerator gurgled mustard gas/through your mustard-yellow house."

      Delete
    5. Yeah it would be totally acceptable in a musical, Disney song, etc. for laughs. But hey, I'm not the one who used that example.

      Delete
    6. The problem w/ malevolent/benevolent is that the words are opposites, so are obvious rhymes. Obviously semantic similarities or dissimilarities are generally regarded, since the revolution in rhyme begun in the 18th century & completed with Bryon, as too easy. Other examples include "life"/"strife"; "sad/glad"; "moan/groan"; etc. The problem is exactly that it's predictable. Songs have different requirements, of course. (Btw, Anthony Madrid wrote his dissertation on this question; it's interesting reading.)

      Delete
    7. edge/ledge; chest/breast; blue/hue; celestial/terrestrial ...

      Delete
    8. knife/life was especially popular in 80s power ballads.

      Delete
  8. Plath, I think, is prosodically so deliciously old-school/canonical, but in the most scrupulously loose way, so that it's more of a sublime, edgy echoe. She plays straightness so zigzaggedly and, nope, no sexuality pun intended, as she does strike me as strayt that way. I like her lusty journal moments--love her journals period!

    adam s

    ReplyDelete
  9. Yah I much agree that mother/grandmother isn't a rhyme: well unless one counts almost identical rhyme (and I think identical rhyme may actually be a category but, snoozes and why not just say repetition, which A Grossman posits is a kind of rhyme). For me rap can be so great because assonance so often becomes akin full rhyme when delivered via speech.

    Is Niki Minaj intending for "you're not my son/you're my motherfucking/stepson" to be a rhyme? I don't like those lines--they seem status-quo enforcing agressive to me. Tho I guess the, to me, wretched--no, f that, terrifying--term "motherfucker" takes on some interesting twists given the step-family content.


    adam s

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah that sucks. But it reminded me of these great Kanye lyrics I love so much:

      Restraining order
      Can’t see my daughter
      Her mother, brother, grandmother hate me in that order
      Public visitation
      We met at Borders
      Told her she take me back
      I’ll be more supportive

      Delete
    2. The French accept identicals as rhymes. Rimbaud does it. Maybe we should, too, since English isn't rhyme-rich. We'd be giving ourselves more options.

      Delete
    3. Byron & his epigone Muldoon prove that English is only as rhyme-poor as the rhymester.

      Delete
  10. I know that the standard line is English is rhyme-poor, but it really isn't too paltry in terms of options! I like Marilyn Hacker's take that English is rather rhyme rich because of an abundance of etymological roots so there's chances to pair, for example, the latinate and the saxon. How is identical rhyme not, basically, a variant of repeition? Curiously for me, I normally very much dislike poems in set forms which typically rhyme but are not, but with the Pantoum I think the repetition is enough, and that rhyme--unlike with a sonnet--is really not needed.

    adam s

    ReplyDelete
  11. Okay, laureate/Tory at/are ye at, intellectual/henpecked you all: if you have the ingenuity you can compensate for the comparative paucity of "rentré/entrer"-like rhymes in English. But how often do you want risible rhymes like those? When your tone is jocular? When you're writing like Mayakovski, in a Futurist vein? But I guess you could say we have countless options if you define rhyme broadly enough to include viscera/guts--you know, pairing the latinate with the anglo-saxon. Or if you talk about "conceptual rhyme," as Zapruder does.

    ReplyDelete
  12. David--your riffs are deligtful! If ypou're not already doin' so--write some wildly rhymed poems! MR, I enjoy your refutation quite a lot. I think for me I may be more invested in rhyme schemes which aren't predictable rather than any one pairing. For example, I adore P'archan patterning, but find the Shakespearean scheme scheme boring: alternate rhyme is too natural, like one foot following another; but enclosed rhyme is deliciously artful/not intuitive.

    I am soooooooooooooo happy that a contemporarty rhyme discussion is happening; for my "money," rhyme is definitely the least utilized fabulous asset of poetry.

    adam strauss

    ReplyDelete