Auld Lang Syne

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Power of Reading, the Power of Words

One thing to love about "dim days" is the chance to call a bit of a halt to one's busy schedule and tuck into a favorite chair with something to read. People who take advantage of these breaks are doing something wonderful for themselves. For me, reading is not just limited to "breaks" in my activities however. It is an integral part of the day. I learned to read at age 3 watching my father read the "funny papers" to me as I sat on his lap. I'd ask him about specific words and pretty soon I knew them myself, could recognize them on my own. By the time I entered kindergarten, I was reading the funny papers and much more. I could not get enough of what books had to offer. In grammar school, reading was my favorite subject and my library card my prized possession. I took books out of the library weekly, walking there from school and then home. I had my "nose in a book" on car trips, late into the night by flashlight, and would have read at the dinner table if my parents had permitted that. One of my favorite books as a child was Little Women, another Heidi of the Alps. I returned to those time after time. I also loved Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates and moved quickly to The Diary of Anne Frank by the time I was 12 or so. I thought that one thing I would surely do as a grown-up would be to have a house full of books. Funny, I did not desire a career as a librarian. Maybe I thought they were so busy at the check-out desk that reading time would not be plentiful enough for my tastes. How funny is that!? What I did desire was to become an English teacher. After a roundabout route, I did that. Now I write. I have also fostered a love of reading in my kids, and the grandkids have followed suit. My 12 year old granddaughter, Alyssa is like me: nose in a book at all possible moments. So wonderful! I know she is having quite a time in this endeavor.

In this age of electronic interactions, there are many new ways to access reading materials. I had a kindle, now have an iPad, and use that frequently for both kindle books and iBooks. One can read a book on a smart phone, on the computer, and audio books have been around for a long while now. Braille books have been around longer than that. The point is that reading has never been more possible. Hoop-dee-doo!

Mostly I prefer the paper and ink kind of reading. I love opening a new book and feeling the rush of discovery. I get very excited to find a new book store when I travel I think I probably get a strange look in my eyes and flush on my cheeks. It is THAT great a feeling. I like to keep stacks of books everywhere (no I am not one of those folks whom they'll find dead in a house of stacked up stuff). But I do like to have books in every room, and in my car. I never go anywhere without a book (or my iPad collection of books). There is no moment of boredom when a book is within reach. I am never bored. I do admit to letting other tasks go a bit in order to read. So sue me. I've never skipped school or church or work to read, but ... I generally store my fiction and nonfiction reading on my iPad, saving my shelf space for poetry and literary criticism and a few specialty books.

I read aloud to my kids and two favorite grandkid memories involve reading. Justin (the oldest of 14) loved to sit on my lap and have me read God Made the Puppies when he was only 2 or 3. He'd follow along, making appropriate sounds and gestures as I read. Pretty soon he was "reading" it from memory. He never missed a word or expression. I recently found a copy of that little book and had it shipped to him as a surprise. Now I must say that this guy is 22 years old and had not read the book in many years, but he immediately realized and mentioned to me that this book I'd sent him had a page and an event missing from the story. Wow. The power of reading to our kids is amazing. The other story involves grandson #3 who was in my morning care as a small child due to his mom's early departure for her teaching job. He'd come to my house in his jammies and I'd do the breakfast, bath thing before taking him to preschool or kindergarten. I read to him from the same book every morning as he took his bath: Muskrat Will Be Swimming (Cheryl Savageau). He'd dive down in the tub as I read the parts where the girl or the muskrat dove into the pond. Christopher (now nearly 19 and a sophomore in college) loved that book, and no matter what else I suggested we read, he always wanted that one. I kept that book safe for him and he stated the other day that he will one day read it to his own kids. I feel very good that when their other grandparents were buying "stuff" for birthdays and Christmas, I was buying books. I am the Book Grandmother. A very good thing to be I'd say. Last fall I became part of a pilot program via one of our local libraries, started by my friend Alice. She formed an intergenerational book group which was comprised of adult women and high school girls. We met monthly throughout the school year and read books that were chosen by all of us, some classics like Fahrenheit 451 and some YA books like Speak. It was so great to have our lively discussions on what we had all read. I treasure the experience and the girls.

But once again I digress.

I keep a little file box on my desk for new words that I discover in my reading. Words. What a treasure trove we have in our language. We have words for whatever moves us, annoys us, excites us, drives us. Our language is complex and interesting. As a poet, I'd say that words are my tools. But it is not enough to simply collect them. I am not saying it is a bad thing to collect words, but that it is only one small part of the fascination for me. What really thrills me is the opportunity that presents itself when I learn a new word. I look at every new word as a possibility for a new piece of writing. Each new word is like a point on a map, leading to a new town or city, to an amusement park of poetry. I found a new word this morning, sent to me in an email by doctor dictionary (great word-a-day site) and promptly filed it away in my box. I know that the word will find its way into my writing (beyond this blog). The word for today is ORISON (n.) meaning a prayer. I've just finished (?) a collection of contemporary psalms (Psalms From the Commons, invocations for every day life) and am excited to have this new word to describe in part what these poems are. I'm already thinking of a new poem that uses the word itself.

I am grateful that I am a poet. By the very nature of this profession, I am immersed in words on a daily basis. I am "allowed" and expected to know words and to work with them to create art. I am fascinated by how simple words used in unexpected ways can alter mood, change perspective, create a new world for my readers. I love manipulating language and syntax, get a real rush when a word achieves deeper meaning by where I place it in a line. I think that the power of words is the power of seeing and visa versa. It is amazing to me how changing a single word in a line, or altering its tense, or moving it to another location can create something fresh. I glory in that.

Some of my favorite writers knew/know this power very well. Coming to mind is Richard Wilbur. If you have not read this man's poetry, you have missed out on something beautiful in your reading. His use of words, his placement of words, his deep understanding of their power infuses his poetry with beauty, even when the topic of the poem is less than beautiful. Take for example First Snow in Alsace. This poem is powerful in its look at the beauty of ugliness. FYI, it is a terza rima (discussion on form in a subsequent series of blogs)

the poem:

The snow came down last night like moths
Burned on the moon; it fell till dawn,
Covered the town with simple cloths.

Absolute snow lies rumpled on
What shellbursts scattered and deranged,
Entangled railings, crevassed lawn.

As if it did not know they'd changed
Snow smoothly clasps the roofs of homes
Fear-gutted, trustless and estranged.

The ration stackes are milky domes;
Across the ammunition pile
The snow has climbed in sparkling combs.

You think: beyond the town a mile
Or two, this snowfall fills the eyes
Of soldiers dead a little while.

Persons and persons in disguise,
Walking the new air white and fine,
Trade glances quick with shared surprise.

At children's windows, heaped, benign,
As always, winter shines the most,
And frost makes marvelous designs.

The night guard coming from his post,
Ten first-snows back in thought, walks slow
And warms him with a boyish boast:

He was the first to see the snow.

This great poem, one of my top five favorites, is a combination of simple words, common sights, and the almost  unspeakable tragedy of war. What it does is make meaning from word placement and image. There is not a single complex word herein. Crevassed is the closest thing to that. But look at how Wilbur puts his words in just the right places to make meaning: he talks about the kids at the windows looking out at beauty, while a mile or two away are dead soldiers, scattered and deranged. He combines the sparkling combs (drifts) of snow with the ammunition pile to make the contrast between the beauty and the beastly. And the end of the poem is striking in its simple contrast between a young soldier (ten first-snows back which probably means he is now barely out of his teens) and what the soldier must surely see that is not so lovely. We get to see this soldier in his innocence as he boasts (like a child would) that he was the first to see this new snow. Words: the right words in the right spot in a poem. And suddenly we are there, we are feeling the meaning. We have chills running down our spines. The impact is pure, like the snow as it first falls.

Other Wilbur poems do this too. I recommend the following for your reading and word-loving enjoyment:

Love Calls Us to the Things of This World (my all-time favorite)
The Writer
A World without Objects is a Sensible Emptiness
Boy at the Window
He Was
To An American Poet Just Dead
The Catch

These ought to keep your attention on words and their power. Happy reading on this foggy day and beyond.

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