When I started reading poetry scholarship as an undergraduate, I struggled to figure out how critics were doing what they were doing. My initial training surveyed the classics, from Beowulf to Eliot. One professor spent about three weeks on Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock”; for another, I wrote on Edmund Spenser’s “Colin Clouts Come Home Againe”; and, yes, I read “The Wanderer” (translated into modern English). It’s not until I took a class in U.S. literature that I wrote the first paper I was really proud of, an analysis of black women’s poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, based on Maureen Honey’s Shadowed Dreams. The book had not been assigned for the class—I don’t think we read any poetry by women of the Harlem Renaissance in that class—but, as would become a habit, I asked the professor if I could write on it.
I was reading canonical poetry and because I had no idea how scholarship worked—the difference between foundational and recent, for instance, or even that different critical approaches existed—I read the first things I came across. They tended to be books from the 1960s and 70s in which the authors spoke (that image is necessary) with absolute confidence: the poet is doing this, the poem is doing that, and the total meaning is this—the model of the well wrought urn. Were I to return to those books now, I might find hints of uncertainty and speculation that I didn’t know how to detect as a young student.
This older scholarship intimidated me. I did not understand what made 1 sonnet stand out among 154 sonnets. The situation got worse when I learned a little about critical schools and encountered work by Jonathan Culler and Barbara Johnson, superb poetry scholars. How did they do what they did? By contrast, I found scholarship by Linda Kinnahan (my mentor), Susan Howe, Marjorie Perloff, Michael Moon, and Houston Baker readable and exciting. Despite their varied approaches they modelled why certain figures and poems should be considered significant. For instance, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 126 has 12 lines, while the other 153 sonnets have 14 lines. It’s also the poem that marks the transition from poems addressed to a young man to poems addressed to the dark lady. Poem 14, by count, in Adrienne Rich’s “Twenty-One Love Poems” is unnumbered and titled “(The Floating Poem, Unnumbered).” There are 22 total poems, but 21 numbered poems. The scholars I found useful pointed out such elements—what made Whitman’s poetic line unique, for instance, or how Dickinson’s poems with their dashes and suggested variants change our concepts of poetry (Susan Howe and Virginia Jackson are simply stunning readers of Dickinson’s poetry—I continue to learn from their examples).
I suspect that many people, including young(er) students, are mystified by how poetry scholarship works. Why focus on one poet instead of another? Why focus on one poem over the rest? What’s the difference between reading a single poem in a collection and reading an entire collection? Are the formal languages taught in high school—metaphor, simile, symbolism, image, rhyme—still useful? Given that so much high school instruction focuses on simply identifying these elements, how does one extend that skill to develop a credible interpretation? What’s the relationship between reading poetry for pleasure and reading poetry to provide an interpretation? Can interpreting be pleasurable? Does interpretation destroy our capacity to enjoy poems?
Often, literary critics use “read” to mean interpret. Interpreting is not only based on reading and re-reading, but it is itself a kind of reading. For the next three chapbooks—Aaron and I take turns selecting which we’ll focus on each week—I’ll attempt to demystify my reading practices. I will read each chapbook several times, and for three different occasions, I’ll transcribe three passages that grab me. The passages might be from the same poem or they might be from different poems. I might be grabbed by exactly the same lines on each occasion. I might provide light commentary about what grabs me, but that’s not my primary goal. Instead, I hope to show how one gets caught by poetry and how one learns to pay attention to how one pays attention. As idiosyncratic as this sounds, it is the most honest way to describe how I approach interpretation.
We’re finding ways to lend one another blood.
That, dear friends, is how we’ve learned how to survive.
And I search again.
Perhaps there’s a thing to find
Common stones we might pretend are pearls.
—“Could We Persecute Others as We Were Persecuted”
To know how things stand we dig,
Piece by piece, from the heap of bones,
lifts us from the ash of silence.
—“The Black Woman Killed by the Apartheid Police”
Shell snail, I’m all meat inside.
I learned from the worms
to wend my way in wet and dirt.
And I know
could be the end.
—“The Art of Loving What’s Imperfect”
I had sworn to the gods above and below,
if I made it back alive, I would love the birds
that sing even when no one listens.
—“What is Not Remembered is Not Redeemed”
There are many ways to mend clothes like this
—“Ode to My Refugee Shirt”
My mother loves Saint Anthony,
the patron of lost things
—“The Art of Loving What’s Imperfect”
Memory is a tick
that loves you
because you’re warm.
—“Memory: A Parable”
when we were sure we had survived,
we began to tell stories
—“We Told Stories to Survive”
A few closing notes.
I read the chapbook at least thirty times.
These passages do not represent “the most important” or “the most significant” in any objective way. I keep returning to the word “survive” because it’s one of Audre Lorde’s keywords, and I think until we achieve freedom, we continue to survive. Memory is a diaspora word that joins Kenya and Afro-diaspora, spaces in which memory is threatened and denied and erased. I have trained myself to look for these words and ideas in everything I read. They tether me, they direct me.
Inevitably, this training means I’ll miss certain elements. For instance, Eze’s book meditates on the Biafra war and its afterlives, how it is remembered through images (photographs) and by the bodies that lived it (the poet’s body). The book also meditates on aging. And one section gestures toward how suffering might teach us to extend ourselves to other locations: to miners in South Africa and gays in Uganda, for instance.
Because poetry is considered so small, so irrelevant, it’s tempting for poetry critics to look for the BIG themes in poems to demonstrate that poetry matters. I continue to learn from critics who take on this labor. However, because ALL African literary criticism is assumed to matter the more it focuses on the BIG SOCIOPOLITICOECONOMICDISASTERTHATISAFRICA, I am inclined to turn to quieter moments—spaces for the intimate, the friendly, the quiet, the loving, the depressed, the depressing, grief, and melancholy.
I’m drawn to the register that is not the shout, and never the headline.
I linger at the quotidian to insist that the African imagination considers livability and shareability.