Reading poems by Larry Levis and Ocean Vuong these past few weeks. Different backgrounds, different cultures, one young, one dead quite young. But I find their work does similar things for me. They both write in a narrative vein — that is, they give you a hint of plot, setting, characters, often family members, real or imagined; they put you, the reader, in the room. Then by the end of the poem, you realize they’ve blown open the fourth wall, and you’re standing in the world somehow. The world of time, of the heart, of the human soul, it all comes gusting in that room and you, reader, are changed. Charged. That’s what they do for me, anyway.
I read, particulary poetry, to have my vision of the world shifted. I write for that reason too — I both want to discover HOW to shift my vision, and want to share what I see.
I went to an event recently in which people were asked what they were passionate about with regard to their creativity. Several people I spoke with were so generous with their intentions — they wanted their creative work to help people, specific populations, young women, for example, or the mentally ill. My first thought was entirely solipsistic. What I’m passionate about in regard to my creativity is that I’m pushing that creativity, pulling it, prodding it, folding it up and sailing it across the room. Am I writing my best? Am I imagining in the broadest way I can?
Talking to these generous others, I was brought up short. What use am I in the world? Well, I have to go back to this purpose of reading and seeing.
Here’s a quote from Hermann Hesse that I found on the wonderful gift that is the Brainpickings site. It’s from a book of his called My Belief: Essays on Life and Art:
“The great and mysterious thing about this reading experience is this: the more discriminatingly, the more sensitively, and the more associatively we learn to read, the more clearly we see every thought and every poem in its uniqueness, its individuality, in its precise limitations and see that all beauty, all charm depend on this individuality and uniqueness — at the same time we come to realize ever more clearly how all these hundred thousand voices of nations strive toward the same goals, call upon the same gods by different names, dream the same wishes, suffer the same sorrows. Out of the thousandfold fabric of countless languages and books of several thousand years, in ecstatic instants there stares at the reader a marvelously noble and transcendent chimera: the countenance of humanity, charmed into unity from a thousand contradictory features.”