My English-major work happened a long time ago now, but it — and the literature-learning culture that surrounded it and me — taught me the glories of coming to a bit of writing with no (or few) expectations: read what’s in front of you, listen inside yourself for what chimes or clunks, jot that down. Maybe do this again, if it’s a small-enough bit… for example, French novels are too much.
I took this approach to seminary, in fact, and have delighted in having it, in having it so deep in my muscle memory that it takes me a while to come around to any other approach, even for fun or for justice.
I may have mentioned my set of daily devotional practices already-? All the wise pastor-folk who’ve gone before me have assured me that their survival depends on their practice — and none of them seemed dramatic as they said “survival.” So, pastor-adjacent as I am, I try to do the same — daily — each morning if I can manage to get there.
I: read three poems; transcribe about three verses from a book of the Bible, in sequence; sit in contemplative prayer for about 15 minutes; read some theological pages. (That last one I’ve only added since November, from a suggestion from my spiritual director.) I tend to keep to that same order, too.
It’s the poems I’m thinking about today.
For my 3 poems these days, I’m reading a collected-works from a poet whom I first encountered in workshop. That is, he was the instructor and I was a participant along with a dozen or so others. Frankly, I didn’t know him from Adam (you could argue I knew adam/Earthling better)… I was there because I wanted to do poet-work, and because my friends were there. I trusted the event planners to pick decent instructors.
He was better than decent, by the way — I enjoyed the shared labor, my own efforts, and his shepherding. It was an excellent week, enough that I bought two (three?) books of his poetry. My collected-works is inscribed as to one who is known. Good guy. Could skip the cigars, and also poets tend to bring along personae, myself included.
I didn’t read his poems before I bought his books.
A little about the conventions of collected works of poetry: they tend to be organized in chronological order by date of creation. Or by date of publication of book and then by the book-order of those. So if you follow the idea that reading work reveals the character and personhood of the writer (and I do think there’s something truthful there), collected works will unfold that person for you, from young(er) to oldest self.
Taking all my disciplines of reading, noticing, and truth-finding,
…today I realized I’m reading the poet as much as I’m reading his words.
And that this is true for all those poems whose people I knew before I knew their words.
I had never noticed the distance between myself and the text when all I had was myself, and text.
Now, paused on the bridge of what I already know, the edges of what I read blend and blur like watercolors.
I don’t know how this might shift the way I read the Bible. It certainly could.