Thursday, June 25, 2009

more on . . . poets on reading . . .

Stephen Ratcliffe
Listening to Reading

(Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000


Ron Padgett

Creative Reading:
What It Is, How to Do It, and Why

(Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1997)


This post follows on John Olson’s essay “Extreme Reading,” posted here last week. After the essay went up, Olson himself e-mailed me, reminding me of two books that ought to be read and remembered by all extreme readers. This present post, then, serves both as a kind of supplement to “Extreme Reading,” and my shout-out for two books, each by a contemporary poet, that present terrific takes on reading.


Listening to Reading is a collection of essays on particular books by contemporary poets. There are two kinds of essays. The first type, which Ratcliffe calls “analytic close readings,” are a very familiar type, at least in intent: their purpose is to explain the poetry which is written about. The second kind of essay is remarkably non-traditional: called by Ratcliffe “reading-as-writing-itself,” their purpose is “to perform /demonstrate that writing by doing/enacting it.” As Ratcliffe puts it, this is “writing that in listening to reading engages its subject on, and in, its own terms.”

For those who like extreme reading, and particularly for those (I’m raising my hand here) who enjoy doing that with poetry, Ratcliffe’s book is a primary source. It includes key advice about how to read or engage with a text, and maybe even more serves as an inspiration: all the essays – and especially the performative pieces – serve as object lessons in the wonders a focused and deep reader can bring about.

With regard to advice about how to read, Ratcliffe asserts two main points. The first is embodied in the book’s title: Listening to Reading. Ratcliffe insists that words are only fully present when they enter through the ear, that poems have an acoustic dimension (a sound/shape) and meaning does not exist separately from that. If the poem is read silently, it must be read not only with the eyes, but also the ears. We must listen to reading.

The other key piece of advice concerns attention. Attention is all, Ratcliffe says, borrowing in part on this (with direct acknowledgement) from Ezra Pound. Ratcliffe advises:
read[] the poem closely, with the same act of attention – focused at both micro- and wide-angle range – to the surface, tilt, and interior thrust of a particular structure in words that the scientist brings to his study of observable (or supposed) phenomena.
This advice fits right in with any notion of extreme reading, I think. Last week, I used an image of a man peering into a microscope to illustrate Olson’s essay, and Ratcliffe’s insistence on scientist-like attention when reading certainly is consistent with that. But remember, Ratcliffe calls for not just visual, but auditory attention:

Look – no, strike that – LISTEN (sorry to shout, but I do so to emphasize Ratciliffe’s fervor regarding the sound/shape of poems): I can’t say enough about the richness of Ratcliffe’s book. If you like contemporary poetry, and extreme reading, this is a book to read, and read again.


Remember the following couplet from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (also used by Allen Ginsberg as an epigraph on the title page of Howl and Other Poems)?
Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!

Of course you do! Well, that’s precisely the kind of rebellious freedom that Ron Padgett advocates in Creative Reading. Padgett’s basic thesis is that the reader – to really have fun – needs to get “aggressive” (his word) and do what s/he wants with the text (italics below as in the original):
. . . the book is there for you to use as you see fit. It may have content you want to extract, it may be in a writing style you want to learn, it may lend itself to self-parody, or it may invite radical revision, rearrangement, or complete transformation. In all these cases, the book is raw material for you to shape. When you come to it ready to take it apart and put it back together, it has lost its inviolability, its implied claim to immutability, its intimidating authority. You become the new author. You assume authority.
In the key chapter of his book, Padgett lists and describes almost twenty creative reading techniques. It’s a tour-de-force. It begins with suggestions about changing single words in a text and reading alternate lines. It progresses to a discussion of reading a page repeatedly, “column confusion,” “fold-ins,” “day-toning,” “night-toning,” stencils and much else. It’s an extreme libertine reading primer like no other.

Padgett also has a chapter entitled “Reading in Unusual Situations.” Remember those images I used last week to illustrate John Olson’s essay, showing a person reading on a city street, in a humongous chair outdoors, or while jammed upside down between the walls in hallway? Well, Padgett in a few lucid paragraphs not only discusses similar situations, but explains why you feel the way you do when you see somebody else reading like that.

Padgett’s book is geared towards teachers, so sometimes it can trend toward the obvious and the exhaustive. But outweighing all that, and outweighing it by about two dozen complete sets of the O.E.D., are the many anecdotes or references Padgett puts into the book based on his experiences as a poet, writer, deep reader, and engaged member of the human race.

The book’s index (and hooray for an index!) includes dozens and dozens of proper names. And it’s not just the relatively well-known (Tristan Tzara, for example, and his recipe for dada cut-up poems) that turn up. Admittedly, I probably don’t get out of the house as much as I should, but new to me were names such as Marc Sapporo, author of a 1962 French novel that came in a box, with pages unbound and unnumbered, and John Waldman, a speed reading specialist who as a WWII soldier managed to get two trashy mystery novels for the price of one by reading only the odd-numbered pages of a book the first time through it, and then the second time, a few weeks later, reading through only the even-numbered pages.

My favorite anecdote in the book involves Padgett himself and concerns the creative reading technique he calls “typing.” To explain this particular technique, I’m going to type the opening paragraph of Padgett’s section on it, an explicative approach (as you may have already figured out) that is exactly perfect for this particular subject:
Typing. In the early 1960s, I learned that one of the best ways
to read an author was to type up his or her work at some length. I had
typed up brief selections from other people’s work – individual poems or
paragraphs, bits of dialogue, extracts from an essay – but it wasn’t until I
typed an entire collection of poems (the 66 poems in the first edition of
Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets) that I understood how close you can get to an-
other’s work by this means.
That’s a heck of a parenthetical tidbit, ain’t it?!! I’d forgotten or not known that Padgett -- I think this is how the story goes -- typed up the Berrigan masterwork for its first mimeoed publication. Think how fun that must have been! Padgett in the section from which the passage above is excerpted concisely explains what typing Sonnets taught him about Berrigan’s emphasis on single words, which kind of words he favored, the role of vowels, and other matters, including the poems’ line breaks, which he was able to focus on because (think here of the “old-fashioned” manual typewriter) he had to use the carriage return at the end of each line.

Typing out a poem: it’s a beautiful creative reading technique, a wonderful way to get in a little extreme reading.


Conrad DiDiodato said...


a fun article to read;I like Ratcliffe's 'analytic'/'performative' reading distinction. And the 'acoustic' primacy of poetryreading/writing is commonplace by now. My only criticism: is anything new really being said here or is it pure 'pastiche' (and I'm okay with that!) I've seen my own young students take to reading 'naturally' in the ways recommended here: just place Tupac in front of a seventeen-year-old, and observe!

And 'scribing' passages of an author's work is excellent 'imitation' exercise, designed I think to understand mechanics of language rather than enhance reading enjoyment.

I recall McLuhan's advice (back in the day at University of Toronto) to read only the right-hand page. I'd also recommend Alberto Manguel's "A History of Reading" for more of the historiography of the "act of reading" than is given in articles here.

Steven Fama said...

Thanks Conrad, for the comment.

If a writer brings her/his particular energy to a topic, then to me it is something "new." Padgett's book as stated is full of his own experiences and perspectives, and Ratcliffe's readings (particularly the performative pieces that incorporate much text from the poems being discussed) are exceptonal. I couldn't move on from "Extreme Reading" without mentioning the two books.

I will check out tne Manguel book -- I appreciate you mentioning it.

I also need to look/read through all of Walter Ong. I'm pretty sure he probably wrote lots relevant to reading.

And: I'm really excited to get a book I just learned about yesterday, after reading about the very recent death of its author: Rereading, by Matei Calinescu, published in 1993. From the publisher's description: "What motivates us to reread literary works? How is our pleasure, interpretation, involvement and evaluation different when we read a literary work and when we reread it? This book focuses on the implications of rereading for critical understanding. Drawing on literary theory, cultural anthropology, psychiatry, philosophy and previous theories of reading, Calinescu describes the dynamics of rereading and explores the sometimes complementary, sometimes sharply conflicting relationships between reading and rereading."

Conrad DiDiodato said...


I'll check out Calinescu, for which thanks. And yes, Ong seems more vital to us than ever: are we not witnessing a sort of trend back to the oral tradition of 'storyline' and characterisation that seem commonplaces of Internet literacy today?

Orality/literacy is becoming quite an engaging 'binary' these days.

Ed Baker said...

that Ron's Underwood Upright? same model that had and always used... until it rusted away after my kids bent the keys all to hell.

It sure was "neat" listening to the rhythm of the sound of that old Monster typewriter as I typed "They flee from me that sometimes did me seek..."

in doing my own 'stuff"

the ding! at the end of a line as the margin was set..

Song of Chin done on that Underwood.... here:

a copy of Rereading is on the way to me... a coincidence you mention it.

That Underwood was my Steinway... my instrument of choice.

well I used to read the left-hand page unless something "grabbed" me that ran on..

I try for a narrative through out any run of poems of mine is narrative same thing as "story line" or is it a given that "story" has a beginning, a middle, and an end?

which is novel & not necessarily narrative

great post... and terrific in-sight via Conrad

David Grove said...

Thanks for the piece on Padgett. As usual, Padgett gives me permission to do things I do guiltily, wondering if I'm the only weirdo who does them.

Curtis Faville said...

Deliberate misreading, playful manipulation, rearrangements, etc. The New York School's notions of how one teaches poetry, I think, de-value the text, breaking down its sequential effects and trivializing thematic context(s).

This leads straight into Ashbery and Koch's post-Modern destruction of subject-matter as a crucial signified element. And since every reader's textual deconstruction project will be different, it also has the effect of democratizing the text, turning it into a new hybrid work. All texts are merely stepping-stones to other texts, etc. Authorship, too, suffers misappropriation. This all sounds pretty old hat, by now, doesn't it?

But being "creative" with a text is a writer's take, not a reader's.

Steven Fama said...

Thanks for adding in to the discussion everyone.

Ed, I swear to god I'd forgotten the bell that sounds at the end of the line on some "old" typewriters: I really dug having that rung in my ears again. And am thinking of whether there's ever been a poem reading (a public reciting) that incorporated that (as opposed to for example the pause/silence that sometimes happens at a line's end when a poem is read aloud).

Curtis, I don't think there could be a more concise statement of the "argument" that Padgett's creative reading approach devalues the text than your comment. I appreciate the sharpness of what you state.

Padgett in his book sets up his creative reading mission by first discussing, if briefly, the way that printed texts cow some, even simply because they are printed (the authoritarian stance of the page). Creative reading a la Padgett, is thus an antidote or necessary corrective to the tendency to over-value the text.

Plus, I must insist: even the most out there techniques that Padgett discusses are very very close to the kind of intense undirected deep reverie that I sometimes enjoy when reading poetry. In those reveries, the poet's words light the match, and probably also set the basic contours of the landscape of thought as well as the direction of the wind of ideas (can this metaphor get any more stretched? (yes it can, read on)), but the resulting conflagration, the flames of reverie, cannot and ought not be controlled by the poet. That fire is mine, as the reader.

And finally -- and this is why I ended the post with it -- Padgett's creative reading tip of typing the text can't get more text-centered, I don't think. I think he actually circles right back there to the text as all.

Steven Fama said...

And P.S. Curtis (if you are listening):

In doing any of the editing work on the Collected Eigner (and is there a publication date for that yet?), did you get to do any re-typing of his poems?

Given the way he spread words on the page -- the spacing both on the lines and then between -- I think re-typing Eigner's work would be just a fascinating exercise in how those poems were made.

Ed Baker said...

over on moria wayyyyyyyyyyy down
on the right my
G OO DNIGHT both as a pdf (free) and as a print/paper 'thing'

check out piece begining on page 4 ONLY THE POSSIBILITY

especially that d i n ggggg on page 6

sometime I re/read my own stuff and re:act:

"I did THAT? Shit, that's pretty good."

well, I certainly want to add another intelligent comment here,

however the poet/artist is never responsible
for anyboddhi else's intelligence or understanding...


David Grove said...

New York School poets do not de-value or trivialize poetry. In order to generate material for poetry, they play games (e.g., cut-ups) with existing poetry that necessitate a temporary suspension of reverence--if they're playing with great poetry, that is. For the purposes of the game, they regard "The Drunken Boat" or whatever not as a masterpiece, but as a mere assemblage of words which, taken individually, are as much mine as anyone else's. This attitude does not, as you seem to think, threaten poetry. On the contrary, it promulgates poetry and engenders interesting poems. It makes the venerable art of poetry accessible to countless people who otherwise would feel excluded from it. "Poetry must be made by everyone."

Kat Good-Schiff said...


Thanks for the comment on my blog.

I read this latest post when I visited your blog to find the link to Olson's essay. I really appreciated this continuation of the extreme reading exploration. I'm so happy to hear there are others like me who view reading as a truly interactive act - it's not passive at all.

To date, my finest example of extreme academic reading was my response paper to John Cage's collection of writing, Silence. I read part of it on the ferry with two screaming boys nearby, and another part of it beside a photo booth. Cage helped me view reading as a performance tied to the environment that can never be repeated. In my paper I included fragments of the boy's speech and also stapled to the paper a photo that I found on the ground near the booth.

My advisor was kind enough to humor me - and even remarked that I had helped her see experimental art as more open than exclusive, as she had often thought.

Ed Baker said...

In re-typing Larry Eigner's poems one must
in a wheel-chair and type one letter at a time
w one index finger only...

just imagine see

the words


down on the page (space)


Curtis Faville said...


Typing the Eigner in Quark allowed us to present in equivalently spaced format, just like a typewriter.

Having typed some 4000+ poems over and over was an overwhelming task. Being, by persuasion, an imitative ("absorbed") writer myself, it takes an act of will not to think inside of another (strong) writer's head, after having done that.

It's easier the older you get. Marvin Bell (circa 1970) told me "finding my voice" wouldn't be a problem, even though, then, I didn't "have" one that I could see/hear. But now, in retrospect, it's as plain as day. One of my theories is that we can't really "see" ourselves unless separated by time or distance from our own products.

Don't open the window when the stove catches fire!

Steven Fama said...

Hi everyone.

Kat -- your experience reading Silence while kids screamed and a photo booth whirred away sort of reminds me of another work of Cage, Indetemrinancy, a recording of him reading stories or anecdotes while another person (David Tudor) plays music or tape. The two were recorded separately but then mixed together; sometimes the music/tape seems to highlight Cage's spoken words while at other times obliterating them, or just sounding "off." Somehow it's hypnotic.

And Curtis, am I understanding correctly that YOU typed FOUR THOUSAND poems of Eigner's, for the Collected Poems you're co-editing. Even a tenth of that number would deserve a WOW! I can imagine it getting into, even taking over, your head. Me, I wouldn't fight it. "Shipwrecked is sweet to me in such a sea," to paraphrase Leopardi.

brian (baj) salchert said...

I've read poems of mine in slant ways, such as making believe I'm an English butler. Another writer I communicate with considers the revision of a poem to be effectively a new poem. So, whatever a reader does with a text, if the original text is allowed to remain available, no harm.

Ed Baker said...

so Brian: as you posit it now integrity is now the norm?

and "no harm" is done?

when did y'all catch that Reagan Disease? sometime in the mid 80's?

seems like our entire kult-sure has been lobotomized!

Ed Baker said...


maybe I should revise what I said I should say

"no integrity" or "lack of integrity" is the now norm...

rather than "now integrity" well

now on to google and wikipeedia Shakespeare who was another hack writer!

brian (baj) salchert said...

Ed, I have no idea what is currently the norm, and I totally do not understand what you mean by "no integrity" or "lack of integrity" when it comes to how I read a poem, especially one I wrote. I don't do it for laughs or kicks. I do it because I feel the poem will carry itself better that way and I want to find out if I am right. Besides, all such that I do is usually done in private.