I'm enjoying the BBC poetry season in a fairly uncommitted, pretty kneejerk and vague kinda way. I'm glad that they are doing it, I suppose, and I've been happy to see Owen Sheers talking about Sylvia Plath and (some of) Simon Schama talking about John Donne, and I'm looking forward to Armando Iannucci's progamme on Milton. But I'm afraid that the opinons of Griff Rhys Jones, Michelle Ryan, Alex James, John Sergeant and Cerys Matthews on matters poetical are not something I can bring myself to care very much about, and the whole event has the kind of middlebrow, middle class feel that always seems to surround poetry and will put off as many people as it will, doubtless, inspire. GRJ's wide-eyed enthusiasms and his constant gurning particularly annoy me; is there no room at all, across the whole network, for some serious academics to talk seriously about serious poetry? No? Just the gurning? Right, there you are then!
Nonetheless, poetry is in the air, and my current re-reading of Plath, Eliot, Wallace Stevens and naughty Ruth Padel's useful 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem has, I'm sure, been stimulated by the Beeb's propaganda. Whilst it is right for the Beeb to remind us that poetry can be fun and that poems aren't difficult and dense puzzles that only initiates can fathom and unlock, the programmes have also correctly highlighted the fact that poets pay especial care to and with the language they use, how they place one word against another, and how they go about achieving, in such a concentrated form, a maximum of meaning and emotional punch. Whilst it is good, then, to remember how enjoyable and entertaining poetry can be, we're also being reminded that to get the most out of a poem you need to read it carefully.
This has led me to think: what does it mean to read carefully, to read with care? And what would it mean to read prose is such a way? What would we gain from reading prose as we should read poetry, from reading prose poetically?
The word care comes from the Old English caru or cearu meaning "sorrow, anxiety, grief", but to care for someone or something is to shield them from such, or to accept that they are in such a state, in their "bed of sickness" afflicted by "mental suffering" and requiring our solicitous "protection, preservation or guidance." Being full of cares has morphed, in the word carefully, to being full of care for (care for those who are themselves full of cares). To read carefully is, then, to read solicitously, painstakingly (taking on board the pain, taking on its weight, taking it away from the poem and into our own care), slowly, anxiously desirous of understanding the full weight of meaning of each word. It is the opposite of reading instrumentally, as a means to an end, as merely the means to get to the end of the book, to find the answer but not to observe, to respect, to hold in view and to care for the question that the text always is and is always posing.
Reading carefully is awareness of the cares of words; our habitual carelessness, when reading, shows us that reading's ethical dimension is one that poetry's own intricacy can help to highlight. Reading poetry can help us become better readers especially, perhaps, when and if we remember to read prose poetically. Maybe, then, it is just about worth enduring Gryf's gormless gurning to be reminded of this.