Earlier this year I learned about the practice of surface reading whilst taking a course at university. Contrary to the objective distance towards a text that is promoted by academics, surface reading emphasizes a more emotional approach. It looks at how a literary work applies to your situation, at that moment, as opposed to looking for a supposed universal and deeper “truth.” The concept of such a non-academic and, as such, almost subversive way of reading surprised me and it struck a note with me. Mainly because this was how I, unbeknownst till then, had been approaching the always difficult task of looking for new and interesting poetry. It’s been a little over a year now since I’ve started gathering poems and poets that I enjoy because they resonate with me, rather than that they were handed to me by the school curriculum. During this year I’ve noticed two things that I think are essential to my process of finding new poetry. These two things are the emotional approach of surface reading and the notion that one can gather poems.
Ever since I was young, and I suppose that this occurs with a lot of children, I’ve gathered. Gathered flowers, feathers, rocks, leaves, sand, twigs, shells, bees, flies, wasps, spiders, bones, mushrooms, buds, shoots, stems, weedage, moss, husks, branches, fur, nails, teeth and so on and so on. This gathering was, and still is, a process which is not based on any logical decision making. It is more a question of seeing and feeling, and it’s not just a feeling of the object, its tactility, but also of how the object makes me feel. Somehow, I’m able to say “this twig makes me feel.” More than that, I’m also able to make a weird distinction in my process of collecting. I’m saying “this twig makes me feel more than that twig.” This difference is purely emotional, perhaps even instinctual. Then again, I suppose that’s how it works with most things that you’re passionate about. The decision to like something or become interested in something is never conscious. It can be steered, but never forced. What I’ve found, much to my surprise, is that the gathering of poems is much like the gathering of oddly shaped rocks. The rock entices you by the shape of its lines, or the structure of its surface, just like the poem grabs you in the use of its words or the structure of its stanzas. Whether I like a poem is based on the same instinctual feelings. Of course, a poem can grow on you the more you read it and the more you understand its context, but it’s the immediate emotional recognition which I’m comparing.
Consequently this made wonder whether it would be possible to link certain objects that I’ve gathered, with poems that I’ve gathered during this past year. Why do I gather the things I gather. The object is a rock that I’ve found whilst walking along the IJssel near my parent’s house. The poem is called “Cold Poem” by Mary Oliver, from the collection “American Primitive”.
In combining the rock with the poem, it allows me to look for facets that they both share and which agree with me on some level. I’m not sure if that’s on an emotional level, or just because I like it. Perhaps the two are in line with each other. For instance, when looking at the words used in the poem some strike me more than others when considered with the rock in mind. The “cold” of the poem finds its parallel in the coldness that is inherent to a rock. The “edge” in the second line and the “tree-splitting morning” in line 6 both make me look at the uneven edge of the rock, or the clean cut on the underside. The second stanza, with its reminiscing of summer make me aware of the slight discolorations from grey to grain, that are visible in the stone. “The hard knife-edged love for the warm river of the I” not only emphasizes how I am shaped by me but also how the river where I found the rock shaped that rock as well. A rock seems to be a solid, unchangeable object, yet when considered with the poem in mind, the interaction not only emphasizes the change it can undergo, but also how my personality may seem so be static one moment, even if it is always being eroded by “the warm river of the I.”
Cold Poem – Mary Oliver
Cold now. Close to the edge. Almost unbearable. Clouds bunch up and boil down from the north of the white bear. This tree-splitting morning I dream of his fat tracks, the lifesaving suet.
I think of summer with its luminous fruit, blossoms rounding to berries, leaves, handsful of grain.
Maybe what cold is, is the time we measure the love we have always had, secretly for our own bones, the hard knife-edged love for the warm river of the I, beyond all else; maybe
that is what it means, the beauty of the blue shark cruising toward the tumbling seals.
In the season of snow, in the immeasurable cold, we grow cruel but honest; we keep ourselves alive, if we can, taking one after another the necessary bodies of others, the many crushed red flowers.