The Russian poet Marina Tsvetayeva said: “All the lessons that we derive from art, we ourselves put into it.” She gives the following example, based on The Sorrows of Young Werther: “One person reads Werther and shoots himself, while another reads Werther and, because Werther shoots himself, decides to go on living. The first reader behaves like Werther, the second like Goethe. Is this a lesson in self-destruction? Or in self-defence? Both. At that particular time in his life, Goethe needed to shoot Werther – the suicidal demon of Goethe’s generation needed to be incarnated precisely through his hand…
“Is Goethe to blame for the deaths that were one result of the publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther? He said he was not guilty: “In his profound and splendid old age, he replied: No. Otherwise we could not dare to say even a word, for who can calculate the effect of a given word?”
Marina Tsvetayeva frees Goethe from blame, and so would I, but the example makes one reflect, as do the consequences that can arise when as a poet one does not distinguish between one’s life and one’s work.
In several places in his poetry Michael Strunge wrote about his yearning to burn into the darkness:
I could become a shooting star
and fall to rest,
fall to the ground on some planet or other
and for one disastrous moment got poems, dreams and reality all mixed up. A terrible thought, which I can’t help thinking as I read those lines.
The poem is at once sealed and decipherable. That is why reading is infinitely different from a conversation that is carried on between two people, where it is possible to break off, correct, expand or change the subject. Reading contains both cognitive and emotional components. Nothing can be understood unless one puts oneself on the line. It is not just a matter of getting something out that can be “used”, and even less so where poems are concerned. Beyond the cognitive aspects there is a demand that one be involved in an aesthetic sense, that one be able to listen to the emerging parameter a voice is, perceive the many intentions that take place on several levels at the same time in a poem.
Reading is usually an inward phenomenon, a graceful and entirely private activity that different people engage in very differently. In his short story ‘The Book’, Martin A. Hansen depicts – very movingly – how the boy Mattis makes his first encounter with world history an example of the fact that reading is an immensely individual process, one that is intoxicating and impassioned: “Mattis did not read like most people, reading was like a fever in him, his gaze moved over the lines like wooden clogs on the slippery ice, but the letters became tiny, living creatures that scurried into his brain and scribbled and scrabbled there so that the blood moved thumping through him. And if the contents were as intense and gripping as this book’s, the characters and events seemed to rise out of his own inner being, as though he were creating it all himself.”
The dynamics of the story are striking. A whole new world opens up to the boy. Later, when he lies exhausted in bed, we read: “Cold shivers ran through him. It’s fever, he thought to himself, I’m falling ill. Maybe I’ll die. But how I have read!’
There is a big difference between the identification patterns that are present in the case of texts that contain a gallery of characters, and what happens in poems, where other laws hold sway. The basis of poetry is not the same. One can orient oneself in the poem’s time, its landscape, and space, and above all listen to the voice that is speaking.
translated from Danish by David McDuff
Over the Water I Walk (VII) - 1