Yesterday I was thinking about what a novice reader in Shared Reading needs to know, and made a list of 9 things to do, most of which were, read the poem aloud. Heather commented on the importance of No. 3, ‘Check how you are feeling’.
Heather writes, ‘This is the key that can begin to unlock a scary-looking poem. I have seen people being astonished by feelings that have emerged after initially having said things like ‘I don’t get this’.’
Yes. It is important that we feel able to stay in that creative place of uncertainty. At that place, ‘I don’t get this…’ we are on the very cusp of new thought, new understanding. The reader and the text are trying to find each other. The reader stands face to face with the words, an equal. As when we meet a new person, we try to find out who they are – not by references, but in their own terms. A man (new to his Shared Reading group) said to me yesterday, ‘It’s just us, and the words, and something… happens…’
The model of brave uncertainty characterised by, ‘I don’t get this… but I’m beginning to feel…’ may be a one of the contributing factors to one of the key outcomes shared Reading Group members report – feeling more confident.
Often, in more experienced, or more educated, literary worlds (I’ve seen it in literature courses, in talks at Lit Fests, in lectures, at Book Clubs ) there is a reaching after fact to put-off or smooth over those feelings uncertainty, of not-knowing, as if fact could do it for us and save us those worries. But it doesn’t. It might sometimes add to something we are experiencing in the reading but, very often, it intrudes, and the experience becomes something else, almost corrupted.
If I said to you, I’ve looked up ‘The Eagle’, and Tennyson wrote it to celebrate the adoption of the american eagle at the end of the American Civil War (I’ve just made that up, but say it was historically true). Your relation to the poem is now a historical one. It’s no longer just you and poem, the words on the page. It’s art, Jim, but with footnotes. And, particularly at the beginning of an experience, of a relationship with a work of literature (perhaps any art?) , the footnote killeth. It certainly affects the democracy of reading.
I spent years reading and teaching and sharing my readings of three of the greatest poems ever written – The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost and The Prelude. I like to have an edition with good footnotes, and I like the footnotes to be at the bottom of the page, so you don’t have to flip backwards and forwards. Alastair Fowler’s edition of Paradise Lost is excellent for this. I read the footnotes quite often. But what I’ve found over thirty years is that they don’t help. Not when you are really struggling. That real struggle is the struggle to enter the mind of the author, to follow, through language, form, syntax, the experience of the author’s thoughts.
In this respect reading is like eating or dancing. No one can do it for you. There are things to learn about dance and food and what other people like or believe, and learning that extra stuff might well add to your experience. But you don’t start there. You start by doing it yourself. And no one, however expert, can do your eating or dancing.
Back the The Eagle. Yesterday I’d read some of the first stanza, now I’m going to read the second and try to understand why it makes me afraid.
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
The first thing in the second stanza that frightens me is ‘the wrinkled sea.’ That sea is very far down: I feel vertigo as I read. Height changes time on cliff tops. Tennyson uses the verb ‘crawls’ to get at that feeling. If you were walking on the shore, the waves would be crashing, the tide moving at a speed. From very high above, (I’m remembering cliff tops on a Greek Island, the Aegean seeming miles below) the sea seems to move a very slow speed. The eagle ‘watches’ and I’m seeing something alert, intelligent, deliberate and very very far above everything else – as in the first stanza, when he seemed god-like. the giving way implied in ‘falls’ is what frightens me most. It is absolute abandonment. It is power too, because this is not an uncontrolled fall. This is the power, and self-control of the high diver. The diver, the faller, becomes an object – cannonball- submitting to gravity in this way, terrifyingly making of their own body a weapon.
The ‘thunderbolt’ connects me back to the sense of him as out-of-this-world, godlike, ‘ring’d with the azure world.’
Do you see a film of this unfolding moment in your mind as you read?
I’m asking myself Do you see anything human? The long distance of a very far-off encompassing gaze, the seeing of things in a large pattern, the ability to move with great certainty and very fast…it’s the difference between the long far off gaze and fast,’ terrifying action, the ‘thunderbolt’ that unsettles me.
I’ve noticed the way each stanza has three rhymes. That makes the rhythm of the poem act strangely, I think. I read it aloud to myself a couple of times. You sort of expect a fourth line, that’s what it is. The lines themselves are very regular, four beat lines:
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
And you’d expect each stanza to be a four line stanza, to match , as it were. But you don’t get the fourth line. When you don’t get it, it’s like the great down-swoop of the bird. Something is suddenly not there.
This poem is a sketch, a small one, in pencil. Its full of a moment of life and it shows Tennyson’s skill. But I want something bigger. I move on the next picture. Tell me more about humans.