Sharing an atom of truth with Bellow, Herzog and Levertov

Roses and mint, borage and clematis in the back garden 16 May

I don’t want to continue with Shakespeare’s horses today, however energetic they may be. I am not interested enough, life is short.

So I’m turning the pages of the Oxford Book of English Verse looking for something I can care about. Up to about page 200, and it’s all love and death, or fear of losing love, or having lost it,  or fear of death, or advice on how to live a good life plus  the odd aside to your cat or ‘on inviting a friend to dinner’. Where our lives are going, how to end well, that sort of thing. Yes, yes. Impatiently I turn the pages, that’s not what I want.

Instead I’m turning over in my mind the thought of what Shared Reading essentially is, what matters most. We say we are making a reading revolution and we’re changing the place of literature in the world, bringing it out of the academy and into life. When I think of some of the places we’ve made reading happen over the past decade…places where no reading was, no poetry, no novels, no help with thinking about experience, all those care homes, rehabilitation units, clinics, bail hostels, young offender institutions, mental health inpatient and community units, I think we’ve made a good start on that. I think also of the many libraries and schools and community centres where people are sharing their reading in a new way. Yes, it’s a start.

Now our new model of growth is going to spread Shared Reading even more widely.  But the wider it goes the harder it is to ensure quality: we now  have to balance between strict  rules  (to keep it right) and the spirit of the thing (to keep it lively). We have to balance as we go, and that balance is always going to be a series of movements, of many tiny, constant adjustments, with the occasional hard  pull back to the centre , just like a woman walking  tightrope.

What must be preserved?  If I came back in a hundred, two hundred years, would I hope to see still happening in Shared Reading groups? I want live-ness, some electrical moment of connection. I’d want to see some depth. Some people we’ve trained  have told me that Shared Reading consists of reading a short story, or an extract from a novel, and a poem. They have to go together.  The skill of shared reading is in the choosing. Well, no,  I tell them, I don’t agree. You can do that, but that is not a principle of Shared Reading.

You could read just a Shakespeare play, as our Shakespeare group in Birkenhead has done since 2008. Or only Daniel Deronda and no poems. Or you can read only a poem. You can read a big long poem over several weeks or months. The content matters, not the form. Which is not to say that the form of ‘some prose and some poetry’ isn’t a good one. It’s just not essential.  What is essential is the concentrated, deep nature of the reading experience. How we bring that about is up for grabs. Much depends on our confidence in the reading matter.

Like all things, literature is a continuum –  there’s poor stuff at one end, acceptably inoffensive stuff in the middle and great stuff at the other end.  People balk at the word ‘great’ because it implies  value judgement. I think we have to make value judgements. We make them about songs or beer or holidays: why not literature? Probably, making a judgement about the value content of what is to be read is a key principle of Shared Reading.

Great literature is writing which helps us integrate our own felt experience with the wisdom of others, helping us understand the world and ourselves. So, yes, great literature is certainly Crime and Punishment but also I Want My Hat Back (both stories of  loss, murder and aftermath) and probably not True Crime 3. (Though I reserve the right to change my mind in particular circumstances,where True Crime 3 might just be the volume that gets me into conversation with a particular person,  in conversation long enough to introduce them to Dostoevsky)

Depth of experience is what I want in my own reading (and why I’m not reading ‘Courser and Jennet’  today though I do think that someone could read it and get something out of it, just not me, not today) and that’s what I’d want to bring about in any Shared Reading experience. As my colleague Grace said to me yesterday, in  the first manifestation of The Reader (The Reader magazine, ‘a magazine about writing worth reading’ which we published in Spring 1997) Sarah Coley and I quoted what we felt was key passage from Saul Bellow’s novel, Herzog.

The people who come to evening classes are only ostensibly after culture. Their great need, their hunger, is for good sense, clarity, truth – even an atom of it. People are dying – it is no metaphor – for lack of something real to carry home when day is done.

Sarah and I had been teaching literature courses in the Continuing Education Programme for some time. I’d been doing it for perhaps ten years. I knew it wasn’t just the people who came to class who wanted ‘something real’ to take home. It was me too.

That urgent need to create a place where ‘the real’ could be found was what led to the creation of The Reader and of Shared Reading. That’s what I’m looking for when I look for something to read. So with all that in my mind (this morning’s subject matter, which, I’m sorry to say , it has my reading whole hour to realise) I now know what I’m looking for in a reading.

Therefore today it is ‘The Metier of Blossoming’ by Denise Levertov, which you’ll find here. I’m just reading the last few lines, as I’m already over time this morning.

If humans could be
that intensely whole, undistracted, unhurried,
swift from sheer
unswerving impetus! If we could blossom
out of ourselves, giving
nothing imperfect, withholding nothing!

The key thing now for The Reader’s growth is, like Levertov’s amaryllis, ‘sheer/unswerving impetus’.

It’s a marvellous unfinished wish, the end of this poem, which has been so concentrated on observing the plant, as if a scientist watched and noted its growth. But then after all that definite notation, the last two sentences – for humans – must both begin with ‘if’, must remain incomplete. For us there is only the trying.

‘If’ is the depth charger. Notice its repetition, not the big ambitions, which are so easily mouthed every day by  any old InspiringQuoteDotCom. ‘If’ opens the conversation for us in Shared Reading, this tiny word, ‘an atom’ of something good. The conversation that will grow from it will be ‘something real to take home when day is done.’

Silas tomorrow.