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Readers Real and Ideal | The Nation

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Katha Pollitt

Katha Pollitt

Politics, feminism, culture, books and daily life.

Readers Real and Ideal

(I posted this at The Best American Poetry last Friday. I'm going to be blogging there regularly about poetry. I hope you'll take a look.)

I love the Gertrude Stein quip David Comiskey posted in response to my last blog: "I write for myself and strangers." that just about covers it, doesn't it? Another reader sent in a different version: "I write for myself and strange people." That's probably just as true. For some more portraits of the reader in one's head, I queried members of WOM-PO, a listserv of mostly poets (both sexes) devoted to discussion of poetry by women. Here are some answers: Emily Dickinson, YOU, "the me which is that feathered thing alive and barnacled on/as my soul," "people who need my words," a friend in Colorado with whom the poet has exchanged a weekly poem for the past 33 (!) years, "my former next-door neighbor, Joan, who didn't go to college, but who is a terrific reader," a longstanding poetry critique group, a local poetry listserv in Sebastopol, CA. Linda Rodriguez says she writes for "a literate, reading person somewhere out there in the world, someone curious who wants to see beneath the surface of life" -- a version of Virginia Woolf's Common Reader -- but others longed to reach people, including their relatives, who didn't read poetry and who might be electrified by something they wrote. "When I find a fifteen year old girl in a small town somewhere that has read a poem and gone on to the library filled with questions," writes Sina Queyras, "Well, that's what it's about for me." If that doesn't happen, don't lose heart. As Kate Bernadette Benedict points out "My internalized reader may not even be born yet!"

Mary Oliver agrees with Benedict. "I write poems for a stranger who will be born in some distant country hundreds of years from now," she wrote in "A Poetry Handbook." Of course, Oliver is one of the most popular poets in America right this minute -- it's not like she's waiting for posterity to catch up with her. Billy Collins, the other most popular poet, has a riff on Oliver. It's a funny poem, but I can't decide if he's making fun of her. Is he mocking her somewhat vatic claim on posterity, debunking the idea of posterity as anything special, ruefully deflating the concept of universality, or even comparing Oliver's poetry to a wet dog? What do you think?

To a Stranger Born in Some Distant Country Hundreds of Years from Now

I write poems for a stranger who will be born in some distant country hundreds of years from now. - Mary Oliver

Nobody here likes a wet dog.
No one wants anything to do with a dog
that is wet from being out in the rain
or retrieving a stick from a lake.
Look how she wanders around the crowded pub tonight
going from one person to another
hoping for a pat on the head, a rub behind the ears,
something that could be given with one hand
without even wrinkling the conversation.

But everyone pushes her away,
some with a knee, others with the sole of a boot.
Even the children, who don't realize she is wet
until they go to pet her,
push her away
then wipe their hands on their clothes.
And whenever she heads toward me,
I show her my palm, and she turns aside.

O stranger of the future!
O inconceivable being!
whatever the shape of your house,
however you scoot from place to place,
no matter how strange and colorless the clothes you may wear,
I bet nobody there likes a wet dog either.
I bet everyone in your pub,
even the children, pushes her away.

-- Billy Collins

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