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DISTANT READING

"Close Reading" is the term for a technique often used to read poems, or poetry that was instigated in the 1920s at Cambridge by several critics; and though it tends to be questioned now, most poetry book reviewers, and even most poetry critics, do, at least sometimes, read poems from a close reading perspective. And that's fine.

But I wish to assay something else, also, now.  Imagine if we only discussed the weather in Britain - the storm fronts, the cloud banks, the gale force winds, the light and heavy rains, even the snow - in terms of individual snowflakes or pellets of rain.  It wouldn't do - instead, we generalise; draw expansive maps, and look at much larger forces.

If one sees each poem as a drop of rain, or perhaps one weather event on one day, then by stepping back, we see a broader picture emerge.  Heaney as a warm summer breeze; Larkin as a squall.  This is not meant to be apt, just a lightness of touch.  But the idea is there - what is the distant reading of a poet? What does that look like?

I think that too often, poets and critics nowadays know too much - or think they do - about poets, poetries and poems.  After all, poems are an old technology, and how they are made has not changed much in 2,000 years.  We can all quickly understand why we do or do not support the lyric, the voice, the conceptual, the linguistically innovative, and so on - and we can quickly comprehend the mechanics of set poems.

What happens if one steps back into a fog bank, past the awards and the prizes, the certainties of greatness, and acclaim? What does one see, or feel, about contemporary poetry?  What vague notions, images, impressions, and reports from afar does one detect?

It is worth the effort to imagine ourselves way beyond a place where we think we know what a poem or poet is, even.  What else might be poetry? Is all poetry man-made?  Is it lasting? Impermanent?  Cold? Hard? What worlds are summoned and summed up therein? Perhaps let us resist pat maps and anatomies, new directions; old shibboleths.

From space, our poets are sometimes smaller, sometimes brighter, than we might think, and their work, as a whole, constellates a wide range of patterns, worth observing, apart from the need to hone in on anyone line or phrase. This is a breaking away from the human form the poem insists on, to the form an eye makes, distantly.

Just some thoughts, on the edge of a new year. It may be that we need to apply ideas of weirdness and speculative realism to the objects and things that are poems, and poets.

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The runner-up is: Daniel Duffy - 'President Returns To New York For Brief First Visit'

Wheeler Light currently lives in Boulder, Colorado.



Life Jacket

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JOHN ASHBERY HAS DIED

With the death of the poetic genius John Ashbery, whose poems, translations, and criticism made him, to my mind, the most influential American poet since TS Eliot, 21st century poetry is moving into less certain territory.

Over the past few years, we have lost most of the truly great of our era: Edwin Morgan, Gunn, Hill, Heaney and Walcott, to name just five.  There are many more, of course. This is news too sad and deep to fathom this week.  I will write more perhaps later. 

I had a letter from Ashbery on my wall, and it inspired me daily.  He gave me advice for my PhD. He said kind things about a poetry book of mine.

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