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Good Letters

peggy-rosenthalIn the May 6 issue of Christian Century, several people in the book business (writers, editors, professors) were asked what sort of book they’d like to see written. I was struck particularly by the comments of Lil Copan, who is senior editor at Paraclete Press. Lil said that what she craves is books that will slow her down, books that draw the reader into meditative pauses. She mentions as model Frederick J. Ruf’s Bewildered Travel, which in two months of reading she had gotten only twelve pages into. “I read a line. I stop. Sometimes I read three words and I stop. Sometimes I think, sometimes my mind wanders, sometimes I wonder or hope or sigh. Then I turn to the book again. Then I look out the window. Then I wait.”

Lil’s comments strike a deep chord in me. I too crave slow reading. Remember decades ago when “speed-reading” was all the rage? It was a cultural craze that I felt utterly alienated from. I’ve always read to myself as if I were reading aloud: that is, hearing every word, listening for the rhythms of a line, letting words reverberate with the manifold meanings that a fine author will set off in them.

This is why I’m especially drawn to poetry. Good poetry makes us pause. I love how the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam put this in an essay he wrote on reading Dante: “What distinguishes poetry from automatic speech [by which he meant the everyday language we use, in writing or talking, without thinking, automatically] is that it rouses us and shakes us awake in the middle of a word. Then the word turns out to be far longer than we thought.”

He also wrote in this essay: “The Divina Commedia does not so much take up the reader’s time as intensify it, as in the performance of a musical piece.”

This is exactly how I want my time to be taken up: intensified, stretched out along a vertical plane instead of rushed along horizontally.

Poetry is the prime verbal art form for crafting language to make us pause, stretch, wait. For drawing out words to be far longer than we thought. But prose can do this, too. This is what I treasure about Marilynne Robinson’s novels Houskeeping and Gilead. And what I treasure in everything that Annie Dillard writes—though I’d single out particularly her incomparable prose collage For the Time Being and her new novel The Maytrees (reviewed in the current issue of Image).

In the verbal arts that make us pause, that pull us gently into slow reading, the artist is leading us into what Naomi Shihab Nye calls “the words under the words,” in her poem of that title:

Answer, if you hear the words under the words —
otherwise it is just a world
with a lot of rough edges,
difficult to get through, and our pockets
full of stones.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Peggy Rosenthal

Peggy Rosenthal is director of Poetry Retreats and writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See Amazon for a full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.

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