Thinking someone else's thoughts
A new book from UC Press showcases a decade's worth of noontime verse
01 March 2006
The Face of Poetry (UC Press, 2005) captures the first decade of the Berkeley campus's Lunch Poems Reading Series. Nearly 50 of Margaretta Mitchell's black-and-white photographic portraits accompany biographies penned by the series' first coordinator, poet/translator Zack Rogow, who also selected several poems from each writer for the volume. The accompanying CD features poems read by 30 of the prandial poets, including Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz, Billy Collins, Gary Snyder, Sharon Olds, and Maxine Hong Kingston. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass, a professor of English at Berkeley whose poem "Interrupted Meditation" is also on the book's CD, wrote the collection's foreword, an excerpt from which is reprinted here.
Listening to other people . . . we have this capacity to become them, to leap to the center of the other's speech and, momentarily, inhabit it. We also have the ability to stand aside and assess what other people say to us. The deepest, most intimate reading of poetry requires both capacities. And that requirement is its freedom. The other kind of freedom, the freedom not to pay attention, is all too available to us. The freedom that comes from deep attention presumes listening all the way into what is being said and how it's being said. The person who says to a friend "I know just what you mean" before the other has completed his thought is not listening: he's leapt too quickly into the moment of identification to hear what might be different, even if only slightly, in another person's experience - and hearing what other people are saying is one of the only ways we ever get outside ourselves. In poetry, as in the other arts, we get to experience what it's like to think someone else's thoughts, feel someone else's feelings. Or we inhabit what it's like to make something - a mark, a gesture, a construction - out of words, out of the intimacy of language and the freight of meanings and feelings that it bears. That requires attention. This is also among the freedoms that poetry has to offer.
From Robert Hass' foreword to The Face of Poetry, © 2005 University of California Press. Portraits by Margaretta K. Mitchell. Edited by Zack Rogow.