I have never been a voracious reader. The idea of devouring books at speed does not appeal to me. Nor do I escape through poetry into an alternative reality. Reading has always seemed to me to be an experience very much of this world, like a walk in the wind, a bowl of soup or the trying on of a nice new pair of socks. I like short poems, handfuls of language that I can carry about with me and I really like thinking about individual words.
As a child I used to spend hours knitting, struggling with yarn and needles, tongue poked out in concentration, chanting “in, round, through, off, in, round, through off” but I don’t remember ever completing a wearable garment. If anything sexy came on the telly, Mum would shout “Get on with your knitting!” and I’d stare hard at my wobbly stitches, until the embarrassment passed. Luckily, this led to only a mild wool fetish later in life. But I think it did reinforce my tendency to focus on details and blot out the bigger picture. When I’m reading I always like to zoom in on particular words and to let the wider context fall away.
I was an undergraduate in the 1970s, studying the ambitiously-titled English Literature, Life and Thought, when I was introduced to the art of Close Reading. Every week we were presented with a short piece of poetry, undated and anonymous, and asked to come up with an ‘authentic response.’ My fellow students seemed to be very well-read and were confident with both primary and secondary texts. I didn’t know my Auden from my Eliot, but I loved coming face to face with an unfamiliar poem and exploring it, looking for patterns, feeling textures, making connections and conjectures. It was such a relief that I didn’t have to know what other people had said about it before I could make my own comments. When it came to exam time, there were often scary rumours that we would be given a page of a telephone directory to analyse. I honestly think I could have done that. I’ve had many an insight from a sauce bottle or cereal packet, usually during the course of an awkward breakfast.
I like reading foreign poems for the same reason that I like foreign travel: to see different sights and to hear different sounds, to smell different smells and to feel different weather on my skin, to be abroad. Now there’s a lovely word: abroad. It suggests to me being at large, free, away from the narrowness of home. Someone I used to know would declare, quite without irony, that wherever she went in the world she was never a foreigner because she was always English. I also love travelling, but for me being foreign is a good thing: a comfortable, explicable way of being different from the people around me.
I have always had a terrible sense of direction. People who knew me as a child were surprised when I grew up to be an independent traveller. What they didn’t realise was, that if you’ve never had your bearings, you can’t lose them. It was no more unsettling for me to get lost in Lisbon or Cairo than to be disorientated in the tiny village where I grew up. So it is with poetry. Any poem is a foreign country, and a foreign poem is not necessarily more inaccessible than one in your own language.
Of course I can’t do it all by myself. Translations are a great help, even though they can never replace the original. Parallel texts are fun: I love jumping between them, trying to catch sight of something. And native speakers are a great resource. I feel lucky to have friends and colleagues who are willing to spend time helping me and answering my daft questions about poems in their languages. In fact, those questions are well worth asking, because sometimes an outsider, picking through a poem word by word, can notice things that a reader familiar with the language might miss.
I very nearly ended up spending my life reading very closely indeed. In 1979 I worked as a research assistant on a project led by a distinguished scholar in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at the University of Cambridge. Beowulf is the hero of an ancient poem who kills a horrible monster called Grendel. Grendel’s mother turns out to be even more horrible and so he kills her as well. (There is, of course, more to it than that). The professor told me that he was passionately interested in dating Beowulf. At first I misunderstood, but I readily agreed to help when he clarified that he wanted to establish in what year the poem was written. He had a theory that this could be determined by paying attention to the occurrence of pairs of words connected with ‘and’: ‘kith and kin’, ‘born and bred’, ‘hell and high water’. In order to make his argument, he needed to compare the frequency of this construction in Beowulf with other Anglo-Saxon writings, so he paid me to count them.
The spirit was willing, but the body was so much more sensible. I developed, for the first and last time in my life a nasty condition that starts with an infernal itch in your eye and then a thick unpleasant discharge that glues it firmly shut. If you’re really unlucky (I was) when you lie down to sleep, some of the gunk drips from the infected eye into the clean eye, sealing up both of them and making it difficult to read, and practically impossible to count all the pairs of words connected with “and” in the entire Anglo-Saxon poetic corpus.
I knew my body was wise, but I realised only recently that it is witty as well. The condition that stopped me from devoting my life to that rather tedious twiglet of literary research was conjunctivitis.