I've been reading a lot of poetry submissions lately that are lovely, really, well put together, crafted by someone who cares. I am sure of this, but the poems lift and float off the page in search of a current. Any feeling for them is blown gently away. Even these phrases here are too self-conscious, too demanding of the reader. "Look at me." I have seen this before in art, too: well crafted, beautifully done, lovely colors, yet I feel nothing. There are no emotional roots holding this work in place.
I am reading Ann Patchett's book of essays, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage (which, by the way, has a slightly misleading title--some of the essays are about relationships, others are about writing, her bookstore in Tennessee, family, and mistakes). Her writing is poetic and heartfelt, but it does not call attention to itself. It does not try to be anything other than a look at our puzzling world and human emotions. Try is an important word. It does not try. It is a wonderful book for writers, for sure, and for everyone else who marvels and questions why we do what we do. That she cares about words and placement and pacing does show, but only if you look. Effortlessly, it seems, she can make the reader feel love and anguish and joy, the emotions she feels.
Sometimes I begin reading and I know I can relax with the writer. The guide is excellent, solid: I can let myself fall into the work and know I will be caught. All the words that need to be there are there, in the order that will keep my attention, with delightful surprises: metaphors or similes that never occurred to me, word-pairings that change how I look at the world, line breaks that do the same. Patchett's essays do this and they make me want to write; some of her novels have done so as well (The Magician's Assistant, Bel Canto).
It's a longing, for me, this reading. A longing for a certain relationship with the work. I want to feel something right here, right now, on this damp ground.