Thursday, October 3, 2013

Nerd or Dunce

In my literature class, we've moved from short stories to poetry. The way my textbook is set up, it's pretty easy to read a plethora of other poems in the course of reading just the poems for class, and hence I'm reading a lot of poetry lately.

One poem that I read for the first time just a few weeks ago is "Ozymandias", potentially Percy Bysshe Shelley's most famous poem, and a poem that is...not obscure in wider culture. Here's the text, and here's Walter White reading it:

(I don't watch Breaking Bad, and in fact I lament the loss of the zany Cranston of Malcolm in the Middle, but this is an exquisite reading.)

I find myself wanting to read this poem approximately once a day. It has broken me open. It has given me An Experience.

Obviously famous poems are famous because they strike some kind of essential chord among masses of people, but I still get a little embarrassed whenever this precise thing happens: when I stumble across some super-famous work of art, am uncommonly moved by it, and then have to come to terms with the fact that it's special to me, too, just as it's been special to legion English majors across time. This is the kind of new discovery that's cute when 17-year-olds make it, but I feel like by now, I should have already read and become familiar with "Ozymandias". I've read Watchmen, after all. (I think I thought the reference was to antiquity, not to a poet as relatively recent as Shelley.)

When I stand back from it, of course, this is idiocy. No one can read the entire Western canon (aside from Harold Bloom, the git), and a few things are bound to be left by the side of the road here and there while I try newly published books and reread old loves. And we are all having new experiences all the time. If we're not, what's the point? So it isn't anything to be ashamed of.

Yet as I mix with different groups of writers, I feel like one of two things happens: I feel either as if I'm not well-read enough, both in terms of the classics and in terms of litmags, news in the writing/publishing world, and knowledge of up-and-coming literary stars - or I feel the opposite way. As if I've read too much, way more than the average; as if my involvement in literature is too extreme, and I'm reading more and working harder than I need to in order to keep up. I wonder how you can have gotten through life without reading The Portrait of a Lady, or I wonder how you can possibly know about so many books without your brain leaking out onto your collar like an overfilled glass. Either way, the sense is that I'm not on an equal footing with the writers around me, whether I'm the nerd or the dunce, and it is a savagely uncomfortable feeling.

Again: from far away, this doesn't matter at all and is sort of awful of me to notice and care about. Everyone is different! With different lives and experiences and roads paved with books stretching back unto childhood. And that's awesome! It means I can rave about Henry James and share The Chronology of Water with every writer I meet who hasn't read it. And they can chastise me for not reading Middlemarch or Junot Díaz (or Piers Anthony, for that matter). And maybe, when I do finally reread One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest or read "Ozymandias" for the first time at almost-32, I can feel it in my bones in a way I might not have at 17.


1 comment:

Katharine Coldiron said...

On Facebook, Matt noted that "we're all nerdunces." A worthwhile thought indeed.