In 1839, Henry David Thoreau and his brother made a river voyage in a boat that they built themselves. This voyage became the subject of Thoreau’s first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, published in 1849 at his own expense. In this thirty-three minute excerpt, Thoreau finds himself describing the incredible beauty and serenity of the natural scene around him. But his mind wanders into a profound examination of poetry and the requirements of good writing. His call to man for a life of poetry and his demand that writers create simply from an impulse to action are powerful and true. I don’t think there is a better piece of advice that exists for writers and readers alike.
Thoreau frequently quotes from Homer’s Iliad and other sources in this piece. I have tried to separate his quotes with pauses and a change in reading tone. You might want to glance at the actual words as you listen for clarification.
Here is the text of the reading:
What would we not give for some great poem to read now, which
would be in harmony with the scenery,–for if men read aright,
methinks they would never read anything but poems. No history nor
philosophy can supply their place.
The video is from W. W. Norton publishers who decided to ask eleven of their published poets what poetry is for. Their answers are incredibly bad, but it’s a good try. It should be abundantly clear from these poets’ answers that there is very little actual thought going on about what poetry is for.
Here’s my answer: Poetry is for bread.
But here’s a guy named Charles Bernstein who says that National Poetry Month is a bad thing. He says it encourages the most bland of easy-reading poetry available to make people think poetry is safe to read. He’s right. And so what? So people read some bland crappy poems. That is what most poetry is. That’s realistic. Perhaps a few of those people will have the energy to go out and find the real, hard, evolving, beautiful and terrifying poetry that would never even stoop to asking, ‘What is poetry for?’
In China, there’s a revolution in online novels. Writers are uploading their books to be read by millions of Chinese readers who pay a small amount for each book. The leading company offering online novels in China is Shanda Literature. Their site, Qidian.com, is the most popular destination for novel readers. Even regular bookstores are now offering print versions of online novels. Apparently, the online universe is China is relatively free of censorship and authors find themselves with more freedom to criticize.
Here’s a CNN article about the online publishing boom in China.