After learning about Brain Pickings a few months ago, I went in search of as many interviews with Maria Popova that I could find. One of the names she kept mentioning as inspiration was Susan Sontag. She described Sontag as a prolific reader – one who read 8-9 hours each day – which caught my eye.
I’d never heard of Susan Sontag until then, but did a cursory search on her and found that she was quite controversial. It seems as though she is seen as un-American at times and pretentious at others. This sometimes happens when women speak their own opinions, I am well aware. But, after reading Joan Didion, I’m a bit concerned about reading another wealthy white woman wax poetic on the merits of art and artists. I also don’t want to make the mistake of dismissing her because of that and she seems like a touchstone in literature, so I want to at least see what she’s all about.
When I found Where the Stress Falls at the used bookstore this weekend, I was happy to grab it. This was published in 2003, just a year before her death. Here’s a brief description taken from Amazon:
“Thirty-five years after her first collection, the now classic Against Interpretation, America’s most important essayist has chosen more than forty longer and shorter pieces from the last twenty years. Divided into three sections, the first “Reading” includes ardent pieces on writers from her own private canon – Machado de Assis, Barthes, W. G. Sebald, Borges, Tsvetaeva, and Elizabeth Hardwick. In the second, “Seeing” she shares her passions for film, dance, photography, painting, opera, and theater. And in the final section, “There and Here” Sontag explores her own commitments to the work (and activism) of conscience and to the vocation of the writer.”
Lately I’ve been very interested in essays on writers and reading, but… “Machado de Assis, Barthes, W.G. Sebald, Borges, Tsvetaeva, and Elizabeth Hardwick.”
I’ve never heard of any of those people. But I’m in a bit of a manic streak right now and reading about a bunch of writers that I’ve never heard of seems like just the ticket. So I put on my brave hat and cracked open the book.
The first essay is called “A Poet’s Prose,” which was written in 1983. It seems to be centered around Russian authors in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, most specifically what makes one a prose writer and another a poet. Her central premise seems to be that one can be a poet and a prose writer, but it is much harder to be a prose writer that writes poetry. It’s almost as if she is elevating a poet to a much higher level of artistry. She also outlines what she sees as a poet’s battle to define oneself as a poet, rather than a prose writer.
What’s difficult for me in essays is that I’ve always read them to regurgitate it for a paper or to have the “right” answer. With this type of essay, I think I should examine it against what I know to be true about poetry. I know nothing about poetry, so there you go. For now, I will have to tuck this into my brain and try to remember it if I ever learn anything about poetry or poets and see how it stands up.
File this one away under “Things to Understand Later,” I suppose.
And besides, who cares? I don’t think it’s fair to pass judgment after reading just one essay, so I won’t. But I can see where the criticism of pretentiousness came from. This seems to be continuing the hierarchical view of reading, readers, and writers. It’s not enough to read books, they must be “good” books. It’s not enough to read “good” books, they must be “works of art.” It’s not enough to read “works of art,” you must read “poetry.”
It’s not enough to write, it must be prose. It’s not enough to write prose, it must be poetry.
Really? I know that I’m a product of my small-town Texas education, but poetry is so difficult for me to grasp. And I know that it’s difficult for a lot of people to grasp. Are we not sophisticated enough readers if we don’t devour and memorize poetry?
I’m going to read at least a few more essays over the next few weeks and then decide whether I want to continue with this collection. No more than one essay a week though, because I’m worried that I might throw the book through the window! I am hoping to warm to her – stay tuned!