The Book That Made Me a Reader
Christine Schutt on poetry in prose
At age fourteen I was given a small paperback with a patriotic cover: Contemporary American Poetry, edited by Donald Hall. With two exceptions—Denise Levertov and Adrienne Rich—the poets in the first edition of the anthology were men, and I then knew only one, Donald Justice, whose “Anniversaries” we had read in English class. That poem, with its yowled opening, “Great Leo roared at my birth,” and the following stanzas marking significant birthdays at ages ten, seventeen, and thirty excited me to reading poetry and to seeking out more poems like it, and still later to seeking out fiction that had some measure of poetry. In the Justice poem images stood for the experience of each age and no abstractions fuzzed comprehension. Images used to convey emotions made perfect sense to me. Sadly, “Anniversaries” was not included in this anthology, but Justice’s short poem “On the Death of Friends in Childhood” was included, and it also struck home: “We shall not ever meet them bearded in heaven,/ Nor sunning themselves among the bald of hell. . . .” The heaven for our lost childhood friends is no more than what we remember from that time, schoolyards and games in rings. The discovery that poetry could be so accessible was nothing short of wondrous. Meaning could be found in sound. As conveyed by Robert Creeley, love was a hesitantly expressed but necessarily cleansing experience: “Love, if you love me,/lie next to me./ Be for me, like rain,/ the getting out/ of the tiredness, The fatuousness, the semi-/lust of intentional indifference.” Reading poetry made me a close reader of sentences. If, as I found in so much prose, I could skim for the gist of the scene, I knew I was out of the company I would keep: the surprise makers, the James Wrights of the world. His “Blessing” may start flatly with the facts “off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,” but ends with the cautious consideration “(t)hat if I stepped out of my body I would break/ Into blossom.” So it was that in search of poetry in prose I discovered in my twenties the prose poets, the sentence twisters, the writers wracked with getting every sentence right.
Christine Schutt is the author of two short story collections, Nightwork and A Day, a Night, Another Day, Summer. Her first novel, Florida, was a National Book Award finalist; her second novel, All Souls, a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize. A third novel, Prosperous Friends, was noted in The New Yorker as one of the best books of 2012. Widely anthologized, most recently in New American Stories, Schutt has twice won the O.Henry Short Story Prize and is the recipient of the New York Foundation of the Arts and Guggenheim Fellowships. She has taught fiction in graduate school programs at Columbia University, Syracuse University, Sarah Lawrence, Brooklyn College, and the University of California-Irvine.