Summer reading: the case for poetry

Summer reading is escape reading, and the archetypal summer reading is done on a blanket at the beach or by a pool while sipping a drink and lapsing in and out of consciousness. Traditional summer reading is light novels, romances and mysteries, generally – novels that permit us to get away from our daily world and that don’t make us think too hard. If one examines these purposes of summer reading, however, one may set aside light novels and pick up a couple of volumes of poetry.

Poetry, particularly short poetry, seems made for summer reading. A lot of poetry offers a faster and more complete escape than a light novel offers, and poetry often speaks to a part of us that is below the surface, a part of us that hides from the kind of analytical thinking from which vacations remove us.

You want to read while half-conscious? A lot of poetry is filled with dreamlike associations our conscious minds don’t usually make. Say you’re easing into a nap while reading a book. You catch yourself reading the same line over and over. Your tired mind dwells on a turn of phrase, or perhaps on a single word. This is disappointing if you’re reading a novel, but it’s perfect for poetry!

Consider the opening lines of “History,” a poem in Gary Soto’s New and Selected Poems, which we review this month and which I’ve read by the pool on two or three occasions this summer:

Grandma lit the stove.
Morning sunlight
Lengthened in spears
Across the linoleum floor.

In four quick lines — two short sentences – the reader knows our story’s time and place, she knows something of the sympathetic tone the poet takes to his subject, and she has some idea of the economic condition grandma lives in. The half-conscious state of the reader’s mind may then help her associate the lighting of the stove with the first light of day – an association that suggests that grandma’s simple action may mean more than it seems to on the surface.

August seems to burn off much of our moist, analytical thinking. What’s left is a slow, thick essence, a pattern of thinking removed from our ordinary world and an analeptic against that world’s ravages. August seems like the perfect month to give over to poetry.