Reading With a Beginner’s Mind (Flower Girl, C’est Moi)

City Lights (1931)I found this on my computer and remember writing it a couple years ago but can’t remember why. I’ll just reprint it as-is.

I think what troubles people (like me) more than the thought that some readers rush to judgment is the fear that some (also like me) may enshrine their own biases as aesthetic principles. We’ve ALL read enough that we’ve inevitably acquired a busload of biases. I almost always skip to the next page when I encounter a poem that rhymes. (I’m not proud of it, but I do.) I think of Billy Collins’ remark that he can’t keep reading a poem that has cicadas in it. And he goes on to admit larger biases: he doesn’t like “poems consisting largely of memories,” for example. I may have made a few jokes at the expense of “cicada poems” myself, and those jokes have some truth to them even though it’s obvious that one might find a stunningly great poem chock-full of cicadas.

The point is, we all have biases, whether it’s against something as specific as cicadas, or against writing that’s too raw, or too polished, or too ironic, or too sincere, or too fragmented, or too coherent, or too naked, or too veiled …. What we want in a reader is someone who does their best to put their biases aside when reading our work, just as we want someone on a jury to put their biases aside when a hedge fund broker is on trial (not easy!).

I think what I mean by bias is that our minds often connect something specific (cicada) to an artistic failing (easy epiphanies), because we’ve read more than one work where the two coincide. And sometimes the something specific is pretty general (we distrust all epiphanies because we’ve read too many easy epiphanies). We reject “confessional” writing because we’ve read too much that’s self-indulgent. We reject “experimental” writing because we’ve read too much that’s self-indulgent.

I fear we all have read enough that we pride ourselves on our ability to see beyond mere surface cleverness and “talent” and distinguish the authentic from the false, the real gold from the fool’s. But isn’t what we want in an ideal reader someone who can FORGET all that, forget everything they know and have worked so hard for so many years to learn, and just sit down with a piece of writing and read it with a beginner’s mind? When I was a teenager just starting to read poetry, I didn’t know that Edna St. Vincent Millay was “melodramatic” or (worse) “popular,” or that Wallace Stevens was “stodgy” or E.E. Cummings “old-fashioned.” I just read. I hadn’t yet acquired all the biases I have now. I hadn’t learned that Creeley and Chekhov are cool but Lowell and Lawrence aren’t (or is it the reverse?).

It’s not as if our fears are unfounded that our work will not get a fair reading. We know our fears are well founded if for no other reason than we all know how guilty we so often are ourselves of biased opinions. Of course editors and teachers do it too. We all do it. What chance does our own work have to be anything more than a cosmic “semifinalist” when someone as knowledgeable as Stephen Dobyns classifies even Whitman as a runner-up, a “fine” poet but not a “great” one like Yeats? I’m not saying we should pretend to an impossible objectivity, just try to keep an open mind and be a little humble about the fallibility of our own tastes. As readers we’re all like the flower girl in City Lights, thinking we know Charlie Chaplin when we don’t know a thing, when we knew more when we were blind.