Reading Is More Than Seeing: Reading with Virginia Woolf
Writing is more than seeing; of course, it involves all of the senses of perception. It is mind or consciousness inviting mind. In "How Should One Read a Book?" Virginia Woolf wrote:
"Yet few people ask from books what books can
give us. Most commonly we come to books with blurred and divided minds, asking
of fiction that it shall be true, of poetry that it shall be false, of
biography that it shall be flattering, of history that it shall enforce our own
prejudices. If we could banish all such preconceptions when we read, that would
be an admirable beginning. Do not dictate to your author; try to become him. Be
his fellow-worker and accomplice. If you hang back, and reserve and criticise
at first, you are preventing yourself from getting the fullest possible value
from what you read. But if you open your mind as widely as possible, then signs
and hints of almost imperceptible fineness, from the twist and turn of the
first sentences, will bring you into the presence of a human being unlike any
other. Steep yourself in this, acquaint yourself with this, and soon you find
that your author is giving you, or attempting to give you, something far more
definite. The thirty-two chapters of a novel—if we consider how to read a novel
first—are an attempt to make something as formed and controlled as a building:
but words are more impalpable than bricks; reading is a longer and more
complicated process than seeing."
I am intrigued with the thought of being fellow-worker and accomplice. Is reading and writing a complicity between two people who don't know, and don't need to know, each other? Perhaps it is like stitching; the writer has run the thread of his or her spool through the eyes and rings and needle of the sewing machine. The writer is the top stitch and the reader, the bottom stitch, a thread that is grasped and pulled by the top thread. They exist perfectly in a balanced tension on the fabric and together make a seam.
I myself, as writer and reader, am on both sides. Here are Virginia Woolf's thoughts about poetry:
"Thus the desire grows upon us to have done with half-statements and approximations; to cease from searching out the minute shades of human character, to enjoy the greater abstractness, the purer truth of fiction. Thus we create the mood, intense and generalised, unaware of detail, but stressed by some regular, recurrent beat, whose natural expression is poetry; and that is the time to read poetry when we are almost able to write it."
"The impact of poetry is so hard and direct that for the moment there is not other sensations except that of the poem itself. What profound depths we visit then--how sudden and complete is our immersion! There is nothing to catch hold of; nothing to stay us in our flight.... The poet is always contemporary. Our being for the moment is centred and constricted, the sensation begins to spread in wider rings through our minds; remoter senses are reached; these begin to sound and to comment and we are aware of echoes and reflections. The intensity of poetry covers an immense range of emotion."
Virginia Woolf places an amazing charge in the poet's hands. Poetry, the essence of language, is nothing but spirits, liquor brewed of rhythm and sound that alters or heightens our perception. In poetry, in metaphor, one thing becomes something else. The pattern that emerges reaches beyond the poem. The meanings are many and always new.
The mood while reading of a poem is very close to the mood while writing one. In music, the strings of an instrument can set to vibrating other strings. More than composing, it is tremolo and breath on the ear's hammer and anvil; it is the vibration between the instrument and the room and what's inside our body. In poetry, one has the vowel, consonant, breath, and heartbeat -- arranged as if it were music -- for the body of the listener or reader. Writing is more than telling; it creates an experience that circumscribes another.