This comes from Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, which I enjoyed watching last night: “The best moments in reading are when you come across something–a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things–that you’d thought special–particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met. Maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.” I can’t agree that those are the best moments in reading (there is also much to be said for the pleasure of encountering inner and outer realms one has never seen or imagined, for knowledge of the unknown, and for ideas one has never had), but I do relish that hand Bennett speaks of, and it seems to have been the theme of the day yesterday.
In the afternoon I strolled an easy and pleasant ten or twelve blocks from home to Friendly House to attend a “Reading” by local writers and to introduce myself by reading a bit of my own work. About twenty people showed up, which is a good house for a mid-week afternoon, better than I’d expected. A poet named Mari had brought with her the very anthology of poetry, battered and worn, its pages tanned with age, that had been in her family home as she was growing up and had been her own introduction to poetry. She quoted a bit of a Walt Whitman poem in that book, in which Whitman actually says he is reaching out a hand to a future reader, “And that’s us,” Mari said. It was the joy of reading Whitman that started Mari writing, she said, and the three poems she read are dense and rich with images and carefully-chosen words I want to see again and linger over. The problem with hearing poetry, as opposed to reading it, is that you can’t re-read a line you want to savor. David Whyte does a fine job of re-reading his favorite bits when he reads poetry aloud, but most readers don’t do that. I don’t, except when I’m teaching a poem. But I thoroughly enjoyed the energy in the room, the readings, the faces of my new neighbors, and the sense that there is a healthy community of writers here, and I’ve only touched the edge of one part of it.
The sun was shining, the sky was clear, the temperature was pleasant (one of the readers was wearing a short-sleeved Hawaiian shirt), and I introduced myself by saying, “As long as I have lived in Portland, it has never rained.” I’ve been here seventeen days, and the word on Portland, all over the USA, is that it rains here every day. Not so. After the reading I dawdled my way home along Thurman Street, past several coffee houses, a “natural foods” grocery, a bakery, and the local library.
That’s another of Portland’s wonders. It has the best library I’ve had access to since I left the University of Texas at Austin–better than Smith College or any college or city library I’ve been around for years. I got my library card and went online to discover that all the relatively obscure books I’ve been wanting to read for years (the works of Denton Welch, Meridel LeSueur, and odd biographies and novels of the thirties, forties, and fifties, for example) are right here. And the world’s largest independent bookstore, Powell’s, is also here, in case I find among those obscure books any that I feel I must own. All that, and now I have time to read. Living the dream? That would be me, Mina. Yes.
Another word about The History Boys. I wouldn’t have thought I could enjoy a film about adolescent boys in which the “hero,” if there is one, is a romantic old reprobate who occasionally gropes the boys. Only Alan Bennett’s authorship drew me to it, and I’m glad I yielded to my curiosity. I find the screenplay spectacularly well-written and the acting, even that of the boys, extraordinarily fine. I don’t think the script is as brilliant as Bennett’s “Talking Heads” monolog series, but for a mainstream “popular” film, it’s remarkable for its literacy and complexity. The Portland library has everything Bennett has ever written. As Little Orphan Annie said when she got to the mansion of Daddy Warbucks, I think I’m gonna like it here.
Tags: Alan Bennett, Books and Movies, David Whyte, Oregon, Portland