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This article is taken from PN Review 163, Volume 31 Number 5, May - June 2005.

Reading a Poem Ruth Padel
In memory of Michael Donaghy,

In To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf describes a married couple reading opposite each other. Mr Ramsay is a philosopher. He likes to see his wife as 'not clever, not book-learned at all'. He watches her, wondering if she understands what she is reading. Probably not, he thinks.

Mrs Ramsay is surfing an anthology.

She was climbing backwards, upwards, shoving her way up under petals that curved over so that she only knew, this is white, this is red... swinging herself, zigzagging this way and that, from one line to another as from one branch to another, from one red and white flower to another.


Finally she settles on Shakespeare.

She was climbing up those branches, this way and that, laying hands on one flower and then another. Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose, she read, and so reading she was ascending, she felt, to the summit. How satisfying! How restful! All the odds and ends of the day stuck to this magnet; her mind felt swept, felt clean. And then there it was, suddenly entire shaped in her hands, beautiful and reasonable, clear and complete, the essence sucked out of life and held rounded here - the sonnet.2


This kind of welcoming satisfying movement, a motion into and a yielding to, is part of what a poem is for. Arts-speak today ...


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