Turn that one over a few times! There’s wisdom in it.
I added a reaction to the comment stream there, and thought it might be worth expanding a bit here.
What I thought is that the reverse may be true as well—that the writers we value mirror our own strengths and shortcomings. But as soon as I typed that notion in the little comment box, doubt crept in, and it’s still with me.
I think of readers who value writers for the strangest of reasons: because they grew up in their town, or because they also drink too much, or because they belong to the same ethnic or social class, or because their politics or stars are in alignment. I’m not exempt, of course. I distinctly remember buying a copy of Louise Glück’s Firstborn because of the back cover photograph, although the power of her poems escaped me until I read The House on Marshland, which sent me back to Firstborn with a heart less swayed by the author’s good looks. Bill Knott, one of our most authentic and inventive poets, exemplifies the opposite case: he seems unable to enjoy Glück’s poetry because she happens to have been born into a wealthy family, while his own orphaned childhood was spent in poverty.
Other readers—I’m usually among them—are always looking for news (content) and/or a view (angle of vision) that had escaped their notice. For such readers, the secondary aspects of writing—the author’s biography and physical attributes, critical reception, copies sold, prizes won, etc.—are irrelevant and can sometimes be a distraction. But age is distraction, it seems to me. As readers we lose the freshness of discovery, the pure ardor, that overtook us in our youth when we read without having to peer through the veil of reputation and without wearing these damned spectacles, whose thick lenses have been calibrated by the books we’ve already read. This is probably the main reason that books we were bowled over by as young readers seem anemic when we revisit them: time spoils them for us.
On the other hand, the years can be kind to defeated readers. I remember attempting The Alexandria Quartet in my mid twenties, only to find myself entirely confused by Justine. In my forties I returned to it, read the Quartet straight through, and not only grasped the details but the breathtaking sweep of the the whole. Somehow, the years had earned me admittance to a once closed world, and the experience was all the more powerful for that fact.
Keeping all this in mind is good for writers and readers. The poem that emerges with fervor and vanishes into the world without producing a comment of any kind may find readers down the road, just as poems we reject may later on surprise us with their power. The poems don’t change; only the writers and readers do. Which I take to be the gist of William Stafford’s poem “A Story that Could Be True“. We have to be careful not to miss our chance to experience our own changes by clinging to momentary judgments that may well, after all, be keeping us from pleasures we’ve already earned.