Teaser Tuesday: The Use of Poetry

December 8, 2009

It’s probably not too surprising that I’ve been suffering from a minor case of reader’s block ever since I set down The Brothers Karamazov. If I’m not in the mood for that book, then what, exactly, am I in the mood for? I’ve been sampling a bunch of short pieces for the last few days: catching up on my periodicals, reading chapters of different books here and there. This weekend, I decided to try the fiction piece in last week’s New Yorker. It was The Use of Poetry by Ian McEwan.

The story is structured a bit oddly; after learning a small amount of background about a man named Michael Beard, we’re then immediately told a rather in depth story about how he courted his first wife. Here is a teaser section for you about how Michael has passed himself off as a Milton expert in order to gain the affections of his girlfriend.

Going after Maisie was a relentless, highly organized pursuit, and it gave him great satisfaction, and it was a turning point in his development, for he knew that no third-year arts person, however bright, could have passed himself off, after a week’s study, among the undergraduate mathematicians and physicists who were Beard’s colleagues. The traffic was one way. His Milton week made him suspect a monstrous bluff. The reading was a slog, but he encountered nothing that could remotely be construed as an intellectual challenge, nothing on the scale of difficulty he encountered daily in his course.

The story goes on to explain why Michael thinks that studying the arts is so much easier than studying the sciences. It’s quite amusing to see how far off the mark he is. (In my opinion, having studied both subjects extensively, they are both difficult fields, though in different ways.) Of course, we do eventually discover the answer to the question: how will a relationship founded on such lies survive? The full text of the story is available online if you’d like to read it. I’d encourage you to do so. Despite the confusing bit about the character’s family, I found the actual courtship story interesting.

Ian McEwan perplexes me. Last year, I read Atonement and loved it. The book spoke to so many interesting things about history: how small events can change lives, how personal histories are affected by world history, and how our imaginations can (to an extant) change how we remember history. Of course, there was also McEwan’s beautiful prose and engrossing characters. Atonement would have easily made my top-ten-books list last year. Ever since then, I’ve tried and failed to find another book to read by him. After reading the back covers of many of his books, I simply never feel inspired. I know there must be some McEwan fans out there. Given what I loved about Atonement, could you recommend another McEwan for me to read?



  1. Try Enduring Love. The first Ian McEwan book I read was Atonement, which i loved, and the ones I’ve read first I’ve enjoyed much less, apart from Enduring Love which I think is equally good. Interestingly, these two are the ones which have subsequently been made into films.

    • I will have to try Enduring Love. It sounds like a very interesting story–who doesn’t love hot air balloon stories?

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