This is part three in a three-part essay by Alan Shapiro.
“I remember arguing with you about John Ashbery, whom I couldn’t stand when I was in my thirties and forties. It might even have been during our first conversation in Paris, when I said I’ve never read a good Ashbery poem, and you answered by telling me a joke the comedian George Burns used to say about his friend and fellow comedian, Jack Benny.”
“That I don’t remember,” Charlie said. “Remind me.”
“Benny said to Burns, ‘In my whole life I’ve never had a good cup of coffee.’ And Burns replied, ‘Then how would you know?’”
Charlie’s vague shape quivered, which I took to be laughter.
“Strangely enough,” I went on when the quivering stopped, “I learned to appreciate Ashbery’s work by reading Philip Larkin, his aesthetic antiself—both shared the same ambivalence about romanticism. They both intellectually distrusted what they remained emotionally attached to, and then found antithetical ways to explore it. My mistake as a young poet-critic, was (1) trusting my own taste way too much, and (2) assuming more often than not that dislike is a virtue in and of itself, and not a deficiency.”
“But even now,” he said, “you surely prefer Larkin to Ashbery.”
“True,” I said, “but that doesn’t mean I think Larkin is objectively the better poet; he’s better for me, given my personality, my education, my current needs and interests. Is Lionel Messi a better athlete than LeBron James? Dumb question. It’s like saying soccer is a better game than basketball. Not comparable. Different game played by different rules. I happen to prefer basketball to soccer, but I would never argue it’s a superior game. But I can tell you in no uncertain terms that LeBron is objectively a better basketball player than I’ve ever been. I know you’ll find that hard to believe.”
“Arrogance and humility,” he said, “that’s how you stay alert and creatively unsettled.”
“I’ll need help with the paradox,” I said. “In what way arrogant, in what way humble?”
“You don’t know everything,” he answered, “and if you think you do, you don’t know anything else. So as not to become an imitator of yourself, you have to stay open and flexible to criticism but without losing your center of gravity; you can’t reject criticism out of hand because it might contain enough justice to be helpful to your aesthetic processes, but it’s crucial to recognize when criticism is merely an enactment of its perpetrator’s obliviousness to the subjectivity of his or her own taste-system, if not to the aesthetic intentions of the poem you’ve written.”
“Guilty as charged,” I said. “At the end of the day we have to be the final arbiters of what we want our work to be.”
“Yes,” he said. “You have the right to acknowledge your efforts to yourself, and to appreciate them according to criteria of judgment in which you really believe. To reward yourself within a range that neither inflates your feeling of self-worth, thereby reducing your objectivity, nor skimps it so much that the essential and probably necessary discrepancy between effort and reward becomes disheartening. There should always be an inherent unwillingness to believe that anything in existence really has need of the limited and conditional gestures of which one is capable. In other words, humility. But we still should be able to experience the ‘soft’ arrogance of believing in and enjoying now and then our own and other people’s appreciation and acknowledgment of what we do (though perhaps less than the degree to which we secretly hope others enjoy our appreciation of them).”
“Since you’ve raised the subject of public recognition,” I said, “I wonder what you think now of all the pecking and scratching poets do for the few crumbs of attention the culture deigns to throw their way. Some years ago, when I complained to you about who got some prize or other, you quoted something Robert Pinsky had told you when you had made a similar complaint to him.”
“Oh, yes, I remember.” Charlie smiled. “Robert was quoting something Cato the Elder said, when asked if he was angry that some other Roman (and not he) had been honored with a monument. Cato replied,‘I would rather people ask why I hadn’t been honored with a monument than why I had.’ Listen, fellowships and awards are wonderful . . .”
“Except when other people get them,” I interrupted.
“But the thing is,” he continued, “you can’t let the seductiveness of possible success contaminate your sense of purpose. The illusion of success is stability, dependability, durability . . .”
“Like cotton candy,” I said. “Looks ample till you put it in your mouth, then it dissolves into nothing.”
“That illusion,” he went on, “is always in negative relation to the uncertainties of artistic labor, and to existence itself. Too great an attachment to success makes one vulnerable to its other properties, capriciousness, flux, and unpredictability.”
“Interesting,” I said. “That must be why the truly manic poetry publicity hounds seem so insecure, distracted, unctuous, wholly at the mercy of others, needing constant reassurance.”
“What we call ambition is too much credulity toward the first—success as stability—and an inadequate appreciation of the second, success as caprice, as flux, and of the fact that in ongoing artistic striving, rewards must always be considered fleeting, finally symbolic.”
“The problem of publishing a poem in the New Yorker,” I said, “is that next week someone else will have a poem in the New Yorker, and someone else the week after that, and in the blink of an eye your poem is sitting in a dentist’s waiting room at the bottom of a stack of old unread New Yorkers, mixed in with ancient issues of Time, Newsweek, Guns and Ammo, Better Homes and Gardens, Wired, and People.”
“We’re back to the heat death of the universe, I see!”
“Very funny,” I said.
“Upstairs,” Charlie said, smiling, pleased with himself, “in the old Shakespeare and Company Bookstore in Paris, there used to be a room of only Pulitzer Prize–winning books, from the inception of the award to the present day. It was a chastening experience to stand there looking at the titles of books I’d never heard of, that no one had read in years and probably never would again, but that in this or that year was the book everyone couldn’t put down.”
“And you tease me,” I said, “for my heat death obsession!”
“That scrabbling for attention,” he said, “if not constrained, or tempered, leads to ludicrous, even grotesque forms of envy.”
“Friend of mine,” I said, “told me a story about a colleague of his, a fellow writer whom he bumped into in their department’s mail room; the colleague was standing in front of his mailbox, holding a letter he’d just opened. The friend asked him how he was doing.
“‘Not so well,’ he said, holding up the letter. ‘I just found out I didn’t get an NEA Fellowship.’”
“‘Yeah, bummer, dude. I didn’t either,’ my friend said.”
“‘No, you don’t understand,’ the colleague snapped back. ‘I didn’t get an NEA!’”
Charlie laughed again: “Remember what I said earlier about our responsibility as poets to affirm and not despair? Forget that shit. We’re doomed.”
“But seriously,” I said. “What did you do to keep envy like that from poisoning your life?”
“I didn’t pretend I didn’t feel it,” he answered. “I let the feeling in all its pettiness float up into consciousness, and then I simply let it float away. It’s easy to commiserate with someone else’s failure; it hard to commiserate with someone else’s success. But in crucial ways you have to learn to do so. You’ll end up very lonely otherwise. Besides, with the approaching heat death of the universe, a big review, book prize or fellowship doesn’t mean anything . . .”
“Except to everyone,” I added.
“It’s an unavoidable component of ambition that younger poets want to know what their contemporaries are doing, to measure themselves against the best of what’s being done and talked about . . .”
“True enough,” I said, “though it often looks like jumping into the still warm yet empty bed of fashion. Who’s up, who’s down. Who’s the poet du jour.”
“I know,” Charlie said. “But let’s not kid ourselves. We all do it. We all did it. That kind of anxious rubbernecking to see who is getting what is natural, even necessary, when we’re starting out. Besides, wouldn’t it be silly to specify just how much of a poet’s reading should be contemporary and how much from the enormous resource of the many centuries of poetry in English and in translation? That said, I still think that too much reading of those whose language and vision is of necessity so close to one’s own can seem to choke the world with poems all cloning each other’s very claims to authenticity and difference.”
“What’s that other George Burns quip?” I asked.
“Don’t recall,” Charlie said.
“The secret of life is to be true to yourself, and if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”
“One more point,” he said. “It seems to me, no matter what ethnicity is to the left of the hyphen—African-American, Chinese-American, Mexican-American—if you write in English, the language belongs to you as much as to anyone (in addition, of course, to whatever other languages you inherit or acquire), its history is your history, your linguistic/poetic DNA, all of it, going back to its Indo-European beginnings; so, sooner or later, why not sooner, you should learn all you can about it, if for no other reason than to make the language more fully responsive to what’s peculiar to your own experience of it. The more deeply your personal roots are nourished by that impersonal linguistic soil, the more distinctly higher and farther away from it they’ll be able to grow.”
“I tell you, Charlie, in the last few years I’ve never enjoyed writing more than I do now, and I’ve also never felt more irrelevant.”
“Not a surprise,” he said. “That was one of the values for me of living in France so many years—the feeling of irrelevance I got from solitude. Which was not unlike the feeling I got from falling ill.”
“Were there earlier times in your life when you felt as creatively irrelevant?”
“Yes,” he said, leaning forward, and something like sunlight on the wall behind him brightened through him and filled the little chamber with a coppery glow. “A few years after I finished school, when I first read Robert Lowell’s Imitations. It arrived near the middle of that golden age of translation that transformed American and English poetry in the late 1950s and early 1960s. There seemed in those days to be an endless supply of unfamiliar and crucial poems being delivered to us across language barriers; many became immediately important to me, and some remain fiercely, indispensably so, but there was much that went beyond the sheer quality of the poems I found from other languages.”
“What do you think that was?” I asked.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “English literature is certainly one of the richest in the world in the number of great poets and great poems; we have somehow managed since the Renaissance to produce astonishing poets in just about every period of our history. I could very well have spent my life reading nothing but English poets and being gratifyingly recompensed, but I was searching for something then that, without my ever quite understanding it, had less to do with the greatness of the poems themselves than with quite other matters.
‘Somehow, many of the poets I read in translation seemed to offer clues to my own poetic identity in a way that very few American or English poets did. Of course, I labored to digest my own tradition, but though the poets of that tradition would ultimately have to be models for much of my own work, in those starting-out days, they were my masters only in the largest sense: I was learning from them essential matters of language and technique. What the poets from other cultures offered were varieties of what I’ll call poetical-spiritual identities, ways of conceiving of myself in poetry that weren’t available to me from the poets in English, either because they were too far removed from me historically, or because the model they offered was too predetermined, too much a part of a culture I was intimidated by, and felt only marginally part of.”
“Did this have something to do with being Jewish? For me, it certainly did. When I started out, I was learning from Christian poets whose poems were steeped in traditions and customs alien to me, even hostile. At least that’s how it felt at the time. As I matured that changed. I also grew away from Judaism.”
“Me too,” Charlie said. “There would come a time later on when I could conceive of myself as being in a poetic cosmos with the great English masters, perhaps because my own poetic identity had firmed, but back then, I needed poets who arrived on my desk without my having any literary or cultural preconceptions about them: they were, in a sense, as naked as I was, as unencumbered, in some odd way as vulnerable. They were merely the sum of the matter of their poems, and their presence in the universe of my poetic attention seemed as contingent as my own.”
“Which of course,” I said, “is another reason why young poets need to read the work of their contemporaries.”
“Yes,” Charlie said, “but I’m talking about poets from other languages, few of whom were in fact my contemporaries, though I guess in their unencumberedness they didn’t seem that much older. I was particularly taken then with the use of nonrational modes of association and figuration, discoveries that had been made in delightful, if rather whimsical embodiments by the French Surrealists, but which were given a moral and metaphysical edginess, especially by the Spanish and Latin American poets of the 1930s, Federico García Lorca, Miguel Hernández Gilabert, César Abraham Vallejo Mendoza, and, a little later, Pablo Neruda.
“Then came to my hand Lowell’s Imitations, and it was that book which brought its own unique revelation, and released something in me I hadn’t realized had been keeping me from moving ahead in my own work. It wasn’t that the book ‘influenced’ me; what happened was much fiercer than that.”
“What was it you found so powerful?”
“Well, in those days I didn’t know or care what in the book inspired me, though now I suspect it mostly had to do with the audacity with which Lowell approached and poached on and cannibalized so many sacrosanct canonical poets, and made their work so thoroughly his own.”
“Not unlike what Pound did in his translations,” I said.
“When I became a translator myself,” Charlie said, “and a teacher of translation, I sometimes disapproved of much of what Lowell perpetrated on the poems, the distortions, the amputations, the mutations. Other times, when I’d come back to the book, I’d find myself rapt in it completely again.
“But in those early days, when I saw what Lowell had dared to do, the audacity with which he had turned poems by everyone from Victor Hugo to Eugenio Montale to Rainer Maria Rilke to Boris Pasternak into grist for his own poetic identity, I had no reservations at all, no doubt: Imitations was a book I needed, the book that, without even knowing it, I’d longed for. What Lowell had done seemed to strip away the last of the intimidating barrier of sanctity that proscribed the world of poetry from me.”
“Gave someone,” I interrupted, “maybe too humble in the presence of great art the arrogance he needed to write?”
“Yes,” Charlie said, as a cloud widened in the stone sky and the chamber darkened. “I always felt I’d arrived too late to poetry to be a real poet, and besides I never seemed to feel anything like ‘inspiration’ other poets spoke of; my composing always felt more laborious, more dogged, more willed than they made it sound.”
“Thing about inspiration,” I said, “for me at least, it’s something you’re only aware of after the fact, once it’s happened. While you’re inside it, you’re unaware of it, you are it, or you’re of it so much you’re hardly there at all. If you think, wow, I’m really inspired right now, you probably aren’t.”
“In any event,” Charlie continued, “how could I ever hope to place myself among those geniuses? Lowell was a member of that Parnassus, clearly, but he had done something I’d been taught should not be done—he had dared to usurp the inspirations of other poets, modifying them, altering, hacking at them, really, making them his own in a way I could never have conceived possible. It was his impertinence, his temerity, more than anything he did with the individual poems that made the book mean so much to me: he brought poetry down to the earth on which I actually lived.”
“To me,” I said, “what’s so interesting in all this, which goes back to what we were saying about tradition and individual talent, is the way his chutzpah to go his own way and do his own thing depended on poems already in existence. It needed the past to demonstrate his freedom from the past. He needed to imitate what came before him to embody what was uniquely his. Tradition is like meter, a pattern whose value is the felt experience of variation, surprise, and difference it helps make possible. The enemy of tradition isn’t change but predictability.”
“Yes,” Charlie said, “I loved the arrogance that enabled Lowell to attach those poetic souls to his soul. And I loved the humility that made him need to do so. That’s what so enfranchised me, and was so crucial to my perception of my own possible place in the world of poetry.”
The sky behind Charlie was cloudless now. And birdless. The trees, too, seemed to fade into the nonlight of the chamber, which for all its snugness still somehow held the sensation of open spaces and borderless dimensions. Without anything to reflect off, light was featureless. Charlie, too, was harder to discern, like smoke or steam dispersing but not yet entirely dispersed.
“Charlie,” I said, as if to call him back, “are you a hedgehog or a fox?”
“You know,” I said, “as in Archilochus’s parable, ‘the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing’—which are you?”
“I may be dead,” he said, “but I’m not a mind reader. What do you mean?”
“Hedgehogs see everything in terms of one big idea. Foxes see everything in terms of particulars. The hedgehog mind is prone to extreme positions, preferring intensity and purity, consistency and predictability over range and balance. The fox, in contrast, represents a more inclusive, flexible, mongrel mode of thinking and feeling—the fox prizes expediency and compromise; it adapts and adjusts to changing circumstances. Like the crow in certain Native American traditions, the fox is a trickster, a shape-shifter, defined by wiliness and play, practicality and compromise, whereas the hedgehog is an absolutist, a reductionist, a purist; he asserts, imposes, and commands, while the fox temporizes, devises, and accommodates. If the Ur-hedgehog in Western literature is Achilles in his great, passionate, uncompromising outrage and blood lust, the Ur-fox is Odysseus, the man of many ways.
“You got all that from that little Archilochus fragment?”
“And Isaiah Berlin,” I said, “his essay on Tolstoy. I’m just curious, though, which one appeals more to you?”
“Silly question,” he said, “if you mean now, since death is kind of the ultimate hedgehog, the last big idea, don’t you think?”
“No,” I said. “Of course, I don’t mean now, I mean during your life, I mean in your poetry. In what you valued most on the page. What would you say if we applied these categories metaphorically, not to individual poets, necessarily, but to formal choices, to ways of putting poems together and even to certain kinds of mental forms and structures that allow for, if not impose or make possible, a hedgehog monolithic intensity, or a wily foxlike flexibility. For instance, in my view the limerick as a form is more hedgehog than fox; it’s really good for one thing and one thing only, being funny. How far do you think Milton would have gotten if he had chosen that anapestic straitjacket for Paradise Lost (‘Of the first disobedience of man, / of Adam and Eve is my plan, / how the fruit God forbid them / to eat then undid them, / sing heavenly muse if you can’)?”
“That’s very funny,” Charlie said. “Did you just make that up right now?”
“Yes,” I lied. “Justifying God’s ways to man requires a more elastic, flexible, accommodating form, a form that isn’t bound by or limited to one kind of tone or style of thinking and feeling. Blank verse, in its range and suppleness, is foxlike, at least in Milton’s hands.”
“Okay,” Charlie said. “I suppose in that sense you could say my early work was a product of a hedgehog imagination, an imagination given over to one big, passionate urgency of change, whereas my later work had a more foxlike variability.”
“Yes and no,” I said. “The imperative that poetry be an agent of moral change is just as present in the later poems, but it’s less assertive, less direct. What makes it less overt, I think is the exercise of a more inclusive and agile sense of form. The stylistic change, or change in artifice, is both an effect and cause of a change of consciousness.”
“Well, okay,” Charlie said, “but the problem is and was for me, as we’ve already talked about, that the aesthetic and the psychosocial, poetic, and moral just can’t be disentangled. When I began to write in long lines, I was trying to organize thoughts, generate thoughts. I was interested in what the line could do for me. The formal demands boiled down to this: I was trying to save my life. My life was spinning out of control; I felt as though I had so much energy that unless I found some way to deal with it, I was going to destroy myself and everyone around me like a runaway engine. I stumbled onto the long line in a poem I was writing about going crazy, or thinking I was going crazy. I wasn’t going crazy in the way the poem said I was, but probably in another way that I didn’t understand, but it was amazing really to be able to write about it. I could write about it now, as I couldn’t before, because I had space to write in (to writhe in?). It was as though new space meant there was more of me that would fit into the line. As though the line were a larger picture frame: I couldn’t do the miniatures I’d been up to, even if I did a series of them, altarpieces with predella and side panels. I hadn’t been using enough of myself, and here I was. I went rushing into it. Into my line, once I realized what it was, and I felt saved!”
“Saved?” I asked.
“Well, not really,” he said, “but something was happening that compelled me. It had to do with the freedom to face reality in ways I hadn’t before. That freedom was of the essence, so I wasn’t going to trouble myself about too many formal demands. I moved in the waves the line made, these were the poems of With Ignorance. What was most compelling to me was what the line would hold, rather than the nature of the line itself.
“A new music,” I said, “and all you wanted to do or could do was play it or let it play you without overthinking?”
“Something like that,” he said. “The anthropologist Clifford Geertz has a term I found and still find useful: 'thick description,' by which he means description that goes beyond the satisfaction of a methodological preconception. That’s what the line was offering me then, a way to break the preconceptions and to thicken things. I think it was only when I broke through to a more expansive way of writing made possible by the long line that I realized how constrained I’d been by the conventions of expression that I’d inherited and learned to use.”
“So,” I said, “the early poems had a kind of hedgehog exclusivity about them?”
“I just felt I was leaving too much of myself out in the poetry I’d been writing; my inner life, my response to the world, was so much more complex than what I’d been honing myself down to, to fit into the poems. I once heard my mature work characterized as 'the act of the mind in meditation,' and that for me is a good description of what the poems in longer lines evolved to, what I’d unconsciously felt was feasible for them. Perhaps just as important was the fact that the longer lines revealed cadences of thought and observation that weren’t available to me before I began to use them.”
“For me, though,” I felt compelled to add, “the change in style between I Am the Bitter Name and With Ignorance is so extreme, so absolute, despite the continuity, it’s almost like the early and later work are the work of two completely different poets, two completely different people. And as you suggested earlier, it’s not a matter of changing from no rhetoric to rhetorical finesse, from immediacy to formal control, but from one kind of artifice to another, from an artifice of exclusion, which leaves out as much as possible in the name of authenticity or purity of feeling, to an artifice of skeptical, meditative exactitude and inclusion.”
“All writing,” he said, “is in a sense making and unmaking the self.”
“Yeah,” I said, “but the differences in your case are monumental. The change is marked, as you say, not only by a turn from short lines to the long line you’re famous for, but also and more crucially by a turn to the rhetorical, stylistic, and syntactic complications the longer line allows. To go back to what I said about you and Whitman, you went from syntax that’s primarily paratactic and appositively organized (like Whitman’s), that primarily though not exclusively presents and emotes, that seeks above all else lyric intensity, anger, and outrage, to hypotactic syntax that thinks as well as feels, that explicitly expresses or investigates relationships among things, as opposed to merely listing, juxtaposing, or presenting things implicitly related, a syntax that can think about what it’s feeling and feel the consequences of its thought, or evoke a memory or tell a story and at the same time meditate on the nature of memory or storytelling. It’s as though you traded in a hedgehog singleness of tone, or purity of style, for the inclusive, various, nuanced, unpredictable colorations of the fox.”
“But there are continuities, too, don’t you think?”
“Sure,” I said. “What persists early and late is anger and outrage at social injustice; what evolves is a mode of expression supple enough to explore that anger and outrage or to relate it to a wide array of other states of feeling in an equally wide array of circumstances and occasions. I know there’s no way of definitively describing this transformation your work underwent, except to say that something happened to you that was more spiritual than literary, a kind of Saul becoming Paul conversion—”
“Maybe it was Catherine,” Charlie said wistfully. “Maybe she happened to me.”
“I find that so interesting,” I said, leaning forward. “Life changing art changing life in a kind of never-ending feedback loop. Without Catherine, maybe there’s no new poetry, no new Charlie, and maybe, too, as you said earlier—in the same way that the new style creates new possibilities of thinking and feeling, without the new poetry and kind of person that poetry made room for or helped bring into being, there would have been no Catherine, you maybe wouldn’t have been open to the possibility of Catherine.”
“More likely,” he said, leaning back into the wall, “she wouldn’t have been open or available to the possibility of me. I can’t imagine not being so to her, not ever, early or late. Funny thing is, the line carried for me an erotic energy not unlike what I felt for Catherine.”
“How so?” I asked.
“Lines of poetry,” he said, more to himself than to me, “could always excite me in a way that had nothing to do with ideas, cosmologies, or metaphysics; a line of verse pleased me the way Catherine’s body did. Just as I saw her body thousands of times and every time gasped to watch her undress, so the lines of poetry I loved for just as many years, even longer in some cases, would make me gasp when I’d recite them. And just as the gasp in relation to Catherine entailed so much more than sexual attraction, I loved lines of verse not because of any meaning or message they contained, but simply because of their existence, that they were there, physically in the world, with me, and that when I started out, I had no idea there would be such splendors that would share the world with me.”
I said, not knowing why, “‘They flee from me that sometime did me seek . . .’”
And Charlie responded, “‘I heard a fly buzz when I died . . .’ ‘The expense of spirit in a waste of shame . . .’”
The lines were there and not there in the air between us, glowing in the nonlight.
“Even now, even here,” Charlie said, “I say those lines, and my heart, if I still had one, leaps, it swells with pride at what my poet brothers and sisters have accomplished. Amazing to think such things could be done in the world, with the frail and chancy and fugitive airs of language. ‘When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed . . .’ ‘We too had many pretty toys when young.’”
“Odd,” I said, “isn’t it, how we keep coming up with first lines.”
"But the first line,” Charlie enthused, "is the sensation somehow of the whole poem; I scent the rest of it as I say the line; I feel it, in all its ligaments and filaments, tensing to greet me; it welcomes me like James Wright’s kindly mare: ‘She has come . . .’ With the recitation of one line of the poem, I enter the atmosphere of the poem (‘The trees are in their autumn beauty . . .’). I enter the living room, the space, of the poet. ‘Although it is a cold evening . . .’ And then I enter the meaning-system, the symbol-systems, the thought patterns, the wisdom worlds of the poet (‘Drink and be whole again beyond confusion’). But even if I never entered those temples of deeper significance, I don’t think it would really matter. This might be the opposite of the way I ordinarily think of things: the deeper significance exists as an excuse, a reason, a justification, but all I really want to do is plunge myself again in those lines, the way those lines begin, the way they end, the wonderful enjambment, wonderful syntactical closure.”
“It seems like what you’re saying is that meaning, of course, is important, but in those moments when the poem comes fully alive inside us, or when it’s activated by the line, our voices speak meaning, which has so totally fused with music that the vitality and the artifice become different facets of a single diamond. In fusing, they each become something other—the music means and the meaning sings. ‘These flowery waters and these watery flowers . . .’”
“It’s like what you were just saying about inspiration,” Charlie said. “When you’re in the throes of it, you’re totally unaware of it, there’s no you, no inspiration, just some weird reciprocal alchemy producing this third thing into which both have disappeared. We just don’t have a critical vocabulary that’s fluid and nuanced enough to capture these quantum transformations. These exchanges feel so overdetermined and elusive that it makes the hedgehog/fox dichotomy we began with seem ham-handed, not just a tad too neat.”
“Probably so,” I said. “It’s just a jumping-off point, a kind of measure in relation to which we can think about familiar things in a new way.”
“I just think,” Charlie continued, “the distinction or opposition you’re making, and which to some extent I agree with, simplifies and thus distorts what it’s describing. The fact is, I was never all hedgehog or all fox, early or late. Maybe no writer worth their salt is. While I do think a hedgehog consistency of manner (one big stylistic idea) defines and limits my early work, what makes my best work vital, if I can say that, early as well as late, is the way both tendencies persist in varying degrees, pushing and pulling on every level against each other. If the foxlike love of particulars and meditative agility distinguishes what you’d call my mature imagination and practice, I hope you still feel the continuing presence of, or desire for, an absolute or systematic understanding of experience, what I often called comprehensiveness. Just to complicate things a little further in the interests of truth, maybe it’s a manifestation of the foxlike nature of my best poems that they are never purely foxlike.”
“That,” I said, “is a pure Charlie formulation. And insofar as it is (to give the notion one more paradoxical twist), it’s also an expression of your hedgehog love of consistency. It’s easy to see how your work changed or to describe the effects of the change, but the change itself, I think, is inherently mysterious, it isn’t something one consciously wills.”
“And,” Charlie said, “just to add another layer of complication, nor is such change something that happens totally independent of the will. You can sit and struggle with a poem for a year or five years, ten years or more, and as you work, you’re fully aware that every syllable of the poem is contingent in a very radical sense, every choice emerges out of random thoughts and feelings, but once you write a word down, you limit the possibilities for the next word, and the next; to do this is not to do that, every inclusion excludes, every formal decision haphazardly creates the conditions for the next one, and thus limits or constrains and in doing so maybe imbues the choice that follows with a feeling or aura of inevitability, and through this random, hit-and-miss micro-stumble forward, the poem gradually comes into being, the feeling of inevitability itself arises serendipitously, out of the blue, it seems, even though you’ve been brooding on it, living with it for years, and somehow in that final crystallization, which for all the accidents involved, still feels predestined, it adds something to your mind, it becomes an event and a presence in its final form that somehow enlarges your consciousness. I used to spend hours and hours in my study, just—I would not call it thinking exactly—but sort of feeling, and following the flow of feeling through my consciousness.”
“So it seems what you’re saying is, we do and we don’t know what we’re doing when we write.”
“Seems absurd,” he said, “on the face of it: isn’t our education, and not only our formal education but the self-making, poet-making, which is our life’s project, devoted precisely to teaching us that we should know how to do what we set out to? Yet as we’ve discussed, much of the best work produced by artists (maybe everyone else, too) is accomplished by small or larger leaps into the obscurity out past our intentions.”
“So,” I said, “looks like we’ve come back to inspiration, which you said earlier you seldom experienced.”
“Not exactly,” he said. “My experience of it wasn’t conventional, didn’t exclude labor, even an agonizing exercise of will. It isn’t rational. And as you remarked, while it is happening it’s not there, or you can’t be aware of it being there, because the whole consciousness is taken by its activity—in a certain way you aren’t there yourself, there’s just the poem being enacted by you and, even more mysteriously, for you. The hardest part is that inspiration is neither something that can be willed, nor something you can’t wait around for. If you try too hard to bring it about, to force it, but don’t succeed, which is what usually happens, the outcome can be impatience and frustration, states of mind not at all conducive to creation. Yet if you sit back and wait too long, it may well never come to pass at all. At the end, all one can really do is prepare a field for the inspiration to occur. This is what’s troubling, even painful, about the whole business: you need inspiration, it’s absolutely essential, but you can’t schedule, or count on it, or be sure it’s ever going to happen, or happen again.”
“Kind of like sex in marriage,” I said.
“Speak for yourself,” he shot back.
“Just kidding,” I said.
“Right,” he muttered. “Sure, whatever you say. Anyway, the fact that inspiration is mercurial and capricious but can’t be done without is totally contrary to the way we’re taught to believe we should do anything, methodically, by deciding to do it, then figuring out how, then making it happen. Implied in this is the notion that learning to do what you want to do happens systematically, in purposeful unidirectional increments; that we grope toward something, find it untenable, try something else that works, and along the way draw conclusions, so that next time we can skip the inessential rest.”
“Hedgehoglike,” I said.
“Hedgehoglike,” he repeated. “We learn, in other words, that the proper way to accomplish anything, especially in art, is by developing principles of procedure, which we call 'craft,' and working from them rather than from trial and error. In my experience, though, this isn’t an accurate description of the whole unlikely process: anything like a principle I might learn about composition immediately becomes something I no longer have to think about, so I always feel as though I’m working from trial and error . . .”
“Foxlike,” I said.
“Foxlike,” he repeated. “I’m always doing what I don’t know how to do, always with a sense of blundering toward where I’m trying to go, and I’m always a little surprised if or when I do get there. For a long time I suffered, and still could occasionally right up to the end of my life, from the feeling that I must be doing this all wrong, because if I have to explain, even to myself, what I’ve done when I’ve written something I find satisfactory, I never really can. Toward the end, I realized that one of the rewards of the labor of poetry was reading something with my name on it that pleased me and thinking, how did that happen? Young poets, or the young poet I was, tend not to know this, and can become discouraged, even give up. Older poets, by whom again I mean me, can tend when facing the page to forget it, too, and become discouraged, though if we’re lucky, we learn that however inspiration happens, all prosaic signs of the self to the contrary, it may happen again, so we slog on. That ‘may’ is the necessary faith of art, and our most essential right.”
“So,” I said, “if you were to write a letter to a young poet on how to keep going in the face of all of this not knowing, thrashing about in unknowables, to return to the beginning of our conversation, what would you say?”
“Let’s say I’m writing to you.”
“I’m not a young poet anymore.”
“Well,” he said, “you’re younger than I am, and now you’re my ‘audient,’ so you’ll have to do. He turned back to the wall, where these words were scrolling up:
I should begin by admitting to you that sometimes it’s hard to understand how anyone decides to become a poet, and then continues at it. Aside from the inherent arduousness of learning any art, there is always so much going on in the world more pressing than the composition of poetry; injustice, and inequality, and poverty, and war. Our moment seems especially fraught, because along with all of us, the very climate of our earth has been so degraded that we have to fear for the future of humanity in a way we never had to before. How resolve to spend one’s life sitting along in a room, grappling with the best way to put one word next to another?
Yet, if you’re like other young poets I’ve met, you’re already aware of this, and couldn’t care less, because you know that the writing of poetry isn’t a choice at all, it’s something you find yourself doing, and then know, no matter how inexperienced you might be, that you are already in poetry, already of it, that the question isn’t so much whether there’s anything more worthwhile: poetry is something you just can’t not do.
I should warn you, though, that this isn’t necessarily a sentiment you’ll always be able to count on. Because there will be times—you can be certain of this—when the complications that are a part of trying to make a life as a poet will make the whole undertaking appear to be a terrible mistake, and you’ll find yourself thinking there must be something else that might better reward your efforts. Indeed, some poets do release themselves from poetry; they become novelists, or teachers, or accountants (happy accountants!) and this can happen to poets who are still surprisingly young.
I should also say that I don’t think the decision to abandon poetry has to do with how much talent one thinks one has or doesn’t have or how much dedication, confidence; it’s rather something more like a spiritual crisis, a loss of faith in the belief that poetry has a value greater than the pleasure of doing it. Surely that pleasure is undeniable; the making of something from nothing is a delight, an ecstasy nearly, unlike anything else. But the labor of composing poems is very real, too, and the work paradoxically becomes more rather than less demanding as time passes. Because each lesson one learns in the exercise of the craft, each insight into the complexities and depths one makes when one studies the great poems of the past, as one must, becomes yet another responsibility, another claim on one’s devotion.
So, the conviction that poetry has significance beyond its practice is absolutely essential, yet this conviction isn’t at all self-evident. Perhaps at some point we have to ask what it is that draws us to poetry in the first place. Is it the way composing poems allows us to discover complex realms in ourselves we hadn’t suspected were there? Or is it rather the seductiveness of the music we come to realize is potential in language, a music that, though its resources seem limited, is as rich as any symphony, because it is a music of meaning as well as sound? The answer, of course, is both, because what stirs us in poetry, what excites us most profoundly about it, and attaches us to it, is that it makes such dichotomies unnecessary: in poetry content and form are fused, and emotion and thought, and song and sense. That might be, no, it surely is, poetry’s essential function: to unify, and, finally, to heal.
Human beings experience ourselves as assemblages, almost collages, of the personal and the sensual, the intellectual and spiritual. We are at once philosophers, aestheticians, sociologists, and political theorists; we are myth makers, and truth tellers; there is violence in us, which is one evolutionary inheritance, but also that altruism which is the legacy of our spiritual history; and what’s more, we are both participants in and observers of our lives. Poetry’s greatness is that it is the most effective means we have of bringing together these apparently disparate constituents of ourselves. Because to be real, poetry must be true, and because it also must deal unconditionally with the reality of a single person’s experience, it entails by definition a bringing together of those selves in ourselves. Poetry makes us more whole than we thought we could be.
And, strangely enough, for a poem to do this doesn’t depend on the grandeur of its subject or theme. Poems can be self-consciously dedicated to moral conflict; they can delve into that complex swarm within us out of which our ethical sensibilities and obligations arise, and this will give them an admirable weight, like Dante’s work, or Milton’s, or Baudelaire’s. But whether poems do this or not doesn’t determine their ultimate merit: all poems exist in the tension between the immateriality of consciousness and language, and the brute physical facts of reality, and so all poems, or all poems that maintain their commitment to truth and aren’t merely empty drums beaten to garner applause, resolve this tension, because they speak both to and out of the self. A poem can seem to be about nothing at all—a clever conceit about lost love in a sonnet by Pierre Ronsard, a meditation on sensual delight in an ode of John Keats—and yet, if it is authentic, it will evoke this essential unity in us, and will help us realize that we are not the poor fragmented things we can seem to be. Poetry also teaches us that our social organizations aren’t merely groupings of other fractured beings; at the end, it demonstrates that the plural is merely a convention for the human spirit. The truth is that we are born and live and die one by one, and poetry, because it speaks at once to the self of the poet and that of the reader, links the experience of one single soul to another, and in doing so enlarges both. That is what poetry is about, that is what enables us to remain in that room by ourselves, and struggle with language and form, and know that despite the pain of being able to alleviate so little human pain, we are doing what we should be, what we must.
The last traces of Charlie’s chalky shape still hovered faintly there before me, the sky behind him dimming.
“Charlie,” I said. “Did I tell you I’ll be one of the speakers at your memorial service?”
“I assumed you would be,” he said. “Any idea what you plan to say?”
“Any suggestions?” I asked.
“Something to do with poetry and friendship,” he said.
“How about: ‘Say where man’s glory most begins and ends: / And say my glory was I had such friends.’”
“A little too Yeatsian,” he said, “for both of us. It’ll come to you. Anyway, it wouldn’t be seemly for me to tell you what to say.”
“It’s next month,” I said. “And I still haven’t got a clue.”
“You’ll figure it out,” he said. “Just don’t read one of your own poems, okay? It’s my memorial, remember, not yours!”
“And I don’t really have any funny stories about you to tell. It’s not like we went rock climbing together, or camped.”
“What we mostly did,” Charlie said warmly, “maybe all we did, was show each other poems and talk about them.”
“Or talk about other people’s poems,” I added.
“We never stopped writing,” he said, “and we never stopped talking. As friendships go, that’s pretty good.”
“One could do worse,” I said.
For a long moment neither of us spoke.
Then, as he often did on the phone, abruptly, almost brusquely, Charlie said, “Okay, well, it’s getting late.”
“And chilly,” I said.
“That, I wouldn’t know,” he said, “but if you stay much longer, you’ll end up stuck in here, like me. I think we’ve just about said all we need to say, at least for now.”
“What do you mean, at least for now?”
He said, “You probably aren’t aware of this, but I’m in conversation now with everyone alive I’ve ever loved—Catherine, Jed, Jessie, all my friends—each has their own chamber unique to their own history with me, where we still from time to time, as the need arises, get together to tie up loose ends, work through unfinished business, or just schmooze. I’m in a thousand different places even while I’m here with you.”
“Okay, then, till next time,” I said, a little flustered at the idea of a thousand Charlies.
“I’m wondering, though,” I said, not quite ready for this conversation to be over, “if there was one poem to carry with you back into the underworld, which one would it be?”
“By me or someone else?”
“By you, of course,” I said. “Which one of yours best expresses what living was, or meant, or felt like, now that it’s over.”
“It’s a prose poem,” he said, “something I wrote in my last year, during a 'partial remission.' All through those last months I existed in a kind of preposthumous Bardo that made every moment preciously and unbearably insubstantial. Not unlike what I imagine I would feel now, if I could feel anything. It’s called 'Except.'”
As he began to recite it, I closed my eyes:
One glorious late spring morning a week or so ago. The sun was warm without being oppressively hot, and fragrant breezes arrived unpredictably from several directions to where I was sitting on our porch. When I closed my eyes, I had a vivid recollection, a reliving really, of being in Greece again, on the island of Patmos, when Catherine and I first met, so long ago, when I would sit on the terrace of our tiny house, discreet tongues of waves, so long ago reaching just below me onto the beach we looked out over, leaf sounds from a row of cypresses behind me tracing and seeming to amplify the movements of the light wind; Catherine who I knew would soon come out to join me, still asleep in the bedroom the open window of which was just behind me.
In some inexplicable way, every sound I was hearing now, outside our house here, melded with another sound I’d have registered then, not in its actual definition or quality, but in the way each was so isolated from any other, and so distinct—a chirping bird streaking overhead, incomprehensible voices from a neighbor’s yard, the breeze lightly shuffling the leaves on the hawthorn tree hanging over the porch rail.
A few days before this, the doctor had told me that I’m having an “above-average partial remission.” I didn’t and don’t know quite what that means, and I didn’t experience any great relief. I think I must have already known something positive was happening just by my increased energy level. But might some of the sensuous delight I felt that morning have been the result of this pronouncement?
If so, what a different place the two moments of peace and delight have in the narrative of my existence. Both now in my past, I hold each in one of my hands like separate handfuls of feathers . . . How little they weigh, how urgently, though, they gleam and insist.
“Wow, Charlie,” I said, “that’s just so . . .” but when I opened my eyes nobody was there; the chamber was dark and featureless but for the faint cloud of steam my every breath was making.
I opened the door, and the brightness outside blinded me. It was still afternoon, the sky deep blue, the sun exactly where it was when I had entered the cloud chamber. But now the wind was up, the trees clattered, and the shadows that earlier lay motionless and flat as if painted on the ground were washing now across the forest floor in waves, in long swells and combers of black shade that made the sunny patches brighter. I clambered over the fallen, decomposing trees and through the tangled understory in the direction of home, back to my study where the laptop waited, the cursor flashing on the blank screen. But now I wasn’t dreading the assignment. At least I knew what I wouldn’t write about: I wouldn’t write about Charlie himself, or me, or even our friendship, at least not directly; I’d write about the poetic intimacy we shared, which was an intimacy that recognizes self and other as interdependent and separate, that achieves a feeling of closeness that’s always in process, unfinished and thus able to surprise, yet consistent enough to be trustworthy and stable. Like the Quaker vision of truth as continuous and unending revelation, this kind of friendship in poetry and poetry in friendship inheres in an ongoing discovery of difference and commonality, and thus it can feel at times, at its most intimate, almost like a third party, like someone independent of the individuals who constitute it.
There was a lot of light left in the day. I hurried skimming like a spirit through the forest. I couldn’t wait to get home to see what it was I’d write.
Normally I get terribly nervous giving readings or lectures, having to speak at any sort of public event. This might have something to do with having grown up with my brother who’d been a professional entertainer, a great singer and dancer, whose stage presence (and he was always on stage whether he was or not) was impossible to compete with. My mother, too (all through my childhood, all through my life) was a tough critic. While to her friends she’d brag about her children’s accomplishments, to our faces she had nothing good to say, fearing (I guess) that praise would make us lazy or complacent. Mel Brooks tells a story about his mother, who was likewise mercilessly critical, especially to him. When he gets his first break as a writer for Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, he brings her to the opening-night performance, and during one skit, while she’s laughing uproariously, he leans over and says, “You know, Ma, I wrote that skit,” and she says, “That Sid, he can make anything funny.” No wonder, then, I feel like an impostor whenever I’m the center of attention.
But when I faced the audience at Charlie’s memorial service in the New School’s Tisch Auditorium, I was weirdly calm. I looked at the hundreds of people before me, at Catherine, and so many of Charlie’s friends, fellow poets, and devoted readers of his work, and I realized that together, speakers and audience alike, friends and admirers, we constituted a living portrait of the person and artist Charlie was. Although he balked at the Yeats couplet, I couldn’t help but think of it as I looked out at the gathering: “Say where man’s glory most begins and ends: / And say my glory was I had such friends.” Along with his poetry and prose, on and off the page, in all the ways he continued to inform and influence our being in the world, we were in effect his afterlife. On this night, collectively, we formed a giant cloud chamber built from the intimate particulars of our individual histories with Charlie, and so it wasn’t after all an audience of strangers and acquaintances, but a continuation of the conversation each of us was having in our own ways with this closest of all friends:
Possibly because she’s already so striking—tall, well-dressed very clear
when the girl gets on the subway at Lafayette Street everyone notices
her artificial hand
but we also manage, as we almost always do, not to be noticed noticing,
except one sleeping woman,
who hasn’t budged since Brooklyn but who lifts her head now, opens
up. forgets herself,
and frankly stares at those intimidating twists of steel, the homely
leather sock and laces,
so that the girl, as she comes through the door, has to do in turn now
what is to be done,
which is to look down at it, too, a bit askance, with an air of tolerant,
the way someone would glance at their unruly, apparently ferocious
but really quite friendly dog.
On “Hooks” (read at Charlie’s memorial service at the New School):
If I were going to write an essay on Charlie’s poetry, I’d take its title from the first two words of “Hooks”: “Possibly because . . .” The two words together make up the essence of Charlie’s imagination. “Because” expresses his desire for reliable knowledge about the world, the outer world shared with others and the inner world of the self. And “possibly” connotes his skepticism about any and all forms of knowing, his distrust of appearances, his reminder to himself and his readers that all knowing is partial (in all senses of the word), tentative, provisional, and in need of constant revision. The desire to know makes him look, the skepticism about knowledge makes him look closer, and keep looking—it acknowledges that no matter how closely he looks, his knowledge of other lives is never absolute. In “Hooks” this tension between these different but complementary predispositions inflects the eight-line sentence with qualifications and reversals, building trust in his readers as it migrates through three different points of view toward an ultimate destination of empathic imaginative understanding of the perspective of the woman with a prosthetic hand that everyone on the subway car is noticing while pretending not to. The first point of view is the “public” one, the perspective the speaker shares with other passengers, who are too polite to be caught staring at the woman. On behalf of everyone in the car, the speaker simply mentions the prosthesis; that is, the prosthesis is just a detail, just a name, not an image, something noticed, glanced at, but not truly looked at. But when he shifts from the collective, socially constrained, well-mannered perspective to that of the woman who’s been sleeping since Brooklyn and now awakens, but not enough to be fully aware of where she is and what’s appropriate or not, the speaker through her eyes can safely describe the artificial hand, its homely leather laces and those intimidating twists of steel, without violating any social norms, since this is what the woman sees, not anyone else, though everyone is taking advantage of her faux pas, hiding behind it, so to speak, so they can get away with freely gawking. On the hinge of “so that’—a kind of semantic rhyme with “because,” in that it posits a causality—the woman with the artificial hand looks down at the object of everyone’s attention, and as the speaker (as a kind of thought experiment) projects himself into her point of view, her subjectivity, the language modulates into a kind of homely lyricism as he resorts to simile, a qualified comparison, the hand as a ferocious-looking but really quite friendly dog. As we move in a single sentence from the glance that merely names the object, to the indecorous gawking that describes its literal features, to the figurative image expressing the young woman’s imagined feeling, we move from a distant to an intimate vantage point, from the woman as object to the woman as fellow passenger, a fellow subject; from reportage, in other words, to poetry. The poem’s single sentence, holding before us the momentary intersection of these various points of view, embodies and enacts an inclusive vision that is both moral and aesthetic. This inclusiveness suffuses all of Charlie’s best work. It’s what made him as a friend and fellow citizen such an inspiration off the page; and it’s what will always make him such an inspiration on it.