Measured Extravagance

16 June 2003 - 1:53 a.m.

Chip McGrath, on "The Viscissitudes of Literary Reputation":

Lowell may have belonged to the last generation to believe seriously in the poetic vocation. His friends and colleagues, all born around World War I, included Bishop, Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz, John Berryman and Theodore Roethke. They didn't imagine themselves teachers of creative writing who would turn out the occasional slim volume; they saw themselves as the heirs to, and the equals of, Yeats and Eliot. (Lowell on occasion even compared himself with Milton.) They believed, as Eileen Simpson, Berryman's first wife, wrote in her memoir, ''Poets in Their Youth,'' that poetry must be the ''ruling passion'' of life.

They were all a little nuts, of course -- or, in the case of Lowell and Schwartz, more than a little sometimes. Except for the teetotaling Jarrell, they were all alcoholic, and they smoked like chimneys. Berryman killed himself, and Jarrell most likely did. The rest died, in poor health, long before they should have. Major American poet, mid-20th century -- it's not a job description or a lifestyle that you would wish upon anyone.

There's also an Anthony Lane assessment of Lowell in last week's New Yorker, and it turns out I've read one of Caroline Blackwood's books before (The Last of the Duchess), and the Lowell-Hardwick-Blackwood imbroglio is mentioned in Kate Sontag's essay about poetry and truth:

  Balancing the potential feelings of those we write about and degrees of disguise, against our own reasons for and comfort level with making private lives public, comprises one ethical arena.  Another is our contract with the reader with respect to literal truth.  Should readers feel cheated if Sharon Olds, for example, had fabricated abusive parents or a dying father, or had done what Ted Kooser condemns, in his essay of the same title, as "lying for the sake of making poems"?  While his position that poets not "exploit the trust a reader has in the truth of lyric poetry in order to gather undeserved sympathy to one's self" is an important and provocative one, it reflects the increasing blur between author and speaker.  It also presumes that poets can control the reader's response and that readers can ascertain the poet's motive.  The issue here is subject matter: when are we obliged to make clear the distinction between poet and speaker, fact and invention?  Why does the poet Ai sometimes use the disclaimer "a fiction" directly beneath the titles of her newer persona poems, and sometimes not?

And is calling something "a fiction" or "a novel" disclaimer enough? Look at Amadeus and The English Patient - the Antonio Salieri and the Almasy of these stories are such compelling creatures. Amadeus, in particular, still takes my breath away when I reread Salieri's bitter "grazies" to God after perusing Mozart's manuscripts. But was it fair of Shaffer and Ondaatje to transform Salieri into a villain and Almasy into a romantic hero, jettisoning historical evidence for the sake of literary magic? Does fairness even matter in this realm, especially after the individuals in question are dead? (FWIW, my modus operandi currently run along the lines of "No, but no, but. . .!" At any rate, thinking about this stuff at least makes me appreciate Steven Saylor's acknowledgments of his sources at the end of the Roma Sub Rosa novels I've read to date.)

My current reading includes Marian Cannon Schlesinger's Snatched From Oblivion: A Cambridge Memoir. The style is an interesting mix of quaint and blunt - much like listening to a sharp elderly lady reminisce. (At church this morning, I sat next to one such lady, who chatted at length about her children's careers and families - and then firmly declared her support of population control. One thing I really liked about this morning's service was the minister's admission that, having been asked to share their definitions of "a model father" with her, many members of the congregation emailed her with stories about loving fathers - virtually all of them making a point of rejecting the term "model father." Talk about classic Unitarian Universalist behavior. . .). There are many Cambridge ladies mentioned in the book - some eccentric, many energetic, and what seems to be a high percentage of the formidable and the assertive. For instance:

She and her husband, the portrait painter, lived in Professor James' old house on Irving Street, and she gave her parties in the beautiful long room that had been his study, and was still lined with his magnificent library. Her husband, a charming, diffident man, suffered all his life from having his sentences finished by his wife. He was a slow starter, finding the enunciation of his ideas a painful process, and Alice James would swoop down upon him in mid-sentence, telling him in no uncertain terms what it was he wished to say. He sweetly deferred to her, never raising any protest. When he married again, afer Alice's death, he was apparently allowed to finish his sentences but was forced into a diet of health foods, which was the crotchet of his second wife.


One year ago: "She still sounded stunned at having located an Orthodox Jewish congregation in Norfolk that offers a course on baseball and spirituality."

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