Back reading Modernists again in the hour or two before I go to bed. Poetry this time, a great splurge of Modernist, surrealist, Objectivist, Imagist poets. Sometimes looking at the biography of a poet is a help in understanding the poem, often not. Some poems stay inscrutable and resist interpretation. Some are Freudian or Jungian and some are all about the radical instability of meaning and how we won’t find it in a poem any more than we should expect to find it in a bowl of cornflakes or a session on the analytic couch. The enigmatic poet John Ashbery on his own therapist:
At the time I started going to him I was in a very distressed period, and was very anti-social, although I didn’t realize it. I had a tremendous drinking problem, and I would go to somebody’s house for dinner and get drunk and leave before dinner was served. It was as though I somehow couldn’t bear to be with people, but I couldn’t stand to be alone either, and I couldn’t write very well, and … anyway I really needed help. I’ve continued seeing this man, but it’s certainly not any kind of ordinary therapy — it’s really just chatting, the way we are now. And he’s a very odd person to be an analyst, as I said in the interview. He’s more interested in playing the piano, and he studied with Claudio Arrau, who’s a friend of his. For a long time he couldn’t decide whether he was going to become a concert pianist or an analyst. So we talk about music a lot, as a matter of fact, and recordings, and things like that.
We never know what works for another person. Often I meet people who really do believe that if you just do what they do, you will become like them or solve your problems as they have done. But that kind of osmosis is not really possible it’s just a fantasy. We are going to have to be ourselves whether we like it or not and find our own individual solutions or resolutions to dilemmas. Not that we have to do it all on our own because sharing, support and skilled insights are all steps along the way. But there are no borrowed answers.
Right now I’d happily cut off my right arm to spare a friend what she is going through, but I am of no practical use at all and a lopped-off arm would just dangle around uselessly. Helplessness in another’s trouble is the most horrible feeling.
News that the young New Zealand writer Eleanor Catton has won the Man Booker Prize for her long novel The Luminaries. Kiwis rock! At 28 years old and with two published novels already out, Eleanor Catton is media savvy and not afraid to speak her mind:
“I have observed that male writers tend to get asked what they think and women what they feel,” she says. “In my experience, and that of a lot of other women writers, all of the questions coming at them from interviewers tend to be about how lucky they are to be where they are – about luck and identity and how the idea struck them. The interviews much more seldom engage with the woman as a serious thinker, a philosopher, as a person with preoccupations that are going to sustain them for their lifetime.”
You’re dying to read some John Ashbery, the poet who doesn’t do therapy with his musician therapist? Here we go, a section from a longer poem you can read at leisure. Don’t all shout ‘Eureka!’ at once. This is one of the easier poems. I think I grasp bits of it and other bits fly off into the unmade skybed of the universe.
My Philosophy of Life
That was the hardest part, I admit, but I had a
kind of dark foreknowledge of what it would be like.
Everything, from eating watermelon or going to the bathroom
or just standing on a subway platform, lost in thought
for a few minutes, or worrying about rain forests,
would be affected, or more precisely, inflected
by my new attitude.I wouldn’t be preachy,
or worry about children and old people, except
in the general way prescribed by our clockwork universe.
Instead I’d sort of let things be what they are
while injecting them with the serum of the new moral climate
I thought I’d stumbled into, as a stranger
accidentally presses against a panel and a bookcase slides back,
revealing a winding staircase with greenish light
somewhere down below, and he automatically steps inside
and the bookcase slides shut, as is customary on such occasions.
At once a fragrance overwhelms him–not saffron, not lavender,
but something in between.He thinks of cushions, like the one
his uncle’s Boston bull terrier used to lie on watching him
quizzically, pointed ear-tips folded over. And then the great rush
is on.Not a single idea emerges from it.It’s enough
to disgust you with thought.But then you remember something
wrote in some book of his you never read–it was fine, it had the
the powder of life dusted over it, by chance, of course, yet
for evidence of fingerprints. Someone had handled it
even before he formulated it, though the thought was his and