Poetry

Pressure of Concealment

If you don’t already, I recommend following Lit Hub. Today they featured an interview with Dani Shapiro in which the author muses on whether or not she would have written her memoir if she’d had the instant gratification of social media at the time.

Most interesting to me was her theory on the origin of powerful writing:

Dani Shapiro: “Adrienne Rich once said that it is that which is under the pressure of concealment that explodes into poetry. So if you’re on Twitter and Facebook and sharing there, there’s no pressure of concealment. And I think good memoir comes out of that place, it comes out of it can’t be said, it can’t be said, it can’t be said, so now I want to try to say it.”

Adrienne Rich’s observation struck me as another version of Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorism “Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth.”

Does the pressure of concealment fuel all art? Probably not, but it can be a powerful engine.

“Mother of Exiles”

 

amd-statue-liberty-jpgNot like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

-The New Colossus, Emma Lazarus

Identity and Poetry

This poetry performance won the 2015 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational.  In “Lost Voices” Scout Bostley and Darius Simpson change places and speak in the voice of the other.

Michigan Radio reported:

The main message of their performance, Simpson says, is to show the audience that “this is what you look like when you’re speaking for someone.”

…putting this piece together taught them a lot about how to be supportive of people struggling through situations different from their own and that there is inherently a limit to the depth of their own understanding.

…Simpson explains that the two aren’t suggesting that people shouldn’t speak out for one another, but that in doing so there is the danger of losing sight of an individual’s experiences.

To Be Forgiven for Fame

Stop, Christian passer-by!—Stop, child of God,
And read with gentle breast. Beneath this sod
A poet lies, or that which once seemed he.
O, lift one thought in prayer for S. T. C.;
That he who many a year with toil of breath
Found death in life, may here find life in death!
Mercy for praise—to be forgiven for fame
He asked, and hoped, through Christ. Do thou the same!

 

640px-Samuel_Taylor_Coleridge_by_Washington_Allston_retouchedSamuel Taylor Coleridge wrote his own epitaph. Years of addiction to opium, debt, illness and divorce had not dulled his instincts as a poet. He summed up his life with a beautiful chiasmus “That he who many a year with toll of breath/Found death in life, may here find life in death!”


He adopts a humble tone “A poet lies, or that which once seemed he.” (One is tempted to wonder how sincere his humility was, given that this epitaph is carved in stone for posterity.)


The line that jumps out at me today is “mercy for praise- to be forgiven for fame.”
(There was a time when poets were famous.)


It is a strange request, as praise and fame are not something you do, but something others bestow upon you. He is being asked to be forgiven for how he was received by other people.
To be forgiven for fame is not something modern western people often ask. Leo Braudy writing in The Frenzy of Renown observed, “John Lennon of The Beatles caused a scandal by saying that his band was more famous than Jesus. As far as immediate fame goes, he was right. But the outcry over Lennon’s remark is instructive because it implies that fame is by definition a positive category: if Jesus is the greatest man, he must also be the most famous.”


Few of us hope that when we die our stories will not be told.


The book The Artist’s Quest for Inspiration by Peggy Hadden suggests artists use a quest for immortality as a driver.


 “Thus, the desire to break out of the limits of our life span prompts us to create, to leave something behind us… None of us thinks of retiring from making art. It seems too much like living itself. Visiting a museum is not like going to see dead people. Rather, it is like going to a place where we can instantly revive the artists, hear their views, see what they have to say. To be included in their midsts would be a way to live forever.”
The book then goes on to some other source of inspiration without having the candor to note that very few artists will actually achieve this or to give any thought as to what aspect of the artist really can live on or whether the artist would recognize or approve of the story future people tell about her.


Reaching the end of his life, Coleridge came to believe that this type of immortality was a chimera. That kind of renown does nothing to extend the life of the artist’s soul. If posthumous reputation exists at all it only preserves the public persona, the false self, its posing and vanity.  The only real “life in death,” he says is through Christ, and so he asks or mercy and asks, with some urgency, that his readers do the same.

Each Man Kills The Thing He Loves

In one of his trials for gross indecency, Oscar Wilde was asked to comment on a phrase he had written in an Oxford publication edited by his friend Lord Alfred Douglas.

“If one tells the truth one is sure sooner or later to be found out.”

Wilde responded, “Yes, I think that is a very pleasing paradox, but I don’t set any high store on that as an axiom.”

This drew a laugh from the crowd.

I think of this when I reflect on the poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol. The ballad, written after Wilde’s release from the jail, vividly recalled the execution by hanging of a fellow prisoner who had been convicted of murdering his wife. In the poem Wilde reflects upon the nature of guilt and innocence. The difference between the free and the prisoner, the prisoner and the condemned are matters of degree not of character. Each man is capable, under the right circumstances, of the same crime.

So with curious eyes and sick surmise
We watched him day by day,
And wondered if each one of us
Would end the self-same way,
For none can tell to what red Hell
His sightless soul may stray.

The most famous stanza of the poem is this one:

Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard.
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word.
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

The line was an allusion to Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, reversed in typical Wildean fashion. In the play, Bassanio asks “Do all men kill the things they do not love?”  “Each man kills the thing he loves” is beautiful and affecting as poetry, but I am not sure I set any high store on it as an axiom. There are contexts, certainly, in which it is true, but I do not think it to be a general truism about the nature of love.

It was, however, all too true of Wilde’s life. No one who loved him emerged unscathed, just as he had been damaged by the one he most loved. It all began when a young man fell in love. His outraged father did everything in his power to stop what he saw as the unnatural and deviant influence of Wilde over him.

Years later that young man, Lord Alfred Douglas would remember his role in in Wilde’s imprisonment as “the cruel position of being, just because I was as God made me, the innocent cause of the ruin of my friend.”

The ballad was written during a brief post-prison period when Wilde and Douglas were sharing a house in Naples. The reunion had infuriated the friends and families of both men. It definitively ended any hope that Wilde would reunite with his wife, Constance, who had seen her family and her way of life torn apart by the trials.

By his own account, Douglas repeatedly asked Wilde what “each man kills the thing he loves” meant. The line cut both ways, and Douglas must have been trying to figure out whether Wilde regretted the damage he had done to his young love or the damage that his young love had done to him.

Wilde’s reply was “you ought to know.”

ConstancelloydAlthough Constance was deeply wounded by her husband’s return to the infamous aristocrat, she loved The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

“[Oscar] says that he loved too much and that that is better than hate!” she wrote to a friend.  “This is true abstractedly, but his was an unnatural love, a madness that I think is worse than hate. I have no hatred for him, but I confess that I am afraid of him.”

A few days later she wrote to the same friend and asked “… Have you see Arthur Symons’ review of the Ballad in the last Saturday Review? I think it I excellent and the best that has appeared and I would like to know what you think of it when you have seen it.”

Franny Moyle, who wrote the biography Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde, found this a bit contradictory. “Quite why Constance continued to show pride in her husband’s work, in spite of his condemnation of her, and quite why she continued to provide for him are difficult questions,” Moyle wrote.

I doesn’t seem mysterious at all to me. “Each man kills the thing he loves.”  It was as closest thing to a confession and an apology as she was to receive after her husband reunited with Douglas. She died in April, 1898.  Wilde died two years later.

And alien tears will fill for him,
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.

There was still a tragic third act to come. After Wilde’s death, two of his closest friends would spend years locked in furious conflict. Robert Ross, Wilde’s literary executor, was also his former lover, perhaps his first male lover. Neil McKenna in The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde makes the case that Wilde already had some experience in this arena, but Wilde certainly led Ross to believe he was the first whether it was true or not. (Wilde was always less concerned with the veracity of a story than the effect it had on its listener.)  In any case, it was Ross who introduced Wilde to London’s underground world of men who loved men. When Alfred Douglas entered the picture, he and Ross became fairly good friends. (McKenna even suggests that Douglas and Ross may have been lovers.)

Years after Wilde’s death, Ross and Douglas would do battle over Ross’s handling of Wilde’s prison letter to Douglas, De Profundis. The drama is too long to recount here in detail, but if you want the whole story I recommend Caspar Wintermans’ Alfred Douglas: A Poet’s Life and His Finest Work. The short version is that Douglas had been unaware that the personal parts of Wilde’s letter to him existed until they were provided to a biographer by Ross and later used in a court case defending the biography against Douglas’s libel suit. Ross donated the manuscript to the British Museum to be published after Douglas’s death. Douglas wanted to write his own answer to the letter, but Ross, as Wilde’s executor, would not allow Douglas to publish quotes from it. Douglas felt that as the letter was addressed to him, he was legally and morally its owner. The letter, written when Wilde was in great turmoil in prison and with the mistaken belief that Douglas had abandoned him, painted an unflattering portrait.

Reading the Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, it becomes clear that Wilde often created edited versions of his persona for different friends. In particular, Wilde tried to downplay his interest in Lord Alfred Douglas to Ross. It is understandable that he would do this. Ross was not only Wilde’s sometime lover (McKenna believes they renewed their sexual relationship after Wilde’s release and before Douglas came back into the picture) but also the liaison between the playwright and his estranged family and the man who controlled Wilde’s finances.

Ross truly believed that Douglas had always been the pursuer in the relationship with Wilde, because this was the impression Wilde wanted to give him. Douglas knew what Ross could not: That after his release from prison, as Wilde was writing to Ross saying that Douglas’s persistent letters“terrified” him, Wilde was actually encouraging Douglas, making plans for a reunion and could not resist writing to him every single day. Ross believed the De Profundis account with few reservations. Wilde had never given him any cause not to.

Lord Alfred Douglas was self-centered enough to believe that anyone who did anything that affected him negatively had done it to him. We should not make the same mistake. Although Robert Ross’s actions with regards to De Profundis were quite unfair to Douglas, it is wrong to assume that this was his intent. Those sympathetic to Douglas tend to paint Ross as driven by romantic jealousy, and the battle that would erupt between the two men is presented as a fight over possession of Oscar Wilde’s ghost.

If Ross harbored bitter jealousy towards Douglas, there is little evidence of it. The two friends occasionally quarreled–friends of Douglas inevitably did– but none of the arguments leading up to his revealing of De Profundis to biographers was enough to make Ross want to destroy his former friend or start a war with him. What was really at stake for Ross was not posthumous ownership of Oscar Wilde, it was absolution. Ross believed he had been the one who introduced Wilde to homosexual practices. Although Ross did not share Wilde’s attraction to danger and “rough trade,” it may have been Ross who introduced Wilde to Maruice Schwabe, who in turn introduced Wilde to the panderer Alfred Taylor, which was the ultimate cause of Wilde’s imprisonment. (Contrary to popular belief, he was not actually jailed for his relationship with Douglas.) Ross feared that he had sent Wilde down the path to his ruin. Ross told Wilde’s biographer Christopher Millard that the reason he was so driven to restore Wilde’s literary reputation and to help his family was because he felt responsible for what had happened.

According to letters he wrote to friends and family at the time, Douglas, too, felt guilt and remorse over his role in Wilde’s downfall. He had been assured by Wilde’s own letters, however, that the playwright did not blame him but “the unjust gods alone.”

Ross had his own comforting document– De Profundis. There was the proof that Wilde did not blame Ross for leading him down that path. Ross was not culpable– it was Bosie who ruined Wilde. Ross needed to make this known, not because he hated Bosie, but because it was the only version of the narrative that allowed him to remain entirely innocent of Wilde’s downfall. The battle that was to follow between Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross was not a fight between jealous romantic rivals. It was a fight over who history would blame for the tragic loss. Which one of them had killed the thing he loved?

Douglas may have won his battle–he defeated Ross in the legal arena–but Ross was the clear winner of the war. The term “faithful friend” is applied to him so consistently it is as if it were his official title. The 1997 film Wilde depicts Ross as Wilde’s good angel to Bosie’s bad angel. Wilde is depicted as having no interest in London’s rough underbelly until Bosie introduces him to Alfred Taylor. Wilde goes along reluctantly, to please Bosie. Real history was much more messy. There is no hint in the movie that Wilde had always been so attracted to the seedy side of life that he had snuck out on his own honeymoon to tour the red light district. The audience would never suspect that Ross himself (along with Bosie) was involved in a scandal only shortly before the trials which, had it not been covered up, could have ruined Wilde just as surely and completely.

Ross, who was not in the best of health, could not stand up to the stress of Bosie’s lawsuits and harassment. Most people believe that he was essentially hounded to death by Douglas. Douglas spent most of his middle years in an unsuccessful quest to reclaim the narrative through a series of lawsuits. His mental health eroded and he succeeded mostly in alienating friends and making new enemies.

Each man kills the thing he loves may not be a general truism. But it was certainly true of the life of Oscar Wilde.

Fame, Free Fall and the Size of the Frame

April is national poetry month. Last year I posted a poem each day. They were the least viewed posts I ever put up! So this time around I am going to do something a bit different and use various poems as a jumping off point for further reflection. Today’s poem is Musee des Beaux Arts by W.H. Auden.

Musee des Beaux Arts

W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

—-

We have an amazing capacity to remain blissfully unaware of other people’s struggles and suffering. Hardships we have not personally experienced are unreal to us– invisible famines. We have stuff to do. We are focused and busy. In a famous experiment back in the 1970s, a team of researchers had seminary students plan a talk and then go to another building to deliver it. En route they passed a man in distress. Half of the students were told they would be speaking about seminary jobs, the other half were told they would be speaking about the parable of the Good Samaritan. The researchers wanted to know if concentrating on the parable of the Good Samaritan would make people more likely to offer aid. It didn’t. What did impact the likeliness the students would offer to help was how much time the students thought they had to get to the other building and give their presentation. When the students thought they had lots of time 63% of them offered to help, regardless of the topic of their talk. When they thought they were in a hurry only 10% offered to help.

Researchers have also found that the more people there are who witness an event, the less likely anyone is to offer help as everyone assumes someone else will do it. Scientists have tested this, but artists already sensed it. In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold everyone in town knows that a member of their community is about to be murdered. No one wants it to happen, including the killers, and yet no one manages to stop it. The very fact that everyone knows seems to persuade each individual that it won’t actually happen.

And the old masters understood it. About suffering, they were never wrong.

A few days ago, I wrote about our oft thwarted desire to be seen and noticed. “We want to know and be known, to love and be loved, to lock eyes and be in the same moment together.”

149120_10150089505605948_5921817_nAnd yet our life and death battles take place “while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.”

We live in a culture that places a high value on fame, on known-ness. This value is in direct proportion to the anonymity most of us feel confronted with among so many neighbors who do not know us at all.

I propose that our desire for fame is not really a desire to be observed. It is, rather, a desire to be the central figure in the painting on the wall of the Musee des Beaux Arts and not the guy who happens to be steering his boat completely unaware that a moment of mythic significance is happening right beside him. We want to believe that we will be the central character in the novel and not the friend who appears in one scene on page 285.

We want to have the sense that he dramas of our lives matter. We do not want to accept what Shakespeare’s assessment in MacBeth that:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

People seek fame in order to feel that their lives matter.

“I spend my cash on looking flash and grabbing your attention… And even though you fool your soul your conscience will be mine.”-Adam Ant, “Stand and Deliver”

The quest for fame often leads to disillusion. In the immortal words of the philosopher David Bowie, “Fame puts you there where things are hollow.” (Yeah, actually, I have never understood what that song was talking about.)

Even though he may fool his soul, the rock star looks flash and grabs your attention for only a moment. Even in the brief moment that the star has attracted your gaze, you only see a shadow of the man behind the mask. The public goes on with its day to day tasks unconcerned with the life of the artist who creates the image.

The star trades some of his or her privacy for a species of known-ness that fails to live up to its promise. As the ploughman labors on, Icarus falls from the sky after flying too close to the sun.

Is there an answer then to this crisis of meaning?

In my first novel Angel, I wrote the following epigram: “Where does a mountain end? Mountains draw our focus to their snowcapped peaks and present us with the illusion that they are isolated, individual objects. We send postcards and take pictures and try to put a frame around them. But whatever border we create for the natural object we fine beautiful is our own projection. The mountain spills out in all directions. It dips into the valley, which rises to the next peak There is no place where you can stop and say, ‘The mountain ends here.'”

In other words, what appears in the center of the painting depends entirely on where you place the frame.

Around you at this moment are a few people who do take an interest in your victories and struggles. Your immediate family: your parents, spouse, children, lovers, intimate friends. It is a small world, to be sure, but a loving and compassionate one. It is here that you find the people who will stop plowing if you are plunging from the sky.

When you start to feel unnoticed and invisible, try a smaller frame.