Tag Archives: Ben Lerner

I have wasted my life

24 Mar

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Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,

Asleep on the black trunk,

Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.

Down the ravine behind the empty house,

The cowbells follow one another

Into the distances of the afternoon.

To my right,

In a field of sunlight between two pines,

The droppings of last year’s horses

Blaze up into golden stones.

I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.

A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.

I have wasted my life.

 

When I first read the poem – my friend Clare Potter showed it to me after she had been using it for teaching – I was a little shocked by that last line, not sure what to make of it.

Since I am currently teaching a microfiction class, I decided to introduce my charges to a wonderful exhibition of photographs currently on show at the National Museum of Wales. ‘Swaps’ contains examples of the private collection of Welsh photographer David Hurn, the pictures he has acquired from photographer friends over half a century. It was only after re-reading the poem that I realised – for reasons I will describe below – that it might serve very well as a preface to visiting the exhibition.

So I researched the poem a little, and found a couple of interesting articles. In one of them, from the Paris Review, by the wonderfully named Dan Piepenbring, the author asks, of the last line: ‘is it a lament? Is it a joke, a kind of boast? Did Wright intend to undercut or to bolster his pastoral scene with it? Could it be a winking response to Rilke, whose ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’ concludes with the imperative “You must change your life”?

But what of the poet himself? In an interview published two years before his death, Wright told Bruce Henricksen that he thought the line was “a religious statement”:

‘here I am and I’m not straining myself and yet I’m happy at this moment, and perhaps I’ve been wastefully unhappy in the past because through my arrogance or whatever, and in my blindness, I haven’t allowed myself to pay true attention to what was around me. And a very strange thing happened. After I wrote the poem and after I published it, I was reading among the poems of the eleventh-century Persian poet, Ansari, and he used exactly the same phrase at a moment when he was happy. He said, “I have wasted my life.” Nobody gave him hell for giving up iambics. You can’t win.’

Ben Lerner, writing in the London Review of Books, also says something that might relate to Wright’s poem:

‘Poets are liars not because, as Socrates said, they can fool us with the power of their imitations, but because identifying yourself as a poet implies you might overcome the bitter logic of the poetic principle, and you can’t. You can only compose poems that, when read with perfect contempt, clear a place for the genuine Poem that never appears.’ Perhaps that comes close to explicating James Wright’s final line: the Perfect Poem never exists; indeed (as Lerner would insist) every poem is a failure, and the reason every poem is a failure goes something like this: ‘you’re moved to write a poem because of some transcendent impulse to get beyond the human, the historical, the finite. But as soon as you move from that impulse to the actual poem, the song of the infinite is compromised by the finitude of its terms. So the poem is always a record of failure.’

The novelist David Mitchell, who apparently keeps a copy of the poem pinned above his desk, regards it as a kind of exhortation to ‘be observant’:

‘I hear him [James Wright] exhale it with a wry laugh: I’ve wasted my life! He’s kind of smiling. I’ve done it again, all this wasted time, he thinks—but at least I know it. Though he hasn’t really wasted all of his life—he knows that, too. You have to enter the hammock, put the world on hold, to really see things clearly the way the poem does. He’s been to this hammock before, and he’s had moments like this before, and it’s mostly positive. It’s self-deflating, but not depressing. It’s sad, and longing, and nostalgic, and wry—the ironic half-bark of a laugh.

For me, the poem’s chief value is as a reminder to stay inside the moment. It asks us not to let our minds rerun things that have already happened, not to trouble our head fruitlessly about things that haven’t happened yet. Inhabit the now, the poem urges— just see the beauty around you that you don’t normally see.

We have a hard time remaining in the present: Our monkey minds are continually jumping through the jungles of the past and the forests of the future. But Wright’s poem says: Stop! Just stop. Calm down, be quiet, and look around. It’s an homage to, and an exhortation of, the act of seeing.’

For myself, I believe that the poem can be read as a paradoxically joyful manifesto to other readers (and, especially, to writers). I have no idea why it makes me feel good about life, when the ending is – at first sight – so dismally self-judgemental. That is the wonder of good poetry: that we are not limited to one response, that we can enjoy multiple responses, even ones that seemingly overlap or even contradict each other.

Perhaps the poem is, at heart, an entreaty not to be distracted, or rather, not to be distracted to the point of confusion: but to look closely, to watch the world. There is, after all, a close relationship between looking closely, to seeing – as expressed so lyrically in the first twelve lines of the poem – and the act of writing itself. You learn, in David Mitchell’s words, to look at the relationship ‘between objects and people and light and time and mood and air’. And animals, I would add. And fire, and water, and rock and grass and leaves. And this watching, this capacity to experience the moment, is something that, of all the arts,  photography does best. As David Hurn puts it, in the notes to one of his favourite photographs: ‘What photography does terribly well is to point out how peculiar and how wonderful the world is. It allows you to see and point out to somebody the things they might not have seen themselves’. Which, of course, goes for poetry too, even if every poem is a failure.

Leaving the Atocha Station and the personality of the translator

26 Mar

 

Leaving the Atocha Station

Someone bought me, or recommended that I buy – I forget precisely – Ben Lerner’s novel Leaving the Atocha Station, and it’s been a long time since I laughed so much while reading any book; so thanks, whoever you are. The novel is especially good at describing the kinds of mental contortions a language learner goes through when sufficiently advanced to understand most linguistic items in a foreign language, but who nevertheless often comes unstuck on more complex or controversial items in the host culture.

Lerner’s protagonist is an appallingly self-conscious and calculatingly mendacious young American poet with an addiction to little white and yellow pills (presumably to help address his pathological nerdiness) and to hashish (he is a keen adherent of the ‘wake and bake’ philosophy). On a research fellowship to Madrid – the use of the word ‘research’ in the novel is disarmingly disingenuous – he meanders between affairs with two Spanish women, never managing to fall in love, but desirous of being loved. Although sleeping with Isabel, he is obsessed with Teresa, a glamorous translator, who comes from money (there are suggestions of a family association with the Franco regime) and who now embodies radical chic politics – indeed, appears to support the kind of political commitment of which the chronically uncommitted narrator is entirely incapable.  However, Adán (Adam, in Spanish), as the American is known by his Madrileño friends, wants Teresa to fall in love with him, so that he can let go of his painful inhibitedness just a fraction, but she is too cool by far. Or something.

There is a nice passage in which Adán has been observing Teresa’s actions and, impressed, says:

            “You are the most graceful and protean person I know. The way you handed me the coffee right when I awoke or the way just now you took the tequila from me or,” I paused to think of an example not involving drinks, “the way you can move without apparent transition from your stylish apartment to a protest.” . . .

            . . . “All you’re describing,” she said in Spanish, “is the personality of a translator. From apartment to protest, From English to Spanish.” If she had spoken in English, I would have found it a little grand; in Spanish I experienced it as profound. I wondered if she’d weighed the sentence in both languages before selecting the one that would produce the desired effect.

In short, what Lerner’s character is describing as a ‘translator’ is someone who is able to adapt to circumstances with ease, a kind of chameleon who uses their own innate multiplexity of self to their advantage: a skilled reader of human ‘texts’.

But it is the next comment that stands out, and makes me wary, about how his character considers Teresa’s comment profound in Spanish, whereas he might have found it ‘a little grand’ in English. This is a sensation with which I am well familiar. Often, when I read a text in another language – a piece of political or philosophical, or literary analysis, I find it more ‘profound’ than its word for word (if there were such a thing) equivalent might be in English. Why is this? What is going on here? Is it a way of congratulating oneself for being able to process the material in a language other than one’s own – and therefore, as a kind of projection – or reward – investing it with greater value than it might otherwise merit?

Or is it something more insidious: that certain languages – and I am thinking specifically of Romance languages – appear more ‘profound’ than English to the native anglophone ear because their syntax is more systematically consistent, which in turn leads to a more gratifying sense of grammatical coherence – and thence of understanding –  which, even if it is a false one, and the meanings conveyed are no more ‘profound’, leads the non-native reader to believe that they are.

Or is it that Lerner’s character is in love with Teresa, and therefore wants her words to be ‘profound’ even if they are comparatively commonplace?