Tag Archives: Paris Review

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.

And Borges too

8 Dec

What makes a piece of critical writing ‘creative’? How do we distinguish between ‘creative’ and ‘critical’ writing? Does anyone care?

Is the literary world divided between ‘creative’ writers and ‘critics’ or is this a fantastically outdated model? Who writes the best criticism of fiction; literary critics or other fiction writers?

If you read Tuesday’s post about Roberto Bolaño and what he had to say about good, creative criticism being an integral part of literature, then I suggest you take a look at what Bolaño’s fairy godfather, Borges had to say on the same theme:

. . .  as to Eliot, at first I thought of him as being a finer critic than a poet; now I think that sometimes he is a very fine poet, but as a critic I find that he’s too apt to be always drawing fine distinctions. If you take a great critic, let’s say, Emerson or Coleridge, you feel he has read a writer, and that his criticism comes from his personal experience of him, while in the case of Eliot you always think – at least I always feel – that he’s agreeing with some professor or slightly disagreeing with another. Consequently, he’s not creative. He’s an intelligent man who’s drawing fine distinctions, and I suppose he’s right; but at the same time after reading, to take a stock example, Coleridge on Shakespeare, especially on the character of Hamlet, a new Hamlet has been created for you, or after reading Emerson on Montaigne or whoever it may be. In Eliot there are no such acts of creation. You feel that he has read many books on the subject – he’s agreeing or disagreeing – sometimes making slightly nasty remarks, no?

(from The Paris Review Interviews, Vol 1 p. 137)

So when Borges says about a critic’s words needing to be based on a ‘personal experience’ of a writer, that is, as a reader, then we are on precisely the same ground as Bolaño saying that a critic needs to be a reader, and that if they do not assume themselves to be the reader, [they] are also throwing everything overboard.

Again, back to reading. I am a writer, that is to say, a reader who writes. Sometimes, the acts of reading and writing become contiguous, such as now, and I forget where the one ends and the other begins. But essentially I have learned this through the process of reading and writing, and what both Borges and Bolaño write only serves to confirm it: a good writer, a certain kind of good writer, always leaves me wanting to drop the book and start writing. A good critic, by which I mean a creative critic, almost always has the same effect. Bad writing, by contrast – either bad fiction or bad criticism – simply sucks energy from its reader, before the book is cast aside with a curse.