Writers Address Youth and Age at the 92nd Street Y
Exoterica: God and Angels in the
Kingdom of Need
Workshop Series at the Poetry Project
at St. Mark's Church
Do not speak of yourself (for
God's sake) even when asked.
Advice to the Old (including myself)
On Sunday evening, February 4, Kaufman Auditorium's six hundred orchestra seats were nearly filled with the mature and the modern to hear Roger Rosenblatt and his "writers of substance" address the topic, "Youth and Age" and field written questions. The event was the second in a collaborative series involving Southampton College, where Mr. Rosenblatt teaches, and the Y's Adult Life & Learning program directed by Susan Engel. Ms. Engel reviewed Mr. Rosenblatt's success as an essayist for Time, his honors, which include Polk, Peabody, and Emmy awards, and his most recent book, Rules for Aging (Harcourt 2000), already in its eighth printing.
Rosenblatt confided that he had no friends, though he did have enemies, quoting one who had written him, 'I have prayed for the death of two other writers and been successful twice.' He left unclear whether the letter was a response to his Rules, subtitled Resist Normal Impulses, Live Longer, Attain Perfection, and also omitted to share with us these sample rules: 'It doesn't matter.' (Rule No. 1) 'Nobody is thinking about you.' (No. 2) 'Never miss an opportunity to do nothing. Do I really have to go on?' (No. 23). A posting in the lobby may have educated those unfamiliar with his canon. Yet, he did offer us the very familiar, "When You are Old," thereby ignoring "The Four Ages of Man," which better suits the range implied in the topic, and "The Spur" whose four lines on age and youth show why Yeats is a writer's writer. Choices aside, momentarily there was promise. But when he closed with "Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled," the hidden face, the stars, Rosenblatt remarked, "Now if that doesn't break your heart...," thereby drawing perceptible, if polite, grimaces from his panel.
"Is there an ideal age for a character?" The first of Rosenblatt's questions, some odd, some asinine, but most unexpected by Alice McDermott (National Book Award: Charming Billy (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998)), Frank McCourt (Pulitzer Prize: Angela's Ashes (Charles Scribner,1996)), Jhumpa Lahiri (Pulitzer Prize: Interpreter of Maladies (Houghton Mifflin,2000) and George
Plimpton (Editor, Paris Review), drew an awkward "I don't know" coupled with an implied 'If you mean...' "Well," came the follow-up, "is there an advantage for the writer that the character be one age rather than another?"
For Lahiri, the choice depended on the story and on which character was best suited to the telling of it. McDermott found that the character chooses himself, challenging her to present his point of view. The advantage, she said, of the child's point of view is the chance to render first-time seeing -- or at least the impression of it -- while avoiding the cute and overly precocious. Plimpton acknowledged a bias against childhood reminiscence, saying he rejects out of hand some 3,000 such submissions every year --especially the trauma stories. An older character with more invested, more to lose and thus more "damaged" was simply more interesting to him: Shakespeare did not write child tragedies, he pointed out, he wrote Lear.
McCourt ventured that one learned less from a young man writing about a young man, though James Joyce was the exception: As a young man, Joyce had written with profound understanding about a mature marriage ("The Dead"). Irishman McCourt pronounced American adolescents "the most dangerous creatures," the "bepimpled athletes" he taught, who in many ways had been more advanced than he. But now, he is most fascinated by old people, eavesdrops on them in the park, delights in their childlike casualness about bodily functions, their bluntness. An elderly man on a cruiseliner tires of his plaintive wife who has tried everything, the food, the diversions, and is still bored. 'Then, why don't you try over the side?' he says.
Moderator Rosenblatt read a passage from McDermott's Charming Billy (after first singing a refrain from the song) to illustrate use of the child's point of view. She had tried for immediacy, with a tinge of nostalgia. Sometimes the attempt could be falsely lyrical, she said, the adult voice could over-justify or indulge in mere sentimentality, especially when a character was not fully dimensioned. When his passage was read, McCourt related that he had begun Angela's Ashes, a memoir, in the third-person past, and that the change to first-person historical present had come about quite suddenly as he was rereading his notes ('I'm in a playground with my brother on a seesaw...'). He had started over. "Easy writing is vile, hard reading," he said.
To those impressed by his ability to recall his early life in intricate detail, McCourt responds that most Americans have comfortable childhoods, cluttered with possessions and agendas. "We had nothing. We had to make our own day." Clear of clutter, but full of self-made particulars, it was "an easy path back." Beyond that, things came to him all during the years he was teaching, and he recorded them. A street name could bring back a whole day's experience. (The detail in Mary Karr's memoir of her poor, alcohol-influenced East Texas childhood, The Liars' Club (Penguin, 1996), is similarly striking.) Responding to an audience question, McCourt said that no, memory did not "lie," but rather, was selective. There were facts in Angela's Ashes, but the details were his choice. He analogized the telling to the choices sports commentators make: "One tells us what we've all just seen, the other updates us on the athlete's latest divorce or murder."
McDermott said that the writing itself jogged the memory, that memoir was an impression of one's life, autobiography the facts of it. Plimpton suggested that memory can be embellished for the sake of effect, of drama. (The genre would seem now to allow for deliberate pseudo- or fictional memoir as well.) To illustrate, he mentioned an unspecified, actual event recorded by author Gore Vidal which "didn't happen that way," suggesting that Plimpton had personal knowledge of the facts. Lahiri mixes memory and fiction, as illustrated by the passage Rosenblatt read from her book. In a description of an American girl's first terrified encounter with Khali [sp?], she imputes to her guest fear of an icon in her home that she no longer even noticed. 'She stuck her tongue out at Miranda.' Perhaps assuming it child's play, Rosenblatt asked, "Why did you write that?" He was startled by Lahiri's adult response: "Because the character felt assaulted."
The panel agreed with Plimpton's observation that Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer and Holden Caufield (Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger) were all more adult than the adults, but only the moderator thought Hamlet belonged among that group. Plimpton asserted that the autobiographies of most adolescents would be dull reading, that it took an artist to make them interesting. McDermott agreed and credited Carsons McCullers (Member of the Wedding; The Heart is a Lonely Hunter) with very accurate portrayals of young girls.
Rosenblatt asked how an author could sustain the interest in an older character over whom, after all, death would be looming; whether old age was always tinged with regret; whether all writers were young, childish in some way, never as grown-up as other people; who each panelist's favorite authors were, young and old.
McDermott said she had undertaken herself an exercise she had assigned to her students, to write in nine pages the life story of a 90-year-old woman. The danger, she said, was to slip into sentimentality, the challenge to keep death out of it. She showed the work to poet C.K. Williams, who told her the exercise was a story. She showed it to Joyce Carol Oates, who said it would have been a "bad" story had the woman died. (Oates was a panelist at the January 14 session. Topic: good and evil.)
According to Lahiri, an author indulges in sentimentality when he manipulates the reader's feelings. She maintains distance and restraint to avoid it. The young Jane Eyre, a victim of circumstances, had to be adult and innocent at the same time. Children are by nature what writers must strive to be: observant and non-judgmental, showing things as they are. The young, she said, bring a sense of wonder and imagination to their world, and are able to constantly assume different perspectives and characters.
Children are not "cute" in McCourt's view, nor in their own. "They're hard at work contending with gravity and with fatuous adults who exclaim, 'Oh, aren't they cute'." His favorite young character is Stephen Dedalus (Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce) because he makes the insignificant significant. 'I can justify every word I've written,' Joyce claimed. McCourt learned from him that any experience can be written about. The key? "Torment," McCourt said, smiling. "I feel sorry for the young Catholics nowadays who don't have this torment."
All in all, the evening was much like listening to cocktail party banter (though staged and so a bit strained), and thus quite unlike other events at the Y, which are usually strong on substance. What little substance there was came from Ms. McDermott, Ms. Lahiri and Mr. McCourt. I could have stayed home and read them.
Earlier, while I waited to enter the auditorium, two women in their thirties behind me, their faces flushed by the prospect of an interactive audience with the erudite, asked me what the evening's topic was to be. "Youth and age," I told them. "Euthanasia," they repeated. Now, if that doesn't break your heart...
Upcoming series topics are: "God
and Nature" (March 4) and "Men and Women" (May 6). Call (212) 415-5500
for program information or consult the web site (http://www.92ndStY.org).
At Exoterica, Rick Pernod's engaging series at the Society for Ethical Culture in the Bronx, poets of modest renown feature alongside such celebrated ones as Stanley Kunitz, Galway Kinnell, and Yusef Komunyakaa. Readings are held on various days of the week in the coffee house atmosphere of the Meeting Hall, a step-down space with seating for about sixty and an excellent sound system. I was there with several companions on Thursday, January 25 to hear Stephen Dunn and Angelo Verga.
The exoteric is Dunn's home field. He insists, conversationally but unmistakably, on what is before him and then takes decisive steps into the surprising. He read taken from his new collection, Different Hours, his tenth book to be published by Norton. To have so prominent an outlet for one's work may well be the envy of most poets, but Dunn deserves it. His subjects range widely: facing the alternatives to monogamy and choosing to keep to "the long haul"; quitting a job in advertising; facing the cold of Minnesota or the ambivalence of the tourist life in Italy.
One striking poem finds him contemplating the death of God. It begins cleverly, with the angels coming to terms with their new obsolescence: Some of them become mouthpieces for dictators. Then it concludes with the human reactions:
The void grew, and
was fabulously filled.
And yet before meals
and at bedtime
The Dark Angel observed
it, waiting as ever.
The words are too well chosen to paraphrase--right down to that poker-faced cliché "dead to the world." The balance between our nostalgia for God and our need to believe is finely achieved. That final touch, the Dark Angel's need for our belief in God to validate himself, establishes our human ambivalences too well to require much comment. An earlier book of Dunn's was called A Circus of Needs. What a ringmaster he remains.
Angelo Verga, author of The Six O'Clock News, opened the evening--an unenviable task. His dispatches, from the Bronx and the Latino world as both inhabit him, were eloquent as well and provided a grounding in place that was compatible with Dunn's.
Rick Pernod was, as usual, an amiable presence, his introductions and announcements of upcoming events brief and to the point. (Many reading series hosts could learn from him.) The evening ended with an open reading, as various as they often are, but better than most: Dunn and Verga had put us all on our best behavior.
(Richard Pearse's published collections are Come Back Vanishing (Linear Arts, 1998) and Private Drives: New and Selected Poems due out this month from Rattapallax Press. He teaches at Brooklyn College.)
Jayne Cortez has been reading her poetry with musicians since the Sixties, and says she enjoys the collaboration because a poet otherwise spends most of his working time alone. She opened the workshop with compelling cuts from her CD, "Everywhere Drums," an excellent choice for a start since the rhythms (from multiple kinds of drums too, notably, the mbiri, from Zimbabwe) should have prepared the workshop participants more quickly, indeed anatomically, to listen and feel poetry than any breath-punctuated paragraph of spoken introduction could have done. Should have. Kierkegaard wrote that while a teacher may be expected to transform a student, he is not required to reinvent him before the teaching begins. That this veteran poet's effort was clearly wasted on most of the sixteen participants quite nearly as soon as the sound subsided was their fault, not hers.
Cortez structured the class typically enough otherwise, using three 5-minute in-class writing assignments, and then had participants read the results, some tolerable, some terrible:
What is poetry?
- Poetry is writing
in lines. Usually it has rhythm, but then so does prose.
Write about a part of your body without saying what it is:
- It rests as I write.
What New York means to me . . .
- mice, nice
soups, 10-dollar plums at Balducci's!
The dark-aspected Cortez listened patiently, with little comment -- certainly none but the most oblique in qualitative terms -- and went to summation, assuring the class that it is difficult for the unpracticed to capture the essence of a moment "on the first try." Writing is action, she said with conviction. You have to be there, every day, in a place to find something not gotten elsewhere. Even once you think you've found something, you need to go back and ask yourself whether it was written to be read. Eventually, you can come to view objects, persons, sounds in a quite different way.
A wince probably does not even play on Cortez's mature, Arizona face. She released us, having earned the right to disengage, seek out her solitary place.
Jayne Cortez's ten collections of poetry include Somewhere in Advance of Nowhere, Mouth on Paper and Congratulations. Her musical collaborations have produced six CD's.
[The Poetry Project's workshop series is supported by a grant from the Jerome Foundation. For address and schedule of diverse events at St. Mark's, see Listings, this issue.]