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That Self-Forgetful Perfectly Useless Concentration
By Alan Shapiro
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Convention and Self-Expression
In 1965, in a bookstore in my hometown of Brookline, Massachusetts, in the late afternoon of an ordinary schoolday, in the middle of winter, I discovered my inner nonconformist. Anyone who might have seen me standing before the tiny poetry section, turning the pages of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's A Coney Island of the Mind, would have mistaken me for an unremarkable thirteen-year-old in a winter coat, unbuckled galoshes, a book bag slung over his shoulder. And up to that moment that's exactly who I was, a typical middle-class Jewish kid whose parents worked long hours for little pay, with three kids and my mother's mother to care for. Life in the household was always sulky at the best of times, and now and then explosive. Terrified of blow-ups, I did my best to fit in. I did my best to be the kind of kid my parents expected me to be. I kept my hair cut short, I dressed neatly; I worked hard in school. I seldom got into trouble. I was more angster than gangster — the only tough guys I ever dreamed of being were the Jets and Sharks in the film version of the musical West Side Story, which I had seen with a few friends the year before. When the movie let out, my friends and I went dancing down the street looking for Puerto Ricans to beat up. The gang dissolved later the same day when I picked a fight with Michael Lee, a bespectacled diminutive Chinese boy, the closest thing my neighborhood had to a Puerto Rican. Unfortunately, Mike Lee fought like Bruce Lee's little brother, and I was crying uncle after the first punch landed.
But reading Ferlinghetti, I entered an alternate universe that turned on its head the world of my parents: its holy trinity of rank commercialism, status seeking, and sexual prudery. Ferlinghetti denounced American consumerism "singing from the Yellow Pages." Unlike my elders, he wanted to be a "social climber climbing downward." In his smart-alecky way, he counseled us to "confound the system," "to empty our pockets," "to miss our appointments," to leave "our neckties behind ... and take up the full beard of walking anarchy."
Longings I didn't know I had suddenly sprang to life: mine was the heart Ferlinghetti described as a foolish fish cast up and gasping for love "in a blather of asphalt and delay." I wanted to be robust, uninhibited, and wide open to the world like the dog trotting "freely in the street ... touching and tasting and testing everything." I thrilled to Ferlinghetti's advocacy of contrarianism for its own sake, as if it were a badge of authenticity or the height of courage to walk out into traffic when the Don't Walk sign was flashing.
When I left the store, I may still have been that middle-class kid, diffident, self-conscious, and too eager to please. But from then on I was inwardly transformed. I lived a secret life in the poetry I went on to read, and in the poems I began to write. On the page I undermined the rules I lived by off the page. I dreamed of the world Ferlinghetti invited me to enter, a world of impulse and imagination where lovers went "nude in the profound lasciviousness of spring in an algebra of lyricism." What Ferlinghetti offered was a state of mind nearly everyone my age had begun imagining, each of us planning our great escape to what he called the Isle of Manisfree, where we could do our own thing in exactly the same way.
Flash forward to the summer of 1970. I'm eighteen years old. It's a Friday night and I'm getting ready to go out with my girlfriend Martha. I'm five-feet-eight-and-three-quarter-inches tall, but between my long thick curly blond hair frizzing out in all directions and my thick-heeled black shit-kicker boots, I'm closer to six feet. I'm six feet tall and I've got a nickel bag of pot in a front pocket of my yellow bell-bottoms. That's right, yellow bell-bottoms. Which is to say, I'm feeling pretty good. I'm one of the hip, truly liberated people. Liberated but not stupid, which is why I've told my parents that I'll be sleeping over at a friend's house when in fact I'll be driving with Martha to Rockport, where we'll sneak into an empty summer house her parents own and spend the entire night together, for one night at least not having to d-d-d-do it in the road.
On the way out of the house I pass the wall of family photographs: grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles. In the largest one, a black-and-white picture of my father's family taken at a Boston restaurant just after the war: my father's brother and sister-in-law and two of his older sisters and their husbands sit at a table while a third sister and her husband, plus my parents and grandparents, stand behind them. The table is round, and there's a white carnation in the middle of it surrounded by empty plates, drinks, water glasses, and the crumpled napkins of those who have had to stand for the picture. Everyone is smiling out at the photographer.
My father wears a dark double-breasted suit with wide lapels, the knot of his fat tie is loosened, and his fedora is tipped back in a way he no doubt thinks is both casual and chic, a Jewish Frank Sinatra; my mother wears a pale evening gown with a pointed bust, small waist, and rounded shoulder line. Her hair is marcelled in a thick wave that gathers without breaking down the right side of her face. The other women all have perms, and between their gloved fingers they hold cigarettes that burn at the end of elegantly long and slender holders.
It's just after the war, and though my father still works long hours for little pay in the slaughterhouse his older brother and his father own, he plans to go into business for himself once he saves a little money. My mother is soon to be pregnant. She herself is the product of a broken home, an unfortunate marriage. Raised by her grandparents, she is determined to be a perfect wife, a perfect mother, to give her future children the childhood she never had. She is certain she will love them with a vengeance.
In 1970, though, none of this is really visible to me. My parents, newly married in the photo, look out at the camera, both only a few years older than I am now as I stare up at them, utterly astonished by the thought. Young as their faces seem, young and hopeful, everyone smiling out at the camera as if no one could ever be as happy as they were at that moment, I don't believe it, not for a second. I don't believe they were ever really young, not young like I am young. I mean, look at them, look at their clothes, their formal ties and jackets, their cuffs, their watches, the dainty gloves, all the conventional trappings of an old-world dream of success and status seeking. Surely they must have seen how antiquated and frumpy it all was, even then, when they were new to it — the black-and-white motion pictures, the corny dialogue ("aw, that'll be swell, kid," "ah, you big lug"), the shaky newsreels, the crackly recordings of big band music, and the ancient crooners, and the songs, my God, the songs, the cornball lyrics ("in a mountain greenery where God paints the scenery" — are you kidding me?) — even then they must have seen how goofily drenched in oldness their lives were, drenched in the conventions, formalities, customs, and lingo of a culture my generation has had the good sense to abandon.
My generation, talking about my generation, what does style have to do with us; we transcend style; we reject all notions of style, of lifestyles, that awful word, in favor of what if not sheer life itself. We worship at the altar of the natural, the unadorned, the uninhibited. Thank God, I think, I was born when I was and live when I do. In the eternal present uncontaminated by the uptight past.
I turn my back on the gone world of my elders. As I step outside, easily six feet two by now, maybe even taller, I discover I already know the words to "In the Summertime," the new hit single by Mungo Jerry. I think Mungo Jerry is the name of the lead singer of the band, not the name of the band itself, a name which the lead singer, Paul Dorset, had adopted from T. S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. But I don't know this yet. I don't even know they're British. And as far as T. S. Eliot goes, well, I haven't read a word he's written; in fact, I know of him only because he's mentioned along with Ezra Pound in Bob Dylan's "Desolation Row," a song I don't understand but have memorized anyway because Dylan is a genius, my generation's William Shakespeare, whom I'm not ashamed to say I also haven't read, though on a high school outing a few years back I did see the film version of Romeo and Juliet. What's Shakespeare to me? Or Eliot for that matter. I have long hair, yellow bellbottoms, and a bag of pot in my front pocket. My passionate rejection of class and status notwithstanding, I'm sitting proudly behind the wheel of my father's 1963 big-finned Buick Le Sabre, and as I drive away I sing, too young and too full of life for irony, "If her daddy's rich, take her out for a meal, / if her father's poor, just do what you feel ..." "In the summertime when the weather is high, / you can stretch right up and touch the sky, / when the weather's fine, you got women, you've got women on your mind, / have a drink have a drive, go out and see what you can find."
In 1974, one of my mother's contemporaries, the British poet Philip Larkin, brought out his last full-length volume of poetry, High Windows. I didn't read the book till 1975, after I had moved to Dublin to live a writer's life, which at the time meant getting as far away as possible from my parents and everything associated with my past.
I remember coming across High Windows in a small bookstore off Grafton Street, a few doors down from a restaurant called Captain America, where my new Irish girlfriend liked to eat because she found the food, the hamburgers and hotdogs, exotic. Odd to see myself back then in that tiny bookstore, half slumped, with my back against a bookshelf in a dimly lit aisle, head bent over the book, my long hair cascading down to the shoulders of my Aran sweater, as I read the title poem, not quite knowing what to make of it:
When I see a couple of kids
And guess he's fucking her and she's
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise
Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives —
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester,
And everyone young going down the long slide
To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
Anyone looked at me forty years back,
And thought, That'll be the life,
No God anymore, or sweating in the dark
About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest. He
And his lot will all go down the long slide
like free bloody birds. And immediately
Rather than words, comes the thought of high windows:
The sun comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.
Of course I liked the vulgar jokiness of the opening lines. But I was mystified by the turn the poem takes to an older world and its particular historically determined styles of inhibition and longing — no sweating in the dark about hell, or having to hide what you think of the priest? So far as I knew my parents and grandparents cared about God and religion about as little as they cared about pleasure. It had never occurred to me to think they envied anything about me or my generation. They held our vision of freedom in complete contempt. So shackled by the mores and conventions of their time, they didn't have the sense to know what actual freedom was. Their idea of the good life was to work themselves sick to have a little extra for a sick day. At least that's how I saw it then.
I bristled at the thought that each generation of the middle-aged and elderly projects onto the generation after them all of their unrealized desires, that my passionate intensity could ever be like theirs or anyone else's in any way, or that the optimism of the young of every generation embodied only the typical upside of an eternally recurring cycle of delusion and disenchantment. I resisted the assumption that each generation has its own historically contingent modes of thinking and feeling, its own particular conventions to which familiarity bred of habit gives a veneer of inevitability. And the closing lines, what could I make of them, the elevated diction, the metaphysical imagery, or the solemn yet ironic evocation of the blank, limitless blue air of desire whose intensity increases the more unfulfillable it is? If by 1975 I didn't feel all that happy or free, despite the romance of the move to Ireland, despite my Irish girlfriend, that was only because I hadn't yet completely exorcised the vestiges of my upbringing, though with every ounce of vital energy inside me I was certain that I soon would. I could no more think of the values I espoused as someday becoming obsolete than I could imagine bell-bottoms being anything but cool, or a Mustang or Corvette someday looking just as laughably old-fashioned as an Edsel or a Rambler.
Mostly, I balked at what the poem seemed to say: that what I and my fellow travelers in the counter culture thought of as 20-20 vision was only generational myopia. I couldn't accept the poem, but I couldn't forget it either.
The monthly calendar pages flutter up and away one after another till it's 1976 or '77, 11:00 on a Thursday morning, and I'm sitting in Donald Davie's office at Stanford University, discussing Philip Larkin. Davie is a dark-suited, fifty-something, well-known and well-respected English poet-critic. Jovial, exuberant, incredibly learned, and wickedly articulate about what he loves and hates, a passionate enemy of groupthink yet politically conservative, a hardboiled Calvinist yet artistically open minded, even cosmopolitan, a lover of Thomas Hardy and Ezra Pound, Yvor Winters and George Oppen, the postmodern French poet Edmond Jabès and the American maverick Ed Dorn, to name only a few of the heterogeneous and contradictory poets he champions, he has pulled out four beers from the side drawer of his desk, two for me, two for him, and we drink while Davie describes the mental tightrope one has to walk in order to read poetry with any sort of seriousness and sensitivity. He tells me that every way of writing entails a bias, every stylistic choice directs attention to this instead of that, encourages implicit or explicit agreement or dissent. But to let a work's moral or political bias blind you to its aesthetic value is as limiting as to let its aesthetic value blind you to its moral bias. With someone like Pound, for instance, you can't appreciate the poetry without anguish because you can't disentangle its aesthetic achievement from its political affiliations; to do so would be to trivialize both.
So, I say, what about Larkin, what do you make of Larkin? Davie doesn't like Larkin's little Englandism, his provincial narrow-minded dismissal, on and off the page, of modernism and internationalism. He finds Larkin's defense of ordinariness, his debunking of what Davie calls all sense of the marvelous and strange, a failure of nerve and a stultifying retreat from contemporary life. At the same time, Davie says Larkin is a master of the lyric poem and isn't as old-fashioned or antiromantic as he pretends to be. His originality, Davie says, is indistinguishable from his conventionality, his fluency, so to speak, in the metrical and even romantic conventions he often appears to be debunking. Maybe it's the beer I've knocked back too quickly, but I'm confused by how Larkin could be considered original in any way whatsoever. His poems are too straightforward, too plain, too, I don't know, old-fashioned. What's original about "High Windows"?
Davie pulls off an anthology from the bookshelf behind him. He reads me the first couple of stanzas from the old ballad "Mary Hamilton," then a short tetrameter lyric, "Madam, without en many words" by Sir Thomas Wyatt; then "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning" by John Donne and Marvell's "The Mower to the Glow-Worms." He puts the book down, grabs another book off the shelf. He reads "The Oxen" and "In Time of Breaking of Nations" by Thomas Hardy, then Auden's "As I Went Out One Evening," and finally a couple of other poems, "To Earthward" by Robert Frost and "The Owl" by Edward Thomas, both poems in quatrains. When he finishes, he says, See what I mean? I don't see what he means. I'm too drunk by now to see what he means. I'm focusing on his thick black-rimmed glasses to keep the room from spinning.
Excerpted from That Self-Forgetful Perfectly Useless Concentration by Alan Shapiro. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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