Saturday, September 9, 2023

To an Online Acquaintance On the Loss of a Difficult Parent

Dear ______,

Have you ever noticed that there are quotes that stick all over the internet like burs? No one seems to know where they come from or who put them up in the first place or why they go on and on like that song by Celine Dion (and that tells you my age if you didn't already know.) Some of these quotes are attributed, or not, or misattributed, but almost always posted without reference to the work from which they were supposedly taken. I don't mean the obvious stuff that Oscar Wilde said or might have said, or Dorothy Parker, the stuff so familiar or famous it doesn't really need a more specific source -- because who is going to check the page number in The Critic as Artist, etc.? I'm talking about all the stuff that might or might not be Sylvia Plath, or that maybe Anne Tyler wrote somewhere maybe, or that Cicero said in a letter or didn't. Some of these things look good, these feasible quotations. I see them and think, "I could use that." But then who wants to use something that might be a great quote from a great writer's great book -- or not? What if it's just copy from a greeting card that somebody thought would sound better coming from Mark Twain? How embarrassing if I then quote the fake Twain. (I would be discovered and then people would wonder if I'd actually ever read a book and then I would be exposed as the barely literate fraud my brain is happy to remind me I probably am. You don't really need to know how my brain works, but there it is.) 

Wherever these quotes start, in actual books or out, they all seem to end up online in the same soft, white, cursive font superimposed on a forest scene, or maybe the ocean or the sandy shore, anyway some tranquil shot of nature -- or stars because everybody loves stars! -- but calm; a notably calm cosmos, calm forest, calm seas, calm sand. That would seem to be the unifying theme, whatever the actual sentiment expressed in the quotation; the point would seem to be -- calm the fuck down -- you will be okay. Breath. Contemplate the infinite. Read just a smidge. Must say I rather resent the insistence that we would all be better off if we just sat down and took a deep breath. I like a good sit as much or more than the next person and since I finally quite smoking I can now occasionally draw a deep breath, but doesn't solve every problem now does it, sitting and breathing? If it did I'd be slim and rich and wouldn't need glasses on top of my glasses and I wouldn't worry about being rebuked and exposed and unloved and dying in a dumpster.

And here I am trying to think of comforting things to say. Apologies. Not as easy as it seems, which is why I want other people's better words. That is very much how I've survived to me present age, by calling on other people's good words. Books, yes? But also just sentences. Sometimes one just wants a sentence or two, no?

Have you seen these floating, seemingly indestructible internet quotes? They're the digital equivalent of sampler-pillows or those calligraphic barn-shingles white women with highlights hang in their kitchens. Big fan of the quotation myself. Better said by better writers seems a legitimate rule of thumb when writing or speaking aloud. Since I was a teenager I've kept commonplace books to record choice bits from my reading. And now there are actual cornucopia of quotation organized by theme and keyword and writer all over the web. I do wish that most of these sites were better vetted, but they exist and they very much didn't when I was young. I still own reference books, and books of quotation in particular, but how wonderful is it that someone has done all this glorious data entry? Still, I am just old-fashioned enough to want to know at least the book if not the page from which the quote was plucked. You're a real writer so I assume this sort of thing bothers you even more than it does me, if in fact you've paid it any mind. I should think writers would prefer that their work be remembered with them; the work as they wrote it, in the context they created, to whatever purpose it was written. Would have thought that was the goal. I suppose there are some writers who probably wouldn't much mind being immortalized as just so much disembodied internet wisdom, so long at least as their names were spelt correctly and they got paid. (What else could a Tony Robbins or now a Dr. Brene Brown hope for after one has bought that second house in France or one's fourth Ski-Doo or whatever one orders online between Hilton seminars? Is there a statue anywhere to the memory of Dale Carnegie? Must look that up. ((Sweet Jesus, there is.))) 

Most of the writers I've known tended to be quite proprietary about their work, and rightly so as it is not just their art but their job. (Though nowadays I know very few writers who live exclusively by the pen. Most teach. I assume you do too?)

I was put in mind of this business of internet-attribution when I saw a quote online supposedly from the poet Anne Sexton. I've tried to track it down and may have come close. It could be from her journals, or a letter, but that's as near as I've come. All told, over two or three days I'd have to say I wasted the better part of an hour on this -- not a huge measure of time, but still -- in part though because I was sure I had a physical copy of her journals but then that may not even be a thing and I might have been thinking of a book called A Self Portrait in Letters which I don't have anymore anyway if I ever did. And that is the way memory works or doesn't altogether, isn't it? Mine anyway. Yours may be better.

Just to have it, the sentence which may or may not be a quote is, "It doesn't matter who my father was; it matters who I remember he was." It's good, right? Possibly even applicable to your own circumstances. Might be a useful thought for you right now with the loss of your parent. It seems to me that this quote could be Anne Sexton, as it seems to suit the voice I remember, but that could be wishing making the thing so. Whatever the merit of the thought, the problem of attribution rather spoils whatever usefulness it might have in general because not knowing if it is "real."

By which I mean that it takes away the weight of the poet having said it -- if she didn't. Not an entirely happy source for familial wisdom at the best of times was our Anne, but for the power of memory and art to both preserve and distort our personal histories, who better really? I assume you're acquainted with the poet, possibly, probably better than I, so I won't explain other than to suggest that the very label of a "confessional poet" brings an expectation of both great burdens and self-assertion, doesn't it? How I remember them anyway, all those gloomier granddaughters and sons of Whitman.

Typically I came across the Sexton "quote" when I went hunting for something entirely other. My specific intent was to offer an appropriate quote by way of consolation on your announcement of your father's death. I can't now think for what it was I went looking when I was distracted by the possibly fictitious Sexton quote. I'm going to guess that I was probably hunting for some consolation offered by Dr. Johnson on the loss of a parent. Don't know. Doctor Johnson is rather my go-to. Mightn't have been applicable even if I'd found whatever it was. Turns out, there is considerably more in Johnson et al on the death of a child than a parent. Odd, that. Common as the death of a child sadly once was and may still be some places, most people outlive their parents, right? One would think there'd be all sorts of literary consolation online for that. I of course can't know all the particulars of your loss, and I wouldn't think to ask you for more detail than that provided in your original post. Suffice it to say that having described your relationship as difficult and the news of his death as something less than a shock, most of the usual things may not have been quite right. So I thought at the time. Still. Not my place to suggest how you were meant to feel and or mark the event, of course. Not as if you were soliciting comment come to that. I just wanted something to say better than anything I could think to say, you know? 

That's the thing about condolence, form very much follows function, tradition, convention. So let me say again here that I am sorry for your loss, complicated as that may be and predictable as that response obviously is. Still a loss, whatever the particulars. Maybe that's the point -- if I'm going to get to one. That would seem to me to be the one safe thing to assume given the circumstances. From what you wrote you know that the loss isn't all to do with the man's death, and yet the finality of that would seem to require acknowledgement. That's where the stock phrases of grief and remembrance serve us best, in reducing everything to basics. Mark, a man has died. I offer his son my hand.

There's more good in that than in most things we say without thinking. 

Why say more? Why indeed, other than the custom of talking to those in mourning as one would the ill? The thought with either presumably being that we might offer what? Company? A bit of distraction from the pain? Some comfort? "I should be sorry to think that what engrosses the attention of my friend, should have no part of mine," says Johnson. The impulse is good. I don't really know you for instance though we are friends on social media, and yet I want to offer some consolation for your loss. I lost my own father a few years ago. Still feels not so far from me. I don't equate the two, your loss and mine, anymore than I could or would want to compare our respective fathers. I think my father's death made me something other than I was before. Perhaps the death of a parent always does? That's more an assumption than an assertion. Feels true.

So other than the custom, the habit of it, why console the stranger? What solace for those with whom we are little more than acquainted? Perhaps this question can distract you for a bit. No harm in that now. 

Johnson describes himself after the death of his wife as, "broken off from mankind." Seems an obvious thing to say and the usual thing to be in the circumstance, at least once he's said it for me (power of quotation, mister.) But death doesn't just separate us from the person who has died, does it? That may already have happened one way and another well before that person died. I have lost friends after I lost touch, alas. Happens. Relatives I knew and never felt I knew really or well also die. Where I'm from one sends flowers if one isn't to attend the services. Far enough from my immediate family and I will still send a card. One that happens more and more as I age is the death of the parents of my friends. This seems, at least when it reaches me to most often be addressed online. This has the advantage of being more immediate and more diffuse, particularly as geography is eliminated as a barrier to condolence. Don't always know quite what to do in this wider and yet strangely more intimate world, but this seems right, doesn't it? Feels strange though just adding an emoji on a post when the post is about death, doesn't it? May depend on how one was raised I suppose. For instance, we sit with the body. Not everyone does, as I was at some point shocked to learn. Your family, your traditions may be different. Makes it harder to judge the right thing at this new distance/familiarity. One may obviously still be "broken off from mankind" by a death, but are we not all connected in ways now that Johnson never foresaw? Tap a few keys and "post" and the world floods in with all the consolation -- and banality -- that is implied in public mourning in a virtual space. I know that I took it all in gratefully. Doesn't mean you should or need to, just my experience.

When my father died, I must tell you I found the banalities just as welcome as the more thoughtful responses. How expressed doesn't necessarily indicate how things were felt, or received. (I'm a redneck. Even being gay and literate can only do but so much to overcome generations of emotional embarrassment. Rage. We are allowed rage. Otherwise taciturnity is still one of our very few self-assessed virtues. That and misdirected class resentments, Jell-O salads, and country music would seem to be our only real contributions to the cultural resources of the Republic. Sorry about that.) I was glad to hear from those old friends who may have known my father, but I was likewise glad of all the people who never met the man, or me come to that, at least in person, who also expressed their sympathy for my loss. Odd, isn't it? Couldn't hear it enough somehow. Not something I knew until then, about myself I mean.

I spoke at my father's funeral. Got through that. People were unwaveringly kind. Posting about his death online was different though. To some extent I might have done so without thinking. Never would have predicted this, but I do spend a surprisingly large part of my life online. To do with work and selling books, much of it, but by no means all. It's meant for instance staying in touch with my high school boyfriend. Kept up with former coworkers. I've even gotten to know, at least a little better, writers I admire like yourself. That last has been particularly unexpected. I do meet authors at the bookstore where I work. I've even had opportunities to interact with particular literary heroes of mine. I should never have thought to call most of them "friends" but then that became a legitimate designation on social media and who am I to not be flattered by the idea of that? Was I a friend to Howard Cruse? I am now friends with Hilma Wolitzer?! Indeed, I like to think I genuinely am. Would not have made sense, in a way, to not say something to my friends when my Dad died. Likewise wouldn't seem right for people not to have taken note. As I said, more did than I'd ever have thought and it meant something to me at the time -- and more since.

That's the surprise. Whatever I remember of my father is my business, as Anne Sexton may or may not have suggested already. Good and bad, the man I knew is who I couldn't forget even if I wanted to. Weirdly, I find I can now put things out of mind in a way I haven't since I was a child. At sixty, I am now nearly as easy to distract as I was at six. One of the great virtues of having the habit and presence of books. Not the same thing as just reading. Nearly everyone nowadays reads, even if it's just text messages on a phone. Books as physical objects on the other hand have the same solidity as food, flesh, persons, pets. My hand can find a book nearly everywhere I am likely to be (some might call this hoarding.) I find that books can be put in the way of so much: the past, time, hurt, hopes, longing. Books give me somewhere to stand against what Churchill dubbed, "the black dog." Gives me a place to stand still. As a child books took me up and out into the world; down the Mississippi, out to the moon, back in time to the court of Louis XIII. Now I find I can rest on them, sometimes hide in them. Books take me not out of myself but rather to places of greater safety, clearer thought, rest. The act of reading -- not the consequence -- is however isolating. I am usually content so. But in grief? Smack dab in it? I don't remember if I ever finished the book I was reading when my father died, Stendhal's The Red and the Black-- which was fine as I'd read it before. The point though was that rather than books at that moment I needed some sense of other people -- living, breathing, actual people 'round me, if only virtually. Ironic that.

You may not have found this to be so, but I wanted the sight and sound of sympathy around me, but perhaps not always actual people, if that makes sense. I wanted community, but also control of my environment and to not wear shoes, and not to talk, as I remember. Having people say kind things online felt right to me and just enough. The more folks the better, which is not something I ever say otherwise. I went up and down those comments. I checked in. I liked everything. Because I needn't look unless and until I wanted to and as I didn't really want to do anything else, I think I looked more than I might have done. No one thought me rude for walking away, everyone seemed glad to hear from me. 

I haven't looked at any of that in years. I shouldn't think I ever will again. Knowing however that it is there, that I was given that sympathy when I asked has made me feel better ever since, about people generally and or about the world, frankly. I can't say that I will ever reconcile with everything my father was, or with my hometown, my past. (Do people do that? Is that an option?) I've heard so many people, overt Christians mostly, who make a point if not a show of forgiveness, often in circumstances far worse than any I experienced: people forgiving the murderers of their loved ones, forgiving bombers, and war criminals, belligerents, the obviously unforgiveable. I don't pretend to understand that process or the point of it. I see no evidence that carrying resentments or hurt or hate harms the people it ought. Maybe it only negatively effects people for whom it is largely alien anyway, who have had so little experience of antagonism, violence, and the arbitrary as to have built up no immunity, or so much as to to have learned long since to lay down what can't be carried. I am not such a one. Meanwhile we have seen too many hateful bastards go contentedly down to die in the sincere conviction of heaven that we would, I think, have to be fools to imagine a universe anything but indifferent to the fate of humans. But don't let let me presume too much. You may feel differently. Perhaps my somewhat jaundiced view of universal justice is why a uniform expression of sympathy on the loss of my father meant all the more to me. As you probably experienced yourself online, people were genuinely kind, I found. I wish you something like and the comfort of that hereafter, whoever the man who occasioned it. 

One other thought before I stop shuffling along here, uninvited if only remotely or metaphorically beside you. The usual complaint is that death has cut off the last possibility of dialogue, but that's nonsense, isn't it? Since his death I have engaged more sincerely with my idea of my father than I might ever have managed were he still alive. I know that. My father was a friendly fellow but typically shy of certain conversations. The opportunity truthfully has been made less complicated by the now finite nature of the information available to me. The man was who he was and what I know of him now I know. Actually I was pretty lucky in my father -- not always perhaps, but in the end. Your experience being different, I have tried to avoid making too much of that here. Can't really avoid mentioning it now if just to say it is unimportant to my point. In my life, as I would hope in yours, I am lucky to know love and to have known it even when its absence was all I could feel at the time. I have a better standard by which to judge now, having found someone good with whom to share my life, as my father did, come to that. Even if I had never found my husband, I like to think having found my friends and my community and my family of choice I am in a better place -- to use a phrase usually I find insufferable in talking of the dead. (Nowhere is not a place by definition, no?) Life has shown me love in greater variety than I ever anticipated as a child, as a son. Nothing I did, I don't think, but ask. 

Also?  Perhaps only old men can forgive their old men, if we want or need to. Doesn't mean you need to of course. I only say I did whether I intended to, or needed to, myself. Perhaps pardon is a better word here, less bedraggled by religion and popular psychology. Like forgiveness it is something asked for and given, but with I think less expectation of admiration for the exercise of it. Think of what we pardon most days -- wind. What could be less invested with moral pretention?! So here's another of those floating quotes I mentioned at the start. I've seen it attributed online to both Shakespeare and St. Francis and I've no idea if it's either or neither: 

"It is in pardoning that we are pardoned."

Pretty, i'n't it? Again it may be perfect nonsense, and not at all to the point in your case. It appeals to me really because it suggests so little effort, yes? Forgiveness seems to me a very weighty business full of theology and all sorts of oily blessings. Beg pardon sounds more me -- common as dirt but fundamentally decent. That's at the flat and steady how I hope I am. That's the process I've undertaken with my father's memory and much of it funny when not embarrassing or rude and even when it is. Pardon. All there is to be hoped I suspect other than or as a consequence of love. The thing to be asked if we haven't understood. Pardon? 

What I ask of you now if I've gone on too long and said too little. May he rest in peace, your father. If I offend, I ask also pardon of his shade, and I remain at whatever distance

Your friend, 


Sunday, August 13, 2023



I hesitate to admit this, but here goes: I've never had a great flan. Wait! Don't hate me, I like flan okay. Flan is fine. Big fan of the custard in almost any form. Creme brulee all the way! Totally a pudding kind of fellow -- as might be obvious should we meet. I do not turn down a flan when offered. I have in fact ordered flan for my dessert when dining out, though only because it was the best of not great options and for some reason I needed a sweet so badly I wasn't willing to wait until I got home. (Guess a free mint just wasn't going to do it for me, okay?) And that flan? The last one I remember ordering in a fancy restaurant?  Like all the others that flan was just... fine?

Now if flan is part of your cultural heritage -- just as Seven-Up Jell-O salad is part of mine -- then presumably you are appropriately outraged to find white-trash like me trashing flan, however mildly I may be doing so (but then isn't that kind of appropriate?) Seriously though, who hates a custard? That being my point. I don't hate flan. Flan is fine. I am largely indifferent to it as a thing mostly other people eat. If this gives you a sense of mission and you are now determined to convince me of my error, you go right ahead and I promise I will happily try any flan you bring me, but don't feel obliged. It's no one's job to make me love creme caramel, or Heartstopper.

Actually, given a choice between the two I would have to say, flan it is. 

Both are so sweet, you know? 

I don't know the story of flan. Part of a rich cultural history of eggy custards no doubt. I would probably read that book. However not being at all invested in flan as an absolute good or anything, I can't say I am much moved to learn more. Go with God, little custard. 

On the other hand, the story of the creation of Heartstopper is very good. If you don't know it, in brief, the author Alice Oseman started drawing and writing and posting her stuff on the internet as a teenager. She got her first publishing deal at 17. The central characters in Heartstopper, Charlie and Nick, started as supporting players and an established couple in her debut book Solitaire. In 2018 she decided to revisit them and tell the start of their romance. So Heartstopper the graphic series, and the eventual and inevitable resulting book was born. The graphic novel is now up to four volumes with a fifth coming soon. She's promised at least six volumes in all. The Netflix adaptation premiered in 2022 and the second season dropped just recently. Huge hit both as a television series and an ongoing young adult graphic novel. Oseman's commercial and artistic success is both heartwarming -- she seems a lovely person -- and quite inspiring. I should think she is a perfect example to any young artist intent on making a new way in the world. Good for her, I say and mean it.

Just yesterday I was fascinated to read that now at age twenty eight, Oseman describes herself as an "aromantic asexual," a phrase I had not encountered before, at least not that first part. Had to look it up. New to me, if perfectly obvious from the words themselves once my rheumy old eyes adjusted. Those initial As do all the heavy lifting. Not and not. Got it. But, it is curious isn't it that someone whose career is founded on what has justifiably been classified as Romance should now self-identify as being even less interested in romance with a little r than I am in the history of flan. It's like learning that Anna Sewell was deathly afraid of horses, or that Lee Child always wanted to write a Broadway musical comedy, or that Leigh Bardugo is strict Church of God, or that the author of Pride and Prejudice was secretly  -- gasp -- French. What now?

And then it isn't confusing at all. 

I became aware of Heartstopper around about Volume 4, which I think just predates the debut of the Netflix series by about three months. Volume 4 and the three proceeding showed up en force in the bookstore in January, 2022, in other words after Christmas and not when one would normally see things coming onto the sales-floor by the cartload. The new year is actually when returns pick up and more usually when carts of unsold stock go off the floor and back to publishers. The only things one can count on in the bookstore come January are flu and returns. January is kinda sad. But then Heartstopper exploded. I must have been vaguely aware of the popularity of the earlier books, but Volume 4 was a whole thing. That's when the series was everywhere. We had so much of it it had to go into overstock displays. Even ten years ago that wouldn't be such a big deal, but now? Oprah could rave and Jesus could descend from the Right Hand of God to endorse a book and we would still order twenty copies. (It is a smaller world altogether, books, alas.) So what the hell was this thing? I took Volume 1 to lunch and finished the next three that night. So now I knew.

The story is charming and sweet. Boy meets boy. It is also roughly that complicated. The average Beatrix Potter plot is more fraught. I was immediately reminded of yaoi manga, a sub-genre to which I was introduced thirty years ago (?!) by a friend and manga enthusiast. If you don't know this stuff in it's most popular and innocent form, think girlishly drawn boy meets girlishly drawn boy and well, hearts and flowers ensue. There is evidently a more sexually explicit version of yaoi but I never saw any of that at the time. What I saw was basically Sailor Moon in a pants-role wooing some other saucer-eyed innocent also using masculine pronouns and also dressed like NSYNC. The audience for these little "gay" love stories was, I was made to understand, largely pre-adolescent girls. Made a kind of sense. I am old enough to remember when pre-adolescent girls of my acquaintance actually preferred staring at photos of twelve year old Donny Osmond and or Tony DeFranco to the photos of more mature stars like David Cassidy -- the little fools. Years later yet another friend explained that gay romances of the yaoi type are safer for their young, female readers than more realistic depictions of heterosexual courtship. I accepted this explanation and offer it here as, well, flan.

My response to the yaoi then was, as you've probably guessed, not great. In truth I found the art both weirdly disturbing and yet bland, and the stories infantilizing and frankly repellant. This is how a generation of little girls -- and presumably a few interested boys -- were being taught to see gays?! As sexless dolls in heteronormative narratives straight out of bubblegum pop lyrics?! I guess it was progress of a kind that we were... harmless? Yeah, no. As a gay man who has now aged into harmlessness, I understand it's power. No one's called me "faggot" in a longish time. Mostly what I get now is "Grandpa" or "sir" -- just not in a hot way. I'm mostly okay with this. Takes off some of the pressure and fear I've otherwise lived under all my gay damned days. But, again, no. People didn't organize, and march, and die, and fight for generations just so we could collectively become Ken dolls for little girls afraid of smells.

So on behalf of the Active Gays as well as the Queers Emeritus may I just say oh, fuck off, kids.

Now how mean was that?!

Can you imagine? Language like that with the innocent children. And the answer is of course, fuck yeah, because this isn't about the innocent children. Everything needn't be. Stunning thought. The children would seem to have all sorts looking after them nowadays and isn't that wonderful and making a better world as we speak and yes, it is. The needs of the little ones are frankly being met at an unprecedented volume seemingly everywhere other than in places already abandoned by the Gods and civilization like Alabama and the ever more benighted Florida. And yes, King Goober and Queen Karen are very much ablaze and afoot as far North as Ohio and Michigan, shutting down drag story hours and burning books and libraries to the ground and yes, it is all horrifying and bad news for the vulnerable wee ones specially, but this is not about that, please. Please. Just this once, and then I swear we can all get back to prioritizing the needs of all the little queer babies, can we spare a moment's sympathy for the adult male cocksuckers of the world being told how much we should love Heartstopper? 

I know, I know. "Okay, boomer." Totally justified, young person. I mean, what are you doing here anyway? Clearly you were meant to be at a different meeting somewhere else in the building. You are of course welcome to stay for coffee and cookies, but here at the Irascible Queer Codgers Support Group you will sadly find that that is probably decaf coffee and those "cookies" are dietetic, sugar-free and genuinely worse even than the coffee. And quick warning: this is not an entirely safe space. Cool with your pronouns and however you identify, actually thrilled by your intellectual curiosity and sophistication,  and deeply sorry about burning the planet down before you even got a turn, but this is the part where I am unkind to the sexless teen romance, subgenre gay.

You know who have actually been the most vocal advocates of the TV Heartstopper, at least in my admittedly aging social-media circles? Call them lesbians of a certain age. Curious, that. Would seem to have all but uniformly embraced the whole baby-fags-in-hesitant-love-thang. I do not pretend to understand this, though one lady watcher not in the actual sisterhood (and who signs up for a full membership these days?) did offer an explanation all to do with what she insisted was a very female desire for romance and comforting visions free of the more usual toxic masculinity of traditional straight stuff. I accept that without comment. Sounds about right, at least for a generation other than the actual kids. Pretty good flan as flan goes. Nothing to do with me though.

Meanwhile back at the Crisco sling, a variety of voices will insist that even we old queens should just be wet with gratitude to have these romantic stories we did not get in our own youth. I cannot tell you the number of comments along these very lines in every social media post and or journalistic profile or review that I've read. So many old darlings just tickled to pieces by all these pretty children falling ever-so innocently in lurv, why there mustn't be a dry embroidered handkerchief in our reticules, I declare. Men my age or older, mind. It is true that all we got by way of the gay when we were little was pretty much Charles Nelson Reilly's giggle and a promising length of tan thigh from Ron Ely as TV's Tarzan. And yes, it might have been very nice indeed -- then. 

I do not begrudge anyone their enjoyment of the Puppy Bowl or the Super Bowl, in neither of which have I invested so much as five minutes. But then neither has anything to do with me, if you follow. Not a dog owner. Don't follow football. As unbelievable as it might seem now, I was once a teenaged boy and what is more, I was even then queer as a three dollar bill. I remember what that felt like, what boys felt like, though in every sense it has been years. My experience need not be entirely representative to be both authentic and typical. I don't need all of the stories to be my story, and I don't need my story told  back to me verbatim in order to have a good time in front of the TV. Generally I like all sorts of TV fiction, save probably Housewives franchises and scary fireman shows (too fake and too real, respectively.) The beloved husband on the other hand loves a good, grim foreign language drama, a western, or a police procedural, and won't watch anything with dragons or superheroes. When it comes to a gay love story, we are forty years in on ours. Stay tuned. We're obviously into this kind of thing. I care. He cares. This is my love story, ours, my culture, our lives.

I think the boys in Heartstopper have their first kiss roughly episode sixty-three. Felt like that anyway. Pretty sure that in this narrative neither of them has ever had an erection let alone a wet-dream, neither has ever gotten to second base with a boy, masturbated, or touched their own or anyone else's butthole ever -- eeewww, gross, what is wrong with you?! Pretty sure in this story their sweat smells like strawberry shortcake, their bedrooms smell like meadow flowers. Their sheets are as fresh as the first day their beds were changed. The only thing they do with their athletic socks is wear them in athletic montages without getting them dirty but washing them anyway with environmentally friendly detergent, then dry and fold them carefully, finally returning them in orderly rows to their sock drawers. I was frankly amazed that after that one chaste kiss at least one of them didn't say "Golly!" in a heart-shaped thought-balloon. This is of course exactly as I remember it being when I was sixteen. Exactly.

What this actually is is flan. As storytelling, as romance, this isn't Jane Austen, this is baby's first gay boardbook. (When a boy likes another boy they kiss. The end.) The obstacles to love in Austen were real, adult, even when her heroines aren't entirely. Occasionally the consequences are potentially dire, not just sad but frightening. The emotions in a Jane Austen novel arise from character and circumstance, yes, but those circumstances include specifically the restrictions of time, sex, class, and convention, and all of that is every bit as important and interesting to the writer and hence her reader as the actual love story.  Austen's prose is the only tidy thing about an Austen novel. Life is not safe. Love is not sanitary and romantic love is not even altogether sane. Escape? Try the Nature Channel. They love that stuff. But Jane Austen writes toward something, not away from it. That's how she earns those happy endings. (Fan, obviously, though I had to be middle-aged before I felt I really got it.)

Obviously not every story, not every romance has to be Jane Austen. I can hear someone pointing out that it simply isn't fair to judge every romance by the standard of Pride and Prejudice. Too true. I bring her up only because the hacks and the grubbers and cosplay Austenites just love making the old girl grandmother of a pulp genre she never read or ever saw the like of. It's like sideshow cooch-dancers talking about their sisters in the Bolshoi like they're family. But even by the standards of a Hallmark movie, this Heartstopper business is remarkably bland stuff. As flan goes? not even sauced much. Frankly the only thing heart-stopping in this romance is the audacity in pretending this is about teenaged boys at all, let alone gay boys.

These are not realistic teenaged boys. Boys stink. Boys have hard-ons from pushing a vibrating lawnmower or riding the bus. Or so at least was my experience. Admittedly there are different boys. But these boys? The Heartstopper boys? Never met, saw, or heard of any like them outside of these comic books and the TV version. Also? This is not how gay works or ever did. Again, the world moves on, but every gay boy I've ever met, with or without a penis, however gendered otherwise, if they say "gay" they do not mean they like boys the way ten year old girls like ponies. Nope. This is just yaoi with plummy British accents for a preteen audience that has weirdly expanded to include straight women in their thirties, elderly lesbians, and old queens nostalgic for a love in the locker-room that never happened and with a boy who never talked to them in a time and place that never was. This is a fairy tale, not a fairy story. This is an aromantic asexual English girl's version, frankly, of my life.

And this, me complaining about this thing other people like so much, this is not helping, is it? I'm complaining about flan again, aren't I? I think we've established already that I don't have to eat it, now do I?

Here's what I want you to picture though, before you dismiss me altogether as just another grouchy, dirty-minded old coot. (I mean I guess I kind of am, and proud of it still, but I like to think I'm just ever so much more.) Picture a menu with nothing but flan. Better, picture shelves of flan, whole aisles of flan. Picture flan stretching across the whole dining and media landscape and replacing not just other custards or desserts but meat and potatoes and green salads and tacos and fillet meuniere and everything else you're used to or might enjoy occasionally eating. Flan to the left of me, flan to the right -- what? You don't like flan?! Who doesn't like flan? Have you tried this flan? This flan is gorgeous. Trust us, this is excellent flan. Top quality ingredients -- look at these sunny yolks in these eggs! Look at this pure caramel!!! Try the flan. No, seriously, EAT THE FUCKING FLAN.

That's what it feels like now. So, so much flan.

 I know I was spoiled by the Golden Age of gay publishing when there were more than two major publishers in the whole world and mainstream houses had gay editors and imprints, and there were gay publishers, and there were gay bookstores, and movie houses showing independent gay cinema and gay theater companies and, yes, print porn. All gone. To everything there is a season, right? Fine. Much of what has come since has frankly been better than so much of what we happily, greedily consumed before. Feels like the ideas are bigger now, the definitions more expansive, and even with all the renewed hate in America today, the world is in fact a better, safer place for a lot of us. But our literature? Cinema? Television? Now? Try the flan.

A respected, award winning gay author of my acquaintance and generation was told by his publisher that if he wanted to see print again as a novelist he needed to write a YA. His experience I know is not unique. An actor I sort of know still lives in Los Angeles. He's considerably younger than me (and gorgeous)  and also so far as I know always out and proud since forever. He was told he was too old for gay roles now not because my people are/have always been nasty about crows' feet, but because the only gay stories getting made now are about teenagers and while he could maybe still play thirty, he definitely couldn't play sixteen anymore. If he knew the right people he could maybe play a background gay, maybe a daddy, in that one gay feature we still get a year. You know the one. Funny guy in his thirties falls hard for someone, you know, butcher and prettier. The Courtship of the Prettier Top. Classic. But there are now only just so many gays even in that movie, honey, even in Village street scene or at a party on Fire Island. Sorry. Abs we got. Youth!

Otherwise it's Red, White & Royal Blue! What is that you say? Well, you know it's YA because no Oxford commas but also because the President's son? He knocks an actual Prince into a cake-table or something and then harmless, naughty hilarity and love 'em cuddles ensue. (Aren't they dreamy?!) Now streaming on Amazon Prime! (I lasted roughly fifteen minutes. The script and the acting made me miss the emotional subtlety and wit of 90s Warner Brothers cartoons like Animaiacs and Freakazoid.)

Or it's Boyfriend Material, when the son of famous rock stars has to find a respectable boyfriend to help clean up the family's image after dad gets out of rehab or something like that. Soon to be a limited series!

Or it's Back Me Up where a teenaged computer whiz and game designer sees his avatar kissing the perfect boy right there in the street! For real! Dude!

Maybe it's Stars in His Eyes about two boys who meet at Space Camp, or the one where the boys meet one hot summer on the Oregon coast and nothing really bad happens, or on a double-decker bus and nothing really bad happens, or across dimensions and nothing otherwise remotely interesting happens, or whatever -- and how many of these did I just make up? 

Because other than a few venerable surviving elders of the Purple Quill generation, that's what gay books look like now. Romance. Pap. Flan. 

Do we really need more stories about sixty year old gay men? You bet your sweet ass we do. As I said though, I don't need every gay story to be mine. I don't. I do need more stories to be more interesting than all this treacly nonsense. Shit, they can even be romances, if not Romances with little hearts where the Os go. Two boys fall in love? Fine. Maybe one of them has to work in a nursing home to pay for community college and maybe his boyfriend is trying to unionize a Starbucks? How about that? Maybe one of the boys is trans -- but please Jesus don't stop there. That's not a plot, children, that's a caption. Who is is he? Does he have a job? Does he maybe work in a bookstore? Is his father helping with insurance because our protagonist can't afford to transition without financial help? Does his romantic partner maybe try to earn a living with his art but fall back on drugs as both an addiction issue and an economic necessity? 

What? That all sounds too real? Well, that's probably because I based these scenarios on young people I happen to know. But that doesn't sound funny? Aren't rom-coms supposed to be funny? Bitch, did I say these people weren't? See, that's part of the problem, the assumption that romance, let alone comedy requires a certain level of economic security. You know who ain't funny? Besides rich, male comedians? Middle class, boughie boys who play lacrosse, and nearly all the children of privilege and the direct beneficiaries of capitalism, and the kind of gays who talk more about their sweaters and their TikToks than their comrades, and the royal fucking families of anywhere after 1917. Not funny. Not romantic. Not sexy. (The only reason Prince Harry is still fuckable? Guess, and it's not his receding ginger curls, you shallow queens.) 

You know what is romantic? Fucking. Fucking is romantic, fun, more than a little funny or you are definitely not doing it right. But fine. Actual sticky, sweaty, messy, smelly sex is too much or too hard to do even on a billion dollar streaming platform in 2023? Remember how many actual battles are depicted in drama from the Greeks right up through Shakespeare? Yeah, that. Doesn't mean we don't get to hear about them or see what went on before and after. And sex, in case anyone is still confused about this, is or ought to be both healthier and more interesting to sane people than war. Romance is anticipation and fulfillment and conflict and obstacles and who the hell am I to have to explain this to supposedly grown people? (I know nobody asked me to.) Yeah, I would be genuinely interested in a story about an aromatic asexual relationship, gay, straight, whatever. Honestly that could be fascinating. Maybe write that someday.

Also? Comedy is not about comfort, but it doesn't have to be about shame or humiliation either. Falling in love is fucking funny. Have you done it? Did it go well? You know what's even better than Keaton or Chaplin in confrontation with want or the elements or the cops? Well, nothing. Or I mean to say nothing but Chaplin or Keaton in love. Please note that all of Shakespeare's comedies are about what? Anyway, I'm just restating the obvious by now. Sorry.

So if you like it, enjoy your flan. As I've said, I don't mind a bit of the ol' flan now and then myself. Tonight though, I couldn't swallow another bite. I'm thinking roast, suckling pig, vegetable samosas... maybe something involving grown men and grease and a little grit and musk and wit and am I still talking about sweets? Why, yes, sailor, I am. Try the cakes.

Friday, July 21, 2023

Monumental Darling

 "A dead man who never caused others to die seldom rates a statue."

Almost anybody else and I would not care. In fact I would probably be actively bitching right this minute about the ways in which academia spoils the joy in art, etc., and how complete, posthumous editions are all but invariably awful. Anybody else. But this is Auden.

More than a decade ago, Oxford University Press published a 4th edition of Jane Austen's Letters, "collected and edited" by one Dierdre Le Faye, bless 'er. It was an irresistibly plump new hardcover for forty five dollars and yes, I bit. And a mess of pottage it was. I own not one but two earlier versions of the lady's letters, in handsome old editions with few notes and lovely, wide, white margins. Seeing the Oxford I thought, "there must be more to this." There was not. Yes, there may have been a few discovered texts since my 1908 edition, but mostly what had accumulated to the actual letters was a vast coral of dead academic matter, a gray and gruesome lot of notes, variant readings, and guff. In said notes the reader was addressed alternately as a child of five or an assistant research librarian in the Vatican. Not sure which was less pleasant; being told Napoleon was a French general, or being told to "see prev. note pg. 63 re. 'pins.'"  I put the book away from me as one would a blighted thing.

Around the same time, a vast committee of editorial savants at the University of California decided that the great Bernard DeVoto et al. were wrong. What had the biographers and historians been thinking, trying to bring shape and coherence to something that needed neither? This new generation of editors, raised on indigestible wads of critical theory, decided that the maundering haymow of manuscript autobiography left behind when Samuel Langhorne Clemens finally went the way of all flesh was actually a perfected piece of post-structural genius, a final full flowering of Twain's brain, requiring little more than the usual, heavy scholastic potting. And so the three gigantic volumes of Autobiography published between 2010 and 2015. It seems Twain was the American Pessoa.  Again, despite my misgivings, from jump I got right with the program. I confess that it was not until the middle of Volume Two that I -- and a number of the most serious and influential critics in America -- finally gave it all up as a bad job. Volume Three we could not shift at the bookstore for love or money. Turns out the thing was a boondoggle of the first order, a bit of collegiate flimflam of a type usually reserved for uninterrupted droning in the classroom -- the kind of arguments made persuasive only by tenure and the surprising tenacity of mid-century French intellectual bullies. (I genuinely believe the benighted souls responsible for those three cement blocks of Twain must have talked themselves right into it; they believed their own grift. I do not remember a single instance in the supporting material that so much as winked at the windy old wonder that was lonely old Sam on his deathbed, or expressed the least doubt that he knew exactly what he was doing, repeating the same stories time and again or telling the same joke for the eleventy-seventh time.) Actually the thing had no more shape nor purpose than an old man's porch conversation and made the reader, me anyway, just as sad and eager to depart. 

I could go on and will. The newest, complete editions of Larkin's poem? Of Elizabeth Bishop's poetry? Both were so crammed with variants and pointless verbiage as to basically double the poets' output while adding nothing to the value of their work, while explicitly contravening their wishes. Honestly, I am all for ignoring Henry James when he begs everyone o burn everything, but poetry is specifically about selection or it's just prose with a hitch in its giddy-up. It's like some demented dearie had collected all of discarded clay from the floor of Rodin's atelier, carefully annotated, logged, and preserved it, and then held an exhibition -- in a plane hanger. I understand better the academic urge to publish Emily Dickenson with all her dashes. That had to feel awfully clever at the time. But honestly, it was not as if in so doing the poet had been rescued from confusion and obscurity. Worth remembering that the importance of a great deal of academic labor would be better measured in the number of untenured associates and grad students employed -- even at slave wages -- than in any lasting contributions to the reading lives of the public. It's nice that your assistants Jesse and Leah could afford the "good" dry ramen for awhile, Professor.  You're a prince among men. And may I just say that your cumbersome new edition may well have rescued Marianne Moore from her long-established popularity. I guess your work here on earth is done. Go with GodDamnIt.

The obvious justification of something like the Yale Boswell Editions, and the Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson as well (Well done, Yale) is in preserving and restoring work we might otherwise never see or know the existence of, and in providing properly curated material for scholarship. Worthy worthies all. What the publisher also did however was make trade editions of the Boswell and a fairly new anthology -- the size of a small European car -- of the Johnson for the general public. Only a librarian or a fanatic (I blush) really needs a hardcover of Johnson's Sermons and Prayers. That bad example aside, smart retail choices can coexist with larger academic projects. I would note though that with the exception of the recent one volume Johnson, the distinction between academic and trade publishing has gone the way of indoor tobacco smoking and paper catalogs. It seems that if somebody bygawd did the bygawd research then there will be a bygawd trade edition too heavy to bygawd lift with one hand to please bygawd no one save the mother of the bygawd editor. 

And then there is Edward Mendelson, bless him. Picture an academic gentleman of advancing years. What was doubtless once a crown of auburn curls is now more a tiara worn well back behind large ears. The face is weighty rather than handsome, serious but smiling in more than one photo. To show himself at ease he has occasionally been photographed without a tie. As far back as the mid-seventies he was already editing the standard collections of W. H. Auden's work, and writing two of the only sensible volumes of critical biography we've yet to see on the other greatest English language poet of the 20th Century. (In my experience who you pick for that top spot depends on where you were educated and when. I was told it was Thomas Stearns Eliot, and then later I was told it was William Butler Yeats. All I am willing to say on the subject is it that I'm all for Auden. Also? All three of the old boys apparently used their middle names and all were likewise found of their initials. I just think that's mid-century cool in a way the rest of us will never be. Really the whole idea of top dog in literature would now seem to be old fashioned in the very worst way, so maybe it's just as well we drop the business here.) Had Edward Mendelson done nothing but edit those Collected Poems and written nothing else but Early Auden, I would be deeply grateful. Those two books gave me my understanding of Auden as someone more than the other, less attractive fellow in Isherwood's memoirs, etc. Like many another, I am a grateful gay child of Kander & Ebb and came to Berlin and Weimar by way of their Cabaret. Thence to Isherwood proper, fiction and memoirs and later still fabulous diaries, and from him to Wystan Hugh Auden, Isherwood's buddy, fellow traveler and gay exile in America. I met the poet through Isherwood then, but Mendelson's Auden was how I got to know him. In many ways then Auden was my first serious modern poet. Maybe it was the cigarette-ash and the carpet slippers and the German "trade" (meaning hot and buyable German boy company) that drew me in, but Professor Mendelson showed me why this queen mattered and to an extent, taught me how to read him. Forever grateful.

But wait, there's more. For the better part of fifty years now, Edward Mendelson has done more than any other individual to honor the memory of Wystan Hugh Auden, in word and deed.* The Princeton edition of The Complete Works of W. H. Auden has been and continues a work of monumental scholarship and perfect good taste, and all of it under the eye of Edward Mendelson. Again the question arises if anyone other than a biographer needed six large volumes of the poet's prose -- (YES?!) -- but anyone picking up any of those six volumes would be rewarded with a rich and varied lot of genuinely interesting travel, criticism, gossip, poetics, essays, journalism, and other otherwise unknown stuff. A remarkable lot of it still worth reading. Some of it may have held up about as poorly as Yeats' A Vision, but that is for critics and future generations to decide. It is a remarkable achievement, that collected prose, in part because it respects wherever possible the author's arrangements and intentions. Here's that whole book, as the author intended. Here's what the poet was writing for money then. Here's what he was thinking about on paper in 1968. (All his life Auden chased, exhausted, and then abandoned opinions and philosophies like a crazy lady hunting feral cats, convinced that the next will be perfectly lovely. As with so many of his generation, Auden was convinced that somewhere someone had actually written Edward Casaubon's Key to All Mythologies and it worked. Unlike Isherwood and Huxley, Auden never found his guru. But even when Auden was silly though, unlike Yeats, Auden was interesting.) 

I am eternally grateful just for the fascinating lyrics Auden produced for the creative team behind what would become The Man of La Mancha. What an interesting idea that was! Never happened as Auden understood the book and the team decided the show was actually going to make pretty much the exact opposite point, but I would never have known about the whole business or read those lines but for Princeton edition.

"America is I and you"

Now in place of the one stout volume of Poems there are two. At the back of the second there Appendices interesting -- Auden's Choices for Anthologies -- and others necessary but less interesting like the list of his publications. And then there are 386 pages of very good textural notes. As the above may have suggested, I an not always keen for long chapters of notes. With a writer of Auden's erudition and long history, these can actually help. More than any or all of the supplemental stuff though, what we have in the two big books of Poems now is the published poet whole. You may not need him so. You may prefer a meaty paperback (Mendelson has already made that book for you) or even a slimmer Selected Poems (Mendelson's done that one too.) Again, I don't know that anybody other than serious scholars needed these books, but what a joy to have them!

There are poets in the reading of whom we may be said to never be done; Horace, Shakespeare, Keats, Dickinson. Others we come to the end of and start again with better understanding each time like Dante or Milton. Of the three surviving Big Boys of English Modernism, Eliot, Yeats, and Auden, there can be a sense of having done and dusted each as their major poems are ticked off the list in school. There was a time when it seemed all literate persons went slouching toward the Wasteland through to September 1, 1939, etc. Eliot, more than the other two, survived at least as well as a critic as he did a poet. Yeats' mysticism appealed to hippies and his patriotism secured him an unlikely niche come St. Patty's Day in America. Auden had a poem in a movie in the nineties, but otherwise he remains the queer fellow who survived to what seemed at the time a rather disreputable old age -- though he was all of sixty-six when he died! Yeats, the most senior chronologically, lived to only seventy-four. Eliot was the longest lived at seventy-seven, but Auden survived not only him, but to a degree his own modernism. Another ten years and he might have joined his old friend Isherwood in the new gay pantheon/parade. Instead, the late Auden came too early and seemed to stuffy buggers in 1973 embarrassingly light and or light in the loafers, aka too queer and too funny to be wholly respectable. Alas the poet oroved also too venerable (and English) to ever really be hip. He would have enjoyed a bit of attention from the shirtless boys with dirty feet (rather his type, once upon an earlier time.)

Recently a friend sent me an excerpt from Allen Ginsberg's memories of Auden. Unsurprisingly, Ginsberg sounds an absolute ass; insisting on playing his squeezebox and "singing" sutras at Auden instead of sitting still for a nice cuppa and a bit of a chinwag about cute boys and cock and maybe even poetry. (Was there ever such a gang of noisy, self-centered junkies, drunks, and hallucinatory blabberguts as The Beats?! Jeezuz. They make the Romantics sound laid-back and humble.) Poor Auden might as well have been visited by a talking dog for all he might have made of the great American moon-calf. The rather unintended poignancy of the anecdote reminded me of yet another displacement that may keep Auden out of the main of things American. He is terribly, terribly English. True, he moved to the US in 1939, became a dual citizen in 1946, and until the end of his life spent at least half the year in New York, a city he loved very much more than London, or even ultimately Oxford. He loved America and Americans. He married an American -- although they couldn't call it that at the time. Despite this he remained rather stubbornly English, in his speech, his manner, his class, conversation, and his taste in everything but cigarettes, boys, and democracy. Notwithstanding all his youthful dislike of his hidebound homeland, she remained very much the motherland. St. Louie Mo's own Thomas Stearns Eliot of course went the other direction, straight to London and promptly became more of an Englishman than any of the royal Georges who were, after all, just so many bug-eyed Krauts. Eliot, like Henry James before him, can be claimed and often is by the Brits as he did all his best work there and in Saville Row bespoke suits. But neither Britain nor America has ever really claimed Auden as entirely their own. The English of his time hated him as a pacifist who skipped the Atlantic just before the War, and America outside of Manhattan just never made much of such a queer fella. Really, queers with plumy accents only made sense in America when they were playing villains in Bible movies. ("... Starring dreamy Jeffrey Hunter as Our Savior, and featuring acclaimed poet, Wystan Hugh Auden as King Herod Antipasta!") Nabokov probably made more sense to his fellow Americans than did the shy, ginger giant from Oxbridge. At least Vladimir liked girls.

To me, the later Auden is only possible because of America. Here it was he found lasting if not uncomplicated love. He needed America to relax a bit, and to write as simply as he sometimes later chose to do in poems like the lovely "Walks" from Homage to Clio, and more famously "Lullaby" from Thank You, Fog and Other Poems. That's my guess. Auden in America? Took his shoes off and metaphorically never really put them on again.

But is Auden American? How is that to be decided if not by him? (His complete edition and greatest editor certainly are, American. That says something in favor of our claim, does it not? If only that we had the institutional dough to do it.) Was Auden American though, and when? He certainly seemed to think he was. Is he now taught as an American poet? Which sadly leads me to ask is Auden still taught?** Don't know.

I certainly hope he's still taught. Rather hope they all are, the three great dead white dudes of the English modern. Meanwhile I can't answer any of those questions I just asked. I mean, I'm genuinely curious, but not so curious as to do the necessary research 'cause that is not my bailiwick. I'm just a guy who sells books and buys too many books and who now owns The Complete Princeton Auden. Now as a bookseller I can tell you that Eliot still sells pretty well, and not just that idiot cat book. Auden does too. Yeats not so much now, which seems to me both sad and odd. Of the three I should have thought Yeats wrote the poetry that speaks to the widest audience, addressing the most readers, and was most recognizably THE Poet down to his recorded readings, his velvet jackets and floppy ties. Am I wrong? Has Yeats faded? Neither Eliot nor Auden had politics the way Yeats did -- not just convictions but active party politics -- which ought to endear him to the young. He was in the contemporary sense the most "engaged." Both of the other boys had opinions political and otherwise, often as not diametrically opposed to one another, a fact perhaps best explained not by their actual politics as by only Auden having any empathy. Tom was rather a cold fish, no? Moreover, nearly the whole of Auden's philosophy outside his aesthetics and the whole of his religion was by the end best summarized as empathy, though he always did like a pretty priest in fancy dress.

-- And that's exactly the sort of dizzy talk about poets I had hoped to avoid! The only thing worse is talking without expertise about music. I do that too. We all do it, or so I like to think by way of excusing myself. If I had to pick a topic about which I am perhaps least qualified to describe, it might well be the religious and political convictions of early modernist English poets. Worse, I could be describing poetic forms I only vaguely grasp because my friend Richard, himself a poet, repeatedly explained them to me down the years.

The fact is, I have never been entirely comfortable talking poetry because I am neither a poet nor a scholar. Yes I read poetry. Nope, don't talk about it much. Mine is a very modern problem. Our ancestors, the literate ones anyway -- of whom I probably have fewer than you might assume -- had no problem with poetry. They had opinions about poetry the same way they had opinions about prose, or potato salad, foreigners, farming, the gold standard, politics, and pie-contests. Not a one of them would have hesitated to write a poem here and there for purposes of courting or for a contest in the newspaper and the like. The ones who went to school long enough probably memorized a bit of Shakespeare, say "The Quality of Mercy," and could recite "The Ballad of Barbara Fritchie" for 4th of July picnic at the Grange Hall. If my immediate ancestors had a favorite poet it would probably have been James Whitcombe Riley. Perhaps the brightest of my folk, all women -- there was a one room school teacher or two -- might have known at least a few lines by James Russell Lowell and or Elizabeth Barrett Browning (poets with three names again! Did you notice? Did not plan this. Might be onto something there.) There was a time in this country when pretty much everyone read Mrs. Browning even if they'd never read a word written by her husband. (Can't imagine why but Robert was in his day nearly as confusing to some folks as say Louis Zukofsky is to me now.)  

I always take at least one book of poetry with me when I go home to Pennsylvania to see the beloved elderly mother. I take lots of books as I'm unlikely to find many new ones once I'm out there. I take books for the airports, books for sitting on the porch when the passing traffic is loud. I take poetry to read before bed, usually nice, fat, paperback anthologies, best for dipping at random. One year I read my way straight through Shakespeare's Sonnets for what I'm pretty sure was the first time. A few years ago though I took an old paperback of Eliot's Four Quartets and surprised myself by enjoying it thoroughly. Could not have told you how many years it had been since I had last read Eliot let alone those poems. I mention this because reading, even rereading Eliot (Auden, Yeats) does not of itself feel enough to then write, however casually about Eliot's poetry, or Yeats', or Auden's. I am not unaware of at least the most common of educational and cultural commonalities of the English poets between say Shakespeare and Houseman, but there's only so much one can do with a high school education, a smattering of Latin, and a tattered copy of Edith Hamilton's Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. Still, as a reader, I'm game at least and until. The Eliot was surprisingly straight forward mostly, and the computer in my pocket makes difficult vocabulary so much simpler now. I actually think that I am happier now to try such things than I was when I was young and much more concerned with being stupid or being seen to be. Now? Why not? Then there's John Ashberry, and Don Mee Choi, and the afore mentioned Louis Zukofsky. Well I did try, honest. But writing about all of this, even the easier ones? That is something I've left to the professionals. Better they should explain even my enthusiasms to me. 

And yet this isn't right, is it? Can any of my three Dead White Men have meant to be the subject only of serious -- that is to say academic -- study? Even with Eliot I can't credit that. Did any poet ever really write to be read only in a classroom? (And how dreadful if one did, or does.) 

I've read a fair bit of modern philosophy, believe it or not, and the better part of that by some genuinely deep and or dense writers. I can't say that I feel confident recommending Peter Sloterdijk's Spheres to somebody in the bookstore, or explaining Jurgen Habermas ' communicative action to a guy in a bar. Couldn't if I tried, actually. Again, glad I did what I've done in the way of reading such weighty books, but not confident, as I might be with Hume or Locke, in chatting about what I've read. Why? Well, it's two things really: lack of education and vocabulary, and well, the First World War.

That first bit is self-evident. I ain't educated much. I do however have friends now with all that stuff; advanced degrees, conversation full of spondaic this and an anadiplosis there and here a bit 'o the old anaphora. (All those "ands" by the bye? Polysyndeton. Any of those last three would be a good drag name at a MLA talent show. Yours for the taking. My gift.) I do indeed now know actual professors. For instance, I recently spent a very happy hour listening to a podcast in which a new friend and former academic had a chat with another of the same brilliant sort all about a single poem by a poet I very much love, Cowper. By the end I was dizzy with admiration. I could never do such a thing! Even if I wanted to, and I don't, and even if I studied as they did for years and learned the trick of such things, I would never. Should I try I'd feel like a dancing bear; the whole charm of it would be in seeing me up on my hindlegs, ass out, pretending to be something I clearly am not.

All I really do is read for pleasure (and a bit extra for Book Club.) I am not unlike a minor Austen sister, though I do work for wages to avoid genuine if genteel poverty.

And then there's the war. The Great War is rather a line (trench?) in the literary earth, ain't it? Before that horrific event, most writers at least in English would have probably described their reader as -- them, or someone very like, or perhaps a young lady whose blushes were to be avoided, or a clever youth, or a literate shopkeeper, or the rising working class, or any of the other obvious populations known to open books unassigned nor mandated by God. Not every writer was ever for every reader, but the more generally the merrier. And then bombs were dropped on the lot of what was or is or ought to be and distrust of the obvious and the easy, and thinking and feeling persons in the arts generally threw baby and bathwater, Bible and Greeks, sentiment and sense, right out and good riddance to false rubbish. Before anyone gets squeamish in anticipation of some curmudgeonly rant or neo-conservative lament for the good olde days of English literature, let me just say that nostalgia is poison and much of what modernism blew up was deserving of the dynamite. More, I would not know how to read without its influence in everything I know now as art. It was a good thing.

It did however put the common reader (me) on unsteady ground in so far as it valued individuality and innovation sometimes over sense, and music over meaning, and various other rejiggerings of the status quo that have left a poor redneck boy unsure of much he might not entirely understand and no, I am not good with that. A symptom of a simple mind perhaps, or just an ancestral peasant suspicion of having things put over on me, but there's only so much sense I can bring myself to do without when reading. (Actually, acting classes rather weirdly helped. During my very brief college career, I was a theater major. I remember the insight, small as it may be, that Gertrude Stein writes punctuation, that James Joyce writes aloud, and that Ezra Pound was a ham. Also? The novels of Virginia Woolf remind me more than anything of ill-considered, over-long audition monologues to which shy, bright girls were drawn. At a certain point one just wants that to be over.)

One lesson learned from The Moderns? I need not read, know, understand, or love everything. There is not in fact a list of required reading. And so away with Icelandic sagas and the Vorticists and William bloody Gaddis! Thomas Pynchon be damned and Hanya Yanagihara can get stuffed. Done. Just me, mind. You be you.

Which is not to say grown people of thirty five should still be reading novels with magical sixteen year old protagonists (so creepy) or that video games are just as good as the Louvre or that regular people shouldn't read Fielding' Tom Jones because the author uses "eleemosynary" in the first sentence. Don't be so damned childish, people. Art is more than the familiar hum of contented expectations. Try, you lazy bastards. You might learn something. You might change. You might be moved or even made better.

I went to an exhibition of Rothko once and was struck by the size of the things, and the heat, and the quiet. No intention on my part to like, just to look. And at the end, I wept. Still have no idea why or how that happened. (True, I'm an easy weeper, but yeah.) I didn't have to study Rothko or painting. I just went and in the end was glad of it.

Call it, The Philistine Takes It In.

Now with Auden, I almost never have a sense of the man talking intentionally over my head. If something proves obscure, and it often can, I look to the structure of the thing to tell me what I'm looking at. Failing that, and having always tried the line aloud, I will take recourse to my phone. And if some of what he wrote is not within my ken, there is still much to love, much that is moving, earnest, handsomely said. He has ideas I like and opinions I may seemingly never understand, but he is engaged with me and I with him and I have always a strong sense that he is glad to tell, not just to perform. Perhaps I'm wrong, but he seems to like us, whatever he thinks of the times, war, horror, love.

One of the delights of late Auden specially is that he was genuinely funny. Say that of another major 20th century poet in English. Who would it be? Marianne Moore? Bishop is a beauty, but not funny. Larkin? None's a patch on Wystan. Eliot makes me smile pretty broadly now and again as it turns out, but I can't even picture the man laughing, let alone The Poet, not out-loud like some vulgar person. Don't remember Yeats ever resulting in a grin, come to that. But Auden, every bit as serious and sophisticated as the other two and still he would do:

When the young Kant
Was told to kiss his aunt,
He obeyed the Categorical Must
But only just.

He wrote clerihews! He celebrated and introduced collections of light verse including dear Phyllis McGinley. He loved Edward Lear. Auden drank and smoked and told dirty stories at cocktail parties and flirted hopelessly with undergraduate athletes and gossiped and joked and laughed aloud. He also was dear to E. M. Forster and kind to young people and to Edith Sitwell which wasn't always easy. Thom Gunn admired him and Stravinsky adored him. Auden was out before that was something to be and catty as he could be, he was fundamentally kind.

Now none of that has much of anything to do directly with his major work as a poet, but it endears him to me none the less and as a common reader, that is allowed. And perhaps it has more to do with what made him a major poet than dominant criticism will admit. Poetry is felt if it is read right, at least by me. Art is not the technical means by which it is made or if it is I needn't know how to have it speak to me. 

And neither need you necessarily, my darlings. If your only way to enjoy magic is to learn the trick, go on and pay a magician to teach you. (Actually, I loath magic, but obviously I needed the example just here. In reality the last magic I liked was watching the late, great Ricky Jay manipulate a deck of cards, and that I liked as much for the patter as the tricks. He wrote a good book about Learned Pigs too.) Read Auden -- and Eliot, and Yeats, and Bishop, and Moore. Read Terrance Hayes and Eileen Myles. Read poetry and by people unlike ourselves and like. Read Ogden Nash and Dorothy Parker. Read people who are smarter than one's self, or simply better at poetry. No permission required. 

Read Auden. Eventually, you may also need all ten volumes from Princeton, or not. Up to you. I can however recommend the monumental, darling. well worth it if I were asked.

*The professor also has an inexplicable fondness for the work of the supremely dreary Thomas Pynchon. This is like learning that Julia Child secretly liked not something perfectly understandable like ballpark franks or sloppy joes -- pretty sure she'd eat either with pleasure --  but rather had a pronounced fondness for edible gelatin-balloons and tomato foam and smoke infused appetizers made from a single frozen pea. Ick.

**I understand from an academic friend that that horndog Yeats is finally "problematic" which is both perfectly just and frankly disappointing. He was rather, wasn't he? Just, disappointing, problematic, etc. Bless 'im. I understand if he might now seem more trouble than he's worth, but the answer is that he's still worth more than the troubles he made or the mess. Have you read The Lake Isle at Innisfree? Easter, 1916? A Prayer for My Daughter? Mustn't let those go. The loss would be insurmountable, and I don't say that as easily as you might think. Must everyone read Yeats? I don't know, but pray do.