Thursday, 18 November 2010

Multiple genres

This blog seems to have become intermittent only, and I can guess the reason. Since I went on Facebook, it’s come to seem easier to post updates and thoughts there than here. So I invite people to join me on Facebook if they’d like to keep in touch.

The preceding blog records my visit to Scotland, but not the two weeks in London following it. It seems a little late now to report on that, even though I so much enjoyed seeing my friends there. I left London in mid-September and stayed in southern Rhode Island for the past two months. There was a knee operation that needed attending to—nothing grave, just a meniscus tear. Recovery went smoothly and in October I went down to New York to see friends, staying with Walter Brown, who has appeared here in earlier posts. Among the friends I saw was Edmund White, the novelist, and his partner Michael Carroll, also a fiction-writer. I’ve known Edmund since late 1966. In those days he worked for Time-Life Books as a staff researcher and writer, and I was then a grad student at Columbia in French. He had had a play produced Off-Broadway but hadn’t published a novel yet. For some reason he found both myself and Ann Jones, with whom I was then living, worth befriending. I had no publication credits to my name, but eventually confessed to him that I wanted to be a writer. I found him brilliant and funny, and he was one of the few people out as a gay person. Of my friends, only Ann knew about my own sexuality, which she had accepted without shock or embarrassment.

Edmund had written an autobiographical novel, which I read and liked. Still I was busybody enough to urge him to look into the French nouveau roman, in other words, to be more experimental. Like all beginners, I thought the avant-garde was the only worthwhile approach to the making of art. It isn’t a nouveau roman, but his first novel Forgetting Elena is certainly not a realist-naturalist work, and it remains among his most intricate and brilliant. During the composition of it, he read individual chapters to Ann and me, and we cheered him on. Possibly for that reason, the dedication page has our name on it.

There have been periods when we didn’t see each other; also, he lived for many years in Paris, where I nevertheless did visit him at his Ile St. Louis apartment. After that he also taught for a couple of years at Brown and I visited him in Providence once. Eventually we do always re-establish contact, and so it was this visit. I went to his place on Twenty-Second Street, a reunion laughter-filled as so many others have been. We spent a couple of hours catching up, and I have to say that Ed is a fascinating source of news and insight about mutual friends as well as people whose names I know even if I haven’t met them. He has just completed a new novel titled Jack Holmes and His Friend, and I’ve begun reading it in manuscript. It resembles the novel I read back in the 1960s, which means Ed has come full circle. Whether it qualifies as avant-garde I doubt, but I no longer care. It hardly makes sense to insist, in the name of artistic freedom, that only one approach is permissible in the production of new works.

In 1970, Edmund introduced me to Richard Howard, whom I’ve kept in touch with intermittently ever since. In the first years of my friendship with Ed, I was entirely absorbed in writing fiction. It was really my friendship with Richard that led me back to writing poetry. He was helpful with my early, unreadable efforts, giving me books to read and responding tactfully to what I showed him. I never signed up for an MFA program (quite a rare career path in those days), but Richard, along with the critic David Kalstone, to whom he introduced me, became something even better than a substitute for that. They offered informal instruction and encouragement. Richard in his capacity as poetry editor published some of my earliest poems. Not long after, Ed was named editor of The Saturday Review and published poems and almost my first critical essay. Without these friends, I doubt I would ever have made my way as a writer.

I saw Richard during the New York trip, smiling, unruffled by and fully recovered from some recent age-appropriate health problems. I recall dozens and dozens of visits to his book-lined rooms on Waverley Place in the Village. From there we walked to a nearby restaurant for lunch. Richard has reached something like philosophical acceptance about the death earlier this year of his close friends Sanford Friedman and Ben Sonnenberg. As for himself, he is busily engaged in teaching in the graduate writing program at Columbia, where I taught off and on in the years 1983-2001. He was working on a review and a translation, something to add to a staggering bibliography of poetry, critical writing and translated work. I wouldn’t call him a man of letters so much as a Hercules of letters. His conversation is like no one else’s, filled with references to literature and art (he seems to have read and seen everything), including all writers of note in the present century. Because we have so many friends in common, we were able to bring each other up to date on them and comment on the changes the time inevitably brings. It was difficult to stand and go; I felt we easily could have talked another several hours. But there was work to do. My plan is to schedule another meeting on first opportunity.

I write poetry. I write fiction. I write criticism. I see all three as related projects. But less attention has been paid to what I’ve done in the prose. There seems to be an almost invincible prejudice against poets who publish novels, perhaps a little less when they publish stories. A review of a poet’s novel never fails to say, “This is a poet’s novel,” whereby the reader is relieved of any expectation that s/he might enjoy it. And there is the feeling among imaginative writers that when you write criticism, you have somehow gone over to the enemy. I don’t think so. Rather than argue, let me list a few names: Coleridge, Hardy, Lawrence, Eliot, Randall Jarrell, Elizabeth Bishop. And of course many, many more.