Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Poet Persona

Last summer, my big heavy book was the correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. I kept thinking about Bishop's work and her life. Her poems (and I'm sure I'm repeating myself here) are nearly perfect; I would probably kill to write poems like that. But would I have wanted her life? She had sorrows early and late in life, suffered from asthma and alcoholism, and seemed always to be worrying about money. In the letters, she is always promising to take trips to see Lowell and other people, and rarely follows through - whether due to money, the vagaries of the Brazilian government (she lived in Brazil for many years), or something to do with Lota, her longtime partner. I got the sense that sometimes she felt stuck in Brazil. On the other hand, her isolated geographic position allowed her to be dismissive of things like awards, readings, and teaching honors - all of which she seems to have disliked.

This got me thinking about some of my favorite poets' lives, and whether I'd like being in them. While I certainly wouldn't say no to James Merrill's independent wealth (read: time to read and write and travel all the time), it doesn't sound like his childhood was any picnic. And even though he had lots of friends and lovers, there's something lonely in his poems, especially the later ones.

Then there's Philip Larkin, a fellow librarian. I love his sharp, dry poems, and his Collected Poems is the book I give to friends who claim not to like poetry. According to the Poetry Foundation, he hated the limelight even more than Bishop, and grew more and more reclusive after publishing his last book in 1974 (he died in 1985). He appears to have been a serial romantic partner (sometimes monogamous, sometimes not, but apparently with the agreement of the other parties). I admire that he managed to be both a good librarian and a good poet. But it does seem like he was terribly cranky most of the time.

And finally, there is Amy Clampitt, whose appearance on an episode of the Poetry off the Shelf podcast I was listening to this morning jump-started this whole line of thought. I had never heard of Clampitt until we studied her in a class I took my senior year in college. My professor invited a critic who'd known her to talk to the class, and the details of her life delighted me. She published her first book at age 54 - a fact that comforts me when I get all Sylvia Plath-y about how time is ticking away on me as a poet and a person. (Notice I left SP out of this entry altogether. Clearly.) And Clampitt was also a reference librarian, for the Audubon Society. The visiting critic told us that she met her partner at a Communist rally when they were both on the older side, and that they kept separate apartments. They only got married when one of them was dying (can't remember if it was him or her) so there wouldn't be legal trouble. There was a poet on the podcast who's currently living in her house in Western Mass. on a residency. (I kind of want to apply.)

And her poems - while they don't blow me away every time - are really good. They're about - and I swore I wouldn't mention the David Lipsky book about DFW till later, but I have to - about the kinds of things DFW said, in that book, that poetry needs to be about for people to care about it again: the 9-to-5, and married people sleeping in the same bed. (I can't seem to find the exact quote.) So yeah, I guess Amy Clampitt is as close to a poetic idol as I'm going to get.

(All these poets are bio-ed and critic-ed and bibliographied very well over at the Poetry Foundation.)

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Infinite Jest Diary #9: Final Thoughts

So I finished the book last Thursday night, and had to plunge the next day into a series of social engagements and obligations, so could not post to the blog.

I finished the book around 11 PM, then spent about an hour and a half searching online (and reading a lot of the Infinite Summer posts) to see what various members of the community of readers thought about the ending and the book as a whole. There is a quote by DFW about the end that I kept coming across, and that I think is very appropriate, but it sort of spoils it from the beginning if you read it and haven't read the book. So I'll just link to one of the places I found it, a blog post with some other interesting ideas about the book. Scroll down to just below the image of a map.

What I can say without spoiling anything, I think, is this: what's insane about this book is that it immediately demands to be read again. Not because it was so much fun the first time around, but because in order to understand it, you really do have to read it again. At least the way I'd been reading the book. Maybe if I'd read it in a shorter amount of time, I would have been more aware of what to be looking for and how to be reading. Also, DFW's original title for this book was A Failed Entertainment. That works too, I guess, but Infinite Jest is a perfect title. It works on many different levels, more than I thought in the middle of the book.

I'm glad I read Infinite Jest. Yes, I have questions without answers. Some things in the book lead nowhere. Some are only suspected of leading somewhere. DFW withholds some information, and gives you what feels like way too much of other information. People and events and tragedy and comedy and violence and consumerism and entertainment are all exaggerated, because that's the kind of world the book is set in. I believe the book is meant to challenge its readers, and that meeting all the book's challenges as a single reader is impossible. It demands study and speculation. And for that, I have to say, I come away from the experience with more awe than annoyance.