Apr/May 2019 Nonfiction

What The Smart People Think

by Sydney Lea

Excerpted imagery from photography by Kris Saknussemm

Excerpted imagery from photography by Kris Saknussemm

To begin with, let me quote a bit from something written for George Jones in the 1990s by Nashville veterans Randy Boudreaux, Sam Hogin, and Kim Williams:

I started drinking and actin' crazy
Way back in sixty five
Mama would pray and say, he's my baby
Lord, please keep him alive

Sister came home with two little children
Her man had left her alone
Mama knew too well the hurt she was feelin'
'Cause daddy had been gone so long

We all did our part to add to her pain
We all broke her heart but she never complained
She loved a lot in her time
She watched love grow and die on the vine

She stood in the shadows
So others could shine
She loved a lot in her time

In due course, the song reports that Mama's prayers have been answered: George has sobered up, his sister has "remarried to a good ol' boy—they don't live far from here," and Mama has "gone on home." So the tale concludes:

The words in our hearts
Are engraved on her stone:
She loved a lot in her time.

All I have to say in this essay—not so oddly at all, as I hope to show—has been spurred by this song, which, the last few mornings, I've found myself singing when I wake up, trying and of course failing to catch the late country star's inimitable "high lonesome" intonations.

I'll get back to such a matter, but I need to provide some backstory, which may at first seem unconnected.

For one who spent all his professional life in rather tony English departments, I'm a person whose formal literary education has been pretty spotty. Whatever my secondary school's virtues, by and large they did not include its English teachers. These men were not "literary" in any way I would later be expected—and would pretend—to be.

One of those teachers was an affable but extremely lazy southern gentleman (Mr. M.) who assigned a lot of papers but read them with little care if he read them at all. Indeed, my clique of friends often inserted wise-guy asides into our texts to prove his lack of rigor. I recall one of my own: If you get this far, Mr. M., I'll buy you a steak sandwich. None of us ever got found out.

I pulled my most outrageous prank in a sophomore term paper, whose subject was a much under-noticed 19th-century author named Erwin Fiske. I quoted at length from his voluminous and once-popular work, and I ended with the ardent hope that his consignment to literary oblivion might be remedied.

This proved, alas, a vain hope, but only because Mr. Fiske's disappearance into oblivion came of his nonexistence. The author, along with all the works I cited, was a product of my own subversive imagination.

M. nonetheless rewarded me with an A and, in his final remarks, commended me for my devotion to Fiske's resurrection. I'm sure he simply skipped from page one of my screed to the final page, got the gist, and slapped on the metaphoric gold star.

The best of my English teachers, Mr. A., to whom I do owe a very considerable debt, made no real pretense of being a belletristic type. He'd been a journalist for years, and thus owned a keen eye for the sort of filler and froth with which I liked to lace my prose (as perhaps in unguarded moments I still do).

One valuable thing Mr. A. did was to invite various members of the community into the classroom so that we students could interview them. Wisely, the teacher did not limit these guests to the allegedly distinguished among us: we were as apt to query the janitor as the bank president. We not only had to prepare our questions but also to write up articles on these sessions by the very day after they'd been held.

The true virtue of studying with Mr. A, then, was that he had us write and write—and write some more; and he was scrupulous and deft in his critiques of affectation. B.S. was the flavor of the day each time we wrote for Mr. M., but Mr. A. wanted lucidity and concision. He once told me he saw nothing wrong with the theme I'd given him that couldn't be rectified by a simple procedure. "Find a stiff scrub brush," he counseled, "use it, and let me see the results tomorrow."

Practice made perfect. Or no, not perfect, but, thanks to A., practice gave me sufficient mastery of exposition that I placed into an advanced English course when I entered college. It was an excellent survey, taught by a professor named James Boulger, who for whatever reason did not make the tenure cut at Yale in subsequent years. Together, we considered Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, and Eliot in that order.

I labored for a spell to find the sophisticated critical manner (in many cases, more stylistic than substantial) of my prep school peers, but in fact I did very well in that curriculum, and to this day, I feel I know these six poets as well as I do most writers in the Anglo-American canon.

I continued to take English courses and to do honors and high honors work in them, but I had no grand design, no strategic path toward command of anglophone literary history, themes, or techniques. I assumed that such a path would be laid out for me once—at the end of sophomore year—I declared as an English major.

Which, as it turns out, I did not do. At the very last minute, under the influence of a charismatic senior I admired, I elected a special divisional honors major. It was, essentially, an intellectual history program, arranged by units: I remember a fascinating one called "Vienna, 1900," for example, in which we considered the paintings of Klimt and Schiele, the music of Mahler, the pioneering texts of Freud, the frightening Mein Kampf, and so on. We sought—rather presumptuously, in retrospect—to arrive at synthetic views of crucial moments and movements in the evolution of culture. (We were not advised, as we would rightly have been some decades later, to remember that it was western culture we examined.)

Come senior year, each of us chose an honors thesis topic. I wrote a rambling paper on the gifted, fascistic French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline. This was an intriguing but perhaps eccentric choice, as I see it now.

After graduation, and a one-year stint of teaching English and French in a private school, a job that felt far too taxing to pursue for a day longer than that, and, frankly, by way of ducking the new war in Vietnam that had already killed one of my college roommates, I decided to go to graduate school.

Virtually all my interests were literary, yet once again I chose an inter-disciplinary route, returning to Yale as a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies. While I took some valuable and absorbing courses, especially in American political and religious movements, once more I began choosing English and American literature offerings to the near exclusion of others.

At the close of one fine course—Four Modern American Poets: Pound, Eliot, Stevens, and Williams—Professor Louis Martz told me, "You really ought to be an English Ph.D. That, or Comparative Literature. There's where your passions lie." So, having successfully petitioned the American Studies department for an M.A., I did seek a transfer, choosing the Comp Lit option.

What was this anti-concentrative instinct in me? What is it now? I can't fully answer my own question. Nor did I then know that Comparative Literature was the chief incubator of capital-T Theory, of which, like Flannery O'Connor, I am "constitutionally innocent."

The results have of course been predictable: even after 43 years of teaching at rather prestigious institutions (the latter half of that time, to be sure, as a so-called teacher of so-called creative writing); even after four decades-plus of trying to catch up, at 75 there remain great gaps in my command of the English-language canon, old-style or "open."

If you asked me to comment on 18th-century British literature, for example, I'd have damned little to say unless the conversation centered on Pope, with maybe a side comment or two on Dryden. Medieval lit for me is Chaucer, period. Apart from the monuments of Spenser, I am comfortable with a few poems by Wyatt, a greater number by Ben Jonson, and with the magisterial prose of The Book of Common Prayer (though I am familiar with that last for extra-academic reasons). And I do know Paradise Lost, frontwards and backwards. So much for the English Renaissance and, apart from some Herbert and Donne, the 16th and 17th centuries at large.

But what of Shakespeare, you ask? Well, in addition to my lack of education in some areas, I seem to have certain bizarre dyslexias, the greatest of which involves, precisely, the Bard's work, apart from the Sonnets and the major tragedies.

I should say, rather, I know the major tragedies exclusive of Hamlet, whose intricacies escape me almost the minute I finish re-reading the play; sitting here just now, I couldn't offer a crib notes version if you begged me. Apart from Hamlet himself and Ophelia, the play's characters run together in my mind. I can't remember, say, whether Laertes is admirable or contemptible. All I recall of Polonius is that he (I think it was he) hid behind some arras for some reason. There was a play within the play, but what was its drift? Search me. And so on.

I would come to suffer acutely from these inadequacies, or rather from my relentless effort to mask them. In the late 60s at Dartmouth, my first teaching post, for example, there was a sort of tacit daily expectation of English department personnel to spend some time in the coffee room. A few gimlet-eyed elders occupied certain seats there as surely as if they'd been assigned. The putative basis of such gatherings was camaraderie; the hidden agenda, however, was to sound out younger colleagues and to declare them worthy or otherwise. Of course, in my paranoia, I likely overestimated this darker motive... but it was there, all right.

The whole ritual felt rather Henry Jamesian in its archness and obliquity, and its threats, as I construed them, were veiled in wit. One elder, Thomas Vance, as well read a man as I have ever met, was not only a literary polymath but also uncannily able to quote immense swatches of material by heart. He would frequently do so and then, with a twinkle in his hazel eyes, assert, "Now that's pretty good (or bad)." If you were slow in your assent, he would sit back in his chair and muse, "Perhaps you don't agree"—whereupon I scrambled to offer my acquiescence, lest he query me further on my delinquent taste.

In fact, Tom soon proved a dear fellow, among the very few senior associates to encourage me in my early poetic efforts, for one thing, and he shortly became a real friend. Once we had established these closer relations, I admitted to him that my memory of our early dialogue consisted principally of my saying ,"Why, no, Tom, I don't think I have read that."

How well I remember the dread I tasted as I mounted the stairs of Sanborn House after a morning class. It didn't matter if my oversight of a particular session had been vibrant; such a petty triumph provided no solace. My stomach's contractions increased with every step.

Eventually, my modest successes as a writer of poetry, first and foremost, but also of fiction, personal essays, and even one volume of criticism, mollified some of my anxieties. Both as author and as founding editor of New England Review, I also knew great quantities of literary material of which those elders had been ignorant—particularly poetry after the Moderns. In many cases, they excused their unawareness by mocking the work of most living writers as trivial, unless, that is, they happened to be British; but I took some small satisfaction in sensing their embarrassment, though of course it must have been mild, compared to what mine had been at its severest.

Let me go back to that corny song from which I quoted at the outset.

Wait a moment. Did I just call it corny? This goes to show that, despite what I will be claiming henceforth, I harbor at least a touch of the old gut-clenching fear: I am not smart or sophisticated enough. That is, my choice of that very adjective shows how conditioned I became over time either to hiding certain enthusiasms that leaped to mind or to ironizing them. I had after all been exposed for quite a long while to the edicts of trained excellence.

My purpose in composing these thoughts is to purge such acquired behavior as completely as I can.

Now I know that "She Loved a Lot in Her Time," George Jones's tribute to his mother Clara, is not great poetry, necessarily, that its strong hold on my heart and soul derives primarily from the late singer's exquisite capacity to vocalize emotion. (Someone once said that Jones could sing the phone book and make a grown man cry.) But by God, that hold on heart and soul is strong, and I mean to stop apologizing for it.

No more masks, say I, stealing the title of Ellen Bass's and Florence Howe's brilliant feminist anthology of the 70s.

As I look back on where I was as a mere kid, on what happened, and on where I am at this very long-deferred moment, certain heroes shine in memory. Richard Hugo, a masterful poet whose reputation, unlike Erwin Fiske's, is now in what I hope to be temporary eclipse, proved a wonderful mentor when I decided that my ambitions were more poetic than scholarly. A lot more.

I once sent Dick a poem, along with a note in which I worried lest it be, precisely, corny. He had some criticisms, needless to say. I do not remember what they were. What I do remember is the last sentence of his reply: "If you aren't risking corn, well, you're not even in the ball game."

I likewise recall something the fabulous Maxine Kumin said in the middle 70s after a Bread Loaf lecture that had confused us both. The talk was delivered by what I suppose was a "postmodern" poet ahead of his time. Irony, verging on nihilism from my perspective, was at its core; that much we did understand. Maxine sighed and told me that, for her money anyhow, "Poetry is strong feeling presented in the best language a person can find to render it. Period."

Reductive? Well, yes, as she well knew. But that simplistic notion of a poem (or, in the case in point, a song) comes much closer to what I am looking for in life and art than does supercilious cool.

Both Hugo and Kumin helped set me on the path I have pursued as a poet myself, and as I've aged, that path has been widened by predilections I've had all along but have been hesitant to acknowledge, much less to exhibit.

Truth is, I know now, as I did from the start of my idiosyncratic academic career, all manner of things that those donnish elder academics had no idea of, including an all but endless range of American vernacular music, from the bluegrass tradition originating with Bill Monroe, to Hank Williams, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson—on and on. I'm likewise deeply attuned to the 12-bar triumphs of the great Delta bluesmen and their scions in R&B and Motown and soul. I'm quite conversant with the blues-derived music of great American jazz artists, too, especially masters from the late bop era of Monk, Mingus, Rollins, Roach, Davis, and the glorious rest.

At 75, it's about time to get unabashed about such knowledge, and to worry a lot less about my abiding ignorance of certain other creative efforts. No need to rehearse the dissimulation I practiced on my high school music teacher, say, a wonderful instructor at that, but one contemptuous of anything other than what he described as "true music." Quite daringly by community standards, for example, he introduced me to Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg, and I made a show of pledging allegiance, even if in all truth their serial music struck me—and still does—as simply unpleasant, especially compared, for example, to the lyrical and gut-wrenching splendors of Bobby Bland, Etta James, or Ray Charles. I'd as soon have shown my private diaries to Mr. C. as I would that side of my tastes. But things have changed. Better late than never.

Whatever has become of me as man and author, it took all the omissions and inclusions, deceptions and candors, steps and missteps, first and second thoughts that I have dimly presented here to make me that man and author. Having no choice this late in the game, I'm trying to celebrate the whole bewildering process, to acknowledge that in all my pursuits, Sam Cooke has been more important to me, for instance, than Samuel Johnson—and to feel no shame whatever in saying so.

So now, as the saw goes, I seem set in my ways. I'm aware that there can be real costs involved. There are too many historical instances of old men and women who have not "gotten it," and taken bumptious pride in missing the point: there are too many of them for me to believe myself immune from such blindness. My own children's lips lift into sneers when I admit, for instance, that what the rappers produce is neither music nor poetry to my ear, and, given that those children are if anything brighter than I am, no, I don't have much reason to doubt I'm overlooking something. So be it.

If, to choose a more recent example, I read the poetry of the late John Ashbery (which I quite scrupulously do not do anymore), and if I conclude that there must be some clever inside joke going on there that gets by me but is clear to the intelligentsia; if I find the man's poems to be so much gibberish, find them (along with other factors like that unreadable critical theory that has overtaken what used to be literature departments) inscrutable—if I find his opus to have spawned a mode of verse whose principal objective appears to be opacity: well, I am done with feeling stupid on that account.

Nolo contendere.

All I can say is, I don't care what the smart people think anymore.

There, that wasn't so hard, was it?

Hey, I feel pretty good.


Previous Piece Next Piece