Jeanette Winterson on Love, Past and Present

The world is so lucky to have the wonderful and wise Jeanette Winterson. In her latest piece for the Guardian, she explores the ways in which we remember past love relationships, and how these ways affect the present. With one of her classic, brilliant hooks, she begins with, “Nostalgia for lost love is cowardice disguised as poetry.”

It’s not that we shouldn’t have fond memories of past loves, or even regrets, she says.

But recognising the past as our past, and being able to groan, giggle, blush, sigh and play with those memories, is not the same as a corrosive secret infatuation with the idea of that special someone we managed to mislay. Sighing over a fantasy drains energy from reality. What happens in our heads isn’t private; it is unspoken, that’s all. We all know what it’s like to live in the stifling atmosphere of what is unsaid.

She goes on to discuss the hard work that real love demands and how she finally realized that she was running the same story through all her relationships. But the line that stays with me is the one that unveils the myth of privacy: What happens in our heads isn’t private, simply unspoken. How true, and how easy to convince oneself otherwise.

Winterson concludes by inviting readers to share their stories of lost love. For details, read the full piece here.

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“America I Saw You” by Bridget Meeds

When I taught Leaves of Grass a few years ago the students just didn’t buy it, though they loved Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Their rejection of Whitman’s grand American hope comes back to me every now and then. Was it the poetic claim to omnipresence that irritated them, or did Whitman’s egalitarian vision of hope seem like nothing but hype to young readers in a post-9/11 world, where climate has become a threat and employment prospects are grim at best?

This reaction was all the more striking when they embraced Edward Albee’s anxiety-ridden world of illusion and rage in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, so wonderfully captured onscreen by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.That world made perfect sense to them, and they loved it on paper and on film.

I thought of those students again when I recently read Bridget Meeds’ stunning Whitmanian poem, “America I Saw You.” Meeds brings the maker of American Religion into the 21st century, and I have a feeling my students would have loved it:

America, I Saw You

America, I saw you leaping from the burning skyscraper, believing in your urgency that you
would survive,
America, I saw you on the on-ramp, smiling with meth-brown teeth, holding a sign that said
“homeless and pregnant please help,”
America, I saw you huddled in the belly of a Chinook, earbudded and solitary,
America, I saw you up at four a.m., ironing your blouse for work,
America, I saw you punching a stop sign, screaming in Chinese,
America, I saw you looking straight with seventeen pounds of pot hidden in your spare tire,
America, I saw you texting while driving,
America, I saw you bite your father in a fury,
America, I saw you put on ten pounds,
America, I saw you walk the winning run,
America, I saw you asking for an epidural,
America, I saw you raise your hand to strike your child,
America, I saw you eating roadkill woodchuck.
America, I saw you drinking a kamikaze by the hotel pool,
America, I saw you at the Super Great Wall buffet with blue swastikas tattooed on your neck and
knuckles,
America, I saw you in your 87 Oldsmobile, wearing your best wig and sunglasses, God radio
blaring,
America, I saw you in your private helicopter above Manhattan, doing mental arithmetic,
America, I saw you walking a dog who was wearing a Hello Kitty t-shirt,
America, I saw you waving a white linen napkin from a broken window in the burning
skyscraper,
America, I saw you fall.

To get in touch with Bridget and find out more about her fabulous work, click here.

Narcissism and Culture

We often think of narcissism as a maladaptive personality trait, but what if the culture of neoliberal capitalism makes narcissism increasingly necessary? Here is Sarah Burnside’s review of Anne Manne’s book The Life of I, which offers a new look at narcissism as a cultural phenomenon, rather than simply as a personality flaw.

Should We Need to “Relate” to Art?

In this article New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead rejects “relatability” as a cultural “scourge,” as she comments on popular radio host Ira Glass’s tweeted response to a performance of King Lear: “Shakespeare sucks…No stakes, not relatable.”

Mead provides a quick survey of the rise of the use of “relatable” as a cultural demand vis-a-vis art, and she explains why it’s such a problem:

Identification with a character is one of the pleasures of reading, or of watching movies, or of seeing plays, though if it is where one’s engagement with the work begins, it should not be where critical thought ends. The concept of identification implies that the reader or viewer is, to some degree at least, actively engaged with the work in question: she is thinking herself into the experience of the characters on the page or screen or stage.

But to demand that a work be “relatable” expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.

Read this fine piece here. Then go read, watch, experience some art form that feels totally “unrelatable,” and see what happens.

Rereading Susan Faludi’s Backlash

This is a cool idea. If you’ve never read Susan Faludi’s bestseller Backlash, published in 1991, now’s a good time to do it. The book was groundbreaking because it documents the backlash against feminism that began in the 1980s and continues today, especially in terms of reproductive rights, but also in other ways.

Matter has started a summer book club, where different writers talk about each chapter of Backlash, and readers are invited to join the conversation, of course. Irin Carmon kicked off Chapter 1, and Donna Shalala, Roxanne Gay, and Rebecca Traister discuss Chapter 2 here. New responses to subsequent chapters will be released each week until the end of the summer. Have fun with this classic!

On Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle”

Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s has written a six-volume autobiography called My Struggle, the first part of which was published in 2009 in Norwegian, with the first three books published in English translation in the past several years. The first book received a glowing review in The New Yorker and books two and three were likewise praised in The New York Times.

All these reviews have noted the minute detail with which the author chronicles his everyday life, and in the Times’ review of book three, Rivka Galchen raises the issue of gender:

If “My Struggle” — which is arguably most engrossing when it describes the care of children in what feels like minute-to-minute detail — were written from the point of view of a woman, would it be the literary sensation it is?

She answers “I don’t think it would be,” but for her, the more important gender difference is actually part of the story itself:

That cultural norms are obtuse about men and women in such different ways is an essential part of Knausgaard’s predicament; he changes diapers, he cooks dinner, he is said to be pretty good-looking, he doesn’t talk about sex all that much — he often feels perceived as too feminine.

In contrast, Katie Roiphe’s commentary, published yesterday in Slate, takes the view that the cultural discrimination outside the book does matter. She, too, wonders

what would happen if the literary sensation were written not by the handsome Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard but by Carla Olivia Krauss of Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.

Her answer is that readers and critics would find the author “narcissistic, well-traveled, self-indulgent.” But, refreshingly, she doesn’t use this as an excuse to reject Knausgaard’s work, in part because it’s more complicated than a simple male-female divide:

I am not trying to make the point that male readers and critics would dismiss Carla, which they would, but that female readers and critics would as well. I mention this because of the enduring fantasy of a shadowy male literary establishment that discriminates against women writers, when in fact the discrimination is much trickier and more pervasive than that.

Well, I would hardly call the male literary establishment shadowy; it is, in fact, rather blatant, but Roiphe’s point that both men and women enact discrimination against women is also valid. Read her full commentary here.

The key point is that debates like these inspire me to read Knausgaard’s work––and to encourage the Carla Krausses of the world.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116: Impediment Removed

Have you ever read something for years and felt like you never quite got it and then one day it finally clicked? This has happened to me with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. It’s the one that insists on love as constant and (by implication) true lovers as faithful until the “edge of doom”:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments; love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove.

O no, it is an ever-fixed mark

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wand’ring bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his heighth be taken.

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s compass come;

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error and upon me proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

The meaning is clear enough, but I’ve always felt a little cool toward this poem, admiring its virtuosity but not really loving it for some reason. The language has always seemed a bit oddly formal compared to many of the other sonnets, with their precise but colloquial language. Like those brilliant lines in Sonnet 130 (My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun): “I grant I never saw a goddess go – / My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.”

The other thing is that this sonnet doesn’t seem to be addressing anyone in particular, unlike so many others in its group, the first 126 sonnets dedicated to the young man. By comparison, this poem can read like a boring and not especially convincing PSA. Thank you mom for telling me about true love. Can I have the car keys now?

But 116 comes alive if we read it not as a declaration but as a rebuttal, as the lover talking directly back to the young man, despite the lack of obvious direct address. A few clues invite this reading: The sonnet comes toward the end of those addressed to the young man; many of these later poems, especially 87-90, but others too, chronicle the failure of a love relationship. The young man has evidently moved on to greener pastures.

The poem is also full of “not,” “no,” and “never” (lines 1, 2, 5, 6, 9, 11, 14), a hint that the lover is not just making some noble claim about true love; he is arguing against something and responding to someone.

What’s the situation and the argument he rejects? The language of 116 suggests it is something like this: In the process of dumping him, the young man claims, “Things have changed (altered)… I need space…new impediments have arisen.” All the dull standbys when somebody is lame and just wants out.

The lover savagely calls him on it. Well, you can run that crap if you want, but “let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments.” You can say things have changed, but I say that true love is an “ever-fixed mark.” Love is not this; it is that; x, y, and z don’t matter; what matters is faith and constancy.

The lover also implies that the real issue is the young man’s superficial attachment to beauty, and he attacks this by saying love is stronger than the passing of time and the rosy lips and cheeks that time will eventually ravage.

The idea of a rebuttal makes this poem comprehensible, and makes perfect sense coming from Shakespeare the playwright. And I love this reading, which I learned from Stephen Burt’s and David Mikics’s The Art of the Sonnet and Helen Vendler’s classic, The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, because it reminds us not only of what good poetry is but what it does.

The best lyric engages some real person, thing, or situation. It can be a lover, or death, or birth, or something far more ordinary but still profound in its way, like the shock of fresh cream, an afternoon flower, the weird shadow behind the door, the annoying socks you keep having to pick up.

For me, imagining a context for 116 doesn’t just bring the poem to life; it makes it burst into life, reminding us that poetry–all art–is part of life, not some frivolous decoration of it.

Both writing and reading a good poem means there is something at stake. Find it and prosper.