The V Word: or More on Value

Now I’m 79.  I’ve written many hundreds of essays, 10 times that number of misbegotten drafts both early and late, and I begin to understand that failure is its own reward.  It is in the effort to close the distance between the work imagined and the work achieved wherein it is to be found that the ceaseless labor is the freedom of play, that what’s at stake isn’t a reflection in the mirror of fame but the escape from the prison of the self.

 

Lewis H. Lapham, “Old Masters,” New York Times Magazine.

Five of Five (Good Things)

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From an interview with poet August Kleinzahler:

INTERVIEWER

Recently Poetry posed a question about the social utility of poetry. Does that interest you?

KLEINZAHLER

No. I agree with Auden that “poetry makes nothing happen.” Nothing else needs to be said about it.

INTERVIEWER

One more: some argue that the only value of a work of art is the value others derive from it. Do you agree?

KLEINZAHLER

I don’t think of such imponderables as “the value of art.” I do think, however, no matter how difficult or opaque the work, the making of art is a profoundly social activity, even if it’s one-on-one with some sort of ideal reader who doesn’t exist.

Reading Virginia Woolf in Spitting Distance of 50; Part II

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One must keep on looking without for a second relaxing the intensity of emotion, the determination not to be put off, not to be bamboozled.  One must hold the scene — so — in a vice and let nothing come in and spoil it.  One wanted, she thought, dipping her brush deliberately, to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that’s a chair, that’s a table, and yet at the same time It’s a miracle, it’s an ecstasy.

To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

Reading Virginia Woolf, while standing in spitting distance of the age of fifty…

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…and a little strip of life presented itself before her eyes, her fifty years.  There it was before her — life.  Life:  she thought but did not finish her thought.  She took a look at life, for she had a clear sense of it there, something real, something private, which she shared neither with her children nor with her husband.  A sort of transaction went on between them, in which she was on one side, and life was on another, and she was always trying to get the better of it, as it was of her and sometimes they parleyed (when she sat alone); there were, she remembered, great reconciliation scenes; but for the most part, oddly enough, she must admit that she felt this thing that she called life terrible, hostile, and quick to pounce on you if you gave it a chance.  There were always the eternal problems:  suffering; death; the poor.  There was always a woman dying of cancer even here.  And yet she had said to all these children:  You shall go through with it.  To eight people she had said relentlessly that (and the bill for the greenhouse would be fifty pounds).  For that reason, knowing what was before them — love and ambition and being wretched alone in dreary places — she had often the feeling:  Why must they grow up and lose it all?  And then she said to herself, brandishing her sword at life, nonsense.  They will be perfectly happy…. 

— To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

Five Good Things

Five good things,  I tell my daughter as she leaves for school.  Because the weight of Twelve drags heavy on her shoulders lately, especially in the mornings, more of a burden than the overladen backpack middle school requires.  See if you can see five good things as you walk to school this morning.  

Earlier, I had a few free seconds with my cup of coffee before everyone woke up, so I glanced at the newspaper. Before I even realized what I’d started, I was halfway through an article about the Family Room set aside for private mourning in a building across the street from Ground Zero, about how, over time, it organically grew to be a sort of shrine:  grief made tangible.  The photograph of that room, full of objects and images of loved ones, was unbearable.

I realized that this morning I might need that quest for five good things as much as my daughter, who’d told me her Instagram feed when she woke up was a succession of burning buildings.  I shut the laptop and went for a walk.

A smattering of dried leaves in a brushstroke on the sidewalk:  fall is coming.  

The clump of beauty berries at the side of a neighbor’s house, so hazardous in its purpleness — how can any animal dream of consuming them, how could nature come up with them?  They’d be more at home with the brightly-colored plastic flotsam in the aisles at ToysRUs.

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Three pears balanced on the overpass railing.  Left there — why?  By whom?

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The usual suspects, the walkers I always see at this time of morning, when I myself am walking:  the smiling young man who often sports a t-shirt silkscreened to look like a tuxedo, a dapper fancy-dress that celebrates the day.  Is it is favorite shirt?  What is he always listening to, through those earphones?

His smile — beautiful.

The lean saturnine man who used to just walk a Great Dane but now walks Great Dane and Baby, his slow amble mainly just to allow his dog time to nose the curb, even though I like to think it says time, time, I have nothing but time, I am home every morning with a three-month old baby.  

The jogger I call the Victorian Strongman, with his drooping handlebar mustache and sideburns and his springy lope.

The spent-handkerchief crumple of the moonflower blooms along the fence; the snail meandering through the wet grass; the strength of my shadow as it travels the pavement.

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Five good things,  the leavening, life’s sweet.

… Since he belonged, even at the age of six, to that great clan which cannot keep this feeling separate from that, but must let future prospects, their joys and sorrows, cloud what is actually at hand, since to such people…any turn in the wheel of sensation has the power to crystallize and transfix the moment upon which its gloom or radiance rests, James Ramsey, sitting on the floor cutting out pages from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy Stores, endowed the picture of a refrigerator as his mother spoke with heavenly bliss.  It was fringed with joy.

—To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf