Writing for posterity may be as old as writing itself. Poets, novelists, essayists, and philosophers all write with the hope that their work will survive them — even if they deny it — living on to touch new readers in distant ages.
Some writers never lived to see their work gain an audience or even a small, devoted readership. Some, like Robert Browning, obsessed about it.
Alas, the quote from Walter Lowenfels that adorns this blog is a daily reminder to me of the fate of almost all of us.
How much of our writing will survive, will last, will live to find readers throughout our lifetime and beyond?
I was struck by this question twice this week.
The first was Tuesday night, having dinner with twin brother poets Dan and David Simpson. We were talking about the fact that none of the three of us had published collections of our work, despite “success” placing individual poems in journals and magazines, and the awards and accolades we’ve received over the years.
David told of an encounter with a writing mentor who reviewed his draft manuscript. The mentor suggested they each go through the script and rate the poems numerically: 1, 2, 3; then they would compare the results and see what came of it.
My friend was dumbfounded that the mentor found so few 1s among the collection — really only a few — and only a few 2s as well. The 3s weren’t even worth mentioning and probably should be discarded, suggested the mentor.
Bruised as David’s ego was by the experience, I found some solace in it.
“So, okay, we can agree that none of us are The Beatles,” I offered. “But we could be, say, The Guess Who.” (That group had only had one number 1 single, “American Woman,” for three weeks May 9 -29, 1970, yet we all know the song and you probably have it streaming in your head right now at its mere mention.)
We agreed that we would be lucky to have one “hit” poem continue to be read by people after our deaths. We’d be delighted if a handful survive us, yet it’s helpful to have some perspective.
A few days later I received a request for permission to reprint a piece of writing I did in 1993. This is the most widely reprinted thing I’ve written and, I’m afraid, will likely survive any and all of my creative work.
The piece is a review of N. Scott Momaday‘s In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961-1991 that I wrote for The Bloomsbury Review. I have had more requests to reprint that one 1500-word review than any other piece of writing I have done — ever.
I re-read the piece this morning — it’s not a bad piece of writing, as reviews go, and certainly lives up to eNotes’ description: “Anderson provides a thematic and stylistic review of In the Presence of the Sun.”
Yet, when I wrote the review, I never imagined it would be my most cited, most reprinted, perhaps even my most read piece of writing.
If only the strong survive may this piece rock on.
I like to listen to music when I’m making pizza. Loud music, usually cranked up as high as my computer’s external speakers will allow.
My 15-year-old son wandered into the kitchen while the last song (the hidden track), “Endless, Nameless,” filled the kitchen with sonic noise.
“What the heck is that?” he asked.
“Nirvana,” I answered, although I always thought that track sounded more like my old band Active Driveway than the rest of Nevermind.
“What’s so great about them?” he asked. I switched to the opening track, their breakthrough song “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
“Yeah, that is good,” he admitted. Then we talked about how Kurt Cobain committed suicide.
He wanted to know why he did it. “Sometimes geniuses are so troubled they can’t cope with the pressures of life.”
Then I told him that a friend of mine, Peter Boyle, also killed himself with a shotgun five years before Cobain. Peter was an artist, too, deeply troubled — tortured even — and, like Cobain, addicted to heroin. Peter shot himself in the barn at his family’s farm; he was 37 years old. Cobain was 27. I won’t go into the significance of those ages, but you can read more here.
Peter was an amazing artist who worked in a very unusual medium: sugar. In fact, he wrote the book on blown and pulled sugar sculpting techniques, which came out the year before he died. His work had just been featured in a show, ”The Confectioner’s Art,” at the old American Craft Museum (November 1988-January 1989) in New York.
Peter tried to kill himself at least once before, that I knew about, while trying to quit heroin cold turkey. I intervened that time and suffered with him through a long night of his own personal Hell.
I wrote a poem about Peter and his suicide a some time later called “The Cartographer’s Gambit.” I changed the subject from a sugar sculptor to a cartographer; I’m not sure why, but it seemed to work.
Here is my poem, “The Cartographer’s Gambit”:
In the spindrift,
he outlines an island
for which there are no visas—
whose mapping is all too delectable,
whose charting is measured intensity.
Along these shores,
he conjures ochre bluffs, which resemble
well–turned ankles, the cleft of breast in a covescape,
and hillsides of amber light.
These are things he brought to life on paper, restless for rescue.
The uncharted territory
still gleaming in his eye—
a coastal mystery.
He lumbers, cools with the injection.
The seaboard nearly finished, dry land
his last frontier.
He reads Celine as open waters dry,
the cold spring chills him, he smokes a cigarette.
Deep within his blood, a fine line beckons—
with perfect geography.
Outside, the air is perfumed,
with a scent of powder.
Starlings prattle above him,
black, iridescent, oxymoronic:
a thousand triangles
of gun metal
fusing a jade sky.
Their opacity blinds him to reason.
Unable to move latitudinal or long,
he measures the scale of possibility,
sights his compass on true north and,
as the needle riddles the vein,
he dashes the coast with blue.
(In memoriam: Peter T. Boyle, 1952-1989)
–Scott Edward Anderson