VINTAGE GEMS Gwyneth Lewis

NWR Issue 91

The Poet I Might Have Been

Both returns were similar. Huge amounts of luggage to negotiate at the airport, preceded by a necessary sifting of books, notes, clothes. This time my stay in America was two years, one in Harvard, the other in California. Our landlord and his wife drove me to San Francisco airport. Last time I lived in America, it was for three years in all, two of them in New York. International travel was looser then, and I bribed the taxi driver to direct my excess baggage down a mysterious chute which, he assured me, would send it onto my London flight. Two departures: one aged twenty-six, the other aged fifty. In 1985, I remember catching a stranger’s eye in the check-in line, even though I’d just left my boyfriend in Manhattan. At fifty, and married, I know the virtues of drinking a lot of fluids on an international flight, of taking a prophylactic aspirin against the danger of deep-vein thrombosis.

My leaving America to come back to Britain in 1985 was touch and go, nearly didn’t happen. Had I not talked to my employer that afternoon, when he urged me to go back to the UK, saying that the excitements of New York would always be there but that home isn’t an infinitely renewable option… Had I married Peter, the painter who owned his own loft in the East Village, living in view of the ballet studio in the building opposite… Had I become an American writer.

In my twenties, I remember sitting in a diner on Broadway with two writers who were, like me, interns on the magazine Parnassus. The periodical was run from a tiny office in editor Herb Leibowitz’s apartment. On the days when the three of us were in, one of us had to edit from Herb’s bed. My colleagues were quizzing me about the politics of writing in Welsh versus English. I had yet to work out how I felt about writing in either – let alone both – and I remember declaring that I wished I were American, so that I could ‘just write’ without the pain of cultural scruple. I wanted what I perceived to be the ease of the American stance, its confident melting-pot mentality. I know now, of course, that American writers suffer from their own anxieties and that the capacity to endure unease may be at the core of what it is to be a writer.

So what really decided me to leave the US in the 1980s and to face my demons back home? It was simple: a friend pointed out that I’d have become an American poet. I’d been studying with Derek Walcott at Columbia University in New York, and he had emphasised to us how writers used the fundamental verbal gestures of their native dialect to open some of their best poems. He quoted Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘I remember a house where all were good / To me, God knows, deserving no such thing’ and Browning’s ‘That’s my last Duchess, painted on the wall.’ After three years in the States, the rhythm of my speech was already changing. I softened my ts and rs and the stress patterns of my Welsh sentences were being pulled towards an American shape, like a needle deflecting from true to magnetic north. Joseph Brodsky swore that he could always tell if a poem was American by the third line, because its rhythmic trajectory was somehow flatter and more abstract than its European counterpart.

Hanging out with Nobel laureates who were teaching in the crack Master of Fine Arts programmes didn’t change the fact that earning a living as a writer in the US was going to be crushingly difficult for me. Although I’d started to produce what looked like poems, I was nowhere near having a manuscript ready for publication. A research grant to do a DPhil at Oxford offered a welcome financial stability. That was only four thousand pounds a year, but it seemed like riches to me. I’d just turned down a chance to waitress in a Wall Street lunchtime restaurant where the tips were, my friend told me, very generous. I came back to New York in 1989 and was chilled to meet the same girl by chance in a mid-town diner, working the graveyard shift. By then I was working at my first job in television. Clearly, it was really easy to go down the tubes in Manhattan, with all its resultant adverse effects on morale.

So how would I have earned a living? If I’d been motivated by money, I would have stuck with wealthy Peter and been supported by him. We’d have had children but then he would have died young of pancreatic cancer. This is assuming that we would have lasted the course together. I was launching on the worst of my drinking and any half sane man – which he was – would have run a mile. Teaching in an American university would have been beyond my reach, as I wasn’t a celebrity in exile nor did I have an MFA.

As it was, in the UK, I was able to earn a living, first by working in television and then as a freelance writer, juggling a combination of commissions, readings, broadcasting and teaching. In the US almost all the writers I know have jobs in MFA programmes. It seems that the rest of American culture can’t or won’t support writers. This is a really crucial point because it affects the whole tenor of American writing. In the UK, largely because of the BBC’s role as a cultural patron and the way the arts have been funded up till now, there’s still a belief in an audience for writing outside the universities. This seems to have been almost entirely lost in America and with it, a whole stance towards the reader. Unless you’re Garrison Keillor, whose Prairie Home Companion is a brand with a particular kind of down-home sentimentality, the writer is absent from American public life. Sure, Elizabeth Alexander read a poem at Barack Obama’s inauguration, but the producers of that event placed her after his swearing-in and the television coverage of her reading showed crowds of people leaving, giving the erroneous but damaging impression that the poem had driven them away.

When I got back from the US in 1985, it seemed to me as if British poetry was still stuck in a smallness, which has also characterised the British novel, which was usually about angst-ridden families in Hampstead. Twenty-five years later, there’s been an explosion in British poetry, which has been rejuvenated by voices from outside the centre. Conversely, American poetry, I feel, has lost its confidence in its audience. At its worst, it seems to be addressing nobody else than other poets. It’s hard to see how this could be avoided if your salary, publishing and reading circuits are all in academia. Inevitably, there’s a system of patronage within the universities, with professors admitting and promoting the work of students in their own image. Hence we have the Iowa, Stanford and Harvard ‘stables’. I’m not sure that I would like to depend on pleasing another poet – with all their human failings – in order to earn a living.

And yet there are people who manage to buck the trend. Kay Ryan, the last Poet Laureate of the US, worked for thirty years teaching general literacy in a Community College. I met her at a reception at Stanford, where we laughed about being two guerrillas in academia. Later, I heard a student in the Stegner programme there comment on the fact that, as Poet Laureate, Kay Ryan ‘sets the tone’ of contemporary poetry. Had she heard that, I’m sure that Kay would have giggled at being perceived as a kind of Head Girl of poetry. Later on, that student will see that one of the great joys and terrible things about writing is that nobody can grade you and that people are never ‘placed’ in class order.

I came across a classmate of mine from Columbia days at a poetry reading and was shocked when he asked me what was my power base? I couldn’t answer because the question makes no sense to me. It seems to me that the pursuit of power with and through poetry is anathema to its very essence. Poetic language unsettles, disrobes and undermines and if it’s doing anything else it’s become corrupt. The material rewards are so meagre that it makes no sense at all to betray the point of poetry for tinsel. Better to be an usurer and have done with integrity.

Assuming I’d survived alcoholism and found teaching work, how might I be writing, had I stayed in the US when I was twenty-six? I would like to have acquired the American ability to address classical culture without feeling an automatic twinge of inferiority. This takes a certain earnestness but I admire the high seriousness of, say, Louise Glück and her handling of the Persephone myth. Humour would be in short supply, although Kay Ryan’s The Best of It, with its philosophical wit, is a glorious counter-example, as is the phenomenally popular Billy Collins. I hope I wouldn’t be intoning abstract poems about the nature of perception mimicking, say, Jorie Graham and doing it badly.

And if I had stayed in the US all those years, how would I feel about coming home? Afraid, no doubt. Aware of not having dared to explore what kind of poetry I might write in Welsh, with a sense of not having appeased my forefathers, of having been impious to the internal gods that guard productivity. I’d have had a more abstract eye, more atuned to the broad sky in blank windows and less to the human details in the rooms behind. I’d have lost belief in the general reader and his or her ability to perceive the paradoxes of life in our common language. I’d have a sense of being an evolutionary anomaly as a poet, while thinking of myself as a teacher rather than as a jobbing writer.

I’d be thinner, more groomed. The arrivals lounge and the streets would look small. I’d speak with a mid-Atlantic drawl. But I think I would have lost my soul because what’s conscious in writing you can count as lost and a language ignored would be taking its psychic revenge on me.

On the other hand, it might all have worked out. As it is, I’ve been grateful to have another period in America even though, my sense is that it hasn’t improved as a country since the 1980s. Despite the euphoria of seeing Barack Obama elected and inaugurated, the discourse of fear-mongering and naked selfishness is more overt, moral and social tolerance in much shorter supply. In the 1980s it was just possible to survive on little money in Manhattan. In the noughties, I would have to consider moving to post-industrial Detroit for low rents and an alternative artistic community.

I remember doing an afternoon’s research for an oil tycoon in Manhattan. The work was simple and paid pretty well. I met the owner of the company in the lift on the way down, started to talk. He offered me a lift uptown in his car and began to quiz me about what I did. ‘I’m a poet,’ I said. There was a pause. Then, softly he said in a paternal voice, ‘Oh, honey, wake up.’ I was awake but knowing what I know now about the hazards of the creative life, I share his concern for my younger self in America. I’d have said Come home, because much though I love American poetry, writing isn’t a matter of choosing which club you play for but, if you’re lucky, of being picked. It’s a question of who or what you represent and that’s formed long before your conscious desires. Learn from America but be sure to come home.


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