Wednesday, December 21, 2016

`He Was Just What He Was'

“What he wanted to know was the inclusive story behind the appearances—the story behind this man’s or that woman’s conduct. When the story was not obvious, he would shake his head and say, `There must me something there.’”

That’s the working assumption behind the best stories and the best conversations. Those I’ve been a part of were never, strictly speaking, about ideas or their irritating little brothers, opinions. Gossip, even the viscous sort, is closer to good conversation than a monomaniac’s tutorial. Lecturers should stick to the lecture hall and leave talk to the amateurs. The observation above was made by Rollo Walter Brown (1880-1956), who, in his own time, was an American literary personage of some reputation. His books include How the French Boy Learns to Write (1915), Lonely Americans (1929) and On Writing the Biography of a Modest Man (1935). The only one I have read is Next Door to a Poet, published in 1937, the year after the death of its subject, Edwin Arlington Robinson.

Brown met Robinson in 1923 at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. He calls his slender little book “the memoir of a friendship.” It’s framed as a string of memories. Among them is Robinson’s recollection of a woman he knew who was “socially prominent in New York and Washington.” Brown describes Robinson’s storytelling:

“He did not tell it as if he were gossiping. He placed only a trifle more emphasis on certain amusing details than the psychopathic hospital might have done. By the time he was through with the evidence of this motive and that, she was not only a much simplified woman, but a symbol ready-to-hand for one of his poems.”

“Symbol” isn’t quite right. Robinson was never a symbol monger. He was, rather, a storyteller in verse. “Nugget of meaning,” a narrative seed, is closer. One of Robinson’s best poems is the longish “Isaac and Archibald” (Captain Craig: A Book of Poems, 1902). The poem encourages us to inhabit the lives of four characters – the old men named in the title, the narrator and the narrator’s younger self. This arrangement of sympathetic ties mirrors life and the way we preserve it and transform it in memory. Robinson’s poem is closer to the way a great novelist works – say, Tolstoy or James – than to a typical lyrical poet. Here is Isaac speaking of himself in the third person, as though he were already dead, urging the narrator to remember; the narrator’s act of remembrance as a man of the boy he was; and the boy’s tacit sense that Isaac’s words are important and deserve to be remembered:

“`Look at me, my boy,
And when the time shall come for you to see
That I must follow after him, try then
To think of me, to bring me back again,
Just as I was to-day. Think of the place
Where we are sitting now, and think of me—
Think of old Isaac as you knew him then,
When you set out with him in August once
To see old Archibald.’—The words come back
Almost as Isaac must have uttered them,
And there comes with them a dry memory
Of something in my throat that would not move.”

Robinson’s imaginative projection into people unlike himself makes our human sympathy possible. Put baldly, we want to know who these people are, why they do what they do, and why we share so much with them. Brown’s next illustration of Robinson’s curiosity about the human is projected onto another species:

“A great shiny green-black beetle was trying to climb the rough boulder wall by his doorstep. He stopped in the middle of a sentence. `I’ve been wondering ever since we came out here what that fellow was really up to. Do you suppose he knows, himself? Do you imagine he wants to go somewhere and knows where it is, or just feels that he must be going?’ We stood and watched. `I’d like to be that beetle for five minutes, just to know how things look to a beetle.’”

Brown recounts Robinson’s musings on the “motivations” of a pine tree, and concludes: “These efforts to find something inclusive that would explain the detail came more and more to center around the meaning of human existence.” And this: 

“He could not keep from being amused when anybody who wrote about him tried to put him in one of the neat categories: fatalistic; pessimistic; agnostic; religious. He was just what he was.”

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