Sunday, September 19, 2021

'The Very Spectacle of Crowding, Hungry Life'

Oh, yes, I like the finished, formal work of art – the sonnet or crisply Chekhovian short story – but increasingly I favor casual, off-the-cuff work closer to the writer’s mundane being – diaries, letters, autobiographical fragments, blog posts and other nonce forms. I like reading the evidence of life lived. Such writings, William Maxwell tells us, “do not spring from prestidigitation or require a long apprenticeship. They tell what happened – what people said and did and wore and ate and hoped for and were afraid of, and in detail after often unimaginable detail they refresh our idea of existence and hold oblivion at arm’s length.” 

On this date, September 19, in 1966, Maxwell’s friend Louise Bogan begins a letter to her friend Ruth Limmer: “It is difficult to see the world run by anything but a demon (the universe, too). The only hope is: that there must be an edge (a sort of selvage) of good, that holds and defines.”


Selvage is an old word meaning the strip of material sewn on the edge of fabric to prevent unraveling. Bogan’s usage suggests a dubious stay against entropy. She continues:


“And, of course, the very spectacle of crowding, hungry life, crowding into every crack and cranny of the material situation (cracking the Manhattan schist with an oak tree, as well as the spectacle of a piece of lichen accumulating in a crack of same) should continually excite, if not reassure us.”


I too am reassured by the presence of clinging, swarming scrounging, opportunistic life – the weed in the sidewalk, the silverfish in the bathtub.


[Bogan’s letter is in A Poet’s Prose: Selected Writings of Louise Bogan (ed. Mary Kinzie, Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2005). The passage by Maxwell is from his introductory note to The Outermost Dream: Literary Sketches (Knopf, 1989)].

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