Roger Shattuck [left], author of The Banquet Years, is here giving lectures on Montaigne, Chekhov, and Proust. Shattuck, 72, in white turtleneck under a mint-green V-neck pullover, looks trim and fit, like a genial Jack Palance in mustache and goatee. Shattuck speaks naturally in maxims. I like it when he says that “It’s impossible to paraphrase any successful poem or story, and therefore we must do it.” Our assignment is to write fifty-word summaries of two Chekhov stories. Nashvillean Anne Doolittle summarized “Mire” in fourteen words: “A woman of wit and intelligence makes a living the only way she can.” Competitive as ever, I come up with a twenty-word reduction of Ulysses -- “Every man goes out on an odyssey every day, but not every man has a faithful wife to return to” -- but keep it to myself because Chekhov didn’t write Ulysses.
At lunch Shattuck and I talk about how much we abhor the displacement of literature by critical theory. I must have made some crack or pun, because Shattuck turned to me and said, “Has anyone ever told you you resemble Woody Allen?” “No,” I lied. “You’re the first.” This prompted two other people to compare me to Rudy Vallee in The Palm Beach Story, adding, once they saw the stricken look on my face, that they meant it as a compliment.
Inspired by Shattuck, who would outlaw “text” as a term for poem or story, George Packer thinks we ought to make up an index of forbidden words. He would ban “place” (as in “I’m coming from a different place”) and “voice” (“she has found her authentic voice”) in workshops. Tom Ellis despises “issues” (“there are issues of homophobia here”). As for me, the words I most hate hearing at a poetry reading include the verbs “cupped” and “cradled,” the noun “scrim,” and the three-poem-warning: “I’ll just read three more poems.” Tonight is my turn to read. I’ll be reading a bunch of short poems. I relish the moment when I can say, “Just thirty-three more.”
Last night I had to introduce the readers. This is always an odd assignment, since the persons to be “introduced” are already well-known to us. I like doing it in verse. “If I were a consonant looking for a vowel, / or Allen Ginsberg on the day he wrote `Howl,’ / or an employee of Bell & Howell, / tempted by the spoonerism Hell and Bowel, / I’d have exhausted nearly all the rhymes for Robert McDowell. / But I’ll not throw in the towel.”
Had meetings with two of the students I’m going to work with over the next six months. Very excited about some ideas for poems that Sloane Miller and I came up with together: a poem about forks; a prose poem called “Aida,” narrating the plot of the opera as imagined by a teenager watching a performance without preconception, preparation, or Italian; a poem beginning with the line, “This is the most serious poem I have ever written.”
For the time I’m here I’m using an office belonging to a faculty member on leave, who fearlessly annotates his books. About Dostoyevsky’s “The Gambler”: “very weak book.” Much of “Ulysses” he considers confused, but at one point he interrupted his reading of “Dubliners” to exclaim with evident surprise, “three good stories in a row!”
-- David Lehman