“Excitement comes from being lazy and fun loving. O’Hara worked hard, but he also took it easy. His Collected Poems are a manifesto of the high aesthetic rewards that accrue from a life—albeit a tragically abbreviated life—of taking easiness as the gold standard. Like Warhol’s professed love of easy art (or art that was easy to make), O’Hara’s love of easeful production stood in ironic contrast to the uneasy intensity that electrifies his work and complicates its every emotional posture, threading melancholy and ambivalence and the threat of self-loss into the most apparently insouciant exclamations.”
That’s from a lyric essay by the poet-scholar Wayne Koestenbaum. I just taught it, asking the students to choose quotes they wanted to discuss, and the above paragraph was a favorite. O’Hara, like Allen Ginsberg, made his name in the 1950s, when poets were especially interested in improvisation, process, and generally distinguishing themselves from Protestant-work-ethic-obsessed besuited capitalist businessmen. I realized, as we discussed O’Hara’s poems and Koestenbaum’s take on them, what a far cry this is from how I hear any poet discuss poetry today. Poets talk about being busy and stressed; about how disrespected we feel by markets that pay nothing and send us belated, cold-hearted form rejections; how complex our craft is. At least, my friends and I do. Even first drafts, which once came easily to me, don’t seem to, lately. I’m interrupted by self-questioning. Am a digging deeply enough into difficult emotions or ideas because, as O’Hara agreed, this can be a terrible world? Are the stakes of this piece, I ask midstream or before even starting, really high enough for me to spend so much time on it? (What a tellingly economic verb for devoting time: spending it.)
And, of course, part of Koestenbaum’s point is that these poems look easy, but really they’re not. It’s not that I disagree. This essay is terrific–smart, innovative–but it’s also a demonstration of how it’s not easy to be a critic discussing easy-seeming poems, a move we scholar-professors make a living by. Don’t try this at home, kids. Better take some of my classes first.
I think often about how to find intersections between work and pleasure. The classroom usually exists in that happy zone, because my students are good and I get to choose the readings. But pleasure isn’t the same as ease. What would it take to become that playful again and hear other writers talk about ease, too? Would it jeopardize university patronage of the arts, is that why we can’t? We need to conduct experiments and spend long hours at the lab to compete with other disciplines? Or was ease just a lie, a performance, in the first place?
It’s easier to ask these questions, of course, than it would be to answer them. And writing them down in this space feels easier than prepping for the next class, and WAY easier than preparing for the next annual evaluation meeting I’m having one by one with my colleagues, although I try to make them celebratory compliment sandwiches (thank you! great work! thank you! one suggestion. thank you thank you!). As Department Head, I prepped for and conducted four of those meetings this week, and have four more per week to do for weeks yet.
Since I only have one class this term, these tasks still add up to more reasonable work hours than I struggled through last term, for which I am grateful. I’m also thankful to have good colleagues, about whose not-easy work there is so much to praise.
Otherwise I’m prepping for a two-hour workshop I’m co-leading at a winery a week from tomorrow: Writing for Change, hosted by Stone Soup Books at Barren Ridge Winery in Fishersville, VA on 1/28 from 2-4 pm. There’s a small registration fee. It’s not a piece of cake planning these things, but it is fun, and I’m looking forward to some conversation, writing exercises, and maybe a glass of bubbly.
I’ll sign off with a few moments I liked from Biennale exhibits in Kochi (the featured image above is the view from the exhibit space). That’s a fun thing about taking in arts I don’t practice–I can enjoy them or say “meh,” without any duty to judge or explain. The first is from a film by Martta Tuomaala that you can see here. I kept cracking up as I watched it, and more so as other people got irritated and left, but maybe that’s just my bad attitude manifesting.
In a different way, I appreciated this moving and weird and very poetic set of scrolls by Johannes Heldén, I think part of his “Astroecology” project.
I can no longer remember who created this last piece, but here’s to undesirable art, whether or not it seems easy.