Once again, I’m packing up my books for a move. And once again, I’ve set aside a pile from which I can pick out reading material until the day arrives to load everything into a truck and dump it into a new abode– this particular relocation only and thankfully taking me uptown, and not on another cross-country exploit.
Events like these are often responsible for forcing me to dig into some volume that’s been sitting on my shelf for years, wondering why I don’t just pass it on to someone who’ll pay attention to it, instead of letting it moulder and yellow among its luckier, been-read companions. This time around, Dylan Thomas in America: An Intimate Journal caught my eye, and I rescued it and its funky old cover, getting started on it yesterday as holiday explosions were bursting all around.
I’m not sure where I originally picked up this particular volume, or whether it was a gift from a friend, himself going through a move over a decade ago– but it has been on my shelf for an inexcusable amount of time. Sheepishly, I’ll also admit that off the top of my head, I can’t name a single poem Dylan Thomas wrote, even though I distinctly remember reading, having to recite, and loving his work in high school. Well– in spite of my multifaceted ignorance about the book, so far, I’m truly enjoying John Malcolm Brinnin’s recollections about playing host to the famed poet in the 1950s. But here’s where said pleasure gets a little strange.
Unsurprisingly, I had no idea who Brinnin was; turns out, he was a big-wig on the American poetry scene, teaching at universities and running New York’s Poetry Center and hobnobbing with the literati and their patrons of the day. His account of running around with Thomas involves, of course, a lot of parties, at which a lot of these important people were present, and (again, of course) mentioned by name. And guess what? Although the fame of some of these luminaries has survived into the present era, the appearance of so many others in this public diary makes no impression whatsoever; they seem to be slightly gilded blanks, or requisite extras on a set thrown in for atmosphere. And although he’s the author of this tale, and wrote poetry himself, I can only imagine Brinnin, too, blending into the throng of one-time personalities losing their places in the public consciousness.
That all sounds so glum, even bitter– but on the contrary, I’ve begun to feel strangely hopeful about what the fact of our inevitable individual forgettableness means, in terms of my own creative yearnings. Brinnin was a known figure, lucky enough to make his living doing what he seemed to love, as were so many of those other party-goers and socialites that show up in his memories. And even the boisterous figure of Thomas, who drew huge crowds to hear him read poetry– poetry!–* has faded, due to my own laziness and that of most of society, into a known name (and probably not even that to many people now, compared to the number who would have recognized it during his lifetime) and nothing more. But here’s the thing: with very rare exceptions, even good work, not to mention its creator/s, vanishes eventually– and even if these men’s poetry had been horrific, that fact, too, would have been forgotten. If everything, then, even the understanding that your output was subpar, is destined to dissolve into the ether, why not just enjoy doing what you do, and– while caring enough to do your best–** not worry about whether or not you’re producing a masterpiece, since even the grand exemplars of an age will probably follow your own scribblings into oblivion one day as well?
The same year I read Thomas in high school, we also got to know Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” which has stayed with me for the past twenty-something years. “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;/Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”*** I’ve wanted many a time to shout out that declaration carved into a lonely, desert-enveloped ruin of a pedestal, reminding politicians, nations, and any number of big egos that they were far from invincible. And I still love the poem as I did when I first read it– but maybe with age, and with reminders like Brinnin’s, I’m also less prone to despair for the failures time forces upon us, and see a sort of relief in them instead.
* The romance of a past I never knew, and which I’m not quite certain how accurate my view of it is: an auditorium being filled by a poet! Were the 1950s really so different, or do things like this still happen in New York?
** I’m well aware of the fact that this argument is a pretty weak, even inexcusable, one, when taken to the level of ethics. But where harmless activity enjoyed for its own sake, even as a pastime, is concerned? I’ll hold my ground, even if that means a whole generation of schmalz-heavy “jazz” musicians and schlocky writers are inspired to spew forth because of it.
*** The full text of Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias,” is available from the Poetry Foundation.