Of Poems and Promises, Meatloaf, Memories, and the Pleasures of Failure

No one likes to fail. And yet everyone does, every once in awhile. Falling flat on your face is part of being human, though rarely is it anything but terribly embarrassing and painful. I have enough self-respect (well, enough left these days) to know that not trying — a nonattempt, so to speak — is almost more palatable than nonachievement. But, as the roadside church sign I saw the other day points out, “Falling down is not failure. Staying down is.”

Anyway, that seems to be the leading sentiment in this “Land of the Loss” in which we are currently living. These days there’s a certain cachet or majesty to being a washout and a disappointment. Even if for a brief (and shining) moment. Need proof? Just turn on the TV: The hit show “The Biggest Loser,” for instance, just began its eighth season, and TV personalities like Dave Letterman continue to line up to proclaim (hand on forehead, palm out), “Help, I’ve fallen and I can get up.” Laughing all the way to the bank, of course.

But I’m willing to go a step further and state that, sometimes, achieving failure is its own reward. In fact, I think failure with foreknowledge, or self-consent, or malice aforethought, or whatever you want to call it, elicits a grander satisfaction than unintentionally screwing up. In other words, failing, when you knew damn well you would do so, can feel really good. And here I will offer myself as an example.

Last fall, shortly after I learned that poet and critic Hayden Carruth, my old friend and mentor, had died, I set out to read all of his books in a single year. I had promised myself a long time ago that I would do this thing, put my hands on all his collections of poems and essays, his novels, and memoirs, and then read the entire lot. And I was going to finish before the one-year anniversary of his death. It would be my way of mourning and paying tribute to him, of repaying his patient generosity and good counsel over the past two decades. It sounded like a good plan, in any event.

And yet, from the moment I decided to tackle this project, I knew I’d fail — and fail miserably. There just aren’t enough hours in my day to allow for such an undertaking, I told myself, and I have too many other obligations, projects, and promises to keep already. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, as King Grover says. But what else was I going to do? What else could I do? I had to try.

So, I did. And, as I knew I would, I didn’t. Out of his 40-plus published books, I think I reread five from cover to cover. I think. I know I nosed into nearly all that I have on my shelf, which number around 15. I even ordered one or two new-to-me’s, though I finished neither of them. My plan also had included checking out the remainder from the library. But when I realized the difficulty in locating even a few (many of his books are out of print), I gave up that endeavor entirely.

As I said, it was a bust, all the way round.

However, I am here to exclaim that, at the bottom of my year-long bookish botch-up, I am feeling neither defeated nor deflated. Quite the opposite — I’m elated. Although I missed reaching my goal, my utterly unattainable goal, I’m nonetheless pleased. Why? Well, for one thing, I did achieve some measure of success — I knew ahead of time that I couldn’t and wouldn’t do it, and I didn’t. That’s something, right?

For another, the pressure’s off. Now that I’ve realized and acknowledged my underachievement, I can move on. A better man might not feel this way, but who am I kidding? At least now I can go back to rereading the books I didn’t get to — for example, Beside the Shadblow Tree, Carruth’s touching memoir of his friendship with publisher and poet James Laughlin, or Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey, the prize-winning book that includes several of his most wrenching, elegiac poems, such as “Testament” — and I won’t feel a bit guilty about it. In fact, my plan now is to reread his books — as many or as few as I can, that is — every year.

Which brings me to the other, bigger reason for feeling like such a delighted dud. Taking on this task not only reawakened the sublime joy I feel when encountering my friend’s words and thoughts, but it also stoked my enjoyment of the act of rereading itself.

Few people I know are active rereaders. And why should they be? It’s hard enough to make time for reading a book one time through these days, let alone to make a second or third attempt. Will we watch a rerun of “House” or “Desperate Housewives”? Maybe. But slog through Bleak House or House Made of Dawn again? Not so much. I am not passing judgment here. It’s just the way it is.

Now, I am an editor and writer by trade, which really means I am, by and large, a professional reader. And being a reader-for-hire inevitably means that I am called on to go back over some word or paragraph or entire manuscript that I’ve already read once (or, more likely several times). So it’s what I do and I’m used to doing it. Luckily, though, I like being a rereader.

Frankly, it’s part of my make-up. Perhaps it’s my inquisitive nature, or an innate inability to stay focused on one thing for too long (I think there’s a name for this dis-order), or a natural inclination to hopscotch from one thought (or book or song or Web site) to the next. In other words, my name is Scribbleskiff and I’m easily distracted — especially by something shiny and familiar.

A good example of this behavior occurred recently. While I was still faithfully (blindly and frantically, at this point) engaged in my quest to reread the Carruth canon, I stumbled upon a new poem by Donald Hall, an author I have admired for many years (and, not coincidentally, someone Carruth had recommended to me). Hall, who’s in his early 80s, hasn’t published much lately, so a new poem is a rare find. And, as it turns out, “Meatloaf”, which appeared in The New Yorker this summer, is even rarer — it’s a reprise of “Baseball,” a long poem he published more than 15 years ago in The Museum of Clear Ideas, a book I relished and still think about, but hadn’t opened in a long time. (You do see where I’m going with this, don’t you?) Naturally, I began rereading it, too.

I recommend The Museum of Clear Ideas to you, dear reader, because it proved influential to me, though I’m not sure I knew why in 1994. I especially admired the book’s title sequence, which is an homage of sorts to the Latin poet Horace (not unlike Ezra Pound’s controversial Homage to Sextus Propertius), though the main speaker is actually Horace Horsecollar, a minor character in early Disney cartoons. I was reading a lot of Latin poets then (still am, actually) and Hall’s recasting of ancient odes and themes into modern situations was inspiring.

I also liked “Baseball,” but for reasons that are less obvious. In the poem, which features nine sections of nine stanzas, each with nine lines of nine syllables (it’s a form Hall says he invented to aid in composition), the speaker (who calls himself “K.C.” or Casey) sets out to explain America’s pastime to Kurt Schwitters, a 20th century German Dada collage artist. I don’t care much for baseball, so the theme didn’t overly matter to me. However, Hall’s decision to incorporate elements of collage, juxtaposing and “gluing/ bits and pieces of world/ history alongside personal anecdote,” did.

This approach, making connections between seemingly disjointed and unconnected elements, was fascinating to my scatterbrain mindset. And it’s likely what caused me years later to pick up a copy of Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara, whose brief, wild, conversational “I do this, I do that” poems inspired me to write a long series of “proems” (as I called them), which I worked on almost daily, off and on, for more than two years.

It’s only after having been away from Hall’s old poems for awhile, and encountering them again through the wondrous and delicious “Meatloaf,” do I realize what an impact they made. That’s how memory works, doesn’t it, leading us from thought to thought, with images and emotions running together, inexplicably making connections, without purpose or meaning, or so it seems.

In the end, then, rereading has some important benefits. For one thing, it enables you to reconnect with a writer or writers and uncover hidden or forgotten nuances and delights. And you can discover favorite authors at an earlier, less mature stage in their careers — for instance, while again thumbing through Carruth’s novel and first book, Appendix A, I glimpsed a writer just beginning to find the assured and impassioned voice that would emerge later and that I would come to admire. Rereading, then, can bring you back to where you started and set you off on new pathways, too.

Rereading also let’s you reconnect with your former self, often in unexpected ways. Upon opening The Sleeping Beauty, Carruth’s magnum opus, I was immediately transported back to where I was when I bought my copy, a first edition — in London, mid ’80s, wandering the used bookstalls off The Strand with some dear friends, on a lark, killing time, with nothing better to do. (Where have those days gone?) I remembered realizing that, though I couldn’t afford it, I had to buy that book and send it to Hayden to autograph, which he did — along with a characteristically apt comment that the damage on the spine looked like “someone had used it as a hammer to drive in nails.” It’s a rare first read that can elicit that kind of response.

Of course, I have no right to follow my rereading impulses, no matter who the author is. I have a large and growing stack of unread books that occupies more than a few tabletops in my house. (It’s a singular stack in my mind because all of its contents are categorized under one theme — “unopened.”) Let’s not even count the volumes interspersed throughout my bookshelves, the books that I’ve started then put back with high hopes of completion “some day.” Even frivolouser than being a rereader, it turns out, is being a buyer of books that don’t get read. Ah, so.

Recently a friend, glancing at several tomes held in my hand, asked how I come to find the books I read and write about. “I follow my nose,” I said, and I wasn’t being glib. Like a trained truffle-snuffler, I meander from one scent to another, often leaving a trail in favor of something stronger or more interesting, sometimes circling back to pick up an old scent again, until it goes cold once more. And so on, and so on, as the Faberge girls would say.

I don’t always find what I’m looking for in this manner, and that’s OK because sometimes I find exactly what I wasn’t looking for. In either case, such a calculated misstep is for me a delight that I hope, once I get back up, I never learn to correct.

As always, let us know what you think. Are you a habitual rereader? If so, what book or books do you revisit? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

And be sure to visit (and join) the Scribbleskiff page on Facebook (find it here), where you can partake in wall-to-wall conversations, find additional information and suggestions from readers, and more.

Originally posted on October 7, 2009.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *