“I knew on some level that it was an indefensible position, but I wanted to see how far I could get in taking a curmudgeonly stance against the pursuit of happiness.” ~ Phillip Lopate, from “Writing Personal Essays: On the Necessity of Turning Oneself Into a Character”

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Two for Tuesday: Phillip Lopate

phillip_lopateI’m so excited. I know that I’ve read a few brief things from Lopate before, but for some reason, I have never read the following poem. It is so perfect, so perfect for me, so perfect for my state of mind, so perfect for my continual self-loathing. And then I found his essay on writing essays. I think that I’m in love with this man, well, not in love, in admiration. I think that I’m an essayist. Wow. Serendipity. I need to get his book The Art of the Personal Essay.

“Doubt is my boon companion, the faithful St. Bernard ever at my side. Whether writing essays or just going about daily life, I am constantly second-guessing myself. My mind is filled with ‘yes, buts,’ ‘so whats?’ and other skeptical rejoinders. I am forever monitoring myself for traces of folly, insensitivity, arrogance, false humility, cruelty, stupidity, immaturity and, guess what, I keep finding examples. Age has not made me wiser, except maybe in retrospect.”
~ Phillip Lopate

                   

We Who Are Your Closest Friends

we who are
your closest friends
feel the time
has come to tell you
that every Thursday
we have been meeting
as a group
to devise ways
to keep you
in perpetual uncertainty
frustration
discontent and
torture
by neither loving you
as much as you want
nor cutting you adrift

your analyst is
in on it
plus your boyfriend
and your ex-husband
and we have pledged
to disappoint you
as long as you need us

in announcing our
association
we realize we have
placed in your hands
a possible antidote
against uncertainty
indeed against ourselves
but since our Thursday nights
have brought us
to a community of purpose
rare in itself
with you as
the natural center
we feel hopeful you
will continue to make
unreasonable
demands for affection
if not as a consequence
of your
disastrous personality

then for the good of the collective

Anne Lammot’s description of her writing class’s reaction to her reading them this poem:

They stare at me like the cast of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Only about three of them think this poem is funny, or even a good example of someone taking his own paranoia and shaping it into something artistic and true. A few people look haunted. The ones who most want to be published just think I’m an extremely angry person. Some of them look emotionally broken, some look at me with actual disgust, as if I am standing there naked under fluorescent lights.

                   

serendipity

A Selection from “The Essay, an Exercise in Doubt

I am an essayist, for better or worse. I don’t suppose many young people dream of becoming essayists. Even as nerdy and bookish a child as I was fantasized about entering the lists of fiction and poetry, those more glamorous, noble genres on which Nobels, Pulitzers and National Book Awards are annually bestowed. So if Freud was right in saying that we can be truly happy only when our childhood ambitions are fulfilled, then I must be content to be merely content.

I like the freedom that comes with lowered expectations. In the area of literary nonfiction, memoirs attract much more attention than essay collections, which are published in a modest, quasi-invisible manner, in keeping with anticipated lower sales. But despite periodic warnings of the essay’s demise, the stuff does continue to be published; if anything, the essay has experienced a slight resurgence of late. I wonder if that may be because it is attuned to the current mood, speaks to the present moment. At bottom, we are deeply unsure and divided, and the essay feasts on doubt.

Ever since Michel de Montaigne, the founder of the modern essay, gave as a motto his befuddled “What do I know?” and put forth a vision of humanity as mentally wavering and inconstant, the essay has become a meadow inviting contradiction, paradox, irresolution and self-doubt. The essay’s job is to track consciousness; if you are fully aware of your mind you will find your thoughts doubling back, registering little peeps of ambivalence or disbelief.

                   

Music by Sarah Blasko, “An Oyster, A Pearl”

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6 comments on ““I knew on some level that it was an indefensible position, but I wanted to see how far I could get in taking a curmudgeonly stance against the pursuit of happiness.” ~ Phillip Lopate, from “Writing Personal Essays: On the Necessity of Turning Oneself Into a Character”

  1. re lowered expectations… I think for me it’s searching my level of competence. There’s the level one level above it, that I can’t quite master. And so I have spent many many years exploring the nuances, nooks and crannies of the subtleties between the two, managing the scope of emotions experienced when one encounters an unacceptable reality. Never coming to acceptance, though. I think if I did I’d give up.

    And we can’t have that, can we???

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