The letters that writers write to one another are at least as interesting than the books or stories they write. This is one reason among many for my interest in the epistolary as form. Between my friends and me, the epistolary thrives. Not Literature – but an involvement with it – an immersion in it – a care for it. I love my small circle of literary friends & correspondents and wish I could reproduce some of their letters here. There have been thousands over the years and I have kept almost all. But as I have no permission to do so (and am loathe to ask), I can only present my own half of such correspondence. Here is one – which we enter in progress – leaving room for questions.
…But when I was 14, I was in love with Whitman for nearly the whole duration of upper school. Really in love. So much so that no flesh and blood boy held any sustantive interest for me during those years. I lived, slept, ate, dreamed Whitman. I think that when I wrote that essay on Donne that you said you couldn't mark, had no way of assessing, because it was a poem and not an essay, it was a pale echo of that love - or at least under its lingering influence.
That being the case, it is the fact that Whitman is the connective tissue in the poem that makes your phrase about the analogy of despair work with regard to Auster. There is no reason for these things to make sense - it is the seer, the poet, the feeler that connects lilacs and descending/diminishing light with the voice of the thrush - the bleeding throat of grief, the song made sad by association. He forms his own trilogy of memory, instinctively, in order to create a moment - a memory - a memorial - a conjunction to which to point in the future and say this is the headstone of grief: lilacs, song and the waning light – and all are cyclical in themselves and in relation to one another.
This is Kierkegaard's Repetition and it is also that superb phrase of Margaret Drabble in The Waterfall which describes: "an atmosphere so uniquely constructed that when months later she would encounter two or more of its ingredients in conjunction she would grow quite faint with recollection."
We must grow faint with recollection if that which is not (or is not yet) alive is to live. And so (re)construction is our only recourse. Whitman - or something in him - gathers lilac moon and song into a bouquet of memory that will return again and again. I doubt if these organic emanations would have take on symbolic properties (together) had not the man breathed them all in with the tears he swallowed. I don't know. But I think we do, instinctively, create monuments - and if we are intuitive and enormously sensitive to who we are and what we live by and in, then we create them out of living material to honour, or to bring back, the dead.
It would be easier to abandon connection - sever ties, undergo lobotomies of the heart - elevate the perfunctory as a testament to the past and not probe the tender flesh that hurts so, but would not if we did not keep it alive. It is always easier to kill than to remember, but this poet recollects, though not in tranquility, and certainly at some cost to himself. The cost, though, is at least not truth. Nor liberty. A peculiarly Western association - truth and liberty - but there you are - you used the word "western" as well. And here is what Whitman says: "When liberty goes out of a place, it is not the first to go, nor the second or third to go’ It waits for all the rest to go—it is the last.”
I meant to ask you where (traditionally) those symbols you employ come from. Not the obvious classical references - not word symbols like "between Scilla and Charybdis" but thrushes and moons in phases. I had a very long and in the end tedious argument once with a fellow professor from Yale regarding meaning. He purports that the reader is the judge or interpreter of meaning; I, the mere author/poet. When giving lectures or signing books, readers/fans have sometimes told me what I meant to convey in a certain passage and it always irritates me. I know what I meant when I wrote it. I don't mind if people tell me what they thought of when they read it - or of what it reminded them - or anything they thought or felt – or what it seems to say - but to tell me what I meant when writing seems colossal chutzpah. But John says no - the writer often doesn't know what s/he writes. Hence personal symbolic meaning. This seems to me to be complete rubbish. Or am I being too harsh?
PS Knowing it will all happen again is a curious necessity. At least for the most human among us.
Causes Harrison Solow Supports
Lupus Foundation of America
Museum of Tolerance