How did he get the nerve to blog? Is he going to tell us that Trump is a menace? No. Is he going to talk about Brexit or Russia? No. Is going to tell us how to exercise or diet? Surely not. Is he going to tell us how to live? Possibly. He is I and I am very presumptuous. Is he going to tell us what to think as though we were babies crying out for milk? Probably.
Actually I think I could teach you something; I am very doubtful that the world has any excess of wisdom. So you might as well take mine. But what are his qualifications, you might ask? And do I (the weary reader should inquire) have time for all this prattle.
Well I do have a couple of degrees from a famous university but I don’t expect you to take that as a promise of insight. You know better. I have written books and poems and songs and plays and screenplays but what of that. Who hasn’t written more than they should have—clogging the mind with learned trash and fancy vacuities. Many people treat me with respect but then you don’t know those people. Hamlet said—“words, words, words” when he had heard far too many to retain his sanity. He was right (of course)—words echo and careen across the cosmos of the intellect like so many lost starships searching in the infinite void for a place to land. And when they do land, who cares? Nobody reads anymore. That was the fashion of the nineteenth century with its 700-page novels and 3,000-line poems.
But there I’ve got you. That’s the trap. I have read those mammoth novels and voluminous poems. I’ve read almost every poem worth reading in the English language. I’ve read many novels; many, many works of philosophy. I have done the work for you. Or with you if you are a fellow imbiber of traditions. Yes, I know a few languages—Greek and Latin, a good deal of French and a little Italian. And here’s the twist. I have listened to a thousand records (or cassettes or CDs)—pop music, rock and roll, country, classical music, and God knows what! I have spent a thousand hours arguing with or introducing people to the books and the recordings and films—O yes, films. That’s what I have done with my life—almost all of it. Yes, I was a teacher. Yes, I was a scholar. But really that was a small part of it. I was a vacuum sweeper of works of the imagination; I am a man stuffed with words, words, words—but they are choice words: a song by Prince, a poem by Philip Larkin, a play by John Millington Synge, a movie written by Robert Towne. You could have Mahler or Hank Williams—it’s up to you.
So what does that qualify me to say. I suppose anything. After all, we all live for an hour or two of leisure at the end of the week to watch a football game, listen to a CD or an iPod or read a book or go to a movie. We fill that leisure with unnecessary things—sports events, theater, film, television, magazine articles, stories (oral and written), religious ceremonies. All these are in some sense works of art—works of human artifice. They do not feed us or clothe us or shelter us. Those things unnecessary in a practical sense are the most necessary in a moral sense. They are the reason we work.
Many years ago in New York, when I was teaching at NYU, one of my zealous students told his father my argument that art is the object of all our labor. He thought this was ridiculous. He was a man of significant wealth, an investment banker. I was sitting at a long Queen Anne table in his massive dining room in his large and sumptuous house. He said: “You say that poetry and film is important. Why? They don’t seem to have gotten you very far—living in a crappy apartment in The Village. And probably ignored by students who are a trying to find a job so that they can have a car and a family. What do you have? What can you give?”
This was a tough appraisal of my situation, not without a frightening kernel of truth. I would be the last two undercut the centrality of all forms of human love—familial, erotic, filial, collegial. I said to him: “Do you work so that you can work some more?” He said, “of course not, that would be crazy. I’m not a hamster on a wheel. I help people with investments so that they can grow their business—finish their dreams.”
“But what do you get out of it?”
“I work so that I have some freedom and can get on my boat in the Long Island sound and go.”
“What do you like about your boat?”
“The way it cuts through the water so beautifully, so smoothly. The way the wood and the wind and the waves work together as a team.”
I turned to him without any sense of catching the mouse in the trap, because I knew that he already could see the sense of what he had said. I only said: “that is your art—your poetry. That is the unnecessary thing in your life which is most important. I have cut out the middle man and gone right to the poetry. I have spent my life doing all the time what others do in the best hours of their lives.”
By the way, I will probably say something about our present president and Brexit and God knows what. I was just trying to get off to a friendly start. Buckle up.