Last week a friend and I had a minor disagreement, the sort that sheds new light on the self, the other, and the relationship. The trouble was, he'd made an off-the-cuff remark that I resembled, and not, I thought, in a good way. It's not his job to flatter me. But the resemblance was plain. He was speaking his truth about me, and about the relationship --or at least his view of these things. I disagreed, and felt honor-bound to speak up.
Flattery is one thing; insult, another. Between them, there are lots of possibilities. But the plain truth, from some omniscient third-person perspective, is rarely one of them. The conversation veered down an odd path: As we clarified our terms and positions, it became clear that we could not both be right. Each point of view excluded the other.
I stretched all week to imagine his perspective. The hardest part, I discovered, was giving myself permission. Apparently, under certain circumstances, I experience curiosity as voyeurism. The sequelae are unsurprising: a degree of creative inhibition, a narrowing of perspective, a certain tongue-tied shyness. A lesson there: I could do with less of this. I could be bolder.
So, when I finally looked, what did I see? Well. Think of Robert Frost, who assiduously cultivated a persona marked by down-to-earth geniality -- and then, go read "Home Burial." There's a reason Leon Trilling found him terrifying. As for my friend: I am always surprised, I guess, when I discover a real, honest-to-God selva oscura in another person, in the course of an ordinary day.
Joseph Brodsky once said that American poetry is basically Vergilian or Horatian, in the sense that an American poet is one who sits, by definition, somewhere between these two poles. The Vergilian poet is phlegmatic, the damp cold of a winter in Providence; Wallace Stevens is a chief exemplar. The Horatian poet is melancholic, seeing much but through a world-weary lens, like the late, "American," Auden. Brodsky's division is heuristically interesting, and I think it is useful as far as it goes, not least because, in cutting through Frost's everyman persona to his underlying Vergilian quality -- a wild, if somewhat self-absorbed misery -- Brodsky makes sense of Frost's enduring (and to me, mysterious) popularity.
But in his systematization of American poetry, Brodsky misses its Ovidian quarter, the tumbling, rollicking transformations of Frank O'Hara, say, or Robert Creeley, or Geoffrey G. O'Brien, or what the hell, Bob Dylan.
It's easy enough to miss, I suppose. Ovid was not entirely appreciated in his lifetime, either. Dylan's tremendous poetic talent manifests in songwriting, a lesser art.
But this is where I feel most at home, with Ovid and his inheritors. My friend is not Ovidian. This is the news, the source of the tension between us. From his point of view, I imagine he wonders how I can possibly be so attached to, and enlivened by, novelty and transformation, as the oceans rise.