Susanna J. Sturgis   Martha's Vineyard writer and editor
writer editor born-again horse girl

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Loose Canons

July 26, 2005

That deadline is still calling, but less desperately; it's not till Monday, and I do believe I'm gonna make it. Besides, this proofreading job is part of what's got me thinking about canons. It's a book by an eminent literary critic; in essays of various lengths, he discusses works he considers canonical. His prose glitters and flows and occasionally pops you in the nose (sorry!), always with exquisite timing. I feel compelled to drop everything and read or re-read some of the works he considers, but the compulsion is more ephemeral than the sparkle of his sentences. Been there, done that, unfortunately. Under the influence of such persuasion, I've picked up "classics" that I missed, or dropped, or couldn't get into -- only to encounter a brick wall, or mud up to my waist, and drop it again.

What I love about this book is the author's passionate, well-informed engagement with the texts he considers. I've felt such engagement myself -- since senior year of high school, my overriding literary ambition has been to do for another reader what Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" did for me, which was, more or less, to blow the top of my head off. Great writing is far more apt to produce such results than mediocre writing, but in the years since I've learned that the engagement depends in part -- in significant part, perhaps even for the most part -- on the willingness and ability of the reader. (The right timing doesn't hurt either.)

My author says that a great work rarely inspires him to learn more about the writer's life, but the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke was an exception. Rilke's name, though not his poetry (not his fault; I've never read any of it), triggers a strong memory: I pull from a shelf the book that put it there, Adrienne Rich's The Dream of a Common Language, specifically the poem "Paula Becker to Clara Westhoff." The introductory paragraph notes that Paula, a painter, and Clara, a sculptor, "became friends at Worpswede, an artists' colony near Bremen, Germany, summer 1899. . . . In 1901, Clara married the poet Rainer Maria Rilke; soon after, Paula married the painter Otto Modersohn. She died in a hemorrhage after childbirth, murmuring, What a pity!"

From Benét's Reader's Encyclopedia I just learned this about Rilke: "Finding family responsibilities incompatible with his passion to write, he left his wife and infant daughter after eighteen months."

Combined, the quotations convey pretty well why I can no more separate an artist's work from his or her life than I can my mind from my body, and why works that blew the top of my author's head off left me unmoved or unimpressed. To me their historical importance is incontrovertible, but most of them don't engage me. Well, OK: they might engage me if I worked harder at it, and if I were willing to abandon the touchstone of my own experience, and to forget that the destination looks and feels and is different depending on the journey that gets you there.


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