Out with the Auld

Cody Walker
January 1, 2014
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Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind?

Of course not, says experience, and conscience, and (answering his own question) Robert Burns.

So we raise our cups o’ kindness, and we remember friends and friendships, old long since.

But aren’t ideas, in a way, acquaintances? Consider those things you jot on napkins, or email to yourself, or return to, however fleetingly, once the papers are graded and the kids are asleep. They take on their own unpredictable lives, growing or diminishing in scale, and maybe they become the subject of a classroom conversation, or a Skype chat, or a poem, or a KR blog post.

But, as Kenneth Koch tells us, there isn’t time enough, my friends. And, as Tony Kushner tells us, the world only spins forward. So, in the spirit of remembrance, but also in the spirit of clearing space for the new, here are half a dozen ideas I’ve had over the past month that, in some parallel universe, might have grown into actual essays:

* It’s been a tough hundred years for love poetry. In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Eliot makes a grand gesture in his first two lines (“Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky”), and then takes back the gesture in the line that follows (“Like a patient etherized upon a table”). How does one write a poem of belief in an age of skepticism? Auden wrote what is perhaps the most famous line about love in the 20th century—“We must love one another or die”—and then refused to allow the poem in which it appears to be reprinted. (“The whole poem,” Auden decided, “was infected with an incurable dishonesty—and must be scrapped.”) Larkin had similar misgivings about one of his own much-quoted lines: “What will survive of us is love.” (Ron Rosenbaum wrote about the Auden and Larkin lines for Slate back in 2012.) And yet the tradition of love poetry itself survives, even as the poems are couched in doubt. From Gwendolyn Brooks’s “love note / I: surely”: “And I doubt all. You. Or a violet.”

* Laughter: It’s going to kill us, right? But it can also help us get pregnant. (Is laughter then the corrective to warm baths and bicycle seats?) See this Times article from a week ago.

* Watching The Grinch alongside screaming kids elicits (in me, anyway) feelings of sympathy toward the green not-quite geezer. “Oh, the Noise! Noise! Noise! Noise!”

(At first I wrote “green geezer,” but that’s wrong: the Grinch is only fifty-three. Ted Geisel was fifty-three when he wrote the story. Oh to be, at fifty-three, as athletic as the Grinch!)

* Why all the fuss about James Franco’s poems in the September/October issue of APR? If it’s about APR letting the dazzle of celebrity influence its editorial decisions, well, OK (but then see the great Joni Mitchell’s not-at-all-great poem in The New Yorker back in 2007). But if it’s about Franco’s literary aspirations? Then come on. Pick any random celebrity: Kevin Durant, Betty White, Bill de Blasio. If you heard they were reading Faulkner and Crane, wouldn’t you think, Cool? And if you heard they were writing and sending out poems? Cooler still. Even if they misspelled Los Feliz. (Plus, a season on Freaks and Geeks buys one all sorts of license.)

* Shouldn’t December 8th be some kind of holiday? On December 8, 1955, Marianne Moore submitted her final proposal to the Ford Motor Company, which had asked her to help the company arrive at a name for its new series of cars. Her magnificent, un-Edsel-like idea: Utopian Turtletop. (Moore had earlier written that she was “complimented to be recruited in this high matter,” and that she would confer with her brother, who would “bring ardor and imagination to bear on the quest.”) After Moore’s final proposal, Ford sent her a floral arrangement of twenty-four roses and white pine and spiral eucalyptus. The accompanying card read, “TO OUR FAVORITE TURTLETOPPER.”

So why isn’t this date more celebrated? We spend time talking about Groundhog Day and Flag Day and Cyber Monday, but we ignore Utopian Turtletop Day? It’s a shame and a scandal.

* And what about December 10th? It’s Emily Dickinson’s birthday and it’s George Saunders’ Day of Wonder. More and more, the title story in Saunders’ Tenth of December feels like a story that I can’t (or don’t want to) do without. The plot: a boy saves a man who saves a boy who saves a man. The whole thing makes me laugh (really) and cry (really). It’s the perfect illustration of the power of the Saunders method (a method Saunders describes in a recent New Yorker interview):

When you’re writing a character, for example, your first draft is often, in my case, I’m often using the person to make jokes, some sort of looking down on the person and getting jokes out of his or her obvious flaws. Then what happens is you have to somehow in this revision process bring them up so they’re not so far below you, and ideally so they’re right even with you. So we can understand that as a process of reimagining them, you know—how do you feel? what’s your problem? why are you so grouchy?—and then they become more three-dimensional and easier to love. And so I think that the act of reimagining them is love.

Happy 2014.

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