News, Culture and Opportunities

My Literary Education with Elizabeth Hardwick | The New Yorker

It is a beautiful moment. Professor Hardwick didn’t like hearing herself quoted, but she couldn’t help remembering the pleasure of solving a technical problem. “I found it and I knew it would work,” she told me. “Nothing is worse than a transition.”

And then, without thinking, I was talking about another letter of hers, this one quoted in a poem by Robert Lowell:

You can’t carry your talent with you like a suitcase.
Don’t you dare mail us the love your life denies.

I stopped talking. She reached for her purse. I was saying something as I got up, and she, speaking into a tissue, was telling me to stay. I was sorry. So very sorry. To this day, I do not know how I could have done that. Her tears had appeared and then were gone. “I didn’t write that,” she said. “I don’t think that’s so good.”

What I trust of my memory of that meeting stops here. She never held my impertinence against me, my blunder about Lowell’s book of poems “The Dolphin,” which had been published that summer to considerable controversy. I was unaware of what a trial it had been for her. Lowell had taken the letters that Hardwick wrote to him as their marriage was falling apart and revised them, reinvented them in his own sonnets. The fate of those letters would gnaw at her through the many years in which I knew her; she would never get them back, never get to see what she had really written.

I’d become Professor Hardwick’s student when I got into her class, but that afternoon I signed up for the journey. I understood that I would have to learn to listen in a whole new way. It was an education of my sympathies. You cannot learn unless you fall in love with the source of learning, Alfred North Whitehead wrote. His was one of the classic volumes that I would find on the shelves in the stylish old apartment on West Sixty-seventh Street where Professor Hardwick had learned to live without Lowell.

In the early spring, I went alone to the apartment, summoned to discuss a manuscript of poems that I had given Professor Hardwick to read. She lived in a prewar building, just off Central Park, with a neo-Gothic embellishment of spires. When you stepped across the threshold of her apartment, you entered a two-story room, an atelier converted into the living room. An enormous segmented window that almost reached the ceiling took up the central wall, admitting the artist’s light. There were soaring bookshelves and the red sofa. The living room was imposing, but the other rooms were modest, the dining room dark with Lowell’s mother’s old furniture, the kitchen packed with cabinets and a little round table.

“You don’t seem pleased to have a former royal as a neighbor.”
Cartoon by Frank Cotham

“It’s like a stage set. There’s nothing else,” she once said of the living room. I always found her there, behind a cluttered library table with the white bust of a Greek youth, which Lowell had mysteriously brought home one day.

I was late for our appointment. Professor Hardwick wore her usual necklace of large amber pieces, which she toyed with when she talked, until her fist came down into one of the cushions. She went stanza by stanza. She scolded, winced, deplored.

She said, among other things, “You’re the worst poet I’ve ever read. You mustn’t write poetry anymore.”

But she let me stay. Soon dinner on Sunday became our regular appointment, and my mother stopped phoning her to thank her for feeding me.

A year later, with commencement just weeks away, I was in love with a leftist jock who didn’t know it and in denial about how far behind I was in the physics class I needed to pass in order to graduate. None of it mattered. Saigon had fallen and I was in Professor Hardwick’s living room. The woman who would show me that a life of writing was possible got up to see to something in the kitchen and said she didn’t need help.

A poem I had sold to a national magazine three years earlier had finally appeared in print, an imitation of Mari Evans, a militant but reserved Black poet back in Indianapolis. My father and mother called from Indiana to congratulate me. I’ve always said that I was lucky, that my father and mother supported my dream of becoming a writer, but I recently found my damaged journals, their faded letters, which say that they were upset when I announced my decision not to take the L.S.A.T., as if I could have.

It was Professor Hardwick whom I could talk to. I could tell her that Alyosha’s speech to the young men at the end of “The Brothers Karamazov” made me want to run through the streets as though the world had changed. I held back that kind of language around my parents. I don’t know why. Maybe it was an extension of not being out to them.

“Making a living is nothing,” Hardwick wrote in her essay “Grub Street: New York,” in the first issue of The New York Review of Books. “The great difficulty is making a point, making a difference—with words.”

The first time I had an issue of The New York Review of Books in my hands, I didn’t know what it was. This was 1971, and a high-school teacher wanted me to see James Baldwin’s “An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis,” reprinted in the Review: “For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.”

My education in the Review—much like the publication itself—began in earnest in Elizabeth’s apartment. “The first issue was laid out on that table,” she told me one evening, gesturing toward the dining room. The saddle-tan 1911 edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica shared a tall bottom shelf with thick red volumes, bound copies of the first ten years of the Review. She made me start at the beginning, in 1963, with F. W. Dupee writing on James Baldwin. “Jimmy,” she called him. “Typical honky,” she said of herself.

Sunday after Sunday, I promised to return back issues, progressing slowly through the years. I hadn’t known that Elizabeth went to Selma in 1965, and I felt in her piece that she was trying to tell us how alienating the hymn singing and praying at the march were for her, and how strange it was to experience distance from a movement she supported. The next year, she went to Watts, after the official McCone Commission Report on the unrest was published. She read the report as yet another ineffectual, dishonest document reflecting the distance that bureaucratic language puts between white and Black.

I read the Review for an interview with Stravinsky, for the wickedness of Gore Vidal, for a plea to Auden’s friends not to heed his wishes and destroy his letters. Even after I got to 1967 and read Andrew Kopkind’s dismissal of Dr. King for being out of touch, I kept going in order to read Elizabeth Hardwick. “There are two types of criticism,” she said. “The first word and the last word. But even Edmund Wilson was dumb once.”

She said Mary McCarthy advised young writers to publish reviews because it gave them the validation of seeing their names in print. But I was horrified that, in Elizabeth’s view, my immediate future as a writer was as a critic. We’d had a session concerning my short stories, not unlike the evening when my poetry was on trial. She said my stories seemed to be about one thing: yearning for some abstract boy. My Black family would be a more interesting subject. She didn’t think I needed to burden myself with trying to be a gay novelist.

“Sex is comic and love is tragic,” she told me. “Queers know this.”

She said that I didn’t yet have the experience for what I was writing about, and that the writing itself was immature, because I was imitating her, which, she could assure me, was a dead end.

“Better stay away from gay lit, honey.”

We’d been talking about a secondhand edition of George Sand’s journal that I’d found, and I told her I couldn’t imagine writing twenty pages a day, out of necessity, as Sand had. “I swear it’s almost a bodily process,” Elizabeth said. “You wonder how you wrote that today and why you couldn’t last Monday.” I remember her telling me that to be able to make a life around reading was such good fortune it was almost criminal. She expected me to know more than I did.

This content was originally published here.

Comments are closed.

Malcare WordPress Security