My generation of writers—and yours, if you are reading this—lives in the shadow of Auden’s famous attack on the relevance of writing to life, when he wrote that “poetry makes nothing happen.” I had heard the remark repeated so often and for so long I finally went looking for its source, to try to understand what it was he really meant by it. Because I knew it was time for me to really argue with it. If not for myself, for my students.
In the winter before the Iraq War, I lost two friends, one old, one new.
The first friend died of cancer in December 2002. She was just thirty-six. She had been misdiagnosed by her doctor. First, she was told she had a rash and then that she was imagining the severity of it. She was told to take antidepressants. After further tests, she learned she had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. A lifelong hypochondriac who always looked to be in the bloom of health, she had finally fallen seriously ill and was not believed. And when she eventually was believed, when the truth of her disease was incontrovertible, there was not time enough to undo the damage, and she succumbed. She had once been my boss at a magazine launched in the early nineties. I had met her in San Francisco, when she was the girlfriend of my boyfriend’s roommate. When I moved to New York to be closer to my boyfriend, she and I sometimes spent whole days together. She herself dreamed of writing a novel one day and in the meantime wrote poems more or less in secret, showing them rarely. When I was an editor of an experimental literary journal called XXX Fruit, we asked her for poems and published some of them. I remember looking at the typeset page and thinking of it as a picture of her secret self.
By then, she had moved on to a job at a national weekly newsmagazine, which she loved, though the responsibilities often crushed what energy she might have had to write. Or at least this was what she said. Most writers I know say they don’t have enough time to write. It’s usually a feint. Read More