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Laurance Wieder

Narcissism, American Style

Established novelists who write poetry are like movie stars who really want to direct.

When I was a kid, a spring scale stood in every airport and railroad station waiting room. Two coin slots—penny and nickel or nickel and dime—invited the traveler to learn his weight or, for a fee, his "Wate and Fate." I didn't trust machines or prophets even then, so I never tempted fate and tried the larger coin. Even now, I wonder if fatter people got different fortunes from those light on the scales. More than likely the scales were, like a fortune cookie, blind to the reader.

Because he can only be in one place at one time, and because his works if not himself have to inspire some kind of love, an author can ill afford to be blind to the other.

And what is an author? In the minds of many he is a romantic figure, inspiring envy. An actor/director told me that writers were lucky, because all they needed to work was a pencil and paper. He later struck gold writing parodies of mail-order catalogues. For other people, authors are fortunate because they don't have bosses, because they are doing what they want to do, because they get to hang around the house, because they set their own schedule. The literary life is blessed with whatever you can imagine as someone else's freedom.

Success does not mean that the writer is at one with self and career. It's hard to say just what a successful poet would be, although it is easy to figure out why poets aren't happy once their youth is spent. They've got to wonder what it all was for, when for everyone else the answer is easy: money. After helping John Ashbery home from a party for Harold Brodkey several years back, Robert Atwan told me, "It's no fun being the poet at the novelists' party." Unlike novelists, poets (at least in this century) are always out of office. Poetry has no place or natural occasion in public discourse except the poetry reading, the prize ceremony, the inaugural. The late Meyer Schapiro once remarked that uselessness was poetry's greatest strength, because it could only be done for God.

Why a prosperous ...

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