Sunday, November 22, 2009

Mentors and Tormentors

On Friday we went to see 54 year-old poet Mary Karr read from her funny new memoir against the depression of her mother’s drinking which made her try to drink away her own depression and find an oblivious tall rich man, about her relationship with David Foster Wallace, her love for Don DeLillo and Robert Hass for their coolness, and about saving light moments and beating out a more human time from the drudgery that normally counts as life.

I told Mary Karr that I’m a big fan of Robert Hass too, and asked her why she likes him so much and she looked us in the eyes and quoted this poem which it turns out was her first poetry column for the Washington Post:

By Mary Karr, Sunday, March 2, 2008;

To take up this column, kicked off 12 years ago by my mentor, Robert Hass, is to inherit my poetic father's former post. However flattering it may be to follow him, his shadow feels daunting.

Harold Bloom argues in The Anxiety of Influence that each writer struggles against influences in an Oedipal fight to slay overbearing patriarchs. But Hass taught me that dialogue with one's historical betters is more privilege than threat. In poetic ancestry, an alleged tormentor may make the best mentor -- and vice versa.

In this poem, young Hass crosses that campus near where his hero Randall Jarrell had translated his own patriarch, Chekhov. Jarrell -- a tennis player famous for charm -- captured the misery of housewifery in the effortless '50s. "Moving from Cheer to Joy, from Joy to All . . ." He later shocked everyone with his suicide. By cross-dressing in Jarrell's angelic tennis garb, Hass questions the faux ease of academic life and the perils of inherited habits: Old Dominion

The shadows of late afternoon and the odors
of honeysuckle are a congruent sadness.
Everything is easy but wrong. I am walking
across thick lawns under maples in borrowed tennis whites.

It is like the photographs of Randall Jarrell
I stared at on the backs of books in college.
He looked so sad and relaxed in the pictures.
He was translating Chekhov and wore tennis whites.

It puzzled me that in his art, like Chekhov's,
everyone was lost, that the main chance was never seized
because it is only there as a thing to be dreamed of
or because someone somewhere had set the old words
to the new tune: we live by habit and it doesn't hurt.

Now the thwack . . . thwack of tennis balls being hit
reaches me and it is the first sound of an ax
in the cherry orchard or the sound of machine guns
where the young terrorists are exploding
among poor people on the streets of Los Angeles.

I begin making resolutions: to take risks, not to stay
in the south, to somehow do honor to Randall Jarrell,
never to kill myself. Through the oaks I see the courts,
the nets, the painted boundaries, and the people in tennis
whites who look so graceful from this distance.

Even Los Angeles -- city of cool -- sounds like lost angels, and the Californian Hass vows to honor his ancestors with a distrust for any false charm or inherited boundaries. That's what this column's for. That's what I hope to live up to. (Robert Hass's poem "Old Dominion" can be found in "Praise." Ecco. Copyright 1979 by Robert Hass)


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