This one won’t be on the final exam, but in the spring clearance from the Key West Literary Seminars I didn’t want to let it go.
Seriously funny Englishman-at-large Geoff Dyer, American Poet Mark Doty and globalist Pico Iyer and are testifying about the writers who inhabit writers — in their cases, respectively, D. H. Lawrence, Walt Whitman and Graham Greene. We’re dropping names and having fun here with a genial crowd… but what’s more memorably instructive in the end than artists talking about the inner voices of their ancestors? As in conversations past with Harold Bloom on R. W. Emerson and the great Schmuel, Dr. Johnson. Or Dave McKenna speaking about his ideal, Nat Cole, the only pianist who could “bend” a note and play the tones in-between. Or Sonny Rollins, in humble astonishment that he had actually made music with the geniuses Bud Powell and Sonny Stitt. Or Roy Haynes talking with Ben Ratliff about Jo Jones.
As usual I am pining naively in the writers’ chat for my own William James or some magisterial successor who might explain Americans to themselves in a universal frame today. But the writers are reminding me of the contradictions in all these affinities. What we don’t have these days, and maybe don’t want, is a “synthesizing voice.” It’s one of England’s great achievements, Geoff Dyer slipped in, not to have a Bernard Henri Levy on the premises. If we had Whitman and his democratic vistas in our midst today, Doty says we might ignore him as his own generation did, or celebrate his worst poems, not his best. If by a miracle Graham Greene had been announced in the lobby of our theater, Pico Iyer insisted he’d have sprinted away because to meet his inspiration “would simplify, not deepen, my understanding of the man.” Odd, then, that everybody wanted to sit down with the subject that made Geoff Dyer famous — the inexhaustibly contentious, inconsistent and sometimes monstrous D. H. Lawrence, remembered as “a man who burned like an acetylene torch from one end to the other of his life” and elsewhere as “the man who could write brilliantly and awfully, in the same sentence.” Geoff Dyer gets the last line on the perplexity of writers’ affinities: “… but one would have thought it a huge privilege to be on the receiving end of a lashing from Lawrence.”