On Convention

By Alan ShapiroDecember 1, 2014

On Convention

An earlier, shorter version of Part 1 appeared on npr.org.


In 1965, in a bookstore in my hometown of Brookline, Massachusetts, in the late afternoon of an ordinary school day, in the middle of winter, I discovered my inner nonconformist. Anyone who might have seen me standing before the tiny poetry section, turning the pages of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind, would have mistaken me for an unremarkable 13-year-old, in a winter coat, unbuckled galoshes, a book bag slung over his shoulder. And up to that moment that’s exactly who I was, a typical lower-class Jewish kid, whose parents worked long hours for little pay, with three kids and my mother’s mother to care for. Life in the household was always sulky at the best of times, and now and then explosive. Terrified of blowups, I did my best to fit in. I did my best to be the kind of kid my parents expected me to be. I kept my hair cut short, I dressed neatly, I worked hard in school. I seldom got into trouble. More angster than gangster, the only tough guys I ever dreamed of being were the Jets and Sharks in the film version of the musical West Side Story, which I had seen with a few friends the year before. When the movie let out, my friends and I went dancing down the street looking for Puerto Ricans to beat up. The gang dissolved later the same day when I picked a fight with Michael Lee, a bespectacled, diminutive Chinese boy, the closest thing my neighborhood had to a Puerto Rican. Unfortunately, Mike Lee fought like Bruce Lee’s little brother, and I was crying uncle after the first punch landed.

But reading Ferlinghetti, I entered an alternate universe that turned on its head the world of my parents: its holy trinity of rank commercialism, status seeking, and sexual prudery. Ferlinghetti denounced American consumerism “singing from the Yellow Pages.” Unlike my elders, he wanted to be a “social climber climbing downward.” In his smart-alecky way, he counseled us to “confound the system,” “to empty our pockets,” “to miss our appointments,” to leave “our neckties behind” and “take up the full beard of walking anarchy.”

Longings I didn’t know I had suddenly sprang to life: mine was the heart Ferlinghetti described as a foolish fish cast up and gasping for love “in a blather of asphalt and delay.” I wanted to be robust, uninhibited, and wide open to the world like the dog trotting “freely in the street […] touching and tasting and testing everything.” I thrilled to his advocacy of contrarianism for its own sake, as if it were a badge of authenticity or the height of courage to walk out into traffic when the Don’t Walk sign was flashing.

When I left the store, I may still have been the middle-class kid I was, diffident, self-conscious, and too eager to please. But from then on, I was inwardly transformed. I lived a secret life in the poetry I went on to read, and in the poems I began to write. On the page, I undermined the rules I lived by off the page. I dreamed of the world Ferlinghetti invited me to enter, a world of impulse and imagination where lovers went “nude […] in the profound lasciviousness of spring in an algebra of lyricism.” What Ferlinghetti offered was a state of mind nearly everyone my age had begun imagining, each of us planning our great escape to what he called the Isle of Manisfree where we could do our own thing in exactly the same way.


Flash forward to the summer of 1970. I’m 18 years old. It’s a Friday night and I’m getting ready to go out with my girlfriend Martha. I’m five feet eight and three-quarter inches tall, but between my long thick curly blond hair frizzing out in all directions and my thick-heeled black shit-kicker boots, I’m closer to six feet. I’m six feet tall and I’ve got a nickel bag of pot in a front pocket of my yellow bell-bottoms. That’s right, yellow bell-bottoms. Which is to say, I’m feeling pretty good. I’m one of the hip, truly liberated people. Liberated but not stupid, which is why I’ve told my parents that I’ll be sleeping over at a friend’s house when in fact what I’ll really be doing is driving to Rockport with my girlfriend Martha where we’ll sneak into an empty summer house her parents own and spend the entire night together, for one night at least not having to d-d-d-do it in the road.

On the way out of the house I pass the wall of family photographs: grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles. In the largest one, a black-and-white picture of my father’s family taken at a Boston restaurant just after the war: my father’s brother and sister-in-law and two of his older sisters and their husbands sit at a table while a third sister and her husband, plus my parents and grandparents, stand behind them. The table is round, and there’s a white carnation in the middle of it, surrounded by empty plates, drinks, water glasses, and the crumpled napkins of those who have had to stand for the picture. Everyone is smiling out at the photographer.

My father wears a dark double-breasted suit with wide lapels, the knot of his fat tie is loosened, and his fedora is tipped back in a way he no doubt thinks is both casual and chic, a Jewish Frank Sinatra; my mother wears a pale evening gown with a pointed bust, small waist, and rounded shoulder line. Her hair is marcelled in a thick wave that gathers without breaking down the right side of her face. The other women all have perms, and between their gloved fingers they hold cigarettes which burn at the end of elegantly long and slender holders.

It is just after the war, and though my father still works long hours for little pay in the slaughterhouse his older brother and his father own, he plans to go into business for himself once he saves a little money. My mother is soon to be pregnant. She herself is the product of a broken home, an unfortunate marriage. Raised by her grandparents, she is determined to be a perfect wife, a perfect mother, to give her future children the childhood she never had. She is certain she will love them with a vengeance.

In 1970, though, none of this is really visible to me. My parents, newly married, look out at the camera, both only a few years older than I am now as I stare up at them, utterly astonished by the thought. Young as their faces seem, young and hopeful, everyone smiling out at the camera as if no one could ever be as happy as they were at that moment, I don’t believe it, not for a second. I don’t believe they were ever really young, not young like I am young. I mean, look at them, look at their clothes, their formal ties and jackets, their cuffs, their watches, the dainty gloves, all the conventional trappings of an old-world dream of success and status seeking. Surely they must have seen how antiquated and frumpy it all was, even then, when they were new to it — the black-and-white motion pictures, the corny dialogue (“aw, that’ll be swell, kid,” “ah, you big lug”), the shaky newsreels, the crackly recordings of big band music, and the ancient crooners, and the songs, my god, the songs, the cornball lyrics (“In a mountain greenery / where God paints the scenery”? Are you kidding me?) — even then they must have seen how goofily drenched in oldness their lives were, drenched in the conventions, formalities, customs, and lingo of a culture my generation has had the good sense to abandon.

My generation, talking about my generation, what does style have to do with us; we transcend style; we reject all notions of style, of lifestyles, that awful word, in favor of what if not sheer life itself. We worship at the altar of the natural, the unadorned, the uninhibited. Thank God, I think, I was born when I was, and live when I do. In the eternal present uncontaminated by the uptight past.

I turn my back on the gone world of my elders. As I step outside, easily six feet two by now, maybe even taller, I discover that I already know the words to “In the Summertime,” the new hit single by Mungo Jerry. I think Mungo Jerry is the name of the lead singer of the band, not the name of the band itself, a name which the lead singer, Paul Dorset, had adopted from T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. But I don’t know this yet. I don’t even know they’re British. And as far as T. S. Eliot goes, well, I haven’t read a word he’s written; in fact I know of him only because he’s mentioned along with Ezra Pound in Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row,” a song I don’t understand but memorized anyway because Dylan is a genius, my generation’s William Shakespeare, whom I’m not ashamed to say I also haven’t read, though on a high school outing a few years back I did see the film version of Romeo and Juliet. What’s Shakespeare to me? Or Eliot for that matter? I have long hair, yellow bell-bottoms, and a bag of pot in my front pocket. My passionate rejection of class and status notwithstanding, I’m sitting proudly behind the wheel of my father’s 1963 big-finned Buick LeSabre, and as I drive away I sing, too young, too full of life for irony, “If her father’s rich take her out for a meal, if her father’s poor just do what you feel, in the summertime you’ve got women you’ve got women on your mind, have a drink have a drive go out and see what you can find.”


1970 was also the year that one of my mother’s contemporaries, the British poet Philip Larkin, brought out his last full-length volume of poetry, High Windows. I didn’t discover Larkin until a few years later, after college, in 1975, when I had moved to Dublin to live a writer’s life, which at the time meant getting as far away as possible from my parents and everything associated with my past.

I remember coming across the book in a small bookstore off Grafton Street, a few doors down from a restaurant called Captain Americas, where my new Irish girlfriend likes to eat because she finds the food, the hamburgers and hotdogs, exotic. Odd to see myself back then, in that tiny bookstore, half slumped, with my back against a bookshelf in a dim-lit aisle, head bent over the book, my long hair cascading down to the shoulders of my Aran sweater, as I read the title poem, not quite knowing what to make of it:

When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s fucking her and she’s
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise

Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives —
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester,
And everyone young going down the long slide

To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
Anyone looked at me forty years back,
And thought, That’ll be the life;
No God any more, or sweating in the dark

About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest. He
And his lot will all go down the long slide
Like free bloody birds. And immediately

Rather than words, comes the thought of high windows:
The sun comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

Of course I liked the vulgar jokiness of the opening lines. But I was mystified by the turn the poem takes to an older world and its particular historically determined styles of inhibition and longing, no sweating in the dark about hell, or having to hide what you think of the priest? So far as I knew my parents and grandparents cared about God and religion about as little as they cared about pleasure. It had never occurred to me to think they envied anything about me or my generation. They held our vision of freedom in complete contempt. So shackled by the mores and conventions of their time, they didn’t have the sense to know what actual freedom was. Their idea of the good life was to work themselves sick to have a little extra for a sick day. At least that’s how I saw it then. I bristled at the thought that each generation of the middle-aged and elderly projects onto the generation after them all of their unrealized desires, that my passionate intensity could ever be like theirs or anyone else’s in any way, or that the optimism of the young of every generation embodied only the typical upside of an eternally recurring cycle of delusion and disenchantment. I resisted the assumption that each generation has its own historically contingent modes of thinking and feeling, its own particular conventions to which familiarity bred of habit gives a veneer of inevitability. And the closing lines, what could I make of them, the elevated diction, the metaphysical imagery, or the solemn yet ironic evocation of the blank, limitless blue air of desire whose intensity increases the more unfulfillable it is? If by 1975 I didn’t feel all that happy or free, despite the romance of the move to Ireland, despite my Irish girlfriend, that was only because I hadn’t yet completely exorcised the vestiges of my upbringing, though with every ounce of vital energy inside me I was certain that I soon would. I could no more think of the values I espoused as some day becoming obsolete than I could imagine bell-bottoms being anything but cool, or a Mustang or Corvette some day looking just as laughably old-fashioned as an Edsel or a Rambler.

Mostly, I balked at what the poem seemed to say: that what I and my fellow travelers in the counterculture thought of as 20/20 vision was only generational myopia. I couldn’t accept the poem but I couldn’t forget it either.


The monthly calendar pages flutter up and away one after another till it’s 1976 or ’77, 11 a.m. on a Thursday morning, and I’m sitting in Donald Davie’s office at Stanford University, discussing Philip Larkin. Donald is a dark-suited, 50-something, well-known, well-respected English poet-critic. Jovial, exuberant, incredibly learned, and wickedly articulate about what he knows, a passionate enemy of groupthink yet politically conservative, a hard-boiled Calvinist yet artistically open-minded, even cosmopolitan, a lover of Thomas Hardy and Ezra Pound, Yvor Winters and George Oppen, the postmodern French poet Edmond Jabès and the American maverick Ed Dorn, to name only a few of the heterogeneous and contradictory poets he champions — he has pulled out four beers from the side drawer of his desk, two for me, two for him, and we drink while Davie describes the mental tightrope one has to walk in order to read poetry with any sort of seriousness and sensitivity. He tells me that every way of writing entails a bias, every stylistic choice directs attention to this instead of that, encourages implicit or explicit agreement or dissent. But to let a work’s moral or political bias blind you to its aesthetic value is as limiting as to let its aesthetic value blind you to its moral bias. With someone like Pound, for instance, you can’t appreciate the poetry without anguish because you can’t disentangle its aesthetic achievement from its political affiliations; to do so would be to trivialize both. So, I say, what about Larkin, what do you make of Larkin? Davie doesn’t like Larkin’s Little Englandism, his narrow-minded dismissal, on and off the page, of Modernism and internationalism. He finds Larkin’s defense of ordinariness, his debunking of what Davie calls all sense of the marvelous and strange, a failure of nerve and a stultifying retreat from contemporary life. At the same time, Davie says Larkin is a master of the lyric poem, and isn’t as old-fashioned or anti-romantic as he pretends to be. His originality, Davie says, is indistinguishable from his conventionality, his fluency so to speak in the metrical and even romantic conventions he often appears to be debunking.

Maybe it’s the beer I’ve knocked back too quickly, but I’m confused how Larkin could be considered original in any way whatsoever. His poems are too straightforward, too plain, too, I don’t know, old-fashioned. What’s original about “High Windows”?

Davie pulls off an anthology from the bookshelf behind him. He reads me the first couple of stanzas from the old ballad “Mary Hamilton,” then a short tetrameter lyric “Madam Withouten Many Words” by Sir Thomas Wyatt; then “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” by John Donne, and Marvell’s “The Mower to the Glow-worm.” He puts the book down, grabs another book off the shelf. He reads “The Oxen” and “In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’” by Thomas Hardy, two 20th-century ballads, then Auden’s “As I Went Out One Evening,” and finally a couple of other poems, “To Earthward” by Robert Frost, and “The Owl” by Edward Thomas, both poems in quatrains. When he finishes, he says, see what I mean?

I don’t see what he means. I’m too drunk by now to see what he means. I’m focusing on his thick black rimmed glasses to keep the room from spinning. It’s 11:30 and I’m shitfaced.

Then Davie holds up High Windows, turning the book toward me. “Look,” he says, “Look at the bloody quatrains, quatrains you see, rhymed quatrains, just like all the other poems, except it isn’t like them is it?” He interprets my blank look as asking, “How so?” and he says, a little annoyed at my obtuseness, “Because Larkin’s lines aren’t regular, and neither are his rhymes. You see how he’s evoking the convention and upending it?” When I just stare at him dumbfounded, he says, “The lines, dear boy, the lines modulate randomly from anapestic trimeter or tetrameter to an occasional pentameter.” Then he goes on to describe how the rhymes too appear at first to fall haphazardly. In the first two quatrains only lines two and four rhyme, though “paradise,” which rhymes partially with “she’s,” makes more of an audible rhyme with “lives” in the first line of quatrain two.

Now Davie has walked around the desk and put the book in my lap. He says, look at how all four lines in the third quatrain are rhymed in the conventional abab pattern but the rhymes are only partial, if-life, back-dark, and look at how Larkin crosses that emergent but not fully articulated chiming with the internal rhyme of “endlessly,” the last word of the poem’s first sentence, and “me” in the following line. It’s really only in the fourth quatrain that the rhymes are fully audible, and Larkin underscores that audibility by rhyming again internally but this time on a word in the last line of this quatrain with a word in the first line of the next. This heightened formality coincides with the final turn in the poem from the demotic idiom of the preceding lines to a higher more traditional register, as if on the level of style and form alone Larkin were working backward through time toward a less ironic more romantically effusive summoning of desire. “But of course he can’t escape his moment, can he, Alan?” Donald says, quizzically watching me now over his reading glasses, which have slid down to the tip of his nose. “Surely,” he asks, “you see how the irony persists even where the rhetoric is most expansive?”

When I don’t answer, trying not to drool on his copy of the book, he points out how Larkin keeps the quatrains open by running the sentence on from stanza to stanza and how the beautiful line break after “shows” in the penultimate line intensifies our expectation for a final revelation, which only makes the negatives of the last line more emphatically disappointing, as does the last line’s falling trochaic meter and the final rhyme of the accented “glass” with the unaccented second syllable of “endless.” The closure you expect from rhyme, Davie tells me, is both solicited and left unsatisfied, which of course is itself an enactment of what everything else in the poem from the irregular line lengths to the open quatrains has been telling us all along: that nothing will satisfy our desire for paradise, that our desire for what we can’t have has no end.

“Another beer?” Davie asks, and he pulls two more out of the desk drawer. I have no memory of what he says next. He has divided, amoeba-like, into two Donald Davies, and both are now speaking in some ancient tongue, Linear B or Hittite, I can’t tell which.


What makes a poet new and different? When we call someone original, what exactly do we mean? Until the mid-18th century, the concept of originality referred not to something new, fresh, or novel, but to something really old, as in ancestral. “Original” suggested not a venturing out into unexplored or hitherto undiscovered territory, but a return to a lost beginning, a break from prevailing social practices that have grown overly refined or repressive, so as to return to an uncorrupted vital source. Revolutionaries in religion and in art often draw on this older meaning of the term to justify their opposition to the things they want to change. Thus early reformation theologians claimed the new and simpler forms of worship they espoused represented not a rejection of Christianity, but a resurrection of the faith as it was in the time of the Church fathers, a return to the original church before inauthentic practices and rituals corrupted it. In the preface to the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth justifies abandoning the desiccated habits of neoclassical decorum, the entrenched excessively artificial conventions of his day, in favor of the generality of nature articulated in and through a natural idiom, a language actually spoken by common folk outside the exclusive high-class drawing rooms of London.

Closer to home, think too of the many postwar poets who abandoned what they called a too cooked rhetorical style of composition in favor of a looser and simpler, more improvisatory mode of writing that drew from wells far below the too enculterated ego, that reached beyond mere individual consciousness to the irrational, presocialized collective unconscious, and even deeper to prehuman levels of being untainted by the depredations of Western culture. And then there’s the more recent postmodern revolutionaries, the language poets who through fragmentation and irony attempt to liberate the undergraduate, if not the underprivileged, from the shackles of clarity — deconstructing the deceptively coherent surfaces of discourse and the illusions of meaning, the false or simplifying forms of narrative, down to mere language itself, language as it really is, in its “natural” state, meaning with all of its Deredian instabilities, contradictions, and ambiguities in full display, the jury rigged poststructural machine, so to speak, inside the ghost of referentiality. Even the new formalists, those well-groomed insurrectionists, who put the net back into tennis but forgot about the ball, justified their rejection of free verse in favor of rhyme and meter by appealing to our biological nature, if not to nature itself. The iamb they claimed was more natural than the merely artificial conventions of nontraditional verse because it echoed the beating of the human heart. And what about those of us who comprised the antiwar youth movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s, where exactly did we think we were going if not, as Joni Mitchell sings in “Woodstock,” “Back to the garden”?


Since my time at Stanford, largely through Donald Davie’s influence, I began to puzzle over the role that convention plays in our experience of the new. I began to think of originality less in terms of making something up out of whole cloth than in bringing together and integrating elements that until this act of making had been found only in isolation. I became more interested in idiosyncrasy, in other words, than in the more romantic concept of originality.

In 1618, the 280-pound, 46-year-old poet/playwright Ben Jonson walked from London to Edinburgh and then by stages back to London. Outlandish adventures like this were something of a fad in the late 16th and early 17th century. On a bet, Will Kemp, the best known actor of his day, danced from London to Norwich, a journey of 130 miles, and even published a third-person narrative about the feat called Kemp’s Nine Days Wonder. Someone around this time, it’s not known who, walked backward from London to Berwick, and in 1589 Robert Carey won a wager of 2,000 pounds for walking the same route in 12 days. Crazy escapades of physical endurance had become something of a fad, the late-Renaissance, early Reformation version of extreme sports. When he arrived in Edinburgh nearly three months after setting out, he stayed a few weeks with William Drummond, Lord of Hawthornden, during which, it seems, he had a failed dalliance with a young woman, which inspired the following poem:

“My Picture Left in Scotland”

I now think Love is rather deaf than blind,
  For else it could not be
           That she,
  Whom I adore so much, should so slight me,
And cast my love behind.
I’m sure my language to her was as sweet
           And every close did meet
         In sentence of as subtle feet,
           As hath the youngest He
That sits in shadow of Apollo’s tree.

   O, but my conscious fears,
           That fly my thoughts between,
           Tell me that she hath seen
  My hundred of gray hairs,
  Told seven and forty years
Read so much waste, as she cannot embrace
My mountain belly and my rocky face;
And all these through her eyes have stopped her ears.

The athletic grace of the poem, the way the long complex sentences leap so effortlessly from line to line, the rhymes falling into place as if by accident, is obvious. What’s less obvious is the poem’s fresh reworking of the conventions of courtly love, in which the lover is young and handsome, and the language is florid. Jonson overturns these expectations by the realistic description of himself as middle-aged and overweight — and by employing a lively but plain diction. He signals his unconventional take on a conventional situation in the opening line, with his altering the cliché of “love is blind” to “love is deaf.” The poem is in fact a send-up of the whole neoplatonic tradition of courtly love, in which the eyes are pictured as the windows to the soul, and the mutable body is a figure for immutable spirit. If that were true, Jonson implies, then the beauty of his language should have been enough to win the girl’s devotion. But his all too mutable body got in the way (“And all these through her eyes have stopped her ears”). He invokes the tradition in order to show how divorced it is from actual life.

In a poem written roughly 350 years later, the American poet J. V. Cunningham echoes Jonson in order to define himself against the clichés and conventions of his own time and place. Even the title of the poem — “The Aged Lover Discourses in the Flat Style” — establishes the conventions the poem will define itself against: we associate Petrarchan sonnets with a florid style and elaborate figures of speech all celebrating idealized romance among the young; Cunningham will give us a flat discourse, consistent with a less idealized picture of intimacy, involving not the young but the aged:

There are, perhaps, whom passion gives a grace,
Who fuse and part as dancers on the stage,
But that is not for me, not at my age,
Not with my bony shoulders and fat face.
Yet in my clumsiness I found a place
And use for passion: with it I ignore
My gaucheries and yours, and feel no more
The awkwardness of the absurd embrace.

It is a pact men make, and seal in flesh,
To be so busy with their own desires
Their loves may be as busy with their own,
And not in union. Though the two enmesh
Like gears in motion, each with each conspires
To be at once together and alone.

Where the conventional love poem finds love along with intimacy, sexual pleasure and balletic grace, Cunningham finds isolation and clumsiness, the intimacy more conspiracy to maintain privacy in the company of someone else. The young fuse like dancers; the old enmesh like gears. And yet as in Jonson’s poem the handling of the form couldn’t be more elegant, despite the flatness of the language. There’s beauty here, a grim realistic beauty, but it’s not the kind one normally encounters in more conventional celebrations of love, on or off the page. And yet how else does the poem convey its unique perspective except by playing it off against the conventions it both inherits and redefines?

Both poems written some 350 years apart subscribe to the same general assumption that to rework the conventions and mores that the past bequeaths to us we have to know the past. Tradition itself is just an ongoing conversation/argument about the nature of tradition, what forms are usable or in need of renewal or adjustment, or resistance. But you can’t adjust or resist what you’re not aware of.

And this maybe was the problem with my generation, at least back in the day when we all had hair: like the young of any period, though only more so, we were too much of our moment to be aware of our moment. Because of our history, we postwar, post-Cuban Missile Crisis American baby boomers, children of the war in Southeast Asia, of the doomsday clock set at five minutes to midnight, of Woodstock and the draft, we felt unmoored not only from the past but from the future too. Don’t make plans, our gurus told us, just clap your hands. Because we believed all bonds and gestures were artificial shackles that in the little time before the bomb went off we’d shrug off so as to forge our own “original” relation to the world, we couldn’t see how much the bonds and gestures of our moment were determining nearly everything we said and did.


It’s a truism to say that we’re by nature social animals, that we live and thrive in relation to other people. What complicates this picture, though, is the odd fact that social norms, conventions, mores not only mediate our interactions with each other, they also generate the terms by which we understand ourselves; they’re like the metrical substrate by which the rhythms of our distinct identities are measured. If I think to myself, good God I’m short, or way too loose with money, or a tightwad, a hot head or a big mouth, or a wallflower, I’m defining myself in terms of norms of behavior I’ve internalized so deeply I’ve forgotten they don’t originate inside me, even if inside me usually late at night, just before sleep, is mostly where I come to see myself as too much of a this or not enough of a that. The very language I think with connects me to a social world. The still small inner voice implies a listener, an other, even if the other is me, or that part of myself I’ve assimilated from the outer world, which may be how the world keeps watch of me when no one else is looking.

Paradoxically one could say that if language is part and parcel of our self-awareness, a necessary if not sufficient condition of self-awareness, then awareness is both socially constituted, and isolating, inherently social and private. Only I can feel and know what goes on inside me; only you can feel and know what goes on inside you. Not just physical sensation but also emotional and psychic states exist, initially at least, off stage, hidden away from public view, and unless I buckle over and collapse, or cry out in pain, what I experience I experience alone, with an immediacy no one else can really share. Which may be why when it comes to other people’s suffering we are all Doubting Thomases — unless we can stick our finger in the open wound we never quite believe in its reality; but when it comes to our own suffering, we’re each of us nothing if not the crucified son of God.

But here’s another complication: If I say, I hurt, the word hurt feels nothing. It’s just a collection of arbitrary shapes connected to a collection of arbitrary sounds we organize into the word hurt. When I say I hurt, the word looks up at me and shrugs and goes back to being the nothing that it is until someone else it doesn’t know or care about says I hurt too. All of which is just to say that we express even our most private feelings by means of inert public signs. Our irreducibly personal sense of ourselves depends for its articulation on a system of signs that we did not invent, that exists independently of us, and is utterly indifferent to the mouths it momentarily inhabits, to the lives it momentarily expresses. A lion has more empathy for the baby gazelle it devours than our precious words do for those who speak them.

So we’re left with a paradox: the inherently social/impersonal medium of language conditions self-awareness, which in turn produces that personal voice inside us that makes us feel distinct from and other than the impersonal and public linguistic conventions we depend on to express that very private sense.

So how does self-expression happen? How by means of convention do we convey a more than conventional experience? If the artistic process exists on a continuum between extremes of the absolute interiority of bodily sensation, on the one hand, and on the other of the mediating norms of language, then to use convention to express an unconventional feeling is to effect a kind of reciprocal alchemy: a transmutation of private incommunicable feeling into the public conventions of communication; and conversely of those public forms into the particulars of subjectively intense experience. As in both “My Picture Left in Scotland” and “The Aged Lover,” the convention is personalized without ceasing to communicate, and the personal is conventionalized without ceasing to convey what’s fresh and surprising, such that both are altered by their integration into something social and keenly private, impersonal, and new. How to translate the irreducibly subjective into the objective norms of expression without either losing the integrity of feeling, or the social world beyond the feeling, which the feeling depends on to be recognized, if not exactly shared, is what makes writing so necessary and difficult.


In 1994, I’m living in North Carolina. My sister Beth has just been diagnosed with breast cancer. We don’t know this at the time but she has 19 months to live. My brother is on the verge of divorcing his childhood sweetheart, the mother of his two young daughters. In 1997 he’ll be diagnosed with brain cancer and be dead in about a year. I’m married for the second time, not happily, and not for long, though I don’t know this yet, and we have two young children.

I still love Ferlinghetti even if I regard him as a guilty pleasure. The poems did start me on the road to the life I’ve lived, a life of teaching and writing, and however limited his work may be, I acknowledge the transformative power it once possessed for me, even if the social program it proposed seems ludicrous now, 24 years later. Even if it’s only of and for a particular moment, I understand and even honor the feeling it expressed, the need it spoke to.

I’ve put together a new collection of poems and the image I’ve chosen for the cover is the ancient photograph of my father’s family that had pride of place on the wall of my childhood home. Before I mail the photograph to my publisher, I study the people smiling out at me: all looking so much younger than I am now. My father’s youngest sister is sitting next to her husband, who everyone would soon discover is an inveterate womanizer. Sometime in the next year or so, he’ll be away on business, when his wife will call his hotel room at one a.m. and a woman answers. And not long after that, she’ll file for divorce. This is, in fact, the last family occasion he attends, the last picture he appears in.

Next to him is another brother-in-law looking to his left at his beautiful wife, who’s looking out at us. He adores his wife, but he drinks too much. And she’s just about had it. A few years earlier, after some vague business venture went belly up, he became a hairdresser, a profession associated with homosexuals, with “faygellas.” That he is good at cutting hair only increases his sense of having lost his manhood, having failed his family. His wife has threatened to leave him if he doesn’t quit the boozing. He doesn’t, but before she has the chance to leave him, he drops dead of a heart attack. This too is his last picture with the family.

Next to my father stands his oldest sister; she has two daughters, both of them what was then called “mildly retarded.”

I look at my jaunty father with his fedora pushed back on his head, his tie loosened, smiling so confidently, so cocksure of his good looks, of his classy wife, of his future great good fortune. Soon, he tells his wife, he will go into business for himself, break free of his brother and his father, and leave the slaughterhouse for good. Soon, when the time is right, but the time is never right, and it will drive my mother crazy how he places loyalty to his brother over loyalty to her and their three young kids, a loyalty, she’ll be quick to add, his brother doesn’t return. Amos will spend most of his time in Florida with his wealthy friends, playing golf, relaxing while my father works like a dog, running the business seven days a week. And yet he’ll never earn enough to buy a pair of slippers, much less, God forbid, a trip somewhere. Eventually the two brothers will fall out over money, though by then my father will be too old to do anything but work as a salesman on the floor of a men’s clothing store. For the last 15 years of Amos’s life he and my father will not speak.

The war to end all wars is over. Everyone in the picture, at least for the moment of the picture, is dreaming the dreams given to their generation, dreams of glamor, wealth, the husbands tall, good-looking, and successful, the wives all beautiful and classy, the houses full of beautiful children who’ll adore them, a life free of the struggles and anxieties that dogged their elders, that made their lives such a daily grind.

My parents will stay married for 63 years. They will fight constantly, they will threaten to break up yearly, monthly, and sometimes daily, but they never will. Every now and then they’ll forget about their resentments and seem to take joy in each other’s presence but mostly they will sulk and brood in silence, and now and then explode. They will live long enough to bury two of their children.

So it almost seems like courage, the way they smile out at the camera, the wholeheartedness with which they claim the moment as their own, the certainty that they will be happy, no matter what, that here in America, the richest and freest country in the world, no bad thing can ever happen to them.

This is the image I’ve chosen for the book.

The title of the book is Covenant.


Alan Shapiro is a poet and professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

LARB Contributor

Alan Shapiro is a poet and professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.


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