Prose from Poetry Magazine

The Great Man

by Vivian Gornick
I once worked at a university (I'll call it Sterling U) whose writing program is annually ranked in the top ten. Not only do its teachers publish steadily, and live at the end of a continuous flow of invitations to conferences and symposia, the program works hard to create a sense of community. The faculty is required to put in an appearance at weekly lunches, monthly readings, even galas and fund-raisers. For visitors like myself this expected participation was something of a boon: you were drawn in quickly, and did not need to endure the potential for social neglect so common to the visiting writer at a university program. On the other hand, I soon realized that for those who were spending their lives here, the enforced socializing was a distinctly mixed blessing.

I saw the people I was working with every day, but in some crucial sense I began not to see them at all. Every now and then I'd walk into the office of a poet I particularly liked to say, "Let's get together." "Definitely," he'd reply. "This week is bad, we (that is, the program) have so many visitors coming, but next week for sure. Anyway, I'll see you at the department lunch on Tuesday, and at that reception on Friday afternoon. We can talk then." A day later I'd have the same exchange with a novelist, and walk away feeling uneasy. The talk at lunch would inevitably be of writing program business, and at the reception it was dinner party chit-chat: three minutes on the local art opening, seven on London versus New York, six on the fool in the White House. I always left feeling tired. Meeting up with the poet or the novelist at one of these affairs was, in a way, worse than not seeing either of them at all.

It was at Sterling that I came to understand that when people find themselves in spirit-diluting proximity three times in a single week they have no urge to search each other out for an evening of real conversation. At none of these affairs did anyone ever suggest getting together afterward. Neither, I noticed, was the suggestion made if any of us ran into each other the next day at school. The memory of the negative encounter lingered in the nerves. Compulsive socializing, I began to see, stirred up dissatisfactions that were not easily allowed to clear out.

It occurred to me that perhaps it was this situation that accounted for the unvoiced irritations that seemed to hover beneath the surface of nearly every verbal encounter. I felt the most casual of intellectual exchanges marked by naked challenge: an argumentative tone of voice; uncalled-for insinuation; a sneer embedded in the inevitable ironies. I was always startled. Surely no one could feel spiritually nourished in such an atmosphere; in fact, it was hard to imagine feeling anything other than deflated and demoralized. I came from New York, where psychosis on the street could break out at any moment, but this kind of routine insult and injury I had never experienced. I could see how tired people might grow of speaking with one another. And sure enough: as the semester wore on, attendance at the readings (sometimes even the lunches) began to reduce itself dramatically. Clearly, even if one's job was on the line, it was becoming literally impossible for people to make themselves appear.

Late in the term a famous poet came to read, an Israeli who had worked at Sterling long before his reputation blossomed; when we met for dinner he nodded familiarly at a few of the people around the table. Not that this was an affable type. He was handsome, self-contained, remote; a courteous smile played on his lips at all times, but he glazed over visibly when people were speaking to him, even as he went out of his way to observe drily that the director of the program hadn't shown up, nor had two other writers of reputation.

However, the two most ambitious poets on the faculty, Lloyd Levine and Carol Montana, were on hand with their respective spouses, all four of them beaming effusively at the visitor. During dinner, Lloyd performed nonstop. He knew the poet's work by heart, and had come prepared to give him the educated admiration every writer craves. The poet accepted Lloyd's deference benignly, while giving almost nothing back. An hour into it, the dinner began to feel endless.

As we rose from the table, Serena Levine said to me, "Isn't he sweet?" I looked at her. "No," I said, "he's not. He knows who he is at all times." Serena's eyes rested lightly on my face. "Believe me," she said, "for a man who knows who he is at all times he's sweet." I gazed at her in admiration. She had put in her time.

We repaired to the auditorium and the poet read. Throughout the reading, I felt what I had often felt here: the extraordinary upwelling of a large literary spirit housed in a man of apparently quite ordinary character. The Israeli spoke a great deal, much too much for a poet, always edging toward pontification, as he explained at unnecessary length the origins of the poem he was about to read. Then, from his cold and uninviting mouth there issued images of beauty and power. Repeatedly, out poured some stunning economy of insight and tenderness that made you fall helplessly in love with him. When he explained another poem, you'd start feeling weary again. Then he'd read, and you'd be his all over again. It was a roller coaster ride: exhilarating and exhausting.

Afterwards, there was a reception to which hardly anyone came. Faculty hurried away, and so did the students. None wished to submit themselves to the haughty scrutiny of the Great Man. By this time, Lloyd was looking gray, and Carol got frantic, insisting—though we all knew it wasn't a good idea—that we come back to her house for a drink; she couldn't bear for the poet to return to New York thinking Sterling boring and provincial. In Carol's living room he settled heavily into his chair, his face impassive, his eyes hooded. You could see that he had had it. He'd sung for his supper, and now he wanted out.

Lloyd, who'd also sung for his supper, slumped on a couch across the room, staring at his shoes. Carol began to babble. Unexpectedly, the atmosphere infected me. Suddenly, I felt anxious for my colleagues: if I didn't entertain the company, the room would incinerate. I placed myself on a hassock halfway between Lloyd, Carol, Serena, and Steve lined up on one side of the room, the poet on the other, and, turning adeptly back and forth between them, began to speak animatedly about a trip I'd made to Israel. The poet sat back, a finger ridging his temple, his boiled eyes trained unnervingly on my face as I, too, began to babble; after all, what did I know about Israeli culture and society? Then, inspiration struck. I introduced the subject of Josef Brenner.

"Your work," I enthused at the poet, "reminds me so much of Brenner's complicated feeling for Jerusalem."

He remained silent. Silent and motionless.

I twisted around to the others, explaining at length, and still with unflagging enthusiasm, who Brenner was—an early settlement novelist, little known in this country, just being discovered, one of the few who, around the time of the First World War, began to write in modern Hebrew, producing these brooding, impressionistic novels, so clearly trying out the language.

"Those marvelous staccato lines of yours," I turned back to our guest, "they're so much like those raw, elliptical impressions of Brenner's. You know, those stories of Jerusalem, circa 1916?"

More silence. More motionlessness. Then, with a sigh, he spoke.

"Ectshually," he said, a finger still in his temple, his voice now icy, "Brenner's work is nozzing like mine. Nozzing at all. There is no resemblance vatever between us."

My mouth fell open. Then it closed.

"And he is not brilliant."

I swiveled on the hassock in time to see Lloyd's eyes widen.

"In fact he is dull. Kvite dull."

Carol gasped.

"And he is not being 'rediscovered.' He's been around all the time. Ve don't pay attention to him because ve know how dull he is."

By now, I was rooted to my seat.

"But Americans come," he went on (nothing could stop him now), "and they make a fuss over him." His voice (there was no other word for it) dripped scorn. "They discover him."

He shrugged, and stopped speaking. Not another word emerged from his mouth. He sank back in the chair, now as hopeless as the rest of us.

Carol's face had turned to stone, and Lloyd was looking wild; but I wanted to throw back my head and laugh out loud. The poet felt as I had often felt when some brightly stupid person in the program made the same kind of sloppy-comparison mistake I had just made, and I'd find myself out for blood. At this moment I realized that the desire for blood was the logical outcome of perpetual challenge, irony, and insinuation. The poet wanted what was wanted all over Sterling U: conversation that would nourish the spirit, not shrivel it. It wasn't that he was a savage: it was only that he needed protein, and he was getting junk food.
Originally Published: June 29, 2007


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This prose originally appeared in the July/August 2007 issue of Poetry magazine

July/August 2007


 Vivian  Gornick


Vivian Gornick lives and works in New York City. Her newest collection of essays, The Men In My Life, will be published this fall by Boston Review/MIT Press.

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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