"Recently I happened to read the letter in which Montaigne relates the death of his friend de la Boétie: afterwards I couldn't fall asleep for crying, but to my shame this crying returned the following evenings with no apparent cause: you can imagine that I did not give in to it easily, I had books in front of me - but alas, these books: one sends me back to the other, basic knowledge is everywhere lacking, soon I will be sitting back behind the first vestiges, and what will I do there without memory?"


That sounds like a lot of crying, but the quote is from Rilke, after all - he's writing to Lou Andreas-Salome (from the new book, Rilke and Andreas-Salome: A Love Story in Letters, translated by Edward Snow and Michael Winkler). Sometimes we turn to our friends, and sometimes we turn to our books, and they seem strangely to be related. Is that an extravagence? Vivian Gornick, in her essay on literary and other friendship is the July/August issue of Poetry , writes:
In the centuries when most marriages were contracted out of economic and social considerations, friendship was written about with the kind of emotional extravagance that we, in our own time, have reserved for an ideal of romantic attachment. Montaigne, for instance, writing in the sixteenth century of his long dead, still mourned-for friend, Étienne de La Boétie, tells us that they were "one soul in two bodies." There was nothing his friend did, Montaigne says, not an act performed or a word spoken, for which "I could not immediately find the motive." Between the two young men communion had achieved perfection. This shared soul "pulled together in such unison," each half regarding the other with "such ardent affection" that "in this noble relationship, services and benefits, on which other friendships feed," were not taken into account. So great was the emotional benefit derived from the attachment that favors could neither be granted nor received. Privilege, for each of the friends, resided in being allowed to love, rather than in being loved.
This is language that Montaigne does not apply to his feeling for his wife or his children, his colleagues or his patrons—all relationships that he considers inferior to a friendship that develops not out of sensual need or worldly obligation, but out of the joy one experiences when the spirit is fed; for only then is one closer to God than to the beasts. The essence of true friendship for Montaigne is that in its presence "the soul grows refined."

Sounds like Montaigne and Rilke could've been pals.
It's not all that easy to avoid the sensual need, though; also in this issue of the magazine you'll find Fanny Howe's remembrance of Edward Dahlberg. Their own correspondence, she says, changed the course of her thinking life - but:
Dahlberg left a burn mark on whomever he met; he branded his students and friends and then abandoned them as his mother had for a time abandoned him... My friendship with Dahlberg ended bitterly. He chased me around his apartment on Rivington Street with his pants down, having locked the door from the inside, and I had to leap out a window to get away from him. My last letter from him was a racist diatribe against my marriage and the wasting of my "sweet, honeyed flesh."
What I received from him, before this event, was invaluable: the sense of the writer's life as a religious vocation. You had to protect yourself from Philistines, and read what he would call "ethical" writing. That is, writing that is so conscious of potential falsehoods, contradictions, and exaggerations in its grammar, it avoids becoming just one more symptom of the sick State."

That sense of the writer's life is one gift of literary friendship. But as Gornick observes,
In both friendship and love, the expectation that one's expressive best self will flower in the presence of the beloved other is key. Upon that flowering all is posited. The relationship fails, in friendship just as in love, when that best self ceases to feel itself served.
Again and again, she writes, poets
have acted out of the impassioned belief that poetry, through the extravagance of feeling that it generates, bestows on friendship the strength to defeat the ever-present drive toward self-division. If, ultimately, their friendships go under, as do those of the rest of us, that insistent effort of theirs to light up the hunger for connection keeps us concentrated on the glorious stubbornness of the need.
Your comments are welcome, dear friends.

Originally Published: June 30th, 2008

Don Share became the editor of Poetry in 2013. His books of poetry are Wishbone (2012), Squandermania (2007), and Union (2013, 2002). He is the co-editor of The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine (2012), and editor of Bunting's Persia (2012) and a critical edition of Basil Bunting's poems (2016). He...

  1. June 30, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    Thanks for this, Don. A passage that I can never read without crying is by, of all the unlikely poets, Kenneth Koch:
    I never mentioned my friends in my poems at the time I wrote The Circus
    Although they meant almost more than anything to me
    Of this now for some time I've felt an attenuation
    So I'm mentioning them maybe this will bring them back to me
    Not them perhaps but what I felt about them
    John Ashbery Jane Freilicher Larry Rivers Frank O'Hara
    Their names alone bring tears to my eyes
    For an opposing view, see Joseph Epstein on Harold Bloom: "In The Western Canon, he reports that whenever he re-reads Bleak House he cries whenever Esther Summerson does, 'and I don’t think I’m being sentimental.' In the same book he also reports that he uses the poems of Walt Whitman to assuage grief. 'I remember one summer, in crisis, being at Nantucket with a friend who was absorbed in fishing, while I read aloud to both of us from Whitman and recovered myself again.' Poor friend, one feels, poor fish."
    It's a good line, & Bloom probably deserves it. A certain sentimental (in Schiller's sense as well as in our colloquial sense) relation to literature need not preclude (indeed should necessitate) a suspicion of it. But when I first read those passages in Bloom, I recognized myself. To let my polemical guard down for a moment, these friendships are the reason I read & write. It's good to know I'm not alone.

  2. June 30, 2008
     Mary Meriam

    I couldn't fall asleep for crying
    Weird, this happened to me last night. Probably not the place to admit such a thing, but they call me brave. Don't worry, though, it doesn't happen often.
    I had books in front of me - but alas, these books...
    Yes, that's what it was like for me last night. I have books to read. Should I turn on the light and try to read?
    Sometimes we turn to our friends, and sometimes we turn to our books, and they seem strangely to be related. Is that an extravagence?
    I've always found my friends through words - written words. Interesting notion - extravagence. It seems like a basic necessity to me, though perhaps I don't understand your sense of the word extravagence.

  3. June 30, 2008
     Brian Salchert

    I have been a member of groups, and I have had lasting
    relationships; but I, essentially, am a loner. Nonetheless,
    most humans, it seems to me, want and appreciate deep
    friendships. The closest I've come to experiencing
    friendships of any depth have been due to my imagining
    them. I doubt that anyone who has encountered me,
    other than perhaps a relative, ever had an intense
    feeling for me. I simply do not easily fit in; therefore,
    I am tolerated, but seldom arouse serious attention.
    I was cute when I was younger, and I still look younger
    than I am; but that is just a body thing, and I do not
    have much of a body. Actually, I tend to ignore my
    body because I prefer mental activity over physical
    activity. So/ what you write about here/ I accept as
    true; and I feel that/ more now than ever in my life/
    reminding us of the presence and strength of human
    emotions, especially the positive ones, is vital. Peace.

  4. June 30, 2008
     Don Share

    Thank you, Michael, Mary, and Brian.
    Just to clarify, Mary, the word "extravagance" is Gornick's, taken from the quoted part of her essay, above. But it's a great question to wonder about the sense of the word as it appears there!

  5. June 30, 2008
     unreliable narrator

    Mary, I post this especially for you, because it is meant to be: Dorothy Parker, "The Little Hours."

  6. June 30, 2008
     Michael Gushue

    great topic, though too large to tackle in a comment. Edward Thomas' and Robert Frost's friendship is worth looking at on this subject.
    Also, for a deeper context on Montaigne, David Bolotin's "Plato's Dialogue on Friendship: An Interpretation of the Lysis" is an excellent and thought-engendering book.
    Tangentially, at my favorite eatery along Route 130 in New Jersey, the waitress used to say "Honey, the only thing around here that's refined is the sugar."

  7. July 1, 2008
     john

    I'm visiting family & friends at my ancestral home, and so away from my books, but the comments here recall to mind words of wallace Stevens, quoted by Henry Rago in the introduction to the 50th anniversary edition of "Poetry" magazine (forgive my ineptitude with code for italics), which, alas, I will have to paraphrase,
    "We return to 'Poetry' as to a kind of hearth, for the fellowship and friendship that is found there." (Too many "f"s -- forgive me, dear readers, and forgive me, shade of Wallace Stevens.)

  8. July 1, 2008
     Don Share

    John, thank you for so aptly remembering the Golden Anniversary issue of Poetry! Here's what Henry Rago said in the foreward:
    "This issue of Poetry celebrates fifty years of uninterrupted monthly publication. Its editor dedicates it to the memory of the founding editor of this magazine and his first friend in the world of poets, Harriet Monroe.
    What seems most personal in this dedication - an act of piety that has been the chief hope of more than seven years - may also suggest the broadest public meaning: this anniversary will commemorate countless other such friendships, and with them the austere devotion at their center. A few years before his death Wallace Stevens called Poetry "a kind of hearth": "It gives us in return for our daily support chiefly itself but in addition it gives, what every hearth gives, a familiar fellowship."
    For Aristotle the word "friendship" was sufficiently free of any hint either of solipsism or of collusion to suggest a systematic treatise, the gentlest moment of his Ethics. They are freinds who share a friendship for what is good, and in that good..."
    I had to wipe a tear away as I typed that!

  9. July 1, 2008
     Don Share

    P.S. That tear blurred my vision, evidently; sorry for the typo up there, friends!

  10. July 1, 2008
     Mary Meriam

    (I sent this in yesterday - guess it got lost.)
    Thanks, Unreliable, that really made me laugh! Goodbye, the last of my midnight blues. Here's one for you.
    Don, something about the way you referred to extravagence made me think you had changed the sense of it. In Gornick's sense, I think of the emotional extravagence of romantic friendships between women, before such extravagence was turned into "sickness" around 1900.

  11. July 1, 2008
     Kent Johnson

    One of the deepest and most beautiful acts of friendship in poetry may have been Kenneth Koch's composition of "A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island," and then attributing the poem to his beloved late friend, Frank O'Hara.
    Kent

  12. July 1, 2008
     Michael Gushue

    Here, here.

  13. July 1, 2008
     Doodle

    Kent, I thought Joshua Clover wrote "A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island." At least that's what Tosa Motokiyu told me when I had a Coke with him not long ago...

  14. July 1, 2008
     Kent Johnson

    >Kent, I thought Joshua Clover wrote "A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island." At least that's what Tosa Motokiyu told me when I had a Coke with him not long ago...
    Now there's a picture for you: The baby Clover, pounding away at his portable Royal, in his red diaper!
    Kent

  15. July 1, 2008
     Matt

    You're all mistaken. "A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island" was obviously written by Sir Francis Bacon, later plagiarized and published by Sir Francis Drake, after which it was lost and forgotten, resurfacing in 1932 when W.H. Auden was rummaging through a trunk he'd found at the bottom of the English Channel during one of his many famed diving expeditions. Auden, hating the poem but realizing its potential historical value, kept it secret until a young student named Frank O'Hara came along, at which point Auden, feeling mischievous one day, slipped the poem into one of O'Hara's notebooks while he wasn't looking. O'Hara never noticed it, however, and the poem was only rediscovered in 1989 by a less-than-reputable Daytona Beach-area antiques dealer, who mistakenly attributed it to O'Hara. The poem was then published under O'Hara's name for the first time, in the April 2, 1990 issue of The New Yorker, which was, you'll remember, just a few weeks before Noah's Ark was found inside the basement of the Empire State Building.

  16. July 2, 2008
     Don Share

    "I am the least difficult of men. All I want is boundless love."
    Frank O'Hara (yes?), "Meditations in an Emergency," November 1954 issue of Poetry.