Poetry News

Ben Lerner on Keith Waldrop's Reissued Memoir

By Harriet Staff


In "Keith Waldrop's Haunted Realism," at The New Yorker, Ben Lerner writes of the poet and translator's memoir (Light While There Is Light, just reissued by Dalkey Archive) that "[e]ven in dreams, Waldrop is stuck with the merely real." It's a statement that contradicts an earlier faith in poetic imagination that Lerner connects to Wallace Stevens:

Maybe this is because I first read Stevens’s poetry in a class taught by Waldrop at Brown University—a class composed, on the one hand, of young writers eager to listen to one of the best-read humans on the planet talk about literature, and, on the other, of sleeping athletes who knew Waldrop pretty much gave everybody an “A.” But it’s also because, in a beautiful passage late in “Light While There Is Light,” Waldrop makes the unlikely claim that he has little imagination himself:

My imagination is poor. In my dreams, for instance—where one would suppose wishes can be fulfilled without hindrance—if I dream the events this account describes, they are not usually changed, but in what should be a world nearer to the heart’s desire, they play again, just as I tell them here, exactly as already experienced. It is as if despairing, even of imaginary improvement, I contrive instead to set my affection on the damned world, this very world, as it was and as it is.

Later, there is Hamlet; or, "G.I. Hamlet":

One of the few moments (or is it the only moment?) in the book where Waldrop speaks explicitly about being changed by an event—more conventional memoirs are full of scenes of transformation—is when Waldrop’s father, a bitter railway man his mother ultimately divorced, takes him to see a production of the “G.I. Hamlet” in Topeka, Kansas (Waldrop was born in Emporia). It was a production first developed to travel to Army bases, but, after the First World War, it toured the Midwest in search of civilian audiences. Waldrop is a middle-school student at the time of the performance:

People who should know (older people) have since told me that it was nothing exceptional, mediocre acting of a badly cut text—and I remember the Edwardian costumes—but for me it was a view into another realm, a realm infinitely appealing and, most surprisingly, available to me. I was, I think, different from that day on. I noted the way, common enough I now know, in which each scene, instead of being marked off by raising and lowering a curtain, was brought up out of the dark and at the end returned to dark, so that the entire play became a series of moments articulated by light on a background of darkness.
It is not identification with Hamlet’s uncertainty, or love of language—neither character nor prosody—that stands out for Waldrop in memory, but rather the play of light and dark, the way each scene appears and disappears, is briefly present and then gone. Instead of the curtain that demarcates this world from that, there is the rhythm of dissolve.

It is the rhythm of “Light While There Is Light” itself, a book that develops by illuminating scenes, not by imposing the coherences of a conventional plot. In her excellent introduction to this edition, the novelist Jamie Gordon writes: “At rhythmic intervals—in this respect as much like music as collage—the novel revisits the theme of the narrator’s own relations with light, in brief, image rich variations throughout the text, each floating in its own shining white space.” Gordon wonders: “Is this the light of the title? The light of God? Of revealed truth about a God we once thought to grasp with our senses? Maybe it is just—light.”

I think it’s just light. Wittgenstein famously wrote: “It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists”’—that there is a world at all. Waldrop maintains before “this very world”—with all its bad acting and ridiculous costumes and mangled scripts—a kind of muted, clear-eyed wonder. He sympathizes with the search for religious consolation, the project of imaginary transformation, but does not undertake any such project of his own. Instead he sets down things as they are with a perfectly poised and haunted realism. . . .

Read it all here.

Originally Published: February 26th, 2013