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The Soul Grown Refined

"Frank O’Hara was the Coleridge of his day."
The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge, by Adam Sisman. Penguin Books. $17.00.

Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry, by Andrew Epstein. Oxford University Press. $55.00.

A Blue Hand: The Beats in India, by Deborah Baker. The Penguin Press. $25.95.

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."

Boétie died young, at a time when it was easy for the two men to imagine themselves lifelong intimates. What wisdom, I have often wondered, would the great essayist have given us had they lived on together into the maturity that, inevitably, would have produced divisions of taste, experience, and ambition capable of complicating not only Montaigne's perception of "soul refinement," but that of friendship itself?

* * *

I had a friend once with whom I was certain I would grow old. My friendship with Emma was not one I would have described as Montaigne describes his with Boétie, but now that I am thinking about it I see that, in important ways, it is analogous. Ours was an attachment that, if it did not refine the soul certainly nourished the inquiring spirit so well that, for a very long time indeed, in the other's presence we each experienced our expressive selves more fully than either of us had before, or I have since. At school we'd both been prime examples of those very intelligent girls whose insecurities equip them with voices that seem effortlessly to generate the kind of scorn and judgment that isolates; but in our early thirties, those formidable defenses had altered sufficiently that each of us could see herself in the other. Self-recognition—a thrilling occurrence at that point in our lives—worked a kind of magic between us, and in no time at all it became necessary to meet or speak at least three times a week. The open road of friendship everlasting seemed spread out before us.

To the uninitiated eye, this vitality of connection between Emma and me might have appeared puzzling. She was a bourgeois through and through, I a radical feminist who owned nothing. She had married, become a mother, and pursued graduate work; I was twice divorced, had remained childless, and lived the marginal existence of a working freelancer. Beneath these separating realities, however, lay a single compelling influence that drew us irresistibly toward one another.

Together, we seemed always to be puzzling out those parts of the general condition to which our own circumstances applied. Emma had embraced the family, I had rejected the family; she endorsed the middle class, I loathed the middle class; she dreaded loneliness, I endured it. Yet, the longer we went on meeting and talking, the more clearly we saw that to know what these "choices" meant—that is, how we had come to be as we were—was for both of us the central enterprise. When we spoke together of the exhaustion of love and the anguish of work, the smell of children and the taste of solitude, we were really speaking of the search for the self and the confusion that came with the mere construction of the phrase: What was the self? Where was it? How did one pursue it, abandon or betray it? These questions were the ones that concentrated our deepest concerns. Consciousness as a first value, we each discovered, was what we together were exploring.

The absorption grew in us day by month by year, fed by the excitement of abstract thought joined to the concreteness of daily life. In conversation with one another, we both felt the strength of context imposed on the quotidian. The more we explored the immediate in service to the theoretical—a chance encounter on the bus, a book just begun or just finished, a dinner party gone bad—the larger the world seemed to grow. The everyday became raw material for a developing perspective that was acquiring narrative drive: sitting in a living room, eating in a restaurant, walking in the street—it was as though we had grasped things whole without ever having had to leave home.

We went on like this for nearly ten years. And then one day the bond between us began to unravel. I had a bad exchange with Emma's husband, and she saw it as divisive. She read a book by a liberationist writer I prized, and I was stung by her scorn. We each made a new friend whose virtues the other failed to respond to. That winter I could barely pay the rent, and Emma's preoccupation with redecorating her place got under my skin. Suddenly, the adventure we had made of our differing circumstances seemed to be going sour: my cozy apartment felt sterile, her amiable husband a fool. Who are we? I remember thinking. What are we doing? And why are we doing it together?

Slowly but inexorably, the enterprise of mind and spirit to which our friendship had been devoted began to lose strength before the growing encroachment of the opposing sympathies out of which our lives were actually fashioned. Like an uncontrollable growth that overtakes a clearing in the forest, the differences moved in on us. In no time at all, the friendship that had for so long generated excitement and exerted power, was now experienced as a need that had run its course. Overnight, it seemed, it took one long stride, and moved from the urgent center to the exhausted margin. Just like sexual infatuation, I remember thinking idly one morning, as I lay in bed staring at the ceiling. And then, somewhat dazedly, I realized, "That's right. That's exactly what this is like. Sexual infatuation."

In the end, my friendship with Emma did prove to bear a striking resemblance to romantic love. The passion that had flared between us now seemed an equivalent of the kind of erotic feeling that dies of its own intensity when, in the goodness of time, one begins to realize that much in oneself is not being addressed by this attraction of the senses. The irony here was that sexual love usually fails because of an insufficiency of shared sensibility, whereas sensibility was what Emma and I had had in abundance. Yet, now I saw that in time which makes a fool of us all, sensibility alone could also prove insufficient.

* * *

I have before me three books about friendship among poets: one on Coleridge and Wordsworth; a second on John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, and Amiri Baraka; and a third on Allen Ginsberg and his pals. These particular poets were all alive during periods of cultural upheaval when friendship among the avant-garde was idealized: all took seriously the notion of a higher communion—a greater intensity of poetic power—achieved through a relationship with a friend. It is instructive to take a close look at how, in each case, the noble enterprise was actually managed.

Coleridge worshipped the idea of friendship every bit as much as did Montaigne. For him, too, it embodied a platonic ideal that, however many times might be outraged, could never be abandoned. When a friendship went under he suffered gloriously, but did not lose the faith. Of his failed relationship with Robert Southey, whom he had once thought of as a blood brother, Coleridge said, "we are [now] acquaintances—& feel kindliness towards each other; but I do not esteem, or LOVE Southey, as I must esteem & love the man whom I dared call by the holy name of FRIEND!"

He was living in a time when attachment of the spirit was so strongly yearned for—thanks to the exhilarating radicalism of the years surrounding the French Revolution—that when it failed to materialize among like-minded people, many were left feeling not only ill-used, but absolutely shredded. In his famous essay, "On Hating," William Hazlitt writes of impassioned quarrels among people who, having met five times a week for years, were now not only crossing the street to avoid speaking, but were spreading poisonous stories about one another. Charles Lamb was only one of many who adored Coleridge, and then came positively to hate him because his feeling was not sufficiently reciprocated. Although Lamb had once written Coleridge, "I have never met with any one, never shall meet with any one, who could or can compensate me for the loss of your society," he later trashed him, both in letters and in conversation.

Wordsworth and Coleridge met in 1795 when they were, respectively, twenty-five and twenty-three years old, thereby beginning a friendship, one of the most famous in English literary history, that, despite its iconic status, is a moving demonstration of what happens when, for a crucial piece of time, two men see themselves writ twice as large as life in the eyes of the adoring other—and then no longer do.

In June 1797, some eighteen months after their initial meeting, Coleridge made a day trip to the Wordsworth home in the West Country, and stayed nearly a month. The two men could not get enough of the conversation, and it was, then and there, decided that the Wordsworths—William and his sister Dorothy—would move to the district in which Coleridge was living.

There were crucial differences between them that, from the start, were self-evident. Wordsworth—grave, thin-skinned, self-protective—was, even then, steadied by a remarkable inner conviction of his own coming greatness as a poet. Coleridge—brilliant, explosive, self-doubting to the point of instability—was already into opium. No matter. A new world, a new poetry, a new way of being was forming itself and, at that moment, each, feeling the newness at work in himself, saw proof of its existence reflected in the very being of the other. In that reflection, each saw his own best self confirmed. Having been passionately enamored of the revolution in France and then passionately horrified by its subsequent murderousness, both were now convinced that it was poetry alone—their poetry—that would restore inner liberty to men and women everywhere. When they were together, Milton walked at their side.

In the year and a half that followed, Wordsworth and Coleridge met almost daily, and were frequently together for weeks at a time without parting at all, Coleridge simply never going home. They talked, they read, they walked: nonstop. There developed between them a pattern of shared work in which each wrote under the inspirational excitement of the other's instantaneous feedback. Ideas and images passed back and forth between them so freely that it made them giddy to think that, very nearly, each of their poems was being written together. "This," as Adam Sisman tells us in his extremely serviceable biography, "was their annus mirabilis, when each man's talent would ripen into maturity, and bear marvellous fruit . . . each [writing] some of his finest poetry." Out of this extraordinary amalgam of shared thought and emotion, of course, came the 1798 publication of Lyrical Ballads, the seminal work of English literature's Romantic movement.

Two years later the rapture was spent, and the friendship between Coleridge and Wordsworth was essentially over. Complicated bonds of work and family kept the men orbiting around one another for some years, and every now and then the intimacy seemed to flare up anew, but their time of magical communion was over, never to be recaptured or replaced. Within a decade they had stopped meeting; within another they were not speaking kindly of one another.

It was, ostensibly, the 1800 second edition of their now famous little book that had caused the fatal rift. Wordsworth had always found "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" distasteful, and had not wanted to include it in Lyrical Ballads, but in 1798 this had been unthinkable. Now, in 1800, in charge of the book's second edition, Wordsworth struggled with himself over the inclusion of "Christabel," another Coleridge poem at which he wrinkled up his nose, and rejected it; whereupon Coleridge went into a massive depression, deciding to give up poetry altogether, "being convinced that I never had the essential of poetic Genius, & that I mistook a strong desire for original power." Wordsworth, in turn, imagining himself attuned to his friend's unhappiness but in reality not—Coleridge was "somewhat too much in love with his own dejection," he said years later—grew as silent and remote as he regularly was in ordinary society. Coleridge struggled to conceal his distress, Sisman writes, but knew that his mind "would no longer be wholly open" to Wordsworth's. Time passed. "The wound continued to fester." And there it was: they were separated.

The friendship had indeed been an infatuation. While the connection felt transformative, the formidable defenses that marked each man had been held at bay, pushed to the farthest edge of personality. Now, they came crowding swiftly back to overtake the clearing at the center. In the turmoil created by these alarming shifts in sympathy, the chaos within Coleridge doubled its dominion, the pride in Wordsworth stiffened into near immobility. The person that each had been for two years—the one who had basked in the unbroken delight in the other—was no more. It wasn't exactly that they were returned to the persons they had been before; it was only that never again would either feel his own best self in the presence of the other.

* * *

The years following WWII bore an odd resemblance in America to the reactionary aftermath of the French Revolution in England. No sooner did the bombs stop falling over Germany and Japan, than the us suffered a massive attack of anxiety regarding the stability of its own culture, thereby ushering in two decades of Cold War conformity, along with an answering radicalism in the arts similar to the one that Wordsworth and Coleridge had participated in, accompanied by a revived idealization of the notion that poetry and friendship were intimately linked.

Among the most vibrant of the avant-garde poetry movements were the Beats on the west coast, and the New York School of artists back east. The two poets experienced as emblematic figures at the heart of these movements were, respectively, Allen Ginsberg and Frank O'Hara. For Ginsberg, the making of poetry with his hipster friends gathered closely about him was an act equivalent to rebellion in the face of Cold War stasis. For O'Hara as well, some uprush of romanticized lawlessness in the avant-garde air made the idea of solidarity among like-spirited poets seem wonderfully embattled. By 1950, a "rhetoric of camaraderie," as Andrew Epstein puts it, dominated the new American poetry scene.

Frank O'Hara was the Coleridge of his day. At his funeral in 1966, the painter Larry Rivers said the poet had been his best friend, and added that there must be sixty people in New York alone who, that very morning, were making the same claim. It was not only that he had been a best friend, he'd been a world-making friend. For O'Hara, the word alone had carried such an active charge that it had easily generated in him enough energy to light up a dozen movements. With his death, "countless poets, artists, novelists, composers, and musicians were left reeling as they tried in vain to make sense of the loss of a figure who was so central to . . . [their] overlapping communities."

O'Hara's romance with friendship was openly linked to the key idea of collaboration. What Coleridge and Wordsworth had marveled over for a few months in their long lives became for O'Hara and his friends an article of faith that, in theory, went the nineteenth-century Romantics one better. At the time, Paul Goodman was arguing that the avant-garde artist builds a community of interests influential to both art and society by writing for, with, and about his friends. The New York poets all responded eagerly to the suggestion, but none more than O'Hara, whose credo became, We will write together, about ourselves and one another, each of us egging the others on to shine, thereby making a difference in the culture at the same time that we draw the very best from ourselves. If the mood of the fifties Manhattan poetry scene was imbued with the over-excited prospect of doing collaborative work, it was almost entirely due to the hungry ardor of O'Hara himself, for whom collaboration represented the promise of artistic fulfillment. At the heart of the excitement lay the hope that, paradoxically, collaboration would perform a transformative act: The more deeply I submerge myself in our common effort, the more brilliantly will I become my very own self.

And for a few years in the early fifties, still in their twenties, a group of them—O'Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler—did live in each other's pockets, writing with frequent reference to one another, declaring for comradeship among the poets so often and so publicly that the sentiment soon sounded ideological. On the ground, however, the reality—marked by all the painful contradictions that inevitably pour into the gap between theory and practice—was at a distance from the rhetoric. Even as they were declaring for the primacy of their friendships, the New York poets, each and every one of them, were being overtaken by the conflicts and apprehensions that would, in fact, drive them apart. The gap, where the struggle between me and we takes place, widened steadily. Epstein's informative but problematic book is devoted to spelling out the actuality.

"For all their excitement about collaboration," Epstein posits, "these poets [were] never fully devoted to any group effort." At the same time that homage was being paid to creative communalism, the "simultaneous commandment that [they] must be anarchic rebels who resist conformity and convention" was forever urging, He travels fastest who travels alone. This argument is made repeatedly throughout the book as though the split within is particularly American—Emerson and pragmatism are invoked incessantly—and even though of the three poets on whom it concentrates, two are ill chosen to make the case. Neither Ashbery nor Baraka was ever truly on board that collaboration train: Ashbery had one foot on the ground from the start and Baraka, always headed for black nationalism, was along for the ride for about five minutes.

It was O'Hara himself, the impassioned champion and moving force behind the project, who was most often in conflict. He had always been a compulsively social animal—not exactly the same thing as a devoted friend—and now, in New York, within a very short time he was living in a mob scene. Never alone for a minute, he made a virtue of writing poems on his lunch-hour—"strolling through the noisy splintered glare of a Manhattan noon"—on his way to meet some one, or two, or three others (he must have been so tired that night he fell drunkenly asleep on the beach at Fire Island!). Yet, repeatedly, he yearned to be "a simple and elegant province all by myself" even as "his wilderness wish/of wanting to be everything to everybody everywhere" was forever overwhelming him. Ashbery grew weary of having to meet up in the midst of a crowd with the man who for years had been his closest companion.

From the time they had been undergraduates together at Harvard, these two poets had been all in all to one another: "a kindred spirit, an avant-garde companion . . . an enthusiastic reader . . . a critic, a goad . . . a rival." In New York, as each became ever more articulated, the differences between them gained ascendancy. For one thing, O'Hara was extremely bold while Ashbery was extremely nervous. The Cold War atmosphere in America terrified Ashbery (eventually he fled to Paris, where he lived for nine years), even as O'Hara, always the mischievous bad boy, thumbed his well-connected nose at an establishment society he came to believe needed him more than he needed it. Concomitantly, while O'Hara flung himself at relationships, Ashbery shrank from the suggestion that two (much less three, four, or five) shall be as one; above all else, he feared that he would ossify if he remained attached too long or too deeply to anyone or anything. "Standing still means death," he said, and by that he meant, Keep moving emotionally. What chance did "community" stand against such an imperative?

There was another difference that wore steadily on the friendship. O'Hara loved to debate, as he believed that poems grew out of the kind of exchange that generated "discord . . . disagreement and provocation." So he argued constantly with Ashbery. After college, however, Ashbery, a poet of an increasingly other order, did not experience the continual challenge of O'Hara's conversation as a stimulus. In a 1950 letter he vents his frustration with O'Hara's need to contradict every damned thing he says. O'Hara replies with a string of poems addressed to his irritated friend that are "marked by ambivalence, tenderness, confusion, and affection." In one, a poem entitled "To John Ashbery," he writes mournfully: "I can't believe there's not/another world where we will sit/and read new poems to each other/ high on a mountain in the wind." In short: how is it possible that shared sensibility will not save us?

* * *

When Allen Ginsberg died, the testimonials of those who claimed him as a best friend numbered in the hundreds, but these hundreds were scattered around the globe, and many of them bore a strong resemblance to novitiates banded loosely together around a wise man's imperative that one live as though in perpetual search of enlightenment. America's self-styled holy fool had, of all the poets under consideration, come the closest to arriving at a generic use of the word "friend."

Ginsberg entered Columbia University in 1943 at the age of seventeen, already possessed of the anarchic loneliness that would soon make him feel a gifted outcast under threat in postwar Amerika. Prowling the streets of New York as if it were Dostoevsky's Petersburg; rising in class at Columbia to terrify students and teachers alike with some extraordinary unpunctuated rant; looking for sex in Times Square; seeing Blake in a vision in his own kitchen; nodding wordlessly when the cops ask him if he is a homosexual—Ginsberg seems an emblematic figure of his moment, standing squarely in the foreground of national disconnect.

At Columbia he met Jack Kerouac; through Kerouac he met William Burroughs; after that Neal Cassady, a grown-up delinquent who drank, stole, read Nietzsche, fucked like a machine, and drove great distances at great speeds for the sake of movement itself. Very quickly, these new friends came to constitute a sacred company of inspired madmen destined, Ginsberg thought, through their writing, to convert the poisoned atmosphere of Cold War America into one of restored spiritual beauty. Now he was where he belonged, among friends of the spirit who would lead him out of his own wilderness.

The conviction of literary destiny was powerful among them, but the anxiety that bound these men together ran neck and neck with dreams of glory. These were people who lived in serious fear of their own culture. As a hipster might have put it in Deborah Baker's imaginative book on the Beats in India, "They saw traps waiting for them wherever they looked. Their ears were sharpened by the anticipation of triple-locked doors clicking shut behind them." Relief from these vivid apprehensions came only through the heightened sense of perception brought on by hallucinatory drugs when absorbed, mainly on the road, in the company of those whom one dared call by the holy name of friend.

Such was the internal drama that characterized the endless trip taken by the Beats—literally and metaphorically—for years on end, as creativity became confused with motion, motion with a heightened sense of vision, vision with the insight necessary to enter the promised land of enlightenment: a state of being that remained magnificently elusive.

By 1961 (the year that Deborah Baker uses as a framing device for her exploration of the Beat mindset), Ginsberg and his friends had been on the move for more than a decade. Throughout the years of wandering in search of reliable exaltation, Ginsberg had remained passionately connected to his belief in poetry as a vital link to salvation, and to his equally strong belief in the importance of his literary friendships, proselytizing wherever he went for the work of Kerouac, Burroughs, and Gregory Corso as though their books were holy texts. "He worked and reworked the vocabulary of his consciousness and the intensity of his intimacies," Baker writes, "with as much attention as he paid to line breaks and diction." Yet, as time passes, these friendships seem more and more to occupy a dreamlike space in Ginsberg's head, where they serve to invoke the mythic rather than actualize the present. The circle has grown insular; the work repetitious; the conversation etherizing.

The ten months in India that Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky spent roaming about the country—Calcutta to Benares to Delhi and back again—getting stoned, learning to chant, begging for an audience with one enlightenment guru after another, feel penetratingly lonely. What Baker captures most forcefully is the weariness in Ginsberg of a vagrant self in thrall to a nomadic condition that has gone unreviewed for far too long. The men drift, part, reconcile, drift again, falling repeatedly into the kind of generic mob scene that only a man in solitary inhabits. The panic over spiritual salvation intensifies. The impression made on this reader is that at this moment a dynamic begins to form in Ginsberg between a shifting sense of self and the waning strength of friendships undergoing a sea change. He is about to become his own guru. It is time to go home where his destiny awaits him.

Ginsberg alone, among the major Beat writers, proved a man of emotional genius. He taught himself to inhabit their ritualized values so brilliantly and so insistently that at last he made of them, in his own person, a lasting cultural presence. The undying need for spiritual exaltation converted into a public meditation on universal compassion. All those who joined him in the meditation he now called by the holy name of friend.

* * *

When my friendship with Emma was disintegrating, I recalled Winston Churchill's having once said, there are no permanent friends, only permanent interests, and although I knew that Churchill meant worldly ambition trumps personal loyalties, I remember thinking even then, "He's wrong. There are no permanent interests, either." What I had stumbled on, although I couldn't then think it through, was the realization that it was the infidelities of our own faithless spirits—our mutating "interests," if you will—that had brought me and Emma low.

William James (for this I am indebted to Andrew Epstein) put it another way. Our inner lives, James observed, were fluid, restless, mercurial, always in transition. The transitions, he thought, were the reality, and concluded that our experience "lives in the transitions." This is a piece of information difficult to absorb, much less accept, yet transparently persuasive. How else account for the mysterious shift in emotional sympathies that, at any hour of the ordinary day, "suddenly" bring connections that have repeatedly threatened dissolution to an actual, stunning end.

The withdrawal of feeling in romantic love is a drama most of us are familiar with, and therefore feel equipped to explain. In thrall to the intensity generated by passion, we invest love with transformative powers; imagine ourselves about to be made new, even whole, under its influence. When the expected transformation fails to materialize, the hopes interwoven with the infatuation do a desperate dissolve. The adventure of having felt known in the presence of the lover now bleeds out into the anxiety of feeling exposed.

Although only rarely do friends consciously imagine themselves, as lovers regularly do, instruments of one another's salvation, unconsciously they share a longing that comes pretty close. 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.

But what if the restless, the fluid, the mercurial within each of us is steadily undermining the very thing we think we most want? What if the assumption that there is a self solidly in want of expressiveness is an illusion? What then?

Of all the failures in intimacy I have known, the one between Emma and me administered the shock to the nervous system from which I don't think I ever recovered. This was the relationship that fostered the greatest longing to disprove what I must always have suspected in the farthest recesses of my being: that the urge toward stable intimacy is threatened by the equally great, if not greater, urge toward destabilization. The shock and anger surrounding the end of that friendship I see now as a defense against the fear that perhaps there was in me no solid, stable, all-of-a-piece self in genuine want of lifelong intimacy.

I have always thought that fear ignoble, and the poets discussed in this essay have reminded me of why I thought it ignoble. Again and again, they 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.

I will mourn the loss of Emma's friendship as long as I live.
  • 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.

Prose from Poetry Magazine

The Soul Grown Refined

  • 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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