I'm just back from my own funeral. I thought it would be deadly. But it was ALIVE! Compared to when I recently dined with the poet Prunella, the queen of pomposity and Jeremiah, the dull prince of prickliness. To tell about it will be the most boring story ever told. (I've changed the names to protect the innocent....er, the pompous.)
But in the interest of art, I fear I must regale you with some of the non-festive highlights of the evening. Prunella, earnestly opined that only "true rhyme" would appease the poetry gods, declared her specifications for the "only" appropriate way to write a sestina, and announced that she had "no interest" when one of the lesser mortals at the table turned the conversation to sports.
Jeremiah meanwhile proclaimed that he had no use for any "religious" writers, except for perhaps, Emily Dickinson.
Prunella and Jeremiah were as welcoming and animated, as I, a corpse, expect to be when I'm really at my own funeral.
Why am I bending your ear about this?
I'm not dishing because the world needs to know about boring table talk or because Prunella and Jeremiah aren't good, talented people. No, I'm spilling because the pompous feast got me thinking about the art of conversation as well as the roles of curiosity and open-mindedness in art.
"Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast," Oscar Wilde famously said.
I'm down with Oscar on that! Even if, unlike me, you rise with the larks, do you want to engage in sizzling wit while you're getting the kids off to school, skimming news of the latest war or otherwise prepping for the daily playing of taps?
But by dinner, (given his many witticisms) I bet Oscar was ready for a little sizzle! I know I am!
Few of us (especially me) would claim to be another Oscar. Our lives are busy–after making art, cleaning house, working at our day jobs, doing laundry, picking up the car from the shop, cooking–who, even if we wanted to, could preside over a Wildean supper?
Yet we humans (particularly creative artists who often work in solitude) crave community, and one of our most communal of longings is for conversation. I don't mean academic discourse, the intricate verbal exchanges of policy wonks or specialized chatter among artists, say poets, about the "art world" or "the po biz." (Not that there's anything wrong with these forms of expression.) I'm talking about the banter, wit, puns, stories that flow over food and drink about private and public lives and topics on everything from basketball to ballet.
Such talk enlarges your universe. It gets you out of Me Land and takes you into other worlds. Conversing with others makes you see that their might be some value in reading "religious" writers (even as you steadfastly hold on to your atheism) that atheists have a lot to say (even as you are steadfast to your faith.)
Growing up in Southern New Jersey, I discovered poker, Truman Capote, Mother Teresa, Billie Holliday, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Benny Goodman, "From Here to Eternity" and Pablo Picasso while listening to adults gab at supper. If we'd done our homework and were sharp enough, we kids could join in. The wide ranging curiosity from these conversations seeped in to my DNA and, I hope, into my poetry.
Such conversation (some might call it gossip) didn't begin or end in our home in south Jersey. As soon as Cain and Abel (along with that knowledge thing) came along, I bet Adam and Eve began talking.
The Renaissance "man" (it was mostly men then–though there was Queen Elizabeth I) is known for his wide-ranging knowledge (and I'd wager conversation).
Though she struggled with mental illness, Virginia Woolf was a lively conversationalist, who gossiped about her set and gabbed about politics, novels and the cinema at London dinner parties in the 1920's.
Conversation is an art, and like any art form, it involves work. Throughout the ages, people, I suspect, have enjoyed listening to themselves far more often than hearing what others have to say. "I often quote myself," sardonically observed George Bernard Shaw, "It adds spice to my conversation."
"Tallulah was sitting in a group of people giving the monologue she always thought was conversation," Lillian Hellman cattily observed of Tallulah Bankhead.
About "polite conversation," writer and wit Fran Leibowitz opined that conversation is "neither."
When Prunella of the pompous feast stopped the conversation by proclaiming her zero interest in sports, I thought of this quote from politician, critic and novelist Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton. "The true spirit of conversation," he said, "consists in building on another man's observation, not overturning it."
Like most creative artists, I prefer to work alone in quiet. I'd be exhausted if I spent the day endlessly talking. Yet, I find that the discipline of the art of conversation--of being open-minded, of listening, of being responsive to others–stimulates my creative juices. I'm the Dali Lmama of Imperfection and make no claim to be a great poet. But my poetry is enhanced when I engage in conversation not only with other poets, but with everyone from lawyers to doctors to teachers to gardeners to home makers.
Being open to everything (the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the tragic and the comic) in the human condition is essential if you want to make good art. Think of Marianne Moore who wrote poems about baseball. Of great TV shows like "Mad Men," "The Sopranos," or "30 Rock." Of James Joyce who included references to ads for "potted meat" in "Ulysses." Of poet and playwright Grace Cavalieri who in her work has given Anna Nicole Smith a soul.
Where would art be if all artists became closed-minded and pompous?
Curiosity won't kill the cat; pomposity put the kitty to sleep.