Sunday, September 20, 2009

Poem of the Week: "Shelley," by Galway Kinnell

Welcome, everyone, to a very special Poem of the Week in honor of Fitzgerald Week here at Not Your Mama's Bookshelf. As I mentioned in my last post, I view Fitzgerald's birthday as a way to celebrate my relationship with books and words and everything writers mean to me. Fitzgerald Week here will be all about celebrating F. Scott Fitzgerald, but it will also be about exploring one's relationship with reading in hopes you will all find a way to enjoy and think about your own love of reading.

Loving Fitzgerald as a writer has long been a tricky struggle. I can't really explain why I love him so much. I just do. One day, when I was fifteen, I opened to the first page of This Side of Paradise, and something strange happened. Something clicked with me very deeply, and I just knew that Fitzgerald and I were going to be bound in some way. It's weird to think that way about a book, but that's how it was. Take it for what you will. So I love Fitzgerald. I think he is underrated (with the exception of The Great Gatsby, which has become so homogenized in American society that it's almost tragic), and I think he is a much more complicated and compassionate writer than his reputation has claimed. Fitzgerald, in my opinion, is every bit as important to American literature as Hemingway, Faulkner, or Steinbeck. Even if he doesn't possess the Nobel Prize they all have.

But my relationship with Fitzgerald is also quite complicated because I think the truth is this: Fitzgerald was a great writer despite himself. I may be his biggest champion, but all my research into Fitzgerald makes me think that he often had to work like hell to beat his more ridiculous, hacky urges. His notebooks are full of strange and bizarre story ideas that would surprise most people. He was a little too into English romanticism. He tried to pretend he wasn't writing about himself when he so obviously was. But despite all his problems, he turned out to be a great writer with some absolutely wonderful insight into human nature and society.

Unfortunately, I have long come to the conclusion that, as people, Fitzgerald and I never could have been friends. I hate to say it, but I think he would have annoyed the shit out of me had I known him personally. He was clingy, constantly drunk, whiny, and never quite able to reckon his desire to be rich with his disdain for the rich. (Granted, that last bit was what made him such a great writer/social observer, but it must have perturbed his acquaintances). He had a wife and daughter he loved, but he often failed to understand them. His alcoholism was so bad it helped lead to an early death at only 44 years old.

But, God, the writing! It's so beautiful and full of heartache and humanity. I guess you could say I love Fitzgerald despite him being Fitzgerald.

And so, here is my poem of the week. I chose Galway Kinnell's "Shelley" because it explores the relationship between a reader and a writer, with the reader slowly realizing that a writer is not only just another human being, but a kind of terrible and tragic one at that. I think this poem gets to the disillusion and miracle that is a reader realizing that what he loves is written by someone who had to wrench every word out from his awful, cheating, hypocritical gut. It's an important step in the life of a reader: realizing writers are as mortal and stupid as the rest of us. And it accurately describes my relationship with Fitzgerald.

Shelley, by Galway Kinnell

When I was twenty the one true
free spirit I had heard of was Shelley,
Shelley, who wrote tracts advocating
atheism, free love, the emancipation
of women, the abolition of wealth and class,
and poems on the bliss of romantic love,
Shelley, who I learned later, perhaps
almost too late, remarried Harriet,
then pregnant with their second child,
and a few months later ran off with Mary,
with them Mary's stepsister Claire,
who very likely also became his lover,

and in this malaise a' trois, which Shelley
had imagined would be "a paradise of exiles,"
they lived, along with the spectre of Harriet,
who drowned herself in the Serpentine,
and of Mary's half sister Fanny,
who killed herself, maybe for unrequited
love of Shelley, and with the spirits
of adored but often neglected
children conceived incidentally
in the pursuit of Eros - Harriet's
Ianthe and Charles, denied to Shelley
and consigned to foster parents; Mary's
Clara, dead at one; her Willmouse,
Shelley's favorite, dead at three; Elena,
the baby in Naples, almost surely
Shelley's own, whom he "adopted"
and then left behind, dead and one and a half;
Allegra, Claire's daughter by Byron,
whom Byron sent off to the convent
at Bagnacavallo at four, dead at five --

and in those days, before I knew
any of this, I thought I followed Shelley,
who thought he was following radiant desire.

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