“Jeemy says, ‘Ah-DAH!’”
This was the observation of my cousin Dave, six months older than I and infinitely more articulate. Either he was fast in learning to talk, or I was slow. He reported my utterance to my mother, brother, and sister, and they laughingly repeated it for years to come. My first recorded attempt at speech had been an indecipherable iamb. Ah-DAH!
For me, it was a harbinger. The blurted out word. The babble not understood. From the mouth of babes, speaking in tongues. The prophecy of language. The language of prophecy. Ah-DAH! Ah-DAH! Ah-DAH!
The first words I remember hearing and understanding were my mother’s. She held me in her arms and stood by the light switch in the living room. I reached out my right hand and with my chubby fingers flipped the white plastic switch up and down. My mother announced, “Lie-tahn. Lie-toff. Lie-tahn. Lie-toff.” This continued as we repeated it day after day.
At about this time Mom composed a verse for me and about me, that she recited for several years:
Jikkermody wodyho —
He’s the jodiest boy I know.
That is why I love him so.
You bet I do, you bet I do,
I just love my
The poyjoy boyjoy woyjoy.
Mom changed the last two lines every time she spoke the poem. The meaning of the words didn’t matter as much as the sound.
My mother introduced me to language. Sitting on a bed, she would read aloud Bible stories from a big book she got as a Sunday School teacher. I still can see the walls of Jericho come tumbling down, a picture – a moving picture – conveyed by words alone. She also recited poetry, most memorably “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” from a textbook she had saved from high school. She accented the alternating syllables as if she were hammering nails: “It IS an AN-cient MAR-i-NER/ And he STOP-peth ONE of THREE.” It was that rhythmic exaggeration, perhaps, that made me recognize poetry as something out of the ordinary, and the iamb is the only metrical foot whose name I can consistently recall: i THINK, there-FORE i-AMB.
One of my uncles taught me English by misspeaking it. Though born in the United States, he, like many of his generation, had been sent to Japan as a child for a proper education. That training, however, had proven so effective that after he returned to America, he could never master the language of his native country. He and his wife, Tomiko, conversed in Japanese. She did not call her husband “Fred,” as everyone else did, but “At-san.” His real name was Atsushi, but that somehow got translated into “Fred.” By visiting him and Tomi I learned the startling fact that the world had more than one language. I did not learn Japanese from my uncle, but I learned to pay attention to English because you sounded funny if you spoke it wrong. When my brother and sister and I screamed our way around the house, Uncle Fred would shout, “Too much excite!” When he taught us a better way to catch a baseball, he would say, “Moeasiah.” I would cock my head and smile. I could be supercilious long before I had learned the word.
The whole Japanese nation seemed intent on making me mind my language. When I opened a plastic bag of kakimochi, rice crackers flavored with soy sauce, I would find therein some moisture-absorbent powder contained in a small paper envelope on which this warning flared: “HARMLESS BUT NOT FOR EAT.” Sounding Japanesy –
a proper adjective among the third generation in America — was a blunder I had to learn to avoid. My mother told me that when she started school, the other children laughed at her for speaking, with rolled r’s, of “grrahhahm crrahkahs.”
Since Mom’s English had lost its accent by the time she taught it to me, I seldom mispronounced it. However, my mouth got me into trouble in other ways. In first grade I talked too much, or at least at all the wrong times. One day my teacher wrapped Scotch tape around my face like a mummy’s bandages, sealing my mouth shut. She sent me home that way, and my mother had to unwrap me.
I learned different lessons from other teachers at school, especially the ones who sometimes strayed from textbooks and lesson plans. My favorite teacher was Mr. Cassel, who was just entering the profession when he taught my sixth grade class. He used to tell of his delinquent youth, when he and his friends would taunt policemen by hollering questions and replies: “What’s a penny made of?” “Copper!” “What’s a peach got on it?” “Fuzz!” It was from jokes like this, I suppose, that I discovered the rich ambiguity of language: you could say one thing but mean another. Mr. Cassel taught all subjects, including biology. One day, in a lesson on the human digestive system, he told us all about the colon. Bernie, one of the smartest kids in the class, raised his hand. He said he had heard of something called the semicolon, and he wondered where that was. Poor Bernie. Can he still hear the laughter?
Humiliation, however, is the price of learning. I have never been able to speak a foreign language, and I think it’s because I’m too proud. I hate to sound like an ignoramus, uttering the wrong word or botching the pronunciation, but that’s what you have to do to learn a new tongue. Having lost the fearless enthusiasm of an infant, I no longer dare to burble Ah-DAH!
In high school I began to take poetry seriously. I would buy heavy, hardcover volumes with bundled pages that wouldn’t fall out — Collected Poems, paper monuments — by Dylan Thomas, Byron, T. S. Eliot, even Vachel Lindsay. Their words took me to places and times different from my own but also to a state where place and time didn’t matter, where everything was merely true.
I memorized DylanThomas’s “Poem on His Birthday,” which commemorated his “driftwood thirty-fifth wind turned age.” Thomas described himself as “midlife,” not knowing he would never see forty, killed by either bourbon or the morphine a physician injected to counteract alcohol poisoning or by, as one of his friends said, being Dylan Thomas, but he inspired me to concoct a long-range plan to mark my own thirty-fifth birthday by ceremoniously reciting the poem. I clung to this plan for eighteen years, occasionally re-reading the poem to keep my memory fresh. When the momentous year arrived, I would drive to a deserted beach and holler the poem into the surf. As the days marched by, I counted down.
But then I forgot. My thirty-fifth birthday came and went, and only several days later did I remember my long-practiced plan. I had forgotten the poem in a way I hadn’t anticipated.
Nevertheless, I still call upon Dylan Thomas. Walking on the beach on a bright winter day, I look around, see that I am alone, and commence to intone: “In the mustardseed sun, / By full-tilt river and switchback sea/ Where the cormorants scud . . . .” When I finish that poem, I sometimes segue to “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” by Byron, who died even younger than Thomas:
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore.
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and Music in its roar.
At last, of course, there is always Eliot’s Prufrock:
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
I studied Thomas for an English class. During my senior year in high school I did an independent study in literature, supervised by Mrs. Adams, who had taught me to diagram sentences two years before. She allowed me to read books outside the regular curriculum, such as Père Goriot, The Divine Comedy, and Faust, all in translation, of course. I read half of Joseph Andrews, but then Mrs. Adams said it was too hard for me, so I never learned how that story turned out. When I said I wanted to read Dylan Thomas, Mrs. Adams said she would read him, too. We both loved these lines:
The rippled seals streak down
To kill and their own tide daubing blood
Slides good in the sleek mouth.
When I speak these words, I can feel them warm and slippery and salty on my tongue.
As a freshman in college, I took three English courses: a required one in composition and two optional ones in literature. In comp I tried to leaven my essays with jokes, but the instructor did not enjoy them. Once she told me my humor was sophomoric. That’s pretty good, I said, I’m only a freshman. That’s what I mean, she replied without a smile.
For my first paper in literature class I was supposed to analyze “The Blue Hotel,” a short story by Stephen Crane. I thought the tale preposterous, so I wrote a fictional parody instead of a critical analysis. The instructor said my paper was witty but hard to evaluate because it didn’t fulfill the assignment. Instead of letter grades, he gave numbers between 1 and 10, with one being the best. On the Crane paper I received an 8. “Hopefully,” the professor advised me in red ink, “you can exercise your imagination in another way.” At the end of the semester, he did some calculations, then announced how the number grades translated into letter grades: a 1 was an A and a 5 was a D. That placed my first paper’s grade somewhere beneath the level of F.
After that, the only way to go was up, and I managed to get a B-minus in that course, the same as in my other two English courses that year. Those three classes accounted for my three lowest grades in college.
During my sophomore year, the university told me I had to declare a major. Several subjects pleased me, but I wasn’t devoted to any of them. I searched through the university catalogue and listed all the courses that looked interesting — more than a hundred, as it happened. I then calculated whether, if I took every one of those courses, I would have a major in any subject. I discovered that I would be short a couple courses in History and a couple in American Civilization, but would have enough for a major in English. In other words, I could major in English without taking any courses I didn’t want to take. That’s how I came to concentrate in the subject in which I had received my lowest grades – by following the path of least resistance.
That has been, in fact, my mode of operation throughout my life. I do not set my sights on a goal, then resolutely do whatever is necessary to achieve it. Instead I avoid opposition and, if possible, seek ease wherever it may be. I do not struggle against the current but let it carry me.
I remember a fable that Chuang Tzu told. He said you should live the way a butcher cuts meat: not hacking against the grain and splintering joints, but slicing smoothly along the natural hollows, so the meat slides effortlessly off the bone. Chuang Tzu did not change the way I lived, but he did teach me how to de-bone a chicken.
You might say I missed the point, and if you did, you would be describing my entire education. When I took notes at a lecture, I often would get so busy copying the professor’s jokes that I would have no time to record the gist of his argument. When I read a novel, I would remember a voice, a metaphor, a phrase, but I would entirely forget the plot. This predilection for the tangential goes back to my childhood. Once I read a story in Mad magazine in which this joke was rudely inscribed along the edge of a cartoon panel: “Does your nose run? Do your feet smell? Oh-oh, you’re built upside-down.” Half a century later I remember the scribbles in the margin but nothing of the story itself. The peripheral is central to me.
As an English major, I read mostly poetry and fiction. I loved Wordsworth, Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Cervantes, Sterne, Melville, Conrad, Faulkner, Borges, I. B. Singer, Barth. Perhaps my favorite writer was Joyce: I memorized the long last paragraph of “The Dead.” In a book like Ulysses every sentence seemed so vivid it could practically stand alone, like a wildflower in a field, its purpose not depending on what lay before or behind. I thought you could open that book to any page, in any order, start reading, and fall in love. I came to despise novels whose principal attraction was their “driving narrative,” and I loathed suspense as a cheap resort of the untalented. I loved Shakespeare but mainly for his gorgeous language; I had no interest in drama. When Polonius asked Hamlet what he was reading, the prince snidely replied, “Words, words, words.” True enough, but in the journal I began keeping in college, I noted what Shakespeare was writing: WORDS! WORDS! WORDS!
I also loved Nabokov. (Have you noticed how often I say love? The word is nearly worn out, but I can’t speak of literature without using it.) I enjoyed Lolita enough to memorize its first two paragraphs. I noted that when Americans pronounced the author’s first name as “VLAD-i-mir,” he informed them that the accent belonged on the second syllable — Vlad-EE-mir — to rhyme with Redeemer. The job of the writer, I thought, was to take a world that has fallen into meaninglessness and redeem it with the hard gold coins of language. My favorite book by Vladimir the Redeemer was Pale Fire, an enormous game. I tracked down the lunar image stolen from Timon of Athens (“the moon’s an arrant thief, / And her pale fire she snatches from the sun”) and the lines emanating from Pope:
See the blind beggar dance, the cripple sing,
The sot a hero, lunatic a king.
The starving chemist in his golden views
Supremely blest, the poet in his muse.
I thought Pope’s Essay on Man was an essay on me: a blind, begging, crippled, besotted lunatic blessed by the alchemy of poetry.
I lost my voice in college. In grade school and high school I had been a loudmouth, my hand always in the air except when I blurted out answers without being called on. In college, though, I shut up, as if my first grade teacher’s Scotch tape were wrapped across my mouth again. In that same freshman literature class in which I boldly submitted an impermissible parody of Stephen Crane, I spoke hardly a word, and the instructor gave me a failing grade in “class participation.” This public reticence would continue through graduate school, where my silence in seminars and colloquia was duly noted. I would not resume speaking up in class until I became a teacher and muteness was no longer an option.
Why was I struck dumb after high school? In part it was because of my recent discovery that other people sometimes had something worthwhile to say and that I might learn more by listening than by speaking. In addition, however, I went mute because after I did say something, a puzzled silence would often fall upon the group, as if I had missed entirely the drift of the conversation and had introduced a new topic outside the universe of logic. Then, slowly, the talk would resume, picking up at the point just before I had intervened or, if that were not possible, starting with a subject entirely new. I felt like one of those dilapidated men who stand on a street corner by the bus station and argue with a traffic sign, sometimes kicking it in fury, while passersby turn their eyes away. So, no, I did not want to talk anymore.
What I wanted to do was write. As a sophomore I took a year-long course in Intermediate Writing, in which I produced short stories, essays, poems, and a one-act play. My instructor told me that my natural unit of expression was the sentence but I needed to learn to write paragraphs. He was right and still is.
I live in a universe of fragments. If I told you my life was in a million little pieces, you might think I was just making it up; but I’m not. Is it my fault that things fall apart? If my story looks like a snowdrift instead of a snowman, if it seems like no story at all, it’s because it’s strictly factual, or at least as factual as memory allows. There’s no fiction here, just life. And snow can be lovely if you look at it closely, especially under a magnifying glass.
In my senior year I supplemented my coursework by attending lectures by a novelist who was called “John Hawkes” on book covers but “Jack” on campus. For me the best part of the course was to hear Jack read passages of fiction; the words created a world. Once he told the class that there is no such thing as style – there is only voice. Later I told him how much that dictum meant to me, and he said he didn’t remember saying it. Jack has also been quoted as saying that “the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting, and theme” and that “totality of vision or structure” was what mattered. That made sense to me in terms of fiction. I had trouble finding totality of vision in my experience.
Jack agreed to read some of my stories and essays and complimented me on them. Then I gave him a batch of poems. When he handed them back to me a couple weeks later, he said, “You know, Jim, I think you have a real gift for prose.”
After graduating from college I continued to write: history, journalism, interoffice memoranda. Going against the advice of teachers and the pitiless lessons of experience, I even attempted poetry. After a walk through woods, I composed what I called a haikucycle named “December”:
single snowflakes big as coins
soft as dust twist down
in whitening gyres
fists full of dead leaves
shout yellow across the pond
the shrill red maples
made an art form of dying
I liked the shape of the type on the page — the geometry, the architecture. I sent the verses to a literary magazine, but worried that I had violated the laws of haiku by shuffling the seven-syllable line to different floors of the triple-decker. I was not prepared, however, for the scolding I received. The editor informed me that in a haiku one is not allowed to attribute sentience to mindless objects like trees. I didn’t know!
I guess I will never know how to write. There must be all kinds of rules that I break all the time, like the periwinkles my boots crumple when I tramp from rock to rock across a beach at low tide. How can I avoid such violations? What can I do? What can I say?