Tag Archives: writers

Life is Poetry

Life, lived on the same plane as poetry and as music, is my distinctive desire and standard. It is the failure to accomplish this which makes me discontented with myself (3).
Lady Ottoline, quoted in Lady Ottoline’s Album.

Lady Ottoline, by Simon Bussy

Lady Ottoline, by Simon Bussy

As I read Selected Letters of André Gide and Dorothy Bussy the name of Lady Ottoline came up with some frequency. By an odd coincidence I happen to have the book, Lady Ottoline’s Album, in my possession (with a postcard of the portrait of Ottoline by Dorothy’s husband, Simon Bussy, laid in). Last year when I worked as a companion to elderly (mostly) women, I had a client who delighted in knowing and discussing what I was reading, which delighted me, naturally. More often than not she had a personal connection: Isak Dinesen? “My husband had lunch with her, she was like a bird! All she ate was fruit and champagne!” I loved that- to quote my youngest son, that’s  “my always dream!” But I digress.

When it was time for me to move on, she told me to take whatever books of hers I wanted to “start my library.” I hadn’t the heart to tell her that I was  in the process of a massive book downsizing to make my move manageable, not to mention the fact that I am actually a full fledged book-accumulating adult, but when one is 104, I guess I would seem a mere girl starting out in life….Anyway, at the very least, on sentimental grounds, I couldn’t resist. And of course, I cherish them now, as they recall her to my mind.

One of the books I choose was Lady Ottoline’s Album, but I had not yet read it. André Gide and Dorothy Bussy had reminded me, but it wasn’t until yesterday, whilst in the midst of a quasi-quarterly cleaning and reorganization spasm that I came upon it.

André Gide

André Gide

It had not, until this moment, occurred to me that Ottoline was a woman who would allow me to make love to her, but gradually, as the evening progressed, the desire to make love to her became more and more insistent. At last it conquered, and I found to my amazement that I loved her deeply, and that she returned my feeling (38) Bertrand Russell, quoted.

Lady Ottoline seems to have been the type of woman who had an exquisite understanding of the excellence of social interactions- conversation, humor, passion, intellect – the poetry of life. Pursuing the myriad photographs in the book one can’t help being fascinated by her face -her countenance is strangely appealing- she should be unattractive, and yet, she is, in fact, quite strikingly beautiful.

The list of guest that she hosted is extraordinary, she had a knack for attracting artists and writers to her home, Gide and Russell, of course, but also Yeats, D. H.  Lawrence, E. M. Forster, T. S. Eliot, Ian Fleming, Hardy, Henry James, Auden, Huxley, Katherine Mansfield, and Virginia Woolf, among others:

“…I remember spending some dark, uneasy, winter days during the first war in the depth of the country with Lytton Strachey. After lunch, as we watched the rain pour down and premature darkness roll up, he said, in his searching, personal way, “Loves apart, whom would you most like to see coming up the drive?’ I hesitated a moment and he supplied the answer: “Virginia of course.” (78) – Clive Bell, quoted.

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

The book is comprised of her and her famous guest’s writings or letters and a huge array of photographs that Ottoline, for the most part, took. An intimate peek into the lives of a wonderfully influential group of people. The photos of these towering figures in casual moments, is fascinating, and extremely endearing…I can’t stop picturing Yeats, described perfectly by Stephen Spender as having “something of the appearance of the overgrown art student” (100).

Despite Lawrence’s rather scathing sketch (presumably of Ottoline) in Women in Love, which would seriously breach their friendship, (and yet seems a plausible description)…she is a mesmerizing woman. Her relationships, by all accounts burned bright; there is a ferocity about her that makes me trust Lawrence….but still, her insistence that life be lived as poetry – reduced to pure feeling and experience, is so appealing. I suppose Lawrence wondered if she ever really achieved her desire.

Nevertheless, She and Lawrence, have philosophical congress. Concentrated in our bodies, for good or bad, life is meant to be felt, loved, and savoured. It is a lovely little book- an erstwhile golden age, elegantly composed by a passionate woman who had, truly, a genius of repose.

*Lady Ottoline’s Album: Snapshots & Portraits of Her Famous Contemporaries (and of Herself) Photographed for the Most Part by Lady Ottoline Morrell from the Collection of her Daughter Julian Vinogradoff. Edited by Carolyn G. Heilbrun, with an Introduction by Lord David Cecil.

There Be Dragons


circa 2000 map of Lower Manhattan by Marco Accardi age 9ish

All writers are fundamentally mapmakers. The cartography of the novelist involves creating unknown lands, while the literary critic finds the uncharted routes and undiscovered islands.

This weekend I attended the Yale Writer’s Conference. In my excellent Literary Criticism and Review workshop with Je Banach, we were asked to define and then justify the discipline.

One may imagine a sort of relationship, be it symbiotic or parasitic, between literature and literary critique; on the face of it, there would seem to be a distinct parasitical directional pull from critique-ee to critique-er. And yet, no one (sane) ever told a story in a vacuum. It is much more true to speak of the relationship as symbiotic, and to rejoice in the discourse, because critics are mapmakers too.

Walking into breakfast the first morning I barely let my stride break while I furtively perused the early morning population. I had seconds on my way to the victuals to seek out a suitable place to sit. A place where I could insert myself cold at a stranger’s table with a measure of comfort. I passed one full table after another and a few very long lonely tables that screamed out to me – Sit here, it’s easy! While another voice said, my God! don’t sit alone, Idiot! The tables passed, oh hurry, find a spot, Jessica! – Too late. Time’s up. The door to the food is to the right! Turn! Turn! Turn!

If we are talking about why one writes, then the impetuous is a common one. And if we talk about why one reads, again, we are on the same terra firma- both the writer of fiction and the writer of critique use the same tools to the same effect: to share and map their vision and sense of the world.

Coming out with my plate of food and coffee my nerve (what nerve?) slips away and I sit at the very end of a frighteningly long table. I eat in mute discomfort trying not to look too entreating, resigned that my isolation is a growing barrier reef. Finally a lovely energetic man sits nearby, (If we were chess pieces I would have had to be a horse to move to his seat) we chat amiably, but he leaves precipitously and alone again, the book in my bag is a siren’s call. Don’t do it! Do. Not. don’t – I capitulate, (damn it!) pull it out, but cleverly lay it across my lap so as not to appear entirely hopeless and unsocial. It is, I must confess, a sweet relief. 

As human beings we have a strong desire for understanding and belonging. One of the ways that we do that is to share our stories. Before the days of the written word, the most effective form of critique was omission from the oral cannon. If the stories and rhythm of the words did not resonate with the audience, the work died a death of silence. Once the world of print took over storytelling, it became necessary and interesting to justify or examine the presence and continuing existence of each piece of literature in the ever-growing sea of canonical works. Unlike the oral story, the written word never dies, but banishment, facilitated by critical opinion, is an option, and for many a saving grace of efficiency.

Later in the afternoon, I sit in the faux-Oxford courtyard basking in the sun, the academia dripping down the walls of the surrounding buildings. I have no computer but begin to imagine writers, including the oft-maligned critic, as members of the same map making species. I pull out a piece of paper and a pen. Holding the pen in my hand I marvel at the length of time it has been since I have seriously written with such an archaic object. I begin to write: All writers are fundamentally mapmakers…but when I look at the words I see that my hand has made these words: All writers are fundamentally heartbroken. I eye my hand with some trepidation and laugh. Yes, a friend says to me later, all writers are fundamentally heartbroken mapmakers.

The critical voice is a curator, an enthusiast and a realist. The curator offers context and relevance. The enthusiast shares insight and meaning. The realist describes the mechanics- the hows and whys it all works or doesn’t. That is what the literary critic can do. He or she can step off the island of the book where the novelist is trapped, and view the entire archipelago, deconstruct the ecosystem of the lexicon or simply consider the climate of meaning.

Lunch. Oh God.

It is probably safe to say that readers consume far more reviews of books than actual books in their lifetime. Navigating all the seas of literature is an impossible task for any one reader , and if they are told, “Don’t go there, it’s a barren wasteland!” or, “You must see this place before you die!” the wanderlust is channeled. There is also the specific pleasure of perusing the maps of review and criticism in and of themselves, because readers are essentially curious travelers; they are seekers and gypsies of the heart.

That evening, I’m chastised with uncalled-for excessive zeal by my children for my social awkwardness and reticence. Breathing deeply I enter the trial-by-breakfast on the second morning cavalierly ignoring my relentless reserve.

Whether telling a story or critically seeking to understand a story, words are the mapmaker’s tools. The topography, scale, and charts of language, while distinct, ultimately give each reader a key to understanding the terra incognito of us all.

A conference full of people who love what I love; incredibly talented writers and teachers full of kindness and generosity- these are my people: I am –  a mapmaker.


Life as an emergent property (this is what comes from attending a writer’s conference by day while taking biology in the evenings – an exhausting muddled twisting of lexicon and ideas). But, these last 10 days at the Yale Writer’s Conference have been very good.

The fear of exposure, of presenting myself to strangers, has not killed me as I felt it must, or at least, in all fairness-should. We never die of the things we ought to: anguish, heartbreak, doubt…why don’t they kill us more easily?

It is hard to know the worth of something. I tend to undervalue; a disposition that extends into my own self worth or perhaps was born there. I possess an impressive talent for finding evidence with which to confirm my self-estimations. Spending time with lots of talented and smart writers, teachers, and people…it is hard not to be encouraged. That’s worth something.

Meeting so many people all at once I wonder what the newly formed bonds are: weak hydrogen bonds or covalent bonds?  I’ve lost faith in bonds, declared or otherwise- until tested one doesn’t really know the true strength, I learned that the hard way.  But it doesn’t matter in this case, the stimulation and inspiration is enough. It’s the ability to imagine our own worth.