Benjamin Markovits

When I Paint My Masterpiece

I’ve not got much time to write this. It’s the kids’ half term, my deadline is tomorrow and we’re staying in a National Trust place in Yorkshire without broadband or 4G. At lunch the plan is to walk over hill and dale to the nearest pub, which has wifi. They stop serving at half two. I’m in the kitchen while the dog waits at the bottom of the stairs for the rest of the household to come down. The children, as Byron once wrote in a letter, scream only in a low voice.

There’s a standard view of Byron, with which I mostly concur, that his letters were better than his poetry – until Don Juan, when he learned to write verse with the same improvisational freedom as he wrote prose. What makes writers write well? Housman once said something like, I’ve got to watch out when I’m shaving in case a line of poetry strays into my thoughts and the hairs stand on end and the razor ceases to operate. People get superstitious about the conditions in which they write, but there should be a version of the question that isn’t just about best practice. Writing – or doing anything – well suggests some kind of flow of consciousness, a simultaneous engagement with and detachment from your life. A friend recently sent me a YouTube video of the basketball player Stephen Curry practising his three-point shot, moving around the arc, ten shots at a time. It’s like watching pure intention at work, where there’s almost no frictional resistance from the world. He makes ninety-three out of a hundred.

I once had an idea of putting together a collection of short biographical essays about different writers and the years and circumstances in which they produced their greatest works – Pnin, Middlemarch, Don Juan. The book would be called ‘Everything’s Gonna Be Different’, after the Bob Dylan line, which is followed by, ‘when I paint my masterpiece’. Were these writers happy then? Did they get happier afterwards? Byron was fairly suspicious of writers and the things they said about their work. You can’t be poetical all the time, he said. Yet part of the genius of his letters wasn’t just improvisation, but something else: the fact that they were letters to specific people. You can think of friendship as a kind of ongoing workshop for the testing of certain material, including thoughts, feelings and explanations. What results from these workshops, the letters, has been through a process of continuing refinement.

Letters are local, rooted in a particular place and the news that comes out of it. Robert Frost makes a distinction between what he calls local and cosmopolitan art. Local art originates from a specific place, its language and concerns, and is only fully intelligible to people who know the place and its culture. Cosmopolitan art, by contrast, is designed to travel – not just through space but through time as well, and can be grasped almost completely by people with little knowledge of its culture of origin. According to Frost, all great art is local.

But Frost himself was a California kid who grew up in the city and moved to New England only when he was eleven. It was in Old England, where he hung out with the likes of Edward Thomas, that he made his breakthrough. He turned himself into a farmer partly because he was determined to ground his life in the kind of tradition that produced the poetry he wanted to write. It’s the same instinct that made me and my family pack up the car and drive five hours north until we reached a place where our phones no longer operated.

This morning, when I stepped outside into a brisk grey drizzle to go for a run, I had to wait for the farmer at the end of the road to herd his penned sheep into a massive truck. They were just about to drive off when I returned. Where are you taking them, I asked – to slaughter? The farmer laughed. No, to Lincolnshire. That’s where they spend the winter. Yorkshire gets too cold. Even locals aren’t always totally local.

During my senior year in college, I spent a lot of my free time squirrelled away in various libraries reading Angry Young Man novels for fun. I grew up in Texas but for some reason I always liked the English branch of English Lit. My senior thesis was about Betjeman, Larkin and Auden. I wanted to apply to them Frost’s distinction between local and cosmopolitan art and arrange them all on a kind of spectrum. You can probably guess the order. Betjeman is local, Auden is cosmopolitan and Larkin is somewhere in between. But the distinctions aren’t always simple. Betjeman once sent Larkin a print of Hull harbour as a present, and Larkin, in thanking him, wrote a funny letter in return. The picture can’t be of Hull, he said. Certain details don’t quite add up; I mention this not because it gives me any less pleasure on that account – I will always value it as a token of your kindness – but in case you want to return the picture to whatever dealer misinformed you.

About once a year I reread Betjeman’s masterpiece Summoned by Bells, just because it’s lying around (my mother once gave me a pretty edition, pretty enough to leave on a coffee table) and because I know it gives me pleasure. Why didn’t he write a sequel, bringing it up to old age? Or is the kind of nostalgia that makes it meaningful too closely connected to childhood and youth? The world he describes is not far – in place, at least, not time – from the world my kids are growing up in now. I often jog past his home at 31 Highgate West Hill (now under scaffolding), and my wife teaches at the school he used to attend.

Betjeman once described poetry as ‘a memorable means of dealing with mood or person, place or feeling’, a deliberately low-key characterisation that I’ve always admired. I tend to like minor poetry more than major – not the odes but the occasional pieces. I also prefer affinities to identities. How else can you explain the appeal of someone like Betjeman to someone like me, a half-German, half-Jewish Texan who spent most of his childhood playing the kinds of games that Betjeman, who sided clearly with the aesthetes over the hearties, hated? The point of affinities is that they cut across the usual boundaries. Even local sheep aren’t always local.

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