In the midst of writing there is merriment.
– Gertrude Stein
Adopt a posture of merriment: become merry. Maybe reading could be a kind of merry-making with oneself, as in, I read this and even now, remembering reading it and re-reading it, I get a hollow, sparkling feeling in my chest and stomach. But more often than not “merriment” is something one does with others, and so merriment, bursting on the scene of writing, is an interruption of solitude and a demand that one recognize one’s accompanists. Merriment puts me in awareness of a relation, already in place, to an other, also already in place. Making merry, as at a party, one looks across one’s glass to toast or meets the eye of the other in conversation. In any case merriment does not happen in a closed circuit or without resonance. It requires something else than one’s self; maybe that’s writing (what one has written, or the ongoingness of writing itself) or maybe it’s what’s been written by others, or maybe it’s others themselves. In any case, Dickinson wrote that it is “internal difference – / Where the Meanings, are” (that is in the poem numbered 320). Merriment in the midst of writing is an internal difference, and so maybe also a place for Meanings.
Dear Gertrude Stein, you wrote that in the midst of writing there is merriment. Dear Emily Dickinson, you wrote that Meanings reside in what cannot be seen but can be recognized, internally, to be non-identical with itself or oneself.
Name some (new) (possible) ways to be-reading and to be-read?
I have not been able to write, or wanted to write, for a few months. I read Twitter and feel more and more despair about extrajudicial killings and the disproportionate mortality rates of Black women in labor and the daily lessening, legal and cultural, of the value of trans people’s and Black people’s lives. I am not sure what value my writing (verb) could have. But maybe my despair is a question of how to be with literature, or how to make it. It has not led to merriment: I have felt aloner and aloner in writing (not-writing).
Rephrase. How one makes it. How I could make it. Who makes it? Who I make it with, because of, and for. If I feel lonely in the writing, maybe I need to keep more company. Or realize the company I’m in.
What company makes me feel lonely? And whose company might make a merry I could join in making?
Here is a story I was told. Maybe you have been told this story, too. The “Writer” walks out of the house and says to the world, look what I can do, while, back in the house, meals are made and children are raised without fanfare: and neither become Culture. That way of being “Writer” has happened for much of time: and by time I mean the post-medieval history of the West: and by “Writer” I mean for the most part a white man, probably married to a woman, almost assuredly cisgender, probably of some means or supported by someone of means, and of a Christian background.
So: narrow things, time and being, in this sense.
There are cracks in this sense of time, though. Internal difference, in Dickinson’s words, or as she also says, “Heavenly hurt” of which nevertheless “We can find no scar”. The hurt is a track, if invisible. We know it is there. (Who is the we?) Maybe “we” haven’t learned to see it, read it, or listen to it. But. Nevertheless. It points “us” to where “we” might go; it is speculative, radical, open, and other to a closed-down history of literature which has already settled and established how and what thinking can be, and by whom it can be done.
Dear Gertrude Stein, are there cracks in solid time?
She has given up the decorative function and devoted herself to finding out what language is.
Stein gives me a glimpse of the cracks in the time-being of the (white) (male) poet among the daffodils. Here is another possibility. And her suggestion that merriment bears relation to writing, which acknowledges a difference (an “internal” difference: merriment is “in the midst” of writing) between the two that might be tonal. “Writing” is not “merriment”. (We know that because the two things have very different names. We also know this because of the way merriment happens in writing’s midst. The location of merriment with relation to writing tells us they are not the same.) Writing might give us many things, including seriousness, self-seriousness, misery, gloominess, distress, heartbreak, melancholy, pleasure, joy… . Nevertheless, nevertheless, nevertheless, Stein proposes a break (both pause and rupture) in the midst of writing, which is gaiety, exuberance, cheer, festivity, pleasure, and togetherness. Merriment, unlike writing (verb), is something one generally shares. It is convivial. And whereas writing seems just to appear (the verb and the noun take the same form), merriment must be made. If merriment is laborious, it is not alienated from what it labors over.
I have been looking for a way to be in the world, as a writer, doing something else than keeping time in that narrow, isolating way of the greater or lesser geniuses of the white Western canon. There has been enough wandering among daffodils while someone else, as June Jordan writes, “did the things that have to be done”. (This phrase is from Jordan’s essay “The Difficult Miracle of Black Poetry in America”, which Jordan subtitles “Something like a sonnet” and dedicates to Phillis Wheatley.) I am late to the train of poets who already know what it means to exist, in Jordan’s words, “beyond and without those terms under consideration”—terms supplied to the poet by or to the benefit of whiteness. But here I am. Nevertheless.
Jordan writes, in the same essay, that Wheatley “created herself a poet, notwithstanding and in despite of everything around her”. The creation of the self-as-poet, when one is also self-as-Black-woman, or, as Wheatley was, self-as-enslaved-Black-woman is what Jordan identifies as “miracle”. Miracle, from, linguists postulate, a proto-Indo-European word meaning ‘to smile at’. To wonder at. Probably a shared root with “merry”. And miracle can be a verb as well as a noun: to miracle, meaning, to work a miracle on. Which is what the “difficult miracle”, the impossibility of the poet and Black woman Phillis Wheatley, is and does: Wheatley is a miracle. Because “she […] created herself a poet, notwithstanding and in despite of everything around her”. Yes. And Wheatley miracles the future (and her present) of poetry in the United States. She changes its course. She is its course. She renders it, in her having written, possible at all.
If merriment is both rupture (“internal difference” to the act and history of writing) and a site of togetherness (conviviality), then Wheatley’s poems make merry the literature of my country. Writing, Wheatley renders a conviviality possible, or even already achieved by her having written at all: she is the conviviality, the internal difference which indexes a relation that was always there (the relation of the one who prepares the meals or grows the crops to the one who, nourished and fed, can walk out into the world and transcribe it as poem). When Wheatley’s writing enters the scene, there is more to writing, and to “Writer”, than there was. “Following her ‘intrinsic ardor,’ and attuned to the core of her own person”, Jordan writes of Wheatley, “this girl, the first Black poet in America, had dared to redefine herself from house slave to, possibly, an angel of the Almighty.” Such that I sit here, two decades into the 21st century, my being and my writing made possible by Wheatley’s having written. And by Jordan having written about her.
Dear June Jordan,
I remember when you died. I was in my early twenties. I didn’t understand who you were; I knew your name but I didn’t realize your stature. I knew Phillis Wheatley’s name, too, and I had read her poems, but I had not read your essay-sonnet to her. For her. In which you mourn the loss of the poems of “Phillis the woman, […] who had chosen herself, free, and brave to be free in a land of slavery”, which were never published; which were lost. Now, looking back, I am amazed that I lived in a world and time when you were alive and I didn’t know it.
You identify the scar in this. You write, about Wheatley’s second manuscript of poems, poems of her adulthood and her freedom, “I believe we would not have seen them, anyway. I believe no one would have published the poetry of Black Phillis Wheatley, that grown woman who stayed with her chosen Black man […] an independent Black woman poet in America”.
You write, “Can you imagine that, in 1775?”. You write, “Can you imagine that, today?”.
There was a fault in my imagination: the fault was, I did not see you or Wheatley as historical. I had not been taught to perceive your lineage. As a tributary to mine. To what I learned to call the canon. Or in other words, I had been brought up without manners. I was incapable of being convivial in a way which you and Wheatley had had no choice but to be.
My education, like, I imagine, the education of most white children and young adults in the U.S. in the 1980s and 1990s, had given me to understand an all-white history of literature as naturally occuring. Where Black writers and other writers of color appeared was a sort of scar. I do not recall being encouraged to trace that scar, to find out the “Meanings” there. Black writers and writers of color appeared as blips on a homogenous surface, a skin of writing which was otherwise white.
Dear June Jordan, you write about judging the Loft McKnight Awards in creative writing, awards that are administered by a literary organization in my home city, Minneapolis, and are open to writers throughout Minnesota. “Last week […] I read through sixteen manuscripts of rather fine poetry”, you write. You go on to list “lexical items” you encountered in the poems—“Rock, moon, star, roses, chimney, Prague, elms, lilac, railroad tracks, lake, lilies, snow geese, crow, mountain, arrow feathers, ear of corn, marsh, sandstone, rabbit-bush, gulley, pumpkins, eagle, tundra, dwarf willow, dipper-bird, brown creek, lizards, sycamores, glacier, canteen, skate eggs, birch, spruce, pumphandle”—and to say that these “are the terms, the lexical items accurate to the specific white Minnesota daily life of those white poets”. All that to say that you could and did recognize your accompaniment, even as Black poets “have been rejected and […] frequently dismissed as ‘political’ or ‘topical’ or ‘sloganeering’ and ‘crude’ and ‘insignificant’ because, like Phillis Wheatley, [you] have persisted for freedom”. Which is to say, even when white poets like me, from places like the one I’m from, could not and would not recognize you, or Wheatley, or the urgencies of Black poets writing in the United States.
Who am I with?
Who is with me?
“It was not natural”, Jordan writes, and “she was the first”.
In 1775, she was the first. Not the first to think, sing, want, dream. But the first we know of to write, whose writings were cared for and kept.
“And she was the first.”
Can I join in, even late? I am happy to stand in the kitchen, fill glasses and cups, wash dishes and do laundry. My first education was in learning to speak. Lately I have just been trying to learn to listen.
June Jordan’s essay is a scar indexing “internal difference” and also “Meanings”. Like “merriment” breaks through “writing”, it breaks through me, and there is a trace of it left once I finish reading. As a white poet and Jordan’s reader I am asked to awaken myself to the relationship I have always already been in to Wheatley, to Jordan, and to a history, lineage, and ongoing genealogy of Black poets and writers and artists who have “persisted for freedom”, theirs and mine. The conviviality pre-exists me. It has made everything possible: has been what made my writing “about wild geese flying over Prague” possible.
Dear Éireann, do you not owe what courage you have to the example of poets like Wheatley, like Jordan, who in writing “of the terror and the hungering and the quandaries of [their] African lives on this North American soil” have refused to be subsumed into similarity and invisibility, who have been the “miracle” and the “merriment”, the irruption and the Meanings, without whom you could in fact never have written at all, could not have learned to write at all?