In the room the women come and go…

In the room the women come and go…

LET us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

When I was seventeen I was very sincere about art and especially about literature. I was a girl in a small town who had grown up in the library. As someone said about Milton, I saw the world through the spectacle of books. I saw school and books as a life raft. My only escape.

So literature was a life or death subject to me. I memorized pieces of Shakespeare. A year later I would read The Sound and the Fury and halfway through the first section, the Benjy section, I would suddenly understand the mechanism of the narrative, that some was in present day and some was recollection and that Benjy was retarded and I would go back and re-read from the beginning again.

Prufrock was frightening. It started with an Italian quote. I had two years of high school Spanish and although I had heard of Dante’s Inferno, I had certainly never read it. Languages were the great opaque, the proof that I was an intellectual fraud. I spoke nothing but English and had rarely heard any other language spoken except Latin. In church. Where it did not resemble a language at all since no one actually spoke it to someone else.

But my whole selfworth was based on my ability with literature. I knew what ether was and I got the opening metaphor. I marched through the poem, (sawdust restaurants? I didn’t know there were restaurants made of sawdust. And oyster shells? The irony was that my grandfather had taken my mother to oyster bars years before I was born.) One does not ask ‘What is it?’ Well, I hadn’t been asking what it was. What did ‘it’ refer to? I couldn’t make it refer to the sky or those restaurants of hotels.

I was haunted by that couplet for years. ‘In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo.’ Nothing in my life fit those women. In my life, three sets of neighbors got together, someone went out for a case of beer and the kids played in the inflatable swimming pool until the fireflies came out while the men drank beer from bottles and some women did and some women, like my mother, left lipstick stains on the edge of a glass. No one was pretentious in the way that T.S. Eliot was describing.

Since then I have spent a lot of time thinking about the issue of accessibility. A kind of Literary equivalent of the Americans with Disabilities Act. What is it I want for my reader? What is accessible?

I feel that in order to be available to almost anyone, art has to come very close to cliché. It has to be conventional. I don’t find that kind of art or story interesting. So stick a pin in the map at cliché and another out beyond T.S. Eliot out in John Ashbury land and I would say that I want to fall somewhere in between.

Things I believe:

<>Obviously, television both is accessible and has created a certain standard of accessibility for American culture. I think back on early television and I remember the success of I Love Lucy. The comic situation, Commedia Dell’Arte, the attempt to escape embarrassment (particularly sexual, although not so much in early television) is something that’s easy to recognize. (Sexual situation comedy, American style, was not so much Love American Style as Three’s Company, the guy with the beautiful girls who never gets any. A comedy of emasculation.)

Physical danger is instantly understandable. The gun to the head, the footsteps in the dark.

I am on the road, and have only intermittent access to the internet. I have to leave this half thought out and half undone. But I am still that 17 year old girl, desperate and unmoored. And I am also the 48 year old writer who has been to a party in Manhattan that started at midnight, and if the women didn’t come and go, talking of Michelangelo, that was only because it was a theater party and we were talking about Sam Shepherd’s True West which I had just seen at The Cherry Orchard in the Village. (And had found hypnotic although I didn’t feel as if I understood it at all.)

Who do we let in? Who do we exclude? How much do we think about our choices that way?

21 thoughts on “In the room the women come and go…

  1. This was such a beautiful post. Growing up in Kansas, I struggle with the same thing, or if not, then something similar. I sometimes feel like I should write for the people who raised me, write to be accessible. But I went to a prestigious liberal arts college and the world opened up to me and I’m not sure I can even relate to them anymore. I want to. I sometimes wish I could be that writer who brings the thing I have seen back home and puts them on display for those who haven’t had the luck that I have. And then sometimes I want to be the person who takes that simple beauty of _their_ life and shows its value to the sophisticates. I guess ultimately, I want to be a bridge that goes both ways.

  2. Great, thought provoking post, Maureen.

    I sometimes view accessibility as range, rather than a point. Some writers are really good at writing within a broad range, so that readers who have read a lot and want a challenge and readers who have not and/or do not can both enjoy it.

    A writer who springs to mind as really good at this is George RR Martin; e.g., his Song of Ice and Fire. There is tremendous depth and complexity and literary beauty, and there is jeopardy and sex and magic (though not so much) and mythical creatures… many different reader levels and tastes are met within its pages.

  3. Wonderful post — the topic of which I’ve been thinking about for thirty years.

    Still no solid answers, I’m afraid. I’m not even sure whether I should dare to eat a peach.

    But now I wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

  4. That’s a terrific painting, Katie.

    “I do not think they will sing to me.” (I once heard a recording of Eliot reading the poem — and it seemed to me that he read that line more slowly and sadly than all the rest.)

    And now, because I worry that my earlier comment may have seemed flip:

    I truly don’t have any solid answers after thirty years of thinking about the questions posed by Maureen’s post.

    But my sandy, walking-along-the-beach answer is that a fiction writer must be true to the people within the story. If a writer does a proper job of illuminating a story’s characters and their conflicts — using whatever simple or complex language or whatever vulgar or refined allusions that job requires —

    Then, if the writer is very lucky, the question of accessibility will answer itself . . . and the readers who come look at that story will be the readers who _should_ come look at that story.

    As promised, that’s a pretty sandy answer. But so far, it’s the only one I’ve come up with that lets me stop worrying long enough to actually work.

  5. I didn’t think the answer sounded flip at all, I could hear the mermaids singing.

    Katie, that is lovely.

  6. Interesting conversation on this subject. I come at it from a different direction, I think.

    As has been mentioned by more than one of us, in some recent posting and comments about our families of origin, I grew up feeling like an alien in my culture. I’ve always felt disconnected from anything that might be called mainstream.

    On the other hand, I’m determinedly blue-collar in most ways. I have little appreciation for art or literature. I like good, clean, powerful writing, but all that stuff with allusions and metaphors and parallellograms tends to put me to sleep.

    Not that I’m saying I’m stupid (I’ll leave that to others here), but I just don’t have much interest in subtlety. As a counselor, I like to think that I was attuned to subtleties in human behavior and voice and such, but in art and literature, I get bored.

    This is reflected in my everyday conversation and in my sense of humor.

    Around people like Brad and Caroline, I often feel like a blunt instrument to their rapiers. I’m actually pretty comfy with that role.

    Like the rest of you, I often feel like I come from a different planet.

    But it’s a planet where they play the blues, drop acid, and make hot lesbian babe jokes, rather than one where they talk about Michelangelo.

  7. My mom read Prufrock to the family one Monday evening when I was in mid-teens, and it was a turning point for me. It catapaulted itself to the top of all sorts of lists. I’ll even offer an apologia for his Italian intro – it’s the sort of thing public-schoolers would all recognize and understand, like Latin passages from Virgil or snips of Milton – like quoting Star Wars today. And the words are the confessions of a soul in hell.

    I hate literature that hates me. People that are desperate to show me just how smart they are. People whose distain for my point of view is hidden, if at all, by a thin veneer of civility.

    I read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and took from it that he hated himself and, by extension, those around him. It was a good book, but made me sad. Finnegan’s Wake and Ulysses were unsurmountable for me because his raw dislike for the reader was (to me) clear. You just weren’t good enough for Joyce, no matter who you are. No amount of artistry can compensate for misanthropy – I simply can’t enjoy the result.

    In the initial Italian, the soul in hell was _only_ telling the story because he was sure the hearer would never be able to tell anyone in the real world – a sealed confession. The women that come and go, whether in Prufrock or NYC, are speaking lies of omission, and their conversation is empty. Out of fear, they (and J. Alfred himself) will never reveal their truth. They will never squeeze the universe into a ball, or roll it toward that important and overwhelming question. That would expose them to the ridicule, rejection and snickering they so fear. So their eyes fix others with formulated phrases, becoming the monsters they fear. They will never tell truth where others might hear. It’s calling, but seawater does terrible things to white trousers. They have great excuses for their fear, but never break out.

    I think Eliot encapuslated what I hate about deliberately false human interactions – the destructivenness of fear. I read some of the book-club books my wife’s friends bring to her, and most I drop like a hot rock. They’re false, and the author knows it as well.

    When I was finally experienced enough to read the Silmarillion or the Hyperion/Endymion books, or Dune, or Pride and Prejudice, it was a joy to read them. There were times before that I tried and failed to enjoy them – and I didn’t push it. I just set them down for later. They had the germ of truth, though.

    Ender’s Game was something I *got*, immediately, when I read it as a 9-year-old. Speaker for the Dead I found impenetrable until a couple of years after its publication. It meant _much_ more to me after I was a missionary in Brazil for two years. Card really likes being clear and accessible, but he also doesn’t write Hardy Boys novels, and there’s always a threshold to pass.

    The ADA comment is interesting. There has to be a whole range of levels of literature for people of different tastes and capacities. There are people who enjoy rock climbing, which cannot be made accesible to quadriplegics. There are those who love walks in rolling, wooded hills – less strain, but no less beauty or joy. There are still others who love both. I love my Harry Potter and my Tolstoy. And my Monte Python.

    It doesn’t matter how accessible you are – there will always be those who find you incomprehensible and others who find you way too obvious and dull. Many of them are talking about Michealangelo, anyhow. Let your characters and stories tell truth as you know it. That’s what’s attractive. When there’s an attraction, people find ways to access the previously inaccessible.

  8. Brad, I just went and found that recording. I wish we had one of him reading it when he was younger, when his own Prufrockhood was still raw.

  9. It’s odd, Maureen, but that Eliot quote (In the room the women…) that stuck in your mind has been stuck in mine since college.

    I think we underestimate the intellegence of the audience at our own peril. As a writer, it’s my job to tell a good story the best way I know how. But first, I must please myself with my work. (Hence the reason I get so little done.)

    As for accessability, as Alden said, some people will get you and some people won’t. That’s just the nature of the beast.

  10. I’m the youngest of four siblings. In junior high, I desperately wanted to read comic books with their thrilling adventures and shiny super heroes. I even bought a few. But my sibs made fun of me, so I stopped, the pressure being too much to bear.

    So to some extent I come at this from the other side around, loving Eliot (I didn’t read him until college) but always feeling that certain ways I enjoyed being entertained were, well, unworthy. Or ought to be.

  11. 1. Ye who combines Kraft Macaroni and Cheese with a punch to the face of a middle aged woman? You are the master of molding genius from the mundane.

    2. I do not understand comment #15.

    3. This is a highly irregular group of people you have over here.

    4. There are seven stars and a cascade of diamonds. Look East. Soldiers and orchids. Waxen wings.

  12. Alis —

    There’s no more pernicious evil in this world than people telling you not to love what you love.

    I have a friend who’s ashamed of all the stuff that he loves: comic books, science fiction, and gaming. You know, “geek” stuff.

    He thinks he should be reading The Illiad, Dostoevsky (sp?), and The Great Masters.

    And it’s great that he does want to embrace the classics — they’re the backbone for some of the best writing in comics, science fiction, and mainstream fiction. But, what a shame that he won’t allow himself to love what he loves.

    Are there different levels of merit in different kinds of literature? Perhaps. But, we can’t help that which touches us deeply.

    If comic books sing to your heart — fuck it, read ’em, love ’em.

    I dare anyone to call Alan Moore’s work in “Swamp Thing” and “Watchmen” less than literature. JM Matteis’ “Moonshadow” is both great writing and some of the most gorgeous art work you’ll ever see. Pretentious as it could sometimes be, Neil Gaiman’s work on “Sandman” was brilliant. And Bill Willingham is re-working the whole concept of fairy tales into a glorious new world in “Fables.”

  13. “…I hate literature that hates me..” Well said.

    You have found the phrase I’ve been seeking for a long time. Inaccessible/impenetrable poetry is my peeve.
    Don’t get me wrong, I love poetry and I don’t mind being challenged by it, but much contemporary poetry
    seems to be created with the intent to baffle and exclude all those except (presumably)holders of PhD’s in English and/or MFA’s.
    It does not take a genius or a paranoid to discern the disdain these poets seem to hold for the average reader and, no surprise, the contempt is often reciprocated.
    Some years ago I attempted to share with my step-daughter (a college graduate and an English major) a volume of poetry I had recently read and enjoyed. Which one it was escapes me now, but it was accessible and not a ‘head-banger.’ To my surprise she cut me off angrily stating, ‘I hate poetry!’
    It is not an exaggeration to say that she had been traumatized in her college experience with professors and others for whom inaccessibility was a criterion for excellence and to be a poetry lover was to be member of an exclusive intellectual elite.
    Since that conversation in which my step-daughter barely surpressed her tears, I have met many many people who will not look twice at a poem, for similar reasons. Is it a surprise then that so few volumes of poetry are sold and poetry has such a miniscule place in our national life.
    The pity is that there is so much wonderful and accessible poetry extant that doesn’t get read because of image ‘serious’ poetry has acquired.
    Incidentally, I love ‘Prufrock’ and think that precocious seventeen year old was being a little hard on herself to expect at that age to ‘get it’ in its entirety.
    If she had used ‘Wasteland’ as an example I would have agreed.

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