March 10, 2004

Old School
Tobias Wolff

A Book of Revelations -- I read this book after hearing Wolff speak at the Chicago Humanities Festival and now, months later, I am still euphoric. Why? First, Wolff is a tender and funny writer, offering the kind of humor that's only and always derived from honesty. Second, after reading this book I have a new definition of art: Art is a conversation you've never heard before. Third, a passage about Robert Frost's reading at a private boys' school made me see what's truly special about all readings, why, indeed, author readings are essential: "In print, under his great name, they (Frost's poems) had the look of inevitability; in his voice you caught the hesitation and perplexity behind them, the sound of a man brooding them into being." Fourth, the quote about form attributed to Frost: "Such grief can only be told in form." (He's referring to Achilles' "famous, terrible" grief.) "Maybe it only really exists in form. Form is everything. Without it you've got nothing but a stubbed-toe cry -- sincere, maybe, for what that's worth, but with no depth or carry. No echo. You may have a grievance but you do not have grief, and grievances are for petitions, not poetry." Fifth, the wonderfully wry scene between the narrator and the girl he plagiarizes. He says, "You should keep writing." She replies, "Mmm, don't think so. Too frivolous. Know what I mean? It just cuts you off and makes you selfish and doesn't really do any good." Sixth, the great lines (e.g., "He didn't see this as a lie so much as a kind of dozing off in his attention to the truth," "And why would Caeser fear Ovid, except for knowing that neither his divinity nor all his legions could protect him from a good line of poetry.") Seventh, how I re-read the epigram from Strand four times ... and reveled in the tears welling in my eyes and spilling against my eye glasses with the final allusion and phrase, "His father, when he saw him coming, ran to meet him."