On Loving Baron Wormser, and Hating Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Saturday I attended, with my colleagues and writing friends Karen and Teri and Lisa, a “Writing Ourselves” conference, organized by the Maine Writing Project. It took place in a giant conference room at Maple Hill Farm Bed & Breakfast in Hallowell, where the sun shone, and the melting snow from the April Fool’s Day storm kept falling in clumps from trees and from the roof. We got there late, mostly because of an accident which closed part of I-95 southbound, which in turn necessitated a quick sight-seeing tour of beautiful downtown Waterville. No one seemed to mind.
The keynote speaker and morning workshop leader was Baron Wormser. I was excited to see him, having not run into him since my week at the Frost Place last summer. Baron, I may have mentioned before, oversaw my critical thesis when I was working toward my MFA: he has read all the books in the universe, I swear. He also is the director of the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching in Franconia. He is, in short, the poetry god of my universe. I’ve missed him terribly since he and his wife moved to Vermont: I’ve missed his conversation, I’ve missed his vast library, and I’ve missed raiding his refrigerator (but that’s another story for another time).
Baron led off the morning by discussing the literary life: what makes the life of the writer. Among his illustrations, of course, was Robert Frost. How could this not be expected from a man who spends a good portion of his summer actually living in Robert Frost’s house in Franconia? It’s a topic that’s near to my own heart, since I’ve come, after a long time, to call myself a writer first, and a teacher second. (That I’ve begun to allow myself to call myself a writer at all is more than a bit liberating.) How do we live? How do we write? Or sometimes, why do we write? At times that’s a conundrum: most of us have to do other work in order to support our writing; even a couple of weeks ago, at my lunch with my friend Fred, he asked why I kept writing novels when they’ve been rejected by everyone. It’s a disease, isn’t it? A compulsion, a neurosis. In the end, it’s not for the money (though when it is, that’s nice, too), or even for the audience. It’s for the writer. It’s what defines the writer. Listening to Baron talk about it made me, in a weird sort of way, very happy.
At the same time, I had in the forefront of my mind the writing life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This because a friend of my friend Brenda gave me two boxes of books on British literature and history, and Richard Holmes’ two-volume literary life of Coleridge was included. I’ve never been a great Coleridge groupie, though he has moments. As I read through the first volume, Early Visions, 1772-1804, I began to realize in myself an incredible anger at the poet. How he was a show-off. How he made immediate friends and then trespassed against their good natures until they’d had enough. How he was financially reckless. How he wavered between women and then married one, it could be argued, he had no real strong feeling for. How he fathered two children with his wife Sara, then in effect abandoned her for three months that quickly turned into six and then more when he went to Germany with the Wordsworths. How he refused to come home at the death of his younger son Berkeley. How he was overtaken by his opium addiction. In all this, how he blamed everyone else for his misfortunes: Sara, his wife, came in for the brunt of it; in his letters he even intimates that she’s responsible for his addiction. Granted, she might not have been the most sympathetic of women–I don’t really know–but there never seems to be a smidgeon of self-awareness in all of Coleridge’s carrying on. When he decides he’s absolutely in love with William Wordsworth’s soon-to-be sister-in-law and begins wandering away from home to spend more time with her than he does with his own family, and when he encourages his wife to accept his love interest as her nurse during her lying-in with their next child–that’s when I seriously want to punch him in head. I mean, really. You’re in love with someone else, bud–why are you having your wife bear you more children? Leave her alone! I was also infuriated by Coleridge’s friends, including William and Dorothy, buying into his program: they kept writing things about how Sara just wasn’t the right wife for him, as she was so unsympathetic. Did any of them try to sympathize with her? At the end of Holmes’ first volume, Coleridge was on board a ship bound for Malta, once again leaving his family and responsibilities, and for what? He certainly didn’t know, and I wasn’t sure, either.
Thus, the writer’s life versus a writer’s life. The second part of Baron’s presentation
was a series of twelve poetry-writing prompts, complete with published works to illustrate them. Because we had begun so late–due to the accident on the interstate in Waterville–Baron had to cram the prompts in before lunch, without giving us a chance to try some out. So–we tried them after lunch, and after Baron had gone. My attempt was a persona poem. Who did I try to inhabit? Sara Coleridge. My real ignorance of her inner life simply meant that I could make it up, which was ideal. I’m afraid in the first draft, most of what came out is fury–and there’s so much I didn’t include. Still, it was fun. And cathartic. I don’t know if that draft will go any further. But because of the workshop with Baron, I wrote it, and I feel better now. Thanks, Baron.