Monday, Aug. 19, 1996
For some people, the idea of a poet on vacation may be a joke. Yeats understands this stuff, nailing it in the opening stanza of Adam’sCurse:
We sat together at one summer’s end,
That beautiful, mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, “A line will take us hours maybe:
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better get down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.”
Wonderful how he demonstrates what he means, writing those iambic pentameter couplets in such an idiomatic flow of convincing dialogue: a lesson for contemporary would-be formalists. So well-written and sharp–more than enough grounds to pardon Yeats his snobbery: For instance, those lines he wrote elsewhere about his maternal forebears the Pollexfens never “fumbling in a greasy till.” I don’t think he ever worked for his bread; I’ve heard that the Irish riposte to the “greasy till” business is, “Ah, yes–the Pollexfens were always strictly wholesale.” (The family made its money as ship chandlers.)
These thoughts about Yeats and work are inspired by this locale. “Truro.” “Cape Cod”: The names, suggesting a stereotype of patrician ophthalmologists and book editors wearing faded Choate sweatshirts, plying dinghies and backhands, stir up some of my old resistance to the idea of “vacation.” I grew up on the Jersey Shore, on a street of two- and three-family houses, with the idea that summer people were inferior–spending their money, some of it in my grandfather’s bar (see “greasy till,” above) to be near the breezes off our Atlantic Ocean and the action at our race track. We didn’t have to go away or vacate anything to enjoy those good things. This early attitude has blended into my adult recognition that one of my greatest pleasures in life is the sensation of getting things done.
Now here I am for three weeks, with one of the trails to the beach blocked off by the Secret Service, all last week, because Al Gore and his family were house guests of Martin Peretz of the NewRepublic. Blocked beach trail: dratted nuisance, old chap.
This weekend, though, I worked: teaching a weekend poetry seminar at the noble and nobly named Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, four hours Saturday and Sunday morning to a seminar of 12 talented students. I also gave a public poetry reading in the center’s Stanley Kunitz Common Room on Saturday night. All of this soothed what I suppose might be called my lower-middle-class work ethic, and spiced the pleasures of being in Truro with my family: wife, three daughters, two sons-in-law, and the miraculous Samuel Eli Pinsky-Dickson, my first grandchild, four months old last week (photos to appear in a later installment of this diary).
Provincetown itself is an exhilarating place: bright lights and bustling circus to Truro’s rustic dunes and scrub-oak hills, Wellfleet’s genteel artistic village. P-town successfully attains a rare combination of the outrageous and the truly lighthearted. There’s a benign, relaxed ebullience to Commercial Street’s strolling gay couples and cross-dressers (not all of them gay–witness the appealing sight last evening of an ordinary-looking hetero pair in their late 60s, holding hands, notable only because along with the conventional vacation garb of his class and generation, the man was wearing falsies and a beehive wig).
This is a place for people who for much of the year have to consider whether innocent personal gestures–holding hands, dressing as one chooses, talking with friends–might risk anything from mild embarrassment to violence. In Provincetown, that mean, tedious consideration–the choices and judgments about when to be how defiant or how discreet–evaporates. To put it in a word much invoked at a political convention last week, Provincetown in the summer embraces an unusually high concentration of freedom.
And we all feel it, gay or straight–I believe that the amused Portuguese matrons in black dresses and black stockings who sit on the benches in front of Town Hall, giggling at the nightly promenade, feel it. Here is freedom from what we schoolmasters, clergypeople, and bankers too often settle for as being “the world.” In that freedom there is a notion of vacation–getting away from a world of social imperfections–that I can embrace.