“If you're ever in a mill and get sawed in half, I won't laugh."

Cole Porter, "Friendship" (1939)

Edited and compiled by Robert Sward

"Friendship Among Writers"

by Jack Foley

A writer friend asks me to write about friendship among writers. I discover from his essay that, in a moment of fury, he once punched out a writer friend of his, decking him. My friend has always--struck--me as one of the gentlest people I know.

Is friendship among writers any different from friendship among insurance salesmen? friendship among army buddies? friendship among women? What did Wordsworth and Coleridge do to cement their bond? Coleridge remarked that William and Dorothy Wordsworth and himself were "three persons and one soul." A.S. Byatt writes of Coleridge, "He had romantic hopes of both men and women--all men were potentially ideal friends, all women potentially devoted lovers--and at the same time he was obsessed by the fear of living perpetually unloved and solitary." Coleridge was also "haunted by money troubles" and, evidently thinking of himself, was the first to use the term "psychosomatic." Byatt goes on to remark about the Wordsworths, "It is surprising how many of their circle went mad." Wordsworth addressed the Prelude to Coleridge as "The Friend": "Thou, O Friend! Who in thy ample mind / Hast station'd me for reverence and love." The friendship between T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound seems a kind of equivalent to the friendship between Coleridge and Wordsworth. At the death of Eliot in 1965, Ezra Pound said, movingly--I'm quoting from memory-- "His was the true Dantean voice. I can only repeat, but with the urgency of fifty years ago, 'Read him.'" William Hazlitt called Coleridge

          the first poet I had known, and he certainly answered to that inspired name. I had heard a great deal of his powers of conversation, and was not disappointed. In fact, I never met with anything at all like them, either before or since... That morning, as soon as breakfast was over, we strolled out into the park, and seting ourselves on the trunk of an old ash-tree that stretched along the ground, Coleridge read aloud with a sonorous and musical voice...and the sense of a new style and a new spirit in poetry came over me. It had to me something of the effect that arises from the turning up of the fresh soil, or of the first welcome breath of spring.... ("My First Acquaintance with Poets")

Coleridge himself wrote in "Christabel" of friendship gone wrong:

Alas! They had been friends in youth,
But whispering tongues can poison truth;
And constancy lives in realms above;
And life is thorny; and youth is vain;
And to be wroth with one we love,
Doth work like madness in the brain...

They stood aloof, the scars remaining,
Like cliffs which had been rent asunder:
A dreary sea now flows between,
But neither heat, nor frost, nor thunder,
Shall wholly do away I ween
The marks of that which once hath been.

What did Jack Kerouac receive from Neal Cassady? Kerouac remarked about the end of On the Road, "They're still great friends, but their friendship has to enter a new phase." The publication of the novel and its subsequent soaring publicity put an enormous strain on their friendship--especially since Cassady was never able to achieve the literary heights his friend attained. "Say that my glory was," wrote William Butler Yeats, "I had such friends" ("The Municipal Gallery Re-visited"). Yeats also wrote, "I thought him [MacGregor Mathers] half a lunatic, half knave, / And told him so, but friendship never ends" ("All Souls Night"). Is there a difference between a writer friend who writes about you and a writer friend who doesn't? Would Boswell's relationship to Samuel Johnson have been different had he chosen never to write a book? Shakespeare wrote, "But if the while I think on thee, dear friend, / All losses are restored and sorrows end" (Sonnet XXX) and

Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
(Sonnet XXIX)

And the young James Joyce wrote,

There is no word nor any sign
Can make amend--
He is a stranger to me now
Who was my friend.

William Blake observed,

I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
("A Poison Tree")

Almost all of my friends are artists. Of these many are writers, and of the writers many are poets. I don't think the emotional make-up of the poet is necessarily all that different from the emotional make-up of the plumber. Indeed, the plumber may be more sensitive than the poet. This fact is not obvious because the emotional lives of plumbers are rarely documented in print-- or, for that matter, films, videos. Among my poet friends are Ivan Argelles, Jake Berry, Neeli Cherkovski, Michael McClure, Dana Gioia, Robert Sward, among many others. I have known many people for a while and then not known them any longer, but Argelles and company are among my longest-lasting relationships. I would certainly count my wife Adelle as a friend as well, and our relationship dates back more than forty years. (Adelle has been writing poetry since 1989.) Our son Sean, currently completing his Ph.D. in History, has published in various places-- so, though not a poet, he is certainly another writer friend. Some of my writer friends have died. Scarcely a day passes when I am not reminded of Larry Eigner or James Broughton in some way. As a child, my interest in art isolated me, made me sense myself as "different"; as an adult, my interest in art is precisely what binds me to others: it is the primary stuff that lies at the base of my social life. I know poets, musicians, painters, dancers, sculptors, filmmakers, photographers.

But behind this question of writers and friendship there may be another question. In his essay, "Writers' Friendship, Writers' Enmity," Robert Sward quotes one of his--friends: "I long for writing buddies as much as anyone else, but I have difficulty trusting and supporting and remaining loyal to people who are, after all, no less obsessed, neurotic and self-involved than I am." Another writer says, "I wouldn't necessarily choose Aggression as a muse for writing, but I confess I've sometimes been inspired to write, and publish, poems that...came about, in part, because I happened to envy or felt competitive with a fellow writer. And I'm speaking here about writes I feel close to, people I admire, writers I regarded then, and still regard, as friends." Behind such statements is perhaps the sense that writers are special, that they are more "obsessed, neurotic and self-involved"--and perhaps also more loving--than other people. How can such people be "friends" with anyone?

In a sense, we make the concrete details of our lives out of our psychic contents, out of our needs, desires, wishes. Gertrude Stein begins her portrait of the sculptor Lipschitz with a kind of palindrome--a shape which suggests the balances of a sculptor's work: "Like and like likely and likely likely and likely like and like." The portrait ends, "I like you very much." Stein's pun suggests that it is likeness that draws us to people. Yet likeness can become a threat: we don't wish to be mistaken for someone else. In a fascinating book, The Glory of Hera (1968), Philip E. Slater writes of what he terms "the oral-narcissistic dilemma." Slater's book is a study of "pre- Oedipal" relationships, relationships between mother and child. At the center of such relationships is a "conflict between the desire to merge and the desire to be free and separate":

          [The oral-narcissistic dilemma] originates in a failure to negotiate successfully the transition from the infantile state of total narcissism and total dependence to one involving an awareness of the separate existence of others. As this awareness grows, one's sense of narcissistic integrity and one's dependency needs are simultaneously violated...Total fusion and stratospheric isolation become equally essential and equally terrifying.

Friendships perhaps maintain themselves in a balance between merging and separation-- between "total fusion" and "stratospheric isolation." You don't have to be an artist to be "obsessed, neurotic and self-involved," but you also don't have to be an artist to feel loyalty, to believe that my friend's triumph is my triumph, my friend's failure my failure.

Almost everything I do as an artist involves collaboration of some kind--and so, at some level, involves friendship, trust. I have a radio show on which I interview people: their comments are as important (often more important) than mine. I perform choral pieces with my wife. I have collaborated on poetry with various friends--including Jake Berry and Ivan Argelles. I have performed my poetry with musicians, with dancers. When I recite my poem, "Portrait at Sixty," Adelle holds up a reproduction of the portrait of me (by Anthony Holdsworth). This openness to various arts comes in part from the fact that I have at one time or another practiced almost all of them: I have painted, played music, written songs, even danced (my father was a tap dancer). But the openness also comes, I think, from my understanding of consciousness. Consciousness, I believe, is not an  isolated phenomenon. As I say in my poem, "Chorus: SON(G)"--performed by two people--it is constantly finding "resonances of itself at large in the world." Indeed, "world" seems to me an aspect of consciousness, not something opposed to it--though of course in some situations we do experience world as an oppositional force.

A friend of mine wrote me about a teacher who had "encouraged us to trust your own intention to write about what you desire RATHER than what you feel others expect, to follow your own resolution RATHER than what others might feel it should lead to." I thought what the teacher said was nonsense or at best trite and answered dogmatically,

          I realize that it is useful to say that sort of thing to people. At that level, it's fine. But who is "you" and who is "others" in that context? People acquiesce to such a sentiment--agree with it--quite easily. You know, "I gotta be me"--and here is this person giving me permission to be me. But who is "me"? The sentence makes a division between "what you desire" and "what you feel others expect." On the one hand, there is "you"; on the other hand there is "others"-- and you know the difference. That is the ruling ideology of our culture: there are individuals ("you") and there is the mass ("others"), and we are usually on the side of individuals. What I'm saying is also the division between subjective ("you") and objective ("others"). But what if you think, as I do, of people not as "individuals" but as "Being-in-the-world" (Dasein), not as "things" but as a dynamic process which has some subjective elements and some objective elements but which can be reduced to neither? Who is "you" in that situation? Who are the "others"? From my point of view, a person is always in the process of connecting/disconnecting with others--with world--so there is no way fully to separate "you" from "others." It is in the moment of recognizing that fact that writing occurs:

When 'Omer smote 'is bloomin' lyre,
He'd 'eard men sing by land an' sea;
An' what 'e thought 'e might require,
'E went an' took--the same as me!
Coleridge once said to Charles Lamb, "I believe that you have heard me preach?" Lamb answered, "I--I--never heard you do anything else." Happily, our friendship survived my tendency (need) to be Coleridge.

I want to end with two poems which are not collaborations but more in the nature of call and response. My friend, Mary-Marcia Casoly, wrote a poem, "Winter Music," which I found myself "answering." Bits and pieces of Mary-Marcia's poem entered mine, but for me the central issue is named in the phrase, "We touch / in sound." The words "touch" and "sound" are similar (same vowels) but they are dissimilar too (the vowels are pronounced differently). A friendship-- even a friendship between poets--is like that. Slant rhyme. Merging and separation.

               WINTER MUSIC

Bring long-term countless relief.
Send it send it.
Be relentless.
Rescue diversity this very hour.
Windowpane treasure, spark osmanthus.
Buy osmosis. Unorphaned, unrelinquished, unadorned.
Tick quiet bright comforter
Warm and deep filled silk worm cocoon.
Your envelope has been addressed upside-down.
Don't ask why. Season's greetings!
Foxtrot kiss, rejoice, tapioca pearls big dipper.
Everywhere you look find remaining
Potpourri. Chinese swifts fly in,
Build their saliva-mud nests inside my
Brain. Much easier to make birds' nest soup
This way, than scaling cliffside caves. The soul has been so...
Misty bonsai, yellow feathers, tiger leaping gorge.
Hold out wishing riots--such are
Our tumultuous lives. Wish excelsior. Stay tuned anew.
Drink winter accipiter tea. Happy safe travel blessings chickadee.
See you see you see you
a charm of colored lights makes out the arbor.
Quick, spend a long time,
a very multitude without end.
--Mary-Marcia Casoly 12/1/02

for Mary-Marcia Casoly

Bring it along
(we need it)
How darkness
and the lives that
depend on us
suddenly vanish
leaving us
with this
in the near
new year
"Our tumultuous lives"
bring us over into
"potpourri. Chinese swifts"
Your words
mingling with mine
How far away you are
in almost everything
yet these tongue-sounds
(your verse and my "goddoggerel")
make a kind of music
(wintry, to be sure)
We touch
in sound
"See you see you see you"

--Jack Foley


Among American poet Jack Foley's books are Gershwin, Exiles, and the award-winning critical study, O Powerful Western Star. His radio show, "Cover to Cover," is heard every Wednesday on Berkeley, California station KPFA; his column, "Foley's Books," appears weekly in the online magazine, "The Alsop Review."

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