The Uneasy Friendship of Poets

What happens when a literary relationship revolves around constantly criticizing each other's work?

The Walrus / iStock
The Walrus / iStock

When people ask who Ryan is, I usually say he is my reader. I could say he is my best friend, and that would be true, in its way. We’ve known each other since we were twenty-one, we served as groomsmen in each other’s weddings, and we studied concurrently at three different universities on three different occasions, the third time as the result of a bet. He’s the only peer with whom I exchange Christmas and birthday gifts, all of them books. But, for most of the time we’ve known each other, we’ve lived in different states. And, even when we’ve found ourselves in the same town, we’ve never shared a house and would not have made good roommates, being too similar in humours and too distinct in habits. Had we relied on social routine to establish our relationship, it likely would never have happened. Our friendship was born and has always lived primarily in language.

Ryan Wilson and I met in a poetry workshop in college, and we still read nearly everything the other writes. When we talk, we talk of sentences, tone, voice, and pacing. We give each other assignments and discuss books we’re obsessed with. We even steal from and rewrite each other’s poems. Our literary criticism has almost always issued from our conversations, and it’s often impossible to say which idea began with whom. On more than one occasion—most memorably, a night in Baltimore on the Mount Royal Avenue overpass at four in the morning—we have come close to blows over purely aesthetic disagreements. It is difficult to name the thing all of this amounts to.

Which is why, when people ask, I usually say Ryan is my reader. I call him this, however, with Charles Baudelaire’s poem “Au Lecteur” in mind. In the final lines, Baudelaire names the reader in direct address, implicating him in the excesses of the preceding stanzas. Ryan’s own translation from Baudelaire’s French renders the lines thus: “Reader, you know this monster, how it preens— / Hypocrite reader—doppelgänger—brother!” The “hypocrite reader” is not merely an observer of the poem, free to pass judgment from a distance. He is also an accomplice. He cannot leave these stanzas behind when he has finished reading them. He is on the hook. This is how Ryan and I have always read each other’s work: the other one is still always on the hook. Baudelaire’s accusatory last line goes without saying in our rapport: “Hypocrite reader—doppelgänger—brother!”

Ryan recently published his first book of poems, The Stranger World. My own first collection came out six years ago and benefited greatly from Ryan’s help. His book, a shapelier and more mature collection, is one in which—on its overdue release—I take no little pride. Reading through it, I grow nostalgic, the way one grows nostalgic for any place where one has suffered among friends. Given my ties to Ryan, of course, I cannot write a book review. So, instead, I’m writing a eulogy.

For years, these poems we worried over, corrected, and reordered late at night belonged only to Ryan and (pride saith) to me. Most of them have been published in scattered magazines over the years, but now they are collected in a book for which Ryan was paid a small honorarium, which means that—having no actual market value—they are effectively public property. It’s too late for me to suggest changes and too late for him to make them. But this loss, the loss of revision, is not the only one Ryan’s debut has brought about. It has also meant the laying to rest of a years-long conversation.

When Ryan and I were graduate students in Baltimore, our classmate Clay invented a sadistic party game, the terms of which have lingered in our conversations since. The game starts with two premises:

1. Everybody is one of three things: (a) a conformist, (b) a deviant, or (c) a recluse.
2. Everybody is pretending to be one of the things they are not.

The fun lies in debating both what your friends are and what they are pretending to be. Ryan is a recluse. More than merely introverted, he is happiest withdrawing not only from the crowd but also from the world at large. Now, in early middle age, he doesn’t do much to hide his reclusive nature, but back when I met him, in Athens, Georgia, at the turn of the twenty-first century, he was still very much pretending to be a conformist. At the time, that meant wearing a polo shirt, baggy jeans, a white ball cap, and basketball shoes. It meant smoking Camels and dipping Skoal and driving a candy-apple red Dodge Ram. It meant carrying on all night long several nights a week at crowded bars downtown. The dominant strain of pop music at the time was late-era gangsta rap, and among his other skills, Ryan made an impressive showing as an amateur freestyle rapper. All of this helped him disguise himself effectively as what I first mistook him for: the central-casting alpha frat boy of my nightmares.

His poetry, though, told a different story. Before ending up in a class together, Ryan and I met briefly at a disastrous open mic I emceed one night at a coffee shop downtown. As a rule, open mics are difficult to sit through, and this one was exceptional only in its length. Ryan got up that night and read a single poem, called “Stars.” It didn’t show the confidence and refinement of his mature poems, and you won’t find it in print today, but it distinguished itself absolutely from the scores of miserable poems that other would-be poets read before and afterwards. “Stars” was several pages long, but—even after having listened to more than two hours’ worth of truly wretched poetry that night—I wanted it to be longer.

At the time, I was myself a recluse pretending to be a deviant. Feigned deviancy is arguably just a special case of genuine conformity—as different from true deviancy as late Paul Muldoon from early Mark Strand or late Charles Simic from early Charles Simic. In my case it came with its own uniform—dirty undershirt, long hair, unlaced shoes, women’s shades. (I also smoked Camels, but I smoked them in quotation marks.) So I made a less-than-credible first impression on Ryan, and when I asked him to attend the Friday poetry salon I hosted back then in a local greasy spoon, he blew me off. I had taken him for a good ol’ boy, and he had taken me for a drifter.

A few months later we met again in a poetry class, and one night soon after that, he drove us to his remote apartment and dragged two chairs into a tiny, windowless bedroom, where we spent the next several hours emptying a case of Coors Light and talking about poetry. That was fifteen years ago.

Poetry, which requires formal speech, takes place in a different arena than friendship, which requires informal speech. For poets who are friends, this is not necessarily a contradiction. But for a friendship in poetry, certain difficulties emerge. The body of the friendship cannot live long outside an informal mode of speech, but the purpose of it, the poetry itself, cannot survive outside a formal one. The more the friendship succeeds in producing viable poetry, the less that poetry—the very catalyst and meaning of the friendship—truly belongs to its participants or can even be fully comprehended by them.

Being so young when we met, Ryan and I have plenty of youthful legends with which we’ve stuffed our friendship’s furniture. There were the logorrheic midnight walks through the streets of Athens and Baltimore. There were the three apartments (two grim, one opulent) I moved Ryan, along with all his possessions—including a washer, a dryer, a fainting couch, and all twenty volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary—into and out of three summers in a row. There was the outdoor patio where Ryan and I sat chain smoking and studying one long night in college and overheard no fewer than five different passersby mumble the verbatim phrase, “Can’t do shit.” There was the un-live-down-able night when I matched Ryan drink for drink through five bottles of wine at an upscale pizza joint and—after a purportedly lengthy and Wildean display of conversational genius—collapsed on the table in bleak emetic squalor. There was the ash-coated, eighth-story, thirty-five degree apartment where Ryan played T.I.’s King on repeat one whole long weekend while I stayed, sweat soaked, on the polyester couch, to which I somehow cajoled a young, guitar-playing scientist I’d picked up at a bar that Friday night (eheu fugaces labuntur anni!).

These events give form to the abstraction of our friendship, just as dock posts lend a shape to the algae clouds that suffuse a freshwater lake. They are like the elements by which we might identify our friendship’s body at a morgue, but—like the features of a cadaver—they hardly define the thing they represent. We don’t talk about them much. This is not just because we have more recent, modest, old-mannish adventures over which to reminisce. It is because we seldom reminisce.

We build our conversations—and our friendship, which can be hard to distinguish from our conversations—on what we read and write, on the things we try to make well and make understood. But as any honest writer can tell you, one is only a writer when one is writing. A poet having brunch is not a poet, unless he’s scribbling on a napkin. The product of a poet’s efforts is—in the best cases—highly durable. But the efforts themselves, like the identity they confer, are heartbreakingly ephemeral. Ryan and I do not reminisce much because what we like to talk about is poetry, and poetry is something about which one cannot reminisce. (Hold in suspicion any writer who reads his own work for pleasure.) Once I have really finished a poem, it is no longer mine nor even mine to talk about. A different kind of friendship, one established on a static hoard of memories—like money in a mattress—may suffer from a lack of interest, but it can also offer great security. If Ryan and I don’t often run out of things to talk about, it is because our conversations live paycheque to paycheque.

This morning, I sat down with the hardcover edition of The Stranger World and read it through from start to finish for the umpteenth time. I tried, though, for the first time since its publication, to read it not as Ryan’s friend but as a stranger. The experience was both joyful and disheartening. Joyful because the poems are good. Disheartening because all of my special knowledge of the poet, all of my privileged access and proximity, all of the years of care I’ve put into these poems, if only as a Dutch uncle—none of that actually matters to the poems themselves. To understand Yeats’s sonnet “No Second Troy,” one needn’t be familiar with Maud Gonne, the real-life woman who inspired the poem; one need only know Helen of Troy, the half-mythical woman who gives the poem its rhetorical ammunition.

As for my private knowledge of any given poem in Ryan’s book—say, that “The View on Waking” came to Ryan in its finished form one morning when he woke up and dashed the thing off in half an hour—this knowledge is not necessary to an understanding of the poem itself. It’s just knowledge I happen to have. Useless and true. It does not matter that a dimeter poem of mine about pop music spurred Ryan to write “Yo La Tengo.” It does not matter that, despite my attempts to help him carry off its turn, in the end, a different poet we know was the one who supplied the final twist. It does not matter that, for years before he wrote “Beatus Ille,” Ryan had been searching for a home for that poem’s final line: “the half-moon smiling like a sunken ship.” It does not matter that the sonogram after which Ryan wrote “After the Sonogram” was the first one taken of my daughter.

None of that matters. The poems are finished and indifferent to their origins. Having, like Theodore Roethke at his student’s graveside, “no rights in this matter, / Neither father nor lover,” I possess no special key to these poems’ meaning. They speak for themselves. Looking on something beautiful for long enough, one can forget one’s own experience is not unique—especially if, once upon a time, it was. Poets themselves might long for Maud Gonne, but poems dream only of Helen.

This is the petty tragedy of friendships between poets. When one founds a relationship on making something that will outlast the conditions in which it was made, then success in making mean obsoleteness for the maker. The poems that two friends help each other make have, in their finished form, little need for either poet and none whatsoever for their friendship.

I am happy to have contributed in my small way to the birth and delivery of The Stranger World. But now, when I page through the book and come upon a line like, “My voice smothers all the summer flowers with snow,” I realize I don’t know the man who’s capable of writing it. Ryan is a good poet, but that line did not come from the Ryan I know. It came from somewhere else, a place to which I don’t have access, except maybe in my own best moments as a writer. Some weeks ago, on Facebook, a couple of our acquaintances posted photographs of “In the Harvest Season,” the penultimate poem in the book. As I read it over again, I saw that all my long, intimate experience of Ryan, as a man and as a poet, still cannot fully account for such a poem:

It’s finished. Waiting’s all that will remain.
The gossip now must go unverified.
Blue smoke from leaf-piles, smoldering like pride,
Hangs here, a ghost, a storm-cloud that can’t rain.
Last night, the county’s final weathervane
Fell in the high winds. Old roofs, stripped bare, preside.
Take down the ragged self you’ve crucified
And let the crows wing through the fields of grain.

The sagging fence will never stand up straight.
Whatever’s not ripe now will never be.
That pain tormenting you will not abate,
And in the windows of vacated banks
You’ll see yourself, passing by aimlessly.
You cannot change your life. Give up; give thanks.

In the last two lines, the dropout English major in me hears an echo of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” which, in the Edward Snow translation, ends, “For there is no place / that does not see you. You must change your life.” In the line, “Whatever’s not ripe now will never be,” the former Catholic schoolboy in me recognizes a paraphrase of Christ’s encounter with the fig tree. The same, younger, churchgoing self hears in the line, “The gossip now must go unverified,” a whisper of religious doubt, as the false cognate “gospel” hovers just behind the curtain. (In the same way, I detect in the sentence, “You cannot change your life,” a ghostly emphasis on “you.”) The poet in me even senses in the slightly out-of-place image, “the windows of vacated banks,” a compromise made in preparation for the final rhyme, one that is redeemed (so to speak) by the double meaning of the last line’s “change.”

All of these observations might just as easily be made by anyone with a little education and some time to spare on a good poem. But nothing in my experience—public or private—can explain the genesis of the poem as a whole. At his best, Ryan is not the poet I have come to know and love. At his best, like all true poets, he is better than himself. Just the other week, I found myself stealing a line from his poem “Authority” and thinking at first I was pilfering it from some lofty canonical text.

Being a writer’s “reader” does not just mean being the special person trusted by him to assist with the process of revision. It also means not being this person. When I come to one of Ryan’s poems, I naturally bring all my knowledge of his biography, his ideas, his ambitions, and his other drafts. But, as his reader, part of my duty is to set all this aside and to read the poems the way a stranger would—or someone even more limited than a stranger. To help Ryan write poems he can reasonably expect others to respond to over time, I must read them as one who knows nothing but what one can reasonably expect a reader to know. I imagine not only that I do not know Ryan, not only that I am not myself, but that I am someone who possesses only the knowledge and experience that Ryan as a poet expects his readers to possess. If I do not read his poems in this way, then I see more, of course, but I also see less. Only by limiting my vision can I truly experience Ryan’s poems as poems. In “Face It,” he writes:

A silence, bodied like wing-beaten air
Perturbs your face sometimes when parties end
And, half-drunk, you stand looking at some star
That flickers like a coin wished down a well,
Or when you hear a voice behind you whisper
Your name, and turn around, and no one’s there.
You’re in it then, once more, the stranger’s house
Perched in the mountain woods, the rot-sweet smell…

If I read this poem as myself, then I remember the weekend Ryan went up to a favourite professor’s luxurious mountain house in West Virginia and emailed me the first draft of “Face It” shortly after his return. I remember the conversation we had, in which he spoke at length about the beauty of the place and the comfort of the natural silence he encountered there. I remember all the trips I’ve taken with him to the north Georgia mountains and his eagerness always to stay a little longer, in quiet and solitude. So when I read, in “Face It,” the lines about silence, about finding oneself back in the mountain house, I am so much reminded of Ryan’s love of such things that I start to see the poem as a wistful nature piece along the lines of Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey.” But when I strip away my own muddling personal experience of the poet, I see the poem more closely resembles Anthony Hecht’s “A Hill,” a haunting account of existential isolation revealed starkly in the middle of a crowd. In order to fulfill my role as Ryan’s reader, I must try to obliterate the qualities that distinguish me from someone else. Temporarily, I have to join the mass of all prospective readers. For years I was the reader of Ryan’s poetry. Now I am one of many. I am no more distant from his work now than I ever was, but the rest of the world is suddenly much closer.

In one of the most memorable passages in On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche articulates almost casually the contradiction at the core of an artist’s life:

A Homer would not have created an Achilles nor a Goethe a Faust if Homer had been an Achilles or Goethe a Faust. Whoever is completely and wholly an artist is to all eternity separated from the “real,” the actual; on the other hand, one can understand how he may sometimes weary to the point of desperation of the eternal “unreality” and falsity of his innermost existence—and that then he may well attempt what is most forbidden him, to lay hold of actuality, for once actually to be. With what success? That is easy to guess.

For Ryan and me, being itself—when it comes to our friendship—subsists on the thin soup of artistic works-in-progress. The first real conversation we ever had—when he picked me up in his truck and drove me out to his dip- and beer-stocked apartment—turned largely on the subject of poetry. The premise of it, however, the common experience we each confessed at the beginning of the night, was exactly the condition Nietzsche describes, of an “‘unreality’ and falsity of his innermost existence.” Like Tom Stoppard’s actors, Ryan and I have always been the opposite of people. And, as a result, our friendship—loving, true, and faithful though it may be—is a friendship populated by pretenders, what the Greeks called play-actors, or υποκριτές—in modern English, hypocrites.

With luck, I will continue to be Ryan’s reader for a long time yet, and he mine. Our friendship—like our conversation—will carry on, forever revising itself. But with the publication of The Stranger World, the first chapter of that conversation has become public property. Anyone can read it now. Anyone who reads it now is on the hook. Even you, hypocrite reader, doppelgänger, brother.

Matthew Buckley Smith
Matthew Buckley Smith is the author of Dirge for an Imaginary World (Able Muse 2012). He lives in North Carolina with his wife and daughters.