“What kind of person spends fifty years writing a poem about his own life?” The student’s question crackles through my laptop speaker. I watch his classmates fidget in pixelated fits and starts on my screen. A virtual hand goes up.
“A self-centered person.” Pause. “I think, in general, that Wordsworth was really self-centered.”
For a generation notorious for spending so much time writing about themselves on social media, my students tend to be pretty quick on the trigger when it comes to accusations of self-centeredness. Chronicling, kvetching, or confiding on social media is one thing—but this poet had the audacity to make his memories and musings into art. Who does he think he is?!
My student’s reaction to Wordsworth rankled. In part because I myself finally ditched the professional prose of my academic training in favor of the more intimate writing I’ve been doing prolifically, if privately, for years. But whether he was aware of it or not, my student was echoing critiques of the egotism of the personal essay issued across decades, if not centuries, with memorable touchstones including Virginia Woolf’s “The Decay of Essay Writing” (1905), James Wolcott’s “Me, Myself, and I” (Vanity Fair, 1997), and Jia Tolentino’s “The Personal-Essay Boom Is Over” (The New Yorker, 2017).
Wordsworth wasn’t unaware of this charge. When he began writing an epic poem about his life in 1799, a poem he had labor over until his death in 1850, Wordsworth knew it was “a thing unprecedented in literary history that a man should talk so much about himself.” And yet, as he put it in the first book of what came to be known as The Prelude, after batting about other options—taking up a story from Norse mythology, maybe, or the conquest of the Americas, or some vaunted Scottish hero—
Sometimes it suits me better to shape out
Some tale from my own heart, more near akin
To my own passions and habitual thoughts,
But if it is a bad thing that the poem is all about him, then why is it when I read it, I feel so exhilarated, so moved; how is it that this poet, born two and a half centuries ago, writing a tale from his own heart, makes me cherish and appreciate my life all the more? Maybe, paradoxically, self-writing turns out not to be writing about one’s self, after all. This experience, not unique to me, suggests that the real subject might be something else entirely.
Saying What Was Understood
It was 1798 when Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge published Lyrical Ballads, a book that altered literary history by introducing strangely ordinary poems to the reading public. These were not the witty, decorum-minding verses of the eighteenth century, intended to convey conventional wisdom—“what oft was thought but ne’er so well express’d,” in the words of Alexander Pope. No, Wordsworth’s aim—distinct, admittedly, from that of his fancy-besotted co-author Coleridge’s—was to upend convention entirely by embracing a powerful subjectivity that could make the ordinary remarkable,
to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible, in a selection of language really used by men; and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way. . .
In every writing course I have taken, my classmates fret over subject matter. “I have one piece in print,” I remember someone saying by way of introduction. “It was about a time a lion bit me in the butt. So of course it got accepted.” What to do when we have relayed all our remarkable stories, our epiphanies and near-death experiences, our adventures and heartbreaks and transformations?
This worry, I suspect, stems from an understanding of self-writing that places subject matter—content—first instead of second, so that writing becomes saying what happened, instead of what was understood. Take biography, a genre I simply cannot cotton to, in spite of a friend’s reproach that if one dislikes biography, she can’t very well call herself a humanist. But this is the trouble: Biographies, often if not always written about people whose actions in the world have brought them some measure of fame, usually focus on events. They derive their significance from the external, starting there. The essays and memoirs I like best, in contrast, are focused on ways of perceiving. This isn’t a question of content versus form, or not exactly; it’s more like content versus thought, or even action v. thought. Where ought one to begin?
Wordsworth had something to say about this. Of how his poems differed from the poems of the day, he wrote that the crucial distinction was that in his writing, “the feeling therein developed gives importance to the action and situation, and not the action and situation to the feeling.” In other words, it doesn’t matter so much that an event be important in and of itself, as if such a thing were possible, but that the feeling the words create—the mood, the tone, the way of beholding—helps the reader see why the “action and situation” matter. But how do we get to the place where we recognize that feeling, or can convey it? How to find the right “colouring of imagination”?
I try, with my own memories, to see how it might work.
White paint, flaking. Mica sparkling near the driveway. Multiple gardens, in loving disarray, flanking the house on every side and retreating behind it, into infinity—or so it seemed to me as a child. Nothing was level; it was as if the house and the land existed on tiers, or hills, not by design, but through fanciful expansion. I remember dancing with my cousin Ginny in the sunken grove separated from the house by a stand of bamboo, our private space. There was a screened in porch where we’d sit and read old issues of Reader’s Digest or Games magazine. One time, we slept in the vegetable patch and awoke halfway through the night, scared by animal sounds and soaked with dew. A creek ran through the neighborhood, not far from the house, and I’d go there with my cousins and—do what? I can’t recall. But it all seems magical.
When I recollect my grandmother’s house, I cannot picture its lineaments with any precision, but I can summon the way it made me feel: as if I was perched on the edge of enchantment. North Carolina in the summer, humid and lush, was “appareled in celestial light,” to borrow a phrase. I bet you know from whom.
My students objected to Wordsworth for different reasons. That he’s too wordy. That he stole his sister’s ideas. That he treats rural people as object lessons. Or, as one student put it, that he “erases human beings from the scene to wax nostalgic about a landscape!”
But not all of them found Wordsworth insufferable. The same day Jack charged him with self-centeredness, Rebekah offered this: “Wordsworth has a charge for us.” He challenges us to “build up greatest things / From least suggestions,” to be “ever on the watch, / Willing to work and to be wrought upon.” It is a state to aspire to. But how?
“All good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” Wordsworth answers. He makes it sound as though to write a poem like The Prelude, 8482 lines of blank verse in the 1805 version, all one need do is emote. But around that famous declaration lurk more subtle instructions, clues as to how spontaneous feelings might be converted to words that move others. First, Wordsworth acknowledges that it takes a certain kind of person to write “[p]oems to which any value can be attached”: someone who, “possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply.” So it isn’t just sensitivity that’s required, but thought, the ability to connect feelings to subjects that matter to someone else. If one does this enough, deliberately and repeatedly, the practice will result in new “habits of mind.” And with those habits of mind in place, one learns to “describe objects, and utter sentiments, of such a nature and in such connection with each other, that the understanding of the being to whom we address ourselves, if he be in a healthful state of association, must necessarily be in some degree enlightened, and his affections ameliorated.” Habits of feeling and thinking can transform the raw material of a person’s life into poetry that enlightens and comforts the receptive reader. And by poetry, I don’t mean that it has to rhyme. I mean that it has to see.
One thing that has always bothered me about Wordsworth, though, is his conviction that if you want to “see into the life of things,” it certainly helps to grow up in the country. Though well aware that it could have been otherwise, in his poetry he is quite self-satisfied about having had “a real solid world / Of images about [him]” so that he “did not pine / As one in cities bred might do.” It was rambles through river valleys and over hillsides in the Lake District as a child, treks through the Wye River Valley and the Alps as a young adult, his epiphanic ascent of Mt. Snowdon, the highest peak in Wales, all of it, that cultivated his mind and formed his habits of perception. Woe betide you if you, like Coleridge (in his own words), were “reared / In the great city, pent ‘mid cloisters dim, / And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.” Like I was.
There’s an important caveat to Wordsworth’s declaration that poetry is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”: When he returns to that phrase a second time in his preface to Lyrical Ballads, a colon attaches it to this next one: “it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.” When I first read those words, my journal-writing self knew exactly what he meant:
We moved every three years or so when I was a child, and we always lived in cities: Mexico City, Thessaloniki, Washington, Lima, San José. There’s a spot I remember, faintly, though I have no independent confirmation that it ever existed. It is a flight of stairs. I found it when I was nine, maybe ten, biking around our gated neighborhood in Lima. The stairs connected two roads along the bank of a hill. I never saw anyone there, but evidence suggested that people used the space to air their dogs. Vegetation crowding in on either side gave the place the feel of a secret garden, rare in dusty Lima. I would bike there, take out a notebook, and write, assaulted by the smell of feces, sheltered by the green. Putting words on the page, whether a journal entry or an attempt at poetry, became a way of recreating the world in retrospect. This habit continued for years. In the ninth grade, when I went to the beach with friends during Holy Week, I kept missing the action because I was running off to my room to record the day’s events.
Finding Your Own Mt. Snowdon
We can’t all climb mountains in Wales, one student concedes, but we can look at our own world the way Wordsworth looked at his—or try to, at any rate. The students share their experiences of the sublime: camping in the mountains, amid the vastness of the dark and the strange stirrings of unseen animals; getting caught in a storm, the rain falling sideways in gusty sheets, bending the palm trees like rubber bands; scuba diving, the surface of the ocean spreading uninterrupted in every direction, vague stirrings underneath. They haven’t been to Wales. But they’ve been there, been somewhere, or done something, that took them out of themselves, only to bring them closer in. It is only from the raw materials of our own lives, whatever they are, that we can create who we are, and who we want to be.
I am walking along the cobblestone streets of Coyoacán with my sister. This is Frida Kahlo’s neighborhood, and it’s May, and we are roaming the uneven sidewalks, buckled by the roots of jacarandas and palms, looking for a place for her to live. The bougainvillea tumbling over the walls of some house or restaurant reminds me of our childhood in Latin America, and a thought occurs to me.
“People talk about nostalgia as though it’s a longing to return to the past.” I bend down to pick up one of the papery purple blossoms. “But that’s not it. It’s not like I want to be back in the 80s; it’s not that things were better then. It’s that . . .” this isn’t easy to express, “that time matters, those memories matter, because they’re mine. . .”
Wordsworth had the Lake District. It was a lot to work with. I have my memories, scattered across geography and time, spooled in me in such a way that the look of a flower, the thrill of an urban staircase, or the sparkle of mica can unfurl them—and then I can piece them back together, differently, with language. I re-collect them in order to see, and feel, anew.
Seeing Through Another’s Eyes
Writing with material from my own life has sustained me. So has reading about other lives. But what are we to make of my student’s resistance, and of the distaste, expressed more widely, for the kind of writing that looks inward before looking out?
Though the recoiling is overdetermined, I suspect part of it comes from this: We may be losing our willingness to submit. Surrender can be a fruitful way to read. But we are steeled against surrender these days, primed instead for critique. “Disrupting” texts by pointing out their investment in systems of oppression is in vogue; giving ourselves over to them is not. Instead of reading with a “Willing[ness] to work and to be wrought upon,” as Wordsworth would have it, we read, as often as not, to judge and to master, to put the text and its author in their place.
There are legitimate objections to be made about Wordsworth, as many of my students were eager to point out. But is it possible that the charge of self-centeredness, so apparently damning, is a powerful assertion of indifference? Is it, in other words, a way of saying, “I don’t want to read about you, and I shouldn’t have to”—especially when the person “centering himself” is a dead white guy who happens to be canonical?
Dead white men are not the only writers charged with egotism. Nor is self-writing the only genre. But the self-writer is exposed in a way other writers aren’t—though the distinction is academic, if you ask me. That writing can ever be divorced from the self is an illusion. Write in the third person all you want, create a character, twist yourself up in the passive voice, say “it will be argued,” “it will be explored,” “it will be conveyed,” and still, “it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking,” as Thoreau said.
When I give myself over to the self-writers I love most, I am transformed. I read Wordsworth and feel the many layers of memory operating in my present, slipping up against each other to illuminate the now. I read Mary Karr, and idioms sizzle on my tongue; I’ve become a bit less earnest, retrained by her gimlet eye and ear. I read Ta-Nehisi Coates, and I’m galvanized by the power of language to name what has gone unheeded, to call out, to force a wedge in discourse and open it up. Zadie Smith’s unsparing gaze emboldens me to be as voracious with my own observations, as curious about the relation between thought and the world, as she. I could go on. Having immersed myself in the sensibility of another—particular, yet so germane—I turn back to my own life to find that things have shifted. I am not as I was before. I am not who I was before.
Perhaps that sounds too self-serving, as though reading about others is valuable only because of what it does for you. Let me try again: Seeing through another’s eyes teaches, through sustained immersion, that there are other eyes to see through, other subjectivities, as many ways of seeing a blackbird as there are people to see it. This is true of fiction as well. Yet there is something about what we learn from the journey inward that is valuable in a way that’s distinct from how it works with purely imaginative prose. As Emerson wrote in his famous address to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard in 1837, the American scholar “learns that in going down into the secrets of his own mind, he has descended into the secrets of all minds.” This is an assertion readers in our age might resist, gesturing as it does toward a universal, albeit one we arrive at by way of the particular. I’ve been trying to defend it. Wordsworth might have, too.
Wordsworth and Coleridge had a falling out, in part over the difference in their poetic visions. Coleridge, enamored of the strange and outré, came to find Wordsworth too pedestrian and, yes, too self-important. But for Wordsworth, imagination was more than a power that can conjure something that isn’t there, as with a ghost story or a fantasy; it was a “glorious faculty” that recreates the world,
—a world, too, that was fit
To be transmitted, and made visible
To other eyes, as having for its base
That whence our dignity originates,
That which both gives it being, and maintains
A balance, an ennobling interchange
Of action from within and from without:
The excellence, pure spirit, and best power,
Both of the object seen, and eye that sees.
We wander through our lives, confined by five senses and a contingent perch on the world, but we have it in us to bear witness, to make what we see visible to “other eyes.” Reading a dispatch from another self with care and attention, we honor that other; we honor the very fact of otherness. And when we stitch that otherness into the unique fabric of memory and sound and words that is our life, we are recharged—enriched by the encounter and gifted with a renewed sense of life’s astounding complexity, its value, and its worth. The process is perpetual. We are creatures whose relations to others are not just social, in the way of mutual dependence and reciprocity, but intellectual and imaginative as well.
Wordsworth helps me understand the paradox at the heart of self-writing: to see the practice as an offering, one self given to another as nourishment, to be taken in, assimilated, and turned into something—even someone—different.