On my last day in Sewanee, I was exhausted. No amount of headache and water would make my head stop aching. My body could not take any more sleep debt and caffeine and I was coming close to that place where it’s no longer possible to feel positive emotions. But there was a dance that night, and I still really wanted to go out! I really liked a lot of people that I’d met at Sewanee, and it would be great to have one last night with them.
But on the other hand, I was flying out in the morning, and one more night was sure to make me feel even more miserable. So I had a number of conflicting impulses.
That was my mood when I went to the last reading of the conference. Mark Strand was reading from his new collection of prose poems: Almost Invisible. I’d already heard him read these poems at Hopkins. And prior to that I’d read the collection myself, so I was very familiar with the material. However, there was something about this particular reading that I found very affecting.
Strand has a great delivery. He’s affable and has a dry wit, but his whispery soft voice keeps the proceedings on an elevated footing. But it was more than that.
During the reading, I kept thinking, “Here’s a man who’s fairly handsome (he bears an uncanny resemblance to Clint Eastwood), who doesn’t seem to have many material worries, who’s lived a long and good life and has fallen in love several times and has many friends and and and even more than that, he’s also reached the pinnacle of his profession. In his 79 years, he’s garnered every honor that a poet can get, he’s won the Pullitzer Prize and the MacArthur Fellowship and been Poet Laureate. He’s about as well-respected as a living poet can be. And he’s reading from what might be his last book of poems in front of an audience that really loves and respects him and includes many of his actual real-life friends, and he’s crushing it: the audience is so into this reading, they’re laughing, they’re loving it….and…and…none of it matter at all. The poems probably won’t endure. And even if they do, the man won’t. Eventually, he’ll die. And his ability to enjoy all these good things will be gone. Which doesn’t make this moment terrible, but…there’s an element of eternity to this moment that is false. It’s going to fade away, regardless of what we do.”
And that’s when I decided that I wasn’t going to go out; I was going to go back to my room and sleep.
Because there’s a way in which this need to go out and this need to avoid missing out is connected to the fear of death. And not in any perverse, unconscious way, but just as a practical matter. Everything ends. You feel connected to people and then they go away and the connection either mutates or it breaks. I’ll probably meet most of those people again, but our bond will never be quite the same as it was at Sewanee.
And when you go out and party and stay up long past the point where it’s any fun, it’s a way of staving off the ending and trying to convince yourself that there is an eternal element to your connection with these people. But that is an effort that’s doomed to failure. So you might as well sleep.