Saturday, May 29, 2010

Philip Lopate on Upper East Side

Even close readers of this blog may not be aware that I am an avid, admiring reader of the writings of Phillip Lopate - particularly his personal essays. Mr. Lopate is a New York writer of the first order. He grew up in various parts of Brooklyn, enjoyed four life-changing years at Columbia University in the early sixties, and was already a prolific writer of prose and poetry by the time he graduated from Columbia in 1964. For many years he worked in the public schools as a writer for the Teachers and Writers Collaborative, and from this experience emerged one of the best books about education written in the last century - "Being with Children." He also wrote long separately published essays about education that recounted producing Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" with 5th and 6th graders and his experiences with a schoolteacher who eventually committed suicide.

I discovered him through his education writings, but then I started buying his many collections of personal essays, all witty, engaging and beautifully and transparently written. He writes in the tradition of writers like George Orwell and Somerset Maugham (see a very good essay about Maugham in a recent issue of the New Yorker), who believe that clarity and liveliness come first. Lopate himself most admires Montaigne and William Hazlitt, but a quick glance at their work will affirm that they are all part of this same writing tradition that foregrounds precision and finding just the right nouns and verbs to express oneself.

In any case, there I was the other night at the Upper East Side Barnes and Noble wanting there to be hundreds of people turning out to hear this wonderful writer speak. Disappointingly, only about 40 showed up to hear him read from his recent book about Susan Sontag that is part of Princeton's Writers on Writers series, and a new collection of his poetry, primarily from the 1970s, which are the years when he was writing a lot of poetry. The poetry is pretty good, but the best part of the new poetry book is almost certainly the introductory essay in which Lopate recalls his time hobnobbing with the New York poets of the 1960s. He read beautifully, of course, and the passages he chose were characteristically witty and lucid. When he asked for questions, however, the audience response was tepid and lackluster. Again, I was so disappointed. I wanted them to love Mr. Lopate and to shower acclaim on him. At the end of the reading, only about four people asked him to sign books. An outrage. I NEVER stand in line to have books signed, but this time I made an exception and told him how much I admired his work. He thanked me with a warm smile and that was all. Strangely, I identify with him so closely that the whole experience left me unsettled. Phillip Lopate should be regarded as one of the world's great writers, but instead he is, using his own characterization, a "mid-list" writer who is known by other writers and a few others who appreciate good writing but whose name doesn't mean much to the general public. Somehow, I take that personally, and will keep going to his readings until someone, other than myself, stands up and declares, "You are one of our greatest contemporary writers. Thank you for all the pleasure and enlightenment you have provided me through your writing."

No comments:

Post a Comment