John L. Ashbery ’49, Jamaica Kincaid and Salman Rushdie, three of the greatest writers of our time, shared the stage last Friday in a reading organized by The Harvard Advocate, with the support of their trustees, to raise funds for the magazine. These writers owe their prominence to their unique visions of the world, but, as artists, have invariably wrestled with common themes and challenges.
In his remarks, James R. Atlas ’71, the President of the Harvard Advocate Board of Trustees and a former editor of The New York Times Magazine, singled out Rushdie and Kincaid as having to confront their status as outsiders of society peering in, if only to capture and expose this world in their work. But Ashbery, too, deals with themes of estrangement—less from society than from himself—by portraying consciousness as fractured by disparate and contrary forces. From this common world of outsiders and homelessness, journeying and eventual homecoming, the great art of these writers emerges—often in ways that belie the intricate and perilous paths they have felt compelled to follow.
Reading in the Norton Lecture Hall of Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum marked a triumphal homecoming for John Ashbery. A contributor and member of the executive board of The Harvard Advocate, Ashbery composed one of his best-known poems, “Some Trees,” while still an undergraduate. Since his graduation and his selection as Class Poet, Ashbery has won nearly every prestigious poetry award in the nation, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry for his 1975 volume Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. But accolades aside, Ashbery remains one of the most important poets today for his renovation of poetic forms, constant self-examination and personal and artistic renewal. As he wrote in “Houseboat Days,” “To praise this, blame that, / Leads one subtly away from the beginning, where / We must stay, in motion.”
Ashbery read from some recent prose-poems and older classics, including his self-declared “one-size-fits-all confessional poem,” “Soonest Mended.” In the poem, Ashbery meditates on “starting out” and “coming back” and how the two are intertwined. But this inevitable cycle is not so much an exercise in futility as it is a constant return to a place of self-searching and inspiration. In “The Painter,” we again see Ashbery’s paradigmatic enterprise. The painter returns again and again to the sea for inspiration, emphasizing the changeableness of the sea as a metaphor for his art: “My soul, when I paint this next portrait / Let it be you who wrecks the canvas.” But in the end it is the process of “coming back” to the original germ of inspiration, of perpetual growth and regeneration, that is Ashbery’s true artistic journey.
Jamaica Kincaid arrived in America when she was only 17, leaving behind her native country of Antigua, her family and her christened name, Elaine Potter Richardson. Kincaid’s heritage and poetic style, coupled with the heavily autobiographical content of her work, have established her greatness in contemporary writing. She preserves the outsider’s perspective on her homeland of Antigua and the equally foreign landscape of America, at times juxtaposing both to catch a glimpse of a universal human nature.
Kincaid read from her soon-to-be-published tale of Mr. Potter, a chauffeur in “a small island in the Caribbean.” Mr. Potter, nearing his death, rediscovers the “smooth everydayness” of life, of the traveling and travailing he has endured in the driver’s seat of his car. Here the prose is free-flowing, movingly lyrical; Kincaid’s rich voice, tinted with her Antiguan accent, carried the audience along with the words. But the story shifts from a third-person narrative of Mr. Potter to the “I” of one of his daughters, who shares with her family members only the shape of her nose. This “I” peers over Mr. Potter’s now dead body in search of a link or understanding to her own past.
Such is the search that informs much of Kincaid’s writing—to find a commonality shared between two apparent strangers or worlds. And in revisiting her family, her homeland and even the name she discarded in search of another perspective, Kincaid comes to understand her own place within the world she left.
“These are uncompromising times,” the narrator declares in Salman Rushdie’s reading of “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers.” Uncompromising in its obsession with the free-market sale of humanity and our acceptance of intolerance and division in exchange for universalizing cash, the futurist society Rushdie portrays nonetheless laments “the moral decay of our post-millennial culture.” In place of the fictions, strange fantasies and alien desires that permeate their lives, Rushdie’s characters search for “home” as a tangible reminder of a former reality.
Rushdie’s own notion of home has been challenged by his vocation as an artist and truth-seeker. For much of the 90s, Rushdie was refused entrance into his native India; the country banned his novel The Satanic Verses in 1988, followed by Sri Lanka and Pakistan, for its alleged insult against Muslims. A year later, Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa for Rushdie’s head. And though he was later issued a visa to return to India nearly a decade after his exile, Rushdie had already established a reputation as a national and literary outsider, living in hiding and tip-toeing around a troubled society he refused to accept without first subjecting it to his trademark critical eye.
How can one return to the normalcy of home in such a perverse and threatening world? Rushdie’s ironic response: Dorothy’s (of The Wizard of Oz fame) ruby slippers. “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers” is a nightmarishly portentous satire that reflects Rushdie’s vision of the current state of the West. In The Grand Saleroom of the Auctioneers, the narrator finds himself amid the religious fundamentalists, orphans, untouchables and even imaginary beings like E.T., who have come to bid for the slippers as an “affirmation of a lost state of normalcy in which we have ceased to believe.” The narrator too places a bid so that he might offer the slippers to his estranged lover, Gale. Gale, the narrator confesses, used to cry out during love-making, “Home, boy! Home, baby, yes—you’ve come home!” If the narrator could only offer Gale the ruby slippers, maybe then she might return to him. “Perhaps,” the narrator considers, “I might even click the heels together three times, and win back her heart by murmuring, in soft reminder of our wasted love, There’s no place like home.”
The Happy Artist
In the end, however, if the world created in the works of these three looming figures consists of estrangement, interminable searching and an everlasting desire to return home and understand one’s self and one’s society, how can the outsider—forced to confront these problems at every turn—be happy? In response to this question, Ashbery mused, “I don’t know yet.” Kincaid asked, “Is it possible to be happy and anything else?” And Rushdie, peering down his glasses, in a most somber, concentrated tone replied: “I am extremely happy.”