Photo by Matthew Barlow
I am not a genius. How do I know that?
Most days I can hit “Genius” level on the Times’
“Spelling Bee” game, but that’s just a game,
and I’ve never won a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship,
the prize that officially makes you a genius.
I’ve known a few MacArthur geniuses over the years.
One was my thesis advisor for the MFA;
the other week I found an old notebook
where I’d written how he told me that maybe
I should consider doing something other than poetry.
He might have been right. He told great dirty jokes.
Another was a writer I corresponded with
and visited occasionally for maybe a dozen years;
he owned more books than I’d ever seen
in a private home. He dedicated one of his books
to a recently deceased cat, including the animal’s
name and birth and death dates (he was thirteen)
but no indication “H——” was a cat.
I was a little freaked out, since this writer’s
work was shot through with NAMBLA-style
relationships: was that dedicatee a boy?
We had dinner with another MacArthur genius
in her Bed-Stuy condo the other week,
where the prize certificate in its faux-leather
binder was balanced on a stack of mail
on the kitchen counter. There were boxes
and boxes of her books everywhere,
translated into languages none of us could even
recognize. She writes beautiful novels, tweets
about her cat. I was in a Persian restaurant
in Kentucky with another MacArthur genius
once: maybe the biggest, sweetest, most genial
poet I’ve ever met. I was eating at a table
with old friends; he was in the “banquet
room” at the head of a large table
of young people, and service was slow,
so I brought him over a plate of roasted
vegetables no one at our table remembered
ordering. He seemed glad to have something
to eat. I’m not a genius, but I too love
cats, and I’m happy to be eating.
I’ve won two prizes in my lifetime.
One was for an undergraduate essay,
the other was the annual “Philosophy Prize”
given to the best graduating major
at my school. I feel kind of bad about that one.
There were only three majors that year: one of them
went back to New Jersey to work in the family nursery;
I was headed for a PhD in literature; and the the last guy
was off to really study philosophy somewhere—he should
have gotten that prize book, a festschrift
for H. P. Grice. I’ve never appeared in the Best
American Poetry, but I once sat next to
the series editor at an Indian restaurant
in Ithaca. I’d had too much to drink,
and I’d just read a ridiculous article he’d published
in Newsweek attacking “theory.” I said stuff
I’m not proud of. I had dinner with him again
maybe twenty years later, and he had no memory
of the event, so I didn’t remind him of particulars.
All of this has nothing to do with poetry.
The publisher Flood Editions sends out beautiful
postcards with portraits—drawings, photos—
of the poets they publish. Their card for Jay Wright
is simply a photograph of his double bass,
posed outside on a paved patio.
It’s perfect. I’ve never heard Wright play,
though I occasionally search YouTube
for videos. The last time I heard him read
his poetry was in a classroom at the local
state university. Most of the scattering of people
there were undergraduates, surreptitiously
or openly looking at their phones. It might have been
the finest reading I’ve ever heard—long,
tender, musical, passionate. Jay Wright
is a genius, and I don’t need the MacArthur
Foundation to tell me so (though they did, back in 1986).
I don’t think he needs my endorsement, either.
I just hit “Genius” level on the “Spelling Bee”
this morning: the word that put me over the top
was “doorway,” but the word I was happiest
to find was “dooryard,” which of course I know
from Walt Whitman—who was a genius.
I like some games, but I am not a genius.
I don’t spend nearly enough time
with my double bass. But I love my cats,
and I love eating, and I’m very fond of words.