Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Maximal Minimalist

Recently I went to some galleries with a young painter. The galleries didn't do much for me - how often they don't - but the afternoon yielded me some framed New Yorker covers I bought on the street. And it yielded me something he said: "Everyone's a minimalist or a maximalist."

One of the hardest things when you're young is knowing what you like. I think the young are often pretentious out of something of a good impulse: they don't know what they like so they try to like everything, or at least all the right things. We blame universities and over-intellectualizing for taking us away from what we like, from that natural state of love we once had for reading, or looking, or listening, or what have you. And maybe it's true for some. But for me, at 15, at 20, and sometimes even at 25, the question "Do you like it?" instilled terror. It wasn't that I didn't like things, it was just that there seemed to be no pattern, no way to describe it.

Like the best friends or the best partners, the best teachers hold up a mirror. I remember Anna Deveare Smith giving a talk at NYU, and she said, the best thing a teacher did for me was tell me I was funny. One of the most romantic pieces of writing I know is "He and I" by Natalia Ginzburg, which begins "He always feels hot, I always feel cold."

So, if ten or fifteen years ago, I'd been at a gallery and some had asked, are you a minimalist or a maximalist, I would have gone into a panic. Instead, now, when he said it I said "ah, so that's what Synecdoche, NY was really about! Catherine Keener and Philip Seymour Hoffman are doomed from the start because she's a minimalist and he's a maximalist."

This week, Poet Laureate Kay Ryan spoke at my school. She was a great reader and performer, and the students loved the way she slowed down her readings of her tight little puzzle poems. At one point she talked about how things like taste are pretty set early on, and read "After Zeno," which she wrote when she was 19 following her father's death, years before she started publishing, and which starts:

When he was
I was.
But I still am
and he is still.

Immediately I thought of Lydia Davis, who does something similar in "Grammar Questions," also about a father: "Now, during the time he is dying, can I say, "this is where he lives"?

So there you would seem to have it: two versions of the minimalist, in poetry and in sort-of prose, which nevertheless aspires to the condition etc. It is perhaps not accidental that in slogging through Infinite Jest (how the maximalists must announce themselves in their titles, as if we couldn't tell!) I keep thinking, look at all the hidden gems - you could have hundreds of beautiful poems here, if you pulled them out, if only they were fifty words on a page, where people could see them!

But I also think of this, another poet mourning a parent : "towards education marriage nervous breakdown, operation, teaching school and learning to be mad, in a dream - what is this life?" And later, this - "The key is in the window, the key is in the sunlight at the window - I have the key - Get married Allen don't take drugs - the key is in the bars, in the sunlight in the window. Love, your mother' which is Naomi - "

Which takes me back again to the same question: why not say what happened, why not say her words? What will it be: to say nothing (and everything) of a life, or to say everything (and nothing)?

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