“I’ll read more when I’m dead,” a student joked last week.
He honestly has little time to read, between the work he must generate for MFA classes at the end of the semester, and the work he must do to generate income: kid needs to eat, pay rent, and wear shoes. And it’s not fair to pick on this guy; he’s clearly a serious reader. But he’s young, and he’s got a lot more time to traverse than I do before he shuffles off this mortal coil, and I find that as much as I want to tell students like him to write, write, write, I’m even more eager that they read.
I’ve been reading for nearly half a century, and every single day I hear about, or am reminded of, an author whose work I’ve not yet discovered for myself. Recently, I published an essay that touched on the early love letters of the novelist Shirley Jackson and her husband, the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman. In it, I quoted a letter from Hyman, in which he called Jackson his “cynara.” I’d diligently looked this word up, and knew it was a form of prickly thistle, like an artichoke. It seemed a very apt description of Jackson. But after the article was published, I received several emails from writers — a poet and literary critic, a novelist, a fellow teacher — tracing Hyman’s use of that word to a late 19th century poem of Ernest Dowson’s that has the marvelous repeated line, “I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.” Later, of course, Cole Porter drew on this line as well, with “I’m always true to you, darling, in my fashion, always true to you, darling, in my way.” And oddly, Margaret Mitchell took the name of her novel from this love poem as well: “I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind.” I’d never heard of Dowson, but his work is wonderful, as is his life story: he died in 1900, at the age of 32, obscure and impoverished, says his friend Arthur Symons, “worn out by what was never really life to him, leaving a little verse which has the pathos of things too young and too frail ever to grow old.”
And if the trail from Hyman’s love letters to Dowson were not enough, a little research into the title of the poem “Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae” makes matters even more interesting. Because Dowson himself took that phrase from Horace’s Odes. It’s from the first Ode in Book Four, a plea to Venus to stop taunting an older man with her charms, even as the man cannot stop himself from yearning for her, at least in his dreams. The title translates as “I’m not the man I was in good Cinara’s reign.”
So there you have it. One little nickname that a long-dead literary critic gave to his long-dead novelist wife, and it has opened up a stream of literary connections, added much to my understanding of the way Hyman’s mind worked and the precise nature of his love for his soon-to-be wife.
Yes, read what’s new and lauded right now. Just read. Make it a point to read the dusty stuff as well, to continue to add to the foundations of your writing brain. Read every day. It’s maybe the single most important part of your job. Maybe you, too, will be stunned and thrilled to be led to a piece of literary history in the future, but maybe you’ll be even luckier, and stumble across it on your own.