Writing Lessons

Life Is Too Short

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By Sarah Manguso

February 2, 2015


 

I was the only first-year student in Dean Young’s inaugural poetry workshop at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and I was also the least practiced and the worst-read, having come to Iowa straight from a series of failures—beginning with flunking out of pre-med chemistry and ending with a halfhearted attempt to apply to doctoral programs in classical philology. So to distinguish myself on the first day of class, I wrote a poem about something in Wittgenstein I hadn’t read. I thought it would be easier to pose as an intellectual than as a decent poet.

I read my poem aloud, and Dean listened as I intoned what I hoped sounded like an implicit apology for the poem that wasn’t a poem.

He pretended not to understand. He was visiting just for the semester and, to deflect this very sort of bullshittery, had been posing as something less than an intellectual. I forgave him. And I forgave him for not really listening to my poem.

“The thing is, Sarah,” he quietly said, “I only have about 40 more years to live.”

I can’t say that that Wittgenstein nonsense was my final pretentious inanity, but Dean’s reminder improved my average. Why did it work? It worked because he was kind.


Sarah Manguso is the author of several books, including Ongoingness, The Guardians, and The Two Kinds of Decay. A recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Rome Prize, she lives in Los Angeles.


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