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By Michael Milburn


The Montréal Review, May 2011


Self-portrait of Edward Hopper painted between 1925-1930


There's at least one at every party, in every classroom, commanding attention, enlivening conversation. And invariably, off to the side or in the back row, there's another watching and listening, as withdrawn as the first is outgoing. Of the two we might say that the former has personality and the latter doesn't, or doesn't show it to the world. Of course, everyone has personality, even if it's undetectable, just as everyone has muscles even if they're obscured by flesh. But if someone with a sparkling personality rarely exhibits it, do we still say that he or she has personality, or just a personality, a reserved one, implying something-personality?-held in reserve?

In my case, the contrast between my outward quietness and the riot of activity in my head suggests an extrovert clamoring to get out only to be stifled by shyness. I grew up associating taciturnity with dullness, loquacity with charisma. Not that every windbag qualifies as personable-the only monologists I've been able to bear were a few college professors fascinating enough that I didn't mind the talk flowing only one way. A teacher myself, I can't imagine working like that-it would exhaust me to deliver a speech every class. Besides, everything I've learned from my work has come from interacting with my students. A classroom is an ideal place to study personalities, particularly in a middle school like mine where the voluble kids barely let me say good morning before launching theirs to the fore.

Their opposites, the watchers and listeners, remind me of an obsolete definition of personality-"the quality or fact of being a person as distinct from a thing or animal." When students sit unspeaking through my classes, it's their "thinginess" that frustrates me, their contentment with remaining passive while their classmates and I do all the work of sustaining discussion. At these times I forget that I was a silent student myself, and that no matter how oppositional it might look to a teacher desperate for class participation, "thinginess" is no evidence of vacuity-in many cases it conceals qualities as compelling as those of a dinner guest who keeps the table riveted.

As a teacher, I have found that the best way to penetrate this kind of reserve is through writing. I've uncovered cauldrons of passion beneath the most impassive façades simply by reading student compositions. I too find it easier to reveal myself in print than in person. A friend once confessed that she knew me mainly through my poetry, not our frequent conversations. That made sense to me even as I regretted it. Still, I know what the playwright Alan Bennett means when he says that "authors resent the knowledge of themselves they have volunteered to their readers." When my poems are published or I prepare to read them in public, I'm suddenly appalled that their personal information will be received as such. I assume that all autobiographical writers see their lives as grist for art, not confession, and have no interest in being read as diarists.

"Writing is not decanting of personality," Louise Glück says, dismissing as "fantasy" the notion that a writer is someone who "imprint[s] his being on a piece of paper." But according to Ford Madox Ford, "Literature is that writing which most reveals the personality of the writer." If we agree at least that writing has personality, then whose is it? Is it the author's, drafted, crafted, revised and improved, or is it simply a fuller version of the writer than he or she can express in person? Salman Rushdie says: "There's a writing self which is not quite your ordinary social self and which you don't really have access to except at the moment when you're writing, and certainly in my view, I think of that as my best self."

I would argue that what distinguishes a poem of Emily Dickinson's from one of Robert Frost's or E.E. Cummings's is not just style, but something similar to what differentiated these poets as people. For this reason, it's easy to confuse personality with autobiography when discussing writing. In an interview, the poet Marie Howe is so intent on emphasizing the artistry in her poems that she denies having exposed herself at all:

I remember a man, a very lonely man, coming up to me at the end of a reading and looking into my face and saying, "I feel as if I have looked down a corridor and seen into your soul." And I looked at him and said, "You haven't." You know, here's the good news and the bad news: you haven't! I made something, and you and I could look at it together, but it's not me; you don't live with me; you're not intimate with me. You're not the man I live with or my friend. You will never know me in that way.

To Howe, the man's comment presumes a creepy intimacy that has nothing to do with art. But he didn't say that he knew where she lived or what she ate for breakfast, he said that he had seen into her soul. Intimidating as that sounds, it strikes me as a desirable response to a poem, one that would have pleased Yeats or Rilke. Howe defines writing as " alchemy of language and memory and imagination and time and music and sounds . that's different from 'Here is what happened to me when I was ten'." But a poem need not be equivalent to a journal entry or therapy session in order to provide a revealing portrait. The alchemy Howe refers to may distance her poem from her daily life, but it also affords more depth and subtlety than the frankest conversation.

In my view, a little overt personality goes a long way in literature: David Foster Wallace's exuberant essays always entertain me, but occasionally I want to whisper, as to an overeager party guest, don't try so hard. Here's the opening to his autobiographical essay "Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley":

When I left my boxed township of Illinois farmland to attend my dad's alma mater in the lurid jutting Berkshires of western Massachusetts, I all of a sudden developed a jones for mathematics. I'm starting to see why this was so. College math evokes and catharts a Midwesterner's sickness for home. I'd grown up inside vectors, lines and lines athwart lines, grids-and, on the scale of horizons, broad curving lines of geographic force, the weird topographical drain-swirl of a whole lot of ice-ironed land that sits and spins atop plates. The area behind and below these broad curves at the seam of land and sky I could plot by eye way before I came to know infinitesimals as easements, an integral as schema. Math at a hilly Eastern school was like waking up; it dismantled memory and put it in light. Calculus was, quite literally, child's play.

Personality boils all over the surface of this writing; if one eliminated its more conspicuous eruptions-"boxed township"; "lurid jutting Berkshires"; "a jones for mathematics"; "catharts"; "drain-swirl"; "a whole lot of ice-ironed land"-one would be left with a bland lead-in to an autobiography. What I'm calling personality here is related to style, exemplified by Wallace's affection for colloquialisms and neologisms, the way he conveys erudition in a nonchalant tone. But the personality of a piece of writing is no more equivalent to its style than I am to the sum of my traits; rather, it is a quality of writing that puts us in mind of a person, one we're inclined to accept as the author. "Wallace was hardly one to conceal himself within his work," the critic A.O. Scott wrote. "On the contrary, his personality is stamped on every page-so much so that the life and the work can seem not just connected but continuous."

Maybe it's my own reserved nature, but when it comes to literary personality I prefer a bit of restraint. "I liked scale, but I liked it invisible," Glück recalls of her early reading, "I loved those poems that seemed so small on the page but that swelled in the mind." The following poem by Les Murray throws off just enough electricity that I can't, don't want, to walk away.

The Mitchells


I am seeing this: two men are sitting on a pole

they have dug a hole for and will, after dinner, raise

I think for wires. Water boils in a prune tin.

Bees hum their shift in unthinning mists of white


bursaria blossom, under the noon of wattles.

The men eat big meat sandwiches out of a styrofoam

box with a handle. One is overheard saying:

drought that year. Yes. Like trying to farm the road.


The first man, if asked, would say I'm one of the Mitchells.

The other would gaze for a while, dried leaves in his palm,

and looking up, with pain and subtle amusement,

say I'm one of the Mitchells. Of the pair, one has been rich

but never stopped wearing his oil-stained felt hat. Nearly everything

they say is ritual. Sometimes the scene is an avenue.

Murray, like his characters, employs reserve as a kind of governor on pace and expression. The syntactical pause at "I think" in the third line checks the declarative march of the first sentence, alerting the reader that the speaker is speculating as much as recording. As the scene, both literal and conjectured, fills out, the language becomes more forthcoming. "Water boils in a prune tin" evokes the poem's social and geographical landscape, while "Bees hum their shift in unthinning mists of white / bursaria blossom, under the noon of wattles" adds a lush aural component as if a microphone had been held in the air. When the focus returns to the laborers-"the men eat big meat sandwiches"-the monosyllables and pronounced rhythms resume. I'm not saying that plainness guarantees substance or flashiness equals superficiality, just that writing doesn't need to dazzle in order to be memorable any more than people do.

"Our material chooses us," Tobias Wolff said of writers, "certain things engage us, certain things do not." For some, this attraction is rooted in personality, which the painter Edward Hopper called "the true source of originality in art." Asked why he chose to paint certain subjects, Hopper said, "I do not exactly know, unless it is that I believe them to be the best mediums for a synthesis of my inner experience." Personality dictates our quotidian choices, too. I have constructed a social life that rarely requires me to be outgoing, entertaining, a public man; at the same time, my job demands these qualities. The fact that I enjoy teaching suggests that it draws out aspects of myself that might otherwise lie dormant. The same is true of writing, both for me and for my quiet students whose natures only emerge in their poems and stories. "The truth on the page need not have been lived," Gluck says, "It is, instead, all that can be envisioned."




Although I recognized the concept of intelligence from an early age, it wasn't until high school that I realized that being smart meant more than getting good grades, and that different people could be smart in different ways... | read |


Michael Milburn's book of essays, Odd Man In, won the First Series Award for Creative Nonfiction and was published by MidList Press in 2005.  His second book of poems, Drive By Heart, was published by Word Press in 2009.  A new book of poems, Carpe Something, is forthcoming from Word Press in 2012. You can find more of his work at michael-milburn.com


"Odd Man In: And Other Essays"

"Not many poets coach lacrosse teams. But it is the improbable connections in his life that make Milburn such a refreshingly unpredictable essayist. Whether pondering the affinity between uncoached athletic talent and untutored poetic genius or comparing his own social status as an oft-stereotyped WASP to that of an oft-discriminated-against African American, Milburn cuts through conventional wisdom to reach fresh insights... An authentic and engaging voice."

-- Bryce Christensen


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