Thursday, August 4, 2011


Like so many other things, I come to the work of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe later in life, having read him over the years only in snippets and dribs and drabs. But maybe that’s about to change.

Then again, maybe it isn’t. What prevented it before, namely my ignorance and preoccupation with little things like trying to survive, might well go on preventing it — not to mention the inordinate amount of time I spend scratching out proof that this struggle of mine is as much poetry as it is accident, and that my presence here is no greater, smaller, or more meaningful than yours.

It’s also comical. I’m quite happy with the mess I’ve made, and I defend it with a certain childish pride.

I can easily point to contemporaries who are more knowledgeable than I am in literary matters, and who can write far more effectively about the nuances of fiction, poetry, and everything in between — even if I do feel on occasion that in their erudite analysis they miss the point. It’s so easy to get carried away with ourselves and what we know that in expressing it we come to believe we’re holding some kind of weapon or advantage. The fact remains that my illiterate forebears knew more about living than I do, and, quite possibly, all of these other folks combined. What matters most, I think, is that we learn to make our own music.

I remain devoted to books and the printed word. I am equally devoted to serendipity, contradiction, and spontaneity in the life I lead. I love listening to my contemporaries, and I’m never too proud to absorb what I can of their learning. And when I feel I have something more important to do, I love ignoring them as well. Naturally, what goes around comes around. I accept the consequences — and I love them as well, even as I rail against the night. I love laughing at myself.

Works of Goethe
Bigelow, Brown & Co., Inc.
New York



Anonymous said...

I read a chunk of Goethe in college and have taught, in a terribly amateur way, his Faust. But as a plain old reader—who doesn't believe in God or the Devil, only the Earth and its manifold powers, which include (I think) you and me—I keep coming back to this beautiful poem of G.'s, translated by John Frederick Nims:


Over all the hills now,
In all the trees now
Barely a breath. Birds are through
That sang in their wood to the west.
Only wait, traveler. Rest
Soon for you too.

My dear Aunt Betty, whose husband Bill died late last year, passed away the day before yesterday, laid low by Parkinsons. I think Goethe wrote this poem with her in mind.

William Michaelian said...

I love it. We’re leaving soon for a drive this morning to Mount St. Helens. Such a short time we have to take it all in. And yet each moment (not to imply that there is more than one) lasts an eternity. God and the Devil in the back seat, stoned. Thanks for this, Joe. Good thoughts your way.

Anonymous said...

you do realize,
because of you,
my reading to-do list
is becoming quite unmanageable...

there could be worse things...

have fun on the mountain

: )

Paul L. Martin said...

The joy you take in your life's work is evident in every line, William. And you lucky dog with the Goethe volumes! I am still in awe that you read through Proust.

William Michaelian said...

Brad, we had a fine time. Just got back a while ago. It’s total sun and exposure up there, a post-apocalyptic atmosphere scented by myriad wildflowers. As for your reading list, I’m only too glad to help. We’ll both go down together.

Every morning at five a.m., Paul — that’s how I did it, ten or twelve pages at a stretch. The lesson? We’re quite dangerous when we’re willing to chip away at something and see it through. And these books are so beautiful — to hold, to feel, to weigh in one’s hands, to smell. I still can’t believe they’re here.

Two Tigers said...

William, I'm just grateful I've already read a lot of the works you feature here, or I'd have to join Brad in chiding you for adding to my list too! I guess those years of stubborn refusal to get a real job after college paid off in that I had the time to conquer such tomes. I guess that was my pre-retirement, and likely my only one!

I like the idea of life being about making your own music and owning your made mess. What else is there?

William Michaelian said...

I’ll stump you one of these days, Gabriella — we’ll add to your reading list yet! In the meantime, it’s obvious that making your own music is more than an idea to you. It’s a way of life.