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Failure

To pay for my father’s funeral
I borrowed money from people
he already owed money to.
One called him a nobody.
No, I said, he was a failure.
You can’t remember
a nobody’s name, that’s why
they’re called nobodies.
Failures are unforgettable.
The rabbi who read a stock eulogy
about a man who didn’t belong to
or believe in anything
was both a failure and a nobody.
He failed to imagine the son
and wife of the dead man
being shamed by each word.
To understand that not
believing in or belonging to
anything demanded a kind
of faith and buoyancy.
An uncle, counting on his fingers
my father’s business failures—
a parking lot that raised geese,
a motel that raffled honeymoons,
a bowling alley with roving mariachis—
failed to love and honor his brother,
who showed him how to whistle
under covers, steal apples
with his right or left hand. Indeed,
my father was comical.
His watches pinched, he tripped
on his pant cuffs and snored
loudly in movies, where
his weariness overcame him
finally. He didn’t believe in:
savings insurance newspapers
vegetables good or evil human
frailty history or God.
Our family avoided us,
fearing boils. I left town
but failed to get away.

Specimen

I turned sixty in Paris last year.
We stayed at the Lutetia,
where the Gestapo headquartered
during the war, my wife, two boys, and me,
and several old Vietnamese ladies
carrying poodles with diamond collars.

Once my father caught a man
stealing cigarettes out of one
of his vending machines.
He didn’t stop choking him
until the pool hall stunk of excrement,
and the body dropped to the floor
like a judgment.

When I was last in Paris,
I was dirt-poor, hiding
from the Vietnam War.
One night, in an old church,
I considered taking my life.
I didn’t know how to be so young
and not belong anywhere, stuck
among so many perplexing melodies.

I loved the low white buildings,
the ingratiating colors, the ancient light.
We couldn’t afford such luxury.
It was a matter of pride.
My father died bankrupt one week
before his sixtieth birthday.
I didn’t expect to have a family;
I didn’t expect happiness.

At the Lutetia everyone
dressed themselves like specimens
they’d loved all their lives.
Everyone floated down
red velvet hallways
like scintillating music
you hear only once or twice.

Driving home, my father said,
“Let anyone steal from you
and you’re not fit to live.”
I sat there, sliced by traffic lights,
not belonging to what he said.
I belonged to a scintillating
and perplexing music
I didn’t expect to hear.

–Philip Schultz

I found these two poems by Schultz and was knocked out. This is my first exposure to his work. Any other fans out there?

schultzphilip500

Philip Schultz is an American poet and founder/director of The Writers Studio, a private school for fiction and poetry writing based in New York City. He was the recent co-winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for his volume Failure.

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Maybe it is because Harvard has planetary status in the Boston/Cambridge area, but it seems everyone is still talking about J. K. Rowling’s commencement address last week. Her topic–“The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination” is delicious just in its titular power. But the speech (which you can read or watch at Harvard Magazine) has lots of wisdom to offer even if failure and Harvard are hard for some people to place in the same sentence.

Of course some of the graduates took umbrage at the choice of having the author of a series of children’s books as the keynote at a school that, according to some students interviewed on NPR, was used to hearing from the intellectually gifted and powerful, like Madeleine Albright. (We won’t even go there, not now anyway.) But most people I know who heard her were moved by her message.

I’m excerpting a few paragraphs about failure. I’ll highlight her second theme, imagination, in tomorrow’s post.

Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.

Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.

Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above rubies.

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more to me than any qualification I ever earned.

Given a time machine or a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.

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