My Wobbly Bicycle, 48

Posted by on Nov 6, 2013 | 28 comments

seamus heaneyYears ago, when my former husband had just been hired at the University of Delaware, the then-Department Chair offered to fly me from Arkansas to Delaware to look for a house for our family. (Can you imagine that now?) The night I arrived, there was a guest poet reading. I was invited. The poet was the late, great, silver-haired Seamus Heaney. I’d read a few of his poems, but basically I didn’t know squat.  At the reception—which was quite intimate, at someone’s house—we were brushing shoulders, picking up cheese and crackers. I could have said anything, asked him anything. But I couldn’t think what to say.

angus wilsonDuring our first year at the University of Delaware, Sir Angus Wilson was a guest faculty member. I was teaching part-time there and was a grad student at the University of Arkansas, studying long-distance for my exams. I could have taken Angus’s course, but I didn’t. I think I was afraid of making a fool of myself.

 The great poet James Wright (below) spent a semester at Delaware the year before he died. We took a long walk in the woods together with his wife Annie and some friends. I remember his singing the French Chef’s song from Sesame Street to our son. At least we could talk of burls on trees, fall leaves on the stream, and Sesame Street. james wright

 While I was at Delaware, we hosted—you may recognize some or most of these names—Rita Dove, Charles Simic, Stephen Dunn, Dabney Stuart, Michael S. Harper, Camille Paglia, Lucille Clifton, Galway Kinnell, Grace Paley (below), Susan Sontag, Ann Beattie, William Gaddis, Christopher Hitchens, Nicholas Kristof, Barry Hannah, Donald Barthelme, Charles Johnson, I could go on and on. And of course we had Gibbons Ruark, Jeanne Murray Walker, and W. D. Snodgrass, (et moi), on the faculty. I became friends with some, others not.

grace paleyI wonder now, what CAN we get from other writers, particularly those who leave us awestruck?  What can we get, period, from each others’ presence in such situations?

Back then, I thought it was a game of who knows stuff and who doesn’t. But no. I’m certain now that it isn’t the exchange of information that matters, it’s the presence of one whose life has been utterly given over to, to, to something—to expression, to art, to seeing, to knowing, I don’t know what to call it, but I know it when I see it, the face of complete abandonment, not just abandonment, but abandonment TO something. To something worth everything.

A comment from another great, Jim Harrison: “Though I don’t teach I often get sought for advice from young poets. I say I don’t have time for you unless you’re going to give your life to it. That’s what it takes.”

It seems that we “absorb” from others more than we “exchange.”  I may not have missed out on anything when I was struck silent. All the great and modestly-great people I’ve been in the presence of, something has passed between us that’s changed me. And maybe them.

Of course the same thing can be said of books. There’s an actual exchange. We absorb each other. We change each other. Which makes it matter, I think, WHAT we read. Which makes it matter HOW we read, what we’re after when we read.


A note: No Need of Sympathy has been nominated for the William Carlos Williams Award, the UNT Rilke Prize, as well as the Kingsley Tufts Award. Any one of those would make me pretty  happy.


  1. Very true. We absorb a presence. May we all become a presence to someone else during our life.

    • Yep. Right.

  2. Your presence at that poetry reading in Mt Pleasant last year was a gift in my life.

    • Thank you, Jeanne. I hope to read down your way in this next year, again.

  3. Thank you Fleda, for a reminder of the lasting power of presence. And that complete abandonment is a great undertaking worth my effort. I believe this, but I also need to keep believing, and be encouraged to do it, given that so much in my world would suggest I do otherwise.


    • All we can do is plug along. The nature of this work is disappointment, more work, disappointment, more work, an occasional success, more work, disappointment….you get the idea.

  4. I was working one winter in Boston-Cambridge, Massachusetts; I remember going one evening to Adams House at Harvard, to hear — I don’t know who: and realizing that I was sitting next to Robert Pinsky, who had just published his translation of Dante’s INFERNO. He was laughing with friends I didn’t know, and showing off photos of his grandchildren. I remember realizing that maybe it was enough just to be in the same room with him, to breathe the same air that he was breathing.

    Thanks for the post, Fleda: and for the reminder of some readings at Delaware where I was also in the room — and very quiet.


    • Sometime I’ll tell you my Pinsky story. Not all that exciting, but a wee bit of insight.

  5. I have three children and my wish for them has always been that they would give themselves over to something. I never cared what that something would be. Perhaps I understand a bit more about why. Thank you for that terrific paragraph.

    • I guess that’s our wish for all our children. No matter what it is, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.

  6. Yeah, Fleda. As the dumb kid not paying attention in the back of the room said, “Yeah, me too. What she said.”

    • Ha! You may PLAY the dumb kid, but you ain’t.

  7. Congratulations on those nominations, Fleda! Fantastic!

    • Thanks, Tara. I love hearing your “voice.”

  8. Congratulations on the nominations Fleda and a very well written piece here on your blog. It is truly humbling to be in the presence of others you admire for their accomplishments and, once we glimpse their nature, to still find real inspiration.

    • Ha! Their nature isn’t always what we expect. But the work is there, no matter what.

  9. Felda,
    I wish you had been here last week when Vargos Llosa was here from Peru. He was amazing! Did I ask him a question? No–for all of the reasons you mentioned.

    Am I changed by being in his presence? Yes. He is extremely open and comfortable with himself and sees a wide range of connections between his own work and the work of others.

    When I play my violin now, I realize, it’s all about the music–not any personal attention I may get by playing.

    With writing, it’s all about the words on the page. That’s all that matters.

    • Would have loved to hear him. Play your violin, of course!

  10. Congrats, Fleda, on those nominations.And wasn’t I lucky that you were the PL when I began writing. liz

    • And wasn’t I lucky YOU were there, with your good poems.

  11. Congratulations on the nominations and good luck! And coincidentally, I just last night came across the idea of the “caught” versus the “taught.” Good students are as alert to the implicit lessons as to the explicit ones. 🙂

    • Yes, maybe even the not-so-good students.

  12. Congratulations on the nominations. Your blog caused me to wonder to what or to whom have I completely given over myself? Maybe the best answer to that question is to tell you I laughed out loud at Tim’s reply!

    • Yeah, that made me laugh, too. Thanks, Tim.

  13. As always, reading your wisdom just plain makes me happy. Can I come sit in your presence for a while?

    • Anytime, my dear. Feeling’s mutual.

  14. What you’ve said today is exactly how I felt the evening that Nikki Giovanni was here: that the whole thing was a fat blessing. I didn’t even want to laugh too much so that I wouldn’t miss a syllable or a gesture. And I didn’t sleep for a long time into the night after we all went home.

    Of course, I feel that way when I’m listening to you, too–gifted.

    • Thanks, Catherine. Sometimes I think what we “get” is really ourselves, mirrored back at ourselves.

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