Twenty years ago, more or less, I was invited to join some other writers who were touring the Appalachian Mountains, visiting colleges and giving readings. Jeff and Reid, then age three, came along. This was a fun group. They joked and talked about their work and formed a loose camaraderie with just about everyone. “Just about” is the operative phrase.
As the days unfolded, I became aware that a poet and essayist from Oregon named Kim Stafford kept abandoning the central group and making a point to talk to those on the fringes, including the faculty members and graduate students who were hosting us. He would ask them questions in a way that broke through their reticence to talk about themselves. He’d exchange stories with them. In doing so, he drew them into the circle.
When Kim learned that Jeff, Reid and I were driving separately from the group, he asked if he could join us. He sat in the backseat with our shy son, winning him over with a tune he called The Belly Button Song. Along with his other talents, Kim is a musician. We missed the discussion on the main bus about the importance of our writing genre, but we had a lot more fun.
I thought about Kim recently when Jeff showed me an article about the poet W. H. Auden from The New York Review of Books. Edward Mendelson begins the article, “W.H. Auden had a secret life that his closest friends knew little or nothing about. Everything about it was generous and honorable. He kept it secret because he would have been ashamed to have been praised for it.”
Auden, it turns out, was a Seva hero, although no one ever called him that.
At literary gatherings he like to slip “away from ‘the gaunt and great, the famed for conversation,’ (as he called them in a poem) to find the least important person in the room.” Such affairs are often like chess games, in which the writers and other artists carefully gauge their every move. This is especially true when anyone famous is present. And Auden was considered the greatest English poet of the twentieth century.
Imagine being a novice writer or artist, utterly unnoticed, suddenly sharing a corner of the room with one of literature’s most renowned figures. It happened, over and over.
Mendelson’s article lists plenty of other kind acts by Auden. Many of them included large financial contributions, all anonymous. For a while he even slept in the hallway outside an elderly woman’s apartment. The woman suffered from night terrors, and Auden’s presence helped her feel safe. But it was the great poet’s inclusiveness that most caught my attention.
We’ve all had both types of experiences, resting comfortably in the inner circle and orbiting on the outer social limits, far from any sun. What a simple act of service it can be to draw in the Plutonians, to make them feel included and valued. Who knows? It might change their lives.
So now at parties and other gatherings, I go on the prowl. Who’s on the outside edge? How can I draw them in? It’s chancy, and not always fun. Sometimes I get ensnared in tedious conversations about peoples’ maladies, or their litanies of how they’ve been wronged. If I manage to steer these folks them toward the center of the group, I can sometimes watch their focus on themselves dissipate like fog. Much more frequently I move to the edge and quickly find myself in an enjoyable exchange with a quiet, interesting man or woman whose company I would not have wanted to miss.
You can learn about Kim Stafford’s wonderful writing and music at www.kim-stafford.com. W.H. Auden’s poetry is available on the Web and in book stores everywhere.