Parenthood and Modern Lit
Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days, wrote Flannery O’Connor. But while surviving childhood might very well qualify us to become writers, it is surviving parenthood that truly prepares us to become great readers.
For the first half of the twentieth century, the modernists offered us visions of a world filled with chaos and futility, something I don’t think I really understood until I became a father and experienced months of sleepless nights, endless domestic chores and piles of soiled onesies.
But even more important than the emotional conditioning of parenthood has been the linguistic training.
When our firstborn was three months old, for example, she would demand our fullest attention with her screams, and as soon as we figured out the texture of her cries – could distinguish a tired squawk from a hungry yowl – she’d start to squeal or grunt, which might mean change me or, we’d learn only after we unclothed her, might mean nothing at all.
It was like trying to make sense of a Beckett play.
Many great writers of the 20th century wrote fractured narratives, where the reader is ultimately responsible for piecing the story together. And when our daughter first started telling stories, she’d speak entirely in nouns – deer, choo-choo, bubbles – and it became our responsibility to make sense of how these things somehow connected. It was as though she’d taken Hemingway’s iceberg theory and merged it with William Carols Williams’ notion that there are no ideas but in things.
Later, when she learned to throw adjectives into the mix, she switched to speaking in code – yelling dedo dooz, dedo dooz! – and it wasn’t until we explored every possible syllabic substitution that we realized just how badly she wanted her yellow shoes.
Is it any wonder that the great fathers of literary non-sense – who spent their lives disassociating words from their meaning – referred to their movement as Dada?
This must be why, come evening, my wife and I are so desperate to both understand and escape our lives through literature.
What relief we feel when we pick up Goodnight Moon, what faith we place in that little old lady whispering hush.
Ben Berman’s first book, Strange Borderlands, won the 2014 Peace Corps Award for Best Book of Poetry and was a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Awards. His second collection, Figuring in the Figure, was recently selected as a Must-Read by the Mass Center for the Book. And his new book, Then Again, came out last November. He has received awards from the New England Poetry Club and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Somerville Arts Council. He teaches at Brookline High School and lives in the Boston area with his wife and two daughters. www.ben-berman.comSee other articles by Ben Berman