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Philip Newman Lawton

Getting It Right

Young Man Playing the Piano by Gustave Caillebotte

I’d always regretted that I hadn’t taken piano lessons as a child. My parents asked me to choose between music and art, and, of course, I made the wrong choice, painting lessons, for which I turned out to have no gift. When I turned 40, I realized that this particular regret was one of the few I could actually resolve: I just had to learn to play.

We had my mother-in-law’s spinet in the study; our daughter used it before she took up the flute. I found a teacher, Peter Ganick, marvelously accomplished—he studied at the New England Conservatory of Music—and wonderfully patient. Under his direction, I set about doing five-finger exercises and, as the months went by, practicing deceptively straightforward compositions, easy pieces that were already familiar from our daughter’s recitals at the Hartford Camerata Conservatory. Rehearsing alone in the quiet time between work and dinner, or later in the evening, I thought I was making progress. When Peter was there, however, or my wife sat in, I floundered, my timing was off, I hit a wrong key, started over, fumbled again.

The experience was not entirely unproductive. We can learn not only from temporary setbacks but also from outright failures, tell when to persevere and when it’s pointless to carry on, discover where our limits lie and see how we respond to them. The ability to read music served me well when, many years later, I took a class in musical theatre and found I could sing. (I was—I am—a lyric baritone.) And I came to know Peter, a poet and a publisher in his other life, the real one.

We would meet Saturdays in a coffee shop. We did not talk very much, we just hung out together, two oddball intellectuals comfortable in one another’s company. I would lose myself in a book on philosophy or history while he wrote with intense concentration. His métier was language poetry, free-form verses with fractured grammar and unexpected line breaks, the words linked by associations that often seemed quite personal, that is, obscure to the point of impenetrability. But the fault, or default, may have been my own. Language poetry calls for the reader’s or listener’s active participation in the construction of meaning, and, if I understood the expectation, I wasn’t up to the task.

I have ten of his chapbooks in my library. Several of them are signed under short inscriptions; one of them says, “Thanks for our Saturday meetings.” In The New Sentence, Ron Silliman describes one poet’s oeuvre as “a reading experience in which language is posed as a barrier to actuality.” So it is with much of Peter’s work. Rereading his poems, it seems the words do not reliably refer to states of mind, other people, or things and events in the world. Often the words themselves are objects, solid, self-sufficient. Or, because poems are written to be read aloud, the words are sound waves, loud or soft, phonemes vibrating in the air. In either case, their relationship to external reality is oblique. Peter’s art was indirection.

Our Saturday meetings gave me opportunities to observe his writing process. I mentioned his concentration; at times I might as well have been in another city. But when he was in the flow he wrote with confidence and astonishing speed, rarely pausing and never circling back to replace words or phrases with more considered choices. He must have revised his work before publishing it, but, if so, the editing took place later, after the ink dried and he came to himself.

His fluency struck me because, although it’s merely prose, my own writing is so effortful. For reasons that probably date from early childhood, I am a perfectionist, constitutionally unable to dash off an essay, or a paragraph, or a sentence and provisionally let it stand until it is time to work on a theoretical second draft. Rather, I continuously rethink every choice and revise every line. I want to keep my diction fresh; accordingly, the second time I use the same word within a few pages, I go back to see if I can rephrase the sentence in which it first occurred. A new thought comes to me; I rework an earlier statement to accommodate it. Realizing there is a better approach, I write an entirely new opening sentence and make all the logical and editorial changes that cascade from it. An adjective isn’t quite precise; I experiment with alternatives until I single out the best one. In effect, upon reaching the end of a piece, I’ve already completed the prescribed fifth draft. I set it aside to cool, and when I return to it a few days later I invariably make some final changes, adding a comma here, replacing a word there. When it seems flawless, I can play with the dog, read something, have a glass of wine, take a nap. Then pick it up again.

This discreet perfectionism, this private obsession with appearances, this cloistered fussiness pervades my life and my work. It accounts for the tidiness of my workspace and, after so many years, the paucity of my literary production. It may also explain why I could not master the piano. Sometimes I make light of it, laugh at my own expense. “I’m trying to become an imperfectionist, but I keep falling short.” Yet it is serious business, it makes me anxious, saps my energy, subverts my creativity, disturbs my sleep. I cannot say good enough, cannot give myself the simple courtesy I try and mostly fail to offer others. We left Connecticut, I lost contact with my friend—I do not stay in touch with anyone—and it’s too late now, there’s no going back to fix it. Peter died in the pandemic.

About the writer:

Formerly an investment professional at major insurance companies and international banks, Philip Newman Lawton now reads and writes in Albemarle County, Virginia. He earned a PhD (docteur) in philosophy at l’Université Catholique de Louvain (Belgium) and an MBA in finance at Northeastern University (Boston, MA). His narrative nonfiction has appeared in The Bookends Review, Cagibi, JuxtaProse Literary Magazine, Streetlight Magazine, and Woven Tale Press Magazine, among others.

Image: Young Man Playing the Piano by Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894). Oil on canvas. No size specified. 1876. Public domain.

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