On the Verge, by Michael Milburn

It’s much easier, she realized, to be on the verge of something than to actually be it.
Markus Zusak, The Book Thief

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On the first of the Beatles’ five visits to Hamburg, Germany between August 1960 and December 1962, a grueling musical apprenticeship that brought them to the cusp of worldwide fame, the group agreed to the following performance schedule at the city’s Indra Cabaret: four and a half hours Tuesday to Friday; six hours Saturday; six hours Sunday. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell uses these marathon sets to illustrate his “10,000 hour rule” of how long artists must practice in order to achieve mastery in their field. But the Beatles’ schedule also shows their motivation in those early years, and their ability to look past their next performance before a sparse audience in a dank Hamburg nightclub. Their biographer Mark Lewisohn writes that when they completed their final residency in 1962, “more than anything, the Beatles were leaving Hamburg with a tangible sense of being on the verge of something….It was turning point time for them all.”

This state of being on the verge of both musical proficiency and commercial success made the Hamburg period one of the happiest and most productive of the Beatles’ career. Within three years they would be complaining that screaming fans at their concerts made it difficult for them—the fans and the musicians—to hear the music. A year later they would stop touring, and by the end of the decade the group had broken up. Although the years between the end of the Hamburg trips and the break-up saw the release of the Beatles’ best music—Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper—by 1968, the band squabbled through the subsequent White Album recording sessions. Increasingly, their success, perhaps even their mastery, seemed to sap their motivation to work toward a common goal. In an interview, Bob Dylan describes the precarious mix of incentive and momentum that comes from being “on the verge”:

An artist has got to be careful never really to arrive at a place where he thinks he’s at somewhere. You always have to realize that you’re constantly in a state of becoming, and as long as you can stay in that realm you’ll be all right.

From the mid-sixties on, the Beatles must have found it hard to think of their band as being “in a state of becoming.”

As far as I can tell from reading interviews and biographies, most artists find the vitality and enjoyment of their work in those periods of becoming, even if it appears to both them and their audience that the product is what really matters. My vocation, teaching, is defined by objectives—grades, degrees, ends of terms, years, and schools, and finally the state of being educated. But the dictionary defines teaching as a process, “the work of a teacher,” entailing class periods, paper grading, an inquiry leading to a diploma. I smile as broadly and clap as loudly as any parent when my students receive theirs in June, but that scene contributes little to my enjoyment of my job, which comes from the day-to-day practice of teaching. Both the job and the enjoyment cease until school resumes in September.

My private school students, passing from accomplishment to accomplishment with opportunities coming at them as fast as they can take advantage of them, have never known a state other than being on the verge. And as much pride as I have taken in my son’s developmental, educational, professional, and personal milestones over his twenty-nine years, I think of him as perpetually on the way to something better, or at least further along—right now he’s engaged to be married and piecing together enough free-lance filmmaking work to support himself. The minute his wedding ends or he secures his first mortgage, my attention will move to a new threshold of possibilities for him—fatherhood, funding for his own feature film. I wish I could approach my own accomplishments the way I do my son’s, celebrating them and downplaying the need to keep surpassing them.

I doubt that any parents, even on their deathbed with their adult child conferring with the hospice nurse, ever stop seeing their offspring as works-in-progress, any more than teachers focus on their students’ knowledge more than their potentials, or writers (a few self-proclaimed retirees like Philip Roth and Alice Munro notwithstanding) think of their oeuvres as complete. The point at which I consider anything or anyone fixed is usually the point at which I lose interest.

On the exterior of the building on Wall Street where my father practiced law for fifty years, a plaque still bears our family firm’s name. Hired right out of law school, my father promptly ascended to partner in the firm that his grandfather had founded and where his father had practiced. Looking back at his life, I don’t see him as ever being on the verge of anything; there was no uncharted next stage in his advancement, nothing comparable to the Beatles’ Hamburg trials. If at age ten, fifteen, twenty, he had wanted to see his future, he need only have looked at that plaque on 2 Wall Street’s facade.

For all of my father’s skill as a lawyer, I wouldn’t say that he loved his job, but he was too unforthcoming for me to know whether he was suffocated or stimulated by years-long litigations involving mammoth corporations. My only evidence that he may have lived a life of disappointment comes from his interest in the writings and lives of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Albert Schweitzer, Gandhi, and Thomas Merton. There were always books by and about these men in our house, and he liked to quote from them—usually jocularly so that he did not come across as too reflective. Perhaps he realized that given the choices he had made, or that had been made for him, spiritual and philosophical writings such as Emerson’s essays and Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, were the only way for him to explore the uncertainty necessary to a fulfilled life.

Or maybe he didn’t crave uncertainty at all. Maybe conformity suited him and those spiritual seekers only interested him as unfathomable opposites. Although my father had to prove himself to his colleagues as a young scion entering the family firm, he never needed to forge his way to the extent that the Beatles did. Yet, unlike them, he sustained his success over a fifty-year career, arguing two cases before the Supreme Court, helping to broker the sale of a painting by J.M.W. Turner for a record price, representing the New York Mets and the New York Hospital, and retaining several clients at their insistence for years after his official retirement. Achievement appears to have fueled rather than sated his motivation, or perhaps for him each new case represented a verge, a new goal to work toward. I admire the Beatles for playing their way out of Hamburg obscurity, but I admire my father for not allowing success to dissipate his drive.

For the eleven years between the Beatles’ break-up and his murder, John Lennon’s solo and ensemble work received mixed reviews and caused him frequent frustration. As one reads about this period of his life, it’s clear that he was both happier and more musically inspired in Hamburg, despite his worries about the Beatles’ future and his craving for the recognition that he would later receive. Whenever a celebrity acts exasperated by success and fame (in concert footage, Paul Simon makes a sour face when the audience drowns out the opening notes of “The Boxer” with applause), I think, but you wanted this, and the wanting spurred you to achieve it. Of course, the wanting rather than the achievement was the reward if only the artist had known to appreciate his or her hunger at the time. “One has made oneself a master of an art,” the poet and translator Robert Fitzgerald wrote. “One may forget that it is in making oneself a master of something that mastery consists.” I try to remember that my own goals are more useful to me unattained no matter how hard I wish they could be reached tomorrow.

Ward Just’s novel American Romantic begins, “These events happened a while back, when the war was not quite a war, more a prelude to a war.” By setting his book in Indochina several years before the build-up of troops there, Just gives his readers a context for the much-documented Vietnam War, one that is often obscured in books that focus directly on the combat years. Like Just’s protagonist, an American Foreign Service worker, one witnesses a country on the verge of catastrophe, and better appreciates the changes that will be visited upon its culture. Being on the verge can also serve as a stylistic device, as when a writer uses fragmentation or incompleteness to reflect—even include the reader in—the process of composition. “They seem to show seams, process, unfinished thoughts, and this gives dignity to one’s own imperfections,” the writer Miranda July says of Lydia Davis’s stories containing partial sentences, one sentence paragraphs, and collage-like structures.

The disjointedness of T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land,” published in 1922, is one of its most celebrated qualities, expressing Eliot’s and society’s state of mind—a poem wavering between coherence and incoherence born of the turmoil between wars. In the facsimile edition incorporating Ezra Pound’s edits, one can see the more stately and cohesive poem that Eliot might have published had he not incorporated Pound’s suggestions. Pound appears to have used the poem’s line “These fragments I have shored against my ruins” as the governing principle of his excisions. I would always prefer to read a poem with flashes of brilliance and meaning to one whose metrical precision or gorgeous language fail to disguise its blandness. “There is a point in the perfection of artistic skills beyond which further progress is without artistic value,” the composer and critic Virgil Thomson wrote. “The surface becomes so shiny that nothing else can be perceived.”

The imperfectness that July praises in Lydia Davis’s work is also present in the ten-song medley that concludes Side 2 of “Abbey Road,” the last album the Beatles recorded. These linked fragments, only four of which exceed two minutes, contrast with the self-sufficiency of Side 1’s longer, self-contained songs: “Something,” “Come Together,” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” The strategy of splicing together “Mean Mr. Mustard” (1:06), “Polythene Pam” (1:12), “Golden Slumbers” (1:31), and “Her Majesty” (:27), each written separately by Lennon or McCartney, fits the temperament of a band no longer able to collaborate or follow through. Lennon called the medley, which was McCartney’s idea, “junk … just bits of songs thrown together,” and George Harrison said of the recording sessions, “It felt as if we were reaching the end of the line.” Few listeners would agree with Lennon or wish that the Beatles had either fleshed out those bits or discarded them; their genius lies in the way they fall short of wholeness on their own, but work brilliantly together, like the Beatles.

My examples from the fields of music and literature suggest that being “constantly in a state of becoming,” as Dylan said, is especially productive for artists, but others benefit as well. Most people’s motivation comes from working or looking toward an event or goal. As a schoolteacher in my mid-fifties, I spend little time thinking about what it means to be in the later years of my career; rather, I plan how to sustain my enthusiasm for another decade, in part by varying my curriculum and replacing familiar lesson plans with new ones. Upon reaching that verge, I’ll be looking too hard toward retirement and the final horizons, old age and death, to notice that I have made it. This might appall anyone who subscribes to a “live in the moment” philosophy, but I’m mystified how those people achieve any momentum in their work and days. As Dylan advises, we’re most productive when striving, and must continually redefine our goals, pushing the finish line ahead as we are about to cross it. When the choreographer Agnes De Mille asked Martha Graham when she would feel satisfied, Graham said, “There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

Character shapes behavior, but isn’t behavior itself, just as genius consists of what goes into making art, not the finished product. When I look at a person’s works or deeds, I appraise the final product, then ask myself how he or she did it, As for our own perspective on what we do, I wonder if we are ever fully, contentedly present in an action or state of mind, or always half-preparing for the next one. “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment,” Buddha said. For anyone preoccupied with achievement, this sounds like a calming corrective, albeit one that risks complacency, and, in my case, anxiety—trying to be present in a moment just makes me more conscious of the fleetingness of time. The closest I can come to Buddha’s philosophy is to appreciate the state of moving toward success more than success itself. “He not busy being born is busy dying,” Dylan wrote. It comes down to how one defines fulfillment.

***

Michael Milburn teaches high school English in New Haven, CT. His third book of poems, Carpe Something, was published by Word Poetry in 2012. His essays have appeared in New England ReviewSouth Carolina Review, and Poet Lore.

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