Joan Didion and Diane Wakoski: California Split

December 24, 2021

I know that I am supposed to floss if I want to maintain good gum strength for my teeth, but I just can’t make myself do it. Instead, I compensate by getting my teeth cleaned every three to four months. It’s usually four times a year, but this year has been a tough one, with so much teaching happening on Zoom, and yesterday I snagged the final appointment that my dentist had for the year to get my teeth cleaned. On my way there, I heard the news on the radio that Joan Didion had died.

Just now, perfusing various notices, I saw that Vogue magazine had reprinted her early essay, “On Self-Respect.” I had never read it before, or at least don’t particularly recall it as the high point of “Slouching toward Bethlehem.” It is a very precocious essay, but afterwards, I thought to myself, “It’s so Prufrockian. It sounds very much like an essay that someone very influenced by Eliot would write as a prose example of how Prufrock experiences his self-awareness.” Look at the opening: “Once, in a dry season,….” If that isn’t an intonation of Eliot in all his “Four Quartets” grandeur, then I’ll contribute a hundred dollars to whatever charity Didion’s closest friends would prefer that I support.

In contrast, I think of another writer who also attended the University of California, Berkeley, just after Didion graduated from there in 1956. Diane Wakoski is a poet who, like Didion, was born in California and who also has seen herself as an “outsider.” Yet if Didion managed to make being an outsider seem like an experience a reader could become familiar with through the intrepid sinuousness of her syntax and insights, Wakoski’s best poems remain unfamiliar even after repeated readings. “Smudging” is one of the great poems of the 20th century. Didion deserves all the attention that her passing has stirred up, but she is not an unrepresentative figure in the same way that Wakowski is, and those are the writers I am most intrigued by.

On Self-Respect: Joan Didion’s 1961 Essay from the Pages of Vogue

(According to a prefatory note by Vogue, Didion “wrote it not to a word count or a line count, but to an exact character count.” Here are the stats I came up with:
9,081 characers (with no spaces)
10,898 characters (with spaces)
1,843 words
15 paragraphs
122 lines

by Susan Stamberg Updated December 23, 20212:25 PM ET

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