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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Susan Boyle, Emily Dickinson, and Success

Forgive me, Dear Readers.

First, for being a slacker and not posting. Miss Em is home on Spring Break. We even took a trip to Baton Rouge and had a dinner en famille--at the LSU Dining Hall, thanks to Frugal Son. And a delicious dinner it was too, featuring sushi and vegetable tempura, followed by mango ice cream.

Second, a pre-emptive apology. This post is not on frugality. But I love literature even more than I love frugality (and that's a good thing). The recent Susan Boyle sensation (no link needed, I'm sure), makes me think of Emily Dickinson and her poem on success. You no doubt were supposed to have read this during your school career.

I was a latecomer to the Youtube video of Boyle. By the time I saw it, there had already been almost 20,000,000 views. And, being a reader, I have spent some time perusing the commentary that has mushroomed. Many writers talk about "success" and how Boyle gives us all hope. Hope that even a homely (I see the word "ugly" thrown around too) woman, of middle age, with big eyebrows, can succeed.

Maybe. I don't know. Of course, her looks had something to do with it. Miss Em has a lovely friend with a lovely voice who has performed that very song from Les Miz. If she had been on the show, she would not have caused the sensation.

But aside from that, I think the looks are important. If Boyle is "homely" or "ugly," then so is about 98% of the population. It is the three judges--with their obviously processed looks on top of lucky genetics--who are the "freaks." Perhaps just as we ordinary folk (Americans, at any rate) are ready to kill, not all the lawyers, as Shakespeare put it, but all the Wall Streeters and other privileged "freaks" who manipulated the financial markets or benefited along with those that did, we ordinary folk in the appearance department are likewise ready to side with our peers, rather than with the privileged "freaks" of beauty.

That's one thought. My other thought is about success.

I've seen some rapturous comments on how Boyle's sudden success shows that there is always hope. And that with hope will come success.

But we might turn to another unmarried woman to learn more of the truth about success: the great Emily Dickinson. Here is the first stanza of her famous poem:

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne'er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

This is not a message we want to hear. I know this because when I teach the poem, I ask students to paraphrase the stanza. Invariably, most say "You learn what success is when you fail a lot. Then when you succeed, it is more meaningful." Even after I say that the key word is "ne'er" or never, students continue to repeat the first paraphrase. Of course, what is important is that many people--most, perhaps--never do succeed. At least not in the arts or in performance or in writing. Dickinson knew this; it is the dark side of the "American Dream," which extols hard work and promises eventual success to those who keep at it.

Susan Boyle is now on the other side of the divide. Some of her neighbors said, "We all knew she could sing. Now everyone knows it." Susan always knew she was good. I am not an expert of Dickinson's work or life, but I've always thought that Dickinson was well aware of how good she was. Now, of course, she is a great "success." But I've always wondered how she viewed her life and her work and to what extent she counted herself a "success."

So, Dear Readers, that's it. Is it OK if I go off topic on occasion? I am making two interesting-sounding soups that feature chard. I will report back on them if these frugal creations are a "success."


Duchesse said...

She has the pipes, and a good story. By the time she has dental work (like her counterpart Paul Potts, who now has perfect Chicklets) and professionally-styled hair and makeup, she'll be another person on the outside. It's what appears, at first, brief look on YouTube, to be on the inside that makes her compelling- the brio, the sass, the heart.

sallymandy said...

I had very similar thoughts to yours about Susan's looks, though I didn't pair the subject up with Dickinson. It was when my pret-teen daughter called her "ugly." What? Out of style maybe, but just...ordinary, not ugly. I agree, it's the judges that are freaks, and it's frightening to think what's been pumped into my 12-year old's brain.

And just for the record, what IS success??

Duchesse said...

Sallymandy, if I may: Success is reaching a goal I have defined for myself, because I value it.

I've also found that success sometimes gets recalibrated, the original measure can move as I learn more about myself or the goal.

Chance said...

I was really surprised that people openly called her ugly -- I thought she was totally unstylish and regular looking but not ugly and her voice is beautiful beyond words. I just heard one of her interviews and she seems like someone I would want to be friends with, funny as hell.

Susan is very popular at our house because she was born with the same kind of brain injury my stepson has and shares many of his gifts - a quick wit, modesty tempered with disinhibition, shyness and social charm all at once. He can't sing at all though, we are so rooting for her.

Nice to see someone getting attention who is "out" about her brain injury, lots of parents are thanking her for the role modeling. And you know, if she wants to get her teeth tweaked and her hair done, and fame makes it possible good on her. Duchesse has it right, her internal story is what's compelling.

Duchesse said...

Chance, I had no idea she had a disability till you mentioned it here. It will not be Susan who tweaks her appearance, it will be her advisors.

Frugal Scholar said...

@All--Wow! thanks for the insightful comments. As for me, I'm still working on figuring out what is success.