"The unexamined life is not worth living, " Socrates famously said. His well-known question-and-answer technique, the Socratic method, sought to help people acquire genuine self-knowledge. Using interrogation, Socrates asked his subjects about their lives, instead of telling them what mattered most.
In the case of Ned O'Gorman , a poet with some 10 books to his credit who founded Children's Storefront School in Harlem, the issue is not the absence of examination. Rather, O'Gorman doesn't ask the best questions, or write the answers in the most compelling way.
His recent memoir, "The Other Side of Loneliness: A Spiritual Journey ," begins where many do, at the beginning. Early chapters are filled with his first memories, his childhood in Connecticut and Vermont, and his many loves and heartbreaks. Like his well-to-do parents before him, O'Gorman enjoyed an upbringing that was "spared any existential hazard." He was raised in the 1930s and 1940s, and his was by any measure a comfortable life.
Despite coming from privilege, O'Gorman entered adulthood as an insecure, needy, and neglected young man. The struggle to locate himself amid a painfully withdrawn adolescence was compounded by a stubborn speech impediment. His glowering and distant father, who never approved of his less-than-macho demeanor, didn't help things. Nor did O'Gorman's oddly out-of-the-picture mother, his loyal but crazed nanny, and a lecherous family friend who molested him.
To his credit, O'Gorman never accuses any single character from his past. But he also never fully delves into the reasons for his obsessive and desperate desire to love, and to be encompassed by love. O'Gorman battles his Catholic beliefs, yet flirts with the idea of becoming a priest or a monk. But the voice is too interior and the point of view is too myopic. He reproduces only snippets of dialogue with others and hardly describes any character in detail other than his father.
Meanwhile, the litany of longings becomes tedious. Scenes of him weeping or escaping into the solace of the woods border on the ridiculous.
Likewise, the theatrics of his family relations, too often told in vague abstractions -- one paragraph alone uses "malignant presence," "fury," "catastrophe," "wickedness," "horror," and "abyss" -- feels self- dramatizing, not self-revealing.
The prose itself is also uneven. At times, O'Gorman's language is precise: "Sons crave their father's [sic] praise even if their fathers praise them for the wrong things and for the wrong reasons." But just as often the writing is overwrought, like this hooey describing an early sexual episode: "I carried a sweetness in my loins."
While unlucky in love and formal religion, fortunately for O'Gorman, he finally finds poetry and teaching a more fitting spiritual calling. The second section, about this "fool poet," as he calls himself, founding a school for poor black kids in New York City, is where he finds his place . For 40 years he tries to teach Harlem's children "to love themselves and the world."
This ultimately successful search for a life purpose ought to read as an engrossing triumph over O'Gorman's wayward path and many insecurities. Instead, the scattered anecdotes about what he accomplished tutoring children seem like hastily assembled afterthoughts. Sound ideas about educational reform are lodged within, but the frustratingly random collisions of sentences seem more at the first-draft stage.
O'Gorman rarely shows the discipline to develop an idea fully or tell a compelling narrative.
What's missing is the connective tissue, the overarching story, and memorable characters. The final 60 pages are an oddly disorganized and fragmented reverie mixed with polemic.
"The Other Side of Loneliness" also does little to dismiss the stereotype of the sensitive, tormented poet partial to trips to Rome and Venice and apt to utter such lines as "Each breath I took, each step, shuddered with the sea." After such passages, the reader longs for a simple and unadorned declarative sentence, devoid of drama or self-pity.
These are all unfortunate missteps. For Ned O'Gorman's life ought to be memorable, and his accomplishments and devotion to education and poetry inspiring to others.
His may be a life to examine. But in this book, it is not a life well told.
Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .