Every voracious reader commits some act of graffiti as they read. Noteworthy moments are either scrawled on paper, illuminated with highlights, hallowed as marginalia or (at the very least) inscribed on the walls of memory.
I generally commit any of the above, plus, will type (or copy/paste) these moments into Day One, my journal app. It struck me as stingy not to share so I decided to post these here each week. They can come from anywhere: the book I’m currently reading, serendipitous stumbles found in my library, articles via my RSS Reader, podcasts, audiobooks, conversations with friends, or the wild, worldly web. What follows in each bullet point is my own marginalia (commentary, questions or disagreement) typewritten after the angle brackets (>>). When possible, I will link to the source:
- "The world is too grand to reshape with babble." ~ "Sunlight" by Jim Harrison >> Spoken like a poet and novella writer, one skilled in the economy of words. Harrison never tires admiring the grandeur of the world, much like Gerard Manley Hopkins.
- "What is most interesting in Frost are the narrative poems written between 1911 and 1926. The main power of Frost's narration is not so much his description as his dialogue. As a result, the action in Frost takes place within the four walls. Two people talking (and the whole horror is what they don't say to each other!). Frost's dialogue includes all the essential playwright's remarks, all the stage directions. The set is described, as well as the movements. It is a tragedy in the Greek sense, a ballet almost." - Joseph Brodsky, Conversations with Joseph Brodksy >> I agree! Home Burial, (in particular), and Death of the Hired Man both are electrified by what is not said, hidden dialogue sunlit by each poem's setting.
- "The age of speed was just getting underway … the age was choosing between poetry and speed and it was not choosing poetry." - Walter Locke as quoted in Songs of Ourselves, Joan Shelley Rubin >> The speed today, accelerated now to the point of our undoing? Is not a return to poetry -the act of leaning in or leaning back- a recourse, a rebellion against the speed that blurs past comprehension? Is poetry not a pause, a respite and rest from rapidity?
- "I used to write every day in an exercise book, and when I first wrote I wrote with great originality. I just wrote as hard and as well as I felt. I remember the great elation and release I felt, a sort of hooking on to a thing, when I read Auden, Eliot, and everyone. One day I would write like Spender, another day I would write like Dylan Thomas. When I felt I had enough poems that I liked, I wanted to see them in print. We had no publishing house in St. Lucia or in the Caribbean. There was a Faber collection of books that had come out with poets like Eliot and Auden, and I liked the typeface and how the books looked. I thought, I want to have a book like that. So I selected a collection of twenty-five of them and thought, Well, these will look good because they’ll look like they came from abroad; they’ll look like a published book. I went to my mother and said, “I’d like to publish a book of poems, and I think it’s going to cost me two hundred dollars.” She was just a seamstress and a schoolteacher, and I remember her being very upset because she wanted to do it. Somehow she got it—a lot of money for a woman to have found on her salary. She gave it to me, and I sent off to Trinidad and had the book printed. When the books came back I would sell them to friends. I made the money back. In terms of seeing a book in print, the only way I could have done it was to publish it myself". - Derek Walcott, The Art of Poetry No. 37, The Paris Review >> Emphasis mine.
- "I don’t know how many writers are willing to confess to their private preparatory rituals before they get down to putting something on paper. But I imagine that all artists and all writers in that moment before they begin their working day or working night have that area between beginning and preparation, and however brief it is, there is something about it votive and humble and in a sense ritualistic. Individual writers have different postures, different stances, even different physical attitudes as they stand or sit over their blank paper, and in a sense, without doing it, they are crossing themselves; I mean, it’s like the habit of Catholics going into water: you cross yourself before you go in. Any serious attempt to try to do something worthwhile is ritualistic. I haven’t noticed what my own devices are. But I do know that if one thinks a poem is coming on—in spite of the noise of the typewriter, or the traffic outside the window, or whatever—you do make a retreat, a withdrawal into some kind of silence that cuts out everything around you. What you’re taking on is really not a renewal of your identity but actually a renewal of your anonymity, so that what’s in front of you becomes more important than what you are". - Derek Walcott, The Art of Poetry No. 37, The Paris Review >> Profound. Having spent a weekend at a monastery, I can corroborate with an additional thought: this ironic forgetting oneself in order to put the work first is an incredible irony because you are still, often, reflected in the work. Amazing insight from Walcott.
- "Though Stevens found it tiresome when others pointed to his dual career as businessman-poet, that afternoon he himself called attention to it and the way he handled it. Louis Martz, his campus host that day, recalls "...he opened up his briefcase and he said, 'Now you see everything is neatly sorted out here. Over here in this compartment ... is my insurance business with the farmers, and over here in this compartment is my lecture and some poems that I want to read. I keep them completely separated.' At other times though, Stevens might argue just the opposite, stressing the seamlessness of his career ..." - PEter Brazeau, "Wallace Stevents on the Podium: The Poet as Public Man of Letters", Can Poetry Matter?, Dan Gioia
- Altogether, the sentence took almost an hour. But I didn't begrudge a minute of it. On the contrary, seeing it fall into place gave me great pleasure. No writing decision is too small to be worth a large expenditure of time. Both you and the reader know it when you finicky labor is reward by a sentence coming out right. - William Zinnser, On Writing Well >> Thanks, Bill. Was thinking: if it wasn't obsessive compulsiveness, it was madness. Nice to know I'm sane.
- On the death (possible suicide) of his son while surfing: "I am as unsure of myself as I ever was of him. And I know why. In rejecting me he destroyed my compass, he pulled my plug, he drained me. He was the continuity my life and effort were spent to establish. I have been guilt of making first Ruth and then Curtis into barricades behind which I could take shelter. But why couldn't he have understood the hunger and love and panic, the trembling and the cold sweats and the sleeplessness, the times when I looked at him sleeping, as a child, and was overwhelmed by my responsibility to him and his dearness to me? .... Fell or let go? Did he eventually bore himself with the aimlessness to which, maybe, my anxious demands on him drove him? Did he try for too big a wave, and if so why? To show me something? ... Christ, even in my regret I can't leave him alone ... It is a pitiful, grubby little story any way you read it. The saga of an immigrant family, a succession of orphans, that began in flight on the island of Lolland in 1901 and ended fifty-two years later (in flight?) on the beach at La Jolla, on the western or suicide edge of the New World. Fifty-two years from wooden shoes and hope to barefoot kicks, fear, and silence; and in between, Joseph Allston, the bright overachiever, his mother's joy and treasure, his son's alien overseer". - The Spectator Bird, Wallace Stegner >> Once again, I'm reduced to monosyllabic utterances. Wow. I didn't think I could impressed beyond Stegner's Crossing to Safety or Angle of Repose, but here I find myself, flattened yet again by Stegner's storytelling ability and his writing. Damn. That writing. That dept of emotion.
- "Communication by the written word is a more subtler (and more beautiful thing) than Dr. Flesch and General Motors imagine. They contend that the "average reader" is capable of reading only what tests Easy, and that the writer should write at or below this level. This is a presumptuous and degrading idea. There is no average reader, and to reach down toward this mythical character is to deny that each of us is on the way up, is ascending. ("Ascending," by the way, is a word Dr. Flesch advises writers to stay away from. Too unusual.) ... It is my belief that no writer can improve his work until he discards the dulcet notion that the reader is feebleminded, for writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar. Ascent is at the heart of the matter ... and a writer who questions the capacity of the person at the other end of the line is not a writer at all, merely a schemer. The movies long ago decided that a wider communication could be achieved by a deliberate descent to a lower level, and they walked proudly down until they reached the cellar. Now they are groping for the light switch, hoping to find the way out". - E. B. White, Calculating Machine, Poems and Sketches >> Thank you, thank you, thank you, EB, a million times thank you for giving me the words, for expressing what my muddled head couldn't gather together and formulate.