Ah the joys of a great book. I’ve read, and reread portions of The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker, an ostensibly simple but fantastically complex and profound study of a modern-day poet-procrastinator-socially inept-loner struggling to write an introduction to an anthology of poetry and doing everything else but. It’s of course a love letter to poetry and to the life of the great poets, but also the study of the human psyche, which in the end is all about poetry.
My dear friend Diane of Diane’s Books sent me the advanced copy and it is now filled with margin notes and folded pages and underlined quotes to be revisited now and then. It’s that sort of book. What you cannot do as well with a Kindle or a Sony electronic reader, nor the amazing Google Books that I’ve recently discovered, where great literature is digitalized so when you’re bored at work you can read a few pages of Jane Austen! I myself have been re-reading Dorian Gray two pages at a time at this gigantic cyberspace library. As fun as that is, there is no thrill of scratching your thoughts in the margins for posterity or circling the tiny number on the bottom of a page to remind you that a passage there is utterly divine.
But this is about the book – a study of life in poetry or poetry in life: Every moment of uncertainty, the challenge of change, the despair of creativity, the pain of loneliness, the jubilation of getting it right and the sheer importance of living in the moment. Lots of little stories within this story, and while it seems on the surface like the stream of conscious reportage of a few months in the life of a writer, it is oh so much more. You will laugh aloud and delight in the telling of tales of great poets’ lives. And you will find yourself nodding in commiseration with his thoughs and with the paralysis we have all felt when something important needs to be done and we just can't do it.
When at last he brings it all together you will rejoice, as we do when we read a truly great poem. This is a book filled with segment after segment, as if stanza’s, that alone are worth the read. Consider this moment as he speaks to a master class, when asked how he achieves the presence of mind to initiate the writing of a poem. “Well, I’ll tell you how. I ask a simple question. I ask myself: ‘What was the very best moment of your day?’ The wonder of it was, I told them, that this one question could lift out from my life exactly what I will want to write a poem about. Something that I hadn’t known was important will leap up and hover there in front of me, saying I am – I am the best moment of the day. It’s a moment when you’re waiting for someone, or you’re driving somewhere, or maybe you’re just walking diagonally across a parking lot and you’re admiring the oil stains and the dribbled tar patterns. One time it was when I was driving past a certain house that was screaming with sunlitness on its white clapboards, and then I plunged through tree shadows that splashed and splayed over the windshield and though, Ah, of course – I’d forgotten. You, windshield shadows, you are the best moment of the day.”
Of course, reading this passage was the best moment of that day.
Well, that was after this moment, this passage, which I must also share: ...“Horace didn’t say that. ‘Carpe diem’ doesn’t mean seize the day – it means something gentler and more sensible. ‘Carpe diem’ means pluck the day. Carpe, pluck. Seize the day would be ‘cape diem’ if my school Latin services. Very different piece of advice What Horace had in mind was that you should gently pull on the day’s stem, as if it were, say, a wildflower or an olive, holding it with all the practiced care of your thumb and the side of your finger, which knows how to not crush easily crushed things… Pluck the cranberry or blueberry of the day tenderly free without damaging it is what Horace meant – pick the day, harvest the day, reap the day, mow the day, forage the day. Don’t freaking grab the day in your fist like a burger at a fairground and take a big chomping bite out of it…”
What more can I possibly say? Pluck the day. At the very least, bite into a juicy plum and relish the juice on your chin. That too is poetry, in its way. One of those lovely small moments that make the day.