Thursday, May 15, 2008

Notes on notebooks

{Photo by rocketlass. It only belongs here because that toothy face stared at me as I wrote the essay that was the starting point for this post.}

I have a piece about three poetry notebooks up at the Poetry Foundation today. In writing the article, I took a lot of notes (on a laptop rather than a notebook) that I didn't end up using, so a brief notes post about my notebooks piece seems in order. But you should read the finished article first!

You've done that now? Okay, then here are the odds and ends.

1 I flagged a lot of great lines in all three books as I read, not knowing at the time what I'd end up needing. Most of them didn't make it, but some at least are worth sharing here. Like this one from Gabriel Gudding's massive Rhode Island Notebook:
[. . .] My head was formed
in library, my hope there, and
have always loved meeting lib'arians
may they always be my friends
They are like surrogate aunts. There is
no other job
more materteral.
I don't think of my current librarian friends as surrogate aunts, but it does seem an apt description of the relationship one can develop with a librarian as a kid: not quite a proper friendship, and too attenuated to be a true familial relationship, yet shot through with real warmth, affection, and appreciation. Surrogate aunt it is.

2 George Oppen's Daybooks include many a memorable line, most seeming relatively casual, chance thoughts put down in case of later value. But as Oppen kept working at his notebooks for years, even decades, some entries bear the marks of later emendation, or even complete reconsideration. I think this one, complete in its negation, is my favorite:
All there is to say
It's so perfect as to be a joke--but was it?

3 I'm not confident that in the relatively small space I had at the Poetry Foundation's site I conveyed just what good company Campbell McGrath is as a poet. That's not to say he's always cheery and upbeat, but that his attention to the stuff of the world is in itself satisfying, serving that time-honored poetic function of waking us up to it ourselves. In his "Forms of Attention" he describes that approach:
Often writing is a kind of listening,
a form of deep attention.
Turning the stations, fingering the dial.
Marry that to a wry sense of humor and an exuberance inherited from Whitman and you get odes to bureaucrats and Schaffer's beer, haiku about sparrows, and transporting reveries in a denuded strawberry patch--all wonderful poems.

4 Both George Oppen's and Gabriel Gudding's books mention Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, one of my favorites. Gudding quotes from it, while Oppen uses it as a prop in an argument about influences, positing his temperament as more . . . difficult? because in childhood he read Burton rather than Edna St. Vincent Millay and other poets of the day.

That coincidence immediately sent me back to McGrath's Seven Notebooks in hopes that there was a Burton reference there, too, which I'd missed. But no luck--and I shouldn't have been surprised. Though McGrath writes frequently of late-night insomniac vigils--prime times for dipping into Burton--his does not appear to be a melancholic's nature.

Still, I think McGrath would enjoy Burton's magpie accumulations and his rush of words, his effort to somehow write it all down--the very act of which seemed to fend off the melancholy that inspired it.

5 Campbell McGrath taught the first poetry class I took, a reading and writing poetry class in the spring of 1993 when I was nineteen. He was an excellent teacher, enthusiastic but critical, treating our amateurish efforts with care while arguing strenuously for the necessity of unstinting reading as we tried to learn to write.

I wrote a sonnet for that class about Elvis Presley, not knowing McGrath well enough to know whether he was a fan. I suspect now that he is, given Elvis's symbolic place as a mish-mash of so much that is thought to be oppositional in American culture: high and low, North and South, white and black, art and trash, success and failure. Even an abiding love of Elvis, however, wouldn't have been likely to rescue that sonnet.

6 I'll close with a line from Oppen's Daybooks that is both apt and eerie, reminiscent of Kafka's more epigrammatic writings:
The poem (narrative) depends for its "argument" on vividness--One might regard it as incoherent in the way that a man may seem incoherent whose argument consists finally in repeating--"But look, But look--!"
I often feel that what I'm doing on this blog is saying, "Look! Look!"--a new version of the hand-selling that was the best part of my old bookseller days. I wouldn't claim to often achieve the vividness Oppen notes, but I like to think that some days I shout loud enough to get some people to follow my pointing finger to a book they wouldn't have tried. (Like this one!)


  1. Anonymous8:33 AM

    God, the saddest line by Campbell McGrath: "if I didn't write it down, did it really happen?" Kill me now.

    Excellent article, Levi!

  2. George Oppen's deleted line reminded me of an essay I started on 6/2/1997, "The Philosophy of the Unfinished," which, in its current state, consists of this one terrible, awkward sentence: "I'm in the middle of a couple of books right now, but the truth is, most of them will go unfinished."

    [I think originally it was going to be an apologia for not finishing reading something, but I must have instantly inspired myself to not finish writing it.]

    Anyway, the best fragment I came across in my notebooks while digging up that beauty was this lonely, suggestive line:

    The weeping locksmith