“It is toward the end of the second draft, if I’m lucky, when the feeling comes over me that I have something I want to show to other people, something that seems to be working and is not going to go away. The feeling is more than welcome, yes, but it is hardly euphoria. It’s just a new lease on life, a sense that I’m going to survive until the middle of next month. After reading the second draft aloud, and going through the piece for the third time (removing the tin horns and radio static that I heard while reading), I enclose things in boxes for Draft No. 4. If I enjoy anything in this process it is Draft No. 4. I go searching for replacements for the words in the boxes. The final adjustments may be small-scale, but they are large to me, and I love addressing them.”
—John McPhee, “Draft No. 4: Replacing the Words in Boxes,” New Yorker, April 29, 2013.
“Some Other Just Ones”
a footnote to Borges
The printer who sets this page with skill, though he may not admire it.
Anyone whose skeleton is susceptible to music.
She who, having loved a book or record, instantly passes it on.
Whose heart lilts at a span of vacant highway, the fervent surge of acceleration, psalm of the tires.
Adults content to let children bury them in sand or leaves.
Those for whom sustaining hatred is a difficulty.
Surprised by tenderness on meeting, at a reunion, the persecutors of their youth.
Likely to forget debts owed them but never a debt they owe.
Apt to read Plutarch or Thich Nhat Hanh with the urgency of one reading the morning news.
Frightened ones who fight to keep fear from keeping them from life.
The barber who, no matter how long the line, will not rush the masterful shave or cut.
The small-scale makers of precious obscurios—pomegranate spoons, conductors’ batons, harpsichord tuning hammers, War of 1812 re-enactors’ ramrods, hand-cranks for hurdy-gurdies.
The gradeschool that renewed the brownfields back of the A&P and made them ample miraculous May and June.
The streetgang that casts no comment as they thin out to let Bob the barking man squawk past them on the sidewalk.
The two African medical students in Belgrade, 1983, who seeing a traveller lost and broke took him in and fed him rice and beans cooked over a camp stove in their cubicle of a room and let him sleep there while one of them studied all night at the desk between the beds with the lamp swung low.
Those who sit on front porches, not in fenced privacy, in the erotic inaugural summer night steam.
Who redeem from neglect a gorgeous, long-orphaned word.
Who treat dogs with a sincere and comical diplomacy.
Attempt to craft a decent wine in a desperate climate.
Clip the chain of consequence by letting others have the last word.
Master the banjo.
Are operatically loud in love.
These people, without knowing it, are saving the world.
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
—Robert Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays,” from Collected Poems of Robert Hayden (Liveright Publishing Corp., 1985), 41.
“Failing and Flying”
Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It’s the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.
—Jack Gilbert, in Refusing Heaven (New York: Knopf, 2007), 18.
“I would rather see words out on their own, away
from their families and the warehouse of Roget,
wandering the world where they sometimes fall
in love with a completely different word.
Surely, you have seen pairs of them standing forever
next to each other on the same line inside a poem,
a small chapel where weddings like these,
between perfect strangers, can take place.”
—Billy Collins, excerpt from his poem “Thesaurus”
“Time was when readers kept commonplace books. Whenever they came across a pithy passage, they copied it into a notebook under an appropriate heading, adding observations made in the course of daily life. Erasmus instructed them how to do it; and if they did not have access to his popular De Copia, they consulted printed models or the local schoolmaster. The practice spread everywhere in early modern England, among ordinary readers as well as famous writers like Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, John Milton, and John Locke. It involved a special way of taking in the printed word. Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end (unless they are digital natives and click through texts on machines), early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality.”
—Robert Darnton, The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future (New York: PublicAffairs, 2010), 149–150.
“When I got home from school I did what I had always done, which was to read, curled up in the window seat in the library or lying flat on my back on the floor with my feet in a chair, in the darkest corner I could find. The house was full of places to read that fitted me like a glove, and I read the same books over and over. Children tend to derive comfort and support from the totally familiar—an umbrella stand, a glass ashtray backed with brightly colored cigar bands, the fire tongs, anything. With the help of these and other commonplace objects—with the help also of the two big elm trees that shaded the house from the heat of the sun, and the trumpet vine by the back door, and the white lilac bush by the dining-room window, and the comfortable wicker porch furniture and the porch swing that contributed its creak…creak…to the sounds of the summer night—I got from one day to the next.”
—William Maxwell, So Long, See You Tomorrow (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980), 9–10.
“An individual human existence should be like a river—small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past boulders and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being. The man who, in old age, can see his life in this way, will not suffer from the fear of death, since the things he cares for will continue. And if, with the decay of vitality, weariness increases, the thought of rest will be not unwelcome. The wise man should wish to die while still at work, knowing that others will carry on what he can no longer do, and content in the thought that what was possible has been done.”
— Bertrand Russell, “The Happy Man,” in New Hopes for a Changing World (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1951), 205.
…Ah, poems amount to so little when you write them too early in your life. You ought to wait and gather sense and sweetness for a whole lifetime, and a long one if possible, and then, at the very end, you might perhaps be able to write ten good lines.
For poems are not, as people think, simply emotions (one has emotions early enough)—they are experiences. For the sake of a single poem, you must see many cities, many people and Things, you must understand animals, must feel how birds fly, and knows the gesture which small flowers make when they open in the morning. You must be able to think back to streets in unknown neighborhoods, to unexpected encounters, and to partings you had long seen coming; to days of childhood whose mystery is still unexplained, to parents whom you had to hurt when they brought in a joy and you didn’t pick it up (it was a joy meant for somebody else—); to childhood illnesses that began so strangely with so many profound and difficult transformations, to days in quiet, restrained rooms and to mornings by the sea, to the sea itself, to seas, to nights of travel that rushed along high overhead and went flying with all the stars,—and it is still not enough to be able to think of all that. You must have memories of many nights of love, each one different from all the others, memories of women screaming in labor, and of light, pale, sleeping girls who have just given birth and are closing again. But you must also have been beside the dying, must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open window and the scattered noises. And it is not yet enough to have memories. You must be able to forget them when they are many, and you must have the immense patience to wait until they return. For the memories themselves are not important. Only when they have changed into our very blood, into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves—only then can it happen that in some very rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them.”
—Rainer Maria Rilke, “For the Sake of a Single Poem,” The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke (New York: Vintage Books, 1989).
“Willem de Kooning one day was shown some drawings, did not know who had done them, looked at them quite carefully, and said, ‘Well, they’re very interesting. They remind me a little bit of Japanese calligraphy, quite sophisticated. I don’t think they were done by a child.’ And the person who gave them to him to look at said, ‘No, they were done by an elephant, sir.’ Nothing has delighted me more for a long time. Siri was an elephant in a zoo who was seen making drawings with her trunk in the dust, and her keeper said, ‘Well, we must give her a chance to draw.’ But the head of the zoo thought he was crazy and would not do anything about it, so the keeper on his own bought charcoal and large sheets of paper and laid them at Siri’s feet. Lo and behold, she went at it at once with her long sensitive trunk and would concentrate for as much as an hour in perfect bliss.”
—May Sarton, entry dated Tuesday, November 5, 1991, in Encore: A Journal of the Eightieth Year (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1993), 156–57.
“Originally, feathers evolved to retain heat; later, they were repurposed for a means of flight. No one ever accuses the descendants of ancient birds of plagiarism for taking heat-retaining feathers and modifying them into wings for flight. In our current system, the original feathers would be copyrighted, and upstart birds would get sued for stealing the feathers for a different use. Almost all famous discoveries (by Edison, Darwin, Einstein, et al.) were not lightning-bolt epiphanies but were built slowly over time and heavily dependent on the intellectual superstructure of what had come before them. The commonplace book was popular among English intellectuals in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. These notebooks were a depository for thoughts and quotes and were usually categorized by topic. Enquire Within Upon Everything was a commercially successful take-off on the commonplace book in London in 1890. There’s no such thing as originality. Invention and innovation grow out of rich networks of people and ideas. All life on earth (and by extension, technology) is built upon appropriation and reuse of the preexisting.”
—David Shields, “Life Is Short; Art is Shorter,” Los Angeles Review of Books, May 2, 2011.
“…I was expert at the kind of hallucinatory economics that turned every snake into a ladder—whenever I dined in a fairly expensive restaurant, for instance, I calculated that I’d saved money by not dining in a very expensive one, and the money saved I tacked on to my inner bank account, as if it were money earned. Thus I became richer every time I ate out at my own expense…”
—Simon Gray, The Smoking Diaries (New York: Da Capo Press, 2005), 204.
“Aunt Nellie cannot have had much money. Twice a week she had all the neighborhood children she could squeeze into her one room and she made onion soup or potato soup and all the children brought their own cup and she ladled it out off the stove.
She taught them songs and she told them Bible stories and thirty or forty skinny hungry kids queued outside and sometimes brought things from their mothers—buns or toffees—and everybody shared. They all had nits. They all loved her and she loved them. She called her dank dark little house with its one window and black walls ‘Sunshine Corner.’
It was my first lesson in love.”
— Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (New York: Grove Press, 2011), 75.
Without introverts, the world would be devoid of:
the theory of gravity
the theory of relativity
W. B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming”
Proust’s In Search of Lost Time
Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm
The Cat in the Hat
Schindler’s List, E.T., and Close Encounters of the Third Kind
— Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (New York: Crown, 2012), 5.
“When I return to my house I find that visitors have been there and left their cards, either a bunch of flowers, or a wreath of evergreen, or a name in pencil on a yellow walnut leaf or a chip. They who come rarely to the woods take some little piece of the forest into their hands to play with by the way, which they leave, either intentionally or accidentally. One has peeled a willow wand, woven it into a ring, and dropped it on my table. I could always tell if visitors had called in my absence, either by the bended twigs or grass, or the print of their shoes, and generally of what sex or age or quality they were by some slight trace left, as a flower dropped, or a bunch of grass plucked and thrown away, even as far off as the railroad, half a mile distant, or by the lingering odor of a cigar or pipe. Nay, I was frequently notified of the passage of a traveler along the highway sixty rods off by the scent of his pipe.”
— Henry David Thoreau, “Solitude,” in Walden: or, Life in the Woods (Philadelphia: Henry Altemus Company, 1899), 147–48.