Centuries ago, when books were rare, those who owned them would lend them to friends, who in turn would copy out passages they especially liked before returning the precious book to its owner. These anthologies came to be known as Commonplace Books, and modern writers as different as W. H. Auden and Alec Guinness have kept them as well, recording phrases or passages that struck them as wise or witty or quirky. The result is as much the self-portrait of a sensibility as it is a collection of miscellaneous delights. Renowned poet J. D. McClatchy has been keeping such a book for three decades now. This selection from it offers a unique look into what strange facts, what turns of mind or phrase, what glorious feats of language and nature can attract the attention of a poet.
The great and the obscure are gathered around the same table, exchanging remarkable opinions. Henry James is speaking of Venice: “The deposed, the defeated, the disenchanted, the wounded, or even only the bored, have seemed to find there something that no other place could give.” At the other end of the table, Groucho Marx is playing drama critic: “I didn’t like the play, but then I saw it under adverse circumstances—the curtain was up.” Nietzsche and Flaubert, Dizzy Gillespie and Marianne Moore—dozens of unexpected and timeless aphorisms and anecdotes that pierce and provoke. Many of McClatchy’s own observations about the art and prowess of writing are included as well.
This is a book meant to be sipped, not gulped; meant to be read at leisure and pondered on at length.