Sweet Theft: A Poet’s Commonplace Book by J.D. McClatchy, Counterpoint Press, 307 pages, $26. The only trouble with commonplace books (of favorite quotations and anecdotes) is that we all don’t keep them. The best thing about commonplace books is that some of the best among us DO keep them.
The most arresting one I know of – still – is W.H. Auden’s “A Certain World” which poet J.D. McClatchy calls “a constant wonder of discovery” which it certainly is, as its lifelong admirers will agree. “Published near the end of his life,” writes McClatchy, “it is an emblem of the voracious appetite for knowledge that distinguishes his poems. He found appealing both the sacred and the camp.”
McClatchy’s explication of his method is simple: “ ‘Commonplace’ means proverbial wisdom. Sages from Cicedro to Erasmus kept such books. ... Orators and students would study the snippets from moral philosophy and great poems.” All those cherished quotes and anecdotes here, he says, are “not neccesarily meant to be read from beginning to end, but to dipped into, a page or two savored at a time.”
Let’s at random, then, turn to pages 102-105. And find this from bluesman Big Bill Broonzy: “To sing the blues you have to live it. I can sing about my mules being stolen, so I don’t have no way of actually getting my vegetables to the market, because that really happened to me but I can’t sing about a bomb dropping on my house, they can do that in Europe and that would be their blues.”
And these from Dr. (Samuel) Johnson: “No man, but a blockhead, ever wrote, except for money;” “Criticism is a study by which men grow important and formidable at a very small expense.” And this about W.H. Auden himself, who ”said it is bad manners not to be boring occasionally.” And that Peter DeVries “once said his ambition was to have a mass audience large enough for his select followers to despise.” Then, on another page entirely, there’s Groucho Marx, explaining his feelings about a particular piece of theater: “I didn’t like the play but then I saw it under adverse circumstance – the curtain was up.” No, McClatchy’s is by no means the equal of Auden’s but it is, rare and very fine on its own. – Jeff Simon