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Memorable Speech: On J. D. McClatchy’s “Sweet Theft: A Poet’s Commonplace Book”

By Isaac NowellJanuary 14, 2017

Memorable Speech: On J. D. McClatchy’s “Sweet Theft: A Poet’s Commonplace Book”

Sweet Theft by J. D. McClatchy

PERHAPS UNSURPRISINGLY, it is not easy to review a commonplace book, or even to define it. The Oxford English Dictionary is periphrastically unhelpful: “a book in which ‘commonplaces’ or passages important for reference were collected, usually under general heads; hence, a book in which one records passages or matters to be especially remembered or referred to, with or without arrangement.” This certainly describes J. D. McClatchy’s recent addition to the tradition, although it could describe a lot of things. By what yardstick is it possible to measure a person’s compilation of quotations mostly from other people? One idea suggests itself: whether or not the quotations are any good. But, after all, how difficult is it to steal (sweetly, or otherwise) clever or funny or profound things that other people have said? Reviewing a commonplace book is a bit like evaluating a recently completed magpie’s nest, or bowerbird’s bower (to adopt McClatchy’s own analogy), except that each glistering oddment is itself a kind of achieved work of art. How much credit, then, do we grant the bird? Another criteria might be: What impression does the book make as a whole? How well has the magpie curated its nest? Cohesion is an interesting problem. Each quotation must ideally feel as if it has been recently uncovered, yet at the same time writ somewhere in stone. Diversity is surely desirable, even eclecticness — in which case a sense of cohesion can only mean the feeling that there is an invisible governing sensibility relating the disparate contents of the pages. Where, then, does Sweet Theft fall?

McClatchy’s selection of quotations is mostly immaculate, as might be expected from a poet whose erudition and productivity are, it must be said, astonishing. McClatchy has published six volumes of poetry in the course of a career spanning some 30 years. That’s unexceptional in itself, but when you consider his other projects, it seems unlikely that he sleeps. He has also published three collections of essays, edited over a dozen volumes of verse and prose, written six opera libretti, translated Seven Mozart Librettos (2010), all while serving as editor of The Yale Review, a chancellor of The Academy of American Poets, and teaching at Yale, John Hopkins, Columbia, and UCLA. It’s a miracle McClatchy has had time to note down as many gems as he has.

When interviewing McClatchy in 2002 for The Paris Review, Daniel Hall recalls:

At one end of the living room is an oak table covered with framed photographs of friends and still more books; at the other, the mantel above the fireplace is lined with obelisks, bronze figurines, and a Cambodian head of the Buddha. Hung on the walls are a Fairfield Porter, a large Chinese ancestor portrait, an embroidered image of Ceres; in the dining room there are ranks of Japanese prints and an assortment of cloisonné tea caddies. There are curiosities throughout the house, including a few dangerous-looking insects mounted under glass, Byzantine coins, fossils, an antique map of Stonington, a cameo of Goethe, a gigantic geranium blocking the narrow stairway at the back of the house.

The same “idiosyncratic sensibility,” in Hall’s words, which, bowerbird-like, curated this living room, clearly accumulated the contents of Sweet Theft. As McClatchy says in the preface, “my secret planet is populated by Diana Vreeland and Dwight Eisenhower and Alexander Pope and John Cage and Edgar Degas and Dizzy Gillespie and hundreds of others: a Mad Hatter’s tea party of brilliant conversationalists talking over and at odds with one another.” The selection is indeed idiosyncratic, but — as the slew of names above might suggest — not so much in terms of diversity of the sources, as in the choice of quotations. In the same way that his living room is filled with a diverse cocktail of artifacts from established cultures and traditions, his Sweet Theft is exquisite. In an entry of his own, McClatchy proposes a law for judging poetry anthologies: “don’t look first to the poets included; look to the kind of poems the anthologist chooses to represent any one of (and all) the poets.” By this law McClatchy’s commonplace book excels. The names are largely the usual ones associated with wit and learning — Wilde, Proust, James, and Auden (McClatchy’s “first among equals,” whose OED he proudly owns) taking center stage — but his selection is deep and dazzling. Alongside Auden’s more famous pronouncements, such as the definition of poetry as “memorable speech,” one also finds the late limericks, like the brilliant “Bishop Elect of Hong Kong”:

The Bishop Elect of Hong Kong
Had a dong that was twelve inches long.
He thought the spectators
Were admiring his gaiters
When he went to the gents. He was wrong.

Similarly, beside such true commonplaces as “charity creates a multitude of sins,” we run across some of the few lines of Wilde’s that haven’t been regularly anthologized. The reminder, for instance, that “bad artists always admire each other’s work. They call it being large-minded and free from prejudice,” or the piquant description of Lady Henry Wotton, “whose dresses always looked as if they had been designed in a rage and put on in a tempest,” remain fresh. McClatchy’s life spent among these names and others — Woolf, Goethe, Thoreau, Hazlitt, Bacon, Hopkins, Ashbery, Moore, et cetera — has given him a knowledge of their work that the majority of readers will never have. His distillation of several decades of insightful reading is a gift to the reader.

The book, McClatchy tells us, is meant to be sipped, not gulped. Well, for the purposes of a review it has to be gulped, and in doing so one may regret that it had less room for diversity or eclecticness as might be hoped. McClatchy concedes as much in the preface, acknowledging that the range of the book “is narrow but high-minded. It limits itself to the sources of art, the relationship of the page to the world, and to aesthetic prowess.” While he admires Auden’s commonplace book A Certain World (1970) for appreciating both the sacred and the camp, McClatchy himself doesn’t quite strike that balance. Adam Kirsch wrote in a review of McClatchy’s collection Hazmat (2002) that he “carries forward the most strict, exact and literate tradition in American poetry,” and Sweet Theft reiterates this. At times it might be wished that there were less stricture.

McClatchy’s book of essays White Paper, published in 1989, preempts the rebuke, questioning what he sees as the avant-garde’s use of the word “academic” as an insult: “clearly, the term is handed out, like a pink slip, to whatever needs to be dismissed — because carefully written, or thematically challenging, or strict and exact and literate.” Occasionally, and perhaps inevitably, Sweet Theft feels less like a means of appreciating this kind of literate writing than like the compiler’s bid to install himself among the pantheon of eloquent favorites (headed by Horace). Of course, this is a weakness inherent in the genre — for isn’t the act of publicizing one’s prodigious reading and exquisite taste always, in part, a form of bragging? McClatchy may wittily anticipate this criticism near the beginning, in another of his own aphorisms: “[c]ertain writers are like those ballet dancers who, when bowing, use their elaborate deference to their partners as a means of gathering more applause for themselves.” There is certainly something of this in the closing quotation, which neatly reminds the reader that the selection has been sensitively sculpted: “[a] commonplace book,” says Jonathan Swift on the final page,

is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories”: and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation.

So ends the book of the provident poet.

But, as if in afterthought, McClatchy also includes some things that feel somehow out of keeping with the rest of the polished collection. For instance, he incorporates, without any additional comment, the “archives of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice,” which, since 1982, “noted the last words of those about to be executed by lethal injection for murder.” There follow some “samples.” Mostly the things said are neither memorable nor profound and resonate only because of the context in which they were said. This perhaps defies the point of a “commonplace” book somewhat, and seems a strange way to diversify at the last minute. It is difficult also to say whether including a section of Alec Guinness’s commonplace book, published in 2001, is charmingly metatextual or somehow redundant, and the quotations of Mr./Mrs. “X” (described variously in the feminine and masculine) are rather abstruse. “There is also a recurring character, named X, to whom phrases happen,” McClatchy mercurially explains in the preface. Interjections about X are distinct from, and more frequent than, McClatchy’s own entries, and indeed can only be described as “phrases.” Some instances:

X’s style of poems: a sugar pill with a bitter coating.

X has a glittering —. But all is not gold.

X has a gumdrop for a brain.

Since X exists, we do not have to invent him!

X’s imagination works at short range.

X writes with her toes turned out, uses the French when she can’t think of the English for a thing, and remembers who she is.

At best they are playfully aphoristic, adding to the comic relief of other passages and relaxing the tenor, and at worst they seem a little self-indulgent, which recalls the misfortunes of reviewing a commonplace book. In his preface to A Certain World, Auden says it is the closest he will come to ever writing an autobiography. It represents a culmination of a life spent in letters. And surely the moments that perplex or fail to glimmer in Sweet Theft resonate beyond the pages with a special significance to the life of the author. But this does not make them any more lucid to the reader. In any case, these are small concessions, and the majority of the book compels as an artifact of literary intimacy and insight, if not of range. “This book will be read when every other volume of poetry published this year has been long forgotten. But not until then,” McClatchy writes, this time with unambiguous metatextual charm. It would be a shame for this to prove prescient: read it now.


Isaac Nowell is a writer who lives in Cornwall, United Kingdom.

LARB Contributor

Isaac Nowell completed his masters on 20th-century literature at the University of St Andrews, specializing in the poetry of W. H. Auden. He currently lives in Cornwall, United Kingdom.


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