Salt, freight trains, lighthouses, whisky, cathedrals, whales, Robert Hass, other lists…
Things I like. I’ve been making lists of this kind since I started writing things down in my Little Black Book. Lists are a great way of starting conversations. They even started the ball rolling between me and my chap. I asked him his five favourite things in the world; he responded: “red wine, the female form, garlic, fire (the non-destructive kind) and the music of Tom Waits”… and the deal was sealed.
Lists feel essential, powerful in their pared-down necessity. They are personal and yet public, leaving large gaps between things. They feel improving, relevant, day-to-day and ambitious. They flex to suit our needs. They are our everyday kind of poetry.
Famously Homer listed a whole fleet of ships in his Book II of the Iliad, but it is often the more personal details that a list can reveal that makes them fascinating to me. I remember visiting friends on the remote island of Oronsay. Two lists sat on the windowsill, one for items from the “local” shop (by which they meant the tiny village stores on the larger island, only accessible twice a day across a tidal strand), and the other entitled “Mainland”. They only travelled that far four times a year.
Lists are also poignant – remnants of a life lived, or a scene remembered and mourned, as in the poetry of Frank O’Hara: “The / really stupid things, I mean / a can of coffee, a 35 c ear / ring, a handful of hair, what / do these things do to us?” (Interior with Jane).
And they can be rich and inclusive, medieval in scope, as Umberto Eco explores so vibrantly and visually in his book The Infinity of Lists.
And lists can be gloriously disjunctive, playful and hilarious in the way they abut one thing with another. For this, see Susan Sontag’s early diary entries in Reborn, and also this partial list of things John Berryman found delicious, where ‘dialogue in Don Quixote’ sits three lines up from ‘the body of a married woman seen in a restaurant’. Because the pleasure of reading such lists is that sometime you chance upon a single item, and the world stops. That one thing comes into focus, and you have to wait and look at it a little bit harder. You forget the other items on the list, the other rungs on the ladder, and it’s like holding your breath with anxiety and pain and anticipation and pleasure and doubt – like catching yourself slipping, and waiting just a little bit before you feel your way down to the next rung.