Last week my best friend Stoney called, and as usual we talked for about an hour, covering the many topics we most enjoy: our short past together, our long past apart, the many realms of the present, and the indefinite possibilities of the future. Together we have now had two vanity books of music printed, a total of 46 songs, which is only a quarter of what we wrote back in the 70s and 80s. The slim, stapled 9×12 collections are amazing to see on my bookshelf, next to similarly sized songbooks I bought over the years. And while I have entered a retro stage of my life in which I’m experimenting with drums, a keyboard piano, and the bass guitar, as well as refamiliarizing myself with the old chords and learning the notes of an acoustic six-string, he has no interest in taking up music again. Instead, he’s putting together a collection of poetry.
I’ve already dusted off a shelf with lemon Pledge to accommodate his book, which I plan to put between the complete poems of Edgar Allan Poe and my favorite, Cemetery Nights by Stephen Dobyns. But Stoney’s not sure which poems to include. As near as he can tell, he’s written about 400, including his songs, and that would be expensive to print indeed. Poe’s book has 55 poems in 128 pages, and Dobyns’ has 57 in 99, and they are fairly flat books, about a half-inch thick. I have a standard paperback copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, but that’s 470 pages including the index, and almost 1.25 inches thick with 385 poems, printed in 10-font. I prefer 14-font, but 12 will do. If Stoney wants his book to be comfortably perused, which I plan to do more than once, it should be 8 by 5 and no more than three-quarters of an inch thick. That size, I’ve discovered, is most comfortable in my hands while on my recliner and in my bed and hunkering in the bathroom. But if he wants his book to be thin, 400 would require it to be printed much like the boxed edition of the Oxford English Dictionary I bought years and years ago, which was in two volumes and had a drawer with a magnifying glass. Nope, not going to peruse that. And he agrees, and plans to use only about 40 to 50 poems to keep the font high the thickness low.
But he’s not sure what to select. He wants the book to reflect his life, and that’s completely understandable since all his poetry is based on his experiences. (I too have written poems, but regardless of the format, they all twisted themselves into objectionable themes like “There once was a man from Nantucket…,” even when I used a rhyming dictionary.) I told Stoney he needs to choose wisely, and find a way out of his mental block. (I’m eager to read it and he’s taking too long.) He said it wasn’t a block, but a pause for reflection, of examination. He then told me the story he’d heard about Michelangelo and the statue of David.
Michelangelo was asked if he’d work on a statue based on the story of David and Goliath. Other artists had refused the commission because the chunk of marble had too many flaws. But twenty-six-year-old Michelangelo saw it’s potential and spent weeks, or perhaps even months looking at. He worked on it between 1501 and 1504, and the fourteen-foot-high statue was so good that instead of being placed in an outside niche high in a cathedral, where it was intended to go, it was displayed on the floor of some other chapel. (Part of what made it special is that the pose wasn’t a traditional rendering of the aftermath of the battle, but the moment before David loaded his sling. And by the way, the reason the head and shoulders are disproportionately large is because it was supposed to be view from far below.)
So that’s what Stoney told me he was doing, studying his chunk of poems to see what to cut away to reveal a masterpiece. Yeah, well, I’m not waiting three years. I told him I was sure Michelangelo didn’t sit in a 16th century lawn chair and stare at it from one side. He walked around it, probably climbed a ladder and looked at the top, and I have no doubt he knocked on it with knuckles or a wooden mallet to hear the inside. “You, my old friend,” I told Stoney, “need to walk around the marble.” Meaning that he should mentally get out of his computer chair and, with theme in mind, examine all aspects of his poetic corpus, not just stare at the flat screen of words.
There was a long pause on the phone, and I thought we had once again been disconnected, as this walkie-talkie technology is prone to do. But no, he said he was thinking. Well, glad I could help. I’ll keep my shelf Pledged.