Our century’s latest answer to parlor games like Twenty Questions and Snapdragon is the short recreative list. Probably by now it’s safe to say that everyone is at least familiar with this strange little diversion. Probably it’s also safe to say that most people have received, now and then, a casual invitation to make some kind of list, and that many of them have gone ahead and actually spent time putting one together. I won’t deny that I am one of those people.
Sometimes the list in question is of musicians or songs, sometimes actors or movies, sometimes writers or literary works. Today, because I know poets, it’s poems. I can’t face thinking about favorite poems, at least not yet. But there is a song I’ve listened to over and over for thirty years. Never has there been a time when, hearing it, my attention was not immediately captured by its ineffable power. When I was young, it made me shudder with something more serious and weighty than joy or delight. The first time I heard it, my temples pounded. I was full of dangerous grandiosity, seduced by this sonic, temporal contraption—created before my birth by a human being long dead—into behaving like a different person, even when days passed without my hearing it. My friends and family noticed. Its effect and message were all I felt for a week, and I knew during that time, as I stood listening with my eyes closed and my head tilted up, imagining myself fifteen feet tall and fearless, that I would happily forsake a normal life for the deep power it seemed to confer on me. In fact, if I consider its indirect effect, I have done just that. Before I heard this song, my favorite music was the same mindless drivel that all the other kids listened to, the cynical, imbecilic trash played at school dances. Most of my friends kept listening to the music they were supposed to listen to and are happier now than I am. The few who didn’t, who heard the song and, like me, couldn’t ignore it, were also changed—one or two, I might even say, ruined. But thirty years later, when I hear the impossible, sublime contrivance of this song, I know that I have something in my life that is much more important than happiness. If you don’t know what I mean, I can’t believe that you have truly understood life.
Another five or ten songs come to mind that fill me with the same feeling as the first. They are the same type of song, each with the extreme manic power I’ve described, which now I am getting into the habit of thinking of as the defining characteristic of “Favorite,” and so I think these songs must be my favorites. But then I imagine them in the context of a
larger list and realize that they are
annihilated by ten other songs of entirely
different types—types I have
completely forgotten, and songs that, far from making me imagine
myself fifteen feet tall and fearless,
make me imagine myself alone on a dark country
say, or flooded with white light and
complex series of oscillating lines, or something else barely describable. Furthermore, some of these
songs of other types will, and some will not, justify classification as “Favorites.” Just when I feel that I am making headway, I suddenly think of a song I haven’t thought of in ten years, a song I never listen to but remember as one of the greatest achievements in music, and from an “enlightened” point of view, I could even be driven to scratch out my thirty-year song to put this one in its place. Then I am reminded of another two songs that I loved deeply but simply forgot about, so that I no longer feel them to be “mine.” I don’t remember the melody or words clearly. One moment I feel that those belong on the list, and the next I don’t. It’s too hard! So it is with any impossible,
sublime contrivance, and especially poems.
But at this moment I am asked—by a friend!—to list my Ten Favorite Poems of All Time. I admit that I am not quite having fun with this game. I want to cooperate with my challenger but am unsure whether or not I can accomplish the prescribed goal. Please don’t misunderstand. It is undoubtedly an interesting, even a necessary, exercise. One day I may complete this list or one like it. But I’ve found more than once that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, and, right now, having spent far too much time already—I won’t say how much—trying to pick just ten poems from among all time that I can call favorite, two things have happened to me.
First, I decided that if I complete this task, I should strongly consider keeping the results private forever. Second, as I’ve worked on my list, I’ve found that I keep naturally slipping into a new intention. That is, though I fought it for a long time, I am now only interested in altering the task to suit my own purposes, which are slightly more obscure and complicated than the original one, but far more important to me. Please be patient! I am now ignoring my work, and the need to eat and go to the bathroom, so that I can pursue my quixotic ends. This happens almost every time I try to write anything that is of serious importance to me. And today, as when it’s happened in the past, I persisted in my folly long enough that I finally stopped fighting the impulse to follow the inevitable course of my true desire.
But now, as I’ve said, I’m a little lost. I don’t know how to do this thing I want to do. In truth, I’m not yet sure what it is. I don’t know what it will be called when I’ve finished it, or even what my precise objective is. I don’t know exactly which particulars I will adduce to illustrate this criterion, which in any case I haven't yet inferred from the particulars I have yet to choose. These things will have to be discovered as I go. It will be a tense, infinitely slow process of generation and purification through fire. I could try to paraphrase the intended meaning of this list, but it would be misleading to do so, and, if I can only do a good job of it, I hope its actual effect will be bigger than the sum of its parts. It’s as if the final artifact already exists somewhere out there, outside the dimly-lit cave where they’ve got me tied up right now, or else maybe inside it, smaller than a quark but folded into one of the seven additional spatial dimensions hypothesized by modern science. All I have to do now is extract it from the air.