Why is it the books I love the most are the hardest to write about? It can’t be only because I want you to love them too. I was going to say that maybe it is because they are the rich ones filled with lots of good things to talk about but that isn’t always the case, sometimes a simple book can blow me away. Likely it’s some combination of factors I would have to think long and hard about. Whatever the reasons, I loved The Art of Daring by Carl Phillips so much I have put off writing about it for two weeks hoping that in that time I would be able to figure out what to say about it, how to explain the reasons it is so very good and why I loved it so much. But I am coming up empty. If I leave it any longer I won’t write about it at all and that won’t do. So I just have to tell you about it as best I can and hope you can make sense of it.
The Art of Daring is a small book of several essays. I wrote about the first one already in which Phillips discusses resonance and restlessness. He carries these two ideas into the rest of the essays and adds to them thoughts on desire, resistance, loss, love, mercy, and, of course, daring. Phillips is a poet and his writing tends to the lyrical. I know, lyrical nonfiction, not a common thing. He is meditative and circles round and round an idea, looking at it from different angles and in different lights. And then he layers them up and then he digs back down. He does this across the essays so that while each one can be read separately, they are so intertwined it would be difficult to break them apart.
This is a book of literary criticism but it is unlike nearly all you have ever read. Not entirely unique, but definitely not run-of-the-mill. It is not at all academic. It is meant for the thoughtful, general reader. And while Phillips demonstrates and advances his arguments with analysis of poems, what he says can be expanded out to include more than poetry.
And now I want to give you a sample, a quote, but something short won’t convey the full sense of this book. Something longer then, which means I can’t give you several quotes because your eyes will glaze over or you will just skip them. So one quote, but which one? One about uncertainty? Or maybe one about our fragmented selves? A beautiful one about how a poem is a form and act of love? No, while these all tie into the title they seem unhinged without context, so I give you something that reflects the purpose of the book but does not require context:
The deeper one gets into what eventually amounts to a career, the harder it becomes to incorporate daring and risk into it. As in life, if we’re lucky, we grow more comfortable, successful, and accordingly more aware that there is more to lose. So there’s a resistance to changing what’s in place already. Meanwhile, we’re aware also of there being daily less time left, which can bring fear. This issue of time, it seems to me, should spur us on to live even more adventurously — if not now, then when? — but mostly it doesn’t, or so it seems when I look around me. Why risk what it’s taken all our lives to at last get hold of? Or if we haven’t gotten it by now, why try, why bother? And yet for the artist I think an appetite for a certain recklessness is crucial, if the work is not only to extend itself, but also deepen, and meaningfully complicate itself.
Even though I said this is a book of literary criticism, it struck me a number of times while I was reading that it was also a kind of self-help book as you can pick out from the quote. It’s not the kind that tells you how to get ahead or organize your life or lose ten pounds or find your soulmate, it’s much more subtle than that. Because really, when you look closely at the ideas Phillips discusses and how he talks about them, you start to realize that it is about more than reading poetry and literature, it’s about life and how one might go about it. With Phillips it is definitely an examined life but not the kind of examination that keeps one in place. Instead it is one that creates a restless curiosity, a desire to know, a space for uncertainty, a willingness to dare — dare to be vulnerable, to try something new, to reach out past one’s carefully tended and comfortable borders.
I finished the book not only appreciating a particular aspect of poetry and art and literature in general, but also wanting to be more daring in my own life. Because we all are writing our own stories and when it comes to the end, I want to be able to say Wow! That was good!