The Gracious Lie


Our Daily Correspondent


From the paperback cover of The Party.

Readers of this space know that I’ve recently devoted an unprofitable amount of time to puzzling over the underlined passages of a secondhand copy of Sally Quinn’s guide to entertaining, The Party, notorious when it was first published in 1997. My quest to discern the logic in the underlining became, as Douglas Sirk would have it, a magnificent obsession. Was the reader mad? Did she have an ax to grind? Was she a reviewer? None of these theories really held up.

But then one person came up with an approach far more innovative than my own. Like the perennially underestimated amateur sleuth who’s able to crack a case that’s stumped the authorities, this person took one look at the examples I had isolated and was able to see with a clarity that, in my obsession, had escaped me. “I was inspired to string all the underlined bits into a poem,” the reader wrote:

This year everyone got a fax and a phone call
However, at the last minute the White House announced that
The President would be addressing the nation that evening.
The O. J. Simpson jury was due to come back with the verdict on the civil trial.
I felt like one of those pilots who go through a dogfight with the enemy,
Calmly shooting everyone out of the sky, and
Later have a major panic attack.
Once the christening was over, they often entertain in the solarium.
At first I thought his suit jacket was covered with dandruff and I was horrified.
And exclaimed that he was on a special diet.
I’ll tell that person not to drive, lighting in general.
Forget after-dinner liqueurs.

Leaving aside the question of whether or not the original underliner is a conscious devotee of, say, David Antin, or subscribes to John Hollander’s definition of the form, I was very impressed with this as a work of found poetry. It seemed to encapsulate the whole of Quinn’s book, for good or ill, without imposing any obvious judgment. In a sense, I feel one could read this and skip the book—although this may be radical. Whether or not it was her intention, the underliner had succeeded in distilling its essence. As Annie Dillard once wrote of found poetry, “The original meaning remains intact, but now it swings between two poles.”

I am naming the poem “Georgetown, ’97.”

 Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.