You’ve probably heard of—or even kept—a Gratitude Journal. But poet Ross Gay came up with a new twist on this idea when he decided to keep a Delight Journal. The rules he set were that he would write daily for one year about something that delighted him, he would begin and end on his birthday (August 1), the entries would be drafted quickly, and they would be written by hand. The result of this venture is the bestselling The Book of Delights (2019), a collection of 102 “essayettes” about the many things that delight him— including hummingbirds, paw paw groves, laundromats, roller skates, self-forgiveness, Botan rice candy, nicknames, sidewalk naps, and dreams—especially waking up from bad ones. This book is the Jefferson Madison Regional Library (JMRL)’s Same Page Community Read selection for 2023. It will be discussed at the Crozet Library Monday Night Book Group on Monday, March 6, at 7 p.m.
Gay will present in person at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center on March 25 as part of the Virginia Festival of the Book. An associate professor of poetry at Indiana University, he is the author of four books of poetry, including Against Which (2006); Bringing the Shovel Down (2011); Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (2015), winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and finalist for the National Book Award; and Be Holding (2020)—a book-length poem about basketball legend Julius Erving (aka Dr. J)—winner of the PEN American Literary Jean Stein Award. His new collection of essays, Inciting Joy, was released in October 2022.
Not surprisingly, he discovered that “the discipline or practice of writing these essays occasioned a kind of delight radar. Or maybe it was more like the development of a delight muscle —which is to say, I felt my life to be more full of delight. I also learned this year that my delight grows—much like love and joy—when I share it” (Preface). Ross Gay is especially delighted by nature in all its manifestations—including insects, birds, flowers, trees, the sun, and the moon. “I delight in few things more than the awakening, or flourishing, of a horticultural spirit,” he confesses. A praying mantis on a café cup dances with him. A hummingbird—”a blur of light”—drinks from a flower in his hand. A fiery pink amaranth flower grows from a crack in the sidewalk. He carefully shepherds a fig tree seedling through an airplane flight: “I am carrying joy around in my bag.” At a friend’s farm with “football fields of cockscomb and zinnia,” he observes “galaxies of bugs soaring above them, whirling and diving, butterflies and bees and dragonflies and ladybugs, and the birds come to feast on them, a whole wild and perfectly orchestrated symphony of pollination and predation.” He serves on the board of the Bloomington Community Orchard, a non-profit, free-fruit-for-all food justice project, which he helped to establish and plant.
To say that Ross Gay is an optimist is an understatement. His book is full of wonder, teaching us that joy and delight are everywhere, if we just take the trouble to look. And yet, the book has a more serious side as he includes many not-so-delightful examples, such as the 1920s radiation experiments on black children that caused literal holes in their heads, or when a friend is diagnosed with leukemia. As he delights in wearing a lavender infinity scarf, he rejects the “moratorium on the pretty” of his childhood, which he associates with misogyny and/or homophobia. He remarks upon “the ubiquity of the gun, the weapon, in the hands of our statues” and laments that “innocence is an impossible state for black people in America who are, by virtue of this country’s fundamental beliefs, always presumed guilty.” This mixture of delight and sadness in the book is related to his definition of Joy, explored in the longest essay in the book (at eight pages), “Joy is Such a Human Madness.” He quotes Zadie Smith (author of White Teeth and others) as she was driving to visit Auschwitz while her husband held her feet, “heading toward that which makes life intolerable, feeling the only thing that makes it worthwhile.” Gay concludes “that was joy…. Terror and delight sitting next to each other, their feet dangling off the side of a bridge very high up.” To Gay, delight in the face of sorrow produces the keenest joy.
Gay’s writing style is beyond conversational, meandering along with frequent run-on sentences and myriad interruptions and digressions. He uses the em dash even more than I do. One entire page-and-a-half entry is just one sentence! Reading the book feels like spending an afternoon chatting with a gregarious intellectual. He establishes intimacy with the reader with phrases like “you get me,” “I’m saying,” and “you know what I mean.” This style may seem lazy or self-indulgent, but it is quite deliberate; he revels in the mess. Writing by hand “craves, in my experience anyway, the wending thought, and crafts/imagines/conjures a syntax to contain it.” It captures “some important aspect of my thinking, particularly the breathlessness.”
Yet the resulting supremely informal, almost blog-like prose is also brimming with poetic insights and turns of phrase, such as “the ballerina dresses of the peach blossoms,” “the dazzling skates carving wakes of joy into the sidewalk,” “your voice is the song of your disappearing,” and how the redbud—“this most subtle and radiant of trees”—offers flowers which “cluster like an orgy of kissy-mouths.” Observing an airport worker arranging an older colleague’s uniform, he admires “this common flourish of love, this everyday human light.” Perhaps my favorite entry, entitled “The Sanctity of Trains,” celebrates how everyone can leave their stuff on their seats while they visit the dining car or wherever, knowing that there is seldom if ever any theft among train passengers. “The point is that in almost every instance of our lives, our social lives, we are, if we pay attention, in the midst of an almost constant, if subtle, caretaking.” He follows with a catalog of examples, such as holding open doors and helping with heavy bags, and “the alternating merge, also known as the zipper.”
Of course, what may delight Gay most of all is poetry itself. He often writes after, during, or on his way to poetry readings—his own and others’—preferring live readings to poetry in books. He delights in the thriving life of poetry he observes at slams, open mic readings, weddings, and funerals. “It’s magic, really, how language stokes the imagination, and the imagination language,” he reflects. The Book of Delights celebrates both.