August 28, 2006

My Marginalia

My undergraduate poetry books are full of notes. Many are like those in Collins poem - notes on figurative language for an assignment - but a few are more personal observations. I'm actually too much in love with books to feel comfortable marking them up mmost of the time. Paperbacks are easier to write in, but I can't recall marking up any hardcover books other than textbooks.

From my poetry shelf, I found some notes - some rather cryptic -

"avoid the cult of reason" written next to the Blake lines

To see the world in a grain of sand
and heaven in a wild flower,
hold infinity in the palm of your hand
and eternity in a hour.

has absolutely no meaning to me today. Possibly something said in a lecture...

I wrote "use it!" next to the lines

If I meet you suddenly, I can't speak-
my tongue is broken;
a thin flame runs under my skin;
seeing nothing, hearing only my ears drumming,
I drip with sweat;
trembling shakes my body and I turn paper than dry grass

from a fragment of a Sappho poem. Use it for what? My own poem? I suspect I may have wanted to use it to send to some girl in some love note/poem/pickup line.

I also recalled on the Poets Online site the time that I bought a used paperback many years ago of John Updike's short story collection Pigeon Feathers (a collection I highly recommend).

In it I found the original receipt for the book from a bookseller in the Newark Airport and the stub from a paycheck from a New York advertising agency. In my mind, there was the beginning of a story there - man leaves work on a Friday, cashes his check and heads for the airport intending to leave behind the city, his job, and - well, who knows. I never wrote the story. I did search that book for clues in the margins. Nothing.

August 7, 2006

Writing in the Margins

Does marginalia seem marginal as a prompt? It certainly seems small as a starting place (not a bad thing) and sometimes those notes, doodles and editorial comments in the margin of a book are only personal reminders (let's skip over the ones you did in college to study for the exam).

It does get some serious study though - as in the Melville's Marginalia site that I referenced (the notes Melville made in his library of books in an attempt to uncover sources of his own writing) or that Fermat's last theorem was written in a margin. Have you ever actually starting to write a poem in the margin?

Read or listen to Billy Collins' "Marginalia" if you haven't already.

Like Collins, I wondered what we might be able to guess about the marginalia writer from their notes-

A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil-
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet-
"Pardon the egg salad stains, but I'm in love."

Let's look at the assumptions: it's a girl; she's beautiful; the pencil was soft; he'll never meet her. And what about the assumptive leaps Collins wants a reader to take in thinking about why her being in love and reading Salinger would pardon the stains. (I also find the line "Pardon the egg salad stains, but I'm in love." to be very Salinger-esque.)

Here are some starting places for a poem to submit this month:
  • your own actual notes in a book (particularly interesting if they were written a long time ago by another you)
  • notes seen or imagined from another's hand (and the book they are found in is important - notes found in a guidebook to Venice vs. notes found in Love: Ten Poems By Pablo Neruda
  • your imaginings about the author of such notes
  • the practice of writing in the margins itself
  • It might be interesting to use the librarian's point of view (marginalia as vandalism).
  • Even if you don't feel inspired to write a poem for the site this month, perhaps you can contribute an idea (by commenting below) for another poet to use.