Poets Online Archive
August 2006

Marginalia is the general term for the notes, doodles and editorial comments that are made in the margin of a book. I was thinking g about it after I stumbled across this website on Melville's Marginalia where they are trying to collect all the notes Melville made in his library of books in an attempt to uncover sources of his own writing. I'm sure that librarians see the practice as pure vandalism, but it can be revealing to literati or when it actually contained Fermat's last theorem.

Looking at Billy Collins' poem title "Marginalia" (and on that same page, give a listen to his reading of it), I wondered what we might be able to glean about the marginalia writer from their notes.

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.

Are you a marginalia writer? Most college students do it as a study tool. 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 pulled a few old books off my poetry shelf from those days and some notes are 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.

Our prompt is marginalia but your poem might spring from your own notes in a book, notes seen or imagined from another's hand, imaginings about the author of such notes, or the practice of writing in the margins itself.

More about this prompt and your comments on the Poets Online blog.

Billy Collins says his poetry is “a form of travel writing” and considers humor “a door into the serious.”
He has published 8 books of his poetry, including Questions About Angels, The Art of Drowning, Picnic, Lightning, Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes, Sailing Alone Around the Room: New & Selected Poems, Nine Horses, and The Trouble With Poetry and Other Poems.
He will have a haiku collection, She Was Just Seventeen, (the syllables and the Beatles) published by Modern Haiku Press in the fall of 2006. He also edited two anthologies of contemporary poetry: Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry and 180 More: Extraordinary Poems for Every Day, and was the guest editor of The Best American Poetry 2006.
He is a Distinguished Professor of English at Lehman College, City University of New York, where he has taught for the past 30 years. In June 2001, Billy Collins was appointed United States Poet Laureate (2001-2003). In January 2004, he was named New York State Poet Laureate 2004-2006.

More books by Billy Collins

(Found beside William Stafford's poem, "People Who Went by in Winter.")

Only eight weeks
since my last parent
returned to the earth.

In this book,
barely held together
by a peeling spine

penciled words
jostle each other,
claim the margin:

when can our blunders,
yours and ours—kiss?”

Who can claim these words?

The girl half my age,
the teacher, or the poet?

No matter.

These are the words
that arrive today.

Theresa McCourt


I come back to this book a stranger –
a foreigner, in fact. A one-night lodger
who has to flip through the phrase book
to ask for mustard. And yet, I think
that’s my penciling from 40 years ago,
“Verwandlung” written in the margin
of a thin book yellowed and splotched
with forgetfulness. “Schlange,” I wrote
back then, as if to illuminate the text.
I remember Snake. But now I reach
for the dictionary twice in the first
sentence. A stumbling fairytale this
must be, back into the dark of childhood.

Taylor Graham

IN RESPONSE TO "Marginalia".

I do suppose today t'was left,
for the write deafened the falcon,
to the falconer's urgent call.
Your hands long for the truth,
long for "Fear and Trembling."
Yet your "Concept of Anxiety",
is without any Irish Passion.
and I would seem to say,
Your logic is by far bolted!

For within the universe of thumb-print bookmarks
and questionable sexuality,
Not being "a ninny" would by far be
an intoxicated thought "From Blank to Blank."
and I would be left in a void where even Darwin could not find evolution.

I again voice my opinion,
screaming, Give the students their footprints along the shore,
For as Swift so swiftly speaks in satirical truth,
Butcheries are a means of heavenly outcome.
Why not sacrifice the young instead of giving up the margins of our pages?
For when Evans sacrificed to Eliot,
the margins gave in to "The Death of Moses."

Margins are the freedom given,
so we would not have to "Go Tell it on the Mountain."
For there, the rains do not fall in asterisks,
and the trees bare no political comparison to an exclamation mark.
Within the margins of the page lie the freedom of the damned tongues.

I take the step forward,
and ask whether man should truly sacrifice himself,
for the freedom and force of nature to fully flourish?
I agree,
The pen must be taken up in hand,
the thought must be lodged within the margin of existence,
Take the stand,
If only to die with a single thought on the works of Jane Austin.

But I shall not write more,
For lost I am in the metaphorical arms of Salinger,
I have fallen for him and so has this odd demise
of a salad shocked by egg that I cannot quite name,
but it is salad nonetheless.
I shall now resort to apologise to the next lover of his,
or hater alike -
"Pardon the egg salad stains, but I am in love!"

Gigi Lombard


You keep writing your story, plotting
merrily along. You look at the same people
every day. But they are different than the people I approach,
with flowers or thorns, kind words and hard. These
people are two circles spinning in separate planes
at different speeds. They will never intersect.

I people the space between the circles with made up appointments
See you in Paris by three! Get the papers and coffee, darling!
In one, the one farthest on my private journey to La Marginale, express, where
delusions water private obsession, in this one
you and I decide we’ll plunk down 200 million to be among the first in space.
We will leave: jobs, homes, babies, flowerbeds, car payments, spaghetti dinners and mini-malls
be our own adventure.

I live here with the words I will never say to you
Unspeakable, corny: I love you, please don’t leave, don’t let go.
I have scribbled myself here, a last stand. The clean and blue
lines of your life run on with sequential, Zen logic
where I have dots and dashes and vague Picasso people:
the doodles of an angry, fevered child.

Here are the circles that will never become my space
useless and impossible, these lines I trace:
all recall the last look I will ever see on your face.

Patty Tomsky


“Will you read this for me?”  But why, I'll want to say.
So I will.  Why?  And you'll say, “because I want to know
what you think.”  But you don’t.  I can’t read a poem
without a pen anymore, and it will slash.  “Needed?”
I will write next to a part I have isolated with my
small inward curves of ink and you’ll cry.  No, that’s
so arrogant of me of course you won’t actually cry. 
Worse, you’ll argue.  “That’s not what I meant.”  Then
say what you mean, I’ll want to say, but I’ll say  OK,
what do you mean?  And you’ll tell me and I’ll say
that’s so good—say that in the poem.  “Oh!” You’ll say,
“I can say that in a poem?”  Yes.  “But I can’t today. 
I have to hand it in now, it's already late.”  I’ll sigh. 
So why did you want to know what I think?  But I
won’t say that.  I have no time for this—I want to
read a poem that’s done—Elizabeth Bishop. Naomi
Shihab Nye.  C.K. Williams.  Billy Collins, even. 
Or else the pen comes--if you ask me, it will come
and not like you want—I will draw lines through
parts, I will pepper the margins with question marks. 
Yes, there will be some checks or even check pluses—
my grudging way to say way to go if you know what
they mean and if you were in my class you would
and I would have time for your poem and it would
be for a purpose then, not just because you need me
to say it’s great just the way it is instead of how it
could be, possibly, even a little bit better.

Svea Barrett


considerations —
a book
for the living
as well as
the dying

caveats —

justification — “the psychedelic experience”

premises —
chemical key
opens mind
map of interior

assurances —
millions have made
this voyage
heaven or hell
creations of mind

advice — “whenever in doubt, turn off your mind, relax, float downstream”

The Bardo Thodol
peaceful & wrathful deities
sangsaric projections

Sidpa Bardo (Third)
to karmic illusion

Chonyid Bardo (Second)
as realities
esoteric meaning
shrouded in
symbolic language

seven seals
of silence

gates guarded
veils of mystery

ego: the true seat of anxiety

the secret of life
a forgotten realm
of awareness

Chikhai Bardo (First)
the Clear Light
ecstatic radiance

faith: first step on “Secret Pathway”

empty mind

Liberation: realization of Voidness

cosmological awareness
inside your skull
what mystics call
Ultimate Truth

signs heralding transcendence:

the “Wheel of Rebirth”

Nirvana: the blowing out of the flame
wave energy flow
ego games abandoned

Steve Smith


Well Billy Jones, I got to say
You have done it perfectly
You have covered all bases
From right on, to oh my God
And why didn't I think of it.

All the topics, all the situations
That drive us to marginalia;
I go to the thesaurus
And find margin and edge and space;
Why it's a new word,
Only 1832 in the OED.

But marginal which is so different
From how it might be done;
When bored with the pen
One re strokes one's brain into action.
You even mention that,
That the underlining or the scrawl
As a shoemaker's awl
Tells one why he measured a wall
Of thought and gives it graffiti.
It's like asking mother,
"What post no bills?" meant.

We owe you a flickering candle
And a Hollywood arc light
For describing our actions
Being an illuminator of you and us.

But most of all, you know
How an ending has a edge
Like the letter X of a children's book,
Where an unhappy word
A tragic, X, marks the spot,
The stain of a careless lover
Who sends many X's
Kisses and marks of marginalia.

Edward N. Halperin


By mutual consent,
Marginal notes
Were forbidden
Even in books that we owned.

When my lover and I
Read together,
We would turn on
The tape recorder and argue there.

His love for history and myth,
And my philosophic bend,
Were blended together
In soporific discord
That harmonized
By embellishing our words
With Martinis and Manhattans
Sipped along with our recording.

When he told me
He had burned the tapes
While I was away at school,
I cried.

And now,
Years away from him
And those subliminal moments,
I weep.

The secret of why we made it at all
Lay in the margins of our diatribe -
Now Indecipherable,
Crumbled, ash.

Catherine M. LeGault


In a book about Buddhism
I scrawled my love notes.
Amongst phrases of non-attachment
I said 'I love you'
Permanent in pen
For you to come across by surprise.
It was like a little secret
Between the book and I
And i wondered if my scribbles would meet your eyes with delight
While you were on a beach somewhere
Or reading by the fire.
Or would they meet you with nostalgia and a jolt
Taking you back for a moment in thought to the relationship we once had
Now grown distant, done.
Like somehow I knew that we would never last
Not like those pages I wrote my school-girl feelings on,
In print and binding for all posterity,
That my giddy expressions of love
Popping up like firecrackers on random pages
Could never keep you
Never be long enough
To make a book.

Cecly Placenti


My books have clean margins.
Unless they are second - hand.
And those are college European history textbooks
In which another rearranged the topics in preparation for a test.

In grade school, textbooks are turned in at the end of the school year
To be given to next year’s class.
Clean margins were prized.
The good child that I was
Never considered writing in precious books.

There are no marginalia in my books.
There is much marginalia in my life.

At work, acquaintances exchange greetings throughout the day,
And may comment on the weather.
Familiar faces in my small apartment house
Discuss one another and the news.

Greetings at work and home are my scaffolding.
They are the marginalia that connect me with the body of my life.

Ellen Kaplan


We have all seized the white perimeter as our own               culture says perim’s mine
and reached for the pen if only to show                                    my breath achieves
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages:                 wheelchair
                                                                                                          nimble brain!
we pressed a thought into the wayside,                                   pushed -> wayside **Wrong Way**
planted an impression along the verge                                    gardens @borders/edge Thnks Billy! !



I flicked the pages of the book,
My thoughts wandering elsewhere
In their own usual jaunts
Leading not to infinity,
Definitely nowhere.

My eye caught the words
Scribbled in a hurry
On one side, not very clear
And the ink had blurred
Perhaps a tear had fallen there
But I could still see
She had written ‘forget it!’

Forget what?
My thoughts had come to
Forgetting definitely
Their meanderings,
Stopped by this marginalia
Random words
On a page but with so much
In them.
Forget what-
This life, a meeting,
A love affair, a break up?
The words were so emphatic
And clear
I needed to forget so much.

I closed the book and left it there
On the table
A rectangular, lifeless shape
But more than all the printed words
Which I had just flicked through
The margin caught my eye
And the phrase
Whirled before my eyes.
Forget it,
I said forget it.

Abha Iyengar


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