Apr 15, 2012

The Sunday Salon – “Marginalia” by Billy Collins

The Sunday Salon.com

Good morning, Sunday Saloners. My plan for today was to share my thoughts on Billy Collin’s collection Taking off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes for Serena’s National Poetry Month Blog Tour, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to finish it on time (yes, the reading slump continues).

Instead, I thought I’d share what is probably my favourite poem from it so far, “Marginalia”. At the risk of having rotten tomatoes thrown my way, I’ll confess that for most of my life I’ve been a shameless writer of margin notes (always in pencil, mind you). These days I mostly use Post-it notes, but when I was a student I was especially given to writing in books – though I of course hope my comments weren’t quite as obvious as the ones Collins describes. Does any of the following sound familiar to you too?

Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O’Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

Other comments are more offhand, dismissive –
“Nonsense.” “Please!” “HA!!” –
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
who wrote “Don’t be a ninny”
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.

Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls “Metaphor” next to a stanza of Eliot’s.
Another notes the presence of “Irony”
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.

Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
Hands cupped around their mouths.
“Absolutely,” they shout
to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
“Yes.” “Bull’s-eye.” “My man!”
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.

And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written “Man vs. Nature”
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward.

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird signing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page—
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.

And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake’s furious scribbling.

Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents’ living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page

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.”
What I like the most about “Marginalia” is how well it captures that sense of connection to past readers we feel when stumbling upon their margin notes: it brilliantly evokes a community of readers that stretches outside the boundaries of space and time. This feeling of connection can take many shapes – agreement, bemusement, mild irritation, curiosity, a vague sense of longing for a stranger we’ll never meet – and the poem captures a wide range of them.

I particularly love the stanza about the Irish Monks: the existence of marginalia in manuscripts that are centuries old is one of those things that can really make the past come to life for me. For a moment it really hits me that history was peopled by real human beings; that despite the centuries that separate us and the inevitable differences in how we see the world, there’s also so much that we share.

“Marginalia” is actually a great example of what I like about Collins’ poetry: his sense of humour, his ability to convey so much with such seemingly simple language, the way his poems illuminate everyday experiences that haven’t perhaps been traditionally considered the subject of poetry.

Are of a fan of Billy Collins? If so, what’s your favourite of his poems? And do you have any favourite poems about the experience of reading?


  1. Is it fair to say that I love all Billy Collins' poems? I really enjoy a few poems from his latest collection Horoscopes for the Dead, but I'll leave you with the revisionist:

    Revision (page 84-5)

    When I finally pulled onto the shoulder
    of a long country road

    after driving a few hundred miles
    without stopping or even blinking,

    I sat there long enough to count
    twenty-four cows in a wide, sloping pasture.

    Nothing about the scene asked to be changed,
    things being just what they were,

    and there was even a green hill
    looming solidly in the background.

    Still, I felt the urge
    to find a pencil and edit one of them out,

    that swaybacked one standing
    in the shade in a far corner of the field.

    I was too young then to see
    that she was staring into the great mystery

    just as intently as her sisters,
    her gorgeous, brown and white, philosophic sisters.

    Thanks for joining the tour.

  2. My favorite up to now has always been Introduction to Poetry, where at the end they're going to beat the poem with a hose to make it tell "what it really means." This one, Marginalia, is wonderful, though. I laughed out loud at the line about writing irony fifty times next to A Modest Proposal. It reminds me of the time I was at the Folger and got an 18th-century satire with Robert Southey's marginal notes. His contemporary Romantic poets thought he wasn't the best of the bunch, but he was pretty insightful about that satire.

  3. I've never been a margin writer, but this poem almost makes me want to be. I always feel like I would be such a jerk foisting my yammerings upon some future reader of my used book, but I have to admit, whenever I get one that has some margin writing in it, it's fun to be connected to that reader for a little while. You feel like you know them, if only for a time. The poem definitely captures that!

    It makes me wonder if it would be a fun "project" to have some sort of book round-robin with a few bloggers reading the same book consecutively with the point being to add thoughts in the margins! But maybe manufacturing margin chatter would not be as interesting as generating and coming upon it more "organically"... ;-)

  4. I feel awful saying I'd never read any of Billy Collin's work, but am so glad I've done so now!
    This really spoke to me- not only in the connection to past readers, but also by having been the note scribbler in other books (I didn't do it that often though).

    What are other poems of his would you recommend?

  5. Lovely! My favourite of his, in this moment, is "Forgetfulness", which is also my favourite poem about reading (It's in Questions about Angels.) But I've lost track of his later books: must remedy!

  6. Thanks for this. I like Collins' humor and disarming simplicity.

  7. That poem almost makes me want to write in my books and then pass them on! It's wonderful!

  8. Ah, this is great. Thank you for sharing. I don't know that I've ever read a full collection of Billy Collins's poetry, but clearly I should remedy that, because I always seem to adore his poems when I read them.

  9. I really enjoy his humor as well.

  10. Oh I love this!! And had to laugh at a few of the lines that I can so relate to. Man v. Nature. Ha!

    I don't jot down as many notes as I did when I was in school but I've gotten into the habit of dogearing pages I'd like to quickly recall or underlining phrases. I figure they're my books and they'll probably remain my books and they're probably not worth a whole lot so why not. ;)

  11. I too am a writer of marginalia, although my notes aren't that interesting. I hope you put a few margin notes next to this poem. :)

  12. I do tend to make notes if something strikes me. As I tell my students, books are to build relationships with.

    Some of my books even have a drop of tea or a spot of chocolate ...

    Although I've used "Poetry 180" with my students and really enjoy his poetry, I'm afraid I don't actually own any of Billy Collin's books. I do need to fix that.

  13. Next to the second stanza I would put a smiley face because that marginalia could have been mine. In stanza about Man v nature I put a big HA! Wonderful poem, thank you for sharing it. In the US the title of the bok was changed, it is called "Sailing Alone Around the Room." I discovered this as I went to put the book on my library wishlist. I do like Collins but oddly, have yet to read one of his books. There isn't enough humor in poetry these days. One of my favorite poems that makes me laugh is by Stephen Dobyns called "Spiritual Chickens."

  14. Nice blog. I'm on a bit of a mission to get my favorite classic poem up in to my top ten posts so it shows on the sidebar. So it would be great if you would have a look. Ozymandias

  15. Thanks for sharing this one.
    I love Billy Collins too.
    Two of my favourites are
    I Chop Some Parsley While Listening to Art Blakey's Version of "Three Blind Mice"
    Eastern Standard Time

  16. What a lovely poem! I do not invariably love Billy Collins -- or any poet, I believe -- but I love him very often. "Marginalia" is excellent. I was reading a book of my friend's and was impressed with the quality of his margin notes. I wonder whether it's something I would ever want to cultivate...I just can't quite get past the scarring of my lovely books.

    (Nonfiction maybe! Only annotate my nonfiction!)

  17. Serena: Thank you for sharing that! I like it a lot. And thank you once again for hosting the tour and generally doing so much to remind me that if I continue to neglect poetry I'll be missing out :)

    Jeanne: I had completely forgotten about that poem, but now that you mention it I remember that a professor of mine shared it in class. I think it was my first ever exposure to Collins.

    Megan: It's a lovely idea, but I do wonder if doing it deliberately would spoil some of the fun. There's nothing better than coming across interesting margin notes in a random used book you've picked up, though!

    Mariana: Nothing to feel awful about; it's never too late! The one Jeanne mentioned above, Introduction to Poetry, is also excellent and full of his usual playfulness.

    Buried in Print: I need to see if my collection has that one! It's a "best of" of sorts, with selections from all his previous books, so hopefully it will.

    ds: Yes - perfectly put!

    Kathy: It made me want to do the same!

    Lu: Same here - I really need to finish this one. Hopefully in time for the next Read More Blog More poetry event!

  18. Serena: I agree with what Stefanie says below about humour and poetry.

    Trish: I'll definitely not send the dogearing police after you ;) I don't do it much myself anymore, but I was a shameless dogearer when I was younger. These days I have so many bookmarks that I figure I might as well use them :P

    Tasha: It's definitely begging for them, isn't it? :P

    Snowball: "Books are to build relationships with" - yes! I absolutely love how you phrase that.

    Stefanie: Thank you for pointing that one about the title! I think I actually like it better. And you're absolutely right about humour! I must see if I can find "Spiritual Chickens".

    Carole: I'm a fan of Ozymandias myself - I'll definitely have a look :)

    Shonna: I must see if this collection has them!

    Jenny: I annotate nonfiction a lot more than I do fiction, though these days it's mostly in post-it notes that I then use when writing blog posts and throw away. But I like the permanence of actual margin notes better. I very rarely go back and reread old posts, but I know I'd find it interesting to read the same books again in a few years and see what my reaction was when I first encountered those ideas.

  19. I'm a little ashamed to say I don't think I've read anything by Billy Collins. Loved this poem though, thank you for sharing will definitely try to read more of this poet.

  20. I struggle with poetry, but this has always been one of my favorite poems. I love finding good marginalia in used books I read and this poem captures that feeling of connectivity with previous readers, like an ongoing book club with strangers.

  21. I read a few of his poems (including the title poem of this collection) and just didn't… get it, I guess. I'll have to go back and try again.

  22. Ha, what a fun poem! I rarely write in books--once in a great while I find one so brilliant I have to highlight passages. I put flags on favorite quotes in others. And just once I filled margins with "No" and "Wrong" and "Try to get your facts right!" in a very badly-written book attacking religion. It wasn't (entirely) the conclusions, it was the apallingly poor logic and research.

  23. Jessica: No reason to be ashamed! It hasn't been that long since I discovered him myself.

    Melissa: Yes, exactly!

    Jason: I also completely failed to get the title poem. I wondered if it was because I've yet to properly read Emily Dickinson, but if you didn't feel that you got it either that shouldn't be the reason. We can sit in the corner feeling like we're missing something together :P

    Cheryl: Ha - I've written sarcastic or angry margin notes a few times myself :P

  24. https://www.facebook.com/BillyCollinsPoetry

    It was great reading all of your comments. You sound like just the kind of poetry lovers who'd enjoy the Facebook page dedicated to Billy. We'd certainly love to read your comments there.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.