Poem of the Day: Marginalia by Billy Collins

Billy Collins

Today’s poem in celebration of National Poetry Month comes from me, Julie, BookPeople’s blog manager. This weekend I had the pleasure of visiting the Harry Ransom Center for the first time where I spent some time squinting at the notes David Foster Wallace wrote all over his copy of Don DeLillo’s The Names.  The experience reaffirmed for me once again the importance of the book as object, of having, as a reader, the physical pages with which to interact, and it also reminded me of this Billy Collins poem, Marginalia.  There are many ways to record a history, and one of my favorites will always be in the margins of books.

Billy Collins has a number of collections.  His latest is Horoscopes for the Dead.  Marginalia was first published in Picnic, Lightning and later included in the collection Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems. If you’re interested, also take a look at The Trouble with Poetry: And Other Poems and Ballistics: Poems.

~

Marginalia

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 singing 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.”

~Billy Collins is the author of several books of poetry, including Ballistics (2008), She Was Just Seventeen (2006), The Trouble with Poetry (2005); Nine Horses (2002); Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems (2001); Picnic, Lightning (1998); The Art of Drowning (1995), which was a finalist for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize; Questions About Angels (1991), which was selected by Edward Hirsch for the National Poetry Series; The Apple That Astonished Paris (1988); Video Poems (1980); and Pokerface (1977). Collins’s poetry has appeared in anthologies, textbooks, and a variety of periodicals, including Poetry, American Poetry Review, American Scholar, Harper’s, Paris Review, and The New Yorker. His work has been featured in the Pushcart Prize anthology and has been chosen several times for the annual Best American Poetry series.In 2001, Collins was named U.S. Poet Laureate. His other honors and awards include fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation.

8 thoughts on “Poem of the Day: Marginalia by Billy Collins

  1. I loved this! Thank you so much for sharing it—all my “marginal remarks” now seem somewhat legitimized!

  2. I come to this poem again and again. It’s my favorite of his. The last line in particular gets me every time. So glad you guys enjoyed it!

  3. I loved this poem! I spent yesterday writing in the margins of a college text book. I couldn’t help but laugh as I read this today.

  4. It is crazy to see how Billy Collins notices the way individuals take notes. Relates alot like how in High Shcool we read numerous books, and someone before always has their opinion in the margins, and i have mine. Its dope

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