Each day as I pull another date page of August off my desk calendar, I get more excited for school to begin. For some the excitement begins when they shop for new school clothes. Others it is finding a new metal lunch pail. My hair stylist last week would have said it is when all the high school girls come to get "their new dos". I work in an older building, which I love, because as I walked down the hall today the smell of new wax and the shine on the floor reminded me of my own school days.
Two of my former students helped me move heavy furniture and hook up computers for a bit this afternoon. A copy of a poem was on the table. This led to a discussion of poetry and what we had read and written and remembered. Both of these young men are remarkable poets. This inspired me to reread some poetry after they left. When I think of school and comments written in margins of books ( we now use sticky notes!), I couldn't help but think of this poem by Billy Collins. Thinking about all of us and marginalia got me even more eager for school to begin!


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
why 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."

Billy Collins

In the above book by H.J. Jackson she is proposing the poetics of marginalia. You can learn more about the book here.


  1. Its marvelous that you still get excited for school. I miss it so. I still tutor but am sad each new school year although health wise I know I can not do what I once did sandy

  2. I think Billy Collins is fast becoming one of my very favorite poets! I bet the Marginalia book is interesting--I didn't start scribbling in margins until college; it seemed anathema in the face of all the parental drilling about treating books like treasures, but some scribbles actually add a shine to the treasure!

  3. I should have read this post before I made mine. You have such a lovely vibe heading into the school year. The poem kicks ass! I've never read Billy Collins before, but now I'm excited to see what I can find.



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