Saturday, December 16, 2006


During my second-semester sophomore course, I have for many years asked my students to keep, for at least one quarter, a commonplace book. I guess the distinction between a journal and a commonplace book is that one would expect a journal to consist mostly of one's own writing, and perhap drawings. A commonplace book might contain those things, but might also contain quotations from one's readings, clippings from the paper, interesting photographs and tidbits, whatever. I've kept my own commonplace book for many years as well, primarily as a place to collect my thoughts about issues in my teaching and in my life.

This blog got started when Chris Watson, who teaches in my department, asked if I had ever considered keeping my CPB online in the form of a blog. So I tried that, and he we are, two months later, still figuring the advantages and limitations of this digital space as opposed to the analog space of the CPB, which I am still trying to up with as well. (I've used pages from it as decorative and structural elements in the sidebar here.)

Anyway, here's a poem by Billy Collins that I pasted inside the front cover of my commonplace book last year as a kind of touchstone, or mirror of my best intentions then. And I suppose, it works just as well as an articulation of my best intentions now, in keeping this blog going. It's a typical Collins poem in that it's clear, it's accessible, it's funny in a self-deprecating way, and it delivers more, in the end, than you think it is doing when you first read it. His poems stand up to repeated readings very well. I've always admired the way that Collins makes this sort of conversational tonality look a lot easier to carry off than it really is. (BTW: Collins, having completed his stint as poet laureate, has recently edited Best American Poems 2006, and that volume contains, not suprisingly, a lot of poems that are also accessible, funny, and smart.)


Ledger of the head's transactions,
log of the body's voyage,
it rides all day in a raincoat pocket,
ready to admit any droplet of thought,
nut of a maxim
narrowest squint of an observation.

It goes with me
to a gallery where I open it to record
a note on red and the birthplace of Corot,
into the tube of an airplane
so I can take down the high dictation of clouds,
or on a hike in the woods where a young hawk
might suddenly fly between its covers.

And when my heart is beating
too rapidly in the dark,
I will go downstairs in a robe,
open it up to a blank page
and try to settle on the blue lines
whatever it is that seems to be the matter.

Net I tow beneath the waves of the day,
giant ball of string or roil,
it holds whatever I uncap my pen to save:
a snippet of Catullus,
a passage from Camus,
a tiny eulogy for the evening anodyne of gin,
a note on what the kingfisher looks like when he swims.

And there is room in the margins
for the pencil to go lazy and daydream
in circles and figure eights
or produce some illustrations,
like Leonardo in his famous codex -
room for a flying machine,
the action of a funnel,
a nest of pulleys,
and a device that is turned by water,

room for me to draw
a few of my own contraptions,
inventions so original and visionary
that not even I - genius of the new age-
have the slightest idea what they are for.

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