Marginalia Poem by Billy Collins


Rating: 4.3

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.'

Ladidah Poipose 05 August 2005

I enjoy your light hand - I see your images as lovely watercolors - a minature of the page with the note on it in soft pencil in a locket around your throat! ! ..I'm in love! ! Thank you so much! Miss Lah di

9 6 Reply
Michael Shepherd 18 March 2005

...though I'd write it in the margin to share his triumphal ride to posterity if Our Webmaster Whom God Preserve could fix it for me - Joyous.

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Elvis 24 September 2018

It's a bird 'singing' near a window, not 'signing' near a window. It really interrupts the flow and spoiled the whole thing for me - especially on a literature site.

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Non 12 January 2021

Perhaps a mute bird that desperately wanted to make his presence known.

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Tony C. Faversham 15 September 2018

My Man! Absolutely! Love it!

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Michael Burke 04 March 2018


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Ankit Ramteke 28 March 2016

I am not much into poetry, but by chance when I read this poem, from that time I am in awe of the magic of poetry. Like said in the poem, this poem dangle from me like locket.

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Michael Shepherd 13 August 2009

Dear Mr Collins It was quite by chance that I read this poem and so I feel I should tell you the occasion. It was when I called in to return the Salinger – with some regret, but it was already overdue several bucks – and that middle-aged man with the raincoat, always the raincoat, and the wire half-specs who hovers vulture-like over the Returned Books trolley before the assistant puts them back on the shelves grabbed your book and went to his favourite seat by the window, with it; but then after a few minutes slammed it down on the table and looked around the room as if he had made the ultimate judgment which would be talked about in the Algonquin in hushed awe between the slightly less famous. and I’d just like to say I think his judgment was on the harsh side. I hope your memory of my egg salad stain which you turned so nicely into a poem doesn’t spoil our meeting some time in the library for which I’m sure you’re as grateful as I am. Yrs, E.Dickinson (Miss)

22 7 Reply
F. Armstong Green 31 August 2019

Really good, Miss E.

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