It is considered corny to like Billy Collins. His poems are as easy to read as your standard airport bestseller paperback. This makes them less important than poems that demand more out of their readers, that invite you in to do some interpretive heavy lifting. But airport paperbacks have a place in the world (they’re brisk and marketable, which might be another reason poets are suspicious of former laureate bro Billy C: poets, myself heartily included, don't trust poems that make money).
Out of embarrassment at my youthful unseriousness, I’ve gotten rid of the Billy Collins book I bought based on a pleasant memory of seeing him read when I was in school. But the older I get the less I believe in guilty pleasures: life is short, find joy where and when you can, YOLO, etc, and as a wise internet man has said, "let people love the small things they love. They mean you no harm". So all that is to say that I have no regrets about enjoying “Marginalia.” Its last line is a goofy little zinger, quoted from a manic pixie dream librarian: “Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.”
I like used books for their weird old covers and their marked-up margins: this winter I giggled for hours that someone underlined the last paragraph in my copy of The Mill on the Floss and wrote neatly beside it "They died." (Sorry for the George Eliot spoiler, I guess.) And in the copy of Elizabeth Bishop's Geography III that I picked up in a great little shop in Cleveland someone has indicated on the lines of animal noises in “Crusoe in England” that they "could do without this." Maybe you could, I wanted to say back, but the poem couldn't. It'd be a different animal, pun intended, without the moment of cacophony in the middle. And Elizabeth Bishop was a meticulous editor of her own work; it wouldn’t be published if it could be done without. But I love that this reader imposed their will on the poem, deciding how it ought to have been written, then recording their moment of “why wasn’t I consulted?” fury for posterity.
Revisiting your own marginalia has a particular embarrassing flavor, like rereading your LiveJournal. Yesterday I alphabetized all my books and today I’m flipping through them. I have two copies of the Collected Philip Larkin: a dust-jacketed hardback for displaying, a broken-spined paperback for defacing. In it I found notes to myself from eight years ago, saying things like “hella Keats - ever wilt thou love and she be fair, motherfuckers.” (College was a sweary time. And I still rep hard for Keats.) And on some lines of “The Whitsun Weddings” that I’ve written about before, the note “This is the best liminality ever.” And this bowtied doodled guy, probably modeled on my thesis advisor, announcing the mission of most of Larkin. I cringe to think of some future youthful Billy Collins narrator flipping through this book when it’s pried from my cold dead hands, judging me with snark. But nearly a decade back when I wrote those things I was thriving inside those poems, marking up scansion and cross-references until they were nearly illegible. And now I have a continuous thread of reading and rereading that takes me back to the way I interpreted poems when I was a student and it was my job to do so. It's a nice way of wading into a poem, maybe throwing some rocks into its stream.
What's your favorite marginal note you've found, or written? I would love to hear it.
PS: I'm reading at the next Tuesday Funk! Come hang out and eat frites and talk Keats.