Writers of margin notes


The page mirror of a book consists of the printed part with a blank frame around it, the margin. For centuries, that unprinted space has offered readers the chance to write down their reactions.

They look in the mirror of the text and recognize their own feelings and thoughts in it – or not exactly. This creates a dialogue in the margin that can again be enjoyed by a third reader with or without morbid entertainment.

This is exactly what happens in Billy Collins’ poem “Marginalia”. It comes from his collection Picnic, Lightning of 1998. He distinguishes five types of authors of such marginal notes. The first are those who erupt in anger:

Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.

The following are more phlegmatic in nature:

Other comments are more offhand, dismissive –
“Nonsense.” “Please!” “HA!!” –
that kind of thing.

The third type is the modest student:

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.

And then the exuberant ones:

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 husband!”
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.

Finally, Collins points to the medieval monks who had to painstakingly copy sacred texts:

Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
letter 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.

This is exactly how the oldest Dutch poem came about – a few words scribbled down by a monk on an already described parchment in 800 AD. He looks out of the monastery window, it is spring and the birds are doing what is expected of them at that time of year:

hebban olla vogala nestas hagunnan
hinase hic enda thu
what unbidan we now

Possibly the monk is also in love, but his vow of celibacy prevents him from natural nest-scrubbing behavior. Hence his sigh: “All the birds have started nests, except you and me. What are we waiting for?”

In this way, an entire literature can arise as a marginal note. In fact, it was the beginning of two literatures: Dutch and Afrikaans.

Danie Marais has already publicly expressed his admiration for the poetry of Billy Collins.

Therefore it is not strange that in his second collection of poems, Even if the moon is a misunderstanding from 2009, there is a similar poem in which a student quotes the famous literati MSB Kritzinger (1896-1977) and Gerrit Dekker (1897-1973) from the sidelines of the time:

The meek “Winter Night”

I recently got the Collected Poems of Eugène Marais
bought for R3 in a charity shop.
The front of the book says:
“Jacobus Viljoen 1942”
The entire book teems with Jacobus’ notes.

With “Winternag” it says: “Kritzinger calls it a classic poem.
“Beautiful – striking imagery!”
“Great linguistic gem, because the ‘Winter Night’
a symbol for him
of the sufferings of his people.
Dekker says so!!!”
“What a sad natural scene for us
the mood interpreted of the sorrow, the misery of The War.”

Jacobus, you remind me how we were at school
in the name of Literature
poems’ wings had to be clipped;
how we had to interpret stanzas harshly
in the soundproof rooms
of prescribed symbols and square lessons –
in a line from Robert Bridges’ “London Snow”
(“Hiding difference, making unevenness even”)
one of my teachers saw Communism.

Your neat conclusions, Jacobus,
color the loneliness of “Winter Night”
a shade colder for me.

You make me realize
understanding and misunderstanding
two equally innocent forms
of powerlessness:
time is not all enemy<
of beauty and sorrow –
people don’t read or suffer
without the hope of deeper meaning.

But in the eternal “sterling and damage”
abandoned is interpreted as abandoned;
symbols drenched in loneliness
and the single and his raw heart still stretches
light years away

“Winternag” is simply a lyrical nature verse with a melancholy undertone, to which the old literati and schoolmasters wanted to attach a deeper meaning at all costs. It must simply be symbolic of the Afrikaner people’s suffering during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). Dekker puts it this way in his Afrikaans literary history, the first edition of which appeared in 1934: “In these verses (his Collected Poems of 1925 – DH), with which Afrikaans poetry is ushered in, Marais is the interpreter of the folk soul, he gives relief, as it were, to the sorrow of that folk soul by giving expression to it. He did this in particular in his ‘Winter Night’, one of the jewels of our poetry, which was already published in 1905 Country and Nation appeared. In this sober, pure poem, through which the thin wind of the Highveld complains, he symbolized in his own natural mood the sorrow and suffering of his people.”

It is interesting that the enthusiastic student, Jacobus Viljoen, according to Danie Marais’s poem, turns Dekker’s phrase “one of the gems of our poetry” into a “great linguistic gem”. Or did he simply take over the grandeur of his lecturer?

The title “Die gedwë ‘Winternag'” echoes a verse line from “Die ossewa” by Jan FE Celliers. The first stanza reads as follows:

The oxen walk through the dust,
patient, obliging, meek;
the yokes, all pressing their shoulders –
they bear it comforted and satisfied.

“Winternag” is therefore a poem that, with the passage of time, had to endure the yoke of all kinds of heavy interpretations with equal meekness.

According to Danie Marais, this kind of symbolizing interpretation narrows precisely the range and true meaning of poems; it clips poetry’s wings. A poem about “beauty and sorrow” must per se convey a nationalist message. Yet he understands it, because

people don’t read or suffer
without the hope of deeper meaning.

And with that verdict we are back to Billy Collins. In his poem “Introduction to Poetry” (from the collection The Apple that Astonished Paris, 1988) he complains about his students who want a poem to “confess” something, to contain something hidden and deep. They are not satisfied with the sound and the glittering surface of the verse:

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They start beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

A book’s page reflects the visible and if that visible is the letters of a poem, there is no need to look for dark meanings, as if every word carries a shadow that needs to be deciphered. What the verse has to say is plain and simple:

as wide as the Lord’s grace
lay the fields in sterling and damage


Oh sad the tune
to the east wind’s beat
like the song of a girl
abandoned in her love.

Danie Marais points out that the individual’s loneliness and desolation should speak to the reader much more intensely than the sorrow that a “people’s soul” could experience:

But in the eternal “sterling and damage”
abandoned is interpreted as abandoned;
symbols drenched in loneliness
and the single and his raw heart still stretch
light years away