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The things people write in books!

By Don Share

180px-Codiceemil.jpg
I mean literally, the things people scrawl on the flyleaves and in the margins of books. My mother taught me not to deface books, not even to dog-ear them, but tell it to a poet! There’s real treasure in literary marginalia: notes, scribbles, and assorted editorial comments added to books. Take Blake’s famous comment on Francis Bacon – “Philosophy has Destroyd all art & Science.” Blake really had it in for the artist Sir Joshua Reynolds, on whose death he scrawled, “Funeral granted to Sir Joshua for having destroyd Art . . . .” Unlike many a lesser poet, though, Blake ordinarily attacked ideas not people, and tried to delete that comment. Coleridge is the most copious of literary marginalia-writers; he even invented the word “marginalia.” Anybody who let him borrow a book would later find reams of cramped, scribbled commentary it it; his essay-like annotations have been collected in a set of six volumes (so far) that contain some eight thousand notes. (Alas, the best-known marginal note isn’t by a poet: Fermat’s “last theorem,” which didn’t even fit in the margins of the book he was defacing; Wikipedia says it’s the most famous solved problem in the history of mathematics.) Other stuff written inside books include doodles, reader’s marks like stars, asterisks, crosses… but also actual poems! So guess what we recently found! Read on after the jump…


A couple of years ago a ton of press was given the discovery of a poem – no masterpiece – Robert Frost inscribed in the cover of a friend’s book back in 1918, though a scholar tells me you can find so-called “lost” poems by Frost scribbled in many an old book. Let’s face it, it’s fun and exciting to think you’ve turned up something that came from a famous hand. (When I was a curator, I was thrilled to discover handwritten lyrics to the song “American Pie” which Don McLean had written out himself to impress the influential Harvard English professor Harry Levin.) Unsurprisingly, there are more lost works attributed to Shakespeare than anyone else; anyone remember the fabulously awful ”Shall I Die? Shall I Fly?” There will always be an England, and there will always be “new” Shakespeare poems. But I digress.
Thank goodness, I say, for people who write in books. And this month in Poetry magazine we’re thrilled to present three newly-discovered poems by Langston Hughes, introduced by his editor and biographer, Arnold Rampersad. The poems were written in pencil on the endpapers of the poet’s copy of An Anthology of Revolutionary Poetry and discovered by Penny Welbourne, a rare book cataloger at Yale University, where Hughes’s papers and personal library are housed.
Rampersad says: “The truth is that we cannot have too many poems by Langston Hughes.” These previously unpublished works, which echo his better-known poems, are very bitter, very harsh. As Rampersad puts it, “As a black writer facing racism on a daily basis, he had a remarkably precise sense of scale, as well as an inspired knowledge of the words and rhythms of speech that would best convey his messages to blacks and whites alike.” The poem, “You and your whole race” asks some of us to be ashamed that we
“have not the sense to care
Nor the manhood to stand up and say
I dare you to come one step nearer, evil world,
With your hands of greed seeking to touch my throat, I dare you to come one step nearer me,”
and ends:
“When you can say that
you will be free!”
You can read the poems here, and Rampersad’s essay here.
Enjoy them, and… keep your eyes peeled for lost verses! Maybe a nice Moleskine is best for your poetry, though.

Comments (3)

  • On January 7, 2009 at 4:23 pm Jane wrote:

    I have been charmed by marginalia ever since I worked in the rare books room of one of the least-of-the-Big-Ten schools. While leafing through a t15th cent. reatise on herbalism, I discovered in Latin the words “bonum” and “malum” scriblled every so often next to remedies. This was the begining of clinical trials I suppose.
    Recently Hitler’s marginalia was discovered in some of his treacly religious tomes- I believe teh LIbrary of Congress has those.

  • On January 9, 2009 at 3:05 pm Brent Cunningham wrote:

    For anybody who wants to read further on this topic, especially about markings in books way before Coleridge, I glimpsed an interesting-looking new book from Penn Press the other day. It’s called USED BOOKS: MARKING READERS IN RENAISSANCE ENGLAND by William H. Sherman. Here’s part of the publisher’s description: “Based on a survey of thousands of early printed books, Used Books describes what readers wrote in and around their books and what we can learn from these marks by using the tools of archaeologists as well as historians and literary critics. The chapters address the place of book-marking in schools and churches, the use of the “manicule” (hand-with-pointing-finger symbol), the role played by women in information management, the extraordinary commonplace book used for nearly sixty years by Renaissance England’s greatest lawyer-statesman, and the attitudes toward annotated books among collectors and librarians from the Middle Ages to the present.”
    yrs,
    Brent Cunningham

  • On January 11, 2009 at 11:59 am john wrote:

    Not marginalia, but an inscription, found in a used book store, north side of Chicago, ca. 1989; but, lacking the requisite four bucks, not bought; and, when I went back a few days later cash in hand, sad to see it already sold — Louis Ginsberg’s “Collected Poems,” inscription paraphrased from memory:
    “Dear Mr. Algren, My father wanted me to give you a copy of his book, with his compliments, since I was coming to Chicago. Yours, Allen.”


Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, January 7th, 2009 by Don Share.