Marginalia: Billy Collins

Marginalia, by Billy Collins

Marginalia, by Billy Collins

Last week I shared one of my favorite Billy Collins poems, “Marginalia”, with my reading group. I was surprised how few had heard/read it before. Billy Collins has enjoyed the poet equivalent of rock star status over the last decade, and yet nobody seemed familiar with Collins’ meandering reflection on one of my favorite subjects.

While the poem’s charm and much of its aural appeal resides in the specific instances of marginalia which Collins includes (calling out Kierkegaard, dissing Dickinson, bravo-ing Baldwin, etc.), there are three excerpts that contribute handily to the universal notion of marginalia, and I’d like to pass them along.

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


Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.


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.

~ Billy Collins, “Marginalia” (Poetry Magazine, February 1996)

Spot on! One, two, three perfectly captured truths about marginalia.

Collins is a member of your family, your best friend, sharing everyday moments and feelings so vividly they become your memories as well. (Jason Weisberger, Boing Boing.)

I’m still slightly perplexed by the almost combative bent of the marginalia scribblers early in the poem. While there’s a steady evolution toward less antagonistic marginalia penned by students and admirers, a shift accentuated by the love stained finale, I don’t completely grok the poet’s intentions. Perhaps hostile marginalia is sufficiently foreign to me that I lack the requisite context. I’ll work on that!

But the notion of challenging the author on his/her own playing field (or just off the edge of the playing field) is familiar. As is the curious human instinct to plant a personal flag. I was here. I staked this ground. I exist… For me this latter category often falls under the category of reminders. Can I find this passage or that reference easily later? Let’s make sure.

Marginalia was first published in Picnic, Lightning and later included in the collection Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems. If you’d like to read the whole poem now, you can access it online as reproduced from the February 1996 issue of Poetry Magazine. As with most of Billy Collins’ poems, this deserves to be read aloud. Once you’ve heard the poet read aloud, you’ll forever hear his voice when you read his words. But even in your own voice, you’ll bring the words to life in a way that they deserve. Enjoy!