Handwritten Notes In Published Books | EW1

An essay on Delightful Writing

Billy Collins (left), 11th poet laureate of the United States, with the author in 2014

There are three kinds of handwriting to be found in the margins of published books, according to the poet Billy Collins. In his poem “Marginalia”, he mentions:

  1. Ferocious skirmishes against the author (“If I could get my hands on you / Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O’Brien, they seem to say”)
  2. Modest marks of students (“splayed footprints along the shore of the page”)
  3. Fans (“‘Absolutely,’ they shout / to Duns Scotus or James Baldwin”1)

In A Modest Book About How To Make An Adequate Speech, I reported that my former editor at The Financial Times, John Lloyd, when he worked in Moscow, was shown Stalin’s annotated personal copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince.

After several years, alas, John couldn’t remember any specific marginal comments. At least, that’s what he said, but looking back I see that he could have been bluffing: he could have been using on me something he’d picked up from those two dark geniuses, for a purpose that still escape me.

Either way, it’s a shame, because the combined insights of Machiavelli + Stalin = sensation. I like to imagine that they covered all three of the kinds of marginalia described by Collins. But I wonder if they might also have included another kind, in which I dabble occasionally myself. It’s this:

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  1. Creative writing, inspired by the author’s sheer creative generosity.

Mind you, there are very few books in which I find myself willing to do this. Right this second, I can think of only the published poetry of Adrian Mitchell and Gavin Ewart.

Ewart’s Collected Poems 1980-1990 is on my desk right now. (He wrote many more, over many other decades.) Flicking through, I find that I have written 14 poems of my own in it. Most are inspired by the poem beside which I have written them – there’s a triolet2 of mine, for instance, beside a triolet of his.

But the longer ones I remember had to be written wherever I could find enough white space, including inside the back cover.

Fourteen is not a bad number of poems to write inside somebody else’s book of poetry. I wrote a few in Mitchell’s books. I’m confident in saying that all the rest of my poetry books (I’ve got quite a few) contain fewer than 14 in total.3

So the question arises: why do I write inside Ewart and Mitchell? And is it that I’m positively encouraged by those two, or do other poetry books somehow restrain me, and suppress my creative instinct?

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Recently, in a series of essays about writing a book, I made the claim that most books actively aspire to be unassailable4. The editing is flawless, the design gives the object itself a finished quality. On top of that, the author is plainly presented as an expert, if only for the circular reason that he or she is an author, and “must” know the subject.

At least, to a degree. As Billy Collins noted, many readers disagree intensely with many authors, and exercise subversive penmanship all over their pages. But my handwritten marginal responses to Ewart and Mitchell aren’t motivated by disagreeing with them.

It’s more like wanting to join a game they are playing.

I should add that both Ewart and Mitchell have been flawlessly edited, and the book design is good. Ewart, regrettably, was published by Hutchinson in a paperback edition that was glue bound. In the years that have passed, the pages have yellowed, and the spine has cracked, so that a couple of pages have fallen out.

Mitchell, published by Bloodaxe, is stitch-bound and the pages remain white. (Hurrah for Bloodaxe!)

To be clear: I don’t write inside Ewart because the book is falling apart. Far from it. One of his poems was read aloud at my wedding, and the corner of that page is still turned down. I treasure this book, and not because it contains 14 poems of my own.

Nor do I write inside Mitchell because it’s handsomely put together: I have many other books published by Bloodaxe, and I don’t write inside those.

How else to explain my playful response to them both?

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I think part of it comes from my sense of a personal affinity to them – who they were, where they lived. I was so excited when I first came across the poem in which Ewart wrote about sending his daughter to the school I attended – indeed, I quoted the poem in full, at the front of my memoir, Comp: A Survivor’s Tale. He also wrote a poem about watching one of the professors at my university on the telly. In other words, he wrote about “my” world.

As for Mitchell: I actually met him, interviewed him for the Financial Times, and liked him enormously. He wrote a poem about visiting a friend of his who had been one of my primary school teachers, the performance poet Ivor Cutler. Mitchell’s visit, in the poem, took place when Mr Cutler was dying, in a ward at the Royal Free Hospital – where I have been a patient many times. “My” world, again.

It’s hard to pin down exactly which details really matter. Meeting Mitchell isn’t the key thing, because I also interviewed Simon Armitage, the current poet laureate, and I liked him too, and I admire his poetry – but I don’t write in his books. (Same goes for Billy Collins, as it happens.)

Is it because Ewart and Mitchell are no longer with us? No: because I wrote poems in Mitchell’s books while he was still alive. Golly, it’s a mystery.

Most likely, it’s a combination of that affinity and the nature of their writing itself. Both Mitchell and Ewart plainly loved to experiment with different formats, sometimes writing poems about the formats and about writing. They could both switch between being serious and comic. And they both produced poetry in vast quantity.

For all these reasons, they strike me as writers with whom any reader who wishes to can join in the game. Their writing delights, and they invite me to delight in writing.

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I’ve used two words in this essay that make me nervous: play, and game. To me, they’re splendid words. But I’m aware of at least one person who is mightily suspicious of them. I have never quite got to the bottom of this, but imagine it is related to the – understandably – ghastly feeling that comes with being told to have “fun”. Nobody has fun to order. It has to sneak up on you.

When I teach in corporate settings5, I avoid saying play, and game. Instead, I introduce the term “management training exercise”, which is so much more sensible and grown up. But then I say something like this:

“You know what? I call it a management training exercise because you’re here at work, and management training exercise sounds tremendously practical. But when I’m doing the same thing elsewhere, I call it a game. Just don’t tell anybody else.”

This allows participants to feel just a teeny bit subversive, which in turn tends to loosen them up, and they tackle the management training exercises playfully.

Of course, the people who pay me to run these sessions want practical results. So I explain that the management training exercises really will teach participants to be more effective at X, Y and Z. And this is entirely true, by the way. But it seems necessary to go about it in this sideways manner. I haven’t actually tried this, but suspect that if I just marched in and said solemnly: “The following training will make you more effective at X, Y and Z,” participants would tune out, and the efficacy of the session would be diminished – or eliminated altogether.

So you see: playfulness is what makes it effective.

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If I were to encourage anybody to become a better writer, I would proceed in a similar manner. I would first have to get them (you?) over the feeling that it’s all too much work, basically impossible etc etc – beliefs that stop people doing anything at all, because they can’t do everything all at once.

In order to teach, I invite people to take small risks, to get things “wrong” knowing that it will go better next time; and to aim for average because aiming for anything better than average can turn a person into a perfectionist, incapable of action.

It’s a paradox: in order to help you become an utterly brilliant writer, I have to lower the stakes by inviting you to join me in a conspiracy of pretending that you don’t really aim especially high.

I suspect you might be willing to make a bit of a creative mess if I do it first. So perhaps I should not only write poems in the books of poets who already seem engaging, loose, playful. Instead, I should barge into the perfect pages of writers whose work appears unassailable, and rough them up a bit.

A bit like Collins does, I suppose, in the poem that gives the startling title to his selected poems:

Till next time.

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1 ↩︎ “Marginalia”. Collins’s poem is available to read in full here.

2 ↩︎ A triolet is an eight-line stanza having just two rhymes. The first line is repeated as the fourth and seventh lines, and the second line is repeated as the eighth. Because it starts where it ends, it tends not to “go anywhere” but to leave the writer in the same plight / happy state as before. The repeating rhyme also tends to make the triolet a useful format for comic writing. For what it’s worth, here’s my triolet:
We’re going to Julia
For dinner with Daniel.
Not so peculiar,
We’re going to Julia.
A little unrulier,
But only biannual,
We’re going to Julia
For dinner with Daniel.

3 ↩︎ Inside the rest. I found only a scattering of poems in all my other poetry books. One is a sonnet that I scrawled beneath a sonnet by W H Auden, on p80 of 101 Sonnets, edited by Don Paterson. Another is a nearly-sonnet (unfinished) beneath a poem in Paul Muldoon’s collection, Hay. And there are two jokey verses I wrote on a summer holiday in Corsica, shortly before the birth of my daughter, when I was avidly reading the translated poetry of Bertolt Brecht. But I wrote this one on a scrap of paper bearing the logo and address of our hotel, slipping it inside Brecht’s Selected Poems to be found (as it happens) years later. What I’m saying is: I didn’t write it on the pages of Brecht.

4 ↩︎ Unassailable. That essay, specifically the bit about books striving to seem unassailable, can be read here: Trusting Your Instinct. Interestingly, I was talking at the weekend to somebody about the difficulty of writing for an academic readership. The suggestion was made that an academic writer can be blocked, stopped altogether from making any advance, by the need to protect her/himself from attack by others: by the need, in other words, to feel unassailable. I found that fascinating, though I suspect that others including (but not only) lawyers may feel the same. It’s a painful position to be in, because, like other forms of perfectionism, it’s aspiring to the impossible.

5 ↩︎ Corporate teaching. You can hear me recite a short poem created during one such corporate session, which took place entirely online at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.