Friday, January 15, 2010

Poetry Friday: A Commonplace Book

A week or so ago, I frivolously declared my New Year's resolution to be "eat more cupcakes."

I'm not backpedaling on that. However, since I didn't record my cupcake consumption in 2009, it will be difficult to prove that I've eaten more cupcakes by the end of 2010.  So, in addition to this resolution, I'm also adding:

Keep a Commonplace Book.

Which will be easy, since I already do. You may remember that I blogged about it once and posted a picture:

What is a commonplace book? Simply a journal in which you stash poems, quotes, and generally anything else you wish to hold close. According to, people have been doing this since the Renaissance.  Also courtesy of is this Jonathan Swift quote, which I'm going to print out and paste it in my commonplace book:

"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that 'great wits have short memories:' and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day's reading or conversation.

There you enter not only your own original thoughts, (which, a hundred to one, are few and insignificant) but such of other men as you think fit to make your own, by entering them there."

--from "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

I'm so relieved that "great wits have short memories." I'm going to use this as my standard excuse next time I forget your name two seconds after you tell it to me.

Anyhow, my resolution is to keep adding to my commonplace book, and to start a new one. My daughter gave me a planner for 2010, one of those lovely Moleskin ones, and instead of using it to plan, I'm going to use it to record one commonplace thing about each day of 2010. Not an essay, not a paragraph, just the few words I can squeeze into the rectangle allotted each day. Because part of being a writer is observing the commonplace.

Today's entry: My oversized coffee mug, heavy as a cereal bowl, presses into my cupped palm. The weight of it is comforting.

I invite you to join me. If you need an actual journal to begin, and don't want to use a datebook, consider this creation available on etsy which has a love poem by Tennyson on the cover.

I'm clipping the poem framed on its cover to post here:

Spring (from The Window)
by Alfred Tennyson

Birds' love and birds' song
Flying here and there,
Birds' song and birds' love
And you with gold for hair!
Birds' song and birds' love
Passing with the weather,
Men's song and men's love,
To love once and forever.

Men's love and birds' love,
And women's love and men's!
And you my wren with a crown of gold,
You my queen of the wrens!
You the queen of the wrens —
We'll be birds of a feather,
I'll be King of the Queen of the wrens,
And all in a nest together.

P.S. I love thinking of a commonplace book as a nest.

Poetry Friday is hosted  by Great Kid Books, which is featuring the Cybils Poetry finalists today.


  1. I didn't know there was a namefor something I have done off and on. I will try to do this with intention this year. Thanks for the challenge.

  2. I love this idea. Perhaps you should also record what flavor cupcake you ate each day...

  3. Thanks for the inspiring post. And maybe I love the p.s. most of all.

  4. Great idea! I used to keep one that had everything from scraps of poetry to grocery lists and gin rummy scores, but I've fallen out of the habit.

    Since you mentioned moleskins I'm adding a link, brought to my attention by another Sarah, who keeps a moleskine with her for sketching: I find the FAQ especially interesting!

  5. I like the idea of observing the commonplace each day. (And I liked your entry, my mug is heavy too)

    I think I'll open it with that quote about "great wits have short memories".

    Winged Writer

  6. Love this. And, for the record, my commonplace book has that great and guiding quote you shared with the world in OPERATION YES: Be kind, for everyone is fighting a great battle. If you only knew how often I turn to this gem of wisdom!

  7. I am so happy to have found you via Valerie Geary. As a Phantom Tollbooth and Book of Three fan, you speak my language.

    I've just gotten my copy of A Sense of Wonder, which you wrote about here a few weeks ago.

    And now this. I usually shove bits and pieces of writing worth keeping into folders or use them as bookmarks. I love this idea. Thanks.

  8. I need a commonplace book to record the locations of my various commonplace books.

    I love calling it a "supplemental memory."

  9. I have a book as you described in which I've collected poignant quotes and even special Scripture verses over the years. However, I haven't developed it into a true "journal" with thoughts of my own. You've challenged me to take to another level. I have thought recently that blogging would be more to my liking, but a real 3-D book is something to hold, reread, and pass on. I like it! Have a great weekend, and be grateful that you are still young enough that you CAN eat a cupcake a day and not just be gluing them to your waistline. Ha!
    Joan Benson/Chesapeake,VA

  10. I thought at first several years ago that my blog would be a sort of commonplace book, but it has evolved into another sort of supplemental memory where I can store more developed thoughts and links to essays and recipes and lists and such. And, of course, a record of what I've read.

    A small journal would be helpful in a different way, a place to jot down little quotations, phone numbers, bits of inspiration, and reminders. I need to get a notebook.

  11. Dude! You have given me a reason to buy one of those Shakespeare journals we saw via Twitter!

    I used to keep a commonplace book when I was in high school - I still have it. It has poems and song lyrics and quotes from books and movies in it, along with sermons I liked and words from newspaper articles and campaigns, as well as some of my own thoughts, and I really love it. Not my own thoughts, so much, but the other stuff.

    I need to do this again. And to eat more cupcakes.

  12. Beautiful idea. It's something I am trying to do now too with my "art journal" though I have them for different topics.

    If I were the kind of person to get a tattoo, I would have "great wits have short memories" tattooed on me somewhere. Perfect!

  13. I should pledge to join you. I have stacks of these. My current dilemma, though, is that I end up putting a lot of My Favorite Poems, Excerpts, Etc. online. Hmmm....But I love those big books, with cards and notes falling out of them.

    I'm with Kelly: I'll eat more cupcakes, too.

  14. What a fabulous idea. I usually have scraps of paper and bits of torn postit notes stashed all over the house.
    I vow to use a commonplace book instead, even if I have to sticky tape them all in one scrap at a time.

  15. "Great wits have short memories." PRAISE BE! Now I have a smarter way to define my faulty memory than a bad case of "colander head."

    Add this quote to "cold hands--warm heart" and you can pretty much sum me up!

  16. This is something I've done in a sense for a while now, except that it's very haphhazard. I have a box that sits in the cabinet under my nightstand and it has in it notebooks with quotes and phrases and ideas and clippings and pictures. When I'm down on inspiration for new poems, I rummage through it to see what I find.

    I wonder an e-commonplace book--all in link format--would serve the same purpose these days.

  17. Blogs are a bit like a commonplace book---especially Poetry Fridays, where you can follow my PF postings all the way back to the first time I came online, as well as everyone else's posts.

    I also use Evernote to e-clip all sorts of ephemera (with links) but there's still something about having the physical clipping of a poem, or better yet, copying it out by hand into a journal.

    Mostly, I love the idea that people have been doing the same for centuries, making memory nests and holding things close.

  18. I have been thinking about this over the weekend. I've just cracked into a journal I bought years ago for this very purpose. Thanks so much.

    Also, you've inspired me to post about the same. Just bought a journal to give away and will link back to you.

  19. I love the idea of a commonplace book. Many of my thoughts are written down on little pieces of paper which are scattered in different places. Not too late for another new year's resolution!

  20. I'd never heard of a commonplace book. I keep a quote book, but it is very strictly quotes. Maybe I should expand it.


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