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Todd R. Nelson is a retired educator. His book of Maine essays, “Cold Spell,” was published in October by Down East Books.
For Christmas one year, my brother created “a literary commonplace.” “Initial entries compiled by Derek Nelson; subsequent entries by Todd Nelson,” as his cover says. He was inaugurating a collecting practice that has endured to the present.
“Commonplace” was not a new concept, since we Nelsons always liked an excuse to type. Both English majors inhabited the land before word processing, to us typing meant self-publishing and making soothing word noise. Cloud storage does not yet exist, but I embrace the metaphor — and quality paper and the comforting industrial pressure of type on inky ribbon.
It was created in the 1970s and its original typed sheets, dragged around the country during the intervening changes of jobs and houses in my archive, surfaced a few weeks ago.
I recall Derek typing these literary gleanings: poems, quotes, and criticism. I love the high rag content of typewriter bond paper and the effort it took to make underlinings. Remember? We take for granted the ease of font choice, size, and diacritical marks in the land of MacBrook Pro — the apotheosis of the Gutenberg revolution, so far.
An old friend leaps out: “If I’d wanted to send a message,” wrote Ernest Hemingway, “I’d have used Western Union.” I’ve shared this with numerous English classes, and even a recent workshop on writing the personal essay. Nelson family values eschew messaging versus inhabiting a verbal experience, poetry in particular, as when WH Auden asked the young poet, “’Why do you want to write poetry?’ If the aspiring poet answers, ‘I have important things I want to say,’ then he is not a poet,” said Auden. “If he answers, ‘I like hanging around words listening to what they say,’ then maybe he is going to be a poet.” Or assembler of literary commonplaces.
One of the great lines of poetry on poetry has been in my back pocket for decades. Marianne Moore urged poets to “present for inspection ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them.’” Definition? Sometimes words buy understanding even while urging adoption and appreciation. Her lines jibe with Robert Frost’s (next page in the commonplace) about the poet being a performer; the poem as a performance of “prowess and feats of association.” I loved the next paragraph from Education by Poetry, basically an encomium on continuing education, without which “[we] don’t know how to judge a political campaign; when we are being fooled by a metaphor, an analogy, a parable. And metaphor is, of course, what we are talking about. Education by poetry is education by metaphor.” When the only tool in your toolbox is a metaphor, everything looks like a “nail.”
Seamus Heaney, Robert Graves, Donald Davie, Wallace Stevens (“Poetry is a response to the daily necessity of getting the world right.”), Richard Wilbur — my favorites are all there. And new ones to me, like Victor Shklovsky: “In order to restore to us the sensation of life, to make us feel things, to make the stone stony, there exists that which we call art.”
Here’s a practical tool from Hugh Kenner: “To start grasping the sense of a passage of verse, read it aloud and trust the rhythm. If on repeated trials the rhythm gives no support, there is probably something wrong, either with the verse or with your reading.” And he didn’t have the experience of hip-hop! I inhabit the middle ground — language that is musically and rhetorically astute; that has rhythm, sound, and intellectual sense.
The beat goes on. I am now the anthologist. Collecting quotes by various writers about the craft of writing, poetry in particular, infiltrated my teaching — sharing the sharing; finding the best words about words; trying to say how a poem means (thanks, John Ciardi) and how the poem asks to be read; finding good writing about writing.
It has led to this: For the last five years, I’ve been creating my own poetry commonplace to share with my kids and friends. It has evolved from the best-loved poetry of my lifetime, to an almanac of the poems that crossed my path (“education by metaphor”) in one way or another. We inhabit a world of poetry. It imbues our experience. Or is that just an English major going a bit gaga?
Derek will get a copy. It’s a coda on the commonplace he started and to which I have indeed added. I think of it as beach combing: poems as sea glass. Frost would approve of the metaphor. He’s in this year’s collection, which I just finished typing. But it’s not a message.