Telling Our Commonplace Stories

A dear friend of mine keeps a Commonplace Book – a blank book into which she writes down favorite quotes and poems. It’s always a special moment when she shares something from one of them.

From Wikipedia: “Commonplace books (or commonplaces) are a way to compile knowledge, usually by writing information into books. They have been kept from antiquity, and were kept particularly during the Renaissance and in the nineteenth century. Such books are essentially scrapbooks filled with items of every kind: recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas. Commonplaces are used by readers, writers, students, and scholars as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts. Each one is unique to its creator’s particular interests but they almost always include passages found in other texts, sometimes accompanied by the compiler’s responses.”

I was thinking on this a few weeks ago, when an old Robert Graves poem showed up from memory. I remember, as a young girl, hearing this poem and writing it down in my own commonplace book. No doubt then out of some teenage moment of lovelost angst, but maybe also a first glimpse of how poetry speaks, communicates, finds ways to tell our unique but commonplace stories.

A Pinch Of Salt
by Robert Graves

When a dream is born in you
With a sudden clamorous pain,
When you know the dream is true
And lovely, with no flaw nor stain,
O then, be careful, or with sudden clutch
You’ll hurt the delicate thing you prize so much.

Dreams are like a bird that mocks,
Flirting the feathers of his tail.
When you seize at the salt-box,
Over the hedge you’ll see him sail.
Old birds are neither caught with salt nor chaff:
They watch you from the apple bough and laugh.

Poet, never chase the dream.
Laugh yourself, and turn away.
Mask your hunger; let it seem
Small matter if he come or stay;
But when he nestles in your hand at last,
Close up your fingers tight and hold him fast.


Do you keep a Commonplace Book? What do you include in it?


Essay and photo ©2019, Jen Payne.

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