Commonplace books

I recently learnt what commonplace books are and realised that I have been keeping them since I was a teenager. I’d always assumed that the notebooks I filled were just aborted journals, filled with random pieces of text. But no, they are a thing with a long history of famous scribbles, doodles, random thoughts and profundities.

Commonplace books are personal collections of words but they’re not quite journals. They are gradually filled with spontaneous inspiration and as such are rarely on a single topic. Historically, people kept them to jot down ideas: Leonardo da Vinci’s called his a ‘… collection without order, which I have copied here, hoping to arrange them later…’ 

For centuries, people have filled theirs with quotes, sudden flashes of inspiration, recipes, sayings and proverbs, funny observations. Lewis Carroll and John Milton’s are famous examples. Thomas Jefferson kept one for his legal ideas and one for his literary and philosophical readings. 

Commonplace books can be filled with whatever piques your interest. They may have fallen out of fashion with the arrival of the internet and online documents (think note-taking apps like Evernote and OneNote) but I still use them for many reasons. One big reason is copying sentences or paragraphs from novels that I read (I filled an entire one with extracts from Proust); there is something about the physical action of copying a perfect passage using pen and paper that makes it more profound and memorable. 

I also fill my commonplace books with quotes, titles for poems or songs, fragments of poems that pop into my head and need to be recorded and hopefully used later, observations I’ve made, general stuff that’s on my mind but too short to want to flesh out into a journal entry. 

Now I think about it, they’re a little bit like a Twitter account made physical, where instead of retweeting something interesting you found, you pull out your dog-eared commonplace book and scribble it down. Which leads to an important point about commonplace books—tweets may disappear down a timeline, never to be seen again, but whatever goes in your notebook needs to be reviewed later and trawled for good ideas.

I don’t think I’ll ever stop filling in my commonplace books, especially now I know what they’re called…

Poetry and lyrics

When I was a teenager, people who were much older than me would tell me how the songs of Bob Dylan were poetry set to music. This annoyed me no end—I couldn’t see the genius in the few words of his that I could make out and, as I prided myself on already loving music with poetic lyrics, found it quite offensive that this old dude was still considered a paragon of the written word (sung badly). Many years later, I did indeed go through a ‘Dylan’ phase and eventually got it, coming to love many of his lyrics which I now accept to be, well, genius.

What makes a lyric more poetry than simply a vocal accompaniment to music and giving the singer something to do so he doesn’t have to fill the song with contemplative dance? A few rules:

• No clichés. This goes for a difference between good and bad poetry too.
• Words that fit the music, that inhabit the same mood. (Imagine the lyrics to Barbiegirl sung to the tune of As I Sat Sadly By Her Side by Nick Cave. Actually, that would be pretty interesting…)
• Lyrics that are about something concrete. Just like good poems, a great lyric needs to be about something and be cohesive in its delivery.
• Sung with passion, knowing the words so well that the right words are stressed at the right moments. Note, passion is not the same as vocal talent. (See Bob Dylan again.)
• As good on the written page as through your speakers.

Here are a few of my favourite lyrics from bands and artists (artist in the truest sense of the word) that I know. They are perfect lyrics and, if you pull them out and read them without knowing they are part of a song, stand up in their own right on the page.

There She Goes, My Beautiful World, by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

‘I look at you and you look at me and
Deep in our hearts babe we know it
That you weren’t much of a muse
But then I weren’t much of a poet.’

Nick Cave’s entire oeuvre is a vast collection of beautiful words so picking just one song is difficult.

In There She Goes, My Beautiful World, Cave tackles the bane of every writer that has ever lived— writers’ block. The lyric starts with a list of natural features (names of trees, flowers) trying to summon beauty back onto the page. In the second and third verses he gives a list of historical figures who created despite their circumstances; it’s like he is trying to shame himself into writing something, anything.

4st 7lb, by Manic Street Preachers

‘I want to walk in the snow and not leave a footprint.’

Any lyric from their flawless 1994 album, The Holy Bible would do. For me, it is the zenith of poetry set to music. 4st 7lb refers to what, at the time, was considered the absolute cut off point for someone suffering from anorexia; any less than this weight and you were gone. The song details in excruciating detail the process of anorexia, with a kind of count down of weights as the first person anorexic gradually watches herself disappear.

Ys, by Joanna Newsom

‘While the river was twisting and braiding, the bait bobbed
And the string sobbed, as it cut through the hustling breeze.’

An entire album of lyrical delight. The music is so gorgeous—the complex harp melodies, the lush orchestrations by Van Dyke Parks—that if you heard it without the vocal and not knowing each song had words attached, you would think it was the greatest thing ever.

But that’s only half of it! Newsom’s words are as expertly rendered as the musical arrangements themselves. Her focus on the natural world, her turns of phrase that not once drift towards cliché despite the sheer length of each song.

A Lady of a Certain Age, by The Divine Comedy

‘You chased the sun around the Cote d’Azur
Until the light of youth became obscured.’

Although the weight of their back catalogue falls on the side of whimsy and wry humour, every so often (I think about 3 songs per album, but I haven’t tested that with science) band leader Neil Hannon creates something so riveting and moving that it floors you.

This ballad tells the story of an ageing heiress and socialite, telling strangers her life story with all the wonderful and elegant people she has met. Her life has certainly seemed blessed, but as the song progresses Hannon throws in the occasional hint that things weren’t as good as she remembered them. Now, an old lady, she pines for a young, handsome man to comment on her youthful looks, with the heartbreaking line: ‘“You wouldn’t think that I was seventy.” And he’d say, “no, you couldn’t be.”’

Dark Eyes, by Bob Dylan

‘I live in another world
Where life and death are memorised.’

My favourite Dylan lyric comes from arguably his worst album: Dark Eyes, from the much-derided Empire Burlesque. Trust me though, it’s worth wading through the mire for this, the last song on the album.

Bob strips everything back and it’s 1963 again; a children’s song in its simplicity. But the words, oh the words, that posit these fantastic and often dark images in your mind that linger long after you’ve heard/read them.

The Ten Virtues of Tea

This was written more than a thousand years back in the Tang dynasty by a eunuch called Liu Zhen Liang. It’s not the greatest poem ever written about tea (it reads a bit like the side-effects warning on a modern box of medicine) but it has its moments and gives an insight into why tea became so popular in China at that time. (Translation by myself.)











The Ten Virtues of Tea

Tea disperses your gloomy mood

Tea drives away sleep

Tea fosters vitality

Tea casts away illness

Tea is the beginning of courtesy and humanity

Tea represents respect

Tea increases sophistication

Tea nurtures your body

Tea helps you follow the Tao

Tea refines your ideals


It’s four years since the Syrian archaeologist Khaled Al-Asaad was murdered for refusing to give away the location of antiquities in Palmyra as Daesh tore down the ancient city.

I wrote this poem then, and the song which you can listen to below.


At what point can one say:
               ‘Preservation is complete’?
which pitted surface smoothed?
which sand-filled tomb exhumed?
at a closed junction
               between life and death
man and bird wrestle
above traffic lights. You are
no Zenobia
               no Roman house arrest
in exchange for a life’s
surrendered empire. And so
finally you kneel,
               a final thought for
chipped faces off sarcophagi
your final restoration
still attached

‘Digging’ by Seamus Heaney

Digging is the first poem from the very first collection (Death of a Naturalist) by one of my favourite poets—Seamus Heaney. This is Heaney’s ars poetica – his reason for writing poetry. Not many poets start their careers with this type of poem, and here Heaney passionately tells us why he must be a poet. Digging is a call to arms from and to the young Heaney; it is respectful for tradition but without permitting tradition to choose the course of his life.

The first two lines of Digging, though short, are brilliant: ‘The squat pen..’ suggests he’s ready to go, to attack his life’s work. ‘Snug as a gun’ with the juxtaposition of the two seemingly different words makes the reader pull up and re-read before going any further.

Why a gun? Perhaps Heaney is saying that the pen has power to him; the snugness is his way of saying it fits him perfectly, unlike the tool of his antecedents, the spade, which we discover fitted them equally well in later stanzas. The poem’s first two stanzas rhyme at the end of each line, but Heaney doesn’t continue this through the rest of the poem. His meter changes and we are in free verse territory; this has the effect of jolting the reader, making him stop and start again, thrusting the poem’s language and meaning into the foreground.

Throughout the poem Heaney writes with short, consonantal words like slap, cuts, nicking, sods and lug—all sharp, coarse and cutting to the ears and, not coincidentally, all from the Germanic side of the english language’s family tree. The language of the poem is earthy and simple and doesn’t jar with the subject matter, particularly when Heaney is describing his grandfather’s work. (‘The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap of soggy peat.’)

The rhythm of his Father and Grandfather’s spades is beat with alliteration (‘Spade sinks’, ‘gravelly ground’, ‘tall tops’) and assonance, particularly with the vowel sound in ‘snug’ which thuds across the entire the poem. (eg cut, gun, thumb, lug, rump.)

Towards the end of the poem, Heaney writes: ‘But I’ve no spade to follow men like them’. This is an interesting line—he obviously could have a spade and continue the family tradition but has chosen a different direction, a different craft; one that is more suited to the person that he is.

Yang Wan Li—a translation

Yang Wan Li was a Chinese official and Zen Buddhist in the 12th century. It’s said he wrote over 20,000 poems (of which, around 4000 survive). This poem was written in Hangzhou, a city I used to live in many moons ago and have many fond memories of.

(Note on translating: Most old Chinese poems don’t have standard translations, so there is no ‘fixed’ version in English)

Seeing off Lin Zi Fang from Jingci Temple at Dawn

At last, the West Lake in June

Its grand, incomparable view

Leaves reach skyward, their endless green

Lotus reflect different shades of red

A brief look at ‘Dream Song 14’ by John Berryman

Most of my favourite poets are those that have a story behind them—not just technically skilful writers, but those that ‘have lived’. John Berryman certainly falls into this category with his backstory of suicide, loss, alcoholism, depression and more suicide.

His most famous work is the sequence of 385 three-stanza poems called Dream Songs. In #14 we meet the protagonist of many of these poems, Henry. Henry is semi-autobiographical but Berryman uses him, through his use of the first, second and third person, as a way of exploring the extreme parts of a life (and death)—the effect is a kind of poetic hall of mirrors which is simultaneously exhilarating and confusing.

Berryman’s choice of language in Dream Songs is curious too—flirting between archaic and slang—the combination of this and the identity-crisis of Henry makes the poems feel like we are witnessing a one-man stage routine.

The focus of #14 is boredom, and its key line comes between the first and second stanzas, which we can all remember our parents saying a version of: ‘Ever to confess you’re bored means you have no inner resources.’

But Berryman fully accepts this diagnosis – he is bored, really bored. How much is Henry, how much is himself, how much is he bored of Henry? (Presumably not much as he’s got most of his Dream Songs left to write.) Interestingly, he compares Henry to Achilles whose sulky and petulant demeanour in The Iliad reinforces the adolescent in us that we return too when faced with a period of boredom.

The language of the poem reinforces his boredom too—Berryman doesn’t consult his thesaurus for synonyms of ‘bored’—he rams home the message by using the word a good seven times. Other words are repeated too, particularly at the end of lines which gives the poem a rhythm, albeit one that emphasises the monotony he is describing.