Smoking and Writers

Today’s podcast of The Writer’s Digest noted that on this day in 2004, the Republic of Ireland became the first country to completely ban cigarette smoking from the workplace. But what followed, in Garrison Keillor’s writerly way, was a few observations about smoking and literature.

There are smokers, ex-smokers and never-smokers reading this, and in those groups there are certainly some people who connect smoking and writers. As an undergraduate English major, I definitely connected smoking and writers. Most of the writers I read, studied and admired were pictured at some point smoking. In a Romantic way, I made the connection and began smoking cigarettes as part of my writing routine. That routine also included coffee or alcohol depending on the time of day.

Lighting new cigarettes,
pouring more

It has been a beautiful

Charles Bukowski

This was stupid. Of course, smoking does not aid writing. Or does it?

Author and columnist A.N. Wilson said after the ban went into effect:

“Sitting with my drink in such now-empty bars, my mind has turned to the great smokers of the past — to C.S. Lewis, who smoked 60 cigarettes a day between pipes with his friends Charles Williams (cigarette smoker) and Tolkien (pipe-smoker); to Thomas Carlyle, whose wife made him smoke in the kitchen of their house in Cheyne Row, but who is unimaginable without tobacco, to Robert Browning, who quickly adapted to the new cigarette craze, to the great John Cowper Powys, who continued to smoke cigarettes, and to produce fascinating novels, into his nineties … This attack on basic liberty, which was allowed through without any significant protest, might mark the end not merely of smoking, but of literature.”

Well, the ban, which spread worldwide, didn’t end literature. It may have helped literature by prolonging the lives of writers who quit.

In my formative years, smoking was all around me. My father smoked. Everyone’s father and even some mothers seemed to smoke. People on television smoked and in movies were both Romantic and romantic.

Poets especially seemed to love smoking.

oh god it’s wonderful
to get out of bed
and drink too much coffee
and smoke too many cigarettes
and love you so much”
Frank O’Hara

In his poem “The Best Cigarette,” Billy Collins writes nostalgically about the smoking occasions he misses the most, including ones connected to his writing.

… the best were on those mornings
when I would have a little something going
in the typewriter,
the sun bright in the windows,
maybe some Berlioz on in the background.
I would go into the kitchen for coffee
and on the way back to the page,
curled in its roller,
I would light one up and feel
its dry rush mix with the dark taste of coffee.

Then I would be my own locomotive,
trailing behind me as I returned to work
little puffs of smoke,
indicators of progress,
signs of industry and thought,
the signal that told the nineteenth century
it was moving forward.
That was the best cigarette,
when I would steam into the study
full of vaporous hope
and stand there,
the big headlamp of my face
pointed down at all the words in parallel lines.

Oscar Wilde wrote, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and leaves one unsatisfied. What more could one want?”

“Mind you, sometimes the angels smoke, hiding it with their sleeves, and when the archangel comes, they throw the cigarettes away: that’s when you get shooting stars.”  – Vladimir Nabokov

I gave up smoking when I was dating the woman who became my wife because she hated it and still has never even tried smoking. My writing is more prolific, and I’d like to think better, than it was when I was a college student. Do I miss those cigarettes? I definitely don’t miss the smell of a cigarette. Like many ex-smokers, I find the smell nauseating sometimes, though I still find the aroma in a tobacco shop of the unsmoked leaves pleasant. In my bar-smoking days, I know that having a cigarette slowed down my drinking.

The best cigarette for me? Never in the morning. For me, it was either the one after dinner with my coffee, or the less common smoke beside a campfire. The former certainly was connected to writers. The latter probably was more connected with watching too many western films. But that’s a different essay.


Marginalia (or apostils) are marks made in the margins of a book or other document. They may be scribbles, comments, glosses (annotations), critiques, doodles, or illuminations.

Fermat’s last theorem is the most famous mathematical marginal note.

The first recorded use of the word marginalia is in 1819 in Blackwood’s Magazine.

Voltaire composed in book margins while in prison.

Sir Walter Raleigh wrote a personal statement in margins just before his execution.

Beginning in the 1990s, attempts have been made to design and market e-book devices permitting a limited form of marginalia.

Billy Collins has poem titled “Marginalia” that begins:

Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O’Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

Other comments are more offhand, dismissive –
‘Nonsense.’ ‘Please! ‘ ‘HA! ! ‘ –
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
why wrote ‘Don’t be a ninny’
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.

Edgar Allan Poe titled some of his reflections and fragmentary material “Marginalia.”

Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls ‘Metaphor’ next to a stanza of Eliot’s.
Another notes the presence of ‘Irony’
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.

Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
Hands cupped around their mouths.
‘Absolutely,’ they shout
to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
‘Yes.’ ‘Bull’s-eye.’ ‘My man! ‘
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.

I made plenty of notes in my college books. I tried not to mark up those expensive textbooks so that their value didn’t drop (though some of my friends liked the “annotated” books they bought used). But I heavily wrote in the margins of the novels and poetry collections I used in my English classes, and I still have most of them today.

Five volumes of Samuel T. Coleridge’s marginalia have been published.

Some famous marginalia were serious works, or drafts thereof, and were written in margins due to scarcity and expense of paper. Emily Dickinson wrote poems on scraps of paper, used envelopes and such.

And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written ‘Man vs. Nature’
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward.

Reading and analyzing marginalia can be a scholarly pursuit, especially the marginalia of famous authors. Herman Melville is one of my soulmates and there is a website, Melville’s Marginalia Online, devoted to the marginalia in books owned and borrowed by him from 1819-1891.

The old books are scanned and then filtered and sharpened in Adobe Photoshop in a digital literary archaeology. Scholars study his notes in copies of books about whales. That seems obvious. less obvious are notes on themes that emerge not only in Moby-Dick, but in his other books, stories and poems.

Melville writes in White Jacket:
The horn seemed the mark of a curse for some mysterious sin, conceived and committed before the spirit had entered the flesh. Yet that sin seemed something imposed, and not voluntarily sought; some sin growing out of the heartless necessities of the predestination of things; some sin under which the sinner sank in sinless woe.

Studying his marginalia, especially in a copy of Dante’s Inferno, we see him being interested in the way impulsive, unplanned, unpremeditated acts could be seen as sins. He marks up passages about damnation and free will.

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

Some marginalia is our way of saying that we didn’t just read the words, but we thought about them. We paused, considered a line, and made a note of our own.

Marginalia is an older practice than even printed books. The “scholia” on classical manuscripts are the earliest known form of marginalia. We have evidence of margin notes and even illustrations in beautiful old illuminated manuscripts.

A page from a 14th-century illuminated Armenian manuscript with painted marginalia – the first page of the Gospel of Mark

Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird signing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page-
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.

Some say that reading some authors along with the marginalia of another author is the best way to read.

And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake’s furious scribbling.

My favorite marginalia is not very scholarly. Egocentrically, I now quite enjoy reading my own marginalia in books I read in my student days.

I even wrote margin notes in my own journals. I made notes in the journals from my pre-teen and teen years many years later noting the “lies” I had written there. I think that I imagined it I wrote it down, it would be true.

And I love it when I look in someone else’s book and find their notes. This is especially true when I buy used books, which I often do. Some notes are like those Collins mocks – lightweight, silly, literary graffiti. But some are thoughtful, and I like reading them and trying to figure something about the previous owner.

Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents’ living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page

A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil-
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet-
‘Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.’

All this is an elaborate introduction to what inspired this post. I bought a used copy of the I Ching and found inside of it a series of Post-It notes. I consider them a modern day marginalia. Margin notes from someone who doesn’t feel comfortable writing in the margins of a book.

Post-It notes marginalia from a copy of the I Ching

I read them and thought about who she (yes, I imagined it is a woman) was when she was writing the notes.

She asks this  Book of Changes, this ancient Chinese divination text, “What is my true calling?” A very big question.

Something bad had happened to her. “I what ways can I go about healing myself in ways I have not covered. What is my missing link and how can I find it?”

She tosses the coins, heads and tails, and looks for the answers. I feel sorry for her. I want the book to give her answers, or at least make her believe there are answers.

“How can I reclaim my sparkle and presence,” she asked. I didn’t look up the answers she was given.

She sold the book. Either she got her answers, or gave up on finding them in a book. She left her marginalia, these bits of her life and searching, for me to find.

I did my own searching. I didn’t find the answers, or rather, I didn’t find the answers I wanted to find. I also sold the book. I removed her notes. I think each of us should start our search with a clean page.

My Life as a Bone Clock

This is not a review of the novel by David Mitchell titled The Bone Clocks. I can’t truly review that novel because I didn’t finish reading it. I probably will never finish reading it. That in itself may be more a review of me as a reader these days than a review of the novel, which has gotten some strong recommendations.

It is a difficult book. It’s not that the content is difficult to grasp, in the way that a college math or science textbook might be for a child. It is complex in the way that the stories and time shifts along the way. That is a part of Mitchell’s style.

I had several friends recommend his earlier book Cloud Atlas. The summary sounded interesting and The New Yorker review said, “Mitchell’s virtuosic novel presents six narratives that evoke an array of genres, from Melvillean high-seas drama to California noir and dystopian fantasy.” But reviews used a variety of adjectives including audacious, dazzling, pretentious and infuriating to describe the book.

I didn’t make it through that earlier novel either. In fact, I couldn’t make it through the film version of Cloud Atlas either. I was lost and finding my way just didn’t seem worth the effort.

I do like the evocative titles Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks.

This past week, I wrote one of my daily poems using the idea of the bone clocks. I certainly feel like a bone clock lately.

We wake in the stiffness of sleep,

walk down stairs like a primitive robot

stepping into the next century by accident.

Hear the tick tock clicks of fingers

lifting coffee cups to the new day.

hands and cup The idea of us being clocks ticking our way into old age, and the literal click of some of my bones these days (including trigger fingers) makes perfect sense to me.

I wanted to like these novels. But I couldn’t do it. And that is troubling.

I find that it is not only my aging brain that can’t seem to handle these complexities but that less calculating part of my brain that just does not want to try very hard to deal with complexities.

Complexity is less interesting these days. I don’t want to do brain exercises, crossword puzzles, sudoku and such, though I’m told it will help preserve those brain connections that might let me read the way I did as an undergraduate English major.

A quick click to the Wikipedia article on the “aging brain” will tell you that more research is being done now on people who have a “normal” brain in old age (not affected by some known disease). They are studying Structural Changes with complex and frightening descriptions like Loss of Neural Circuits and Brain Plasticity, Thinning of the Cortex, Neuronal Morphology, Neurofibrillary Tangles, the role of Oxidative Stress.

Scientists are studying chemical changes in substances like Dopamine, Serotonin and Glutamate.

And they are studying the things that most bother me lately: Neuropsychological Changes in things like orientation, attention and memory.

There is a poem by Billy Collins, titled “Forgetfulness,” that I have always liked, but it makes more and more sense (and seems less amusing) as I get older.

Collins opens with a stanza that captures how I now feel about almost any novel I have ever read.

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of,

Last year, I listened to audiobook of The Great Gatsby. It is one of my favorite novels – a perfect novel in many ways. I first read The Great Gatsby in high school, again for a college course in much greater depth, and at least two times since just for the pleasure of it. I have seen three film versions and I thought it would be nice to listen to it again after seeing the latest film adaptation for comparison purposes.

Now, I could give you a good summary of the novel’s plot. I could probably get at least a B grade on a high school test on the book. But when I listened to the audio version, there were many sections that seemed entirely new to me. Had I skimmed those sections over multiple readings? It was disconcerting.

Collins says in that poem:

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

I actually want to retire to that little village. No phones. No distractions. No rabbit holes to fall down. No complexities.

I take some comfort in hearing friends my age express similar feelings. I even took a little comfort in reading a note that placed on their product page for Cloud Atlas:

“This book does not contain a misprint on page 39. We have received complaints from customers that they have received misprinted editions because of the way the story changes direction in the middle of a word on page 39 (for Kindle readers, the end of the first section). This is not a misprint or error. It is the way the author has written the book. He returns to the seemingly abandoned storyline later in the book.”

So, it’s not just me that is having a problem reading this type of novel.

But I was once able to make it through Ulysses, Finnegans Wake, Gravity’s Rainbow and Infinite Jest. Now, I wouldn’t even attempt it knowing I would fail. But those are the kinds of complex challenges that brain research tells us that I should be taking on.

Perhaps, as Aldous Huxley feared, we have become reduced to passivity and egoism, drowned in a sea of irrelevance, living in a trivial culture.

There is a line that I recall: “Life, the second half of it, is a matter of losing things.” It makes a lot more sense now that I am deep into that second half. I can’t tell you the source of the line – maybe F. Scott Fitzgerald? – and that seems appropriate, or ironic, or sad. Once, I would have known the appropriate adjective to use.


I am listening and watching an animated version of  Billy Collins’ poem, “Forgetfulness,” as I write an essay to post here tomorrow.

And I’m thinking about how I do often rise in the middle of the day or night to look up some lost piece of information.

And how late at night

“…the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.”

Spring Poems

I’m reading some spring poems, old and new, to get my head more into the new season.

One of those is E. E. Cummings’

in Just-
spring          when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame balloonman

whistles          far          and wee

and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it’s

when the world is puddle-wonderful

Another poem is Billy Collins’ poem of a spring day that makes you want to take

a hammer to the glass paperweight
on the living room end table,

releasing the inhabitants
from their snow-covered cottage

so they could walk out,
holding hands and squinting

into this larger dome of blue and white,
well, today is just that kind of day.

And, in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s version of “Spring,” April is doing its idiotic madness of the season.

Thank goodness it does it each year.

To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.
Life in itself
Is nothing,
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.

Extending My Weekends in Paradelle

This blog was started as a companion to an earlier blog called Evenings in Paradelle where I posted thoughts that came to me after work and unrelated to my working life. I started this Weekends version as a place to post longer and what I think of as more thoughtful pieces. I knew I would only have time to write a few of those each week, so the weekend seemed to be the right place. Maybe you also have more time to read online on the weekend.

Paradelle has become for me my place of escape – a refuge, a sanctuary.  Though it sprung from the mind of Billy Collins as a kind of prank of poetry, other poets (including myself) have taken it seriously.

Paradelle may have been parody + villanelle to Billy, but it has become paradise + -elle to me. I think of that little -elle in the same way that we use suffixes like -ord, -fort, -burgh etc. to create names of towns. Paradelle is an ideal place to go on the weekend.

But I have been ignoring Evenings lately. Literally. I have had a lot to do at night – some of it still “work.” And I haven’t written much on that blog. So, I think I am going to use this online space a bit more for some of those smaller thoughts.

For example, I was writing several series of posts on Evenings about things that I enjoy listening to (mostly not music & mostly online) and a series on haiku and koans. They actually seem appropriate to Paradelle weekends. I am going to use (and reuse) some of those ideas here. They seem to fit in with the ambiance around a Paradelle weekend. These shorter thoughts might be good as Friday night posts – that start of the weekend that is only six hours long.

We love our weekends and most of you probably won’t object to extending it a bit further into the week.