Poetry Lab

Cabinet is a stylish quarterly magazine of art and culture that describes itself as playful, intellectually curious, hybrid, visually engaging, and thoroughly unconventional. It was named the “Best New Magazine” of 2000 by the American Library Association and “Best Art and Culture Magazine” for 2001 and 2003 by the New York Press. Have a look at the current issue here.

In 2009 the magazine inaugurated a Poetry Lab, a series of occasional evening programs in New York dedicated to a poet by what it calls unorthodox means. “Poetry Lab is dedicated to discovering what more and what else can be done with a poem.” Earlier this month the event was devoted to William Carlos Williams, who practiced medicine and wrote poetry throughout his life. In his autobiography, Williams wrote, “As a writer I have been a physician, and as a physician a writer.”

Why do so many doctors write so well? The list is a long and distinguished one: Maugham, Chekhov, Walker Percy and more recently, Robert Coles, Oliver Sacks, Jerome Groopman and Atul Gawande. When Williams was asked this question, he replied:

“When they ask me, as of late they frequently do, how I have for so many years continued an equal interest in medicine and the poem, I reply that they amount for me to nearly the same thing.”

Last Friday Cabinet’s Poetry Lab dealt with “textual-appropriation” which is another way of saying, drawing on material from a commonplace book in writing poems, fragments, essays, etc. In its announcement Cabinet wrote, “In the process we shape selves, build arguments, and navigate the cosmos of the readable world.”

The event last Friday was a celebration of the re-publication of A Little Common Place Book that is attributed to John Locke. The panel members consisted of historians and critics who have written about the cutting and pasting that constitutes the practice of textual-appropriation.

The introduction to A Little Common Place Book was written D. Graham Burnett, an editor of Cabinet. Because of the centrality of commonplace books for Marks in the Margin, I would like to quote a long passage from it.

“Reading is perhaps best understood as a peculiar form of writing, and vice versa. Renaissance thinkers took this paradox seriously, giving it concrete form in their "commonplace books," manuscript journals of passages copied from assorted texts and organized under various headings. The origins of the practice lay in the preparatory methods of classical oratory and medieval sermon composition, but commonplacing achieved the status of a true art among humanists like Erasmus and Montaigne, who used these notebooks to maintain command over an ever-expanding body of published texts, while culling material for their own correspondence, essays and literary compositions.”

The book reproduces Locke’s 1797 book which before its current publication existed in only one copy at the Princeton University Library. Anyone interested in purchasing a copy can do so at Proteotypes. I have not seen it listed yet at the online bookstore sites.

The publisher indicates the volume also has blank pages where you can record your own “thoughts or those met in your reading.”

They also say that Locke’s essay will instruct you on how to index those you record. I am familiar with Locke’s procedure and I confess its complexities baffle me.