I’ve been experimenting with commonplacing. In the 1600s through the early 1900s, the commonplace book was a system of gathering texts and quotations in one place, usually a blank notebook, for the purpose of recollecting information and remembering key ideas about virtue, truth, health, leadership or what have you.
Doctors used them for recording “pearls”, key ideas about a pair or triad of symptoms and a specific diagnosis. Politicians used them to note useful quotations for speeches, and historians used them to categorize events and trends in the age before statistical analysis made more nuanced discussions possible.
I’m using a Moleskine/Evernote-branded softcover notebook to record poetry that I’m trying to memorize; pieces go into the book in the order that I’ve memorized them or intend to commit them to memory. I attended a Burns Night supper in January last year; and I made an effort to memorize Robert Burns’ Epigram on Bad Roads, which is the first poem in the book, as you can see.
“I’ve now arrived —
thank all the gods!
Through pathways both rough and muddy;
a certain sign that makin’ roads
is no’ this people’s study.
Though I’m not with Scripture crammed
I know the Bible says
that heedless sinners shall be damn’d —
unless they mend their ways.”
It was nice and useful to memorize a funny poem for a change, instead of a serious one. Most of my poetry tends to be pretty serious; and I tend to memorize serious poetry. It’s a useful reminder that I should from time to time work on funny poetry as a form — both to memorize, and to write. Something to practice!
Further on in the book, in the last three pages or so, is an index page listing the poetry and other elements I’ve put in the book. Here’s part of that index, listing on page 1 the Epigram on Bad Roads, and Langston Hughes, and John Keats, and so on. William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence takes up pages 7-11. You can see that I’m working on memorizing quite a lot of Thomas Taylor’s translations of the Orphic Hymns, as well, and the Aleister Crowley hymn for Coffee (not Covfefe). The index continues; I’ve listed all of the pages, even if I haven’t filled them yet. It’s rather more similar to the Digital Ambler’s Vademecum, really, or an Enchiridion, than a true commonplace book. A true commonplace book should not only have a table of contents at the beginning, but also an index by subject, such as hope or valor or kindness or coffee. Such an index would help one find appropriate material within the book more rapidly and easily.
Not everything in the book is poetic. Two pages include a list of all of the U.S. Presidents in order, which I’m working on memorizing, not just with their names but also their years. It’s occurred to me frequently that this list serves a useful purpose as a time-counter; it’s much easier to remember when something occurred in time if you remember who was president at the same time. That’s part of the reason why I also have the similar list of the Kings and Queens of England a few pages on from this — The English royal list extends back in time to 1066, and it creates a useful parallel list for European affairs. Maybe I should also work on the list of the Emperors of Japan…