"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Commonplace Book


"It smells good here," she said.
It did. It had the indefinable smell of a perfectly - kept,
well - loved American home; the smell found nowhere else on earth.
A smell of cleanliness and polish and Ivory soap and potted plants
and baking bread -- the sweet warm smell of simplicity and abundance.
. . . everything in the room felt kind and gentle and safe."

~ Marcia Davenport ~
from The Valley of Decision, 407
[More on my Book Blog]

Regular as clockwork, yet another Fall Semester has arrived, with all the excitement and promise of course descriptions and syllabi! Risking repetition, I thought the beginning of the academic year (see previous post also!) would be the right time for a review of my fortnightly initiative. The following outline is drawn from several previous posts -- Mission Statement, The Second Page, Pastiche -- and was prepared as a presentation for the American Literature Club of West Lafayette, Indiana, where my dear friend Elizabeth offered me the opportunity to share my work with the club members at their annual spring dinner meeting.

Naturally, I began with a special thanks to Elizabeth for her constant support in our various shared endeavors such as music, parenting, exercising, and -- our focus of the evening -- reading, writing, and blogging. To narrow the topic, Elizabeth asked me to please answer the question for well - read audience, with varying degrees of computer savviness: "What is a Literary Blog?"

To define simply, a blog is a personal website or web page -- technically a WEB LOG (thus the shortened "BLOG") on which an individual can record opinions, proverbs, poems, letters, essays, movie reviews or book reports -- along with photographs and helpful links to other sites. Adding new material or updates on a regularly basis is called blogging: Web Logging!

It is a digital journal or Commonplace Book that will be unique to whatever its keeper finds of interest, e.g., the clean metallic lines of the graceful leaves above (photographed earlier this summer at the at the Wynn / Encore in Las Vegas) and Marcia Davenport's blissful description of early twentieth homemaking. How are these apparently random items related? The blogger gets to impose the pattern! That's the beauty of blogging! All you need to do is choose your topic, decide how you want to organize your material, master a few simple functions on the keyboard, and hit "publish."

Five years ago, as I was getting the blog underway, my friend Eve -- also a writer and a teacher of writing -- asked me if I had a Dream Job in mind for my Inner Scholar. Indeed I did!

Always present in my mind whenever churning out an insight or two to share with a kindred spirit such as Eve, was the question, now how can I make that my work for the day? Because it feels so good, like an accomplishment. You know that old cliche that you know you're a writer if you just have to write every day? Well for me that doesn't mean I'm driven to lock myself in my room writing a novel, or stay up all night writing poetry; instead, it's more about articulating the daily worries and outrages and obsessions, then lining them up with the poems and stories and essays that will bring a little order to the chaos.

If I can take an hour or so to press beyond blathering, to organize all that angst and nonsense, channel all that anxiety into the written word, search out the literary parallels, send it out to an audience who "knows" (in manner of Carson McCullers), then I arise from my computer and say to myself, "Whew, that was a good morning's work," though I'm the first to admit that it's also play. The work of writing -- the discipline of daily expression, the task of scratching it all out, the quest of tracking down an old nearly forgotten poem or recovering a stray thought that's perfect for the moment before it gets away, the struggle with meaning, the satisfaction of connecting -- can feel so necessary yet also vaguely, if not blatantly, like a selfish indulgence, an undeserved luxury.

I wanted to create a space where the threads of art and life intertwine until a pattern emerges from the chaos; to generate some literary analysis -- scholarly yet painless -- about how literature fits into every hour of every day; to share and interpret what I have recorded and remembered over the years; to include a running update of my current reading; and to explain how it all fits together with the little things that actually happen in real life throughout the course of any given day -- in manner of Mrs. Dalloway.

To accomplish these quasi - para - academic goals, I designed three blogs:

a Book List -- which I update once a month with a brief description of what I've been reading recently

a Quotidian blog -- which I update -- not daily, but every other day or so with seasonal snippets, light verse, photographs of my cats, whatever comes to mind

and -- the page you're reading now -- my Fortnightly Literary Blog of Connection & Coincidence; Custom & Ceremony:

I have to thank my husband Gerry for the "Fortnightly" suggestion. He pointed out that readers would need to know how often to expect a new post. Not only did a two - week interval seem reasonable, but the term "Fortnightly" which I no doubt learned from reading English novels in my girlhood -- would lend a British flair to the literary enterprise.

Next, I chose as my watchword Goethe’s suggestion that

“One ought, every day at least,
to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture,
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words.”

Whenever my readers open The Fortnightly on their computer screens, I wish for them to encounter each item on Goethe's list:

a little song -- and amazingly, thanks to you-tube, I can include not just all of my favorite lyrics but also links for listening;

a good poem -- this would be my forum for sharing selections from all the wonderful poetry that I have been reading and collecting in notebooks for the past few decades;

a fine picture -- my favorite hobby has always been combining quotations and pictures into handmade posters, greeting cards, and scrapbooks for family and friends. On my blog, I could pursue this hobby, using my own photography or other beautiful photos and artwork found on the internet;

and last but not least -- a few reasonable words.

Goethe makes it sound so simple, I thought I'd give it a try, tying songs and poems together with just the right visuals and, hopefully, a few worthy observations of my own on the theme of connection & coincidence; custom & ceremony.

Connection: I wanted, if possible, to create a place of connections, in the spirit of E. M. Forster, who implores us in "Howards End" to connect: "Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect . . . ." I want to capture all the unexpected connections that amaze and surprise and suggest a pattern.

Coincidence: For me, nothing tops those moments when Life offers its own theme to a strand of apparently accidental events, and everything hangs together for a moment in such an uncanny way that you'd swear it was all planned out somehow! Those are the literary connections and coincidences that I am always on the lookout for, not that they require much tracking down, since they usually find me before I find them.

For example, I pulled together one of my earliest blog posts one morning back in 2009 when I came downstairs just in time to hear my son Sam saying: "It's my lucky rock; Mom gave it to me." Turns out, my husband was asking about the shiny rock that he had just seen Sam pick up from his desk and drop into his pocket. I was touched by Sam's belief in lucky rocks and by his sentiment of hanging on to a talisman from his crazy old mom. It was, however, no more than a fleeting morning moment -- yes, sweeter than most but still fleet -- until it suddenly took on a life of it's own.

Sam left for school and Gerry for work. I sat down to review my friend Jan's latest batch of short stories. I had read them earlier and was just collecting my thoughts to comment, when suddenly, my eyes fell on the title, "Pocket." How had I missed this entry, pocketed as it was, right there in between "Heart" & "Fable," which I had read several days ago? Can you imagine my astonishment when just a few lines into the story, the heroine exclaims: "Not even a lucky rock"?

A lucky rock? Like Sam's! What's the odds?

Sometimes, life is so full of coincidences that I think my head will split open trying to take them all in! It's enough to make me believe in the whole Universe at once! Here I was, sitting alone, reading a story about the very object my loved ones had been discussing a mere thirty minutes earlier. And not just any object, but a lucky, magic object, "something to keep forever." And now I know why I had previously overlooked "Pocket," -- because Fate was saving it up for me, a lucky story to read on a lucky Friday! Because, to quote Jan, we all need stories -- "clear, round, and easy to carry" -- in our hearts.


Back in college when I worked on the literary magazine, I was known as the editor with "a poem for every poem" because no matter what I read, I was always reminded of something else -- kind of like that "Scooby-Doo" episode -- if you remember the old cartoon -- when Daphne asks Velma -- the girl with glasses, the bookish one: "Do you have a book for every occasion?" And Velma answers, "Actually, yes." A poem for every poem, and a book for every book!

Along the same lines, just a few weeks ago, a couple of old friends shared the following funny, complete with sentiments such as

"Was there an old song written for every occasion?"
"Yes! I think there was!"

Or as my sister Di expressed it:
"Life is a musical!"
A poem for every poem . . . a song for every song.
Haha -- but true!

In addition to Connection and Coincidence, I wanted the blog to include my favorite passage from Yeats' poem "A Prayer For My Daughter." Naturally, he wants so many things for her, but chiefly a heart full of "radical innocence" and a life
"Rooted in one dear perpetual place . . . a house
Where all's accustomed, ceremonious."

"How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
Ceremony's a name for the rich horn,
And custom for the spreading laurel tree."

From childhood -- perhaps impressed upon me when I first read The Little Red Story Book -- at any rate, certainly long before I ever read Yeats -- one of my goals was to organize the kind of home described in his poem, where order would triumph over chaos and no holiday would ever go unremarked: accustomed and ceremonious, familiar yet celebratory.

Thus the line from "A Prayer For My Daughter" has become the perpetual caption for the opening picture of every Fortnightly Blog Post. I hope that in some way (though not always in the same way) these photographs and illustrations will portray "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." Sometimes it's my own house (or former houses), other times, a cathedral, a log cabin, a playground, sites of historical interest or fame, a neighborhood mural, a village mosaic, a medieval tapestry.

In the early days of my blog, my older brother, who like me, studied English in college, asked me, "Do you have an encyclopedic memory of poems or a really good search engine? You seem to always find one that fits the occasion. Cool trick. Guess I shoulda paid more attention in one of those literature classes that I seem to have forgotten."

A funny question. But luckily, the answer is Yes, I have both -- the memory and the search engine! On the serious side of constructive criticism, he suggested: "You are a true master in linking nuggets of wisdom, wit, and rational thought, but I see so little of the inner Kit. Or perhaps, I just haven't been reading enough of your blogs."

I really liked his comment about my nugget - linking skills, because it's true -- some entries are just a quotation linked with picture, but it's always a good match, one that no one else would have thought of, or even found (because I'm the careful reader, that's the objective of my blogging). I took his words to heart and trust that, as he read further, he encountered to a greater extent my inner voice -- which I'm sure is there! -- in addition to the voices of so many writers whose work I admire.

My creative writing teacher in college once wrote in the margin of my paper: "What's at stake here?" I have never forgotten that comment and think that my brother may be asking a similar question. What I took away from his advice was the need to take more personal risk, go out on a limb, bare more of my soul, embarrass myself a little bit, move beyond "So what?" And, yes, I have tried to test these limits (see for example "Never Fear").

The blog is a good place to experiment and push the envelope. In the meantime, I strive to deserve the great faith that my friend Jes, who teaches in Boston, has placed in this enterprise: "How courageous of you to insist on beauty and thoughtfulness every day in this, the 21st century! What a brave blogger you are!"

I see now that Goethe (1749 – 1832) was asking his 18th & 19th Century audience to search for the same: beauty and thoughtfulness -- in a song, a poem, a picture, a few reasonable words.

Flower Gardens, Carosel, and Wall Art (above)
at the Wynn / Encore, Las Vegas

In closing,
many thanks to my supportive friends and readers
for their ultra - kind observations:

Nancy T.: "Sing! Thanks for all the blogs -- photos, poems, book titles. Some days you are my own only source or mental stimulation. May you keep on singing!"

Pat F.: "I just want you to know that your blog today was one of the most touching and meaningful ever! Actually, I have read it several times, and listened to the music. The first time through, I was absolutely in tears! It realllllly touched me on so many levels. Thanks for being a friend and such a talented writer. . . . Thank you for this beautiful article today. It really touched me!"

Barbara T.: "this is amazing. I learn so much from you and marvel at the beauty of the paintings, photographs, memorabilia and WORDS that you share. Thank you. Barbara T."

Tim Th.: "Thanks, Kitti for your unending eloquent endeavor; it is a reading pleasure I enjoy!"

Len O.: "Your collections of objects and archives of documents and photographs make you the FB Smithsonian. I am always struck by the high quality of your nature and celestial photographs (assuming you are not funded by NASA), as well as the archives of photos and objects you have from your life (including your friends)."

And in reply: "I am honored to serve in the capacity of facebook archivist! Would that I were funded by NASA! I just use a little Canon PowerShot recommended by my niece Sara & my friend Natasha. Len, thanks again for your kind words, especially about my friends. As Shakespeare / Bolingbroke says: "I count myself in nothing else so happy / As in a soul remembering my good friends" -- including you & everyone else on this post!"

Next Fortnightly Post
Sunday, September 14th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading


  1. Have printed your post so that I can include some of your great quotations in my own journal (I keep it on my computer it at home). I love all your quotations about “ordinary things” in the margin of the QUOTIDIAN KIT (can’t remember if they’re always there or if you change them with each post—but I particularly noticed them this time). Do you know about the renaissance tradition of keeping a commonplace book? “Commonplaces” were quotations (often biblical—but sometimes from collections of poetry or from “how to” manuals, like cookbooks, books on gardening, books on alchemy, books on courtly behavior), and many literate people in the renaissance kept commonplace books where they wrote down commonplaces/quotes from different texts that they were reading. They would also invite friends and family to contribute their own commonplaces to their book. I studied handwritten commonplace books and recipes books/collections as part of my dissertation (and could go on and on but will stop here). I love that you have your own commonplace tradition and that it informs your beautiful blog.

    There’s a picture of a 17th century commonplace book in Wikipedia’s entry on commonplace books: