Notes on the Danger of Notebooks

Kay Ryan

Vol. 23, 1998



Almost everything is supposed to get away from us.

This is our grief. As a condition, it doesn’t have to be sad. Really, the sadness comes in, the sepia sadness comes seeping in, from keeping what can’t be kept anyhow. Many have wept. Many weep. It is exasperating.

It is also tempting, because it is so easy. It is easy to keep a little notebook, to press a few of the blossoms from an individual spring. Once you start thinking like that, it makes perfect sense to go farther, to preserve a representative bloom from each plant from every place and season and year you have known. Each is so beautiful and worthy.

And this is not untrue; but it is hobbling. Yes, exactly as though a great horse were restrained from running and trampling for joy. There is a kind of dangerous piety to it. The powerful lineaments of the mighty horse are all ignored in the cataloguing of one variegated patch of spring.

Cavalier. We must be somewhat cavalier in this rich historical word’s most contemptuous sense. We must run roughshod over what threaten to become memories. For the truth is that memories are indistinguishable from matter in that they can neither be created (despite the claims of vacation brochures) nor destroyed.

You don’t have to worry so much about them, in other words. And you will find that you experience a new availability of energy when you give up trying to preserve what preserves itself. You are relieved of a false and debilitating humility and can enter into a roomier frustration, a more generous appreciation of loss.

For of course it is only within the context of loss that anything can be said to be found. That seems ridiculously obvious, and yet we struggle against it. And isn’t finding, the moment of finding, our supreme thrill? We call it discovery and make much of it, forgetting that it is the gift of loss.

Still, it is as dangerous to cultivate loss as it is to try to stop it through the keeping of notebooks; we are a self-regarding creature and we will watch ourselves losing and become bewitched by our own affecting actions. We are so moved by ourselves. This is natural, but it is distracting. What can we do?

I think we should try to do something, try to make something new, try very hard to write a poem, say; desire very much to articulate something that doesn’t yet exist, something we don’t yet know; try so hard that currents are created in the electric broth of what is not lost but not kept either, currents which draw to the mind the bits of the not lost and not kept that join together through the application of great mental force, extreme mental force, in some new and inevitable sequence appropriate to the new realm of the neither lost nor kept. It is incredibly stable when done right.


When Gertrude Stein was at last after so many years of fruitful absence touring and lecturing in the United States, she was a popular sensation in that she was of a piece, a figure round and burrless as a ball, solid, simple, capable of being perfectly, not partially, misunderstood. She could be completely seen and completely heard; she matched herself. Such homogeneity is nearly unbearable for the complicating mind, and the universities where she lectured were full of such minds. After a certain lecture which had as usual bewildered the sober note-takers (the serious people laboring to understand by writing parts down, making decisions about what was important to write down and what wasn’t, seeking a pattern in what was said, attempting to get a fix on it—determining its coordinates like an alien craft’s) a photographer came up to Stein. He was elated, ravished by what she had been saying. It was no trouble for him to understand as it was for the audience which had come with the intention of understanding rather than with the intention of taking pictures for the local newspaper. His ease was no surprise to Gertrude Stein. The photographer had simply listened and therefore he had understood, since what Gertrude Stein was saying was always simple, plus she repeated it. The serious note-takers couldn’t listen and therefore couldn’t understand because they were trying to remember.

The serious note-takers intended to make sense later of what Gertrude Stein was saying, so they needed to remember the main points of her lecture. They would not have been pleased with the idea that they didn’t have to go back to their offices and make sense of it because it already was sense. One might say that they lacked the humility necessary to listen. One might observe that, paradoxically, what appeared to be submissive behavior on the part of the note-takers, taking notes, was in fact arrogance.

But of course the serious note-takers were not worse people than the photographer. The photographer’s humility was no more intentional than the note-takers’ arrogance. The humility necessary to listen cannot be achieved head-on, and that is what gave the photographer his edge. He was partly thinking about getting good photographs—about his equipment, about the lighting. He didn’t have to concern himself with these professional things very much because they were almost automatic, but a little. This slight distraction, this slight angle that his job as photographer required, along with the feeling that he was not a professional in the area that Gertrude Stein was talking about, made him more open to what she was saying. He wasn’t going to have to summarize her remarks or offer an evaluation. He was just the newspaper photographer.

Isn’t it odd to think that in order to listen we must be a little bit relieved of the intention to understand? This, of course, is the danger of notebooks. They are the devil’s bible. They are the books of understanding later.

If you want to understand, it is a good idea not to think of yourself as a professional in the area in which you want to understand; it is just too big a burden. You have to seem to master everything that happens in your professional area. People ask you questions, and they value your answers. You are tempted to take your opinions seriously—sure death to the delicate, translucent stuff they’re made of.

We must be careful what we do because we value our actions so highly. Taking notes, the actual physical act of taking them, along with the resulting document in our own words, lends them a spurious importance. It becomes important to us to determine what we meant by that note because we wrote it. We are very self-conscious and therefore we must be vigilant about what we let ourselves see of ourselves. We can see too much.


Memory is only necessary for those who insist upon novelty, I wrote on a small piece of paper as a note to myself some weeks ago, beginning to think about the danger of notebooks. Now I don’t quite know what I meant. By memory I probably meant notebooks, documents kept in order to hold on to thoughts and experiences, documents intended to create an exomemory like an exoskeleton—notebooks as a shell to protect us from loss. I no longer know exactly what I meant by my epigram at the moment I was writing it to my future self; I have lost it in spite of itself. I imagine that it was an intense and provocative idea at the time, welding many loose stars into a single constellation. Otherwise I wouldn’t have jotted it down. Also I must have believed I would know what I meant later. This is an interesting idea: Notes such as mine are actually promissory notes—when I write them to myself, I can enjoy the feeling that I have something wonderful to express, but I don’t have to spell it out yet. The balloon payment lies far off in the future. This is a nice thing about notes, this promising feeling they give us with no work.

But for the purposes of stimulating or focusing thoughts, anything else works just as well as a note. All you really need is a little nick to the brain. Everyone has experienced this: When you are hungry, everything starts smelling good; when you have an idea, everything collaborates. In short, notes are no more useful than the words on a matchbook—to the prepared mind. Because thinking wants only the tiniest bit of novelty, the tiniest little bit of new per old. Our novelty-obsessed culture disturbs the new-to-old ratio in our minds and therefore makes it almost impossible to think. It is because people are so in the grip of this novelty that they feel the desperate need to keep notebooks against loss; they are convinced they have so much to lose. If people were doing the same thing over and over, rocked in the meditative arms of repetition, they could have some real fun.

Real fun reminds me of the fun-loving British poet Stevie Smith who celebrated the novelty-free life. Well, not quite novelty-free; it is a great pleasure to say no (“Le Plaisir aristocratique de deplaire”) though you must also occasionally say yes, “or you will turn into an Oblomov. He stayed in bed all day and was robbed by his servants. There was little enjoyment there.” A great celebrator of the “regular habits” which “sweeten simplicity,” she says, “ In the middle of every morning I leave the kitchen and have a glass of sherry with Aunt. I can only say that this is glorious.” And because of her life of regular habits, the rare interruption is almost hallucinogenic. She reports seeing The Trojan Women on a friend’s television in the 1960s. She is nearly undone with amusement at the hash it makes of Euripides: “What an earthshaking joke this is. Yet, if my life was not simple, if I looked at television all the time, I might have missed it.”

Memory as a job, as a notebook to be kept, is only necessary for those who insist upon novelty. If you delight in habit as Stevie Smith did, if it is your pleasure to do things in the same way without inviting change, you don’t have to write much down. And when things do change, as they will even without invitation, then you will really notice the change. Your memory will be deep, quiet, undifferentiated as a pool. Change will enter and twist like a drop of ink, the tiniest bit of new per old.


Remembering is not the negative of forgetting. Remembering is a form of forgetting. What a refreshing thing for Milan Kundera to say. He adds, “We can assiduously keep a diary and note every event. Rereading the entries one day, we will see that they cannot evoke a single concrete image.” Yes. Like the photographs kept from childhood, our journals do not save but wipe away, or overlay, memory. It is so relaxing to think that we are an endless palimpsest, that the act of trying-to-keep is itself an act of erasure. It is so relaxing to give up the dream of getting back to Eden and to accept the smudges both on the paper and on our notebook-writing hand.


Let me suggest a further extension of Kundera’s law: Kundera says that remembering is a form of forgetting, but what if the reverse is also true, and forgetting is a form of remembering? This is a mysterious and lovely thought, that by letting our memories go they might somehow be returned to us. Here is “Forgetting,” a short poem of mine which begins to nibble at this mystery:

Forgetting takes space.

Forgotten matters displace

as much anything else as

anything else. We must

skirt unlabeled crates

as though it made sense

and take them when we go

to other states.

In this poem we only know that what we have forgotten remains as an obstacle to be skirted and a burden to be hauled around. But this may only be the beginning of the truth. It could be that the very act of negotiating our way through a maze of unmarked boxes—the Etch-a-Sketch path of frustrating and apparently meaningless lefts and rights we’re forced to take—is secretly correct; even, in some larger sense, efficient. If so, we need to show greater tolerance for our own apparent indirections. We may be living more fully than we know, in possession of every single thing that has ever happened to us and every thought we thought we forgot.


Here is “Forget What Did,” a late poem from Larkin’s High Windows. One of his dreary rock-versus-hard-place poems, it points up the difference between two sorts of diaries. Larkin has given up the habit of the first, the loss of which has left him stunned, and he can barely imagine the second.

Stopping the diary

Was a stun to memory,

Was a blank starting,


One no longer cicatrized

By such words, such actions

As bleakened waking.


I wanted them over,

Hurried to burial

And looked back on


Like the wars and winters

Missing behind the windows

Of an opaque childhood.


And the empty pages?

Should they ever be filled

Let it be with observed


Celestial recurrences,

The day the flowers come,

And when the birds go.

This is not one of Larkin’s best poems. It is too much under the sway of the diary he has stopped keeping. He is afraid that in stopping the diary he has lost his memory, and this fear is making him dull. In his dullness he agrees to the insidious and common idea that whatever bad has happened in one’s life is all there is to reality. His diary recorded the scarring words and actions (his? others’?) that “bleakened waking.” Since he doesn’t want to face this depressing pageant anymore, he stops the diary and therefore enters a “blank.” The only undepressing diary he can possibly imagine is some sort of bland and blameless celestial timetable. It is a barren poem.


Tantalus, but without the curse.

Tantalus was a king who was cursed by the gods. What he desired receded as he approached. He was teased and tempted but he could never get anything into his mouth because he was cursed.

Many people think they live under a similar curse which inhibits them from fully possessing their present or their past. They are maddened because when they try to reach for it, it draws away. But here is the secret: It’s just how things are.


I don’t think I can speak at sufficient length about the importance to the poet of avoiding or ignoring Kodak moments. If a poet seeks to make or keep memories, how will she ever know which ones contain true power, which would assert themselves on their own? Perhaps her very definition of memory would change if she didn’t get her Kodak moments developed. Maybe memory would not hold individual scenes at all; maybe it would have no detail; maybe it would not rise up—the pines of that morning in Yosemite scraping the interior of her skull; maybe it would be nacreous, layered regions of pleasure and attraction in the mind. Any sense of tint in the depth of the gleam would arise so slowly as to be imperceptible. I am speaking of the memory that might result from repetition. I am interested in the long ways of knowing where the mind does not seek strangeness. We must be less in love with foreground if we want to see far.


When a dog first gets out of the water, he labors beneath the solid, heavy mass of his coat. But the dog knows to spraddle his four legs and violently agitate his body one way and then the other, producing a full-body halo of flung droplets and leaving his fur in alert spikes from shoulder to rump. He looks like a new beast—an in-between beast—not a drenched dog and not a dry dog. A porcudog or a hedgedog.

From Chihuahuas to Irish sheep dogs, all dogs know this maneuver. But we who walk on two legs do not find it so easy to shake off what weighs us down. We believe in the value of gravity: Weight is worth. But we must shake weight off to write good poems. A poem, even if it comes up out of the darkest, saddest waters, will be a flung thing, a halo of prisms, the undoing, the dissolution of weight.

It may make some sort of shower. Larkin concludes his gorgeous poem “The Whitsun Weddings” with the image of an “arrow-shower.” In this poem Larkin describes how he gradually realized that the repeated fusses at each local stop on his train journey to London were send-offs for newlyweds. He details the ordinariness of these couples and their well-wishers with such fascination that they grow vaguely grotesque. But gradually, gradually, the oppressive weight of these common couples with their commonplace futures becomes rolling weight, and not simply because they’re on the train. Larkin’s poem is itself a second train that becomes an engine of escape from the small plop ordinary lives make.

The poem glamours us with its “arrow-shower” ending. Here is Larkin, approaching that end but not there yet: As the train slows, nearing London, “it was nearly done, this frail / Travelling coincidence; and what it held / Stood ready to be loosed with all the power / That being changed can give.” The beauty is that because this is Larkin, the reader must remain skeptical of the lyric flourish of “the power / That being changed can give.” She cannot be sure yet that the idea of “being changed” isn’t a trick; she must suspect that these young lumpen couples will soon find themselves less remarkably changed than they hoped and Larkin himself unglamoured-this “frail travelling coincidence” dispersed and proven no more than that. But then Larkin pulls a blessing out of his hat with a bit of pure, transported language. Or better, Larkin himself is pulled through the hat by a rapturous final image far beyond where intention can carry a poet: “And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled / A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower / Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.” These lines give the reader the dazzling physical sensation of stopping and beginning at once, of seeing beyond seeing—one image transforming into the next—the slowing train and all its modest hopes mysteriously dissolving to a shower of arrows and the arrows falling as rain. We are catapulted out of the world of cautious, local coincidence into…into what? Glory.

This is the shake of a very great dog.

This poem is a porcudog bristling with details. Here details do not drag us down, do not persuade us that the dreariest gravity is the certainest truth; all the notebooks of detail are transformed.

So it isn’t notebooks, or diaries, or spiral hinged objects as such that are ever the problem. It’s getting stuck in them.



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