Poem of the Day: Billy Collins’s “The Flying Notebook”

The Flying Notebook

With its spiraling metal body
and white pages for wings
my notebook flies over my bed while I sleep—
a bird full of quotations and tiny images
who loves the night’s dark rooms,
glad now to be free of my scrutiny and my pen point.
Tomorrow, it will go with me
into the streets where I may stop to look
at my reflection in a store window,
and later I may break a piece of bread
at a corner table in a restaurant
then scribble something down.
But tonight it flies around me in circles
sailing through a column of moonlight
then beating its paper wings even more,
once swooping so low
as to ripple the surface of a lake
in a dream in which I happen to be drowning.

“The Flying Notebook,” by Billy Collins, revolves around the idea of freedom and how it is conveyed only at different parts of the day. The notebook is only able to enjoy freedom and choice when the speaker, who controls it, is asleep, which is significant because it causes constant shifts in the poem and tone to convey the idea that in different senses, freedom is different to the individual, and what one makes out of something is the most important.
Just as people do when they sleep, notebooks seem to live in a world of their own. The personification of the notebook gives it a human-like feel, which automatically intrigues the reader. The juxtaposition of “metal” and “white” portray the notebook with two different ideas. The use of “metal” conveys something hard and cold, but also something that could be mended, while “white” is associated with ideas of purity and innocence. Both qualities of the notebook can be seen as the feelings it has throughout the day, which is evident through the progression as the work. The idea of a notebook having wings makes it seem animalistic, which is further proved by the use of “flight.” Because the notebook is able to fly, there is a sense of freedom portrayed. It seems ironic that the notebook is only able to enjoy this liberty when the speaker is asleep, because sleep usually signifies peace, and obviously rest, with no motion, which contrasts with the movement and action of flight. It can almost be seen as the notebook’s dreaming, or part of the speaker’s dream, since it would be highly unlikely for someone to see a notebook flying with pages as its wings.
The notebook is almost portrayed as a victim of the reader’s mind. The image of a bird is associated with ideas of being free and having liberty. “Quotations” and “tiny images” associate normal things, which would be found in a notebook, contrary to the previous idea of a notebook having white pages as wings. It is extremely ironic that the notebook loves night and darkness, because the dark imagery and lack of light typically has a lack of spark, and all that is good. Instead, the notebook finds comfort and freedom in this, because it is away from the speaker. The image of the bird and its freedom continues to portray this point. The use of “scrutiny,” caused by the pen point, emphasizes the idea that the notebook is subject to the critical mind of the speaker and anything the speaker wishes to write inside the notebook, which would be difficult in the dark. The fact that this could not really occur in the dark seems to emphasize the fact in which the notebook would find freedom, aside from the fact that the speaker is asleep. The use of “glad” is associated with a happiness and a satisfied tone in which the notebook is delighted to be away from its normal confinement and following of the speaker’s desires.
When the day begins again, the notebook loses its freedom. The fact that the notebook must follow the speaker around conveys the fact that it has no choice or option during the course of the day. The use of “I may” is associated with the fact of uncertainty and possibility. Because of this possibility, it can be seen that the speaker has options and freedom to do as he pleases. By the speaker saying “it will,” it can be seen that on the other hand, the notebook does not have any freedom of choice, as it will be stuck going wherever it is the speaker chooses. Windows represent liminal and transitional space, which is associated with opportunity. Instead of being a transitioning space, the speaker just looks at himself reflected in the glass, which seems to imply that something is holding him back. There is no sense of excitement in the tone at all, which seems to be an implication that neither the speaker nor the notebook is content.
The tone seems to continue being disconnected and uncertain. Anaphora is used with “I may” to persist with the idea that the speaker does have the freedom and possibility to do as he pleases, although it seems that his course through the day is routine. The fact that the speaker is “at a corner table” seems to convey the idea that he is disconnected, relating back to the tone, and sort of distant. To be in a corner is sort of remote and not really in the action of things, which connects the speaker to the notebook, as the notebook doesn’t get to do anything except what the speaker does, unless he is asleep. The idea of “scribble” is associated with images of doodling, or just jotting things down, which doesn’t convey much importance at all. The idea of “something” is unspecified and can be extremely unimportant but also extraordinary. Since the context of what is being done in the notebook is not known, it can be inferred that regardless of the information, the notebook will always be used and subject to the speaker.
Once again, the tone seems to shift. The use of “but” is associated with a contrast and something new rather than the usual situation of the notebook. The fact that this only happens “tonight” is associated with the idea that the notebook, like previously seen, only gains that sense of freedom at night and in the darkness. The image of the notebook flying in circles around the speaker gives the idea that this time; it is the notebook that has the power. To have something fly in circles around a person would be pestering and would signify a lack of power to the person being surrounded, which ultimately awards the notebook control. The idea of a circle is associated with a cyclical power, which is almost like the cycle that each night the notebook gains its freedom and has the ability to do as it wishes. Personification of the notebook can be seen through “sailing” and “beating,” which give the notebook action and movement, which contrasts the motionless sleep of the speaker. The idea of moonlight is associated with the little bit of light in the dark in which the notebook experiences to give it a spark. The fact that the notebook is “beating its paper wings even more” shows that the notebook is willing to work for its freedom, and each night, the notebook is almost enjoying it a little bit more.
The idea of dreams is associated with the connection between the speaker and the notebook. The idea of “swooping” relates back to the idea of a bird, and flight, which connects to the freedom of the bird. The use of “lake” conveys nature and the idea of a “ripple” seems uniform and standard, just as each night the notebook is free and doing as it pleases. The fact that the speaker is in a dream in which he is drowning clearly contrasts the happiness and free sense of the notebook. It almost seems as if the speaker is “drowning” because of its oppression of the notebook. The idea of “drowning” itself is associated with a lack of control and ability to escape because it is empowered, just as the notebook is by the speaker. The fact that the speaker says “happen to be” almost makes it seem as if it is because the notebook wishes he was, because the notebook has control of the night. Ultimately, this conveys the idea that both freedom and power are reached in different ways.
   Emma Vitaliano
Emma Vitaliano is a junior from New York whose interests include just about everything under the sun.

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