Once Again, In Praise of Pencils

My sister just came home from her two-week vacation in London. She had what sounds like a glorious time while there –  went to the British Museum, the Tate, the Courtauld Gallery, the Old Bailey, the British Library, searched for Newby’s elderflower and lemon tea, saw a play at the Globe theater, went on a sunset field trip out to Stonehenge, heard a small choir sing in the crypt (all songs about birds!) at St.-Martin-in-the-Fields, ate at a few lovely restaurants (as well as a few lovely food booths at the Tachbrook Market.)  I imagine she also did her share of buying souvenir do-dads for family and friends here at home. On her 10+hour flight home, she carried a present for me in her carry-on:



Sweet, sweet, sweet! I have a little collection of pencil boxes- some you might call elegant, others plain, others tattered, but all functional – some are wooden, some are old Bakelite boxes from the 30’s., some cardboard, and one (now!) metal.  The first pencil box I ever owned — I was a seven-year-old who loved school supplies, what can I say?– was one I bought with my own hard-earned money the first time I visited San Francisco’s Chinatown. Wish I still had it – it had a bird in flight on it, above an arched bridge. I treasured it; even so, it’s gone – how does that happen? Well,  here’s a poem of mine about it. The poem was first published in the Threepenny Review (go there and subscribe as soon as you’re done reading this post):


I put four bits on the counter
and the box was mine.
Six yellow pencils fit there
side by side, I was perfectly addled,
I was a goner – even before I knew
the alphabet, I knew its cedar perfume –
I flew over the high-humped bridge
painted on the top, over the willow,
the m-stroke for a bird, everything
was suggestion then, before
the putting on of too fine a point.
People expected me to come
to my senses, save the change
in my burning pockets, after all
the box was wooden, cheap
Chinatown, but half a dollar
went a long way toward heaven
when heaven was closer.

So my new pencil box from London has no bridge, no willow tree – it lists stations on the London Underground. I remember riding the Tube line up to Hampstead – past Camden Town, Chalk Farm, Belsize Park – when I was there as a college student, caring for the daughters of a professor from Berkeley. I did a lot of walking around  when I was there – London is a great walking-around town (see Margaret Chodos-Irvine’s recent posts on this blog from her 2-year stay in London!) Charles Dickens would agree with me, as would Virginia Woolf, whose essay titled “Street Haunting: A London Adventure” (you can read it here) I printed up and gave to my sister before she left. It starts like this:

“No one perhaps has ever felt passionately towards a lead pencil. But there are circumstances in which it can become supremely desirable to possess one; moments when we are set upon having an object, an excuse for walking half across London between tea and dinner. As the foxhunter hunts in order to preserve the breed of foxes, and the golfer plays in order that open spaces may be preserved from the builders, so when the desire comes upon us to go street rambling the pencil does for a pretext, and getting up we say: “Really I must buy a pencil,” as if under cover of this excuse we could indulge safely in the greatest pleasure of town life in winter—rambling the streets of London.”

Of course, Woolf was wrong about no one feeling passionate about a lead pencil.  I  could go on for quite awhile about the swoon-inducing quality of a Staedtler Norica # 2 pencils, my current favorite. Once upon a time I was passionate about (and wrote a prose poem about) my Dixon Ticonderoga 1388 #2 pencils….

Ode to My Dixon Ticonderoga 1388 No. 2

The first pleasure is the deep pleasure of delay: the plain form waiting straight and yellow, lying perpendicular to the edge of my cleared desk. I sit listening to its Quaker moment, its old soul not set to any purpose. Just how long should I wait to take it in my hand for the second pleasure which is the pleasure of its sharpening? That cedar shaft, dried at a white-hot heat, forced by my dome sharpener to make a fine point under pressure – yielding to the third pleasure, the strange joy of exposing its resin-fused core, that stick used to carbonize the brains of poets and the manifesto of the common man who mines the graphite near Los Pozos, Guanajuato. The fourth pleasure, the physical word, like Jehovah’s name, should not be written here. So right to the fifth and final pleasure, the one allowing for my hand’s unplanned errors: the most amazing pink eraser sitting firmly crowned, crimped into the green and gold ferule. This brand new pink eraser – oh, has God ever made anything more pure?

I also remember Julie Paschkis’s post a couple of years ago about how pencils, pens and brushes feel in the hands of an artist. And the poet Marianne Boruch wrote a poem titled “Pencil” which, like my poem tried to do, senses something quasi-religious about them (“…its secret life / is charcoal, the wood already burnt, / a sacrifice.”)

This week kids across the country headed for their first day of a new school year. My grandson down in Oregon filled his backpack with school supplies – I hope there were some pencils and a pencil box in there. It would be nice to think I passed on to him, via my daughter, an appreciation of pencils/pencil boxes, hidden somewhere in the double helix of our DNA.

My sister, who knows me well and who is often instrumental in providing me with pencils, gave me several packets of Dixon Ticonderoga’s as a gift when I went back to college to get my MFA. Now she’s brought me a set of Tube pencils from London. She carried them across the Atlantic Ocean, all the way across the wide North American continent, she made sure they survived the nearly 5000 mile journey  tucked safely inside my new pencil box. And they’re on my desk in Seattle now, newly sharpened. I may have shaved off some Tube stations when I put their points on them. But here they are, calling to me. And what do you do when a pencil calls to you? You write.



By the way, if you’re a follower of Poetry Friday, it’s being hosted this week by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater at her blog, The Poem Farm. You can head over there (after you first follow my suggestion to subscribe to the Threepenny Review) to see what other people have posted.


43 responses to “Once Again, In Praise of Pencils

  1. This might be the best thing I’ve read this week! I, too, have a passion for pencils and love the feel of pencil writing on paper. My everyday favorites are Mirado Black Warrior #2 pencils. They are round and made of cedar, giving off such a lovely scent.

  2. I think your prose poem may be one of my favorite prose poems ever. (My younger daughter will *only* write with mechanical pencils, which is pretty much the opposite of me, as I avoid them when possible…)

    • Thanks, Tabatha. I’ve always had such a problem with mechanical pencils – the points break constantly. And the feel of one in your hands is just so different!

  3. Thank you for this post and your poem.
    … Now there is a pencil store in NY: CW Pencil Enterprise on Forsyth St. You might need to take a field trip.

  4. What a wonderfully rich post! Loved every bit of it — Woolf’s excerpt, your own prose poem, the details about your sister’s trip and your abiding love of pencils and pencil cases. I loved pencil cases too — had several plastic ones that zipped close with places not only for pencils, but my 6-inch ruler and extra erasers.

    • Ack – I misspelled Woolf’s name (as Wolff) – twice, so I can’t even claim it was a typo! I’ve gone in now and corrected it – can I blame the late hour of my typing? In any case, my apologies to Virginia. And thanks for your comment, Jama – I remember seeing those plastic cases that went into a binder, and wondering about the plastic – that is, how a “zipper” would close with no metal and no teeth (and I’m showing my age there, I know…..)

  5. My favorite read all week, too, Julie. I, too, loved office supplies as a kid. My fantasy was to be let loose in a office supply store and to simply fill up with all that lovely blank paper and, yes, pencils!

  6. How inspiring! I remember how excited I used to be at the end of summer, when it was time to get new school stationary – there was something so inspiring about having fresh journals to fill with new ideas, and pretty pens and pencils to records all my thoughts. Come to think of it, I still get excited by new stationary, long after my school days. I guess some things never change!

  7. Deirdre O'Sullivan from Australia

    Fascinating that you are obsessed with Dixon Ticonderoga pencils – I read in his biography, that Roald Dahl insisted on writing his stories with these, and only these, and nothing else would do! As he couldn’t buy them in England, he would bark over the phone long distance, to his American publisher (poor chap!) to send him enough Dixons to last him a year.
    Without one of these yellow beauties in his hand, he suffered from the most paralyzing writer’s block. Only artists feel so passionately about their writing/drawing implements. To most people, a pencil is just a pencil! How wrong they are!
    I can’t cope without my royal blue Mars Lumograph 5B and 6B pencils – a truly noble instrument for drawing. Sketching with one of these is like drawing with a stump of velvet – it flows over my notebook like cream!
    And oh – compare these to the unbearable torture of a cheap, scratchy pencil – Ugghh! Like dragging your nails down a blackboard! (Do people even use blackboards anymore?!)
    I am also a bit of a nutcase about my pencil case – can’t buy enough of those, and always searching for the perfect one…
    These are all simple pleasures – every kid understands the urge to make their mark on a piece of paper. For me, drawing with charcoal is the ultimate proof that something subtle and sophisticated can spring from something deceptively simple. You can do a lot with a bit of burnt stick…

  8. Deirdre, I can’t get the Staedtler Norica pencils in my home town either – a friend in Vancouver, British Colombia, gave me a supply of them. Very sweet pencils, with white erasers – classy. Smooth on paper – yes, that’s the goal. If you’re interested in how the something subtle can spring from something simple, I’m going to recommend an essay by G. K. Chesterton, about a walk he took without his requisite drawing utensil, a piece of chalk. Maybe you’ve already read it? Here’s a link: http://www.chesterton.org/a-piece-of-chalk/
    Thanks for the interesting information about Dahl – I had no idea he felt that way about the Dixons! And thanks, too, for sharing your favorite – I will be on the lookout for the Mars Lumograph.

  9. P.S. Deirdre – Please say hi to the skies above your part of Australia. We have close friends in Sydney, and some day – some day – I’m going to get there to say hi myself.

  10. Deirdre O'Sullivan from Australia

    Thanks, Julie – how lovely of you to give me that link to GK- I’m a huge fan of his! Didn’t he study at the Slade school of Art? One of those rare talents who could write and draw. I love his Father Brown stories – he’s the kind of poetic writer who paints with words.
    I live by the sea in Melbourne, which is way down south from Sydney- but yes, it is a glorious city. The Sydney harbour is so huge, that everyone – rich and poor alike, sees a slice of dazzling blue sea from their window. This really annoys the wealthy, who think you should have to pay for the privilege! Do pop over and see your pals, one fine day – I’m sure you’d have a bonzer time! PS:(Bonzer is Aussie slang for “great”)

  11. This is such a wonder of a post, Julie, filled with so much I want to keep. I am off to the Highlights foundation Sunday for a poetry workshop, and have stewed quite a bit about the pencils I will take, including the pencil pack. I have a purple case that holds quite a bit for drawing and I often write with one of the #2 Sanford drawing pencils because sometimes I sketch & write. But, I also admit that I use thin black ink pens too. I loved reading about your own pencil case. Those special child things make our lives good. Thanks for all, and love the comments, too!

  12. Linda, I went through a whole Rapidograph phase of my life, when Rapidograps seemed to be the only choice (despite their fussy natures) if you wanted to make a really fine black line (it was a world without fine and extra fine gel pens!) If you take a look at Julie Paschkis’s post (linked in my post) you’ll see drawings by two great pen & ink artists – Saul Steinberg and Ben Shahn.

    How exciting to be heading to the Highlights poetry workshop. Who are you working with? Hope you have fun and go home inspired!

  13. Hooray for pencils and school supplies!!

  14. Jackson took in 60 Ticonderoga pencils, sharpened. The smell was intoxicating 🙂 I kept thinking of your poem as I sharpened them.

  15. Julie,
    I LOVE this post. I’m such a pencil person. I keep one in my purse and much prefer pencils over pens (although I’m a fan of them, too). If I ever sit to write a draft, it’s going to be in pencil. I think I like the idea of erasing…but I rarely erase. Instead I mark through because I may want to come back to my original words 🙂
    Funny thing—my Poetry Friday post today is about pencils, too.

  16. Penny, I think it makes a lot of sense to love the IDEA (the possibility) of erasing even if you seldom erase! By the way, I loved the pencil riddle you posted.

  17. Great post! Here’s another pencil poem: http://winspoetry.blogspot.com/2011/02/unwritten-by-ws-merwin.html
    Ruth, thereisnosuchthingasagodforsakentown.blogspot.com

  18. This post, the poems, the links, and the thread of comments is delightful and such a wonderful thing to savor on a rainy Sunday morning. I’m tempted to sharpen a few pencils in honor of it!

  19. With pencils like those, you’ll have to mind the gap. A good exercise for poetry as well as tube riding. I’m fond a pencil box myself, but I’ve gone over to the dark side. Pencil pouches with three holes!

    • Brenda, I love the idea of “minding the gap” in poetry (I think I’ve fallen into the gap sometimes – talk about the dark side!) Thanks for visiting Books Around the Table today.

  20. Delightful read!

  21. Great post on many levels! I’m a plain old Bic #2 plastic, mechanical pencil person. I will only write with a fine point, and pencils that require sharpening are just too labor intensive for me! Also, I’m a leftie, and, with a fine line there’s less smudging going on (and thus easier to read when a note is unearthed eons later). Here’s an article on the store Julie Paschkis mentioned: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/21/fashion/a-pencil-shop-for-texting-the-old-fashioned-way.html/. I read it last year and remembered it being about pencils, but truthfully, the most fascinating thing I found in the article was the pencil tattoo! (I’m a bit simple at times.)

    • I’m a leftie, too, Diane, but something about the way I hold a pencil minimizes smudging. Thanks for the link to the store! (and if anyone has trouble with the link (I kept getting “Page Not Found”) just put “pencil” and “store” into the search box and you’ll get the hit. Not sure why, since Diane’s link is the correct URL.

    • P.S. Your Happy Haiga Day post (“Unhappy Haiga Day”) about 9/11 – with the link to a story about the good people of Newfoundland that day – left me in tears. Fifteen years since 9/11 and it still feels like yesterday.

      • Yes, it really does seem like yesterday, and yet, with the way our society has so profoundly changed it also seems like it was decades ago.

  22. amyludwigvanderwater

    “cedar perfume”
    “when heaven was closer”

    Oh, yes.

    And I keep no other pencils than Ticonderogas.

    What a grand post and thoughtful sister. Too, you have me thinking about the pencil boxes of my childhood. I loved that royal blue one with Snoopy on top. xx

    • “Thoughtful sister” – so true. She and I were born only 14 months apart (my poor mom – pregnant again with a 5-month old baby in her arms!) and we grew up almost like twins. She spoils me, and not just with pencils, and I adore her.

  23. TI am also a Dixon Ticonderoga person…mine go in a Dundee Marmalade jar….tan ceramic with black glazed label…The only place to keep thjem on your desk or table…my jar is 20 years old, they don’t make them anymore and what will I do when it breaks…???

    • Never fear, Marcia! You can find vintage Dundee Marmalade jars on Etsy.com and Ebay.com. The pencils on my desk I keep in an old Dijon mustard pot – similar vibe!

  24. Pingback: Love and the Blank Page | Uma Krishnaswami

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