8 Shelves of Poetry

Eight 23-inch shelves of poetry.

With enough perspective, the social importance of objects is diminished.

I’ve been inside the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor, and saw it up close. It’s name, “Liberty Enlightening the World,” by sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, simply states what it represents. Since installation it has come to mean more.

At the reopening after restoration of the statue, on July 3, 1986, President Ronald Reagan said, “…we celebrate this mother of exiles who lifts her light beside the golden door.” The golden door is a political addition, and not needed. It is a corruption. It permeates everything. It was only when I viewed the Statue of Liberty from Windows on the World atop the World Trade Center did I realize how imbued with cultural attachments it is. From my seat overlooking New York harbor, the statue seemed minuscule, less significant than the movement of boats under a clear night sky.

My belief about culture-imbued words used in poetry came from epiphanies like this. The best poets stay away from that kind of cultural insertion, instead using language to create meaning. My reading of poetry is a search for such verse, without culture bombs dropped into the text. It is hard to find.

The first books I bought after earning money delivering newspapers were collections of the poetry of Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg. I later added the poetry collection of W.B. Yeats. The books lay on a shelf at the M.L. Parker department store and spoke to me. I purchased them. Poetry did not become a key organizing principle for my home library, yet volumes were often available at a discount or given to me. The number of poetry books grew. Today, I have eight 23-inch shelves of poetry in my library.

In the late 1970s and ’80s I wrote poetry as a form of creative expression. Some of it was good, most wasn’t. A few have been posted here. It was a way to be a writer. There is a project of going through those pages, editing them and re-writing the poetry from today’s perspective. When I previously did that, results improved. There may be a book of poetry in me, yet I am a prose writer. I don’t often write it, yet do read poetry often.

Like everyone, I have favorites. I will go on reading Charles Bukowski until I’ve read every available verse. I only recently discovered Mary Oliver. Can you believe it? She’s among the best. Eventually I will get to Sven Armens’ two books purchased at a used bookstore in the county seat. Armens was my undergraduate Shakespeare teacher, a figure more suitable to being a character in Othello than poet or Shakespearean scholar. A reader needs to expand beyond favorites. That is the purpose of my eight shelves of poetry: be there when I need to consider language.

If I were a poet I would emulate characteristics of Vachel Lindsay, particularly his Rhymes to be Traded for Bread. Poetry as literal currency. I remember visiting the Vachel Lindsay house in Springfield, Illinois, and thinking how dull it must have been for Lindsay to be planted in a single location for any length of time. I see Lindsay walking into Kansas and other Midwestern places more than being planted in Springfield. I should return to reading Lindsay.

Having a wide selection of unread verse creates a go-to place when I’m stuck for what to read next. These going to poetry moments are unlikely to deliver me to re-reading Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen, yet maybe I should. The use of inventories in his writing has been influential in mine. Better to list the cultural attributes one seeks to invoke rather than assume readers will understand all the references in a single, culturally well-known object as an author hopes.

A writer has to use nouns, dammit! Better that verse explores the meaning of nouns. I would rather poetry be all verbs, suggesting action and an ever-evolving thought process. One can’t escape the nouns, though. I’m not hopeful I’ll find such verse in my eight shelves of poetry. I plan to continue the search, a couple of volumes each month.