"We go on to poetry; we go on to life. And life is, I am sure, made of poetry. Poetry is not alien--poetry is, as we shall see, lurking round the corner. It may spring on us at any moment."--Jorge Luis Borges, This Craft of Verse: The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, 1967-1968.
Just listen to the voice of Borges, saying, "The central fact of my life has been the existence of words and the possibility of weaving those words into poetry . . . "
Yes, it's National Poetry Month again; yes, I'm writing a column about it; and yes, I could write this column in November instead and claim presumably higher ground by not condemning poetry to a 30-day community service sentence every spring.
But I'll write about poetry anyway. Here's the deal. I'm not a poet. I'm a reader of poetry in November as well as April. I've been a reader of poetry for decades. One of the first books ever given to me was Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses; one of the first poems memorized: "The Land of Counterpane."
Later, John Berryman:
I give no rules. Write as short as you can,
in order, of what matters.
and Gary Snyder:
Lay down these words
Before your mind like rocks.
and Jane Kenyon:
The things you might need in the next
life surrounded you--your comb and glasses,
water, a book and a pen.
So many more. Any such list is endless and idiosyncratic. If you read poetry, you have your own list. If you're a bookseller who reads poetry, you also know the pleasure of that kindred soul moment when someone opens the door to your bookshop and poses an at once simple and complex question: "Where's your poetry section?"
A leading question, as they say. On the way to the shelves, you might ask, "Are you looking for someone in particular?" The potential answers are limitless, but a few occur with some frequency:
- "Yes, I'm looking for love poems."
- "Yes, I need a gift for . . ."
- "Yes, I'm looking for Billy Collins."
- "No, I just want to see what you have."
- "No, what would you recommend?"
The last one is, of course, the utopian ideal response, and maybe not quite as common as the others. It does happen, however, and there is the potential for magic in that ensuing conversation.
I know--or I imagine--there are bookshops where such conversations about poets occur routinely, but if this were the rule rather than the exception, we wouldn't need Poetry Month to remind us that poetry is . . . still out here.
In April, bookstores across the country look for creative ways to expand the conversation. For example, Lauretta Nagel of Constellation Books, Reisterstown, Md., told me she is participating in an Academy of American Poets program: "April 17th is the first annual Poem in Your Pocket Day, so we are advertising it and inviting folks to come in and pick up a free copy of a poem to carry. It will be easy to copy some kids and adults poems of various kinds/genres. And it will get them in the bookstore."
Bookshops will celebrate Poetry Month with all sorts of variations on basic themes of events, readings and promotions. They will remind us again that there is still largely unexplored wilderness on the word planet, as poetry sales figures so often painfully show.
As a bookseller, I also love that those utopian conversations do happen in bookstores. Poetry may not be widely read, but it cannot be stopped because, one way or another, we readers will always have our way with words.
"We put shoes on the imagination," Homero Aridjis writes in his poem, "Borders, Cages and Walls," which concludes:
We put bolts on the eyes,
locks on the hands,
limits to the lightning.
But life keeps its distance,
love to its word,
and poetry comes up where it can.
I must leave the final observation to Mr. Borges, who said, "We know what poetry is. We know it so well that we cannot define it in other words, even as we cannot define the taste of coffee, the color red or yellow, or the meaning of anger, of love, of hatred, of the sunrise, of the sunset, or of our love for our country. These things are so deep in us that they can be expressed only by those common symbols that we share."