The Poetry of Books by Tracy Gaughan

In The Book That Changed America, Tulsa University professor RandallFuller explores the effect the publication of Darwin’s On The Origin Of Species had on the country’s scientific and religious beliefs.  He focuses on five great American minds and how they absorbed Darwin’s theories and their implications for society.  Darwin’s ideas about the interconnectedness of species fueled the fire of the abolitionist movement which led to the emancipation of slaves in the US in 1865.  It’s awe-inspiring to think that a book had the capacity to change a country’s mindset and ideology.  It highlights the power and influence the written word has over us as a society and as individuals.  I began thinking about The Book That Changed Tracy.  Long thoughts.  I’ve been changed, re-shaped, renewed and taught by everything I’ve read.  Ordinary things have lovely wings in Neruda, Harnett, Kavanagh, Olds. In Montaigne life is imperfect. In Lispector language is beautiful.  What you lose comes round in another form in Rumi, Ritsos, Hardy and Hulme.   Just as well, because in Hemmingway  everybody loses; the soul of the world heaves a sigh and in spite of Darwin, humanity moves backwards: ‘any man’s death diminishes me’ Donne’s sermon reads ‘because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee.’  

All of human life can be found in books.  We’ve been carving clay, bone, stone, silk and wood for millennia.  We began printing books over five hundred years ago.   We read to broaden our comprehension of the world and ourselves.  We read to relax, gain wisdom and be entertained.  Connecting with the world’s greatest minds and writers is a gift. 

But what of the gift of poetry and the efficacy of books and reading in that medium.  For children, books open up a world of imagination and we find this joy of childhood reading in the work of Robert Louis Stevenson.  Emily Dickinson transports us to all sorts of imaginary places, so too, Rae Armantrout and Tony Hoagland.   We find the world before the web in the company of James Arthur and the encyclopedia.  We meet Charles Simic and Nikki Giovanni in the library, Ralph Besse in the bathroom (more about that later) and Czeslaw Milosz praises the spirit and resilience of books.

When we think in terms of expanding our imagination, there’s nowhere better to start than in childhood.  Reading storybooks with our children exposes them to language at an early age.  They hear how language sounds and see how it appears on the page and they understand books better, as we all do, when they’re actively involved.  There’s a technique for interactive reading.  Developed by researcher Grover J Whitehurst, dialogic reading is basically a parent and child having a conversation about a book.  The parent asks questions, prompts the child and validates the answers, so the child in effect is narrating the story with the help of the parent.   By the time kids get to school, they’re already advanced in the mechanics of language, structure and vocabulary.  Scottish poet and novelist Robert Louis Stevenson in his poem Picture Books in Winter, from the collection A Child’s Garden Of Verses brings to light the pleasure of childhood reading:

Water now is turned to stone
Nurse and I can walk upon;
Still we find the flowing brooks
In the picture story-books.
All the pretty things put by,
Wait upon the children’s eye,
Sheep and shepherds, trees and crooks,
In the picture story-books.
How am I to sing your praise
Happy chimney-corner days,

Despite the winter scene outside the window, a child can open a picture-book and find nature alive and fertile, rich with brooks and animals; cosy in the happy chimney-corner of her imagination.  As an only child who suffered bouts of poor health, Stevenson spent long periods of time reading, lost to the fanciful worlds of his own invention.   When writing with children in mind, one has to make contact with that part of one’s imagination that connects to childhood, following the link between the child one was and the children one now knows.  Stevenson spent a great deal of time with his stepson, Lloyd, whose drawings led him to conceive ideas for locations on the map in Treasure Island. 

In another poem from the collection The Land of Story Books, we get to visualise through the poem what the child sees in his book:

There, in the night, where none can spy,
All in my hunter’s camp I lie,
And play at books that I have read
Till it is time to go to bed.
These are the hills, these are the woods,
These are my starry solitudes;
And there the river by whose brink
The roaring lions come to drink.
So, when my nurse comes in for me,
Home I return across the sea,
And go to bed with backward looks
At my dear land of Story-books.

His imagination is so powerful and reminds me of a painting by the American painter and illustrator NC Wyeth (who incidentally painted some illustrations for an edition of Treasure Island) entitled Imagination. In the foreground there’s a young boy looking into the middle distance as he turns the page of a book.  Above him, the contents of his mind: pirates engaged in battle on a galleon sailing across an emerald sea.  In the poem we get to crawl under a sofa and find ourselves sitting around a camp-fire, where lions drink from the waters of our homes and prowl the forest tracks of our bedrooms.  A good story can only truly come to life with the breath of our imagination.  Stevenson, in his poetry, advocates for childhood reading. It’s like giving a child his own front door key to a whole world of dreams.

Books are the ultimate mode of transport. They can take us into ourselves and out of this world faster than a frigate, as Emily Dickinson wrote:

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears a Human soul.

Really what she’s talking about is escape.  Reading a book is travelling first class without putting your hand in your pocket.  Faster than the swiftest steeds or the chariots of the Greek hippodromes, a book can transport your soul to extraordinary places.  Dickinson rarely left her house and in her seclusion wrote the poetry that became a wormhole, through which future generations could access or try to interpret her unreachable presence.  You could construe the poem as her way of validating her solitude.  Living her life vicariously and using literature as a substitute; knowing life by reading life.  Conversely, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda knows life by living life and in his Ode to the Book (translation by Nathaniel Tarn), it is the first thing he says:

When I close a book
I open life.

 Through Neruda’s eyes, the world is a very different place.  In his poetry, onions and tomatoes even socks are exalted to reverential heights and he praises the mundane and ordinary, with all the epicurean pleasure of a poet in love with the world:

I hear
faltering cries
among harbours.
Copper ingots
slide down sand-pits
to Tocopilla.
Night time.
Among the islands
our ocean
throbs with fish,
touches the feet, the thighs,
the chalk ribs
of my country.
The whole of night
clings to its shores, by dawn
it wakes up singing
as if it had excited a guitar.

This wonderful life lures him with excitement and experience, that he may discern for himself the smoked beef and burning metals of his reality.  He praises the book as a source for continued self-improvement, but there has got to be time for both.  Books have inspired him to live and if books are life distilled, then Neruda wants to be a part of the process.

Book, let me go.
I won’t go clothed
in volumes,
I don’t come out
of collected works,
my poems
have not eaten poems–
they devour
exciting happenings
feed on rough weather,
and dig their food
out of earth and men.
I’m on my way
with dust in my shoes
free of mythology:
send books back to their shelves,
I’m going down into the streets.

Neruda’s poetry is not born of books but feeds on the rough weather and rich soil of the human race; he secretes poetry from life.  Dickinson in effect, extracts life from poetry in order to create her own literature.  We are all in a sense formed and informed by the books we read and the lives we lead and both Neruda and Dickinson portray a consciousness illuminated by their individual interpretations of art and life.

I learned about life
from life itself,
love I learned in a single kiss
and could teach no one anything
except that I have lived

Knowing life by living life has echoes of Matsuo Basho’s Haikus – those little kernels of acute observations on the natural world.  He suggests that a poet must both absorb nature and be absorbed by it; to learn about a pine tree from a pine tree.

When I was a teenager, I learned about Pine trees from a collection of reference books my mother bought one Christmas.  Prior to the internet, World Books were our information centres, our atheneum.  They contained everything we needed to know about the world – from cattle ranching in Houston, to dog pedigrees and the teachings of the Dalai Lama! 

The poet James Arthur in his poem Ode To An Encyclopedia not only celebrates the hefty hard-covers on the built-in shelf in my parents’ living room but commemorates all that they represent: the innocence and sureness of childhood, the confidence we had that our lives like the alphabet, would fall into place and that the world at our fingertips would be ours forever:

you were my companion
on beige afternoons that came slanting through the curtains
behind the rough upholstered chair. You knew how to trim a sail
and how the hornet builds a hive. You had a topographical map

of the mountain ranges on the far side of the moon
and could name the man who shot down the man
who murdered Jesse James. At forty, I tell myself

that boyhood was all enchantment: hanging around the railway,
getting plastered on cartoons;

The curious phenomena between the covers of the encyclopedia can take us just as far into our imagination as any piece of fiction.    Every word a writer pulls into existence conjures all sorts of images for a reader, so opening a book can be a risky business.   In her prose poem Imaginary Places, from Up To Speed(2004), American poet Rae Armantrout intrudes on the privacy within which a book is written, to investigate the complex relationships between the reader and the writer, the reader and the words, the book and the environment.   Each brings something to the process.  We follow language into a book and find ourselves persuaded.  As readers, we allow someone else to take the lead and between the lines discover how brave and curious we are to follow – we cast our nets into the sea of the writer’s imagination.

Reading, we are allowed to follow someone else’s train of thought as it starts off for an imaginary place. This train has been produced for us—or rather materialized and extended until it is almost nothing like the ephemeral realizations with which we’re familiar. To see words pulled one by one into existence is to intrude on a privacy of sorts.

And yet a book is an invitation to trespass, to absorb and be absorbed.   Reading, as a spiritual activity (because there are few relationships more beatific than a reader and her book) is beautifully rendered by American poet, philosopher and art collector Wallace Stevens.  Much of his later work, illustrates the benefits of a lifelong commitment to the aesthetics of language.  In The House Was Quiet And The World Was Calm, Stevens’ 2-line stanzas focus (as Armantrout does) on the ‘transaction between the reader, the book, the house, the night and the world,’ the holy communion and the ultimate transcendence of each by the act of reading:

The house was quiet and the world was calm
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

There’s something so magical about reading in the stillness of the night.  The world is hushed, distractions quieted, the book and reader become one.  Reading itself is a form of meditation where all divisions disappear and everything becomes interconnected.

Poet David Ferry suggests a similar sort of reflective suspension in his poem In the Reading Room, where he blurs the borders between the reader, text, light and space:

Alone in the library room, even when others
Are there in the room, alone, except for themselves:
There is the illusion of peace; the air in the room
Is stilled; there are reading lights on the tables,
Looking as if they’re reading, looking as if
They’re studying the text, and understanding,

For Stevens, the words were spoken as if there was no book and similarly, I think the house was quiet because it didn’t exist anymore either, the reader had transcended it.  The musical repetition of the refrain is like an unconscious lullaby, where the words become musical notes playing silently in the mind of the reader, engaged in the act, enveloped by the night and enriched by the truth in achieving a divine state.  It’s a perfect example of the importance of creating that private reading space for ourselves; out of distraction and into solitude.  We’re left with the ideal image of the reader naturally reflective, leaning late and reading there.  It’s an image that appears passive but is it?            

In Reading Moby Dick At 30,000 FeetTony Hoagland creates what Rilke called outer standstill and inner movement.  He might look relaxed leaning back into his seat on an airplane over Kansas, but in his mind he’s fighting whales aboard the Pequod.  It further demonstrates how a book can take you to anywhere, from anywhere.   Faster than Emily Dickinson’s frigate and before Hoagland’s plane arrives in New York, he can fire a harpoon or round the Cape simply by turning a page:

but now my eyes flicker
from the in-flight movie
to the stewardess’s panty line,
then back into my book,
where men throw harpoons at something
much bigger and probably
better than themselves,

wanting to kill it,
wanting to see great clouds of blood erupt
to prove that they exist.

He further echoes Pablo Neruda’s assertion that in order for life to be known, it must be experienced wholly and fully.  In Melville’s book too, Ishmael at one point ascribes all honour to whaling, referring to the whale ship as his Yale and Harvard.

Imagine a century like a room so large,
a corridor so long
you could travel for a lifetime
and never find the door,
until you had forgotten
that such a thing as doors exist.

Better to be on board the Pequod,
with a mad one-legged captain
living for revenge.

Better to feel the salt wind
spitting in your face,
to hold your sharpened weapon high,

to see the glisten
of the beast beneath the waves.

This too, is reminiscent of what American author and educator Parker Palmer articulated in his commencement address to graduates at Colorado University in 2015.  He told them to be ‘passionate, fall madly in love with life. Be passionate about some part of the natural and/or human worlds and take risks on its behalf, no matter how vulnerable they make you. Offer yourself to the world — your energies, your gifts, your visions, your heart — with open-hearted generosity’ or, as Hoagland suggests, to open a door.

Again, books help us make connections; with different cultures and societies; points in history; our imaginations; with ourselves and the world in general.  Just as Stevens’ book connects the reader to the house and the night, reading Moby Dick at 30,000 feet closes the gap between Hoagland and his own feelings; connecting him to the past through Melville’s imagination; his present as a passenger aboard a flight learning something about himself that’s likely to influence his future.  It’s a good example also of how books can help reduce stress.  I’m not completely comfortable with air travel but I can often transcend the steel tube by losing myself in a novel or engaging article.

Ralph M Besse, a trustee of Ohio’s Ursuline College wrote an article for the Foundation of Economic Education in 1956 entitled The Philosophy of Reading.  In it, he advocated for making more time in our lives for reading, by creating the desire and establishing the habit.  We can always find time for the things we really want to do.  Remember what Buddha said?  To paraphrase, practice meditating for fifteen minutes each day.  If you’re unable to find the time, do it for an hour!  Lack of time is one of the main reasons people don’t read.   Besse suggests having reading material always close to hand, reading everything and reading it everywhere – bed, the commute to work and interestingly, the bathroom – which is where he read Moby Dick!  Award winning Serbian-American poet Charles Simic just goes to the library:

There’s a book called
“A Dictionary of Angels.”
No one has opened it in fifty years,
I know, because when I did,
The covers creaked, the pages
Crumbled. There I discovered

The angels were once as plentiful
As species of flies.
The sky at dusk
Used to be thick with them.
You had to wave both arms
Just to keep them away.

Now the sun is shining
Through the tall windows
The library is a quiet place.

The angels were once as plentiful
As species of flies.
The sky at dusk
Used to be thick with them.
You had to wave both arms
Just to keep them away.

Now the sun is shining
Through the tall windows
The library is a quiet place.
Angels and gods huddled
In dark unopened books.
The great secret lies
On some shelf Miss Jones

The angels were once as plentiful
As species of flies.
The sky at dusk
Used to be thick with them.
You had to wave both arms
Just to keep them away.

Now the sun is shining
Through the tall windows
The library is a quiet place.
Angels and gods huddled
In dark unopened books.
The great secret lies
On some shelf Miss Jones
Passes every day on her rounds.

She’s very tall, so she keeps
Her head tipped as if listening.
The books are whispering.
I hear nothing, but she does.

I love this poem.  What a beautiful idea.  That in the magical quiet of a library, forgotten volumes of antiquarian books replete with enchanting wisdom, whisper to one another of the magnificent secrets locked within their creaking covers.  Books share their riches and the conversations are overheard by the librarian, who’s also seen as a magical figure and an inspiration to many young people frequenting their local libraries.   African-American poet Nikki Giovanni wrote very movingly about Mrs. Long in A Poem for My Librarian:

Mrs. Long asking what are you looking for today
When I wanted Leaves of Grass or Alfred North Whitehead
She would go to the big library uptown and I now know
Hat in hand to ask to borrow so that I might borrow

Probably they said something humiliating since southern
Whites like to humiliate southern blacks
But she nonetheless brought the books
Back and I held them to my chest
Close to my heart
And happily skipped back to grandmother’s house
Where I would sit on the front porch
In a gray glider and dream of a world
Far away.

Simic also credits his librarian with spawning his eclectic interests and owes much of his knowledge to the thousands of books he withdrew on his regular visits to the library.  In a 2011 New York Review of Books article lamenting the widespread closure of libraries, he spoke of his awe as a teenager being able to access books on insects, astronomy, poetry or listen to jazz recordings.   In the library, all information is available and accessible to everyone.  His poem illustrates the enchanting allure of the library as a mysterious and silent realm of ancient intellect and wonder.  It’s incumbent upon us to get in there and take the books out, fill the air with angels and the hushed secrets of the gods.  Maya Angelou credits the library as having saved her life as a youngster.  She suffered appalling abuse and didn’t utter a word for years, until God put a rainbow in the sky and (because like Nikki Giovanni’s librarian knew, you never know what troubled little girl needs a book) she was taken to a library.  For Angelou, a library is a rainbow in the clouds.

If a library is a rainbow, then a book is a crock of gold.  We are surrounded by books, marinating in them and can converse with the greats at any time.  Sometimes those conversations are life-saving.  Reading as an antidote to isolation was espoused by former professor of English at Yale University, William Lyon Phelps, in a speech he gave in 1933 about the pleasure of books. He said that “in a roomful of books you are surrounded by intimate friends.”  Friends that are always accessible.  Anglo-American writer Edgar Guest knew the value of a few good books too:

The fellowship of books is real.
Good books your faults will never see
Or tell about them round the town.
If you would have their company
You merely have to take them down.
They’ll help you pass the time away,
They’ll counsel give if that you need.
He has true friends for night and day
Who has a few good books to read.   

Books are our mentors and role models and whether we’re seeking an escape, self-knowledge or emotional support: they ward off loneliness, connecting us to other people, worlds and discoveries.   Books are without borders and mentally nourishing, taking us beyond separation and saving us from the further isolation of our own thoughts. Phelps advocates collecting a private library “One should have one’s own bookshelves, which should not have doors, glass windows, or keys”.  He also says that owning your own books is preferable to the “guest in the house” that a borrowed one is: “Books are for use, not for show; you should own no book that you are afraid to mark up, or afraid to place on the table, wide open and face down”.  I love this speech because to the absolute horror of many of my friends, this is what I do: break spines, bend pages, circle words and underline phrases.  I agree with Phelps: books are for use.  Like comfortable shoes, you need to break them in, walk around for a while until you’re no longer aware you’re even wearing shoes.  Like Wallace Stevens’ reader, you’ve transcended them! Walking around in a book embeds its message.  An unused book is like an untold story.  My books are lined with insoles and my friends no longer loan me any.

This brings me onto my final point about books.  They will outlive us all.  Don’t listen to the alarmists.  Within the scope of e-publishing, digital devices and traditional print there’s competition, room and preferences for both convention and innovation. There’s a story about  Polish poet Csezlaw Milosz’s return visit to his birthplace, he walked up to an oak tree and embraced it.  Affirming his connection to the earth, but also to the book.  The English for book derives from the German buch or buche, meaning Beech.  In French livre derives from the Latin Librium originally the inner bark of trees. In his poem And Yet The Books, Milosz describes them as separate beings ….  still wet as shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn.  Authors often describe their books as babies and they send them out into the world to live their own independent lives.  In autonomy, books have the power to change, influence and inspire their readers in ways inconceivable to their creators:

And yet the books will be there on the shelves, separate beings,
That appeared once, still wet
As shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn,
And, touched, coddled, began to live
In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up,
Tribes on the march, planets in motion.
“We are, ” they said, even as their pages
Were being torn out, or a buzzing flame
Licked away their letters. […]
Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,
Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.

Books are so much more durable than we are; Milosz’s own books were banned in Poland until the 1980’s and one month after Phelps gave his speech on the pleasure of books, the Nazi’s oversaw the burning, by university students, of books with “un-German ideas”. Yet books persist and whatever happens in life, they will be there to gather the evidence.  They are guardians of memory, the dictionaries of angels, whispering their secrets, derived from people and overheard by all who tilt their heads to listen.

Before I really knew books, I loved them.   Dylan Thomas best describes what happened to me the day I opened one:

I could never have dreamt that there were such goings-on
In the world between the covers of books,
Such sandstorms and ice blasts of words
Such staggering peace, such enormous laughter,
Such and so many blinding bright lights,
Splashing all over the pages
In a million bits and pieces
All of which were words, words, words,
And each of which were alive forever
In its own delights and glory and oddity and light.

Tracy Gaughan

Tracy Gaughan is a writer and editor based in Galway.  Her poetry and short fiction have been shortlisted and published in magazines such as Live Encounters, Headstuff, The Honest Ulsterman, Boyne Berries, and others.  She is IRL/UK poetry editor at The Blue Nib.  @Traceculture

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