The Poetry and Music of Books and Reading
All of human life can be found in books. We’ve been carving clay, bone, stone, silk and wood for millennia and 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. And that’s not all, being able to connect with the world’s greatest minds and writers, is a marvel, a gift.
So today we’re going to look at the theme of BOOKS in poetry and music. Emily Dickinson will be transporting us to all sorts of imaginary places with Rae Armantrout and Tony Hoagland. We return to the world before the web in the company of James Arthur and his encyclopedia. We meet Charles Simic and Nikki Giovanni in the library, Ralph Besse in the bathroom (more about that later) and conclude with Czeslaw Milosz on the spirit and resilience of books; conversing all the while with the greats who have laid themselves out for us.
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. So I suppose you could construe the poem as her way of validating her reclusive nature. Living her life vicariously and using literature as a substitute for living; knowing life by reading life. Then you have the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda who knows life by living life and in his Ode to the Book 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:
slide down sand-pits
Among the islands
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
I don’t come out
of collected works,
have not eaten poems–
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
When I was a teenager, I could find just about anything in a collection of reference books my mother bought one Christmas. Prior to the internet, World Books were our very own in-house library. 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 – my school essays must have been astonishing! I have a very clear image of my brother sitting at the dining-room table, studying for his Leaving Certificate with volumes spread open in front of him.
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
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 her 2004 collection Up To Speed, 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 by it. 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. In The House Was Quiet And The World Was Calm, Stevens’ 2-line stanzas focus 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.
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. 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 Feet, Tony 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 of Good Hope 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.
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.
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 Steven’s 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 advocates for making more time in our lives for reading, by creating the desire and establishing the habit. Besse suggests having reading material always close to hand, reading everything and reading it everywhere – bed, the commute the 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.
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 that poem. It’s 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, saying:
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
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. Another American, Maya Angelou, credits the library as having saved her life as a youngster. She was abused and didn’t utter a word for six years, but God put a rainbow in the sky and 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 them and can converse with the greats at any time. Sometimes those conversations are life-saving. Reading as an anti-dote 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.
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. 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. This is exactly how I feel about books. I break their spines, bend pages and mark poetic lines and phrases, because, I agree with Phelps: books are for use. My friends don’t appreciate it but I think books are 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. An unused book is like an untold story. My books are lined with insoles and my friends no longer loan me theirs.
No matter how over-used my books are, I’ve never managed to destroy one completely. This brings me onto my final point about books. They will outlive us all. There’s a story# about the Polish poet Csezlaw Milosz, that on a 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. Because the English for book derives from the German Beech and the French 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.
“We are,” they said, even as their pages
were being torn out, or a buzzing flame
licked away their letters. So much more durable
than we are, whose frail warmth
cools down, with memory, disperses, perishes.
I imagine the earth when I am no more:
Nothing happens, no loss, it’s still a strange pageant,
Women’s dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley,
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 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.
As for me, well before I really knew books, I loved them. The musty yellowed paper of old volumes of poetry, the magical cover designs, the crisp-feel and fresh-smell of newly printed novels. I wanted books on the bookshelf. I wanted them near. Then one afternoon, I chose one and sat down on the armchair to read. I’ll let Dylan Thomas tell you what happened next:
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.
Music today from Fionn Regan; Mark Knopfler & James Taylor; Loreena McKennitt; Sting & Anoushka Shankar; Gregory Alan Isakov; Susanne Vega; Sean Harkness and John Williams.