Poetry and the Library
Americans love observances. We have special days and months to celebrate everything from the divine to the historical to the esoteric to the downright silly. There is Black History Month, Women's History Month, Take Sons and Daughters to Work Day, Senior Citizens Day, Tartan Day, Wear Red Day, Pretzel Day, Apple Day, and too many religious holidays and observances to mention. In fact, the word holiday itself is derived from “holy day’-days set aside by various religions for special rituals and practices. And due to our wonderful diversity, the United States is simply awash in special days and times.
April is among my favorite months for these special times because April is National Poetry Month, and it also features National Librarians Day and National Library Week. These three observances recognize things that have been and are very important and wondrous to me; words, knowledge, curiosity,creativity, and helpfulness. Together these have all played a vital role in my life and in me becoming the person I am. I am grateful that these three things have been a part of my life for quite a while.
I do not know exactly how I got into poetry. Yes, there were all the rhymes we used to say as kids and the poems we had to memorize in elementary school. But I think that reading “Childcraft’, the literary and educational set of books my mother got for us that went along with the World Book Encyclopedia, was where poetry really settled into me. “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes with its magical and evocative, “The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas”, and its rhythmic and exciting, “The Highwayman came ridin’; the highway man came ridin’; up to the old inn door” just caught me. I remember lines from that poem today, over a half century later. That set of books also had memorable poems by Edgar Allan Poe and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that sometimes sent me to the dictionary to find out what some of the words meant, thus enlarging my vocabulary and furthering my sense of wonder at all the things words could mean and do. I am still fascinated by the uses, subtleties, meanings and origins of words. And I trace it back to those early experiences.
I am also a child of the 60’s, and in the energy of the Civil Rights Movement I discovered the works of earlier Black poets such as Langston Hughes, Fenton Johnson, and Gwendolyn Brooks and new ones such as Le Roi Jones, Lucille Clifton, and Ishmael Reed. Through that I saw how poems could touch on both the eternal and metaphorical as well as the here and now. It was also a time of great cultural change in the whole of US society, and the anthology, The New American Poetry and friends of mine such as Steve A. and Dave F. introduced me to great wordsmiths such as William Carlos Williams, Charles Olson, Ed Dorn, and my all time favorite poet, Kenneth Patchen. Popular songs by artists such as Bob Dylan and Smokey Robinson and Simon and Garfunkel has similes and metaphors and allusions. Poetic works were all around, and my love for poetry was fed and took off. Even now I browse books of poetry in book stores and subscribe to the Poetry Foundation’s daily e-mail service. ( Poetry Foundation ) It is a life long love story that will only end when I do.
Librarians helped with that and so much more in my life. When I had read a poem that interested me, I could ask a librarian where I could find more works by that poet or by poets who wrote in the same way. And I had the same experience whether I was researching a historical question, looking for something about music, following up some odd weird idea, looking for how to copyright a song, or any of the thousands of things I asked librarians about over the years. Libraries and librarians have always been there for me, willing and able to help. Libraries themselves have been so many things to me; places to gain refuge from the outside world, a source to unlock new knowledge, a place to answer questions and feed my insatiable curiosity, or in the case of some of the turn of the 20th century ones, places to go to be amazed at the architecture. It still amazes me that we have public free libraries and have had them for such a long time. I used to do some classes on US law and life for foreign students and professionals. Some of them were from developing or recently independent countries, and the openness and ease of access of our libraries was one thing that always intrigued and amazed them. Public schools have them. Just about every neighborhood has them. Colleges and universities have them. And they are open to anyone at all. That was definitely not their experience, and they marveled at it.
I got my first library card to take home and hold onto when I was in second grade. I have had one ever since then; over half a century. The 3 public libraries in West Philadelphia were places where I spent tons of time regularly, and then as I got older the main library at 19th and the Parkway became a haven. I could find books on things I was curious about and take them home with me-for free! I could listen to music I could not afford to buy repeatedly. For free! I could ask for help with a vexing research question or process and receive one on one help. For free! It is both wondrous and ordinary; we rarely think about how special it actually is. I was a high school and middle school teacher for almost 40 years, and I always had the good fortune to work with excellent librarians. I have long said to my students that if there is a heaven, I may not get in, but librarians are automatically guaranteed entrance. They go through all of that college training and professional development work, not for themselves, but just so they can help other people. Repeatedly. And for free. Wow. That is simply incredible.
Libraries are in tough financial times now. School districts, cities, and towns have been cutting funding for them even as the needs for the many services they provide have been increasing. I encourage people to donate whatever they can to their local public library; they are an indispensable part of the intellectual infrastructure of this country, and they represent us at our best. Think about all of the students, perhaps even you, who learned to do research, finished a school project and/or had their curiosity sparked by a librarian or at a library. Think of all of the immigrants who learned and are learning about being in this country through library programs over the decades. Think of all the parents for whom libraries are safe and free after school programs. April is a great time to remember what libraries and librarians do for all of us and focus on what we can do for them. National Library Week, April 10-16, and National Library Worker’s day, April 12, offer us a chance to reflect on the vital role these workers and these institutions play. As the historian Barbara Tuckman said, “Nothing saddens me more than the closed and locked door of a library.” That is so true. (To see a great film about what libraries do on any given day go to http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2014/05/libraries-now-new-york-video.html