I live in an older suburb of St. Louis, the oldest suburb, in fact, incorporated in 1857. Just a few blocks from our house are four used bookstores, kept well supplied no doubt, by local state sales and the numerous used book fairs held every year.
The oldest of the four, and the one with the most prosaic name, is The Book House. I used to frequent it more often years ago when I collected texts about speeches and speechwriting, but now I make an occasional visit to see what’s happening with poetry. (I can say that I don’t attend the every-other-Friday Tarot card readings; booksellers have to do strange things these days to market themselves.)
The Book House occupies an old farmhouse dating from the 1800s. Poetry is on the second floor, so I have to take the stairs, which are steep and narrow enough that one has to climb the steps almost sideways. They are also rickety. Reaching the top, I make a u-turn and walk straight to the poetry room.
Well, the proprietor calls it a poetry room. It’s more of an enclosed alcove, a small enclosed alcove positioned over the front door. It’s so small that unless you’re shorter than 4’9″, you cannot stand up straight. Your choices are squat, kneel, bend over or sit. There’s even a pillow to sit on, except it’s occupied by a big gray cat.
At any given time, the room contains 300 or so volumes of poetry, grouped by anthologies, U.S. poets, Europeans poets, and miscellaneous.
Select a volume from the shelf, and an entire world opens up.
In my hand is a small book, roughly four inches by five inches and about one-quarter-inch deep. It is entitled Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, Kubla Khan, and Christabel, and it is the kind of book that was once used in English classes in high school and college, prior to the advent of paperbacks. This one was published in 1919. There’s a name written on the front flyleaf – Frances Williams. Notes in the same handwriting (and everything is in pencil) are scattered throughout the little volume. Frances writes “perfect” by a stanza of Kubla Khan, and “gate” by several stanzas of Christabel. I can tell by her notes that she is working on an essay or research paper.
And on the back flyleaf is this: “The New Republic: The need of a new world conference.” I can’t see what that has to do with Coleridge, so I guess: A teacher in another course assigned the reading, and Frances didn’t have any extra paper so she wrote the name inside the Coleridge text. I’ve looked for an article with that title online, and while The New Republic’s archives go back that far, and even farther, I haven’t been able to find it.
Select another volume: John Brown’s Body by Stephen Vincent Benet, published in 1928. This one contains no notes or references to magazine articles, but there is an inscription: “To Dad from Mabel, December 25th, 1928.” I wonder, who today would give their father John Brown’s Body as a Christmas present? And I wonder what prompted Mabel to buy it, and what Dad thought – was he surprised, or thrilled, or disappointed, secretly hoping for a tie?
It’s common to find names, and only names, inside of these old poetry books. The Buck in the Snow by Edna St. Vincent Millay (1928) has the name Winifred Donlea inside the cover. Longfellow’s Complete Poems (1898) has a name – Catherina Gerhard – and a date signifying when she received it – Christmas 1899. Tristam by Edwin Arlington Robinson (1927) has the name Marie Jane Stanton. A 1938 edition of The Poems of Coleridge has the inscription “Anne Naylor Phi Mu 1939” and I know immediately this was a college sorority girl.
Two volumes are unmarked; either they weren’t read, or read very much, or they were treasured. One is Sara Teasdale’s Love Songs (1919) and the other is a first edition of Murder in the Cathedral (1935) by T.S. Eliot (actually a play but it reads like Eliot’s poetry).
These volumes are familiar because, over the years, I’ve purchased them. I certainly wasn’t going to pass up a first edition of Murder in the Cathedral for $3.00.
During my last visit, a few months back, I bought three books: Selected Poems of Robert Penn Warren 1923-1975, The Poetry of Robert Frost, and Poems and Prose of Gerald Manley Hopkins. All newer volumes, none contained scribbling or names or interesting notes. Perhaps poetry meant more in an older time. Perhaps it was more personal. Perhaps it didn’t have video games, iPods and television to compete against.
But I think about Winifred and The Buck in the Snow, and Catherina curled up in a large, overstuffed chair in front of the fire on Christmas night, reading her Longfellow. Frances has to stay up late, writing her research paper on Coleridge.
And Dad, smoking his pipe after the family’s in bed, reads John Brown’s Body and becomes totally absorbed, reading it straight through in the small, quiet hours of early morning. “That Mabel,” he thinks, “she may be a flapper but she sure knows how to pick the books.”
Buy a year of Every Day Poems, just $5.99— Read a poem a day, become a better poet. In July we’re exploring the theme The Cento.