Book Spine Poetry

You wander around your library, or your basement, or your living room or den, all those places you have books. You look at titles, occasionally pull out a volume, recall something that brings a smile, like The Man Who Died Twice by Samuel Peeples, the subject of my first published book review way back in 1976 (and I got paid for it, too). 

I wander around the upstairs bedroom at my house that holds eight, rather filled bookshelf units. Oh, and there is that tall bookshelf in my home office (another bedroom), and another shelf in a third bedroom, and that single shelf above my computer, and the four shelves, no, five shelves, in the basement. I’ll meander among the titles, touching one here, recalling another there, like the old friends they are. 

What I never realized was that I have a massive collection of improv poetry staring me in the face. 

Maria Popova at Brain Pickings has started a series of book spine poetry posts doing exactly that – assembling book titles that form poems, photographing them, and posting them. She calls it “Book Spine Poetry,” and she credits Nina Katchadourian at Sorted Books for the idea. The one pictured above is entitled “New York” and is the third in Popova’s series. 

Of course, it’s not exactly improv poetry. It’s more “almost improv poetry.” You have to do some work to find titles that lend themselves to the idea of a poem and fit together. 

I tried one at home, and used these titles: 

Farewell, I’m bound to leave you.
As I lay dying,
the heart aroused
the everlasting man,
the man who knew too much,
the man who died twice.
I am one of you forever. 

The first line is a book by Fred Chappell. The second is Faulkner. The third is David Whyte. The fourth and fifth are G.K. Chesterton. The next one is my friend Samuel Peeples, noted above. And the last is another title by Fred Chappell. 

I discovered that it’s easier – far easier – when you use business books. Business publishers like to use action verbs in titles; the literary set leans to nouns, phrases and rather dreamy sentences. (I’ll be posting one using business titles at my blog later this morning.) 

But try to see what poetry is waiting for you, staring at you each day from your bookshelf. We’ll have a project coming in August on this. A month of Rain poetry, on the spines, if you can find water in words.

In the meantime, I’m going to try it using only titles by Charles Dickens (he liked nouns, unfortunately for this purpose) and Mark Twain. 

We could be creating an entire cottage industry here. Or at least a few pages on Pinterest. But certainly a lot of fun. 

Photo by Maria Popova. Used with permission. Maria Popova is “an interestingness hunter-gatherer and curious mind at large, who also writes for Wired UK and The Atlantic, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.” Post by Glynn Young, author of Dancing Priest. 


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        • Donna says

          ha ha! you said a mouthful! AND it’s a wonderful book for writers! a great follow up for me to the Artist’s Way. I guess wine and clothing are optional, but the writing is a must! :) by Adair Lara Ever seen it?

  1. says

    This is such a fun prompt, and I have just the books for it. Will plan to post a few in August. But here’s one based on some of the business books in my writing room:

    A Whack on the Side of the Head —
    Thought in Contagion, Fragments of Reality:
    The Art of Memory
    Waking Up

  2. L. L. Barkat says

    Glynn, this article is delightful. I love the delayed-improv thing. Yeah, not quite like a Twitter poetry party, right? (speaking of which, I need to plan one :)

    This is on my counter right now, in this order. Pure improv:

    “The Education of Millionaires”

    harvesting fog—
    delicate machinery suspended.

  3. says

    Maria Popova inspired me to write book spine poetry back in April. It was so much fun. Here are a few I found on my shelves:

    “The Great Divorce”

    Are women human?
    A good man is hard to find.


    Sacred rhythms
    where the mountain meets the moon


    Inside out,
    creation waits
    till we have faces.
    The power and the glory
    sing a new song.


    Harlots of the desert
    the green earth.


    So excited for the August Rain play. I’ll have to do a poem with Rumors of Water and Walking on Water and A Syllable of Water. (Why do my three favorite writing books all have water in the title?)

    Thanks for the chance to share these, Glynn!

  4. says

    Just wrote this one:

    Barbies in communion,
    God in the yard.
    Contingency plans
    rumors of water.
    Delicate machinery suspended
    the whipping club
    inside out.

    All but the last are T.S. Poetry titles.

  5. says

    What a glorious idea! I haven’t had this much fun in a very long time (not sure what that says about me!)Who would’ve thought a poem could made from an author salad that mixes classics like C.S. Lewis, Dickens, Wharton, Chesterton and Poe with newbies like James Patterson, Higgins,Wally Lamb and James Frey? Here’s mine, including one of my favorite book titles ever as the poem title:

    A Grief Observed

    Bleak house born of silence
    the age of innocence
    a heart of darkness
    spectacular sins
    a plague of secrets

    Now you see her
    a descent into the maelstron
    avowals and denials
    she’s come undone
    a million little pieces

    Now you see her
    up from the blue
    choosing to see
    a distant memory
    the wolf at the door

    Now you see her
    bring up the bodies
    salvage the Bones
    strong in the broken places
    Fly away home


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