Shared Memory: Libraries and the Poems We Love

By Pinsky, Robert | American Libraries, April 1998 | Go to article overview

Shared Memory: Libraries and the Poems We Love

Pinsky, Robert, American Libraries


The public library in my home town, Long Branch, New Jersey, was a visibly civic space: a brick Classical Revival building next door to the dark, Gothic structure of City Hall and across the street from my grandfather's bar, the Broadway Tavern. As the bar was perhaps my favorite public space, but privately owned, the Long Branch Public Library was the most inviting and usable officially communal place I knew - public property.

Along with municipal offices, the brooding City Hall building housed police headquarters and a small jail. At the Broadway Tavern, where I was admitted, though underage, on grounds of blood, the police officers from across the street could be seen in uniform, with their revolvers and billy clubs and belts of bullets, objects designed and worn to maintain awe in the beholder.

In a similar spirit of authority made visible, the architects who designed City Hall as a reddish-brown medieval fastness or militant cloister were evoking a 19th-century idea of ancient, rightful powers: orderly civilization as a continuity of control from the Roman to the Holy Roman empires and beyond those to Romantic, Victorian notions of brooding, impregnable stone castle and monastery.

In contrast, the pediments, moldings, and fluted columns of the public library invoked a Classical ideal of sunlit Mediterranean intelligence and proportion, a marriage of beauty and reason as valued by the 18-century Founding Fathers.

I believe that with the mysterious, unlikely strength of historical persistence this distinction of spirit was vividly clear to me, though of course nameless, even when I was quite small and barely literate. (One of my early memories is figuring out how to skip, on the little paved plaza in front of the library.)

That childhood library's proximity to the authority of City Hall and the conviviality of the Broadway Tavern, and the library building's distinctively agreeable architecture may color my pleasure at being associated now with the Library of Congress. As I have said before, of the two lobes of the post's title "Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress" seems to me nobler, as well as more republican and democratic, than "Poet Laureate."

I don't deny that the word "laureate" has powerful resonance; but to be consulted by the representatives of the people seems to me more distinguished than to be laureled by any authority. Consultation is more active than laurel. And the Library of Congress is perhaps the greatest house of memory that has ever existed - a gratifying association for a poet, particularly if one associates the art of verse with our capacity for memory, as I do. Poetry is an ancient means of memory, and the Library of Congress, where for example the projectors are maintained that can show any film ever made, extends and amplifies the human act of preservation, on a remarkable scale.

The word "laureate" on the other hand has royal and imperial associations. In England, the Poet Laureate, appointed for life rather than two years, serves a single family, the family at the apex of a national class system. I'm tempted to associate it with the gloomy, massive stones of the old Long Branch City Hall.

But despite my reservations about this part of the American title, I have come to understand that its associations help clarify and accomplish the task in front of me. The term "laureate" suggests the idea of a central, underlying unity, just as the association with the Library of Congress suggests a wide-ranging and inviting public presence.

The project I've chosen as the main undertaking of my two-year term combines, in my mind, the civic and curatorial aspects of libraries and of poetry. The Favorite Poem Project, which is being produced by the New England Foundation for the Arts, will undertake to make an audio and video archive of Americans from all 50 states, each reading aloud a poem that the person loves, and if the reader chooses, saying a sentence or two about the reason for personal attachment to the poem - by Whitman or Keats, by a contemporary poet or Chaucer, by Gwendolyn Brooks or Wallace Stevens. …

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