Revisiting

Read more poems, I advised myself. At first, I thought I might scout around for some writers whose work I am unfamiliar with–writers new (say, Ocean Vuong) and less new (say, Alberta Turner). I have the week off from university work, however, and am lazing about at home…no trips to the library.

I do have my own library, though, much of which consists of poetry collections and much of which I have not read in some time. I chose Audre Lorde off the shelf–her 1986 book Our Dead behind Us. Lorde’s work was pivotal to my early interest in writing poems; I encountered her in a Women’s Literature Studies class in 1978 and was deeply moved by her poems of rage and political awareness, the sensuousness of her imagery.

I chose to re-read some late Plath and one of Adam Zagajewski‘s books, Canvas. What I’m hoping is that some of these re-reads will connect me to areas in poetry I have not explored much recently. Also, I will expand into the works of writers whose poetry I’m less familiar with.

Not to mention the recent work of friends-in-poetry, whom I have let down by not buying their books (yet…I will get to it). So many excellent and thought-provoking writers out there, many of whom I know personally or have at very least met in person and connected via social media platforms. I hope to purchase some of those books at this year’s AWP Conference in Washington, D.C., and thus to keep to my commitment to read more poetry.

Meanwhile, I turn the pages and rediscover “old friends” and their voices, stories, moods. That is a pleasant task, and a fruitful and useful one.

~

brad-hammonds-flikr-books

Reading as drug

“…Let us admit that reading with us is just a drug we cannot do without–who of this band does not know the restlessness that attacks him when he has been severed from reading too long, the apprehension and irritability, and the sigh of relief which the sight of a printed page extracts from him?–and so let us be no more vainglorious than the poor slaves of the hypodermic needle or the pint-pot.”  ~ W. Somerset Maugham, “The Book-Bag”

azaleas by Ann E. Michael

In June and July, my situation lets up enough that I am not in my office 40 hours a week and can, for a time, attend to the garden or the hiking trail or avail myself of more time to read. Yesterday, I browsed through the campus library and came away with seven or eight books. How I loved that feeling when I was a child: walking through the stacks, thumbing through card catalogues, picking and choosing, now with deliberation, now with impulse, until I had reached the borrowing limit!

It is, in a way, a kind of addiction, though for the past three decades I have been a bit more studied and less compulsive in my reading habits. A bit. Plants and animals, and the workings and seasons of the garden, are my alternate texts when the printed page is unavailable or my eyes feel tired. Certainly I read on-screen quite often, but that process is not nearly as fulfilling. I have downloaded a book by Deleuze (Difference and Repetition) as a kind of experiment; I’m not at all sure that philosophy will be comfortable to read on screen, but I suspect I might prefer reading philosophy on a computer than reading a novel on a computer.

For me, the worst thing about onscreen reading, as I possess neither laptop nor tablet computer, is the inability to stretch on a lounge chair or curl up on a sofa (or, best of all, in a hammock) while reading. And the pleasant experience of leaf-shadows gently caressing the off-white pages of a paper book, the tone of the paper shifting ever slightly as the light changes, the sensation of dozing off with a book over one’s face when the sun gets hot…book addicts find these aspects as enjoyable as the intellectual response to the material, the words themselves.

Several significant events & celebrations appear on this summer’s horizon, but with any luck I can employ my library cards to good purpose a few more times before the fall semester arrives.

 

 

Here’s something lovely

…from Maria Popova at the Brainpickings site: book loving and writing and art and literacy and library connect to produce this event/display at the New York Public Library. I was in the city just last week–rats, I missed this. (But I did see Ken Price at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and spent part of a lovely afternoon at Untermyer Park again).

~ Please click on the links! (I know they’re kind of hard to see on this theme)~

MEANWHILE…

I’m on blogging hiatus again while I get accustomed to my work week and while we prepare for the Goschenhoppen Folk Festival (or on Facebook here) this coming Friday and Saturday. Not a time to get much writing done, nor much reading.

A festival participant prepares apples for drying

A festival participant (19th c) prepares apples for drying

Young apprentices (18th c) at work

Young apprentices (18th c) at work

Poetry, art, & a little bit more about libraries

After writing about some memorable libraries lately, I realize that I have been able to pursue my passions–indeed, discover my passions–largely through the help of these marvelous civic institutions. It is time I brought my posts back to those passions, however, particularly to my love of poetry.

My family introduced me to poetry through nursery rhymes and hymns and taught me to love narratives through story-telling of several kinds, so the foundation for my lifelong love of stories and poems existed before I ever set foot in a library; but books solidified and focused my various enthusiasms, and libraries offered more books than I could hope to read (though I tried!). Libraries led me not only to novels and poems but to books on visual art, art museums, artists, art history, and art criticism. If I couldn’t get to the Louvre or Rijksmuseum, to Venice or to Rome, I could borrow an art book from the library and be on my way via imagination.

When I got to college, I spent many hours in the library on campus borrowing books I couldn’t afford to buy. Few of those books were required for my academic studies; in fact, I don’t recall doing much research for term papers. I was reading up on and diversifying my own interests, often unrelated to coursework. A look back at my undergraduate transcripts reveals only two classes specifically devoted to poetry, but I recall reading many poetry collections in the campus library. As a junior, I had a work-study job in an office in the library basement. When my hours were up, I’d walk upstairs to the stacks.

I was finding my own way to what I loved.

~

Needless to say, once I had children of my own, we visited the library often. Years ago, I wrote to the poet Richard Wilbur to tell him about my 2nd-grade daughter’s encounter with Digging for China and how, nearly 30 years earlier, I had been fascinated by the book too. He replied with this modest note. June 2009, I saw Wilbur at the West Chester Poetry Conference. What a talented writer, and what a sweet man.

~

Richard Wilbur

Libraries & book love

In my last post, I drifted onto the topic of libraries–and stirred up images of favorite places. Libraries have certainly been among my favorite places and loom large in my childhood memories. Two of those libraries were new when I entered their doors: the Grinton I. Will Library in Yonkers, NY, which opened in 1962 (I first visited in 1964) and the W. Leslie Rogers Library in Pennsauken, NJ, which opened its doors in 1971. I recall a few distinct discoveries even from my first-grade forays to the Yonkers library. It was there I discovered Richard Wilbur’s Digging for China, a book I adored.

Free public libraries represent one of the best uses and most noble purposes of the tax dollars and philanthropic gestures of citizens in a democratic society. These buildings, some grand and some exceedingly modest, harbor banned books and out-of-print books and sections devoted especially to children’s books; a library admits of free speech and liberated thinking for people of all ages. A library, by its very existence, reminds citizens that education matters and that information can be free, can be borrowed, can be disseminated and shared.

When I was a child, libraries were safe places to hide, to explore, and to pursue my own interests–which often varied quite a bit from the interests of my peers. The library in Pennsauken offered me an early education on visual art. I probably borrowed every book in the place that had anything to do with art or artists, from Aesthetic Inquiry; Essays on Art Criticism and the Philosophy of Art to The Agony and the Ecstasy. The library stocked a book chronicling  the letters of Theo and Vincent van Gogh as well as huge, heavy, hard-cover museum books with color plates of famous artwork. Some of these were stamped more than a few times with my library card’s number.

I also borrowed, and read–enthusiastically and, occasionally, dutifully–classic novels that I had somehow learned I “ought” to read. I read a fair number of junky novels, too, and young adult fiction, and children’s books. Even though I was nearly ten when Leo Lionni’s Frederick was published, I loved it and never considered it a “little kid’s book.” Interestingly, Frederick the mouse gathers images and turns them into words. He is a poet. (A word-artist).

Books: Anything, everything, as bibliophile overlaps with autodidact.

Books were my first and often my best teachers, though I have been fortunate enough to have had some wonderful teachers (formal and informal) in my life. One of them, my grandmother Edna Michael, will always be closely associated with libraries in my heart and memory. She was the Story Lady at her small-town library in South Whitley, IN; and my siblings and I spent many hours in the small white building that housed South Whitley’s free circulating books. We read, and we listened to her read. She would don “an olden-times dress” she’d designed and sewn herself, tie on a large matching bonnet, and gather the town’s youngsters in a circle on the library floor for story time.

She always left the library with at least a couple of grownup books for her own reading material. I was proud to be like her.

A few years ago, the town enlarged its library, added a new children’s wing, and dedicated it in my grandmother’s name. Edna Michael, the Story Lady.

I’m pretty proud of that, too.

ann e michael

The South Whitley Library as it was in 1967, with my grandmother in her Story Lady attire.

Autodidacts & higher education

An early-morning drive to work, low sun gleaming through the remnants of fog, Vivaldi on the radio: Concerto for Two Cellos, a deeply mellow, haunting work of music…and I tried to recall my first encounter with Vivaldi’s music. I am quite sure it was an old Angel Records LP of The Four Seasons in my parents’ modest record collection. When I was old enough to read, I was curious enough about the music to study the record cover, where I learned that Vivaldi was born in 1678 in Italy and had red hair. Our ancient set of encyclopedias (The Book of Knowledge) said he taught music to little girls in convent school. These details, which taught me little about baroque music itself, nonetheless appealed to me as a child who wanted stories. The music seemed to tell me stories, as well–thunderstorms, blizzards, birds at daybreak, mountain streams, slow rivers in the summer sun.

Because I wanted stories, because I sought information and details, I turned to what seemed to me the most obvious place: the library. For three years of my early reading life, that was the Yonkers Public Library’s “new” branch, which seemed impressively modern at the time and which had a fabulous children’s area.

Why I associate Vivaldi with colored light filtering through the clerestories of the library, I don’t know. That’s just how memory works. I also associate my visits to the children’s room at the library with the beginnings of a lifetime of self-teaching through books, music, museum-going, travel, art, conversation, observation, research, and writing. That connection is a little easier to make. Because I was an introverted child, I watched more than participated in the events going on around me. When I wanted to know more, I was often too shy to ask–so I tried to find the answers myself in the place I imagined to be the best repository of stories and information. It was also the only place I knew that could offer such knowledge.

This brief explanation suggests that I became an autodidact because I was socially maladaptive. Or maybe because I was passionately curious about the world. Or because the library room was so magical.

Any of which may be at least partially true. But what I want to say in this post–far too briefly because the idea deserves further reflection–is that while I work in an institution of higher learning and while I believe in the value of higher education, I also believe we can educate ourselves exceedingly well without college degrees. Lack of a degree can limit people in the job market, no doubt; yet some of the most intelligent, interesting, best-educated people I know happen to be largely self-educated. The autodidact has the motivation of personal passion and the ability to be directed by chance and interest, not just to be guided through coursework considered culturally or economically valuable. Most of my older friends have become wise and clever by attending the school of hard knocks and through their personal curiosity and inventiveness; they are true autodidacts, even the ones who actually do have PhDs…but especially the ones who don’t.

Can I go so far as to suggest that we need our libraries more than we need our universities? Why not? I think I started my “college education” when I was six or seven years old because I had the desire to know, the curiosity, the interest. My parents encouraged me, which helped. (For one thing, I could not have gotten to the library if my mother hadn’t taken me there!) Some of my school teachers were also encouraging, but their encouragement mattered surprisingly little. What made the difference was the reward of finding something new, learning a new story, adding details to a foundation of things that interested me.

One of my tasks as a teacher, a poet, and as a mother is to foster that element of excitement when I sense it in someone and to encourage self-directness in each person’s education. Delight: a crucial ingredient in learning that can take awhile to locate but that will motivate a lifetime of knowledge-gathering. Maybe you can find it at the library, too.