To celebrate, here is a sumptuous jumble of poems touching upon the themes of ‘books’, ‘bookshops’, ‘craft’, ‘design’, ‘handwriting’, ‘reading’ and ‘libraries’. Thank you to all who made recommendations, and if there are any that I’ve missed, please write them in the comments section below as I’d love to see them. Enjoy!
‘In my Craft or Sullen Art’ by Dylan Thomas
In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.
Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.
from ‘The Bookshop’ by Amy Lowell
[…] I stood before the shop,
Fingering the comfortable vellum of an ancient volume,
Turning over its leaves,
And the dead moon looked over my shoulder
And fell with a green smoothness upon the page.
“I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt have none other gods but me.”
Through the door came a chuckle of laughter
Like the tapping of unstrung kettledrums,
For Pierrot has ceased singing for a moment
To watch me reading.
from ‘Lending Library’ by Phyllis McGinley
Between the valentines and birthday greetings
With comical verses, midway of the aisle,
Here is a rendezvous, a place of meetings.
Foregathers here the lady bibliophile.
from ‘The Beautiful Librarians’ by Sean O’Brien
The beautiful librarians are dead,
The fairly recent graduates who sat
Like Françoise Hardy’s shampooed sisters
With cardigans across their shoulders
On quiet evenings at the issue desk,
Stamping books and never looking up
At where I stood in adoration.
from ‘The Stoneman’ by Matthew Hollis
[…] To handle the language like that –
to lift, assured, each letter into place,
knowing it either clear or dissed
(one or the other, no in-between);
and throwing the frocked type for the recast
when the paraffin no longer did the trick.
And yet, more than aware of composing a line
that would soon be lifted and distributed,
so than nothing he worked would survive him
only its residue: imposed, in print, out of it.
from ‘Block Cipher’ by Orlando White
Under diagram of a letter-less paragraph,
block white. Silent quadrates, grid imperceptible
where the arrangement cross-puzzles itself.
Blank words equidistant by page flectional by print.
Structure of paper exists to limit communicatio
of sound of silence; how word-types appear,
how fonts distinguish an ipseity of language.
Riddle 26 ‘Book/Bible’ from the Exeter Book
Mec feonda sum feore besnyþede,
woruldstrenga binom, wætte siþþan,
dyfde on wætre, dyde eft þonan,
sette on sunnan, þær ic swiþe beleas
herum þam þe ic hæfde. Heard mec siþþan
snað seaxses ecg, sindrum begrunden;
fingras feoldan, ond mec fugles wyn
geond speddropum spyrede geneahhe,
ofer brunne brerd, beamtelge swealg,
streames dæle, stop eft on mec,
siþade sweartlast. Mec siþþan wrah
hæleð hleobordum, hyde beþenede,
gierede mec mid golde; forþon me gliwedon
wrætlic weorc smiþa, wire bifongen.
Nu þa gereno ond se reada telg
ond þa wuldorgesteald wide mære
dryhtfolca helm, nales dol wite.
Gif min bearn wera brucan willað,
hy beoð þy gesundran ond þy sigefæstran,
heortum þy hwætran ond þy hygebliþran,
ferþe þy frodran, habbaþ freonda þy ma,
swæsra ond gesibbra, soþra ond godra,
tilra ond getreowra, þa hyra tyr ond ead
estum ycað ond hy arstafum
lissum bilecgað ond hi lufan fæþmum
fæste clyppað. Frige hwæt ic hatte,
niþum to nytte. Nama min is mære,
hæleþum gifre ond halig sylf.
An enemy came and took away my life
and my strength also in the word; then wetted me,
dipped me in water; then took me thence;
placed me in the sun, where I lost all my hair.
The knife’s edge cut me— its impurities ground away;
fingers folded me. And the bird’s delight
with swift drops made frequent traces
over the brown surface; swallowed the tree-dye
with a measure of liquid; traveling across me,
left a dark track. A good man covered me
with protecting boards, which stretched skin over me;
adorned me with gold. Then the work of smiths
decorated me with strands of woven wire.
Now may the ornaments and the red dye
and the precious possessions everywhere honor
the Guardian of peoples. It were otherwise folly.
If the sons of men wish to enjoy me,
they will be the safer and surer of victory
and the stronger of heart and the happier of mind
and the wiser of spirit. They will have more friends,
dearer and closer, truer and better,
nobler and more devoted, who will increase
their honor and wealth, with love and favors
and kindnesses surround them, and clasp them close
with loving embraces. Ask me my name.
I am a help to mortals. My name is a glory
and salvation to heroes, and myself am holy.
‘The House Was Quite and The World Was Calm’ by Wallace Stevens
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night
Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,
Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom
The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.
The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.
And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself
Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.
from ‘In the Reading Room’ by David Ferry
Alone in the library room, even when others
Are there in the room, alone, except for themselves:
There is the illusion of peace; the air in the room
Is stilled; there are reading lights on the tables,
Looking as if they’re reading, looking as if
They’re studying the text, and understanding,
Shedding light on what the words are saying;
But under their steady imbecile gaze the page
Is blank, patiently waiting not to be blank.
from ‘The Monument’ by Elizabeth Bishop
[…] It is an artifact
of wood. Wood holds together better
than sea or cloud or and could by itself,
much better than real sea or sand or cloud.
It chose that way to grow and not to move.
The monument’s an object, yet those decorations,
carelessly nailed, looking like nothing at all,
give it away as having life, and wishing;
wanting to be a monument, to cherish something.
The crudest scroll-work says “commemorate,”
while once each day the light goes around it
like a prowling animal,
or the rain falls on it, or the wind blows into it.
It may be solid, may be hollow.
The bones of the artist-prince may be inside
or far away on even drier soil.
But roughly but adequately it can shelter
what is within (which after all
cannot have been intended to be seen).
It is the beginning of a painting,
a piece of sculpture, or poem, or monument,
and all of wood. Watch it closely.
from ‘reading’ by Joanne Burns
there were so many books. she had to separate them to avoid being overwhelmed by the excessive implications of their words. she kept hundreds in a series of boxes inside a wire cage in a warehouse. and hundreds more on the shelves of her various rooms. when she changed houses she would pack some of the books into the boxes and exchange them for others that had been hibernating. these resurrected books were precious to her for a while. they had assumed the patinas of dusty chthonic wisdoms. and thus she would let them sit on the shelves admiring them from a distance. gathering time and air. she did not want to be intimate with their insides. the atmospherics suggested by the titles were enough. sometimes she would increase the psychic proximities between herself and the books and place a pile of them on the floor next to her bed. and quite possibly she absorbed their intentions while she slept.
‘When You Are Old’ by W.B. Yeats
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
‘Last Ink’ by Michael Ondaatje
[…] In certain languages the calligraphy celebrates
where you met the plum blossom and moon by chance
– the dusk light, the cloud pattern,
recorded always in your heart
and the rest of the world – chaos,
circling your winter boat.
from ‘Ode to the Book (II)’ by Pablo Neruda
of the elements,
matutinal and nocturnal,
in your ancient pages
near the Mississippi,
in the islands,
Rimbaud like a wounded
thumping in the mud,
and the beauty
stone by stone
the human castle rises,
actions of solidarity,
at every door
life received us,
we took part
in the earthly struggle.
What was our victory?
a book full
of human touches,
without loneliness, with men
from ‘The Last Page’ by Moniza Alvi
[…] But was it wise to end the novel in this way,
the narrative jumping off the ledge,
or should the woman have died at the beginning
of the story, the author slowly replaying
her fall — backwards, or perhaps the leap
should have occurred in the middle of it all
with the two halves of the book held open
like the pair of wings which might have saved her?
‘And Yet the Books’ by Czeslaw Milosz
And yet the books will be there on the shelves, separate beings,
That appeared once, still wet
As shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn,
And, touched, coddled, began to live
In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up,
Tribes on the march, planets in motion.
“We are,” they said, even as their pages
Were being torn out, or a buzzing flame
Licked away their letters. So much more durable
Than we are, whose frail warmth
Cools down with memory, disperses, perishes.
I imagine the earth when I am no more:
Nothing happens, no loss, it’s still a strange pageant,
Women’s dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.
Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,
Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.