A Poem in Praise of Libraries

Abbey library of Saint Gall, Switzerland

Abbey library of Saint Gall, Switzerland

Tuesday 

Norman Finkelstein, my best friend in graduate school, has just sent me his recently published New and Selected Poems (Dos Madres Press, 2016). The collection bears the marvelous title The Ratio of Reason to Magic, and while I have to admit that many of Norman’s poems are engaged in conversations that I am not privy to, a few hit home. I’ve written about my favorite one here–it’s a meditation on the Pan scene in The Wind in the Willows–and today I share the best poem I’ve ever read about libraries. “Open to the Future” is a poem written to honor the anniversary of a 175-year-old Cincinnati library.

If the quotation marks are any indication, Norman has folded into the poem some passages he found from the Mercantile Library’s early founding documents. In so doing, he captures a number of paradoxes about libraries.

For instance, they look both backwards and forwards, preserving past books and encouraging future books. Books are time-bound ( “a rubber stamp stamping the date”) and they are timeless. Although the institution was established by “earnest, responsible” men (“not a college-bread man among them”) on pragmatic principles (“to extend our information upon mercantile and other subjects of general utility”), it was first run by a librarian named Doolittle. (I’m sure that Norman is tickled by the fact that Doolittle ran the Mercantile Library. I think of William Butler Yeats’s observation in “Adam’s Curse” that the poet is regarded at an “idler” by “the noisy set of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen.”) The business end of the library seems at odds with those who wander in the stacks and who have “succumbed to a peculiar disease” called “archive fever.” Among those suffering from the disease are decidedly unpragmatic

bookmen and penmen,
commentators and scribes,

Talmudists and scholiasts,
philosophes and exegetes,

romancers and poets
of a certain age.

The poem ends with a few more paradoxes. The very way that the archives are set up may point to the way that life used to be lived—and yet it is also true that

The archivist
produces more archive,

and that is why the archive
is never closed.

As he dives into the archives, the poet both acknowledges literary tradition (“the law and its interpretation”) and resists it in order to make something new. The library signals continuity (“in the future/as in the past”) and it signals change (“in the future/not as in the past”). It awaits the book that “remains to be written/to be housed/ to be read.”

The closing lines sum up the paradoxes. The library is, on the one hand, “historical and historicizing” and, on the other, “opening to the future.” It is “taking place” and it is “commencing.”

Here’s the poem:

Open to the Future

In honor of the 175th anniversary of the Mercantile Library, Cincinnati, Ohio

1.

The library
is the history of the library

The book
is the history of the book

The lecturer
delivers the lecture

And the gentleman reads
in the armchair by the lamp

And the ladies’ lounge
and the card catalogue

The stacks
and the wrought iron stairs

The rubber stamp
stamping the date

The clock and the calendar
and the word in time

The word in the book
goes forward in time

Though the young merchant
holds it fast

Clings to it
as he clings to his bride

In the hour after
they read to each other

When supper is over
and the street falls still

2.

“…to adopt the most efficient means
to facilitate mutual intercourse;

to extend our information
upon mercantile and other subjects

of general utility;

to promote a spirit of useful inquiry
and qualify ourselves to discharge

with dignity,
the duties of our professions

and the social offices of life.”

3.

Earnest, responsible,
–“not a college-bred
man among them”–

their determination powered
by a fierce, ambitious joy–
subscriptions of $1800

700 books purchased
and a librarian named Doolittle
paid $200 a year–

Catalogue this discourse
between chronicle and paean
between monograph and song.

4.

I long ago succumbed
to a peculiar disease

relatively rare
but still to be found

among bookmen and penmen,
commentators and scribes,

Talmudists and scholiasts,
philosophes and exegetes,

romancers and poets
of a certain age.

The sage has labeled it
archive fever:

to acknowledge and to resist
the law and its interpretation

in the place where it is housed
in the house that is its place.

5.

“What is no longer archived
in the same way

is no longer lived
in the same way.”

Yet

“The archivist
produces more archive,

and that is why the archive
is never closed.”

6.

So that in the future
as in the past

So that in the future
not as in the past

the book remains to be written

to be housed
to be read.

The library
“opens to the future”

historical and historicizing
but opening to the future

commencing

taking place.

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