“What role should “the self” play in a poem?” – A Query from Cam Scott
David J. Rothman
Cam’s question about what role the shelf should play in poetry may seem to have an obvious answer, but it’s worth meditating upon at some length. Books may be becoming less and less the chosen medium of transmission for all things textual, but I still love them, own plenty and continue to buy more, and always will, especially books of poetry. One result of my love of books is a space crunch. If you own a lot of books, you obviously have to put them somewhere. Others may disagree, but in my view the best place to put books remains on a shelf. I have known many people — we’ve all been in their slovenly homes, their clogged apartments – where books are stacked like coffins or teacups every which way on the floor, on nightstands, on staircases, in closets, but I know from sad experience that this doesn’t work very well. You go for a book, and first of all you can’t find it because it’s lost in some dusty unlabeled stack, and then after a frenzied hour of searching, if you do find it, it’s in the middle of some pile of non-sequiturs. Then, when you carefully try to extricate it as if reading depended on a game of pick-up-sticks, just as the last centimeter is emerging from the middle of the pile the whole thing starts to wobble and comes down around you like the Tower of Babel. Compare this with the typically more orderly experience of reaching for a book on a shelf and it seems a no-brainer to go with the shelf, especially the well-labeled and organized shelf (assuming the shelf is sturdy or at least secured to a wall, so that it cannot fall and crush you to death like a pile of stones, even if Tom Stoppard has said that’s the way he’d like to go when he’s having trouble writing a play, as opposed to at the height of sexual passion, which is, frankly, what I would prefer if I had to make such a choice, although the bookcase event might come in second).
As for poetry and shelves: shelves are generally not what poetry is about, although of course one could write poetry about the shelf on which you hope the poetry may one day come to rest, but a shelf does seem to me to be the best place for poetry to reside after it has been written and, grace à Dieu, published. When I am reading a book of poems, especially one that fires my imagination, I carry it about with me and almost live with it, scribbling on it, chewing on it, banging it against my head, bringing it into the shower, reading it to my friends until they tell me to shut up already, etc. But when I turn the last page it becomes part of my shelf, or of one poetry shelf, as I have many poetic shelves. And there it continues to plow forward through time, where I can return to it any day I am at home, after, say, a dinner of shell fish complemented by a fine Pinot Grigio. The sun is descending and the aspen leaves are twirling in the September breeze. I imagine the shelf where the book of poetry stands drowsing in my library, in this case the shelf that includes the letters “R” and “S” and some of “T.” I descend the stairs into that quiet room carved out of the finished basement and there it is, upon its shelf, the shelf it is not about but without which it would be so difficult to find, and I lift the book in which the poem lies from the quiet shelf which supports it but which it always transcends, to rediscover the poem opening out into a world of shelves and so much more than shelves. Yes, the shelf generously returns to me the poem I have put there as I read it again, with love: “She sang beyond the genius of the sea….”
Read Cam’s blog post at Cheek Teeth in response to all the responses he received to his question here.