Treasure Troves of poetry

March 16, 2010

Close to the well-beaten paths of Harvard Yard with its formidable libraries, a number of bookshops continue to stake their claim as rich troves of poetry.

There’s the classic Harvard Book Store, which was offering free candy on Halloween, passed around by all its booksellers in imaginative literary costumes, including a stunning Edgar Allan Poe complete with Raven. With a tall bookcase full of anthologies plus another three which represent what is being taught here and which poets are currently teaching, it is a good starting-point.

The Harvard Coop is one of the best haunts for browsers. ‘Poetry? It’s right behind the Moleskines!’ It boasts traditional Harvard wooden chairs, or you can perch on high in the Coop café to read your new book – if you can get past the expansive shelves displaying an enticing range of current literary journals. It can be busy, but it’s a great place to linger over new discoveries.

For bargains, Raven Used Books is a welcoming basement with two of its bookcases given over to poetry. The famous one: that’s the Grolier, one of only two poetry bookstores in America (the other is Open Books in Seattle). Where else can you find so many volumes of poetry in one place? Students appreciate being in a place that has a history, unchanged since it opened in 1927.

Here the poets meet: one will come in and five minutes later, another. Some refer to it as ‘The Headquarters’, others speak of how much they feel encouraged here. Everybody from e.e. cummings to Paul Muldoon has frequented it, and portrait photographs hang high on the booklined walls. This is a treasure among bookstores, where the latest volumes are in stock. If the real life of contemporary poetry is in the small presses, then few of the conventional bookstores represent these, but the Grolier does.

When you want to visit an amazing treasury of modern poetry, then the Woodberry Poetry Room in the Lamont Library is the place to go. Unlike the more majestic and ostentatious rooms at Harvard, the Woodberry succeeds in removing any intimidation from the artform. It is simultaneously broad yet intimate, the only room in the world entirely designed by Alvar Aalto. Around its 1940’s turntables you can give your attention to the sound of the poet’s voice. The Woodberry honours a continuum, giving equal weight to the aural, the visual and the textual life of the art.

It’s a playful room, all about total pleasure: it allows for both the communal and the solitary nature of poetry. Here students gather to watch rare footage of great poets or attend live readings, and sound recordings of influential new work are made each month. Visiting poets are invited to sit at ‘The Poet’s Desk’ with its unsurpassed view of Harvard Yard. And an old cardboard box contains the sacred relic, a gleam of gold tinfoil around Robert Lowell’s cigar, presented to the Woodberry on the birth of his daughter.

Valerie Gillies

Valerie Gillies was awarded a Scottish Arts Council Writer’s Bursary to put together a volume of collected poems and to write new work in America. She is currently based in Boston. This piece first appeared in Issue 6 of our Poetry Reader.

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