I’m always reading something, finding forgotten treasures on my bookshelves, some that disappoint–into the donation box with them. Why have I kept them? Greed, thinking I need some of everything—poetry, fiction, history, philosophy, science, memoir. Yes, yes, I know that list is not all inclusive, but it says what I value. And sometimes I go to the shelf only half aware of what I want to read again, given the ease of ordering books that appear in my mail box or on the front steps.
This week I plucked from the shelf an anthology edited by Czeslaw Milosz, A Book of Luminous Things, and reread it straight through, nodding at my own marginalia, adding an underline here and there. Good stuff. I even recommended it to a friend. I read much of a second collection of essays by Robert Hass, but could not get to the end of this or the previous one, too deep or too rich, I’m not sure which. And now on my desk as I write is Seamus Heaney’s The Redress of Poetry. I admire most of what Heaney has written, this volume included, although I had to refresh my understanding of the word “redress.” Sort of means to sort it out.
Heaney has reminded me how vast the category “poetry” is, going far back in time and spreading like–what? Moss, bacteria, plague or a fuzzy blanket of words meant to warm us in a cold world? And as I try to sort out what meager understanding I have of poetry is this: one end of the spectrum is the sentimental, the greeting card stuff that brings lots of love, little of it memorable; on the other end of the spectrum lie the random, loose jointed bits that pry me out of my safe zone, send me into outer space where nothing is familiar and make me just want to go home. Home—my comfort zone in poetry, with its risk of too familiar images and too little challenge.
Given this “redress,” I’m rethinking my book shelves, especially the poetry. If I keep only what I love, will it dwindle down to a precious few? (I’m of that music generation.) Or will I be brave enough to keep even what challenges me? I need not decide this moment; the books won’t rot on the shelf. Or will they?