5 Poems About Libraries
When you work in a library, as I do, and you happen to be a poet/writer, you end up collecting library poems, taking note of who writes them. Probably my favourite library poem is by Charles Simic, so let's start there. I like this poem partly because of the crumbling pages of the Dictionary of Angels, and partly because the librarian is tall, as I am.
1. In the Library by Charles Simic
There’s a book called
A Dictionary of Angels.
No one had opened it in fifty years,
I know, because when I did,
The covers creaked, the pages
Crumbled. There I discovered
The angels were once as plentiful
As species of flies.
The sky at dusk
Used to be thick with them.
You had to wave both arms
Just to keep them away.
Now the sun is shining
Through the tall windows.
The library is a quiet place.
Angels and gods huddled
In dark unopened books.
The great secret lies
On some shelf Miss Jones
Passes every day on her rounds.
She’s very tall, so she keeps
Her head tipped as if listening.
The books are whispering.
I hear nothing, but she does.
- from The Voice at 3am by Charles Simic
You may have read the entry on the ever delightful BrainPickings, which is devoted to Nikki Giovanni's library poems. Here is one from that post:
2. My First Memory (Of Librarians) by Nikki Giovanni
This is my first memory:
A big room with heavy wooden tables that sat on a creaky
A line of green shades—bankers’ lights—down the center
Heavy oak chairs that were too low or maybe I was simply
For me to sit in and read
So my first book was always big
In the foyer up four steps a semi-circle desk presided
To the left side the card catalogue
On the right newspapers draped over what looked like
a quilt rack
Magazines face out from the wall
The welcoming smile of my librarian
The anticipation in my heart
All those books — another world — just waiting
At my fingertips.
- for more poems by Nikki Giovanni, you might like The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni
The connections between books and trees, and libraries and branches always make me happy. And this poem also has a bird boy, which delights.
3. Branch Library by Edward Hirsch
I wish I could find that skinny, long-beaked boy
who perched in the branches of the old branch library.
He spent the Sabbath flying between the wobbly stacks
and the flimsy wooden tables on the second floor,
pecking at nuts, nesting in broken spines, scratching
notes under his own corner patch of sky.
I'd give anything to find that birdy boy again
bursting out into the dusky blue afternoon
with his satchel of scrawls and scribbles,
radiating heat, singing with joy.
- found in Special Orders by Edward Hirsch
If you haven't read Naomi Shihab Nye, you really must. Start with her Selected: Words Under the Words. It won't disappoint. If you work in a library, this next poem reminds you exactly why.
4. Because of Libraries We Can Say These Things by Naomi Shihab Nye
She is holding the book close to her body,
carrying it home on the cracked sidewalk,
down the tangled hill.
If a dog runs at her again, she will use the book as a shield.
She looked hard among the long lines
of books to find this one.
When they start talking about money,
when the day contains such long and hot places,
she will go inside.
An orange bed is waiting.
Story without corners.
She will have two families.
They will eat at different hours.
She is carrying a book past the fire station
and the five and dime.
What this town has not given her
the book will provide; a sheep,
a wilderness of new solutions.
The book has already lived through its troubles.
The book has a calm cover, a straight spine.
When the step returns to itself,
as the best place for sitting,
and the old men up and down the street
are latching their clippers,
she will not be alone.
She will have a book to open
and open and open.
Her life starts here.
– from Fuel, by Naomi Shihab Nye
I found this last poem at The Library as Incubator Project, and you can visit the author's website here. I love the opening of this poem, because it's so true, and also because it's funny. Those of us who work in libraries make it our entire purpose to welcome people into our spaces. Maybe telling people to be careful and warning them of possible mind-altering effects would work equally well?
5. If Librarians Were Honest by Joseph Mills
“…a book indeed sometimes debauched me from my work…”
If librarians were honest,
they wouldn’t smile, or act
welcoming. They would say,
You need to be careful. Here
be monsters. They would say,
These rooms house heathens
and heretics, murderers and
maniacs, the deluded, desperate,
and dissolute. They would say,
These books contain knowledge
of death, desire, and decay,
betrayal, blood, and more blood;
each is a Pandora’s box, so why
would you want to open one.
They would post danger
signs warning that contact
might result in mood swings,
severe changes in vision,
and mind-altering effects.
If librarians were honest
they would admit the stacks
can be more seductive and
shocking than porn. After all,
once you’ve seen a few
breasts, vaginas, and penises,
more is simply more,
a comforting banality,
but the shelves of a library
contain sensational novelties,
a scandalous, permissive mingling
of Malcolm X, Marx, Melville,
Merwin, Millay, Milton, Morrison,
and anyone can check them out,
taking them home or to some corner
where they can be debauched
and impregnated with ideas.
If librarians were honest,
they would say, No one
spends time here without being
changed. Maybe you should
go home. While you still can.
And if 5 poems about libraries weren't enough for you, there are plenty more to be found at Poetry Foundation. Do you have a favourite poem about libraries? Perhaps you'd like to write one?