Essay

Absolute Necessities

The recession confession of a poetry shopaholic.

by Jeff Gordinier
Stacks of books in a bookstore.

In Port Angeles, Washington, it was Tess Gallagher.

I had stopped for a lunch of yogurt and fresh figs on the way to the coast, and, as so often happens, I wound up wandering into a local bookstore. This one was Port Book & News on First Street, and by the time I’d left, about five minutes later, the frayed strap of my shoulder bag was straining with the weight of three extra volumes: Gallagher’s Amplitude: New and Selected Poems, Moon Crossing Bridge, and Instructions to the Double.

Two days later, at the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, it was Kim Addonizio’s What Is This Thing Called Love and Yusef Komunyakaa’s Dien Cai Dau. I had a flight back to New York the next morning, and by now my carry-on bag had become an instrument of vertebrae-crunching torture. I could tell that the march through the Delta terminal at Sea-Tac was going to be brutal. But that’s how it is when I travel, and I travel a lot.

See, I can’t seem to stop myself. The other day I left Baby Grand Books in Warwick, New York, with John Keats. Last spring, somewhere between Phoenix and the Grand Canyon, I stumbled into a boxcar-shaped used-book outpost next to a taco stand and ended up riding northward with Tom Clark and Nikki Giovanni in the backseat of my rental car. In Manhattan I pass through Grand Central Terminal nearly every weekday; there, I have been known to drift into Posman Books and drift out three minutes later, dashing toward track 42 with Marie Ponsot or Leonard Cohen or Robin Robertson or Ada Limón under my arm. There are times when my purchases are random; there are times when they’re linked to some curious mental impulse—even pity. At Book Soup in West Hollywood I picked up Adam Zagajewski’s Eternal Enemies simply because the poet’s last name begins with Z, which meant that Eternal Enemies (which is brilliant, by the way) was the very last book on the bottom shelf of a poetry section on Sunset Boulevard. I felt sorry for that book. I wanted to rescue it.

It has crossed my mind that I’m the one in need of rescuing. A compulsion to feed my poetry fix as soon as I hit town—any town, every town—seems, at least on the surface, like a safe indulgence. It’s much healthier, for instance, than scoring little baggies of white powder. But there can be a commensurate drain on my cash flow, and that’s distressing, especially at a time when we’re all supposed to be practicing fiscal austerity. An economic downswing (which we might or might not be crawling out of in these waning days of 2009) calls for pragmatism, and the only thing less pragmatic than buying a random book of poetry is buying, say, five of them.

We all agree that reading poetry won’t make you rich, but can it make you poor? That’s what worries me. I am not normally a profligate person—I save, I invest, I understand the sedimentary ecstasies of compound interest—but when set loose in the poetry section of any bookstore on the planet I seem to encounter a version of myself that is thoroughly stripped of restraint. If I want it, I buy it. I become something that I seem to become nowhere else: a shopaholic. 

A paperback isn’t that expensive, but trust me, all those impulse buys add up. Over the past few months A.R. Ammons and Alice Oswald have joined my bulging home library. So have Patricia Smith and Don Paterson. And let’s not forget Dan Chiasson, Dean Young, Karl Shapiro, C.D. Wright, Emily Fragos, Stanley Kunitz, Joseph Brodsky, J.D. McClatchy, Alison Pick, Li-Young Lee, Richard Brautigan, Frederick Seidel, and the remarkable and much-missed Craig Arnold. Probably a few others, too. I’ve lost track. Gulp.

Clearly I have a problem. As the recovery merchants are always eager to remind us, we take the first of the 12 steps by admitting our own powerlessness in the face of addiction. Maybe I need help. Am I putting my family’s retirement fund in peril for the sake of enjambment and interior rhyme? If the ax falls and I find myself joining the laid-off throngs—I did not know that downsizing had undone so many—will I look at that alpine range of piled-up volumes next to my bed and wince, thinking of all the money I could have saved? (It’s not like this treasure trove is going to bring in a fortune on eBay.) If I wake up in the gutter, can I blame the “Ode on Indolence”? 

Yes, I’ve considered these questions—not that that has stopped me. I justify my poetry slush fund in a variety of ways. I tell myself, for example, that buying a book of poetry constitutes a gesture of resistance. Gargantuan corporations can now cull, measure, and parse every move that we make in the global marketplace, but picking up a collection of verse is still so minuscule and arbitrary an act that it must surely defy all their algorithms—it feels as commercially untraceable as slipping an apple into your bag at an orchard. (For one thing, you’re not coerced into buying poetry because of, like, ads. You have to make a deliberate effort. You have to seek it out. And even in bookstores that do offer a diverse selection of poetry, merely finding it can pose a challenge: Invariably the poetry aisle is located way, way in the back—“yeah, just turn left at the Sasquatch section and it should be right across from Occult Interpretations of High School Musical.”) The publishing business relies on the massiveness of authors like Stephenie Meyer and Dan Brown to such a degree that a stray underdog purchase of, say, Dean Young’s Embryoyo barely even registers on their Reader Tracking Devices, and that’s what I love about it. It’s a tiny push in the opposite direction—a pipsqueak of peaceful defiance.

I also tell myself that if the economy threatens to turn me into a fresh slab of recessionary roadkill, poetry just might be the thing that keeps me on an even keel. Maybe there’s truth in this. The upside of my literary spending spree is that I’ve got a stockpile of great books to flip through whenever I want, and they might just come in handy: The consolations of poetry are perfectly suited to a time of economic woe. It’s often when the frenzy of a boom dies down that we start to pay attention to the undercurrents of life that had previously gone by in a blur. Poetry is, among so many other things, a chronicle of those undercurrents—sort of a Twitter feed from a neglected realm.

Of course, it’s never as simple as saying that poetry makes you “feel better” when you’re down. (Reading Philip Larkin might just make you feel worse.) But it can, in my experience, make you feel less alone, less trapped, possibly even less freaked out about your credit-card debt—it has a way of stilling the storms of panic. A few weeks ago my book binge led me to “Play,” by A.R. Ammons, a poem that offers a quiet chime of reassurance:

drill imagination right through necessity:
it's all right:
it's been taken care of. . . .

And my rash spending habits on Amazon.com have introduced me to Li-Young Lee’s “From Blossoms,” a deceptively simple reverie about the pleasures of buying a bag of summer peaches by the side of the road:

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom. 

And were it not for that quick detour of mine in Port Angeles, I might never have encountered Tess Gallagher’s “Refusing Silence,” a poem that’s rousing enough to serve as a personal credo:

                  I admit
I delayed. I was the Empress
of Delay. But it can’t be
put off now. . . .

There are messages to send.
Gatherings and songs.
Because we need
to insist. Else what are we
for? What use
are we?

I know I need to be frugal, but I’m not sure a recession can stop me from seeking out poems like that. For an accountant drawing up a budget, I suppose they’d qualify as ancillaries, but to me they’re absolute necessities. I insist.

Originally Published: November 18, 2009

COMMENTS (26)

On November 18, 2009 at 10:15am Scott Lawson wrote:
I think of your problem as a solution. Indeed, our planet thanks you when you pick up an old book of poetry in the used section, lightening the landfill load and storing up creative energy that enlightens us and possibly your heirs or the random estate sale shopper many years (I hope!) from now. And when adding to Amazon's bottom line, you add joy to the shipping company, the paper mill, the publisher, the proofreader, all who need your compulsion today to embolden them to BUY that apple from the stewards of the orchard, rather than pilfer it due to hunger in these lean times. And personally, your confession energized me to write this little note and maybe will encourage others to give birth to poems and essays on the mystifying place poetry can take in our lives. I almost want to send you a Hamilton so you can continue to do good as you travel. But, I think I'll go out today and imbibe myself.

On November 18, 2009 at 2:42pm Matt Stafford wrote:
Jeff,

If you're in Seattle again, make sure to stop by OPEN BOOKS. It's one of only two All-Poetry bookstores in America.

The owners are beautiful people--and both poets!

Cheers,
Matt

On November 18, 2009 at 8:38pm Jason Crane | The Jazz Session wrote:
Wow. I love this post. I live this post. I don't have much disposable income these days, and yet if I've got four bucks in my pocket and find myself in a store with a $4 book of poems, I'll nearly always buy it. And even though I feel a twinge (or two or three), I never feel poorer.

Thanks for writing this.

On November 19, 2009 at 4:14pm Deirdre wrote:
hello, I agree with Jason, thank you for this
post I have sent it on to friends and other
poets - hope! we will all be purchased
some day (possibly by you) x dee

On November 20, 2009 at 1:26pm Melissa wrote:
I am a budget manager, and absolutely concur that these are necessary.

On November 20, 2009 at 2:47pm Susan Rich wrote:
Perhaps we need a special group ~ Poetry Buyers Anonymous ~ to meet regularly and discuss our habit. I've just bought Madeline DeFrees' first book of poems, From the Darkroom, published when she was Sister Mary Gilbert. Yes, Madeline, who just turned 90 on Wednesday (party at Elliott Bay Book Company - where else?) has an author photo complete with habit. Priceless!

On November 20, 2009 at 3:18pm Sasson Jahan-Shahi wrote:
Often time I wonder
about our kinds, and
wish I was one of many
out there. Is this
addiction or a gift? I do
the same over and over,
but I did justify it in one
of my short poems:
need to hurry, need to
collect knowledge
This jurney's end is now
closer, mortal will be no
more
What if! what if there be
other worlds
And the knowledge I
carry shall carry me, if
there be other worlds

earth, summer of 2009

On November 20, 2009 at 4:48pm susan wrote:
I too suffer from Jeff's affliction, gladly. Poetry, the stuff of survival in this crazy world.

On November 20, 2009 at 8:16pm Anne wrote:
Good to know there are others of us out there. I appreciate the validation that I am among friends in my addiction. I seem always to be able to justify my purchase. I loved what you said about the Zagajewski volume. I, too, often look at a book and think, this needs a home, one where it is treasured (and I thought I was a little nuts).

On November 21, 2009 at 7:37am tammy wrote:
Thank you for sharing your addiction Jeff. There are many of us out here who share your "pain". And let's face it, everyone is addicted to something be it poetry books, food, drugs, clothes, shoes, buying wine...some people amass wine cellars. Our kind amass personal libraries. I believe the peace, knowledge, and positive karma we contribute to the universal consciousness as a result of our addiction are contributing to the economic recovery and thereby render us innocent of reckless spending. :)

On November 21, 2009 at 10:52am David de Vaux wrote:
If we are human, art is indispensable. It is
oxygen to the soul. Though I may be
down and out, I must breathe -- and there
will be poems in my pocket.

On November 21, 2009 at 11:31am EJ Mace wrote:
I got so excited when Nikki Giovanni's Bicycles came out, I called an area bookstore I found that had a copy and asked if someone could kindly bring it outside to me since my illness stops me from going inside these stores. No doubt if I still could venture inside bookstores, I'd do the same as you: pick up a book or two everywhere I went.

Wonderful writing.

On November 21, 2009 at 12:03pm Kelli Russell Agodon wrote:
I am thankful I am not the only one who
suffers from this. It's a wonderful affliction
to have. We have nice biceps from
carrying all our books, bright minds from
all of our reading, and stronger hearts
from what experience through the words.

I try never to feel guilty for buying books
or art. It's a rule of mine.

Great post, Jeff. May you never lose this
problem.

Best,
Kelli

On November 21, 2009 at 3:06pm Madeline wrote:
It's good to know there is someone else in the world who can justify schlepping multiple poetry books between cities in a carry-on bag-- and then can go and write so wonderfully about it! The good news about your poetry book shopping sprees, dear writer, is that good poetry "keeps" forever. If we continue feverishly reading, maybe someday we will be able to take all our favorite poems with us mentally, and leave the heavy books behind.

On November 21, 2009 at 4:10pm Josh Ingram wrote:
I concur, poetry is an absolute neccessity for emotional survival. If it weren't for reading poetry I don't know how I'd ever process anything.

And while I can sympathize with your situation, my addiction lies in a far more vicious impulse. The need to buy every vintage thrift-store bicycle. Imagine trying to carry-on a 30-lbs of bike?

Nevertheless, may I suggest a few free alternatives to buying books?

One is Emule's Poetry Archives: http://www.emule.com/poetry/?page=poem

Random Poem:One click and your lit.

And the other Google's Book search brought me to--by joab!--A back-issue of Poetry magazine, volume 19.

http://books.google.com/books?id=PLYRAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=poetry&as_brr=1&client=opera#v=onepage&q=&f=false

While this no doubt won't fix your addiction, perhaps it can, allow you to fixate that addiction on a more neutrual element.

Cheers!

On November 21, 2009 at 4:18pm RalphwannabekindaispoetShelton wrote:
Insistation, is a station, that must be manned,
Duty for poetry, without guilt,or delay.
Where are the ears, if not listening prithee?
Geologic time in a new york minute of poetry, commands its audience,
buy the damn book, and love some folks a little harder

On November 21, 2009 at 6:32pm Kevin D. wrote:
Hear hear to buying poetry :). I don't travel much, but I have my favorite places to go to buy used poetry and then there's Amazon where I just bought The Book of Seventy and The Great Enigma for $10 each and with Amazon Prime meaning no shipping! Whenever I feel bad for spending so much money on impulse poetry I just remind myself that all I have to do is write a freelance article for a website and it's paid for.

On November 22, 2009 at 4:11pm C.L. O'Dell wrote:
I'm glad to know my addiction to poetry spans the entire continent. To read a poem is to stand in front of a painting for hours - the ambiguity of poetry allows us to create our own world inside the mind of another's. Also, Elliott Bay Book Company - the best out there.

On November 24, 2009 at 3:26am Kona Macphee wrote:
While there might be good environmental reasons for picking up secondhand copies of books, if you love poetry, might I humbly suggest buying new copies of poetry collections when you can?

Poetry publishers are often small presses struggling to sustain themselves economically. Secondhand sales of currently in-print books impinge on their already small market.

If we value the output of these presses, and the diversity of poetry they support, then we should support them by buying new.

On December 1, 2009 at 6:21pm rose kennelly wrote:
It is nice to know we are not alone, those of us who buy poetry books, both new and used. Thank you for your article. It was refreshing.

On December 5, 2009 at 3:46am Johnny Kennedy wrote:
It's good to know that there are lovers of poetry all over the world who can't resist buying yet another poetry book. I bought a copy of John Betjeman's Church Poems yesterday for a few pence and the book is a joy. It's a dry Saturday morning here in Formby, England and I'm off on my bike to look at the bookstalls in the village. My rucksack is empty now...but not for long.

On December 17, 2009 at 10:21am Regina Morin wrote:
Elliott Bay Books and Book Soup are two
of my favorite bookstores (Along with
Kramerbooks in D.C.)But, if one wants to
really feed a poetry book addiction, City
Lights in North Beach, San Francisco, is,
really To Die For! One walks up the
creaking stairs of this venerable Love
Temple of Books to a WHOLE ROOM OF
POETRY BOOKS. It is intoxicating,
demanding of the meandering quest, the
outright hunt. This addiction we share: not
to be overcome by some meaningful
intervention. Savor it, while you can.

On January 5, 2010 at 5:46am Shelley KaufmanYoung wrote:
I am this post. You describe me perfectly. I often leave the library with the vertebrae crunching and slippery stacks of books scurrying to my car before the whole pile collapses onto the ground. Thank god for you and for our ability to find inspirations through the perspirations of getting the books from the stores and to our homes.

Enjoy. If this be the addiction du jour, may it be forever.

On March 31, 2010 at 10:49pm Greg O'Connell wrote:
Jeff,

Loved your article. This month you might like to check out the 'Thirty Poems in Thirty Days' challenge on the NaPoWriMo 2010 page at www.gregoconnell.com Best of luck with the self-medication.

Regards,
Greg

On September 9, 2010 at 11:44pm France wrote:
Poetry is a great positive addiction.
You can really learn alot from poems and art.

On January 10, 2011 at 3:33pm Ramesh wrote:
Jeff,

The bread that you cast upon waters will
come back to you.

Best

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 Jeff   Gordinier

Biography

Jeff Gordinier is the author of X Saves the World and has written for a variety of magazines and newspapers, including the New York Times, Details, Esquire, GQ, Elle, Spin, Creative Nonfiction, and Entertainment Weekly. His work has been included in anthologies such as Best American Nonrequired Reading, Best Food Writing, and Best Creative Nonfiction. He lives close to the Hudson River with his wife and two children.

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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