libraries (with a thoughtful sigh)
One of my favorite poets, Randall Jarrell, liked libraries more than most of us do or could: he sometimes implied he had spent his whole childhood in them, and wrote more than one poem about the juvenile divisions (today, "children's rooms" and "YA collections") of Nashville's monumental Carnegie Library, 103 years old this month.
Jarrell's most famous poem about a library, "A Girl in a Library," comes near to despair when he realizes that his undergraduates in North Carolina are not using libraries to read for pleasure: instead, they are sleeping, or cramming for exams. Well-loved in its time-- it was Lowell's favorite Jarrell poem, as of 1951-- its sometimes haughty tone and odd gender politics have ambivalent later responses. But its ground bass-- the fear that people younger than the author have ceased to read imaginative literature-- can still be heard in our time.
The latest iteration of that theme comes in today's Boston Globe, where we learn (behind the understandably enthusiastic Sox coverage) that the libraries in Massachusetts that have managed to increase patronage have done so by deemphasizing books: libraries that focus on coffee service, Internet connections, audiobooks, and teens who want to play Dance Dance Revolution (the game, not Cathy Park Hong's neat book of science fictional verse narrative) grow. Those that don't lose hours and funds, or even disappear. "This is not your grandmother's library," says the head of the Mass. Library Assn., Kimberly Lynn. "It's a zoo."
I like the idea of a library as a zoo, a place that welcomes young people rather than shushing them. The Jarrell of 1940 might have welcomed a more welcoming library; the Jarrell of 1950 and certainly the Jarrell of 1960 would have seen the trend-- rightly, and depressingly-- as another sign of our culture's movement away from literary sources, away from the codex book and the habit of communicating via words on a page, towards what he disaparagingly called "the Medium," meaning both the Mass Media (video, audio) and the tendency towards an accessible norm, towards the middle- and low-brow, that (in 1960) audiovisual entertainment implied.
The trend away from book-reading, toward a culture of audio and video, can be overstated, or minimized, but it's hard to deny. Sometimes it depresses me, too. And yet it's probably not as bad for the verbal arts, broadly defined, as Jarrell would have thought. Nor is it as bad for libraries. It's better to have people playing games in libraries (where they can get books if they want them) than playing them in youth centers or basements without many books: who knows what, once on a shelf, will catch the eye? It's different, and in many cases worse, to hear an audiobook than to read one silently-- different, and in many cases worse, to hear a poem you can't read than to turn to that poem on the printed page-- and yet...
Something like an audiobook format, where the poems were read aloud more often, more quickly, and to more people than ever read words on a page, was the way medieval readers encountered Chaucer, unless they happened to be scribes, and the way that many Victorians encountered Dickens (though he was already famous as a writer before he began his public readings). You are currently reading about poetry on a glowing screen, rather than reading a book, and our audio-visual-high tech culture makes it easier for you to find a poem when you want one, as long as your connection holds up.
The shift away from a codex, printed-book culture, if that is what librarians are seeing, could be very, very bad for novelists. But people who write poems should hardly despair. We might even see-- might even be seeing-- the rise of new kinds of poetry dependent on audio or visual sidelines.
That's not the kind I want to write, certainly, and it's not my favorite kind to read, but it's out there, and if it grows-- in tandem, perhaps, with what we are already used to calling performance poetry-- it should stoke demand for the existing printed books, some of them very good, about the non-printed, "audio" (that is, oral), art forms that use words.
You can argue that analogies among such forms (the same aspects evolve for the same reasons), if not indeed homologies (aspects which derive from the same historical source), link today's performance poets and tomorrow's audio-poets to Homer. In fact, John Miles Foley, whose last book I really liked, has been saying just that on his blog for years.
Stephen Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of his generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. Burt has published three collections of poems: Belmont (2013), Parallel Play (2006),...