Y cuanto muchacho habrá que anda con el tomito de Everyman en su bolsillo, para leer a John en la calle, al aire libre, bajo los parasoles verdes de las plazas. Keats es para el bolsillo, donde se llevan las cosas que cuentan, las manos, el dinero, el pañuelo; los estantes se los deja a Coleridge y a T. S. Elliot, poetas- lámpara. Un bolsillo es la casa esencial y portátil del hombre; hay que elegir lo imprescindible, y solamente un poeta cabe allí.
And how many a young man must be walking around with the little Everyman volume in his pocket, to read John in the street, in the open air, under the green parasols of the plazas. Keats is for the pocket, where we carry the things that matter, hands, money, handkerchiefs; the bookshelves he leaves for Coleridge and T.S. Eliot, lamp-poets. A pocket is the essential and portable home of man; we must select the indispensable, and only one poet fits in there.

Cortázar chose Keats. He not only tells us this, but he shows it by writing a 600 page “life” of Keats. Imagen de Keats (He wrote it in the early 1950s, but Alfaguara didn’t publish it until 1990-something. As far as I know, there is no English translation.) is supposed to be not just a biography or a work of literary criticism; it is supposed to be a dialogue between two poets, one in early 19th Century England and the other in 20th Century Latin America. (In Keats, Poe, and the Shaping of Cortázar’s Mythopoesis, Ana Hernandez del Castillo explores the nature of this dialogue by analyzing influence in terms of archetypes.) Cortázar planned to translate everything written by and about Keats. So yes, he chose John and says that Shelley chose John. And I imagine that many readers choose Julio; that’s why he’s included in the City Lights Pocket Poet Series.
So which poet would you choose?—this was the question I asked my section as an icebreaker during our first meeting this semester. The passage above allowed me to speak of the transition from the Romantics/Whitman to the Modernists/T.S. Eliot. Cortázar’s categories of open-air-poetry (Keats) and lamp-poetry (Eliot) align with Hulme’s categories of Romanticism and Modernism (revival of Classicism). The icebreaker also allowed the students to introduce themselves. Whitman, Shakespeare, Dickinson, Ginsberg were some of the chosen poets. Among living poets, only Billy Collins was chosen and by a good number of students.
So now I ask you, which poet would you choose for your pocket? And I’ll give you the same instructions I gave my section. You can interpret “poet” and “choose” and “pocket” any way you want. Critiques of the open-air/lamp distinction are also welcomed.

Originally Published: November 4th, 2008

Javier O. Huerta's debut collection Some Clarifications y otros poemas (Arte Publico 2007) received the 31st Chicano/Latino Literary Prize from UC Irvine. He is also the author of American Copia (2012). A graduate of the Bilingual MFA Program at UT El Paso, Huerta is currently a PhD student in the...

  1. November 4, 2008

    Great post, Javier.
    One of the poets I would choose for my pocket would be William Carlos Williams.
    He'd be walking through my everyday inside an iPod in the zipped inside pocket of my most comfortable jacket comfortable as I'm walking through the cold. Or maybe strapped to my right bicep as I'm working out at the gym or getting some good walking done by Lake Merritt or up in Tilden Park. I would have his books of poems and his voice to keep me company and be the soundtrack/versetrack in my pocket.

  2. November 7, 2008
     Kim Nuzzo

    Ah, Mexico City Blues, Jack Kerouac... Music where the path lie open.
    Did your flesh wake up to greet you
    as your mind slowed down?
    Did you wish to breathe
    as you looked up and saw
    the stars for the last time?
    Did your words cry out
    as if you had said enough?
    Did you remember
    the fields of golden harvest?
    Was time stealing something from you?
    Was it ironic?
    Are you composing chants
    to leave behind
    without apology
    for the sleazy and the radiant?
    Did you long for
    marigolds to reach up from the darkness
    and cradle you on your way?
    Were you disappearing in the mountains?
    Were you running where
    the path lie open?

  3. November 7, 2008
     unreliable narrator

    Green Integer sews up some nice pocket-sized poets. And I have a wee hilarious Dickinson in Italian ("Notte folli! Notte folli!" etc.) as well as a tiny depressing jet-black KJV bible. But this is me evading the question by deploying the literal...for I tend to resist desert-island discs-type questions, whether out of stubbornness or, as Sharon Cameron says of Dickinson, "choosing not choosing."

  4. November 12, 2008
     Amy Watkins

    Lucille Clifton might be my "pocket poet," or maybe Neruda. I think Neruda would like the idea of being carried around everywhere, one of "the things that matter."

  5. November 12, 2008

    Back when New Directions made little books, Frank O'Hara chose the Rexroth translation of Pierre Reverdy; you could do worse than O'Hara's Lunch Poems (City Lights).
    A little press called Hanuman used to print tiny editions in Madras. I carried the Cookie Mueller one around for a while, then the de Kooning, then at different times the various John Wieners editions. These books also work well in the bathroom, though perhaps not in the bath.
    I like the Green Integer editions but the faces on the covers are rendered too clearly for me to feel comfortable putting the books in my pocket.
    To invert (and mangle) the famous line from Sunset Boulevard, the books didn't get big, the pockets got small. Carhartt winter jackets have pockets big enough to carry the variorum Yeats.