The Poetry Aisle

I used to travel to London once a month from Paris.

After a few visits, I started a new routine.

The day of my return, I would go to Waterstones bookstore and head straight to the poetry aisle.

Waterstones

There I would play a little game:

  • I had to choose a book of poetry to read on the train home.
  • I had to choose it in less than a minute.
  • It had to be very slim.

Once it was in my hands, I would try not to look at it and would make my way down to the till, pay for the book, and then quickly put it into my bag.

Only once comfortably settled into my train seat, would I take the book out and really see what I had bought.

the city in which i love you by li-young lee

I would sometimes only read one of the poems during the train ride, saving the rest for another day. Other times, I would read the entire collection during the journey.

Incredibly enough, through this odd system of selection, I can’t remember ever having bought a book of poetry I didn’t like.

This is “My Father, in Heaven, Is Reading Out Loud” from the city in which i love you by li-young lee (one of the books I discovered in this manner):

 

My father, in heaven, is reading out loud

to himself Psalms or news. Now he ponders what

he’s read. No. He is listening for the sound

of children in the yard. Was that laughing

or crying?  So much depends upon the

answer, for either he will go on reading,

or he’ll run to save a child’s day from grief.

As it is in heaven, so it was on earth.

 

Because my father walked the earth with a grave,

determined rhythm, my shoulders ached

from his gaze. Because my father’s shoulders

ached from the pulling of oars, my life now moves

with a powerful back-and-forth rhythm:

nostalgia, speculation. Because he

made me recite a book a month, I forget

everything as soon as I read it. And knowledge

never comes but while I’m mid-stride a flight

of stairs, or lost a moment on some avenue.

 

A remarkable disappointment to him,

I am like anyone who arrives late

in the millennium and is unable

to stay to the end of days. The world’s

beginnings are obscure to me, its outcomes

inaccessible. I don’t understand

the source of starlight, or starlight’s destinations,

and already another year slides out

of balance. But I don’t disparage scholars;

my father was one and I loved him,

who packed his books once, and all of our belongings,

then sat down to await instruction

from his god, yes, but also from a radio.

At the doorway, I watched, and I suddenly

knew he was one like me, who got my learning

under a lintel; he was one of the powerless,

to whom knowledge came while he sat among

suitcases, boxes, old newspapers, string.

 

He did not decide peace or war, home or exile,

escape by land or escape by sea.

He waited merely, as always someone

waits, far, near, here, hereafter, to find out:

is it praise or lament hidden in the next moment?

71 thoughts on “The Poetry Aisle

  1. Sounds like a fun game, you must be incredibly controlled though, I would have to scrutinize for a long while, but that is due to my picky nature. I have to admire your 100% success rate too. The proof is in the poem, I’ve always said that, honest.

    • I normally spend hours in a bookstore too which is why this was such a fun game. In my self-imposed rush, I did try to stay away from poetry I already owned although once I accidentally bought Neruda’s love poetry again. But it was a different edition than the one I had and, anyway, one can never have enough copies of Neruda’s love poetry if you ask me!

      • Neruda, eh? Yet another poet I am woefully uneducated on, but I find this a good thing as I now have the excuse to go hunting around all the bookshops i can find to purchase this and every other good book I don’t own. Or at least that’s what I tell myself.

        • I’m sure you can find his poetry online too in the meantime… it’s quite lovely…. I recommend watching “il Postino” too – a movie about Neruda’s time in Italy. I’m not sure how accurate it is but it’s a sweet movie…

          and as you say, it’s always nice to have another excuse to go to the bookstore!

  2. How totally fabulous this is! And what beauty in the poem – thank you so much. I don’t know much about poetry or jazz and would like to be better acquainted with both – what a great method for learning about them. I’m going to try this at the earliest opportunity. (Have just started Christopher Unborn, by the way…) 🙂

    • You’re right, this would work quite well for music too; I hadn’t thought about it! In fact, your blog is almost that equivalent for me as you offer little “poems” of music to me every time I visit.

      I hope you like Christopher Unborn! The first time I read it was at university so there was a professor to explain the cultural references. If the book seems hard to understand without these explanations, don’t hesitate to go online! (Or maybe it’s easy to understand regardless, I don’t know; it’s been a long time!)

  3. OHHHH!!!! A great idea! The most perfect adventure! “My life has been the poem I would have writ, But I could not both live and utter it.” Henry David Thoreau. Books and poetry – the world becomes a better place….

    • I’m not usually able to control myself when it comes to reading and will usually spend hours in a bookstore and buy a lot more than one book! But it was a fun game to play 🙂

  4. What an incredible way of making choices really 🙂 Letting-the-powers-that-be is a wonderful idea. I would definitely follow your way of picking things up… in a few years time when I travel around the world 🙂

    I will have to read the book you quoted from above. Compelling it is.
    I was reading this poem yesterday, Ulysses by Tennyson and it struck chords too 🙂
    Thanks a lot for sharing this with us Ma’m 🙂

    • ….and your comment lead me to reread Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ which I hadn’t thought about or read in years…. I love the last lines of the poem

      “and though
      We are not now that strength which in old days
      Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are—
      One equal temper of heroic hearts,
      Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
      To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. ”

      thank you for leading me back to this poem 🙂

  5. i spend at least 30 minutes in a bookstore just to buy one book. less than a minute is too hit & miss for me. saw your comment earlier. have you listened to the il postino movie soundtrack with the neruda poetry readings by andy garcia, madonna, glenn close, samuel jackson, sting, etc.? it has some of the best readings ever. loved andy garcia’s bit that i used the same music in my “for loss of words” reading.

  6. ‘And knowledge

    never comes but while I’m mid-stride a flight

    of stairs, or lost a moment on some avenue.’

    Lovely!

    But just as lovely is your beautiful routine of travel and poetry. That simple tale of you in the bookshop – your trust, sense of adventure and patience – slowed my day right down and reminded me that the pleasure of life are those moments that we don’t plan. Thanks for sharing.

  7. I love your method it’s wonderful, I’m going to try it. It is so hard to leave all the wonderful books when surrounded by them. I’ve been taking notes here so wish me luck! 🙂 I fear I stopped by to visit while it’s late at night where you live, It’s early evening here in the pacific nw (washington) and I’m guessing that while I’m writing this you’re sleeping, but I enjoyed my visit and your posts very much, thank you, your words are fun and inspirational. Penny

      • Thanks, I now have a several clocks on my computer screen showing times in England and Europe/Central Asia) to help me get a feel for when people are up and about over there. Of course during my day, real-time activities take up a fair part of my time, lol, I do love visiting people who love reading as passionately as I do. I’ll be back (Hey Arnold Swartzenegger said that!) 🙂 Thank you Letizia for being so uniquely you, it’s a pleasure knowing you, Penny

  8. Poets give words power. This is a beautiful poem. Thank you, Letizia. I like the idea of a little time pressure in making a reading choice– at least once in a while. It’s a surprise in a bag!

    • So glad you liked it too! Waterstones is a chain throughout the UK but I’ve always appreciated their recommendations and the aesthetics of their stores when I can’t find an independent bookshop….

    • Let me know if you find any great new poets if you do try it out!

      (Waterstones is similar to Barnes&Noble in that it’s also a chain, but I find the stores more attractive somehow- perhaps because of the black bookshelves?)

      • I sure will! I love Charles Simic – I discovered his work at a book fair a few years ago.

        I agree, the decor in a bookstore really changes the atmosphere and makes a big difference in the overall experience!

  9. Fab idea, beautiful poem, thanks for sharing. For me, poetry, the writing and reading of, fills inner emptiness like nothing else and something that important should not be taken too seriously! I love that you just choose so quickly and randomly – fun and wise – for you’ll end up reading poets you might never otherwise have met. I’m definitely gonna try it!

    • I like your phrase “something that important should not be taken too seriously” – that made me smile!

      It was a big change from how I normally choose books, and, it’s true, it quickly introduced me to many new, contemporary poets I perhaps wouldn’t have discovered – I hope you have fun with it (and thanks for dropping by!)

  10. This sounds like such a fun experiment. I’m not surprised that you were always pleased with what you read. And I love the pictures of the bookshelves. But then, pictures of packed shelves are always beautiful to me.

  11. It’s a treat for me to be able to read in the train. Well, I can’t drive and read…
    I wish we could live in a city where mass transit can take you everywhere. I feel like I am wasting time in the car, especially when I am stuck in the traffic.

    What a beautiful book store. I can sit and read forever.. I hope these book stores stay opened in the digital world. Let’s help the local book stores!

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  13. What a beautiful bookstore and beautiful poem. And I agree with the last commenter about loving reading on the train… I’m so happy I have tons of train time for reading now, even if it’s just BART! I’m not much of a poetry reader but this sounds like a lovely idea.

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