April is National Poetry Month, and Penn Libraries is celebrating in Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center with a Featured Books display filled an engaging selection of poetry and poetry-themed volumes. “When many people hear poetry, they might think, ‘Boring! Academic! Inaccessible!’,” says Eileen Kelly, Head of Collection Management. Indeed, as the poet Marianne Moore opines: “I too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond / all this fiddle. / Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one / discovers that there is in / it after all, a place for the genuine.”
Eileen strategized with co-curator Megan Brown to select works from Penn Libraries’ collection that challenge the idea of poetry as elitist and instead render it “genuine.” “This month’s Featured Books is not just about making the stacks accessible, but about making this particular part of the collection accessible,” Eileen explains. Toward that end, patrons of Van Pelt can stop by the display to peruse reader-friendly anthologies such as “Grrrrr: A Collection of Poems About Bears” (2000), “Cat Haiku” (2001), and “Heart of the Order: Baseball Poems” (2014) (which is, Megan notes, one of several baseball anthologies in the Library’s collection). To underscore the notion of accessibility, the co-curators also included books about how to read poetry, such as “Poetic Designs: An Introduction to Meters, Verse Forms and Figures of Speech.” (1997)
National Poetry Month was originally intended as an invitation for all Americans to reflect on the impact of poetry on national culture and in their everyday lives. The Academy of American Poets coordinated the inaugural National Poetry Month in April of 1996 and, according to the Academy’s website, the event has since grown to become “the largest literary celebration in the world,” with “tens of millions” of people participating in academic and nonacademic settings alike.
This month’s Featured Books display is neither exclusively American nor exclusively poetry, however. “We drew on other areas of the Library’s collection so that we didn’t ‘gut’ the poetry section,” says Eileen. She and Megan selected titles from the Albrecht Music Library, from the Anthropology and World History sections on Van Pelt’s fifth floor, and from the Library’s collection of biographies. They chose with the dual intention of including unusual perspectives and of broadening the definition of poetry. “Representations of the Divine in Arabic Poetry” (2001) thus shares shelf space with “The Poetry of Punk: The Meaning Behind Punk Rock and Hardcore Lyrics” (2018), “Time for Baudelaire” (2014) with “Cowboy Poetry Matters: From Abilene to the Mainstream.” (2000)
“We’re inviting patrons to look at poetry in different ways, in new ways,” says Eileen. In that vein, she singles out Amber Dawn’s literary narrative about her career as a sex worker, “How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir” (2013). Megan was similarly struck by Jana Harris’s “You Haven’t Asked About My Wedding or What I Wore” (2014), in which Harris draws from primary historical texts to write about courtship from the imagined perspectives of American pioneer women.
Poet laureate Tracy K. Smith recently spoke at the annual oration of Penn’s Philomathean Society about poetry’s power to immerse the reader in someone else’s experience, and, therefore, poetry’s potential to expand the bounds of the reader’s empathy. She also suggested that this immersive experience acts as a counterforce to the detrimental effects of a modern inclination for speed and superficiality. Rather than allowing the reader to digest reality in increments, as one does on YouTube or in a newsfeed, a poem demands of the reader total and extended attention.
“Another way to look at it,” says Eileen, “is that you still move through most poems faster than you do a novel, even when you’re taking the time to really digest a poem.” One of the challenges Eileen faces in engaging patrons with the Library’s collection is the average Penn’s student’s sense of having too much to read already. This month’s Featured Books is, in fact, ideal for such patrons. “With poetry,” Eileen says, “you can dip in for a relatively short time and yield a significant return.”
Read more about National Poetry month, browse poetry databases, and sign up to have poetry delivered to your inbox daily at the American Academy of Poets’ website, Poets.org.