Thursday, December 10, 2009

`By Instinct, Habit, and Necessity"'

A good haul from the library: Ten items on hold had arrived – three books each for my younger sons and me, and a CD of music from Shakespeare’s time. We count on libraries as models of efficiency and organization (almost miraculous if you consider interlibrary loan) but a good library also boosts the likelihood of happy serendipity. Merely by scanning tables and shelves, looking for nothing in particular, I found promising gems: Lewis Carroll in Numberland by Robin Wilson; The Poets Guide to the Birds, edited by Judith Kitchen and Ted Kooser; and best of all, a new book I hadn’t known existed: Samuel Johnson: A Life by David Nokes.

Johnson’s father, Michael, owned a bookshop in Lichfield, a setting second only to a library in its appropriateness for the future author of the Dictionary and editor of Shakespeare. In his first chapter, “Lichfield,” Nokes writes:

“About this time, too, he found his love of Shakespeare; he was sitting in the kitchen at home one day, reading through the early pages of Hamlet, and was so moved by the ghost scene that he rushed upstairs, to the outside door, to see living people about him. In a bookseller’s house he found much to lose himself among, and quickly developed his lifelong habit of reading deeply but haphazardly, never following a book to the end; often he annotated, as he did to a copy of Visscher’s Atlas, numbering its pages and writing out a contents table in the back.”

I’m happily reimmersed in Johnson’s life, having earlier this year – the good doctor’s tercentenary was Sept. 18 -- read Peter Martin’s Samuel Johnson: A Biography and Jeffrey Meyers’ Samuel Johnson: The Struggle, and dipped periodically and therapeutically into Boswell. At home, freighted with books, I found Ben Kipela, whose blog is devoted to the work and legacy of Yvor Winters, had posted “The Library,” a poem by Timothy Steele (editor of an essential book, The Poems of J.V. Cunningham). Read it but also read Kipela’s discussion. Steele’s final stanza is apropos:

“Winding, as though along a corkscrew's thread,
A squirrel has circled down a sycamore.
The frail must, in fair times, collect and store,
And so, amid swirled papery debris,
The squirrel creeps, nosing round, compelled to hoard
By instinct, habit, and necessity.”

Like the squirrel, we hoard – acorns, books. As Kipela writes of the poem, “It makes me want to get over to the library and gather some nuts for the winter -- though I really don't need much encouragement to do that, summer or winter.” We nourish ourselves, of course, but books transcend mere sustenance. Some of us feast:

“By instinct, habit, and necessity.”


John Lavagnino said...

Sad to say, David Nokes died a few weeks ago; see the obituary in the Guardian.

William A. Sigler said...

I'm surprised to see Kipela actually praising a poem written in the 20th century (or beyond) not written by Yvor Winters! In the end, though, his praise is not unreserved -- he hides as usual behind his wonderful idealization of Winters' standards to call attention to the poem's too-loose formal construction and discursive ease.

I like the passage you quote from Steele's poem for its "chestnuts roasting" appropriateness to your subject of how the hoarding of books always comes with a circuit of scampering around the delicate and shifting boundaries of minds communicating.

I'm not feeling the ambrosia in the rest of the poem, though. It seems to me a classic case, as in so many adolescent poetic science experiments, of form taking over the whole operation; the pouring of the vapors into the mold turns the ideas generic and the sound tinny. I guess the formal elegance of JV Cunningham (or Yvor Winters) can be appreciated in the breach as well as the observance.