March 11, 2008KR BlogUncategorized

The Joys of Local Reading #3

This past week I was contacted by some good friends of mine who are pretty serious book collectors. Through a couple they knew, they had been invited to visit a private warehouse of books at a clandestine location in Berkeley (actually not too clandestine; the place’s website is here). My wife and I were asked to come along and we decided to check it out.

We show up and it is immediately apparent that this place has a staggering number of poetry titles. And the crown jewel of the place boggled my mind: towards the back of the room was a huge selection from poet Robert Duncan’s personal library. So I got to spend about a blissful hour perusing Duncan’s books, many of which still had Duncan and Jess’s bookplate, designed by Jess, on the inside cover.

What struck me most was the variety of Duncan’s taste, not just in poetry but in books in general. There were plenty of classics (many of which in matching sets) and reference books, but also some unexpected stuff. I knew that Duncan and many of his contemporaries had an interest in fantasy and science fiction literature, but it was pretty cool to see the amount of campy sci-fi books Duncan owned. Sure, he had the Dune books and other stock sci-fi titles, but he also had plenty of books with cartoon insect creatures with space suits on carrying women above their heads on the covers. He even had the French translations of some of these books.

Also in his collection were huge books about fashion, an anthology of all of the Dick Tracy comics, some Garfield the Cat books, geology textbooks and many other surprises. I actually don’t know why I was so surprised to find these books in his collection: as a poet, I certainly don’t only own or read just poetry books, but for some reason I figured that a “real” poet, particularly a poet as steeped in mythology as Duncan, would have only “grown-up” books in their houses. It also made me wonder about guilty pleasures in reading and if there really is such a thing. Sure, we don’t apply the same attention to Garfield as we do to Dante, but is it possible that Duncan could have nicked anything from his “non-serious” reading for his very serious poems? And was Duncan a better poet for having read campy sci-fi? I can’t be sure but I strongly feel that the answer is yes.

Towards the end of our visit, I picked up a book that I have not been able to stop thinking about since. Duncan owned a small set of four light green, pocket-sized and clothbound classics from ancient Greek poets. One of them was a volume of Pindar’s poems. Those of you familiar with Duncan’s work know his wonderful “A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar.” Although there was no marginalia indicating this for a fact, in my mind I decided that this was the very book that Duncan used to write the poem. I carried it around for a long time, taking in what a surreal feeling it was to hold in my hands such a cool little artifact of modern poetry. Eventually I asked the owner how much he wanted for it. The answer was $100, which simultaneously seemed astronomically expensive and quite reasonable. A quick tally of my bills flashed its substantial girth across my mind. And with a wistful sigh I put the book back.