The Quotable Librarian | Poetry excerpts from 10 poet-librarians

April is National Poetry Month, so let’s highlight poetry from real-life poet-librarians!

The last post I did for the “Quotable Librarian” series was in 2018 — “The Quotable Librarian of Congress” post which featured Carla Hayden, the first woman and the first Black American to lead our national library — so I think it’s time to revisit this series, don’t y’all? April is National Poetry Month, so it feels right to highlight poetry from some real-life poet-librarians. This also feels like a companion post for previous posts like “Unreflected glory: Librarian authors and their mediocre movie adaptations” and “The Quotable Librarian | Inspirational quotes from famous librarians” (including quotes from real-life writer-librarians).

Where to start looking for real-life poet-librarians? These resources proved invaluable for this post:

Top row, left to right: Audre Lorde (CC BY), Jorge Luis Borges (Public domain), Christopher Okigbo (CC0 Public domain); Middle row, left to right: Stanley Kunitz (Public domain), Reinaldo Arenas (CC BY SA), Marianne Moore (Public domain); Bottom row, left to right: Philip Larkin (Painting by Humphrey Ocean, CC BY SA), Kavevangua Kahengua (screenshot from Township Productions video), Mao Zedong (Public domain)
Not pictured: Ana Rosa Núñez (I couldn’t find an openly licensed photo of her)

I have organized the entries and excerpts for the 10 poet-librarians below in chronological order by birth year.

Marianne Moore (1887-1972)

Marianne Moore, born in Kirkwood, Missouri, was a celebrated modernist poet, critic, and translator. Moore worked as an assistant librarian at the Hudson Park branch of the New York Public Library from 1921-1925. According to this post from the NYPL blog, her commute was only 42 steps! Moore’s poems were first published in 1915, and her first book of poetry was published (against her wishes!) in 1921. She published many more collections, and her Collected Poems in 1951 was awarded the Bollingen Prize in Poetry, the National Book Award for Poetry, and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Moore’s personal private library is preserved in its original layout — and available for public and digital viewing! — at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia.

In the meantime, if you demand on one hand,
                in defiance of their opinion –
        the raw material of poetry in
     all its rawness, and
     that which is on the other hand,
        genuine, then you are interested in poetry.

Marianne Moore, excerpt from “Poetry,” published in the literary magazine Others: A Magazine of the New Verse, 1919

Mao Zedong (1893-1976)

Mao Zedong (also spelled as Mao Tse-Tung), born in a Hunan village in south central China, became known as Chairman Mao and was founder of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). He worked as a librarian’s assistant at Peking University from 1918-1919 and reportedly “earned only $8 a month carrying periodicals to the readers and organizing shelves” (Newton). This American Libraries article argues that Mao’s independent studying in libraries and experiences as a library worker helped shape his revolutionary outlook and ideas. He wrote poetry his entire life, typically in the style of traditional Chinese poetry.

Filled with student enthusiasm
Boldly we cast all restraints aside.
Pointing to our mountains and rivers,
Setting people afire with our words,
We counted the mighty no more than muck.

Mao Zedong, excerpt from “Changsha,” 1925 (English translation)

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)

Jorge Luis Borges, born in Buenos Aires, worked as a municipal librarian at the Miguel Cané Library in Buenos Aires from 1937 to 1946 and became Director of the National Library of Argentina in 1955. However, he was forced to resign from his library posts — twice, in 1946 and in 1973 — due to political clashes with Juan Perón. Borges was most famous for his short stories, but he also wrote poetry, essays, screenplays, and literary criticism. Borges’s most famous line has to be “I have always imagined Paradise as a kind of library” from “Poem of the Gifts”/”Poema de los Dones” (1960), but I have chosen another poetic excerpt to share here.

Beyond the greying window night is fading
And in the stack of books whose lopped shadow
Makes it seem taller on the dim-lit table,
There’s one we’ll never get around to reading.

Jorge Luis Borges, excerpt from “Limits” published in Poetry, June 1993, translated by R. G. Barnes and Robert Mezey

Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006)

Stanley Kunitz, born in Worcester, Massachusetts, to parents of Jewish Russian Lithuanian descent, was a poet and editor. Although he never worked a librarian, he had the honor of being appointed — TWICE! — Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, first in 1974 and then again in 2000. While working at H.W. Wilson, he edited Wilson Library Bulletin, a well-known and respected trade journal for librarians, published 1914-1995. He also edited major reference works for libraries, such as the Twentieth Century Authors series, so I think he deserves to be included here — or at least an honorable mention? — for being directly involved in producing several professional journals and reference works for librarians and libraries. Kunitz’s first collection of poems, Intellectual Things, was published in 1930, and his 1959 collection, Selected Poems, earned the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.

Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

Stanley Kunitz, excerpt from “The Layers,” 1978, published in The Collected Poems by Stanley Kunitz, 2000

Philip Larkin (1922-1985)

Philip Larkin, born in Coventry, England, was a poet, novelist, and librarian. After graduating from St. John’s College, Oxford, with a first in English Language and Literature, Larkin completed professional librarian studies, and he worked in libraries his entire adult life! He started out in public libraries, first working in 1943 at the public library in Wellington, Shropshire. After working as librarian at University College, Leicester, and at Queen’s University of Belfast in Northern Ireland, Larkin became University Librarian in 1955 at the University of Hull in Yorkshire, England, where he stayed the rest of his life. Larkin was awarded the CBE (Commander of the British Empire) in 1975. His first poem, “Ultimatum,” was published in the Listener in 1940, and he only published 4 complete poetry collections during his lifetime. Nevertheless, Larkin was “one of post-war England’s most famous poets, and was commonly referred to as ‘England’s other Poet Laureate’ until his death in 1985″ (Poetry Foundation).

Life is first boredom, then fear.
Whether or not we use it, it goes,
And leaves what something hidden from us chose,   
And age, and then the only end of age.

Philip Larkin, excerpt from “Dockery and Son,” Whitsun Weddings, 1964

Ana Rosa Núñez (1926 – 1999)

I could not find an openly licensed image or video of Ana Rosa Núñez to include in the gallery of poet-librarians above, but you can see a photo of Núñez here in this article about the founding women of the Cuban Heritage Collection.

Ana Rosa Núñez, born in Havana, Cuba, was a librarian and poet who published more than a dozen works, including collections of poetry, prose, and translations. She earned a library degree from the University of Havana in 1955 and worked as head librarian of the Tribunal de Cuentas de la Republica de Cuba (National Audit Office) from 1950-1961 and was a founding member and vice president of the Colegio Nacional de Bibliotecarios Universitarios (National College of University Librarians) from 1957-1959. She immigrated to the U.S. in 1965, and worked as a reference librarian at the University of Miami’s Otto G. Richter Library, where she helped found the Cuban Heritage Collection. As a poet, Núñez had a particular interest in Japanese haiku, and below is one of her haikus from the California State Library’s American Haiku Archives.

Nothing of the old cypress remains
light makes its nest
on the railroad tracks

Ana Rosa Núñez, haiku published in the collection A Dozen Tongues: Our Vanishing Wilderness, 2001

Christopher Okigbo (1932–1967)

Christopher Okigbo, born in Ojoto, Nigeria, was a poet, teacher, and librarian. He was killed fighting in the Nigeria-Biafra war in 1967 and was posthumously awarded the National Order of Merit of Biafra. While working as a librarian at the University of Nigeria, he founded the African Authors Association. You can read more about his life and publications here at the Christopher Okigbo Foundation site. I came across a couple of beautiful readings of Okigbo’s works by another Nigerian poet, Uche Ogbuji, and the following excerpt comes from that post and interview about Okigbo’s poetry and literary legacy.

Then we must sing,
tongue-tied without name or audience,
making harmony among the branches.

Christopher Okigbo, excerpt from “Siren Limits,” 1964

Audre Lorde (1934-1992)

Audre Lorde, a prolific poet and writer, was born in New York City to Caribbean immigrants. A self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” (as qtd. in Poetry Foundation), Lorde’s poetry has been published in many collections, including her own anthology Chosen Poems: Old and New (1982) and in the anthology The 100 Best African American Poems (2010, edited by Nikki Giovanni). Lorde earned an MLS from Columbia University and worked as a librarian at Mount Vernon Public Library from 1961 to 1963 and at New York City’s Town School Library from 1966 to 1968. Lorde also served as New York State Poet laureate from 1991-1992. Two years after her death, the Audre Lorde Project, a Brooklyn-based organization for LGBT+ people of color, was founded.

Love is a word another kind of open—
As a diamond comes into a knot of flame
I am black because I come from the earth’s inside   
Take my word for jewel in your open light.

Audre Lorde, excerpt from “Coal,” The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde, 1997

Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990)

Reinaldo Arenas, born in the Holguín province in Cuba, was a poet, novelist, and playwright. His posthumously published autobiography, Before Night Falls (1992), was adapted into a film of the same name in 2000; lead actor Javier Bardem, who is from Spain, was nominated for Best Actor for his portrayal of Arenas. Arenas was a researcher in the José Martí National Library from 1963 to 1968 and an editor for the Cuban Book Institute from 1967 to 1968. In the 1970s, he was imprisoned in Cuba for his writings and his open homosexuality. In 1980, Arenas escaped to the U.S. and settled in New York City, where he mentored several other Cuban writers in exile.

I am that child with the round dirty face
who on every corner is bothering you with
his “can you spare one quarter?

Reinaldo Arenas, excerpt from “Viejo Niño,” 1983, translated by Lázaro Gómez Carriles

Kavevangua Kahengua (?-present)

Kavevangua Kahengua, born in Botswana and living in Namibia since 1993, is a contemporary poet and currently works as a Special Collections senior librarian at the University of Namibia. In addition to being a librarian scholar, Kahengua has also published a book of poetry called Dreams in 2002 and another collection, Invoking Voices: An Anthology of Poems, in 2012. A reviewer in the Journal of African Poetry described Kahengua as “a leading Namibian poet” (Malaba). You can enjoy videos of Kahengua reading his poem “The Walk” and Windhoek High School students in Namibia reciting his poem “Old Man Walking.”

Yet happiness is concealed in the privacy
Of mansions one wonders
What sins have their owners committed
To possess such riches!
Or whose labour have they exploited?

Kavevangua Kahengua, excerpt from “From Within,” Dreams, 2002

Sources used