M.C. Kinniburgh, Wild Intelligence: Poets’ Libraries and the Politics of Knowledge in Postwar America (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2022).
Think of a poet’s library and an idyllic scene comes to mind, right? We conjure a private quiet room, walls lined with neatly arranged shelves, others stuffed to overflowing, with a huge work desk piled with book-marked volumes and annotated pages where a literary legend faces the daily challenge of composition by crafting language into poetic expression. True, quite likely the room was also a site of existential turmoil and emotional struggle, flled with anxiety about validity and identity, and a fair amount of doubtful soul searching when in spite of the apparent hush, the clamor of the voices on the shelves drowned out the quiet. Defined by its collections and the work it enables, the private library persists as an ideal of rarified, even privileged, labor.
In Wild Intelligence, M.C. Kinniburgh breaks down this image of the remote and isolated chamber by showing how actively a poet’s library is connected to the outer worlds—the polis of her title—through networks of scholarship, study, and action. She makes clear that the library is permeated with lineages and bibliographical research, a scene of porous engagement with the past and present through practices of teaching, activism, and publishing. Thanks to her study, we can see some of the varied and multi-faceted relationships poets have—or have had–with their libraries.
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Kinniburgh describes four prominent American poets and the role their collections played in their intellectual life and creative work. These figures–Charles Olson, Audre Lorde, Diane di Prima, and Gerrit Lansing–were each poets active in the post WWII era. They came of age under the influence of early 20th century modernists such as William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein. But they also participated in the extension and transformation of modernism through Black Mountain, Beat poetry, the New York school and challenges from feminist, queer, and Black positions. Theirs was an era of literary bookishness, unabashedly erudite and even esoteric, that also fostered activism and engagement in the broader cultural sphere—“the politics of knowledge” in Kinniburgh’s subtitle.
Kinniburgh’s project makes the unusual move of studying these poets and their libraries in relation to the history of modern information studies. This extra dimension brings the analysis of organization, classification, bibliography and librarianship into the discussion of these collections. How did their libraries function, what work did they do, and how is that evident in the way each was organized and curated? She also asks questions about the fate of these collections. What is the value for scholarship and knowledge—not always the same thing—of keeping a writer’s library together? How should it be organized? Maintained? Accessed? Described? Whose and how many? Kinniburgh sees a library as a living thing, in use, changing over time, not a fossilized relic or static memorial. At once an expression of an individual poet’s vision, the library is also a site working methods and the relation of received tradition to ongoing practice.
Each of the case studies Kinniburgh presents has observed details and information gleaned from her presence in these libraries and conversations either with the poets or with the stewards of these collections. She combines detailed understanding of library practices and their implications with a knowledge of modern poetry in an unusual blend of professional expertise across fields. The result is a provocative study that brings poetics into dialogue with the disciplines of information studies and the cultural politics of knowledge production.
Kinniburgh begins with a discussion of Charles Olson’s library, which was a meta-library, built initially through the poet’s research to recover the library of Herman Melville. In the late 1930s, when OIson began his efforts as part of his academic study of the then not particularly well-regarded author, the volumes of Melville’s library had been dispersed. Olson’s efforts to “physically regather” Melville’s library also laid a conceptual foundation for the way he imagined his later work would be read against his own massive, expansive, eclectic and wide-ranging reading practices. Olson’s first major publication, Call Me Ishmael (1947), built on the examination of Melville’s reading practices, his annotations, his research. Olson’s own collection of these works alongside an enormous range of other volumes, is now referred to as the Maud/Olson Library (MOL) and housed in Gloucester where the poet spent a good deal of his productive life. Ralph Maud, who produced his own extensive bibliographic study of Olson’s reading practices, made valiant efforts at recovery and preservation. Maud forged a connection with the Gloucester Writing Project and the library is currently accessible for use by poets and scholars. Kinniburgh emphasizes the relation between the library and the literary works of the poets she describes, seeing them linked in a process of “knowledge building that could generate a polis, an ideal society.” (48)The room, with its view of the harbor, connects generations of American writers through the collection– but, as Kinniburgh also notes, the sustainability of such a unique project is not at all assured.
Kinniburgh is keenly attentive to the tensions between institutional stewardship and individual projects, not only as a resource issue, but as a realm of intellectual contestation and dispute. This is abundantly clear in her discussion of the lost library of Afro-Caribbean lesbian poet Audre Lorde. Lorde’s library was destroyed in Hurricane Hugo, after she relocated to St. Croix from Brooklyn. Trained as a professional librarian, Lorde had received her Master’s Degree from Columbia University’s Library School, and was aware of the ways official classification and description failed to create adequate representation of traditionally marginalized people and voices. As part of her poetic work, The Black Unicorn, Lorde produced a glossary and a bibliography, two para-textual features that drew on her professional experience, but also, conceived of these scholarly elements in the service of poetics. In Lorde’s work, aesthetic activity was transformative, political in its capacity to restructure existing order. But it was also intensely personal. Kinniburgh describes Lorde’s efforts to locate her mother’s home on the island of Carriacou by name—and her trail of constant failures since the place had not entered official nomenclature on maps or in gazeteers. Lorde’s lost library is a missing archive and the absent framework of references and resources resonates with symbolic profundity. The poet had worked for more than a decade as a professional librarian, experience that was core to her identity as a writer because of her encounters with the standards, conventions, and constraints of the field. Poetics offered an antidote, a counter-narrative of expression unfettered by those norms—but registered in relation to them. Losing the library meant the loss of an embodied and affectively significant repository on which she drew. As a poet’s library, it was not constrained by information, but meant to create a fuller system of knowledge than those she had encountered professionally.
Diane di Prima (1934-2020), like her contemporary Lorde, was a generation younger than Olson (1910-1970), and came of age as a poet in a Beat scene in New York and San Francisco. A publisher as well as a poet, she worked with Amiri Baraka and Hettie Jones whose Totem Press published her first book This Kind of Bird Flies Backwards in 1958. She also corresponded with Ezra Pound and Kenneth Patchen, among other modern poets who loomed large in the 1950s. Her library contained an extensive collection of occult materials, volumes on which she drew for teaching a course on Hidden Knowledge at the New College in San Francisco, in an era of intense counter-culture interest in esoteric texts within which her individual passions found a receptive context. Di Prima envisioned her library as a living resource, a source of language and voice, verse and forms, and her approach to the collection was deeply intuitive, in keeping with her commitment to instinctive knowledge. Kinniburgh explores di Prima’s active reading practices within a focus on the poet’s holistic approach to ritual work—that is, rituals of work as process. A dedicated teacher, as well as professional poet, di Prima used her library as a scholarly resource. Here, as in the case of Olson and Lorde, di Prima’s work connects her with much longer traditions—e.g. the writings of W.H. Auden–and through them attention to the work of the medieval English mystic Lady Julian of Norwich. These bibliographical trails are an essential aspect of poetic research in the creative as well as critical realm. Kinniburgh’s careful study of many of the volumes in di Prima’s collection—the poet had recently passed away as she was finishing her research for this book—focused on annotations to reflect on how reading manifests—or doesn’t—through its presence on the page. The act of working, so central to di Prima’s tenets of belief, remained ongoing, but for her the library was an open source text from which other voices found their “way through me and into the world.” As Kinniburgh states in the last sentence of the chapter on di Prima, the poet’s vision of her library was as an act of sourcery. (113)
As a poet, Gerrit Lansing did not have quite the prominence of the others in Kinniburgh’s study, but his work as the publisher of a little magazine, SET, in two issues 1961 and 1963 gave him a visible role in a complex network of writers who were considered part of the New York School and “New American poetry more broadly.” (115) Lansing’s own life work consisted of an iterative project, The Heavenly Tree Grows Downward, and like di Prima, occult and esoteric knowledge figured largely in his thought. Unlike the others studied here, Lansing had the unique distinction of being a book dealer, owning two shops during his lifetime, both of which had a focus on the occult. But it was his four-story Victorian house (also in Gloucester) that became his library as it filled with books. Kinniburgh calculated it contained about “1,237 feet, which translates roughly to twenty thousand books” not including the nearly ten thousand Lansing had already deaccessioned through donations. Kinniburgh describes her process of producing documentation of the library after Lansing’s death. She went through the house and photographed the “books’ spines on each and every shelf, diagrammed the location of bookcases in every room in the house, noting the major themes and authors contained within them.” (119) Lansing’s extensive collection is intimately bound to the organization and layout of the house, whose structure Kinniburgh describes in vivid detail. For Kinniburgh, this “universe-as-library” takes on the quality of a portal to day dreaming and imaginative intellectual vision as she moves through the elaborate sequence of descriptions. She begins in the kitchen—with only eleven feet of books—and moves through the hallways, an actual library, a guest room, an office, the “magic room” and the bed room. Lansing’s collections contained rich holdings in literary studies as well as exhaustive representations of occult traditions, philosophy, science, art, and history.
Through the range of descriptive analysis Kinniburgh brings to this work we are made to see the connection of poets and libraries to scholarship, librarianship, teaching, and curating. She argues for the crucial role of collections in providing the very fecund ground from which poetic practice emerges. Living networks as well as those that connect the present to the past, through long lineages and bibliographical traces, are all activated in the library space. Because she sees the library as a place of practice, Kinniburgh goes way beyond the description of themes or topics, clusters of authors or literary movements. Ultimately, she suggests that as a knowledge space, the poet’s library pushes against the norms of professional information, producing a political poetics as a space of creative intellectual life.
The question that hangs over this study of poets whose libraries was formed decades ago is whether or not poets of the present and future will have physical collections at all—or only virtual ones, trails of searches preserved rather than volumes organized on a shelf—and how this might shape or reshape their work and its identity within the larger field of cultural work. The beauty of Kinniburgh’s study is that it expands our understanding of the relationship between poets and their libraries without fetishizing either, and her appreciation of the specific profile of each of these collections and its curator-author in turn deepens our own. Her final sentence summarizes her overarching argument: “Together, books form a poet’s library, a textual home that reifies its reader, an information architecture in which we might dwell and encounter the distinctively wild intelligence of its creator.” (161)
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