Saturday, May 12, 2007

An unexpected postscript on libraries

Soon after I finished yesterday's post about libraries, I by chance came across two pieces of writing that seemed, together, to demand that I write a brief postscript. First, moments after I finished yesterday's post, I read the following in John Crowley's Aegypt:
Like many monkish libraries, San Domenico's was a midden of a thousand years' writing; no one knew all that the monastery contained, or what had become of all that the monks had copied, bought, written, commented on, given away, and collected over the centuries. The old librarian, Fra' Benedetto, had a long catalogue in his head, which he could remember because he had composed it in rhyme, but there were books that weren't in this catalogue because they didn't rhyme. There was a Memory Palace in which all the categories of books and all the subdivisions of those categories had places, but it had long ago filled up and been shuttered and abandoned. There was a written catalogue too, into which every book was entered as it was acquired, and if you happened to know when a book was acquired, you might find it there. Unless, that is, it had been bound with another, or several others; for usually only the incipit of the first would be put into the catalogue. The others were lost.

So within the library which Fra' Benedetto and the prior and the abbot knew about there had grown up another library, a library which those who read in it did not catalogue, and did not want catalogued.

The idea of a secret library within a library returned later in the evening when I showed some friends the following handwritten note that I had found in a copy of Gore Vidal's Lincoln (1984) that I had checked out from the Chicago Public Library's Bezazian Branch:
Lew Welch

Step out onto the Planet
Draw a circle 100 ft round

Inside the circle are
300 things nobody understands,
and, maybe
nobody's ever really seen.

How many can you find?

The Internet quickly revealed that Lew Welch was a beat and this one of his poems. But my initial search led me into some confusion, landing me on a site that, had, it seemed, the poem I was looking for. According to this site, it was called "Stepping Out," and it was ever-so-slightly different from the one in the book:
Step out onto the planet.

Draw a circle as big as you can throw a stone.

Inside that circle are
300 things that nobody understands, and, maybe
nobody's ever really seen.

How many can you find?

Pick one,
and protect it.
How, I thought, could someone who had taken the trouble to write this poem down and leave it in a book have left off the closing injunction, which the whole poem builds towards? And had they gone out and heaved a stone, discovering that they could throw it a hundred feet? Stacey quickly added the last two lines to the handwritten poem, her purple ink and distinct handwriting making them stand out even more than the poet intended.

But this morning as I was harvesting links for this post, I discovered that I had made a mistake: the longer poem is not a Lew Welch poem but a very close reworking by someone identified as tamo and noted as "After Lew Welch's 'Inside the Circle.'" The library's anonymous note-writer was correct in his transcription, and now, by combining Lew Welch's original and tamo's adaptation, we've created an ever-so-slightly different third poem.

I think this writing and rewriting, this doubling and mistaken identity, this anonymous communication would entertain John Crowley, would resonate with his fascination with the transmission of knowledge--passed through unknown hands and from mind to mind, altered by that sharing--down through the centuries. So I'll fold this note, tuck it in the pages of Aegypt, and return it to the library, helping the poem along in its travels and sowing further confusion for the next unsuspecting reader.

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