Just a stone’s throw away from the high-finance hustle of the World Trade Center in NYC, I came across a simple blue-and-white sign on a glass door that read: The Poets House. The first thing I noticed was the peacefulness that embraced me upon opening the door. I smiled at the way the natural light spilled onto the space, creating a sort of halo over some of the heads of the people on the seats nearest to the windows.
“Art helps to keep us and our democracy healthy, by circulating ideas and real information about how we live, from across the world and through the ages.”
Before that moment, I had assumed that busy New Yorkers didn’t care about “old-fashioned” poetry in 2017.
For once, I was happy to be wrong.
“Poetry exists in many forms. I would say that every culture has poetry. People can be intimidated by poetry as they are about science. But we want people to explore this further,” Lee Briccetti, the longtime director of The Poets House, told me.
The library can really be seen as a vessel in which true stories are housed and created, and where writers of poetry — nonfiction included — can venture to either read or write. Or listen.
Many of the poets at the recent events hosted by the Poets House, including those in partnership with City Lore, a cultural hub that calls itself a “living archive,” write works that are autobiographical in nature and come from their personal experiences. All are true stories. Pain and joy translated into snippets. Basically, poetry.
“We believe deeply that poetry can reach far, and we think about the history through oral traditions — stories were passed through poetry. Poetry can teach children to not just be rich and powerful, but to be thoughtful,” Briccetti said.
Founded three decades ago, the Poets House has a 70,000-volume non-circulating poetry library, likely the most comprehensive such collections in the country. (Cool fact: Every catalogue or book there was donated.) With free wi-fi and plenty of seats, it’s a hidden literary gem with free admission. It even has a study room where you can debate the great poets with a study group.
The space was voted one of NYC’s “most gorgeous libraries” in Time Out New York. It feels like you entered a library in which you could speak in an octave louder than a whisper, with people exchanging occasional niceties and then diving back to a solo world of words. People were typing on computers or scribbling away in notebooks. Many were reading, with multiple electronic devices scattered across the large shared tables. Some were daydreaming with their gaze fixed at the window overlooking the Hudson River. On one of my visits, there was leftover food from a staff luncheon that was offered to any visitor.
This welcoming nature extends to poets themselves.
The Poets House offers a fellowship program aimed to support and collaborate with emerging poets. There is diversity in the voices they choose to work with — from those who are undocumented to those who have battles with their legal or emotional identity. The Poets House is like a home for them to linguistically explore their journeys.
The Poets House regularly hosts programs in partnership with other cultural institutes in which poets come from all over the world and tell their stories in their own words. Many of them are told in their native languages, including Arabic, Farsi and other tongues that aren’t frequently heard.
Poetry is a tool in which people with marginalized voices can learn to freely speak. “Poets House documents the wealth and diversity of modern poetry and stimulates public dialogue on issues of poetry in culture,” Briccetti said.
One such person who benefitted from the space is Shaina Clingempeel, an MFA poetry student at Sarah Lawrence and current intern at Poets House. When she was 6, Clingempeel knew that poetry was her calling.“With poetry, there are so many ways to explore,” she said. “I was quiet and found it hard to communicate sometimes. With poetry, you get to construct things. The way the poem moves, the white space, everything is an element to tell a story.”
Each year, the Poets House Showcase features the new poetry books from commercial, university and independent presses in the United States from that year. The collection displays volumes by self-published authors, as well as anthologies and essay collections. It proudly demonstrates that it is an inclusive exhibition by explaining that “books from micro-presses receive the same care and attention as major publishers.”
In celebration of the 30th Anniversary of Poets House, 30 Years! A Narrative in 30 Objects promises to mine “the Poets House archives for objects of resonance, including handwritten correspondence between E. E. Cummings and Elizabeth Kray; typescripts from Stanley Kunitz and Galway Kinnell; paintings, photographs, journals, and recordings; and much more.”Briccetti is passionate and eloquent in her address to the poetry community. “A democracy requires that we come together with our differences, engage in real dialogue, and use our energy creatively. Art helps to keep us and our democracy healthy, by circulating ideas and real information about how we live, from across the world and through the ages,” she writes on the website.
The space is not only a spacious and inclusive linguistic playground, but it is a sort of literary lifeline for so many people, as Briccetti sees it. More than 80,000 people pass through those glass doors each year, including 10,000 children on school trips. In addition, millions of people log into the website and scroll its social media accounts to find and create a community in which symbolic lines can speak volumes.
I had to ask—why wasn’t it called the Poet’s House? An intern at the entrance cheerfully told me that it didn’t have an apostrophe in the name because “poetry belongs to everyone, not just to us.”