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Hello from the Catbird Seat

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Happy New Year, and welcome to the inaugural post for “From the Catbird Seat: Poetry and Literature at the Library of Congress.” My name is Robert Casper—I am the head of the Library’s Poetry and Literature Center, and am pleased to welcome you here. This blog is one of the features of the Center, located up in the attic of the Thomas Jefferson Building—Reed Whittemore used the term “catbird seat” to describe the Library’s Consultant in Poetry (more on the position below), but it could just as easily describe the place of the office, and the view of the Capitol it offers.

Here’s a little more information on the Poetry and Literature Center: it was founded almost three quarters of a century ago, along with the first of the Library’s Consultants in Poetry (which, thanks to an act of Congress passed in 1985, became our Poets Laureate Consultants in Poetry). The Center supports the Poet Laureate and also coordinates an annual literary season of public poetry, fiction and drama readings, performances, lectures and symposia. You can find out about our current Poet Laureate, Philip Levine, here, and check out our Spring programs here.

Posts to this blog will offer an inside view of the Center and our programs, as well as feature guest bloggers (including our Poets Laureate, as well as reference librarians and division specialists within the Library) talking about literature and the wealth of literary treasures here at the Library of the Congress. Part of the Library’s mission is “to sustain and preserve a universal collection of knowledge and creativity for future generations”—this blog aims to showcase the Poetry and Literature Center’s efforts, to celebrate the best stories, poems, plays, and literary nonfiction and ensure their place in the Library.

Finally, a personal story: when I was a boy, I used to head to my local library in Chilton, WI, after school. My grandmother was the librarian, and I sat on the floor of her office for hours, amidst piles of books, pouring through the Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown series and anything else I could get my hands on. That’s where my love of literature and libraries comes from, and I am happy to be here three decades later and show how this, the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution, is a haven for all who want to enjoy the art.

Next week the other chief contributor to this blog, Peter Armenti, will introduce himself and talk about his work to support literary researchers and enhance access to the Library’s literary collections. We promise a dynamic range of posts in the weeks and months to come!

Comments (20)

  1. congratulations — what a fine way to start the new year!

  2. Fun! My mom was our local librarian. I firmly believe that I now surround myself with books at home because I spent so much of my formative years at work with her.

  3. it’s been a while (early 1950s), but I still remember that wonderful smell I associate with sitting on a stool while reading books in the public library where I grew up.

    Every Saturday, my next door neighbor, a school teacher, took me with her to select books for her students. We took them home in a pasteboard box. As I said, it’s been a while!

    I tracked her down several years ago to thank her for introducing me to my lifelong love of literature.

  4. When my Mom couldn’t stand life at home
    with my would not fight over anything,
    rather laconic father, she, ( his direct
    opposite) would charge out like she was
    going to run away from home, and we
    always knew she ended up at the library.

    To the almost last year of her life she
    trudged up to the Franklin PA lovely little
    Library ( where she had retired) a Pittsburgh
    prior to that, and brought home a stack of

    I also remember stretching out on the living
    room rug beside her consulting the Nelson
    Encyclopedia on some topic, and her
    reading Shakespear aloud before I went
    up to Carnegie Tech, ( now Carnegie Mellon’s
    Drama school’s lates production in their
    beautiful little somehwat Globe Thearerish,

    My mother had a bad temper, even visited
    occasional violence on me at her worst,
    but I tend to forgive her by the end by her
    gift of being an opiate sharer of good books
    as soon as we could sit up and half fway

    I am now a poet, and non fiction writer.

    Mary Riley

  5. Great start to the new year! I look forward to your future posts!

  6. What can surpass fostering the love of literature? It seems synonymous with the love of life! Thank you for this post.

  7. At a time when the papable turning of page seems a dying art and a long afternoon curled up in a library chair with a well worn book gives way to scrolling while we walk, I thank you for this blog; a reader’s yoga.

  8. I’m so glad you’re doing this. Thank you for this terrific step towards more advocacy for poetry in the U.S.


  9. Thank you Rob.
    This is such a reminder that the library is where I discovered my favorite friends “BOOKS”. And to this very day as I am now retired, I find books, libraries, bookstores, and writers my most favorite. Thank you for sharing the podcasts of the poets. It is an honor to hear them reading their works. I look forward to this wonderful blog. Susan

  10. Rob, Thanks for starting this blog, a creative way to connect us with our rich literary past through the use of current technology…the best of both worlds. It seems to me that Wisdom requires both preservation and transformation, the preservation of past learning and artistic expression and bold innovation in art and learning methodology that responds to the lure of creativity. Thanks for ensuring that the Library of Congress continues its wise preservation through creative innovation.

  11. My childhood library and librarian (Racine, WI and Mrs Schowalter) has a treasured spot in my life. When I would be ill with my childhood asthma and unable to get to school, my mother would head to the library and Mrs. Schowalter would select books that she was sure I would like. And I did!. Now I am a retired librarian and again enjoying lots of reading and my local library (Madison, WI). Enjoy the view from the best seat in town.

  12. When I was a child, I also used to read books in the library.
    It’s amazing the wealth I could find in the books in my life.
    I have devoted to reading.
    I remember a phrase of Amos Bronson Alcott, which said: “That Which is a good book is open with expectation, and closed with delight and profit”. And it is true I closed every book with satisfaction.

  13. I really want to know more about poetry and literature. Can you post the latest poets and writers.

    • Thanks so much for your comment — stay tuned for more on poets and writers in this blog!

  14. Robbie (as we know you) – congratulations on your position. You may not remember us, but our daughter Holly, played with Ginger at the Hugo’s home during their early years. I can only imagine how pleased your grandmother would be to see you working in this position! Again, congrats!

  15. You have a great title: Hello From The Catbird Seat. The catbird is the one who makes such an inviting nest, the display of her decorated den, festooned with bits of feathers, admirable twigs and bits of colored stones, is a stand-in for the mating dance: a kind of passive welcome-mat waltz that seems to do the trick.

    It seems that words themselves, and books – the display of literature – are heading that way. Glacially, perhaps, or speeded up. At first, reading words made me see my own characterizations of what Huck Finn, or Holden Caulfield, or Miss Haversham looked like. I still have that sensation when I read Cormac McCarthy. But now, with Viggo Mortenson and Javier Bardem so vividly in mind, it’s harder to go back to what I first saw in my mind’s eye.

    Books are an artifact that I don’t think will ever disappear. If they made it through the Dark Ages, they can make it through our times. But the lapse of time in words, and words themselves, seem to be speeding up, like particles hurled at each other in a cyclotron – the fear is always that if we go forward so fast, we may explode – or crash through natural walls of energy and begin to fall backwards. I think language has become a faster and faster game of basketball, with smaller hoops, bigger balls, taller players, meaner coaches, and screaming fans who are sitting in a Starbucks watching the game from their notebooks. Ah me.

  16. Congratulation! How awesome! Colleen & Dennis Diedrick (Chilton)

  17. Poets without Laureate…!

    Every poet has a Laureate
    If thee left a Stanza,
    Which shall never be vanished
    From any earth

    The prize is meaningless
    Shakespeare…Emerson…John Keats…Byron…
    They never gained any Laureate
    But we remember
    Their poetic passionation…

    Every now and then…
    As they handled us
    Their Laureated Soulful Stanzas
    Hence… we can still remember them
    As our ‘Hearty Laureates…!’

    February 26, 2012

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