Rainy Afternoon at the Gotham Book Mart
One of poetry's most famous gatherings occurred on November 9, 1948, at the Gotham Book Mart on West 47th Street in New York City. The occasion was a reception for the British poet Edith Sitwell and her brother, the writer Osbert Sitwell. In attendance was much of the royalty of American literature, including Elizabeth Bishop, Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell, and Marianne Moore. The bookstore (which has, in the past several years, moved to a new location at 16 East 46th Street) still sells copies of the "famous photograph" of that gathering. A photograph in the same series also appeared in LIFE magazine, along with a lengthy feature about the Sitwells. As suggested in the following poem, the photograph on sale at the Gotham Book Mart (shown above) is not quite the same one that appeared in LIFE.
If you haven't been to the Gotham Book Mart, plan on stopping by the next time you are in New York. The employees are friendly, they know their stock, and the store is full of old journals and hard-to-find books on every subject, many of which are of special interest to poets.
This poem originally appeared in Margie: The American Journal of Poetry, and will also appear in Figured Dark, my new collection, forthcoming from The University of Arkansas Press in the fall of 2007.
AT THE GOTHAM BOOK MART
The sign reads Wise Men Fish Here
and away from the slanting rain
is a miraculous draught of books:
old novels, first editions, an entire wall
of poetry. The center table spills over,
as if a trawler has just dropped
a thousand titles onto a raised deck.
I find Allen Tate's Collected,
an anthology of Czech poets
in face-on-face translations
and a print of the famous photograph,
"A Collection of Poets"––the reception
in 1948 for Edith and Osbert Sitwell.
They are posed center-left
at the rear of this narrow room,
for what Elizabeth Bishop called, "a party
in a subway train," circled by Stephen Spender,
Marianne Moore, Tennessee Williams,
the famous and the now-neglected others.
To the right, that's Bishop and Randall Jarrell,
in the foreground, Delmore Schwartz,
all in the shadow of Auden, who has draped himself,
Christ-like, across a black stepladder.
I've seen the article from LIFE,
with its gushy Sitwell headlines:
"They Sprang From a Famous Family,"
"They Brave New York," six pages
spread among the adverts for Minit Rub
and Studebaker, for Lucky Strikes
and Apple Pyequick. This print
is one exposure after the one in LIFE.
See for yourself--this head turned,
a poet's arm raised. Jarrell and Bishop,
who've been discussing Rilke, now look
stage-left and out of the frame, as if
already seeking an exit. Schwartz,
who interupted them to press
some obscurity with Jarrell,
has gone slack jawed,
as if he's just foreseen the years to come.
I go back to the shelves, where I find
Delmore Schwartz: Life of an American Poet,
with its 1961 photo: Schwartz, seated
in Washington Square––
destitute, averting his eyes,
his cigarette held in the familiar style,
a tabloid, headline screaming
HEIRESS KEEPS HER MILLIONS
tossed beneath the bench.
I pay for the books, the famous print
and for an extra dollar, buy a plastic sleeve
to keep it safe, then step through the jangle-bell door
into the rain on West 47th––the rain
that slants from the crowded light, The rain
of pour and pouring down,––a storm
that Bishop told us, Will roar all night.