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Volume 44. No. 1.
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Rhyme over Reason
Poet and scholar Ifeanyi Menkiti '64 rescues one of the nation's great poetry bookshops ...

By Janice O'Leary

To chance upon Ifeanyi Anthony Menkiti ’64 at his little poetry bookshop in Harvard Square is an opportunity to be engaged, lifted up, made to think it is time to return to whichever art you once practiced but had laid aside. Listening to the deep timbre of his voice, you will hear a call to be your best self. Eventually, you may tune out the content of what Menkiti is saying, succumbing to the African lilt of his English, the caesuras, the booms and swallows made by words spoken aloud. The cadence of his sentences will stay with you for weeks.

As will his presence. Portly, tall, steel in the wool of the hair that rings his face—these physical traits, certainly. But it is his benevolence, a jubilation even, which sets him apart from other purveyors and practitioners of the written and spoken word.

 A professor of philosophy at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and a published poet, he became a businessman last year (although he chuckles over that) when he rescued an endangered species of bookstore: an independent poetry store. The Grolier Poetry Book Shop, the nation’s oldest poetry bookstore, was headed toward extinction, wounded by the harpoons of national chains, and Menkiti couldn’t let it happen. The store had featured in his graduate days at Harvard—he would pop in for the pleasure of listening to poets, discovering new books. As an idea, a community of poets past and present, the store had even more power over him, and the opposite of its existence— its nonbeing, if you will—was unthinkable.

“THERE IS A DEEP NEED in us for poetry,” Menkiti says. “Poetry reaches the heart, the person. Sometimes just a nugget, a capsule can offer a solution to what ails us. That’s what makes one want to keep a store like this going.”

Although he says our bodies belong to the cosmos—that we are made from the dust of the heavens—he isn’t starry-eyed about the business of selling poems. “Bookstores aren’t easy,” he says. “People don’t read books as much as they should, but there is value in such a place.”

Some of the Grolier’s value comes from its 80-year history— the luminaries who haunted the 404-square-foot space—and some from the sheer volume of volumes: 20,000 books of poetry. Humble, handmade shelves rise to the ceiling, crammed with thin, colorful spines. When the store opened in 1927 in Harvard Square, it became a favorite of e.e. cummings, T.S. Eliot and Marianne Moore. In more recent years, poet laureates such as Donald Hall and Louise Glück have browsed and read there. Menkiti is only the store’s third owner, but it seems an appropriate inheritance since his first connections to literature in this country were Eliot and his peers, especially Ezra Pound.

At Pomona, his senior thesis on a Pound poem won him the $100 F.S. Jennings award and an incredible respect for institutions of higher learning. “They could have said, ‘who is this young guy with the strange sounding name from Africa?’” Menkiti says. But they didn’t. “I’ve appreciated the integrity of that.”

That experience helped determine the course of his life, stoking his desire to participate in a profession so dignified it ignored race and promoted a kind of justice. He has continued that legacy in his own classrooms, encouraging students by exposing them to new writers and ideas, particularly ones of justice and community and how governments can either lift up their people or run them down.

That a nation’s history shapes the individual’s history is something he returns to again and again, in conversation and on the page. Pound and Eliot’s engagement with the history of nations was one of the things that drew Menkiti to the poets. “That felt very African to me,” he says. That, and the monosyllabic beat of the lyrics in which he heard the drums of his Nigerian childhood. “It resonated in these African ears.”

“IN AFRICA, THERE IS A SAYING, ‘I am because we are.’ The individual flourishes because the community flourishes,” he says. And because the individual is the one speaking, this isn’t an example of fascism or communism, but rather the individual acknowledging that he or she needs the group to survive and thrive. “Too often we say, ‘if only I can have my little space,’” he says. “You will find trouble there. We need the drama of other people in our lives.”

He counts also the dramas we witness and experience, as readers. “There is a healthy distance between the reader and the story. When you’re humiliated over something, you can’t rise above it. But through story, one can learn one’s own lesson. Another human being has made a mess of his life. If you have to deal with it directly, you may not see it. In books, you can gain a sense of human pity.”

Books allow us to tap into a collective, more powerfully even than song, on which he was raised and a well he still drinks from. “Take Woodstock,” he says, “Tens of thousands of people go, yet not everyone can go. But just having a book in your hand connects you to other minds, other people, other stories. There is a sense of togetherness. We don’t live in villages anymore, we can’t gather at an old oak tree to listen to a story. Instead, we have books.”

MOST OF MENKITI’S ENERGY has gone into poetry— both the reading of it and the making of it. He has written four collections, the most recent, Before a Common Soil, released in May.

Menkiti grew up in Nigeria without children’s books; he doesn’t remember turning the pages of any book besides the Bible. Old Testament stories, especially the Babylonian captivity, and hymns his mother sang as she worked around the house carved cadences in his brain. “I remember a lot of song in the air growing up,” he says. “For weddings, funerals, any occasion of social transition.” The richness, the music remained with him.

“The need to make ceremony, it’s so ancient,” he says. “It’s the background of poetry, that need to make music.” When Menkiti writes, the poems come to him in both words and rhythm. “Something starts singing in your head,” he says. “It comes at unexpected times.”

Even as Menkiti considers the mysterious process of crafting poems, he traces the sound of it back through the eons. “The swirling dust particles of the cosmos become amino acids, which eventually become us, and we give rise to speech,” he says. “The rise and fall of human speech is itself a function of the human body, the heartbeat, this rhythm, seems to be all over the world, the whooshing of the word.”

The reader, through a solitary act, participates in a larger conversation, he says. The story then becomes minds communicating, no longer bound by personal history. Our worlds expand. “We can grow in compassion from seeing the world together,” Menkiti says.

As if books might cure the ills of the world. As if! The learned pessimists at the table might sneer, How naďve. And yet, it’s hard to resist it completely. We remember the joys of understanding ourselves through Holden Caulfield, the beauty, and the rightness, of Eliot’s mermaids “singing each to each.” These things still resonate.

“We are united by mitochondria,” he says. “So why do we fight? We are chickens in the barnyard, scratching each other’s eyes. But we were made for glory.”

When Menkiti proclaims it, you believe it with your heart, and, through the baritone rumble of his voice, you feel it, even in your feet.

Grolier Poetry Book Shop
6 Plympton Street, Harvard Square

Established: 1927 by Gordon Cairnie, a Cambridge man-about-town, and Adrian Gambet.

Heyday: The creative energy of the 1960s and 1970s stirred the store, with poets such as Allen Ginsburg and Robert Creeley leading a resurgence of the art.

The Switch: In 1974, Louisa Solano took over the store and established the Grolier as poetry only. Although poetry had long been the store’s focus, it originally also carried deluxe editions, rare books and avant-garde books of all genres. It was the first bookstore in the Cambridge area to carry James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Near Downfall: The Internet cut into the Grolier’s mail order business at about the same time national chains began to eat up a larger share of book sales. When Solano fell ill in 2006 she had a harder time paying bills—even with the below-market rent provided by Harvard—and announced she would sell the store. Menkiti took over ownership of the store in May 2006.

What’s Next: Menkiti, the third owner of the store, hopes to increase the Grolier’s international holdings and readings by poets from around the world, while still retaining its unique character. Recently, as part of Menkiti’s drive to include a more international community of verse, the store hosted Muhammad Salleh, the unofficial poet laureate of Malaysia. This fall the Grolier will host a reading of Korean poetry.

Janice O'Leary is a freelance writer based in Cambridge, Mass.
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