Every time I move, I have to physically handle every one of my thousands of books in the course of shelving it; many of them haven’t been touched since the last move, and I think to myself “Do I need to hang on to this?” Now that I’m in an area with used bookstores that might take my excess inventory, I’m setting aside a growing pile of books I’ve decided I can dispense with. Sometimes the decision is easy (I’m never going to read Thomas Mann in German), but often I open a book at random, trying to locate whatever it was that made me buy it in the first place. I did this with Howard Nemerov‘s The Blue Swallows (U. Chicago, 1967, reprinted 1969, presumably bought my sophomore year in college, when I would have had no idea that Nemerov was Diane Arbus’s big brother, and may not have known who Diane Arbus was); I glanced at a few tired retreads of New Criticism poetry and some japes that may have sounded more genial forty years ago, and was on the point of tossing it on the discard pile when my gaze lighted on “A Full Professor”:
Surely there was, at first, some love of letters
To get him started on the routine climb
That brought him to this eminence in time?
But now he has become one of his betters.
He has survived, and even fattened on,
The dissertation and the discipline.
The eyes are spectacled, the hair is thin,
He is a dangerous committeeman.
An organism highly specialized,
He diets on, for daily bill of fare,
The blood of Keats, the mind of poor John Clare;
Within his range, he cannot be surprised.
Publish or perish! What a frightful chance!
It troubled him through all his early days.
But now he has the system beat both ways;
He publishes and perishes at once.
It’s no masterpiece, but it’s got good rhythm and genuine wit. And after all, the book is a nice thin paperback; it doesn’t need much to justify itself. I put it on the shelf between Ogden Nash and Pablo Neruda.