Among the treasures of rare book collecting are so-called association copies—books owned by famous writers or inscribed by the author to someone meaningful in their lives. If you can double up on something like that, say, one famous writer inscribing a book to a friend who is also a famous writer, then you’ve got book collecting gold. So sought after are such items that many writers—especially poets—can’t wait to cash in on their collections. Why let the executors of your estate have all the fun, right? Well, the odd side benefit is that those of us who enjoy perusing the rare book websites can sometimes get a glimpse of the peculiar thoughts poets share in the jotted lines of gift copies. Here’s a sampling.
There’s a copy of James Tate’s The Route as Briefed, in which he has inscribed to Jorie Graham: “Dear Jorie, If you look a dog in the eye too intently, it may recite an astounding poem to you. Love Jim.”
In a copy of They Feed They Lion presented to Mark Strand, Philip Levine writes: “For Mark, The only other Lion in New York. From the big pussy, Phil.”
Better still, in a copy of Levine’s 1933, also presented to Strand, is inscribed this impromptu poem:
Here in Fresno the rains
Stream down but the grass
Does not grow since
You went away
With your beloved
To the town of dark towers.
The dawn comes
like a grey smear
Since you went away
And sent back only a kiss
A sigh of gas
Out of your great heart beating
As mine beats now
Above the kisses & the gasses
Stirring where I think of you,
Oh lonely wandering half Jewish
Poet in your city of dark towers
& gas rising like my
gas. Love, Alka Seltzer.
Strand seems to have sold off his entire collection at some recent time, because there are dozens of books on the market with inscriptions and his ownership signature. There’s a copy of Donald Justice’s From a Notebook, for example, inscribed, “For Mark, who was There— & who might find himself again here, in #18. Don Justice” (Strand appears in the eighteenth poem in the book); a copy of Charles Simic’s Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk inscribed, “To Mark & Jules: the dream of every honest cliché is to enter a great poem, Charlie”; and a copy of Charles Wright’s ultra-rare chapbook Colophons playfully inscribed to Strand in Italian, “For Marco il Magnifico dal Carlo, Conte della Gondola Saltimbocca.” Simic, too, appears to have sold off a significant part of his collection, including a copy of Charles Wright’s Hard Freight with another humorous inscription from the poet: “For Charlie—If you are the mote in the devil’s eye, don’t blink, Charles.”
Less juicy, but equally intriguing, are copies of books by James Wright and William Meredith, each inscribed to W. S. Merwin; and a very cool copy of John Berryman’s hard-to-find His Thoughts Made Pockets & the Plane Buckt inscribed, “To Howard Nemerov, with all thanks for the issue w. Runes & the book of stories—wh. I’ll read as soon as I can—at present all I can do is write, and read theology & oriental art history—with a handshake, John Berryman, Mpls. 6 Mar. ‘59.”
What does all of this tell us? Only that if you’re a Pulitzer Prize winner and inscribe a book to another Pulitzer Prize winner, expect people to be snooping through your words at some later point. Oh, and it’s also a reminder that my birthday is just a week away, and rare books always make great gifts.