What makes a city great?  What makes a civilization? How about a bright, quiet, dazzling new building in the heart of a town, housing 30,000 volumes of poetry?  A place where you can step off the street into poetry through a single glass door.

Before going to Chicago, I looked up the ‘ten best’ libraries, bookshops and cafés. By far the most luminous and inspiring of those I visited was the Poetry Foundation, designed by John Ronan Architects.  You come to a regular intersection and there it is, ‘Poetry Foundation’ discreetly flush with the white stone step leading you to a clean courtyard with young trees.

You walk straight into the library – no barriers, no proof of identity.  You are welcomed by people who love poetry, love the building, and invite you to start browsing, sitting, reading, writing, thinking.  The books are organized alphabetically by author, regardless of era, genre or origin, prompting mind-opening juxtapositions and connections.  After writing this, I will dip into two translations of the Iliad I have never seen before: by Caroline Alexander and Stanley Lombardo.  And a bilingual translation by Keith Holyoak of poems by Li Bai 李白 (701-62) and Du Fu 杜甫 (712-770).  And write a letter by hand.

If you are in Chicago, come and visit.  If you hesitate, the way many people hesitate on the threshold of poetry, unsure what to say to it, tell yourself you are coming only for the architecture.  The building will put you at ease so you can meet its contents in brightness and confidence, allowing them to seep into you.  Nobody will ask why you are here, only if they can help.

Thank you to the Poetry Foundation for such a welcome and such a place.  Please contact me if you would like to set up a similar place in Switzerland, I’d be happy to run it for you for a modest emolument.

And as for Li Bai, here is one of his most famous poems, with a translation by Arthur Waley: Drinking Alone by Moonlight (月下獨酌).

Address: 61 W. Superior Street, Chicago

Photo credits: featured image, author’s own; all other photos of the Poetry Foundation courtesy of John Ronan Architects and Steve Hall, Hedrich Blessing

Source: images of Li Bai poem and Li Bai portrait by Liang Kai (1140-1210), public domain.

Li Bai Drinking Alone by Moonlight - Chinese text

A cup of wine, under the flowering trees;
I drink alone, for no friend is near.
Raising my cup I beckon the bright moon,
For he, with my shadow, will make three men.

The moon, alas, is no drinker of wine;
Listless, my shadow creeps about at my side.
Yet with the moon as friend and the shadow as slave
I must make merry before the Spring is spent.

To the songs I sing the moon flickers her beams;
In the dance I weave my shadow tangles and break.
While we were sober, three shared the fun;
Now we are drunk, each goes his way.
May we long share our odd, inanimate feast,
And meet at last on the Cloudy River of the sky.


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