Rather than spend time analyzing all the reasons members of book clubs might not select poetry for their common reading choices, I’d rather share an example or two of poems that dovetail nicely with reading group choices.
When my book club selected Debra Dean’s novel The Madonnas of Leningrad, I thought at once of one of my favorite poems by the late Miller Williams “The Curator.” Both the poem and the novel present fictional accounts set against a historical background. As the Germans neared Leningrad, the priceless works of art were removed and hidden for safekeeping, but their empty frames were left on the walls marking their places.
Dean’s novel deals with the hunger and desperation of the local citizens, many of whom moved into the Hermitage Museum during the days of conflict. Miller’s poem also covers many of these same days, but his poem is peopled by soldiers and then other curious visitors who come to see where the painting once hung. They come to hear the curator’s description of these works of art, more vivid that his usual spiel when the actual canvases remained in place. The most powerful lines, in my opinion: Slowly, blind people began to come.Slowly, blind people began to come. “Here. Here is the story I want to tell you. / Slowly, blind people began to come.”
Not only would this moving poem pair well with The Madonnas of Leningrad, I realize, but with Monuments Men, the novel by Robert M. Edsel and Brett Witter about the attempts to safeguard monuments and art or to relocate art stolen by the Nazis. Even the recent Pulitzer Prize-winning novel With All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, with its blind young protagonist, might be enriched by a discussion of this poem. Then Barbara Kingsolver’s Lacuna also takes a turn in the end, when her protagonist is charged with safeguarding the collections from the National Gallery during WWII.
I dare say that the story Williams tells in him poem will stay with readers as long as, perhaps longer than, the narrative in these books. With its theme of “confluence,” the odd way that things often come together, it would be a perfect choice.