One of the treasures I found on a recent visit to San Francisco’s famed art/architecture/design bookstore mecca, William Stout, is Jill Stoner’s Poems for Architects. The book was new to me, which isn’t surprising given it was published by the in house publishing division, William Stout Publishers.*
Stoner is an architect who also studied poetry, and this slim volume is exquisite conceived. Divided into sections (with headings such as “Poems at Home”, “City Poems”, “The Jar & The Field”), Stoner has written thoughtful introductions to each poetry grouping. An unexpected visual touch: Stoner’s own sketches are included on slightly transparent vellum, a delicate bridging between the architectonic and the poetic. Having seen so many attempts over the years to get poetry to cohabit with other art forms—most of which have left me feeling deeply unsatisfied—I found this undertaking to be one of the most successful cominglings. Stoner brings her careful selection of poetry and her architectural sensibility into a taut and mutually respectful relationship with each other.
Here is a sampling of her approach:
Why should architects read poems, and how might they be useful? According to Vitruvius, delight itself is useful, but poems do more than delight. They draw us into the tiny spaces within the letters and between the words; they make rooms of stanzas and roofs of rhyme. The forty-eight poems in this collection invite us in, to make use of them in any way we choose…
In recent decades many an architectural excess has been committed in the name of poetry, but not on account of the reading of poems. Now we have become disenfranchised of the spaces that are supposed to belong to us; the possess us with alarming authority, and imprison us in symbolic forms that have lost their meaning. These forms are not mute; instead they speak in tongues that we cannot understand. The strange spaces inside poems can, paradoxically, make more familiar the spaces of the daily life; so architects, by visiting these spaces, can become more tuned to the walls we still build, and within which we pass these present days.
This following poem by Auden, included in the book, is half of a pairing. Coming tomorrow: Up There.
(for Irving Weiss)
A cellar underneath the house, though not lived in,
Reminds our warm and windowed quarters upstairs that
Caves water-scooped from limestone were our first dwellings.
A providential shelter when the Great Cold came,
Which woke our feel for somewhere fixed to come back to,
A hole of occupation made to smell human.
Self-walled, we sleep aloft, but still, at safe anchor,
Ride there on caves; lamplit we dine at street level:
But, deep in Mother Earth, beneath her key-cold cloak,
Where light and heat can never spoil what sun ripened,
In barrels, bottles, jars, we mew her kind commons,
Wine, beer, conserves and pickles, good at all seasons.
Encrust with years of clamming grime, the lair, maybe,
Of creepy-crawlies or a ghost, its flagstoned vault
Is not for girls: sometimes, to test their male courage,
A father sends the younger boys to fetch something
For Mother from down there; ashamed to whimper, hearts pounding,
They dare the dank steps, re-emerge with proud faces.
The rooms we talk and work in always looked injured
When the trunks are being packed, and when without warning,
We drive up in the dark, unlock and switch lights on,
They seem put out: a cellar never takes umbrage;
It takes us as we are, explorers, homebodies,
Who seldom visit others when we don’t need them.
–W. H. Auden
*About William Stout Publishers (from their website):
William Stout Publishers began producing books on architecture and design in 1995. The first books published were reissues of important source documents that had fallen out of print, such as William Morrish’s “Civilizing Terrains.” and “Schindler” by David Gebhard. Subsequently, William Stout began publishing a series of monographs documenting the work of West Coast Architects. In recent years we have been working with the Environmental Design Archives at University of California- Berkeley, North Carolina State University, Rice University and California College of Arts.