Out for a Chat with Grolier's Poet-Philosopher

Poetry Shop
Rebecca J. Margolies

To passersby, Grolier Poetry Book Store on Plympton street might look like an intriguing but practically irrelevant building, a place that could exist only near Harvard. The one-room shop is small, but its high ceilings are fully stuffed with poetry books, anthologies, and criticism. Bookshelves are separated into Children, Native American, African-American, Bilingual, and country-specific sections. The other day, two customers from Montreal wandered in and were directed to the Canadian section. Covering every exposed space are other artifacts—photographs of poets, a scrapbook cataloguing Grolier’s frequent poetry readings, a candy jar. Hanging on one wall is a 1994 Best of Boston award for “Best Poetry Bookstore.”

As a freshman, I would wander past Grolier, always telling myself that next time, I would go in. I went once, but without any idea what I should be looking for, I did not buy anything. Poetry seemed so removed from my life experience.

Had I said all this to Ifeanyi Menkiti—philosophy professor at Wellesley College, poet, and Grolier’s owner since 2006—he probably would have objected. His work in literature and philosophy functions on the belief that, beyond their intellectual richness, they are relevant to the world in ways outside of the aesthetic.

“If it is about words alone, why bother? There is only so much fascination with words,” Menkiti says. He is a large man, with a deep voice, heavy Nigerian accent, and important-looking beard. Pound, he continues, was very interested in real-world questions, whether concerning World War I or China. Some of Menkiti’s other favorite poets, such as Christopher Okigbo and David Ferry, also engage the aesthetic in order to better understand the political and the historical.

To Menkiti, philosophy, like poetry, is not merely a self-indulgent effort. He hates the saying that philosophy bakes no bread. “It doesn’t have to shout,” he says. “There are lots of problems in the world. To think that philosophy and literature don’t have anything to do with [fixing them] is wrongheaded.”

It was for this reason that Menkiti enjoyed studying under political theorist John Rawls, who “laid out something, then defended it with great analytical rigor.” A native of Nigeria, Menkiti moved to the United States to attend Pomona College on a scholarship, and later continued his studies at Columbia, New York University, and finally at Harvard, where he received his Ph.D under Rawls.

His senior thesis on Ezra Pound’s poetry earned him the top prize in Pomona’s English department. The very fact that a non-native English speaker could win this honor in the English department of a prominent American university was significant to Mentiki. “I thought it took a lot of guts for them,” he says. “Maybe on some level, this experience at Pomona has made me feel a certain level of integrity with the academic enterprise.”

Since 1973, Menkiti has taught philosophy at Wellesley. He does not believe in merely passing on the tradition of the liberal arts, but instead aims to empower students with the analytical skills necessary to improve the world. “We have to take that job seriously,” he says. “We are molding minds.” To that end, philosophy is not just an intellectual endeavor, but a solution to the world it seeks to explain.

We returned to Grolier, where Menkiti gave me two of his own books of poetry, in which he articulates his vision for the world. (“And I have called out to you, / Children of an undivided earth, / That you join your hands together / And be of one accord before a common soil—”) Although I tried to refuse, my efforts were fruitless. Mentiki hugged me as he left the shop, but I stayed a few minutes after to browse. This time, I was less overwhelmed. I looked at the poems as resources, as offering practical insight into the world. It seemed like a better philosophy.