An Outlook

In 1995, the American Academy of Poets inaugurated “National Poetry Month” in April. Like many people who love poetry, or write poetry, I have always failed to understand why more people don’t enjoy this wondrous art form. Well, the Academy has been making an effort to change people’s minds about poetry; or, maybe a better way to state their goal, is that they want to open our minds to poetry. So with April just a few weeks away, I’ve decided to take some time in this column to further their goal, if only in a small way. My unconventional approach to this task is to tell you a story about one of my favorite poets: R. Buckminster Fuller.

To my knowledge, Fuller never wrote a poem. He will be known to many of you as the inventor of the geodesic dome, the Dymaxion Car, the Dymaxion House and the Dymaxion Map. He originated the term “Spaceship Earth,” and he was the mathematician who discovered Synergetics. He was, in short, a multi-talented, multi-faceted man, who never stopped questioning and investigating the world, and applied his curiosity and genius to all manner of subjects. He did not, however, write poetry.

When I moved to Chicago in 1980, I went to work at Kroch’s & Brentano’s main bookstore on Wabash Avenue as assistant manager of the Technical Department. In the late winter/early spring of 1981, Fuller published what became his last major book: Critical Path. Fuller was 85 years old that year. I was 23 years old at the time and was quite taken with Fuller and his work. Critical Path was promoted, quite correctly, as Fuller’s magnum opus – the synthesis of his thought over an entire lifetime. Naturally, I bought and read the book.

Carl A. Kroch, the owner of Kroch’s & Brentano’s, was a legendary bookseller and was ostensibly my boss. Kroch’s philosophy of bookselling is something that he instilled in everyone who worked for him and shared his love of books. In his own words, “I try to inspire each employee to adopt a book and tell customers about it. That way, when they sell a book, they make a friend.”

As you may have surmised, I adopted Fuller’s Critical Path and I sold lots of copies of his book. In particular, I sold seven of the limited edition, signed and numbered, slip-cased editions which St. Martin’s Press had published. So, on April 10, 1981, when R. Buckminster Fuller came to Kroch’s & Brentano’s on Wabash Avenue to sign copies of his book (though not on the sales floor because of his age), I received a personal invitation from Mr. Kroch to join him in his office to meet Fuller.

After being formally introduced to Mr. Kroch who, in turn, introduced me to Mr. Fuller, noting in particular my success in selling Critical Path, Mr. Fuller (who stood perhaps half my height) looked up at me and asked: “You’ve sold all those copies of my book. Have you read it?”

“Yes, sir,” I replied, somewhat taken aback.

“Did you like it?”

“Yes, sir.”


“It made me think about how a lot of different things have relationships that aren’t, at first, obvious,” I replied (I confess I was trembling at this point with nervousness).

“Did you find yourself agreeing with me?”

“Sometimes,” I responded weakly.

At this point Fuller turned his back to me and was quiet for what seemed a very long time. Then he asked, “What part did you like best?”

“Well, sir,” I replied, forcing my voice to be audible in a very quiet room, “I particularly liked that you closed your preface with e.e. cummings’ ‘A Poet’s Advice.’ His message, and your inclusion of it, told me a great deal about you and where your ideas come from.”

Fuller, looking at Mr. Kroch said, “I like him.” Then to me he said, “Give me your copy of the book.” He then proceeded to sign it with the inscription “To Stephen, In Friendship.”

So what, you are wondering, did cummings write that so captivated Fuller? Here is what Fuller included:

A poet is somebody who feels, and who expresses his feelings through words.

This may sound easy. It isn’t.

A lot of people think or believe or know they feel – but that’s thinking or believing or knowing; not feeling. And poetry is feeling – not knowing or believing or thinking.

Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know, you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself.

To be nobody-but-yourself – in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else – means to fight the hardest battle which any human can fight; and never stop fighting.

As for expressing nobody-but-yourself in words, that means working just a little harder than anybody who isn’t a poet can possibly imagine. Why? Because nothing is quite as easy as using words like somebody else. We all of us do exactly this nearly all of the time – whenever we do it, we are not poets.

If, at the end of your first ten or fifteen years of fighting and working and feeling, you find you’ve written one line of one poem, you will be very lucky indeed.

And so my advice to all young people who wish to become poets is: do something easy, like learning to blow up the world – unless you’re not only willing, but glad, to feel and work and fight till you die.

Does this sound dismal? It isn’t.

It’s the most wonderful life on earth.

Or so I feel.

And so, at the outset of this 4th Annual National Poetry Month, I sit with my copy of Critical Path at my side and remember the poet R. Buckminster Fuller; a man who demonstrated that one’s poetry can be more than simply the words we put on paper. It can also be the way in which we live our lives.