A Library for Everyone: The Reopening of the Poets House

With all the intensive repairs that went into making Poets House accessible again, students are slowly beginning to see for themselves what Poets House has to offer.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Cover Image
By Benson Chen

The Poets House, a community library designed to provide a place free of charge for poetry lovers, was once a common space for Stuyvesant students to spend time in. However, it was closed for four years after a series of crises. Now it has finally reopened its doors—hopefully regaining its place in the Stuyvesant community and fostering student interest in the world of poetry. The free WiFi and plentiful working space makes it perfect for any student looking to kill a little time or get some homework done. 

The Poets House space is bigger than one might expect: starting on a street corner at Murray Street and River Terrace, conveniently near Stuyvesant, it continues along the riverside, with wide windows that provide a magnificent view of Rockefeller Park and New Jersey. Inside, rows and rows of shelves are filled with poetry collections and books in verse, which are novel-length narratives told through poetry as opposed to prose. All of the books are donated by the community, and there are books on every topic imaginable. The library houses poetry from many different cultures and places, ranging from Germany to Vietnam. Though the library mainly consists of poetry written in English, there are many translated books originally written in  different languages. The library is accessible for readers of all ages: on the ground floor, there is a youth center in addition to its main reading room. Poets House is also home to plenty of comfortable seating and a small exhibit in the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, a 50-year-old cultural institution in the Lower East Side that presents works of Puerto Rican poetry, theater, literature, and music.

Founded by Stanley Konitz and Elizabeth “Betty” Kray in 1986, Poets House has always been a space for the community. “There's no apostrophe [in the name] because our founder [...] didn't think it should be possessed. It should be everyone’s poets house,” explained Operations Manager Nicholas Buffon. It is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization—much of its funding comes from donations, as well as from the New York State Council on the Arts. Due to this, Poets House relies heavily on the community of poetry lovers, but it certainly returns the favor. Poets House has the largest physical collection of poetry in the country—comparable to large universities such as Harvard and NYU, which are less accessible to the general public. 

Senior and one of Stuyvesant’s literary magazine’s (Caliper) Editor-In-Chiefs Dalia Levanon was impressed by how much independently-published poetry the Poets House housed. “It's difficult to get your poetry published and expensive too. So chapbooks (small collections of poems) are more informally made [and published independently]. [...] One poet had a bunch of their works in their own little book—the books in the Poets House looked like they were handmade, almost, with really nice covers and everything. I haven’t really seen that in a regular library before, and they had hundreds.” Though the Poets House does not publish poetry itself, it is home to one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of over 10,000 chapbooks.

 Levanon also mentioned Buffon’s dog, who brightens the space for dog lovers. “Her name is Goblin. And she sits there and walks around through the shelves of books. She's adorable. She has pigtails. I was like, dying. I could not focus on my poetry.”

In addition to simply displaying poets’ work, Poets House has many workshops where poets lead meetings that explore different facets of poetry and how to write it. Though these focused writing workshops aren’t free (three-hour workshops are $105, four-week workshops are $200, and six-week workshops are $360), they are valuable tools for those looking to enhance their skills and serve as a means of monetarily supporting poets, who often find it difficult to make a living.

Poets House also offers many different opportunities for high school students. Before closing, Poets House had events such as poetry readings that students could attend. “They have in the past had events where they had students from all over New York City, including students from Stuyvesant, read poems there,” English and Poetry Workshop teacher Dr. Emily Moore remarked. These programs operated remotely while the building was closed, and Poets House anticipates hosting new in-person events now that the renovated building is open.

For students less interested in poetry, Poets House is still a valuable space for studying. As a designated quiet area, it ideal for students who want a space outside of school to concentrate and study. Junior Reem Khalifa commented, “[Poets House is] open until 7:00 p.m.. If I have things after school and I need to get work done beforehand, it's like a quick little walk and I think it's very efficient and useful.”

Poets House was closed from March 2020 through January 27, 2024. At first, it was closed due to the pandemic, but soon flooding destroyed the building in another crisis. Right before September 2021, when they had planned to reopen, a hurricane passed through New York, causing a leak in water supply lines, including a leak from a toilet on the sixth floor of the building. Poets House takes up the first two floors of a tall apartment complex, but the apartment dwellers had all been away for the weekend, so the water ran for three days and three nights, which caused significant damage. This meant that in addition to the initial destruction caused by the massive leaks, mold also festered and required further maintenance. “There was tons of black mold behind all the sheetrock and we didn't want that getting to the books. So there had to be a couple of rounds of tear out and mold spray,” Buffon explained. 

Though unfortunate, the Poets House tried to make the best of the situation. “We took the flood as sort of an opportunity to expand all the bookshelves before we have stuff in storage. We grow by at least three to five thousand books a year,” Buffon described. 

All of this culminated in a highly anticipated and exciting opening celebration on January 27, 2024. Poets House staff were friendly and knowledgeable and provided visitors with an enjoyable experience. Junior Arielle Eber, who attended the celebration, recalled, “This guy walked over and put his own book on one of the shelves, and one of the ladies was like, ‘you can't just put your book here.’ He was like, ‘but I edited it.’ It was very funny.” 

Dr. Moore hopes that the reopening of Poets House will help make poetry more accessible for students. “Poets House [...] is a world-class poetry destination. People come from all over to see it, [so] it’s just so cool that it’s right next door to us. We’re so lucky in that way, and I think it just extends all the opportunities that Stuy offers in this direction.” 

Before Poets House closed its doors in 2020, class field trips to the poetry library were common. “Ever since they opened in Tribeca, I've also taken field trips there, but instead of taking the subway, of course, we can just walk during the period.” Dr. Moore said. She expressed her excitement to share Poets House with her students now that she is able to add these trips back into the curriculum. “I’m really excited to return with new students to this beautiful rebuilt place. So for me, it feels like one more step in the post-pandemic rebuild of all of the things that I love about the world.” 

Since its reopening this year, some Stuyvesant students have already gone on a field trip to Poets House: English teacher Annie Thoms took her Freshman Composition classes on February 15, 2024. Thoms wished to introduce her freshman students to Poets House as an important resource to explore poetry beyond the classroom: “The trip was just an introduction to Poets House and just like, ‘Oh my gosh, look at this amazing space filled with so many extraordinary volumes of poetry and so many chapbooks.” By taking her students to Poets House, she hoped to expose her students to the idea that poetry is for everyone. Poets House’s diverse collection was the perfect way to shatter the idea that there is only one kind of poetry. “I feel like a visit to Poets House is part of that larger goal of understanding that poetry can be one million different things,” Thoms remarked. “It doesn't have to be hard, and it doesn't have to be boring, and it can be joyful and exciting and moving and interesting and can speak to you as an individual from any culture in the world, and Poets House is the physical embodiment of that.”

Poets House is an incredible resource for poets and non-poets alike. Whether you are curious about poetry, need a quiet place to study, or want to see a cute dog, Poets House is for everyone. “They want you to be there. The poets are waiting, and it’s a place where students can feel really comfortable and excited, and it's waiting for them,” said Dr. Moore. “So be brave. Go.”