It’s so difficult to answer the question What is poetry? and even more difficult to answer Why do you like poetry so much? – the latter often said in a rather confrontational manner! I suppose I don’t really see poetry as separate from life, or not from my life anyway! For me, writing poetry is as essential as breathing and not a day goes by without a line or two looping through my head, ready to be incorporated and crafted into a new poem. We probably all loved poetry at school, learnt poetry by heart, enjoyed rhythm and rhyme, nonsense rhymes, the poems of Edward Lear, Roald Dahl, Hilaire Belloc. In the past we would have listened to bards and troubadours bringing the latest news in ballad form. We might have wooed our loves through poetry to show our education, our passion and our sincerity, or maybe begged a lyrically inclined friend to do it for us!
Somehow, though, as we mature, many of us lose our way and poetry becomes something alienating and elitist, seeming to belong to an academic world of closely guarded secrets which only the chosen few can access. I would say that poetry belongs everywhere, to us all, to the world and, although it has a commercial motivation, I’m delighted that the Nationwide Building Society are using poetry to speak to their wide-ranging potential customer base. At the moment I’m following a course run by the Poetry School and tutored by Emma Hammond. It’s called Hyperspectacle and we’re exploring poetry which occurs in unexpected places – tweets, internet review forums etc I feel quite evangelical about getting more and more people to enjoy poetry, to realise that they can’t like it all, and if they don’t it’s not their fault but to keep on looking until they find something that speaks to them. There’s so much poetry out there at the moment, but it’s a bit like a dating website, you have to persevere to find your match!
So where’s the most unusual place you’ve seen a poem, or found a poem? Some time ago I went on an excellent Poetry Day School organised by Writers’ Centre Norwich and tutored by David Morley. He encouraged to write haiku, guerrilla haiku, and then hide them (on recycled and easily biodegraded paper of course!), perhaps in a shop display, tucked in a crack in a paving slab, in a book, up a drainpipe. I tried this out with my students who very much entered into the spirit of the activity and posted their words through the doors of people they knew locally, hid them in bus-seat seams and slipped them inside menus! And, on this note, if you haven’t come across The Guerrilla Poetics Project then do check out their website. https://guerillapoetics.org/ Their manifesto was simply:
Returning poetry to the people by subversively putting it into their hands.
In order to do this GPP operatives covertly smuggled over 50,000 poem broadsides into select books in bookstores and libraries all over the world. The broadsides are still being found today, perhaps the next visit to your local library will turn up a guerilla poetry surprise! They are things of beauty, I would so love to find one… Below is one of my favourites, there are a 1,000 copies of it out there so maybe my days of shaking the leaves of all the Jack Reacher books I devour in public libraries won’t be in vain!
One of the broadsides was found in a copy Jon Ronson’s Out of the Ordinary: True Tales of Everyday Craziness in a Book Clearance Centre in Wigan, so you never know!
We’re all familiar with commissioned poems in cities and landscapes. It’s a wonderful use of poetry, integrating it once more into life and the everyday. Simon Armitage recently took part in a site specific poetry project, Stanza Stones, with poems carved in places which more or less follow the Pennine watershed.
The idea that these poems will weather in time, becoming fragmented and part of the Moors in different ways as they deteriorate seems a magical use of words to me.
I’m also rather fond of Andrew Motion’s poem What If on the side of one of Sheffield Hallam uni’s buildings just as you come out of Sheffield Station purely for its in-your-face-can’t-miss-it boldness!
When I was participating in The Ark project recently I tried to encourage the rest of the group to create a ‘live streaming’ event by writing their haiku on strips of cloth to hang in the garden and get windswept and washed away by the summer thunderstorms.
During the recent King’s Lynn Poetry Festival ten mannequin torsos were displayed featuring a new poem on each. These were in aid of the charity Blue Smile which helps children with mental health problems. The torsos had previously been displayed extensively in Cambridgeshire. I believe they’ll be auctioned off early next year. I’d love to have one, they are beautiful objects.
In a previous post I mentioned the Rain Jane project in Winchester where Jane Austen quotes appear only after it has rained. I discovered a similar project in Boston and I guess, generally speaking, this is bringing poetry into the world of public art in a similar way to the stanza stones and Motion’s monolithic poem. Wouldn’t it be amazing to get hold of some of this special paint? I’m very taken with “painting the town grey” , envisaging people stepping onto my poetry in the drizzle…
So, there you go! Poetry doesn’t just have to inhabit the page. Be bold, be a guerilla, get more of it out there!