The Poetry Library

A Society of Poets


The current troubles at the Poetry Society in London have been the subject of articles this week in both the Telegraph and the Guardian . I won’t go into the history of the problems, which have been well-documented on various blogs including Baroque in Hackney and Surroundings . In the midst of speculation as to what has actually happened (the full facts have not been publicly released), there have been heated discussions among Society members as to the best course of action, and as of today, a GM has been called for 22nd July.

Until yesterday, I was not a member of the Society; I have just renewed my membership for the first time in twenty years. My reason for doing so is to attend the GM. But why have I not been a member for all these years? It is fair to say that poetry is the most important thing in my life; it is through poetry that I have made my living for these last 12 years, both as a writer and a teacher. Not a day goes by when I am not reading poetry or commenting on it. So why should I not be a member of a society that has the function of promoting it? There are a number of reasons why I have allowed my membership to lapse for so long, both personal and professional. But, personal reasons aside, and in light of recent dramas and the equally dramatic response of fellow poets, I wonder whether it is time for all of us to analyse why such a society should exist and exactly what it should be doing to promote the art form it is dedicated to promoting?

I will freely admit that I have my own ideas about how poetry should be promoted, and some of those ideas are based on my own prejudices and preferences. I’m not keen on ‘gimmicks’; i.e. giant poetry billboards, subscriptions to daily poem texts, etc., designed to attract people who might not normally read poetry. I risk sounding like some kind of dinosaur if I wonder if it isn’t more productive (especially in these times of scant funding) to still attempt to guide such people to books and readings instead? I know the ‘hit rate’ might be less, but the quality of the experience might be greater. And here is the basic fact: some people – quite a few people actually – will never care about poetry. No matter what you do, how you dress it up, poetry will never appeal to them. So why not really concentrate on the people who are genuinely interested and treat them with intelligence? Don’t get me wrong – I’m not against any sort of promotion outside the normal literary boundaries. I think Poems on the Underground is brilliant, not least because the poems they select are truly diverse – during a long tube journey you have the opportunity to read a poem more than once, to really think about it, instead of gazing at whatever free newspaper has been chucked onto the seat next to yours.

Yes, I know – not just a dinosaur, but a snob. I can’t help it. Poetry is important to me, and important to a lot of people around me, and perhaps it’s just a case of wanting to see it (and its practitioners, of course) treated with respect. So if I were to create my own poetry society (forgetting the small problems of funding and resources), what would be its features and functions? Firstly, it seems to me that such a society should be a gathering place where poets could share ideas and resources. A lot of that happens through social networking these days – which is not a bad thing. But there should be a place where poets feel they might gather (other than the pub), and where there might be books and magazines, coffee (perhaps something harder!). Poets House in New York has a library, an extensive performance and education programme, a showcase for new poets, etc. It seems to me that it offers a ‘one-stop shop’, and here in London, poets have to go to several places, like the Poetry Library, the Poetry School, the Poetry Cafe, because not one place can provide all that we need. There have been various plans over the years to bring a number of literature organisations together, and this has happened to some extent at the Free Word Centre . Of course all of the places I have mentioned provide different functions, and diversity is always a good thing, because that keeps discussions and debates open. Perhaps we are too diverse, too fractured in our activities to come together in that way. And of course the current funding situation makes it impossible in the short term. But it would be interesting to have the debate nonetheless …

As for a permanent home for poetry and poetry organisations in London? What about one of the Olympic site buildings post-2012? I can think of no better legacy …

Outside the box



A weekend of books, but not just any books. First, to the Research Group for Artists Publications Small Publishers’ Fair at Conway Hall, where international presses displayed their wares: pamphlets, prints, cards; as well as books, bound in board or leather or fabric, hand-sewn or stitched, or loose-leaved, or accordioned, some which popped from their boxes like springs, some which scattered their disparate pages like an attic of mementos. What these publishers and artists and poets have in common is the desire to prioritise the book, so that it becomes not just a container for words and images, but an object in its own right, as important and as memorable as what it says and shows. These are books which make themselves awkward, which do not sit vertically on shelves, which ask to be displayed like sculptures, to be opened from different vantage points. They force the reader to do more than ‘read’; they are about participation, working out how ‘word’ and ‘meaning’ and ‘gesture’ and ‘vision’ are linked, are indivisible.

And then to the Poetry Library’s open day, to see poets working in a diversity of strategies and ideas: computer poetry, concrete poetry, Oulipo techniques, patterned poetry, collaboration, chance operation, etc. And again, the idea that the book should not be secondary to its contents. Here are a few thoughts from Ulises Carrion, from his essay on The New Art of Making Books, originally printed in Kontexts no. 6- 7, 1975:

A book is a sequence of spaces.
Each of these spaces is perceived at a different moment – a book is also a sequence of moments.
A book is not a case of words, nor a bag of words, nor a bearer of words.

And this from Rick Myers, who talks about the concept of the ‘portable museum’:

I have been exploring the book as a format for this portability, for words and images, and when the contents of the pages have spilled over into three dimensions it has been necessary for the container to do the same … A box is a perimeter for space, for isolation of content, accumulated, often lying in darkness waiting to be revealed and considered …

It was the boxed editions which I found most exciting: lifting the lid on the unknown, a world in an enclosed space, like a walled garden. It takes me back to Bachelard, once again, the idea of the house as a receptacle for memory, the place where our memories are housed. ‘Intimacy needs the heart of a nest,’ he says. The book is like a nest that we crawl into …

As a poet, the idea that the poem can fly beyond the boundaries of the page is liberating; to know that there is a world of poets and artists making objects which are books, but also go beyond the confines of what we understand as a book, gives me hope. In an age when we are constantly being told that the book is dead, isn’t this an ethos for its revitalisation and renewal?

The image is a work by the book artist Georgia Russell.