Wednesday, 7 October 2009
Poems on the Underground
Last night I was part of the reading for the publication of The Best Poems on the London Underground at the LRB Bookshop near the British Museum. This meant a scurry down and an even hastier scurry back but it was eminently worth it.
It is, I think, one of the great privileges of poetry to be included in this scheme, which has given birth to many others throughout the world since it was first set up in 1986 by Judith Chernaik, Gerard Benson and Cicely Herbert (and even more of a privilege to be in this Best of... volume). On this occasion, as the link says, I was reading with Wendy Cope and Jo Shapcott, but also with Gerard and Cicely. The place was crammed. We each read for about 10 minutes, roughly half from our own work and half from the anthology. Since there was no pre-planning it was something of a miracle that none of us chose a poem that had been chosen by another. It is also a tribute to the range of poems in the book. Many of the poems are familiar of course, as they would be given the premise of the selection, but they sit next to others that are new, or only faintly familiar.
I tried to say something about why I thought the scheme so good. I want to try to say it again now, perhaps a little more clearly, with a little more consideration, at a little greater length.
The phrase, 'Go, little book...' tells us of the power, value and vulnerability of the book. It is impossible to speak too highly of the value of books, of the human thought, feeling and endeavour contained and invested in them: the words of the dead and dying in the hearts of the living, the words alive, as if spoken now, as if touching the nerve now, at this very moment.
In bookshops there is usually the poetry corner about which Kingsley Amis once wrote a funny poem. 'A Bookshop Idyll', before turning his attention to fiction. There is, for all kinds of reasons, something coyly cornerish about Poets' Corner. Sensitives retire there in varying states of tremulousness: the robustly healthy avoid it as if it were a source of potential weakening or embarrassment. The common-sense disciples of straight-speaking and simple man-ness avoid it because it is for clever intellectual types who'll only make them feel inferior and dumb. Fancy talk for the fancy minded.
People, on the whole, only go there if it is what they already want: the corner offers a specialism, like turnip growing or vintage trains.
The corner is a minor, short-term disaster for poetry. It's not a disaster in the great eternal scheme of things because poetry survives wherever it is put because it is hard-wired into our central nervous system. It is as plain as day to me that under all the Pavlovian reactions and aversions there is a deep understanding of what the stuff is and what it's for and that that understanding extends to everyone, in every culture. It's not going to vanish. As long as language persists, poetry will radiate from its very centre, if only because the experience of living demands it. Being alive is a poetic experience. The simple consciousness of our capacity to breathe can take our breath away.
What is marvellous about Poems on the Underground is that it takes poetry out of the corner (I know, I live in the corner, am of it, and love it because how can you not love being with what you love?) and floats it into the very air. It is there among crowds, among advertisements, among newspapers, public notices, maps, graffiti, above the issues of London Lite and the Evening Standard. It is not in a corner. People glance up and there it is. Just a few lines of it. And those lines are doing something that nothing around them does. They hold the air. They engage an unprepared part of them (of me, of us, of you) just as the poem itself must enter the world a little unprepared, always a little surprised at itself. They engage the place we know exists within us, that rises out of all we are to meet them.
If I had my way I would print short poems on napkins in restaurants, on the backs of tickets, on ordinary things we never think about because we are about some other business. I would leave them on leaflets on park benches. Let them blow away. They'll eventually blow away in any case.
And as for the bookshops, I would have certain special, slightly unfamiliar arrangements. I would have some bookshops without a poetry corner. I would arrange all the books alphabetically and let the authors sit next to each other: the gardeners with the historians with the scientists with the poets. Or do it by subject if you like, the subjects suggested by their titles: The Death of a Naturalist with The Natural History of Selborne and The Nature Boy. Or keep the broad areas of interest but mix in the fiction and the poetry, so that, say Masefield and Homer and Anon and Walcott are with books about ships and the sea, or at least with travel, and industry, and colonialism and whatever. Let's introduce people at the party. Let's not stand on too much ceremony there. There will be ceremony enough elsewhere, and sections and corners and embarrassment.
It's lovely to get prizes (hey! I might even get one tonight, though I doubt it). It's lovely to stand in the prize corner. But it's just as good, even better, to be out of any corner, with all the other stuff of the world. On the Underground. Why not?