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Going very birdlike

Eleanor Rees is Lecturer in Creative Writing at Liverpool Hope University. Her PhD is entitled  ‘Making Connections’: The Work of the Local Poet (Exeter, 2014) and she has worked extensively as a poet in the community. She has published three collections of poetry. Her fourth ‘The Well at Winter Solstice’ is forthcoming from Salt, 2019. Here, she reflects on poetry and community at the National Poetry Library.

Jeppe Hein's Appearing Room Fountains

Image Credit: 
Victor Frankowski

A sweltering summer’s day deep in central London. The Thames hasn’t offered much respite, the embankment bridge to the south bank laid me bare to the heat and the city streets scorch. Children play in the water fountain and a father and son talk in the cafe about how to best care for Mother - should she go into a home? Is she is danger living on her own? 

And I am here at the Royal Festival Hall to think about poetry and communities though all I want from others today is solitude and shade. Out-of-place and down-south, I am always bewildered by London, so many people, so little time it seems. I start to fracture, become the couple arguing, or a student newly-arrived or a fantasy Bloomsbury poet of little renown walking the backstreet squares. 

I nip into Foyles to check out the latest collections - poets of the ‘London scene’.  Do I like their words? How do they speak to me? Can I listen? And I enter the library, out-of-breath from the stairs, my dissolute self overheated and dripping away. I trawl through the magazines. Do these voices speak to me? What do they have to say? Poetry is a forge for the making of the meaning of selves and of groups of selves. We needs I, and I is always we. I’ve come from Liverpool to write about poetry and communities in a library. I can sense a connection here; I must find it. When I came last, in January through fog and ice, I met with Chris, National Poetry Librarian and Jessica, the Digital Coordinator and we spoke about how the library is a public resource, how it is used by a wide range of groups, how it is open to all. During my PhD, I spent years thinking about how poets make connections, make the boundaries and also trouble them till they fall. Poets build new ‘legislation’ to use Shelley’s word. As a poet working in communities, I’ve seen this process in action many times. How meanings emerge; and to emerge they must be lost and re-made. In imagination, in refilling our emptying selves, poets do this work.

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Image Credit: 
Pete Woodhead

I make notes. Pascal the Assistant Librarian shows me around, helps me understand the history and work of the collection. The National Poetry Library (NPL) was established in 1953 as a result of the post-war settlement, the ambitious period which saw the creation of the NHS, National Insurance, the Arts Council.

Literary critic John Hayward described ‘its purpose is the simple task of helping the reader of poetry, and particularly the younger reader, to get into easier and closer touch with the published verse of his poetic contemporaries’. 

The library collects works from poets writing in English and the intention is profoundly democratic, as shown by Hayward’s ‘easier’ and ‘closer’. If poetic voice here is understood as that of the individual, then the reader is thought to commune with the poet, to become close, to understand difference through its encounter. A further quote from Ted Hughes shows me something of the transformative powers of the library doing its work. When putting together his seminal collection The Rattle Bag, edited with Seamus Heaney, Hughes wrote to the poet Adrian Mitchell:

This last week I was sitting every day in the Poetry Library at the Arts Council going through every book that showed any likelihood of producing a poem for that anthology… I was trekking for days through the densely packed Ys and the insuperably ranked Ws – going very birdlike over the tops of their heads for the most part… Very strange experience, squeezing every morning into modern poetry, and sitting there all curled up with a book over mouth deeply, then coming out in the five or six o’clock dark onto Piccadilly again
Ted Hughes

Hughes, with his characteristic physicality, shows us how he was ‘trekking’ and flying through the library, as if the act of reading so many multiple voices was a sort-of vision quest, a self lost and then found again back in the dusky urban London street.


Image Credit: 
Southbank Centre / The Poetry Library

The library is a space for the making of selves, of putting our faces in the water to see if we can still breath underneath. The boundaries that language makes, the structure, form and shape of poetry is like a pool we can lose ourselves within. We are neither totally free, nor caged but can lean on the edges to let go into the depth. To let go, there must be someone to catch us, some form to take our shape for a while.

The NPL collection is not without its rules; any library is in the business of categorization and curation. Choices and responsible decisions must be made about which books are included, who is included. In the guidelines for ‘unsolicited acquisitions’ the librarians describe how they attempt to filter the many poetries now circulating in our culture. They advocate for reading ‘over 100 contemporary poetry collections’ before submitting one’s own. ‘This is the way to be sure you’re creating something individual. All poets spark off and inspire each other, sharing forms and themes, but no committed poet wants to sound/read like a copy of another.’ Indeed! And there it is again, the paradox of being a self in a group, or a group of selves. Individuality emerges from variety and in turn produces further individuality. And on…

And now, in this current moment, as we deconstruct our group identities, we also need to make communalities anew in order to know ourselves in the world.  The current Instagram Poetry exhibition (now finished) shows this need in full tilt – the anxiety of being a self online, of seeking new rules. The aphorisms of Rupi Kapur elicit a feeling of safety, of knowing something fixed and sold in the face of flux, of identifying with a voice and with others in that fixity - of belonging.

These instagram poems are asking for likes and to be liked. ‘The way I hid in the bathroom because alone is closer to you’ writes @anon_sense on a photo of a plughole. ‘Always lying to MYSELF.’ a four word poem by @ernfariswrites. These poems want affirmation that their suffering self really does exist.  And this is another, very human, paradox of contemporary poetry communities. All its voices, its defiant individualists like to meet and talk and gossip, often searching for more rules or boundaries to push against, to define themselves and to make themselves solid. 

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Image Credit: 
Pete Woodhead

At 2:30pm I meet the London Haiku Group during their lunch break. We meet in the foyer to the library. Coming together to critique and share their haiku, the society all agreed they were indeed ‘perfectionists’. Five, seven, five syllables makes for a baggy poem. Why use so many words? Why such lack of refinement, such lack of discipline?

I learn from Pascal that the NPL holds a busy children’s session (Rug Rhymes) on a Friday and eight poetry groups meet regularly at the library - Tideway Poets, the Arvon Young Poets - to discuss their poetry, that is to discuss the making of selves in relation to others. Poetry will always pull in both directions, defining our experience whilst deconstructing it. For experience itself is never static but as alive as our need to know a self, in order to know the selves of others.