You are here

Revisit the highlights from the National Poetry Library's history as we celebrate our 70th birthday in 2023

1953, National Poetry Library is Formed

The library was opened in 1953 by T.S. Eliot and Herbert Read. There is no record of what was said at the opening though we have a good idea from Eliot’s quote on libraries: ‘The very existence of libraries affords the best evidence that we may yet have hope for the future.’ 70 years later and we still agree!

TS Eliot Prize Readings

Image Credit: 
Herbert Van Dyck
Portrait of poet,  T.S. Eliot
Image of T.S. Eliot copyright Herbert Van Dyck

1967, first Poetry International Festival

In 1967 something took place in another part of London which would have a big impact on the future of the National Poetry Library: the first Poetry International festival took place at the Southbank Centre, with appearances from W.H. Auden, Pablo Neruda, Allen Ginsberg and Anne Sexton. It would only be a matter of time until the fates of the National Poetry Library and Poetry International would align…

1973, Expansion of the Collection

1973 was a big year in the library’s history as this was the moment when the library started to collect poetry in translation, paving the way for the work of poets such as South Korean Kim Hyesoon to later arrive on the shelves. The library also began to collect contemporary magazines. Today the library is a beeline for all poets wanting to see all of the UK’s poetry magazines in one space.

National Poetry Library Lates

Image Credit: 
Kim Hyesoon, poet
South Korean poet Kim Hyesoon whose books are in the library collection and who has performed several times at the National Poetry Library

1978, Ted Hughes is a Regular

Ted Hughes researched The Rattle Bag anthology in the Poetry Library. In his letters he refers to his research at the library through November and December 1978, writing that he worked ‘from Z backwards through the alphabet to L’. Librarian of the time Jonathan Barker reports that over the following years, many poets would let National Poetry Library staff know that Ted had told them about the collection, making him a welcome marketing ambassador for the library.

1982, Invention of the CD

Spoken word has been at the heart of the collections since the 1960s, when vinyl was the main medium for hearing the poet’s voice. However, the invention of the CD signified the digital revolution which would allow our collections to reach people all over the world, including through our SoundCloud site. By 1989, UK uptake of the CD had passed that of cassette tapes, but no one at the library foresaw the unexpected twist in the tail of recent years, with vinyl becoming the medium most library visitors want to get their hands on as labels release new poetry vinyls each month.

Come along to have a listen or jump into our audio Poems of the Day here and our SoundCloud here.

Image Credit: 
National Poetry Library Vinyl Collection, and turntable
Explore the National Poetry Library vinyl collection on your next visit

1988, Move to Southbank Centre

The library moved to its current location at the Southbank Centre and was opened by Seamus Heaney. To this day there is a rumour that Van Morrison turned up at the opening as he was in the building for an event by the Northern Ireland Field Day writers. Seamus Heaney was unequivocally present and even signed up as a member.

Seamus Heaney Book Club

Image Credit: 
Seamus Heaney with librarian Mary Enright
Seamus Heaney with librarian Mary Enright at the opening of the National Poetry Library at Southbank Centre in 1988. Image copyright David Hunter.

2012, Poetry Parnassus Festival

Poetry Parnassus was arguably the world’s largest ever gathering of poets, with a poet being invited from every competing country in the Olympic Games that year. London’s South Bank was overrun with poets and the Chilean Arts Collective, Casagrande, organised the Rain of Poems which involved a helicopter dropping poems written by each of the attending poets over Jubilee Gardens. It was discovered later that one of the poems had fallen onto the lap of a cyclist who then looked at the poem to find that he knew the poet who had written it. We also captured each visiting poet in a video, which you can find in the Poems section of our website.

Watch Tishani Doshi read her poem 'The Adulterous Citizen' at Poetry Parnassus. 

Tishani Doshi performing at Southbank Centre's Poetry Parnassus festival, 2012

Image Credit: 
National Poetry Library courtesy of Southbank Centre
Tishani Doshi performing at Southbank Centre's Poetry Parnassus festival, 2012
Tishani Doshi reads 'The Adulterous Citizen' in the National Poetry Library in 2012.

2017, David Byrne's Lending Library

As part of David Byrne’s Meltdown at the Southbank Centre the musician had a simple idea: to bring over his entire collection of music books from New York and make them available to his fans to borrow throughout the festival. The National Poetry Library set up an exhibition called David Byrne’s Lending Library which recreated the look of his bookshelves at home, allowing visitors to browse his real books and borrow them. Fans were delighted to find handwritten notes in the margins of the books. The library's ongoing free exhibitions have become a major feature of the library's offer, with our 70th birthday celebration focussing on the iconic fashion of female poets with Poets in Vogue and the forthcoming Word Pictures from Mary Kuper.

Visit Poets in Vogue

David Byrne's Meltdown Southbank Centre / Victor Frankowski

Image Credit: 
David Byrne's Meltdown Southbank Centre / Victor Frankowski
David Byrne at Meltdown Southbank Centre
David Byrne in the National Poetry Library, 2017. Photo copyright India Roper-Evans.

2021, Reopening the Library 

Following a closure of the library during the Covid-19 pandemic, May 2021 brought relief and a release of happiness as the National Poetry Library reopened its doors, after a lick of paint and a dusting down of the books. Shortly after, our exhibitions and live events were back in motion. Now is a great time for you to get involved with what’s on offer, including joining the library which is free of charge.

See upcoming events at the Nationa Poetry Library here and discover how east it is to become a member of the library for free.

2023, Poetry International 

We like to look to the future and our Poetry International festival this year couldn’t come at a better time to allow us to celebrate our 70th birthday. As part of this we’ll have a celebration event featuring international celebration from poets reading their work who will also share their stories about the library and their favourite poems from the shelves. Don’t miss this one!

Read more about the library's 70th birthday part event and book ticket here.


Olive Senior

Image Credit: 
Poet Olive Senior wears a velvet jacket and silver necklace
Olive Senior who will be performing at out NPL at 70 celebration event on 23rd July. Come along and join the celebration!