National Poetry Day. I understand why some poet-theorists, like Charles Bernstein, resist the lure of such public celebrations of an otherwise private, and ideologically-complex art. Poems, arguably, are meant to oppose just such occasions, such broad-beam jamborees. To question everything civic and communal. To resist, with language, any too-easy consumption of language. Language should also stick in the throat, not just slide down like so much predigested pap. Okay, but as poetry is already on the outside of civil society for 360-plus days of the year, a day, a week, even a month, in which to bring its riches before the public is not necessarily a bad thing. Only so, if the only poetry celebrated is simply rubbish. Which most poetry isn't. Even the most so-called mainstream, or traditional, work, has its moments of challenge. No good poem can be just simple, just accessible, even if it seems so. A swan dive requires skill to execute, as do all elegant acts, and so should not be avoided in favour of cannonballs simply to readjust water levels and raise eyebrows. The arc in the air is the thing, as well as the splash made. But, let us not pretend, either, that all poetry is good for children, or for the air, or for the mind. Art can destroy as well as build, upset the apple cart as well as pick an apple from a ladder. National Poetry Days need to contain the elements of strange surprise and danger that are also inherent in poems, in order to tell more of the story about poems.
Here is a poem of mine, an homage to Larkin, about the state of literacy and culture in Britain, to share with you this day.
“Libraries in the UK will be redundant by 2020” – BBC news
I return, even though the due date’s faded.
The glue’s decayed, lets gape an erotic
Separation between card and page. 2020
Is not so much a time as a place, loaded
With laser-visions of dystopic outrages:
One being the library’s gutted, dead as
A church. Pigeons for squatters, mice;
Screens unplugged from their machines
Have taken their flat coma minds away,
Now as functionless as a drinks tray
At an AA meeting; as sad as memorabilia
For a team that never had a victory.
The books themselves assume the position:
They spread out on their desert island
Shelves, the castaway long gone:
To rescue or sun-picked oblivion. Bloated
By rain-damage, yellowed, quiet as kids
Traumatized by the playground into books
And music, they spell out culture’s purpose:
U-S-E-L-E-S-S. Queuing where they would
Have stamped my tomes, then run them
Over that queer magnetic beam device
(Sometimes forgotten so all hell’s bells
Went off, startling the pensioners, the mad
Homeless and the religious elf, whose home
This was, because theirs was lonely, unheated)
I joke about late charges, and toy with an idea
Of asking the invisible librarian out for tea.
Her reply is vacant and worthless, anyway;
As are all these authors, glossy covers,
And flattering blurbs: best, better, and so on.
What did those reviews get them in the end?
A better type of casket? A leggier friend?
Anonymous? Take your pick. Even famous
Writers get lost in indifference, once dust:
Their agents have moved to digital recreation.
Still, it isn’t so bad in this page-littered
Mausoleum, a permanent autumn of loose
Leaves and broken spines: it’s just a ward
Where all the injured veterans of some old
Romantic war lie, under their sheets, to fold
Into the future like a memory of wind-turning
Narration: a novel ride, reading, at the sea,
Or, like a faithful canine, that bedside block
That kept you an insomniac; that door-stop
Whose catacombs contained words, characters,
And even a sense of falling into love, or destiny.
No one borrows now. They read, if they do,
Off monocles, implants, it’s all direct. No
Going to a building to get a bunch of stories
To carry home, like groceries: all delivered
Over optic wire, at the speed of vision.
I leave the copy I neglected for so long
On the returns trolley, then stop in the middle
To snicker, take a bow, cough loudly,
Then finally sneeze. Once, this was verboten.
Not anymore. No one to care to shush,
Or put a prudish finger to their thin lips.
Acting out, I yell: f-ck literacy! An owl
Or an addict mumbles back; my own voice
Echoes off the subjects, from Art to Zoology.
Time to go. On the way out, on forever-loan
One supposes, I acquire a How To guide
To automotive repair, and a battered thriller.
I know how both end, but still desire the act
Of taking my literate communion publicly.
poem by Todd Swift
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