Chris Meade:
Libraries Need Poetry

Much of the greatest poetry ever written comes from the British Isles and a huge number of highly talented poets live and work here today. A new generation of younger poets from a wide range of backgrounds is attracting much attention. The performance poetry scene is becoming as popular as alternative comedy and it's not only live poets who are attracting attention; when a poem by W.H.Auden was used in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral his books sold out in days. The 100 Poems on the Underground anthology has sold 100,000 copies. Poetry can be popular when it is presented in the right way.

Millions of people write poetry. Millions more know at least a few poems, perhaps first heard at school, which mean a great deal to them.

Poems are concise - they can easily be made accessible through posters, bookmarks and projects like the hugely successful Poems on the Underground.

Most poets these days are accomplished readers of their work with a growing audience for poetry readings and performances.

There's a huge national network of groups, small magazines and publishers, festivals and venues.

There's a wide diversity of poets writing and performing today, people of all backgrounds and styles producing work which can be moving, intellectually brilliant or raucously hilarious.

Poetry deals with language, structure, voice and meaning - the essentials of literature. Poetry makes words count for something. In the modern world we are deluged with words, sold to us and beamed at us from all directions. Most are tired and cliched; slogans of the political and the advertising variety have failed us. To read one individual's perception of the world, a carefully crafted construction of intellect and imagination is a wonderful thing.

Poetry is an ideal artform to be promoted in libraries:

  • It can be performed out loud by staff, local groups, professional poets.
  • It can be displayed easily. With a novel you can only display book jackets and snippets - you can display the whole of a poem.
  • It's easy to borrow. A poetry collection is light and slim, users can borrow one to dip into without worrying whether they'll have time to read the whole thing.
  • It's a participative art. It can be used to encourage participation in writers' and readers' groups.

Poetry Needs Libraries

Never far away, on the high street beside the chip shop, pub or supermarket, is a place anyone can enter for free, sit as long as they like undisturbed and read anything from a leaflet about maternity rights to a Shakespeare play, where they can browse untroubled through fiction and faction, romance and true life stories, how-to books and whodunnits, car manuals and contemporary poetry - and pay nothing. Yours may look hi-tech or olde worlde, it may be large or small, but in it anyone can order up any book in the world. This extraordinary institution is a public library: your local, free point of access to world culture.

It's the ideal place to start for anyone who wants to take risks with reading. A book shop will have stacks of pristine copies of new titles; it will do what it can to tempt its preferred customer type - dark wood and piped Mozart for the literati, bright lights and dumpbins full of 'tv tie-ins' for the passing trade; it will swiftly help you find, but make sure you pay for, the book by the author you knew you wanted to read.

Libraries are more democratic, used by a broad cross section of ages and types; here books can stray into the hands of readers way beyond their 'target markets'. The waiting list for new bestsellers may be very long, but in the meantime there's a wealth of other possibilities - including poetry.

At seven quid a shot for the average volume of slim verse, poetry can be an expensive habit without a library to hand, and although bookshops like Waterstones and Dillons have improved their coverage of poetry, many important mainstream books, let alone the mass of pamphlets and small press rarities, would be hard to find without the help of inter-library loans.

Libraries don't just provide an information service, they're an Imagination Service too. Exhibitions, readings, booklists and 'creative reading' projects can offer users ways in to new kinds of writing, building readers' confidence to chart their own personal routes through the mass of words on offer.

For instance, a poetry reading can be a daunting prospect to the uninitiated. Readers who would never dream of buying a ticket for a reading in an arts venue will attend - and enjoy -an event in their local library.

Poetry is thriving. It's Britain's most buoyant and participatory art form. If your library aims to develop a creative dialogue with users and stimulate live events, projects and groups to promote literature and creative reading, then poetry can and should play a key role.