Rachel Rose Reid is a poet and storyteller who has been in virtual and actual residence at the Poetry Library during London LitFest 2012. She’s sharing stories she has discovered there to celebrate the Collection, which now spans a century’s worth of poetry from 1912 to the present day.
“A lady came to the library looking for a recording of Ivor Cutler. He used to come here nearly every day. Sure enough he came in. And he read the poem to her right here at the front desk. That could only really happen here”.
What John, Poetry Librarian says is true: the people found reading and writing at the window-side study desks are also the people found on the shelves.
‘I didn’t grow up hearing poetry. When I was about 20 I moved to the Hebrides, and there was space for it’, says one such regular, poet Stephen Watts.
His life experiences and poetry are strong matches for London’s rich patchwork, from his Alpine-born ancestors and his own flight from suburbia to Scottish wilderness, to his return, diving deep into the heart of Whitechapel, the streets a heady brew of cultures, characters and encounters ripe for picking.
‘I first came to the Library about 35 years ago. It was in Piccadilly run by Jonathan Barker; he had a real passion for books. Back then it was a crammed building, but the rooms were quiet. I remember going there many times.’
The affection with which Poetry Library fans talk to me about the place is akin to the passionate expressiveness of first love. I asked librarian Chrissy whether working here has diminished this sense of romance, ‘No’, she said, ‘the intrigue has not gone. This is still my favourite place in London. I guess anyone who works in a library has the pleasure of borrowing books on the bus home to read over night and bring back. Well, I still try to borrow more than I can physically manage.’
And the romantic similarities continue. In the library and online, there’s even a lonely hearts column for poetry. Single lines await attention from those who can find their matching poems for their curious / desperate / eager seekers.
Do not weep for me the day I die, they say, I have not fully lived my life; I had a little motor car, I called it Nibby Neb.
The Lost Quotations are a long-loved quirky presence here, proved by the yellow plastic folder full of thank you letters:
…I cannot express how much I appreciate your help in finding this poem. I can hear my mum’s voice as I read it: her inflection, her smile, how easily she recited it from memory…
…Thank you so much…I’d wanted to source the poem as the means of lifting the spirits of my father…he was absolutely delighted…
‘It’s great to have such a wide range in one place’ says Stephen. ‘When I first came I remember reading Hugh McDermott and Yannis Ritzos for the first time, and finding poets like Bill Griffiths – poets from the ‘60s and ‘70s – whose work was in great contrast to Eliot and Larkin. But one style is not to the exclusion of the other. If you like a certain trend you can foolishly discount everything else – but when I come here, it’s just out of a real passion for work that moves me.’
(after the death of Altab Ali, and for Bill Fishman)
Whoever has walked slowly down Brick Lane in the darkening air and a stiff little rain,
past the curry house with lascivious frescoes,
past the casual Sylheti sweet-shops and cafés
and the Huguenot silk attics of Fournier Street,
and the mosque that before was a synagogue and before that a chapel,
whoever has walked down that darkening tunnel of rich history
from Bethnal Green to Osborne Street at Aldgate,
past the sweat-shops at night and imams with hennaed hair,
and recalls the beigel-sellers on the pavements, windows candled to Friday night,
would know this street is a seamless cloth, this city, these people,
and would not suffocate ever from formlessness or abrupted memory,
would know rich history is the present before us,
laid out like a cloth – a cloth for the wearing – with bits of mirror and coloured stuff,
and can walk slowly down Brick Lane from end to seamless end,
looped in the air and the light of it, in the human lattice of it,
the blood and exhausted flesh of it, and the words grown bright with the body’s belief,
and life to be fought for and never to be taken away.
From The Blue Bag; Watts, Stephen,
[which will be back on the shelves as soon as I have returned it, RRR]
Filed under: London Literature Festival 2012, Misc | Tagged: Anita Sethi, Gatz, Geoff Dyer, Kathleen Tessaro, Sarah Churchwell, The Great Gatsby | 4 Comments »