Live poets society

Some come in search of lost verse. Others, Prince Charles included, are looking for a good quote. Working poets such as Andrew Motion and John Hegley turn up daily for a little calm, comfort and creative inspiration. Christina Patterson says happy 50th birthday to the Poetry Library
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The Independent Culture

"The Poetry Library," said Philip Larkin in a burst of rare enthusiasm, "is one of the occasional pure flowerings of the imagination for which the English are so seldom given credit." His introduction to the 1981 catalogue adds that it is "just up the street from the offices of Encounter and round the corner from the Garrick Club". The perfect place, in other words, for the literary gentleman to indulge in a little poetic browsing, after a leisurely lunch with one's editor or one's old chum, Kingsley.

"The Poetry Library," said Philip Larkin in a burst of rare enthusiasm, "is one of the occasional pure flowerings of the imagination for which the English are so seldom given credit." His introduction to the 1981 catalogue adds that it is "just up the street from the offices of Encounter and round the corner from the Garrick Club". The perfect place, in other words, for the literary gentleman to indulge in a little poetic browsing, after a leisurely lunch with one's editor or one's old chum, Kingsley.

Today, the Poetry Library, which celebrates its 50th birthday this week, nestles on the fifth floor of London's Royal Festival Hall, part of a rather different artistic and cultural mix. Visitors might find themselves queueing for a cappuccino alongside the ageing, Home-Counties, classical-music audiences or jostling for space in the bar with the self-consciously hip "yoof" crowd flocking to dance events in the Purcell Room or to the ultra-cool annual "Meltdown" festival, curated by the likes of Laurie Anderson and Elvis Costello. If poetry is not exactly the new rock'n'roll, it can at least sit next to it.

For those who make it past the café, the bookshop and the bar, up past the clusters of tables and chairs overlooking the vast foyer, with its cacophony of voices and loud music, a pleasant surprise awaits. On one side of the fifth floor, you can sip your chardonnay and gaze out at one of London's most spectacular vistas: the Houses of Parliament to the left, the twinkling blue lights of the new Hungerford footbridge and, in the distance, the dome of St Paul's. On the other side, you can open a glass door and enter an oasis of a different kind.

Just outside, by the entrance to the concert hall, a board offers a taste of what lies beyond. The sign at the top says "Lost Quotations" and underneath there are neatly typed notes pinned at intervals, offering a range of requests for help. "Children's poem called 'The Bust' about a servant who is so in love with her master that she kisses the bust when she is cleaning his rooms", says one, bafflingly. "Written around walls of school assembly hall in Thirties," says another, before quoting a chunk of rousing Christian verse and asking, please, if anyone knows who wrote it. In days past, the board was used when the collective brains of the librarians had failed. In the days of the poetry database and the internet, it's more like a last-chance saloon for half-remembered verse. The notes speak of memory and childhood and sometimes read like a slightly desperate plea for some kind of peace.

On the other side of the glass door is a world of peace, elegance and some surprises. Opposite the front desk, where slim volumes of tender lyrics are stamped and returned, there's an exhibition of poems chosen by South Bank staff. Geoffrey Hadfield, the house manager, has chosen Wendy Cope's "Bloody Men Are Like Bloody Buses" because, he says, "it's a reflection of life. You wait for the train to get to work. You wait for the audience to arrive. You wait to get served in the bar." Emma Smith, the South Bank receptionist, has chosen Jackie Kay's "The Frog Who Dreamed She Was an Opera Singer" because "it reminds me of all the artists I have met ... I would so much like to be an opera singer myself."

And then, of course, there are the books: 90,000 items in all, if you include pamphlets, tapes, videos and magazines, some with names like Aeropagus, Bogg and Thumbscrew. Unusually, the library acquires two copies of every book, so that when one is out on loan, the other one can always be read on site, using the beech furniture specially designed for the library by Terence Conran. It is all, in fact, perfectly suited to the chic modernism of the Festival Hall, with its white walls, airy open spaces and vast vistas of grey, "net and ball" design carpet. Only the rolling reference shelves, a space-saving and idiosyncratic feature, offer some kind of threat. Lost in a favourite poem, you can be jolted from your musings by a wall of books moving inexorably towards you. It adds an unexpected adrenalin edge.

The Poetry Library is the most comprehensive collection of modern poetry in Britain and one of the largest in the world. Until 1997, it was open every day of the year except Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Now closed on Mondays, it still has the longest opening hours of any public library in the country. Set up on the recommendation of the Poetry Panel of the Arts Council of Great Britain, it opened in 1953 with speeches by TS Eliot and Herbert Read. As the collection expanded, it regularly outgrew its premises, moving from Albemarle Street to Piccadilly, on to Long Acre and then, under Lord Gowrie, back to an expanded space in Piccadilly. Finally, in 1988, it found its present home. This time, Seamus Heaney spoke at the opening, which accompanied the launch of a major poetry festival and a year-round programme of readings and talks that is still thriving.

"The most extraordinary thing," says Andrew Motion, a regular user of the library, "is the fact that it exists at all. As Larkin said, it's the kind of thing that you don't expect England to do. It flies in the face of the way we generally run things, ie neglect things. I used it a lot when I was doing the Here to Eternity anthology. The stock is extremely good and very catholic – and the ancillary services, such as quote-checking, are wonderful. Every time I went there," he adds ruefully, "more water had gushed through the ceiling, adding to that heroic English feeling ..."

It is true that there have, in recent years, been a number of highly unfortunate floods, and precious stock has had to be whisked away and dried out. It's also true that what Motion calls the "ancillary services" are largely what make this such a remarkable place. Membership is free and so are enquiries. Many are requests for help in finding poems for weddings and funerals, but some are more eccentric. Prince Charles's PA phoned recently, looking for a poem to include in a speech he was about to give on GM crops.

The range of users is also extremely broad. According to Charles Bainbridge, who has worked at the library for 13 years, it includes "cool, beatniky types", who make straight for Charles Bukowski or Nick Cave; "dedicated readers of poetry who've been using the library for 20 or 30 years"; schoolchildren, academics, journalists and parents hoping to instill a bit of gentle culture into their offspring.

"From time to time," says Bainbridge, "someone will pop in saying, 'I'm a bit short of money, so I thought I'd take up writing poetry.' " They will, he hints, be swiftly but gently disabused. A man came in a few weeks ago brandishing a poem he had just written. "I was on the astral plane," he told Bainbridge, "and I met that bloke who wrote 'The Ancient Mariner' and he really liked it." Poetry has always attracted more than its fair share of the seriously unhinged.

"This is a pleasant library. I'd enjoy every minute/But for the danger of meeting other poets in it." Wendy Cope's succinct poem sums up one of the chief pleasures – or dangers – of the Poetry Library. This is a place where the artists are also the users. Wendy Cope first started using it in the Seventies when she was still a full-time teacher. "It was a wonderful discovery," she declares. "I'd just got interested in poetry and couldn't afford to buy the books I wanted to read." There were no cheap local eateries, so she would smuggle in her sandwiches and munch on them as she browsed. Roger McGough offers Liverpudlian understatement: "It's all there and it's a nice place to work ... Last time I went the lift wasn't working."

Poet and novelist Lavinia Greenlaw was the South Bank's Reader in Residence in 2000. "Most people who read poetry," she says, "are poets of some sort or another, so it makes a pleasant change to set aside ourselves as writers and just be readers." In the years before his death, Ted Hughes could often be found sitting at the back of the library, reading, on every visit, the same book: The Everyman Book of Narrative Verse. Ivor Cutler is now almost part of the library's furniture. "Is that man a tramp?" one of the Festival Hall's stewards was heard saying loudly.

According to Poetry Librarian Simon Smith, the library is also used as a meeting place, a place "for poetry enthusiasts to exchange ideas, poems and news". What about romantic encounters? "Well," he says coyly, "I couldn't really comment on that. But there was a lonely heart ad in Time Out a few years ago that talked about 'stealing shy glances from the next table'." John Hegley is rather less coy. The poem he faxed me is even more succinct than Wendy Cope's: "The Poetry Library:/housing/of arousing/browsing." E The Poetry Library, 020-7921 0943

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