POETRY / The ballad of level five: What really goes on in the Poetry Library at the South Bank? Sabine Durrant spent a day between the shelves finding out

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At Rachel Nickell's funeral on Monday, the boyfriend of the murdered girl recited some lines of poetry. The verse began 'Do not stand at my grave and weep . . . ' and some listeners may have remembered reading the words in a newspaper in 1989 after a soldier had sent them in a letter to his mother, just before being killed in Northern Ireland. The poem is carefully uplifting. But in one part of London on Monday, for different reasons, hearts fell.

'We're always getting enquiries about that poem,' said Mary Enright, chief librarian at the Poetry Library on the South Bank. 'It's in the top three, along with Leo Marks' 'Code Poem for the French Resistance' - you know, 'The love that I love is all that I have' - and 'Death is Nothing at all', said to be by Henry Scott Holland. But for this one, we can't track down the authorship. Dolores (Conway - assistant librarian) was on the phone most of yesterday to the Press Association. And when the poem was first in the papers after Stephen Cummins was killed, every newspaper was ringing us up, asking about it. It's just one of those queries that will run and run . . . '

The Poetry Library, owned by the Arts Council, staffed by the South Bank, supported by Japanese businessmen, is a shuffling, index-searching, page-turning vortex of silently frantic activity. Philip Larkin once said that 'the idea of poetry, vague enough outside, is here immediate and busy, like a political campaign'; and it is extraordinary how much work a self-contained collection of 20th- century British verse (50,000 volumes) can generate.

The library hasn't always been on the South Bank: it was founded by the Arts Council in 1953 (T S Eliot and Herbert Read spoke at the opening) and was for a long while housed in Arts Council property - first on Long Acre, then in Piccadilly - before, in 1988, it was carted, book by book, to its present home on the hushed and carpeted fifth floor of the Royal Festival Hall. Some might say it was tucked away out of sight up here, but membership has doubled since the relocation (from 5,261 to 10,035), and between 80 and 100 visitors a day manage to find their way to its poetic portals.

Why do they come? Well, it's free (and there are no fines on late books, which Enright believes makes borrowers more willing to return - 'They know they'll be welcomed, not punished'). Philip Larkin said you always find a smile at the Poetry Library, and the poet Selima Hill, currently working on the Ballroom Blitz collaboration in the RFH foyer, calls it 'the friendliest place in London'. But you could say the same about a soup kitchen. The library may house a vast quantity of poetry (its encyclopaedic range can be seen in microcosm by a glance down the Js: Alan Jenkins, Elinor Jenkins, Mike Jenkins, Nigel Jenkins, Paul Jenkins, Philip Jenkins), but there are no critical tomes and not enough space for en masse swotting (a group of students was discouraged earlier in June by crisp notes on the desks they had begun to appropriate). And although Selima Hill joined because she was in love with Jonathan Barker, former chief librarian, it's not a patch on the Tate Gallery for pick-ups.

Academics, anthologists, advertising executives (a building society recently asked for a poem 'about dreaming that mentions a house or a holiday'), oddballs ('Poetry tends to attract the highly strung,' admitted one librarian) and poetry fanatics ('Those who just love the stuff') form a portion of the membership, but what about the other 2,000-odd each month?'

'Most of them don't know what they've come in for,' says Simon Smith, assistant librarian and poet (he had a booklet published in April), 'so the first job is to interpret.' He spent Tuesday morning reading a middle-aged woman's verses, guiding her towards small-press publishers and advising her on how to approach editors. Then he had to deal with 'that chap over there (a sharply dressed young man with sideburns and an aluminium briefcase), which took some time'. The chap, copying poems into a foolscap notebook in sloping writing, was, it turned out, a film director, researching a project for MTV ('But it's not been copyrighted yet, so if you can keep a lid on it . . . ') So far, he said, he's read about 5,000 poems, 'been popping in over the last three months'.

In the corner, a distinguished gentleman with a hessian shopping bag had requested Wallace Stevens' Opus Posthumous ('possibly an academic,' mooted Smith) and by the racks of poetry magazines, two English teachers were horsing about, trying to decide whether to subscribe to Chiaroscuro, perhaps, or Celtic Dawn, or Purple Patch. 'Our head's moronic,' they said. 'She's just got no idea - we may have to pay for the subscription ourselves.'

Dolores Conway, meanwhile, was busy in the back office, trying to locate a poem about a lurcher for a woman in Brighton. 'She's convinced it's by John Masefield, but I've looked up all the dog references in the Collected Poems and I can't find one - hounds, but no lurchers. I'm sending her a copy of William Cowper's 'The Woodman's Dog', which is the closest I can find. You never know, it might be the one.'

This request is typical of many that pop up at the Poetry Library from minds twirling with half-remembered verses from school or childhood, snatches of nagging doggerel desperate to be pinned down. Often, enquiries for these 'Lost Quotations' come armed with clues, though more often than not Betjeman or Masefield are cited as possible authors - 'They've heard of those poets and they don't want to sound too ignorant.' The librarians are proud of their discovery rate (about 70 per cent), but sometimes the information received is just too skimpy. A caller recently triggered a search for a verse he learnt at school and wanted to remember for his wife's anniversary. Unfortunately he couldn't remember much about it, no date, author, or title, only that it included the words 'I love you'. Other outstanding projects include an investigation into a poem apparently called 'How Dobbin Told Tales', about a horse who inadvertently informs his master's wife about his drinking habits, and an enquiry on House of Commons paper, marked Urgent, for a poem that, at some point, goes 'Don't cheer' ('Or perhaps 'Cheer not' ').

But the Poetry Library is also, of course, riddled with poets. Most of the staff are secret writers (though some look dark and mutter 'Well I used to . . . less now.') The Japanese company Saison, which effectively paid for the transfer and whose name is inscribed over the door, is owned by the second richest man in Japan, Seiji Tsutsomi, who writes poems in his spare time (pen name: Takashi Tsuji). 'Let's face it, if you're interested in reading poetry,' says Smith, who wouldn't go anywhere without his little black notebook, 'you probably write a bit too.'

And probably not a week goes by, without a visit from some full-time sonneteer or other. The children's poet Michael Rosen is to be spotted in the young persons' section, browsing along the shelves, inspecting the wall paintings, researching his next book. Ivor Cutler is often in, 'looking for a poet that's any good', and regularly you'll spot a face you think you recognise who seems, as Larkin remarked once, 'to be checking his own books, before turning, rather less willingly, to those of his contemporaries and juniors'. And then there are the aspirants: 'usually flamboyantly dressed,' says Smith, 'more in love with the idea of being a poet than with writing. We get some odd people in here, but you see them smile and you get used to them. It's the would-be poets that stand out at 50 yards.'

The missing links

The following lines all appear on the 'Lost Quotations' board in the Poetry Library.

'We differ far less than geraniums do.' (Last line. Male poet, possibly American / Canadian)

'Isn't it strange that princes and

kings

And clowns who caper in circus

rings . . . ?'

'The sloping bank, cut into flashing

squares

Gives back the clank and grid of

metal'

'A bell hanging in the empty sky'

(Possibly a Zen poem)

'Give wings, O Muse to my

pedestrian pen'

'Who's in charge of the clattering

train?'

'Two spiders met on the church

window-sill

One was fat and healthy, the other

thin and ill'

In the centre of which town can you find the following poem:

'Oh you who my cooling waters

clear

Forget not the hills from whence

they flow

Where over fell and moorland year

by year

Spring, summer, autumn, winter

come and go

With showering sun and rain and

storm and snow . . .' ?

'Three men went down the road

As down the road went he,

The man he was

The man he saw

The man he wanted to be . . . '

'Nimble hands in Ludhiana wrought the colours of the sea

And the floating mists of mountains in a soft shawl for me'

(Probable title: 'The Shawl'. First heard between 1947 and 1949.)

'Count not on going back, O

homesick heart,

For all the singing roads

You have travelled are fenced and

closed'

(Pre-1970)

'Up and away like a flash of eight

As swift as a shooting star

As an arrow flies t'wards its distant

prize

On, on, he whirls towards the

shimmering skies'

(Possible title: 'The Ranchman's Ride')

'Beat, in memory, ancient drums,

Like the throbbing of a vein,

Wave on the winds of a continent

Ragged flags in the rain]'

'Picture a house in a New England

town

Picture the ivy creeping round'

If you recognise one or more of these quotations, write to: Lost Quotation Competition, Arts Page, The Independent, 40-56 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB.

The entrant who provides the most solutions will win a copy of The Oxford Book of Quotations and a bottle of champagne to sip while browsing.

For information: 071-921 0943.

(Photograph omitted)

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