Philip Hensher: Blank walls, public spaces and poetic licence

Cocker's poem has been issued in a way hard to avoid. It's to be mounted in steel letters on a 30-foot high wall
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The Independent Online

A cheerful kind of enterprise was unveiled this week in Sheffield, something which, if anything, confirms that poetry has undergone a substantial shift in reputation and image in recent years. A poem by Jarvis Cocker, one of the city's favourite sons, was published in an unusual way, to coincide with the Off the Shelf literary festival. Rather than being brought out in a slim edition of 500 copies, to be left on the dusty back shelves of independent bookshops, Cocker's poem has been issued in a way which will be hard to avoid. It's to be mounted in steel letters on a 30-foot high wall of The Forge, a new student campus.

One of the amusing things about this is that it's happening in Sheffield, a city where I grew up and where, 30 years ago, there was a distinct intention to outrage every time you took a volume of poetry even onto a bus. Those old-style steelworkers were, it's fair to say, not in general the most aesthetically-minded of men, their interests in the arts, if any, running to the showy forms of amateur dramatics and - a popular occupation in the city - musical participation in the form of choirs, bands and orchestras. Something inward like poetry was not something you would easily admit to liking in the Sheffield I grew up in.

But, of course, the image of poetry has changed in the past few decades. It has been, as it were, coming out into the open. Previous generations of poets, notably the ones associated with AlAlvarez in the early 1960s, had emphasized the private, lyric role of untranslatable personal experience and, often, a sort of difficulty which increased the almost shameful intimacy of the practice of reading.

A revolt was bound to set in; on the one hand, some poets started aggressively basing their practice on popular, accessible forms, from the Liverpool poets onwards. On the other, especially after Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion's famous, now somewhat underrated 1982 anthology, the New Poetry, a more public sort of poetry started to be called for and actually written.

It's unfashionable to say so, but one of the most substantial contributions to the cause of public poetry was part of Ted Hughes's work, the laureate poems. No one had seriously written poems on royal, state occasions since Tennyson; Hughes put some of his best work into these commissioned pieces, notably the magnificent Rain-Charm for the Duchy, on the birth of Prince Harry.

And then an odder fashion, more to do with readers than poets, took charge. Poetry started to be marketed in the mass media, by the likes of Daisy Goodwin, as a sort of panacea for all ills. If you have recently fallen in love, you may like this poem. It's by Keats. If you have recently been divorced by your husband, you may be consoled by this sonnet. It's by Browning. For a boil on your bum, take 12 lines of Auden.

Even more startling, to many of us, was the revelation, courtesy of American confessional television shows, that many ordinary semi-literates, when invited to share their feelings, turn up with a sheet of foolscap on which they have written some near-rhymes, expressing their feelings. And, still more startling, they read them out without evident shame or embarrassment. Poetry, to an incredible extent, has become a public, even a popular, medium, though of course most serious practising poets, looking at their sales figures, will be forgiven for wondering about the substance of any of this.

The desire to write poetry on buildings has broken out recently. Though a blank wall has often proved a temptation to graffiti artists, and though fashionable visual artists have, in recent decades, often filled commissions for public spaces with physically embodied sentences which, at a pinch, could be described as "poetic", it's only quite recently that architects and architectural spaces have started to use poetry proper.

The first high-profile one was for the new Cardiff Opera House, which included a line of poetry, in both Welsh and English, by the poet Gwyneth Lewis. "Creu gwir fel gwydr o ffwrnais/In these stones horizons sing." That, I think, codifies some doubts one has about the whole idea. I have to say, I wouldn't be mad on that line if I read it on paper - it just looks like someone's idea of poetry, rather than a line of proper poetry. Written in letters five feet high and incorporated into the structure of a building to last for decades, perhaps even centuries: that seems to me a very bad idea indeed. One wouldn't want even the last lines of Paradise Lost in that position, let alone the best lyric efforts of Ms Lewis or Mr Cocker.

I can see the officially-funded rationale behind these ideas; let's celebrate our poetic life, and let's make the lyric impulse part of the fabric of our new cities. Certainly, there have been more easily acceptable collaborations between poets and sculptors for public works, and sculptors for whom the poetic impulses of words and syntax are at the heart of their public contributions. Ian Hamilton Finlay's garden of words and images at Little Sparta is only the most consistently pursued example of this tendency.

But poetry as architecture - mottoes incorporated into the fabric of a building - that seems to me to go against the proper function of poetry. Poetry can be public in its concerns; in the manner of its presentation, it should not be too official in appearance. I can't be alone in feeling that, over such projects, the dead hand of the alderman is always going to be painfully evident.