‘We notice trends before anyone else’ – Chris McCabe of the Poetry Library

There’s so much I want to write about – the structure of Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park, everything about Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, but above all the epilogue, cunningly inserted well before the end, in which the author blatently footnotes his sources and plagiarisms while discussing the book with the protoganist who, in some respects, knows more about what has happened to him than the author has.  It’s only a short skip to Pirandello’s ‘Six Characters in Search of an Author’ which has always been one of my favourite plays, and one which determines the slowly emerging structure of my own lightly fictional work ‘Fist:  sundry items recording the breakdown and recovery of a middle-aged woman’.  Sundry items came from the shopface of an artists supply shop (now sadly defunct) I used to drive past in Highgate:  E Ploton (Sundries) Ltd.I digress.  I hope I do write about Six Characters, Lanark, Paranoid Park – they are all worth it.  

But today I want to write about poetry, and in particular the poetry library housed in London’s South Bank Centre. There are three things I want to say about poetry, to start and guide my year.  I would also like to thank Angie Dove, with whom I am ‘broken friends’ as someone once described it, for her introduction to the library.  Thanks Angie.  It was a gift I much appreciate. 

Firstly, poetry as essence.  In a recent article exalting the Poetry Library, the author, Lisa Mullen, opens with some Ogden Nash ‘Poets aren’t very useful/Because they aren;t consumeful or very produceful.’  Which goes to the heart of our current enquiry into knowledge transfer between libraries and business.  Please read ‘The Gift’ by Lewis Hyde, which says a great deal more about the collision between poetry and consume-producefulness in our society.  What is value? What’s the point?  Is the Ladies Pond on Hampstead Heath in winter any less value for money, as the Corporation and the accountants would have it, because only a handful of hardy drooping ladies mostly of a certain age or beyond, with sturdy white knickers, totter there for a frozen dip?  Or is it beautiful and of value beyond compare for exactly that reason.  That we can all hold the dream of our reddened skin as we totter from the ponds on painful feet to know that we embraced, and were held by, nature for those few moments in a way that makes our souls sing, even while our bodies scream with the pain of hands crusted in cold?

Secondly, the same extolling article in Time Out (Jan 2 – 8 2008) had Chris McCabe, acting joint librarian, saying

‘One of the privileges of working here is seeing all kinds of poetry come in…we notice trends before anyone else. For instance, there has been a real swathe of political poetry since the war in Iraq – it does interest a lot of users.  And that goes against the idea that poetry is a totally quiet and reflective activity; there are lot of poets making a noise about things that are upsetting them.’

There’s one for the futurists and horizon scanners.  Stop looking to science, pay less attention to science fiction, and start watching the poets if you want to understand what’s going on and where things are heading.  Believe me when I say I’ll be making this point as we move from the MLA work into the Defra commission to help create a governance framework and guidelines for policymakers handling horizon scanning and futures research.  More poetry for Defra I say.  We’ll find musicians and poetic writers like Richard Mabey and the late great Roger Deakin, and fiction writers like Jeanette Winterson, and pithy sharp writers like Will Self, John Lanchester, John Berger, and blockbusting writers like Michael Crichton and line them all up persuade people on all sides that beauty and provocation in finding and conveying the essence of ideas has as much to recommend it as ticking the boxes of policy essentials.  

I wrote recently in a post elsewhere that metaphor is essential is opening up new channels of communication in organisational settings – not the thudding cliches of silo, blue sky and out of the box thinking and not the dangerous appropriation of a handy but superficial label (shall we windtunnel anyone), but the narratives of possibility which draw people in to conversations they never realised they needed to have. 

Which brings me to Barrack Obama and his trouncing of Hillary Clinton in Iowa.  A glorious article in the Guardian that I’ve mislaid quotes someone as saying that you win elections in poetry and govern in prose.  And there he is, making poetry just by standing there, even before he opens his mouth.  I’m a Clinton girl myself.  I think Hillary Clinton is the thinking person’s President, but Barrack Obama will win it with poetry. 

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