Today is National Poetry Day in the UK, a day when we celebrate one of humanity’s oldest forms of art and expression. Many of our greatest stories, such as the Iliad, have come down to us through poetry, preserved against millennia in verse, a form which helped the original oral bards to memorise astonishing amounts to recount, long before anyone was able to write down those tales into the forms which we still know and revere today, cornerstones of our culture.
Sadly when I mention poetry with all too many people I see the eyes glaze over and comes the almost inevitable phrase “I don’t like poetry”. No matter how often I have heard this it always makes me sad that so many people – including a lot of my fellow booksellers, I’m ashamed to say – make such an ignorant statement. Ignorant because I don’t think most of them really know what they mean by that – what I think they mean is they hate what little poetry they have been exposed to, more than likely something they were forced to learn at school. Regretfully these experiences often put people off exploring more and so they cut themselves off from one of the earliest and richest forms of human expression. Me? I’m a book person, a wordsmith; I love words and imagery and the way words can be woven like a magic incantation to call forth vivid descriptions of people, places, wring emotions from us, touch us deep within, in the inner places of our essential selves.
The best prose writing does this. The best poetry does it even better, especially in the realms of emotion; poetry, like jazz, has a way of weaving around the mind and soul. It requires the cognitive faculties of the brain to process and analyse and understand the words, the rhythms, the meanings, but it also bypasses the waking mind to speak directly to the subconcious mind. The best poetry speaks to both the active mind and at the same time to the deeper, dreaming mind. Throughout earlier history words and writing were seen as a form of magic. They were right. We’re built on words, on stories and phrases, we construct all the events of our lives into narratives and words. And the ability to put words together into special sequences marked out someone as special – the bard who wandered from city to city in the days before mass printing, telling stories, words that spoke to people, that cast illumination over what it is to be human. The coming of mass printing by Mr Gutenberg spread literacy and books across the world rapidly. The wandering storyteller gave way to the printed author (although poetry spoken out loud remains the best way to experience it, really), but the book and the words became even more important in our culture.
Which is why my favourite poem is Tessa Ranford’s The Book Rediscovered in the Future. It speaks of the wonder not only of words but of the actual book itself, the feel of it in your hand, the simple delight in being able to carry your words with you, of finding an old book that belonged to someone else before. That feeling you get when you look inside an old book and see that someone before you had written their name and maybe a date into the inside page. Sometimes it is only a few years ago, sometimes a few decades; in a few old ones I have it’s almost a century. In a couple it is also personal for me – a book my grandpa had given to him as a prize as a young boy, still on my bookshelves, a physical and emotional connection to a loved one long gone but a part of him, from his younger life, still here, the pages he touched, the words he read, his name on the page… As publishing faces the changes of the digital age Tessa’s poem seems even more relevant than when I first read it several years ago. This is a feeling a digital book simply cannot give you; an e-reader or iPad may be a clever toy, but it feels to me like it reduces a book to a mere consumable, ephemeral, untouchable, not like a real book to feel, to touch, to pass on…
(inner page of a book given to my grandfather when he was just a boy, still in my possession)
“One day in the future
A child may come across a book
And say: “Imagine being able to hold
In your hand what you read,
To carry it with you and wear it out
With your life; to pass it on
Bearing your marks, your name,
Written in ink, your signature:
Your wavelength in letters.”
Tessa Ranford, “the Book Rediscovered in the Future”