If you were to find yourself in a doctor’s waiting room one day, feeling in question, or at sea, feeling anxious, or even just plain bored, might you be glad of a poem displayed there, on the wall? Can the language of poetry reach through to people in public space, making connection across the distances, the differences? Might poetry, carefully selected and formatted and available for downloading free of charge, be a useful resource for teachers or social workers or counsellors, in their work? If you found yourself saying yes to any of these questions, you might be interested in a project based in the UK called Poems for the wall.
The project is founded in the belief that the language of poetry matters vitally and can open up and “make precious the space between us.” Further, it can act as a healing antidote to the self-interested jargon of advertising and spin and propaganda which floods and poisons so much of modern public discourse. A good poem offers honest, empathic and illuminating communication, the currency of community. A poem that achieves true expression can bring people back to themselves and renew health and hope.
He writes in the project’s website: «One early impetus was simply to open up the way poetry is broadcast and widen the audience it can reach and speak to. Since it matters, poetry should not be restricted to the specialist bookshop or literary festival, or to the class room as a boring exam subject, to be dropped, gladly and hastily, as soon as exams are over. Good poetry is good currency and belongs, not just in each individual human system, but in the air between people, in public space.
A second impetus derives from my own observations as a social worker over the years that institutions seeking to support and heal often also depersonalise and reduce. In the waiting room, the individual too easily and too often becomes nothing more than a set of presenting symptoms, a mere name in a queue of parts. So poems displayed in the waiting room can perhaps help correct that distortion, and offer recognition of the whole person, a weaver of particular dreams and a carrier of a unique history. The posters can help make the waiting room a more sensitive interlude for people, a time that might even be fertile.»
The project was started in 1998, its title in those days Poems for the Waiting Room. All its material was then in hard copy and most of the demand for the poems was coming from NHS Trusts, so Rogan often drove considerable distances, delivering large numbers of boxes of the poems to NHS centres in the UK (some examples of those deliveries are in The Story so far section).
About 200,000 individual poems were distributed to healthcare and similar centres (hospitals, health centres, hospices; also centres for social care and mutual support groups and hostels for people with learning disabilities) between 1998 and 2008. In 2007 the project was advertised in a Foreign Office newsletter and in consequence a significant number of UK embassies across various continents requested packs of Poems for…one world. Later the scheme was promoted on education and library websites and the response was huge. All the details are in the website page called Where the poems have gone.
In 2008,the project went online, its new website being launched by the UK poet Andrew Motion, then the country’s Poet Laureate. Following the launch, people began downloading the poems directly from the site. The main demand also shifted from healthcare settings to schools and libraries. In addition, the new website had the effect of making the project an international one.
The project has featured in various UK national newspapers over the years -The Guardian, The Times, The Independent- and in various local papers, professional journals and newsletters. It is harder to state precisely where on the internet the project is or has been featured and advertised. In the last few years it has certainly attracted the notice of various initiatives in education concerned with teaching and integrating children whose first language is not English. Enquiries come from all walks and levels, the only real common factor being a prevailing high enthusiasm.
In the mid-nineties, the project turned increasingly to selecting bilingual poems and other meanings and aims came clear: they involved the potential of public poetry to recognise, address and bridge difference, to make connection across frontiers which otherwise breed ignorance and fear. For poetry can reach through to people, bring things home to them, make things real and personal, in a way that lectures, the dissemination of lists of facts, the selling of lines, the repetition of slogans, simply cannot.
And if we arrive at this recognition that poetry can be eloquent and effective in opening frontiers, breaking down walls, we are bound to note that of course there are other human differences and divisions besides those of language, culture and race. What about the fears and divisions and social decay created by mental ill-health, by learning disability? And that’s what led to the project’s two most recent collections launched in the Autumn of 2015 -Poems for…self at sea and Poems for…bridges to learning disability.
«Finally, I want to say that another aim of the project is always to publish poems of high quality, poems that communicate in a way that adds richness to “the space between us”. And in the fulfilment of that aim, the project continues to rely heavily on individuals who act as expert guides in the matter of poem selection. Most are living, some are not, but their sound judgement and deep immersion in the world of poetry and its networks have made them indispensable to whatever is good in these collections. I feel duty-bound to name them here. The famous poets Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes (for their “Rattlebag” selection), and Judith Chernaik and colleagues (for their pioneering and impeccable Poems on the Underground selections). More directly, the UK poets David Hart, Fiona Sampson, Debjani Chatterjee and Stephen Watts have worked closely with me on the various collections, to my personal great reward and the project’s great benefit.»
In its twenty years of operation, Poems for…the wall has produced what is now a wide selection of small poem-posters for public display on wall or digital screen, all of which can be downloaded from its website free of charge. Over this period, various funding organisations have helped pay for the initiative; a list can be found here: https://poemsforthewall.org/about-us/who-paid-for-what/
The posters are available in five main collections:
Poems for…one world, the largest, numbering over 100 poems. Almost all of these are bilingual, each non-English original having an English translation alongside. Fifty different languages are represented in the collection and it features the work of internationally famous poets.
Poems for…all ages consists of fifty poems, many of them old favourites, and includes ten poems especially for young children.
Poems for…waiting also consists of fifty poems. This was the project’s first collection and each of its poems was specially commissioned by the poet David Hart and each is about waiting. The collection is intended for display in healthcare waiting rooms.
Poems for…self at sea is a collection of thirty poems on the subject of mental ill-health.
Poems for…bridges to learning disability consists of twenty poems.
Here in conclusion is Rogan again, writing about the One World collection:
«In essence,[it] is about addressing and crossing and dissolving frontiers. It is about opening up, not shutting out. In doing so, it does not deny the issues and the problems that can be created by difference. But neither does it fear those things. On the contrary, difference enriches, as the collection amply demonstrates.
The vast majority of the poems in the One World collection feature differences of language and culture. But in the process of putting the collection together, it became impossible to ignore other differences that divide people and too often limit and degrade lives. Usually, it is our fear operating. In fear, we turn away; in fear we stigmatise and distort (and in some cases sentimentalise); in fear we abuse. So as part of this realisation, there are several pairs of poems in the collection that are not bilingual, but instead cover a subject in which stigma or avoidance or distortion can often be a feature. These subjects are: mental ill-health; learning disability; physical disability; death (the latter pair of poems were written by someone about to die).
We must be hopeful that these developments and connections will have a positive impact and that in the present period of division, consternation and confusion, Poems for…the wall will have a positive part to play. The poems go all over the world. No walls can block them. They go to all worlds. They go wherever there is time and space for them.»
The pictures are taken from the website.
Article originally published on 28 March 2018
For articles about/by Rogan Wolf in Margutte, click on the tag with his name.