Odes to roads, sausages and other English icons penned for National Poetry Day
Organisers of the annual celebration have commissioned works giving voice to local landmarks in ‘a lyrical mapping of the English landscape’
Thursday 6 October 2016 07.00 BST
From the “worst road in Britain”, the “Essex/Suffolk artery” of the A12, to Leicester’s Golden Mile via a Lincolnshire sausage, a host of poets have adopted the voices of local landmarks in order to mark Thursday’s National Poetry Day.
Channelling WH Auden, who wrote that a poet’s hope is “to be, like some valley cheese, local, but prized elsewhere”, the 40 poets were commissioned by BBC local radio to dream up poems in the voices of local landmarks. Luke Wright takes on Suffolk, plumping for the A12, “England’s crude appendix scar … salt-baked, pot-holed, choked with cars”, which will “take you from the fug and sprawl / to Suffolk’s icy brine and foam”.
Lucy Ayrton writes about the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford, and Akshay Sharma takes on Leicester’s Golden Mile of restaurants, writing of how: “My pavements are infused with molecules of spice, rice and diced onions,/Concoctions of flavours from neighbours’ kitchens/and ageless mixtures of this that and the other.”
“They said I could choose what I wanted, and the clock tower jumped out at me first – it’s an old, famous landmark in the centre of town, and I was going to do something on time,” said Sharma, who is Indian. “But I thought instead of something closer to me and my heritage and culture: the Golden Mile. People come from all over to see it and to shop and eat there.”
Gemma Baker, meanwhile, adopts the voice of a Lincolnshire sausage for her contribution, which includes these poignant lines: “my happiness fell still / as one by one they fed my family / into the grill,” before adding that “in shock and grief I rolled to the floor / convinced there may be something more / than an early cremation / I launched myself / in aim of Lincoln station.”
The poems are being broadcast on BBC local radio’s 40 stations, in what organisers of National Poetry Day said was “an unprecedented lyrical mapping of the English landscape”.
“When you hear a poem about a place, that place changes: poetry puts it on the imagination’s map. Westminster Bridge and Tintern Abbey were transformed in the public mind when Wordsworth wrote about them, just as much as the White Cliffs of Dover were transformed when Vera Lynn sang about them,” said Susannah Herbert, the director of the event, which is run by the charity the Forward Arts Foundation.
“National Poetry Day’s collaboration with the BBC local poets makes the whole nation look at itself in a different way: we hope it inspires countless local acts of celebration. These 40 poems – and the thousands they will inspire – mean that beloved local landmarks that have been taken for granted will become part of … the nation known and cherished by the imagination.”
The theme for this year is “messages”, with organisers inviting the public to “say it with a poem”, whether that’s “thank you”, “sorry” or “I love you”. Events are taking place around the country, from Sally Crabtree in Staffordshire who is using carrier pigeons to fly verse across the skies as the world’s first “poetry postie”, to St Pancras International’s transformation into “poetry central”, with poetry-printed train tickets given to travellers and poet-storytellers drawing commuters into immersive experiences.“National Poetry Day’s collaboration with the BBC local poets makes the whole nation look at itself in a different way: we hope it inspires countless local acts of celebration. These 40 poems – and the thousands they will inspire – mean that beloved local landmarks that have been taken for granted will become part of … the nation known and cherished by the imagination.”
The day will kick off with Prince Charles’s reading of Seamus Heaney’s poem The Shipping Forecast on the Today programme, a recording created for a new Northern Irish community centre, Home Place, which celebrates the late Nobel laureate’s life and work. It will also be marked with a special postmark from the Royal Mail, while on Channel 4 and More 4, poems from young refugee and migrant poets including 19-year-old Afghan Shukria Rezaei and 18-year-old Vivien Urban, originally from Hungary, will replace the introduction on the idents throughout the day.
Edinburgh will feature an answerphone turning anonymous messages into poems, while Wales will see four young poets composing 100 poems in 24 hours, taking suggestions for subjects from social media and BBC Radio Cymru.
Further afield in Antarctica, British Antarctic Survey scientists will be reading a climate change poem by Nancy Campbell to the penguins.
“A poem can reach places that prose just can’t,” said Herbert. “That’s why we’re inviting all with anything important to say today, to say it with a poem. It can be new or old, utterly original or a familiar favourite. It can be deep and dark, funny or memorable. By enjoying, discovering or sharing a poem – words that draw attention to themselves – you change the nature of the national conversation.”