Interning at Poet in the City

Sophia Deen reports back on her three month internship with Poet in the City and Amnesty International…

Having recently graduated from Roehampton University, I was eager to start my internship as a Human rights and events assistant with Poet in the City and Amnesty International. The role itself sounded exciting as it combined my two loves: poetry with human rights, and it certainly didn’t disappoint.

I was so fortunate to have the opportunity to work with two highly respected and credible organizations and over the time I have been with them, I have gained new skills that will benefit me in all walks of life. As a human rights and events assistant, my role involved exploring a range of familiar and new sectors such as marketing, research, communications and social media. I had the pleasure of having Isobel Colchester as my supervisor who would always brief me on the work I would undertake on a weekly basis.

During the first week of the internship I conducted thorough research into finding potential poets and authors for a joint event with Amnesty International. This allowed me to communicate with the poets directly but also with their agents, I felt a sense of professionalism doing this and it was at that moment that I felt I had entered the real working world.

I furthered my communication skills as the time went on as I was in charge of liaising with employees from different organizations, managing social media sites and conducting face to face and telephone interviews with audience members. I was given the responsibility of producing case studies for each interview I conducted to help PINC’s research which I thoroughly enjoyed doing due to my love of writing.

Having already gained research skills from other work experience, I was able to put it to good use and be creative in my marketing approach when promoting events. I never thought I would leave this internship with marketing skills but I am very pleased to be doing so as it has made me consider pursuing a career in the field.

I enjoyed taking an active role in all of the PINC events and gain leadership skills through setting up the event, selling books and giving the volunteers roles for the evening. I had the opportunity to converse with the poets and the audience members which proved insightful but most of all, I was able to hear the wonderful poetry at the events.

The work I did with Amnesty International was very similar to the work I conducted at PINC. I was fortunate to get involved with the Books and Editorial sector at Amnesty where the work varied weekly from listing books to conducting research to packaging items. I attended several informative group meetings and took minutes in a meeting joined by PINC and Maslaha. Prior to this I had never taken minutes so it was great experience and it ultimately strengthened my writing skills.

I had the opportunity to spend the day shadowing the team at Index on Censorship- kindly arranged by Isobel – which proved to be a great experience and a great chance to learn about a new organization. I helped out at the launch of their magazine and I had the opportunity to exchange contact details with two journalists and immerse myself in an environment with people who shared similar interests to mine.

Overall, I had an amazing experience interning with both organizations and I have left with new skills which have broadened my horizons in the working world. I really enjoyed working with the people at PINC and Amnesty and I hope to continue volunteering with both amazing charities.

Posted in poetry | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Jabberwocky: a poetic re-imagining

Poet Louise Warren is about to stage a re-imagining of the Jabberwocky for The Little Angel Theatre, Islington. Here’s a little glimpse behind the looking glass…

Twas Brillig….

So begins perhaps one of the most famous nonsense poems of all time from ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’ by Lewis Carroll.

In 2004 I adapted Jabberwocky for The Little Angel Theatre in Islington, a wonderful magical place specialising in puppetry for children, young people and adults. We conjured up a menagerie of strange creatures and brought the tulgey wood to life using a mixture of marionettes, rod puppets and shadows.

jabberwoky - lousie warren

This year I was invited back to The Little Angel to adapt a revival of the play , but in those ten years I had moved away from being a playwright to becoming a poet, so the creative process in this new imagining became very different.

The first thing I did was pare away all my script so that we were left with the poem. Just the words on the page and because this was theatre, the page was a bare stage and the telling of the poem was made up of words and images.

What we have now is the creation of a new language, visual and textual, where the words are both spoken live and also blended with the soundscape. The puppets bring the images and narrative brilliantly to life. A visual Poem if you like.

It is a much more interesting re-telling of the poem and on another level may explore the strange nature of poetry itself.

To quote…

There was a book lying near Alice on the table, and while she sat watching the White King she turned over the leaves, to find some part that she could read, “_ for it’s all in some language I don’t know” she said to herself.

She puzzled over it for some time, but at last a bright thought struck her. “why, it’s a Looking-glass book of course! And, if I hold it up to a glass, the words will go the right way again”.

Might not a poem be made up of words and images that at first glance may appear to make no sense at all? Once held up to the mirror of one’s own inner world might the words not slowly reveal themselves?

I will leave you to see.

This was the poem that Alice read:



Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe

All mimsy were the borogoves

And the mome raths outgrabe.


Beware the Jabberwocky, my son!

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the jubjub bird, and shun

The frumious Bandersnatch!


He took his vorpal sword in hand,

Long time the manxome foe he sought-

So rested he by the Tumtum tree,

And stood awhile in thought.


And, as in uffish thought he stood,

The jabberwock with eyes of flame,

Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,

And burbled as it came!


One! Two! One! Two! And through and through

The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!

He left it dead and with it’s head

He went galumphing back.


“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?

Come to my arms my beamish boy!

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!

He chortled in his joy.


Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe

All mimsy were the borogoves

And the mome raths outgrabe.


Jabberwocky runs at The Little Angel Theatre from 29th November until 1st February.

Details can be found on the website.

Louise Warren’s first collection ‘ A Child’s First Picture Book of the Zoo’ won the Cinnamon Press First Collection Prize and was published in 2012.

It can be purchased from their website.

Louise is a regular host at the Poet InThe City Poetry Drop-Ins, Waterstones, Piccadilly.




Posted in children's poetry, performance poetry, poetry, poetry drop-in | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Modern Ekphrasis : THE CHARNEL HOUSE

 Aisha Farr on The Charnel House, a new publication of poetry and art

The relationship between poetry and painting is a long and distinguished one. My interest is not in poetry which describes a painting or painting which illustrates a poem, but rather in the ways in which poems and paintings can work together in a manner which is autonomous but also capable of working in synergy.

The above is taken from Tom de Freston’s introduction to his latest book The Charnel House, where the painter himself outlines his own working definition of ekphrasis. If paintings and poems are to have a responsive relationship, Freston says, they shouldn’t merely function as descriptions or re-phrasings of the other form. This definition updates the ekphrastic tradition, turning it from something more formal to something organic and modern.

The Charnel House is a book of poems and illustrations. Thirty-seven contemporary poets have written verse responses to a series of paintings by Tom de Freston, in a refreshing reversal of the much more common illustrated poetry book, where the words come first and the images as a later accompaniment. As Freston explains in the book’s opening, a figure with the head of a horse, brought to life from Picasso’s Guernica, took hold of his painting practice and became a long-term project. The paintings, he says, felt like ‘fragments from a world, in which the horsehead was a central protagonist.’ Freston’s striking use of the word ‘fragments’ here brings to mind Walter Benjamin, who on the subject of translation between languages – and one could usefully see words and images simply as different languages – says: ‘… both languages (like fragments of one vase) may be recognized as fragments of a greater language.’ The presiding impression left over from spending time with this new collection is just that, the creation of ‘a greater language’, made up of images and words together.

The history of ekphrasis encompasses texts such as the Ancient Greek novel (Longus’ prologue to his Daphnis and Chloe from the 2nd century AD) and ancient vases depicting myths, coming full circle with Keats centuries later, and his own meditation on ancient vases and their ekphrastic methods, with his Ode on a Grecian Urn. In W. H. Auden’s later 20thth century poem Musée des Beaux Arts, the poetic gaze is turned halfway through towards the painting that prompted its thought-process, ‘Landscape with Falling Icarus’, attributed to Breughel. This poem is the layered result of a series of ekphrases, since the myth of Icarus, found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, is repositioned as a tiny detail – a splash of legs into sea – in the background of a landscape painting, and then returned to words again by Auden, whose poem reflects on the smallness of Icarus in the composition of the painting, and what this says about the role of suffering, and of myth, in the world as a whole.


This more contemporary example is useful in the context of The Charnel House because Freston’s final project is equally rich in its layers of receptions. His horse-head, taken from Picasso’s famous painting, is recast in new paintings of his own imagined scenes, and these are then reinterpreted by the contributing poets. Freston finally has selected lines from these resulting poems and implanted them into his paintings like captions, so that what appears in the book is a kind of cross-sectional view of the artistic process; the interpretations across mediums are x-rayed in full view, becoming an essential part of the finished article.

As Freston himself says, the ekphrastic tradition is ‘long and distinguished’, but The Charnel House manages to both overturn and comment upon it. What the book does differently is not only to bring both sides of the ekphrastic coin – both forms – together in the form of a beautiful, bound object, but also to create an indefinably potent space between them, a place where the effect really takes root. The book deliberately cedes control to the reader, the viewer, to make their own individual meaning from the twofold experience.

In the world, words and images live alongside each other everywhere. Sitting on the train with a book, the reader looks up at a stranger across from them, or at the image of the outside framed in the carriage window, then back down to the phrase they left in their book, weaving the two experiences together in a glance. All online content is a constant jostling overload of relational captions and pictures. The Charnel House refines the relationship between words and images to a focal point. As a whole, the collection becomes a sustained and thoughtful questioning of the purpose and possibility of images and of words. It asks itself questions throughout, as all good paintings and poems seem to do.

There has always been a meta quality to ekphrastic art (how could there not be?). It is inherent to the form: a piece of writing or an image discusses the process of its own making, the art of artifice and influence, and the self-consciousness that imbues all art with its own maker, and their own doubts and questions. While reading The Charnel House I entered into this richly complex and wonderfully inconclusive discussion. The solidly academic word  ‘ekphrasis’, seemingly irrelevant outside of scholarly discourse, is recast here as a reminder that all art is about itself and its place in the world.

Indeed, the book’s title recalls Picasso’s painting of the same name, The Charnel House, although Picasso didn’t actually give it that title himself- it only became popularly known as such later. Perhaps Freston’s title reflects this fact, since the book’s process involved thirty-seven participating poets giving a name to their experience of his paintings. Among these are more established as well as newer poets such as Jacob Polley, Helen Mort, John Glenday, Declan Ryan and George Szirtes, to name but a very few.

Reading through the ‘Ramblings’ section on Freston’s website it becomes clear that he is a highly literary painter, in the sense that his visual process sits on a backdrop of words and ideas. In his entry, ‘Some thoughts on process’, he unpicks the unspoken questions that lie in the paint, revealing his intellectual engagement with the conceptual sphere surrounding the work. There is a real wordiness to his engagement with the painting process, as he describes the way in which his initial intention upon starting a painting can transform while he paints, and indeed be transformed by the painting and its own mysterious direction. When talking about what he calls ‘the poetic process of painting’, he uses the post-structuralist Roland Barthes’ analogy of ‘author’ and ‘reader’ as a way of talking about himself as a painter. He explains:

A shift of a line break or a laying down of a new colour can throw up a new problem which might eventually lead to the entire form or composition of a poem or painting totally changing.

The resulting images in the book are a collage of styles, with painterly sections placed alongside computer-enhanced and more graphic drawings, and they also contain lines and phrases from the poems, dotted across the images. These repetitions – experienced both in the poems and then again inside the images – carry one poem across to the next, stringing them together in a way that mimics the echoes in the images.

AISHA TWOLeafing through the collection feels like walking down a dark street, looking through lit windows on to a series of scenes, then catching the sounds of voices – the poems themselves – as you pass. The pages of the book, which typically have a poem on the left page facing a painting on the right, become like rooms. The combination of poem and image give each spread a three dimensional quality, suggested by Freston’s very spatial paintings, so that the reader’s experience is given four walls. The book becomes almost claustrophobic as the echoes in the paintings accumulate; there is something deliberately disorientating in the growing familiarity and also constant strangeness of the illustrations and their accompanying poems.

It is the way in which the combination of the two forms affects the reader’s experience that is most interesting. The immediacy of the image, its initial and spontaneous effect, is poured through the slower process of the poem, like milk through muslin. As Freston says, they are ‘autonomous’, but in combination they produce inexpressibly particular effects.

A poem that particularly stood out was ‘Look it in the mouth’ by Toby Parker-Rees, as a short little stab that cuts through the process of the book, voicing something subtle and unsaid (that seems to be) about the fidgeting feeling that comes with trying to consider visual then lyric art, form opinions and then articulate them:

Pull out of it – pull out & pull apart

                & watch the shadows settle on the ceiling.

                It’s quite unwise, you’re thinking – so you start


Some of the most successful illustrations are the ones that confront the collection’s self-conscious art. For example, the image that sits alongside Parker-Rees’ poem above shows the recurring horse-head character looking at paintings, one of which is a very clear Guernica-esque Picasso. There are Van Gogh sunflowers in the corner of another image, and gallery spaces are intimated in more than one illustration, boldly positioning the viewer into the meta-realm of the book.

From a critical perspective, the collection eludes the usual approaches to either paintings or to poems. This is perhaps its greatest strength. There are such established points of interests and modes of talking when it comes to poetry, and to, a lesser extent, painting, when the two forms are on their own. But when the very point is to discuss their effect together, as The Charnel House asks that you do, these discursive perimeters break down. Too often with any kind of art, visual or linguistic, critical conventions are used not only to explain the art – if such a thing is even possible to begin with – but also to explain away art. There is often a pleasurable but inconclusive circularity to opinions about art; forming them and articulating them. The trick perhaps is not to shy away from this fact, or find ways of masking the confusing truth by pretending to form assertions.

When reading or looking, the thoughts that occur at the time, and afterwards, rarely reach a definite stopping point, although much current cultural criticism would have you think that art can be a converted into coherent conclusion. When something is unstable, original, entirely individual, and, above all, alive as an experience, we are all forced to engage more and think a bit harder, or even think less, but above all not fall back on to reliable previous perspectives. The book asks me not to form a solid opinion, and happily I won’t.

One of the contributing poets, John Glenday, reflects on his experience of writing poetry in response to painting. He boldly admits the uneasiness within the relationship, which is never simple but always powerful:

Any poem I have written which appropriated an image as a starting point has never ended up as a tribute to that image, or even an interpretation of it, but rather an escape from it. The finished poem is the desperate trail I’ve left fleeing the scene.

And therein lies the excitement of The Charnel House: it is a book of artistic escapology.

By Aisha Farr

Posted in art of poetry, poetry, poetry and art, poetry and illustration | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Wallace Stevens: the gift that lasts for life

Tom Deveson on a lifelong addiction to a remarkable poet…


In 1964 I was sixteen. Sitting in the school library, preparing to write an essay on Calvinism, my eye was drawn to the Oxford Book of American Verse. In its 1200 pages, there were fifty filled with poems by Wallace Stevens; I was hooked. By 1965, I was a full convert; I asked for his Collected Poems – 534 pages – as a school prize. The next year, during a short visit to the USA, I spent a day at Yale where a friend of a friend gave me the 300 pages of Opus Posthumous and the 176 pages of The Necessary Angel – ‘Essays on Reality and the Imagination’. I also met Holly Stevens, the poet’s daughter, who was working on the final proofs of his Letters. When they appeared in England in 1967, I bought them – another 890 pages – as a present to myself.

What was the lure that drew me? There was Stevens’s gaudiness, to begin with – his marvellous outrageous titles unlike any other poet’s: The Paltry Nude Starts on a Spring Voyage, Hymn from a Watermelon Pavilion, Dance of the Macabre Mice, A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts. This dandyism was carried over into his style, into those arresting openings:

‘Chieftain Iffucan of Azcan in caftan,

Of tan with henna hackles, halt!…’          [Bantams in Pine-Woods]

‘Call the roller of big cigars,

The muscular one, and bid him whip

In kitchen cups concupiscent curds…’     [The Emperor of Ice-Cream]

This frivolity of high seriousness had a huge appeal at a time when some English poems were starting to be full of pompous exhortation and sanctimonious calls to attention.

Then there was the movement of Stevens’s verse; his cadences are unmistakeable, his blank verse as memorable as Wordsworth’s:

‘…Life is a bitter aspic. We are not
At the centre of a diamond. At dawn,
The paratroopers fall and as they fall
They mow the lawn. A vessel sinks in waves
Of people, as big-bell billows from its bell
Bell-bellow in the village steeple. Violets,
Great tufts, spring up from buried houses
Of poor, dishonest people, for whom the steeple,
Long since, rang out farewell, farewell, farewell.

Natives of poverty, children of malheur,
The gaiety of language is our seigneur….’                              [Esthétique du Mal]

You have to give the poems time, to look up the words you don’t know, to pace your understanding. The difficulties don’t simply yield to the dictionary, but they are clarified within the luminous labyrinth of Stevens’s language. He doesn’t tell us what we ought to feel about things; he shows us things, and lets us feel for ourselves, the ‘things’ shown being by turns exotic and ordinary, simple and immensely complicated, present and absent, concrete and abstract. You can’t paraphrase him; you can barely quote him without quoting a lot; you can pick out momentary felicities but the greater satisfaction is in movements of thought and feeling on a large scale; you don’t find ideas converted into verse but ideas realised in the language that embodies them.

Stevens was a lawyer and an insurance executive; his poems supply what business-America lacked and lacks. In many of his great poems – Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction is another – he is often writing about poetry itself, in the same way that Bach wrote many fugues or Rembrandt painted many self-portraits, exploring their chosen medium to its depths. He is a hedonist who is open to the furthest pleasures of philosophy:

‘…Throw away the lights, the definitions,
And say of what you see in the dark
That it is this or that it is that,
But do not use the rotted names.
How should you walk in that space and know
Nothing of the madness of space,
Nothing of its jocular procreations?
Throw the lights away. Nothing must stand
Between you and the shapes you take
When the crust of shape has been destroyed….’   

[The Man with the Blue Guitar]

I didn’t know, turning over those pages with astonishment fifty years ago, that I was receiving a gift that would last for life. It’s a gift which every generation needs to receive and to hand on – ‘Poetry itself, the naked poem, the imagination manifesting itself in its domination of words.’

Poet in the City’s Wallace Stevens event takes place at 7pm on Monday 17th November, at Kings Place, 90 York Way, London, N1 9AG.

Tickets cost £9.50 online and can be booked here:

Or call the box office on 020 7520 1490.

Posted in American poetry, art of poetry, Poet in the City events, poetry, poetry and art | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


Poet Alan Price explores the genius of Wallace Stevens, ahead of our event on 17th November…

Wallace Stevens is often regarded as notoriously ‘difficult’.Yet Stevens’ ‘difficulties’ are all part of the challenge and appeal of this great poet. He is dense, rhythmically taut and playfully ambiguous. His poetry and poetic method can be best summed up by the opening lines of the poem Of Modern Poetry.

‘The poem of the mind in the act of finding

What will suffice.’

You really need to tackle Stevens head on and unpack the rigour of his word patterning. The patterns are meaningful and also wonderfully self sufficient. The contradiction between the musical power of his words, that resist full meaning, and yet invite so much interpretation, proves, for the reader, to be a lot more fascinating than exasperating. You have to trust Stevens. Flow with him and realise that his writing isn’t a loose or showy abstraction. Stevens has an incisively observed, if very interior view of the world.

By his detractors Stevens has been called, over-cerebral, obscure, a poet’s poet and ‘worse’ that he was unpatriotic, that the poems are un-American. All this is untrue and a smoke screen to hide his concerns. His poems have lots of Americana hidden, or obvious. He is no more forbidding than T.S.Eliot or Robert Frost – both poets perhaps more universally loved than Wallace Stevens.

I’ve been reading Stevens for many years and I still don’t fully get all of him, but maybe that’s the point. He is an irreducible mystery case. His poetic thinking is very much concerned with a pure state of being. Not being in an existential sense but more an aesthetic one. Stevens tends to view the idea of reality, as more interesting than the reality itself. Is he just being playfully, and seriously, philosophical? Yes, often. But he’s not a philosopher, but a literary guy.

‘The philosopher proves that the philosopher exists.

The poet merely enjoys existence.’

That’s from an essay called ‘The Figure of the Youth as a Virile Poet.’ It’s part of a book of collected essays called The Necessary Angel published in 1951. (I urge all poets to read this book. It contains, alongside the criticism of Coleridge, some of the most insightful comments on the relationship between poetry and philosophy ever written).

Let me make it clear, Stevens is not a cold poet. You will find much warmth and humanity behind his abstractions. He is tender, funny and deeply sensitive in his highly original attempt to comprehend things. One of his most well known poems is Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction. The first section called ‘It must be abstract’ has these lines.

‘You must become an ignorant man again.

And see the sun again with an ignorant eye.

And see it clearly in the idea of it.’

For me this echoes Blake’s powerful warning/declaration in The Auguries of Innocence.

‘We are led to believe a lie

When we see not thro’the eye’

I think Stevens is often saying that the creative mind is endlessly making images. Images that are meant not to pin things down as a fixed set of thoughts or reflections. But an opening up to multiple ways of observation that remain fruitful and expansive. This activity is beautifully expressed in these lines from The Sail of Ulysses.

‘In the crystal atmospheres of the mind,

Light’s comedies, dark’s tragedies.

Like things produced by a climate, the world

Goes round in the climates of the mind

And bears its floraisons of imagery.’

I love the use of the French word floraisons – meaning blossoming. It suggests a natural growth, or evolving, of the mind. It also makes me think of the old word floriated – having ornamentation based on flowers and leaves.

Stevens enters the mind a lot in his poetry. There is a constant looking at the world through the prism of his interior landscape. But this is a truism. It’s what all good writers do. Yet what matters to Stevens is also what you also imaginatively journey towards. How the idea of that perceived external reality is then shaped into words. And in the case of Stevens and Blake it’s a constantly new possibility or visionary shape.

‘The real is constantly being engulfed in the unreal… (Poetry) is

an illumination of a self in the rock.’

Wallace Stevens is illuminating, full stop. Read him. Penetrate the rock.

Alan Price© 2014


Wallace Stevens takes place at 7pm on Monday 17th November at Kings Place.


Tickets cost £9.50 online via:

or contact Kings Place Box Office on 020 7520 1490.



Posted in American poetry, art of poetry, poetry | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Literary mystery and disappearing poets

The Disappearing Poet – Hall 2 at Kings Place – from 6.30pm on Wed 29 Oct


The poet Sophie Hannah is also one of the UK’s leading writers of crime novels, with titles including The Point of Rescue, Hurting Distance and The Other Half Lives. Only this year she published The Monogram Murders, a new Poirot novel, commissioned by the Agatha Christie Estate. As a crime writer she specialises in strange disappearances and disquieting changes of identity, meaning that her books are often as much about the existential dilemma of the characters as it is about the underlying reason for the murder or mystery. In a similar vein, the late great Roberto Bolano, famous for his epic novel 2666, also wrote a fabulous book called The Savage Detectives about two friends on a dark and sinister quest to find a vanished poet. Although full of threat, danger, sex and death in 1970s Mexico, their quest is as much a literary quest as a mystery story…

In this spirit we would like to invite fans of crime and mystery writing to a fabulous ‘whodunnit’ event comparing the strange disappearance of the poet Arthur Rimbaud in 1879 with that of the celebrated British poet Rosemary Tonks in 1979, exactly 100 years later. Expert speakers Neil Astley and Tim Matthews will explore why such famous poets might have chosen to disappear so suddenly, brilliant actors Lucy Tregear and Ben Lambert will read a revealing extracts from their wonderful poems, whilst the distinguished contemporary poets George Szirtes and Matthew Caley will provide their own take on these celebrated real life disappearances.

Hosted by the Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation and its sister organisation Poet in the City, this fascinating event should appeal to all fans of crime and mystery novels, combining mysterious and strange disappearances with the psychological and poetic context which may have informed them. This unique event is taking place from 6.30pm on Wednesday 29 Oct in Hall 2 at Kings Place (the event itself starts promptly at 7.00pm). Tickets are available online at

The Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation is committed to using inspiration from the poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine to encourage audiences to engage with the arts. Its event programme is supported by Arts Council England Grants for the Arts. Charity commission number 1157063, Company limited by guarantee 07559463.


Posted in poetry | 1 Comment

Through the Door of St Paul’s Cathedral

Alia Cassam reviews the 2nd in the series of events as part of ‘Through the Door’ a collaboration between Poet in the City and Archives for London. In this event, poet Imtiaz Dharker launches new poems from the Cathedral archives.


As Imitiaz Dharker finishes reading ‘Channel of vision’, one of her new Through the Door poems, there is glint in her eye. In a stone room by the Crypt inside St Paul’s Cathedral, she is telling tales of unexploded bombs, near misses, fallen cherubs, acts of bravery, Bovril billboards in an ever-changing London skyline, watchful apostles. And despite the quiet of the audience’s rapt attention the Cathedral has its own ideas – Dharker’s first reading to the public, about the life and memory of this great building, is merrily accompanied by the sound of bells ringing, an organ playing. It’s an apt soundtrack to a brilliant new collection of poems.

Seven poets in seven archives, that was the premise for Through the Door, and in each case, the aim and the hope was to literally ‘open the door’ – both to poetry and to London’s incredibly rich treasure-trove of archive material. In the case of Imtiaz Dharker and St Paul’s, the pairing seems to have been serendipitous. When she was approached and asked if she would like to like to take St Paul’s as her subject, she had already started writing poems about London and the Cathedral – “I live just down the road” she says. Being part of her life and landscape already, it seemed obvious subject matter. In fact, during the evening she describes how if she leans far enough out from her balcony she has a view of St Paul’s looking back at her.


Dharker’s pre-existing relationship with the place was just part of it. The really interesting thing about Through the Door and the St Paul’s Archive, is the way it threw the spotlight on how poems themselves come about. As well as the collaboration between two different organisations, Poet in the City and Archives for London, there was also the collaboration between the poet herself and a host of others at the Cathedral: Archivist Sarah Radford, Cannon Mark Oakley, Simon Carter who looks after the Collections and Librarian Jo Wisdom. The dizzying proportions of the Project were not dissimilar to something from Alice in Wonderland, and without these guides to accompany her through a maze of material including a vast archive of objects, architectural plans, and a library which alone holds over 21,500 manuscripts, books and pamphlets, the poems could not have been written.

The Project has also proved to be a fascinating re-examination of the roles of poet and archivist, as well as their methods of working. In her Introduction to the poems, Dharker figures herself almost as detective rather than poet – “what I really did in St Paul’s was just eavesdrop” and “I was following clues”. In an interview with her before the event begins, she points to the creativity of the work of an archivist like Radford, which is not dissimilar to that of a poet in piecing together and imagining lives, scenarios, from a heap of objects and images.

And it is Sarah Radford who begins the evening with a succinct and comprehensive presentation about the array of documents and objects which inspired these poems. They range from newspaper reports during the time of the Blitz, haunting black and white photographs of London bomb-scapes, the Cathedral’s architectural plans, medals of heroism, and a cherub statue which was part of a high altar and fell hurtling into the rubble when the Cathedral received a direct hit during the Second World War. It was found displaced and dented, notably on the left side of its chest, leaving Dharker to write that seeing it fallen like this “dents the heart”. Such items lead themselves to become six new poems – the Cathedral Poems.

Interweaving past with present, and delivered with Dharker’s characteristic hypnotic warm tones, the opener, ‘Cherub, St Paul’s’, takes the statue of the bomb-damaged fallen cherub to be representative of the child caught in war, and of the destruction of the innocent – “The one it chose as prey was you, at play”, “Your ribs caved in where you took the blow./Fallen, you are statue still”. It is a heart-breaking poem. Rather than give a voice to the archive, here Dharker is instead speaking directly to it – “What are we to make of you?/A guardian, a miracle, thrown/into the nave or on to today’s front page” making these poems sing out with contemporary relevance. Lines such as “In the aftermath,/ the hesitant dust falls back to blanket you,/rubbles tries to cradle you” brings to mind MacNiece in Prayer Before Birth, with its humanity and its rhythmic poetry.

Dharker’s longstanding preoccupation with words (as in her well known poem ‘Speech balloon’ which she always reads with such relish) is again evident in these new poems, where she continues with a self-conscious interrogation and love of language as a material in and of itself, as powerful and wonderful as the bricks and mortar that create concrete structures and Cathedrals. The poem about the bomb which landed in Dean’s Yard and almost threatened to blow up the Cathedral, ‘Unexploded’, is followed by a simple yet powerful three-liner about the sermons of John Donne, the Cathedral’s famous priest-poet. Here in ‘Exploded’, she writes simply “A prayer is said,/a story told. Under the dome/the Word explodes”. This is a poetry and a world as much about the explosive power of language as of any bomb.

‘Ringing the changes’ and ‘Channel of vision’ are both great London poems, and it is a delight to see Dharker now turn to a poetic figuring of London in her work when in the past she has written with such imagination, eloquence and wit, about other cities close to her heart – Mumbai in particular (‘Tiffin Box Talks’ and ‘Living Space/One Breath’ are great examples) which convey a different kind of architecture and a different kind of hustle and bustle. ‘Ringing the changes’ is unmistakably London – “The market has lost its sound track,/…All the usual effing/and blinding has stopped for the day”. It is a London where “The Grocers sing out/on a note you could eat, seasoned by Salters”.

Whilst taking subjects such as war, words, and a city in the process of endlessly remaking itself, Dharker in these new poems also takes St Paul’s duel identity as spiritual centre and icon of the city, and deftly weaves them together to create a poetry that acknowledges both, especially in poems such as ‘Channel of vision’ and ‘Ringing the changes’. The Cathedral, with its long association with state occasions, and located as it is in the heart of the city, has become a barometer of sorts for our time. The recent Occupy Movement, which found itself on the footsteps of the Cathedral, is still fresh in the memory. Images about the past offer a recognisable present – “logos of banks” and “barefaced glass,/the rise and rise that eats the sky” (‘Channel of vision’).

But it is in her last poem, ‘The Fabrick’, which best brings together the personal and the public – the outer architecture with the inner human being, to present a poetry of hope, faith, humanity. In the final two lines, she asks us to “Find, inside the resonating space/the way to live, the living poem”.

Canon Mark Oakley, hosting the event, points out that what Dharker is doing here is an act of remembering of the best kind – a ‘re-membering’, a creative putting back together. If St Paul’s can be said to represent to some degree the spiritual, political, and social life of a nation, then Dharker’s looking at the Archive history is not just the re-membering of an iconic building, but as Oakley suggests, it is also a re-membering, a putting back together, of ourselves.

You can find out more about the poetry and the project here:

Posted in poetry | 1 Comment