"She lives the poetry she cannot write" – Wilde
Why We Need Libraries
It is the mid-sixties, and it
does not matter which year exactly;
it may have been the year Mrs White
threw water on the cat. It may not.
At the bottom of the hill, opposite
the football factory which will close
in 1981 (although nobody knows this
because nobody can look into the future
in fact the future is a pair
of stout walking boots in a sealed box)
they are loading books from the old
library to take to the new library
which is near the new clinic and not
far from the new old folks’ home
at the top of the hill. Yes, isn’t
it symbolic that these new things are
at the top of the hill. Yes, isn’t
that Ian McMillan and his pal Chris
Allatt waiting outside the empty new
Library, the green tickets in their
fists, their eyes hungry for Biggles?
It is the mid-sixties, and the future
is waiting to walk away from us, briskly,
as though we smell funny, leaving the new
library to darken and crack into the old
library, closed on Saturday afternoons
Everyman I will go with thee and be thy
guide except on Saturday afternoons and
sometimes all day Mondays and sometimes
certain days for the need of money to pay
the people who open the doors to let the books
out. You never know what will happen, though,
because the future is a book in a private
library. Unless we can request that book
and borrow it and read it and read it.
If you’re ‘just’ a poetry reader, I hope you agree that reading poetry for its own sake does not require special training, any more than reading a novel does. Those who say ‘but you should have to work at a poem’ give lazy writers a cop-out. If a poem seems entirely impenetrable to you, then walk away from it as you would a boring film or play, and let no-one tell you you are stupid. When I dissect poems here, it’s intended mostly for the poetry writer. Writing poetry well does require you to read others’ work critically. Like a car mechanic taking an engine apart to see what makes it purr, we need to understand how poetry does what it does. It saves time.
I say this as we approach Ian McMillan’s poem because his work is supremely readable, and also very rewarding to study. It’s funny, grounded and vernacular. He stands with Roy Fisher, UA Fanthorpe, Tony Harrison and Elizabeth Jennings, great poets who speak plainly but who bear reading again and again, apparently getting wiser with each reading – because we have imbibed their own wisdom, and can reflect it back to the work.
So, to Ian’s poem. He places us roughly in time, around ‘the year Mrs White/ threw water on the cat.’ No, he isn’t going to tell us exactly which year, or why she did that, or whose cat it was: memory is like that. Mrs White sounds real and makes us believe that he’s telling the truth, but perhaps not the whole truth. There are other touches to convince us that the story is real. Chris Allatt, the green library tickets and the football factory are all prosaic and precise. As is often the case with Ian McMillan, he seems to be rambling but actually walks us around a verbal spiral, looking at the past, present and future from different angles. ‘Nobody can look into the future’, he says from what is already the future, thinking back to his young self outside the library.
We don’t know exactly where this library is, though I’d put a fiver on it being Darfield. McMillan only locates things ‘at the bottom of the hill’ and ‘at the top of the hill’. Manufacturing industry is at the bottom of the hill, bright new civic buildings at the top: and here Ian McMillan does another Ian McMillanish thing. He steps into the poem very deliberately and reminds you that you’re reading a poem. ‘Yes, isn’t/ it symbolic that these new things are/at the top of the hill.’ I think what he means is, yes it is symbolic but yes, they really are at the top of the hill. Suspension of disbelief is not for the likes of us; I am telling you the literal truth, he says.
His poems show the sublime and the completely ordinary side-by-side, in all circumstances, in all lives. McMillan is also an expert in bathos, the art of anticlimax. Almost without fail, he sugars the pill of a Big Idea with a very ordinary turn of phrase. The future is waiting to walk away ‘as though we smell funny’. The quote ‘Everyman I will go with thee and be thy/ guide’ is leavened with ‘except on Saturday afternoons’ when the library is closed. The words come from Everyman, the medieval morality play where they are spoken by Knowledge, but we know them better from the frontispiece of Everyman books. These are cheap books which have brought the classics to a mass market since 1906. Joseph Dent, the publisher
was the tenth child of a Darlington house-painter. He left school at thirteen, and arrived in London with a half crown in his pocket. He promised to publish new and beautiful editions of the world’s classics at one shilling a volume, ‘to appeal to every kind of reader: the worker, the student, the cultured man, the child, the man and the woman’ so that ‘for a few shillings the reader may have a whole bookshelf of the immortals; for five pounds (which will procure him a hundred volumes) a man may be intellectually rich for life’. [from everymanslibrary.co.uk]
The line breaks in this poem seem arbitrary, even perverse. Why is it in couplets? Perhaps to give the poem a feeling of space and slow discovery. There’s no formal rhyme, but lots of repetition of key words – new and books and library. Like neuro-linguistic programming, it places and repeats words in a way that influences our reading, and turns in a leisurely circle back to the idea of the future. In the early part of the poem ‘the future is a pair/ of stout walking boots in a sealed box.’ Fifty years on, writes the boy who became a poet through reading free books, ‘the future is a book in a private/ library. Unless we can request that book/ and borrow it and read it and read it.’
There is a place for angry, tub-thumbing poetry, but it has limitations. It acts as a rousing focus for those who agree with it already, but can alienate those who disagree. A gentler touch can make people think about an issue and consider a new point of view: Ian McMillan’s poem takes us, elegantly and with good humour, to the conclusion that libraries change lives. He knows that, because they changed his.
I’m re-reading E M Forster’s novel Howards End at the moment. It’s a different book every time I read it: more likely, I come to it each time as a different reader. The first book to set me alight was not a classic but a book called Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones, which I took out of Dronfield Library in the mid-seventies. It does not matter which year exactly. Then as now, libraries give us what Joseph Dent’s Everyman books were intended to supply: ‘Infinite riches in a little room’.
[This poem appears by kind permission of the author. Ian McMillan’s To Fold the Evening Star: New and Selected Poems is published by Carcanet. If you’re enjoying these blogs and would like to give a small (or indeed an enormous) donation, please click here to give any sum you choose via PayPal.]