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Featured Poem: Art by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Written by The Reader, 24th October 2011

The American clergyman and social reformer Henry Ward Beecher said that “Books are not made for furniture, but there is nothing else that so beautifully furnishes a house”. Of course, the most beautiful parts lie within their pages but there’s no denying that, if we will temporarily judge a book by its cover, there are some very aesthetically pleasing ones that look as good – if not better – than any pricey piece of art (I have to say, I always gaze rather longingly at the Penguin Hardcover Classics) – with their contents being of much higher value. But the decorative quality of literature is not limited to home interiors; volumes, specifically of the poetic variety, are springing from their shelves, spilling out, splashing and wallpapering words over every visible surface. From the beginning of next year the nation will undergo a radical refurbishment with hundreds of lines of poetry being printed upon the landscape: on buildings, installations, parks and other public spaces. The Winning Words project, part of the countdown to and celebration of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, will see the nation ‘carpeted’ in poetry; showcasing how words and poetry are valuable parts of life to be admired, occupied, wrapped in and cherished. Poems become personal possessions, treasured as much as any trinket or ornament, not just appealing to the eye but fixed in the mind, taken to heart and held dear.

This ambitious idea is very good news for poetry lovers, as well as art enthusiasts; very soon poems will be all around us, lines cropping up almost everywhere we look. Across the land, we shall be surrounded by stanzas, immersed in verse; our environment will be one of the largest anthologies ever known. As a concept it’s certainly impressive, not only in scale; there’s something that makes fundamental sense to marry poetry, art and the natural environment in such a way, as they do connect in a very close, compatible sense with one another – and with us as people, each in their own unique way but joining forces to create something incredibly powerful, and to say together almost all there is to be said about life. So the meeting of the two couldn’t possibly provoke any trouble, surely? Well, not quite. Another poetic project running in conjunction with the Cultural Olympiad, Stanza Stones, will see poetry quite literally embedded into the environment with specially composed lines by Simon Armitage being carved into stones across the Pennine Watershed in Yorkshire, creating a permanent ‘poetry trail’. But not everybody finds the relationship to be a harmonious one; the venture has been met with opposition by those concerned that the poetry carving will irreparably damage the landscape and may even encourage less lyrical graffiti and vandalism.

Even for those of us who defend poetry with our very souls and want to see it developed in the most creative of methods, in turn embraced and internalised by the largest number of people possible, it is impossible to overlook the other side of the argument. In face of the criticism, Simon Armitage has responded by saying that poetry is only being appended to areas already damaged, as a way of repair and restoration. Also he makes the case that places containing nature at its rawest, such as the Pennine Watershed, are frequently bathed in language, by visitors who utter and express their pleas, prayers, innermost hopes, fears and dreams there at their most desperate, vulnerable and emotional states. Therefore it seems entirely fitting that there be some kind of everlasting legacy to these words, as fundamental to our inner worlds as the stones and earth are to our external environment. And as poetry can add embellishment to a run-down and weather-beaten world, in turn nature breathes life into that which is only apparently decorative. As Ralph Waldo Emerson demonstrates, art – whether of words, or otherwise – is entirely necessary in this world, and often for reasons that go far beyond the aesthetic. He even talks of ‘gleaming piles of stone’ – and few will be more gleaming than those that shine with the power of poetry.


Give to barrows, trays and pans
Grace and glimmer of romance;
Bring the moonlight into noon
Hid in gleaming piles of stone;
On the city's paved street
Plant gardens lined with lilacs sweet;
Let spouting fountains cool the air,
Singing in the sun-baked square;
Let statue, picture, park and hall,
Ballad, flag and festival,
The past restore, the day adorn,
And make to-morrow a new morn.
So shall the drudge in dusty frock
Spy behind the city clock
Retinues of airy kings,
Skirts of angels, starry wings,
His fathers shining in bright fables,
His children fed at heavenly tables.
'T is the privilege of Art
Thus to play its cheerful part,
Man on earth to acclimate
And bend the exile to his fate,
And, moulded of one element
With the days and firmament,
Teach him on these as stairs to climb,
And live on even terms with Time;
Whilst upper life the slender rill
Of human sense doth overfill.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

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