In 2018, poetry seems to be ubiquitous; it’s shared daily on social media, featured in prime-time TV adverts (e.g. Nationwide, giffgaff, RSPCA, Land Rover, Royal Navy), plastered on tube posters and spoken on stages large and small. But when I was growing up (just before the proliferation of the internet), poetry was mainly found in books and the occasional film or TV programme – and, of course, in my own imagination.
I remember looking forward to my English literature lessons on Heaney, Keats, Shakespeare and Wordsworth, taking poetry anthologies out of my (tiny) local library as soon as they came in, and being inspired by stirring recitals in films including Four Weddings and a Funeral (I’d like someone to read W.H. Auden’s Funeral Blues with similar feeling at my memorial a long, long time from now) and Dead Poets Society (a film I love so much that I could, and probably will at some point, write a separate post all about it).
Over the years I’ve amassed a diverse collection of poetry books and curated a digital anthology of my favourite poems by bookmarking the work of writers from across the globe – but some of the most memorable poetry I’ve ever read wasn’t in print. I’ve been fortunate enough to discover poetry in unexpected places, which gave it extra meaning.
The poem written underneath my wallpaper
A couple of years ago my husband and I redecorated the living room of our new house, which involved stripping away the textured wallpaper the previous owners had put up. It took several days of steaming and scraping but the stubborn paper finally came down, revealing the bare plaster underneath – on which a short poem was scrawled in what looked like black crayon.
I have no idea who wrote this (either on our wall or in the first place) but I felt a little conflicted about painting over it because whoever wrote it likely did so in order that it/they would be remembered. I think we can all relate to the feeling of wanting to leave our mark on the world, even if that’s just on a wall somewhere.
Although we ultimately had to paint over the poem, covering it up permanently, I’m happy that we took a moment to appreciate it and preserve it with a photo – and that I’m able to share the poem with others via this blog.
The poem I found in my nanna’s knitwear drawer
Shortly after my nanna passed away, my mum and I had to clear out her house so that it could be put up for sale. We began this task on a freezing cold December day and the heating was broken, which added to the sombre mood as we quietly packed up a lifetime of possessions.
I said that I would start in my nanna’s bedroom, as I knew that there had been a damp problem in that part of the house which meant that most of the items would simply have to be thrown away (making the task much easier than deciding what to keep and what to donate). As I emptied drawers and threw musty clothes into bin bags, I spotted a torn scrap of paper tucked between some cardigans; what was written on it caused me to yell for my mum to come and look.
The poem, in my nanna’s familiar handwriting, seemed as though it had been put there for me to find at that moment, when I was overwhelmed by grief and wondering how I would ever be able to move on. My inner sceptic knew that it was probably just a coincidence and that I was reading too much into it, but the discovery of the poem was the first of several strange coincidences in the months after my nanna died which made me wonder whether she was watching over me.
Even though my nanna had written “Attributed to” underneath the poem, the paper is torn through the author’s name and I can’t make out what’s left (nor have I been able to find anything about the poem online). Regardless of who wrote it, however, I’m glad that I found the poem when I did and was comforted by it at a very difficult time.
The poem forged from steel in a museum
When I visited the 9/11 Museum in New York last autumn, I wasn’t expecting to find an extract from an epic Latin poem in the museum’s Memorial Hall.
The 60-foot sentence, comprised of 15-inch letters made from recovered World Trade Center steel, is a translation of “Nulla dies umquam memori vos eximet aevo” from Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid (which comes in at a staggering 9,896 lines).
The quote was framed by 2,983 watercolour squares (one for each of the 2001 and 1993 attack victims) as part of an art installation called “Trying to remember the color of the sky on that September morning”. Each square was a different shade of blue, and the overall effect was incredibly powerful.
Although the choice of quote prompted criticism from literary experts when the museum opened, I think the installation perfectly represents “the transformative potential of remembrance” just as the curators intended; it has taken something from the wreckage of a disaster and turned it into something beautiful. You can find out more about the installation here.
The poem tucked into a secondhand book
As a child, one of my favourite pastimes was to rummage through the boxes of secondhand books at the local village market and spend my pocket money on whatever took my fancy, from a charmingly retro Brownies handbook published in the 1960s to the latest paperback in the Point Horror series.
I’ve always preferred secondhand books to new ones, especially if there’s an inscription which offers clues about the book’s previous owner; imagine my delight when I found a handwritten love letter tucked inside the front cover of an old paperback (unfortunately I can’t remember which one, which is a shame as I imagine the title may have held some meaning).
It was the early nineties so I didn’t have any means of looking up the poem and therefore assumed that it must have been written by the book’s previous owner, who I imagined had lost their true love due to war or some other forced separation. Years later, thanks to Google, I discovered that the poem was actually a Frank Sinatra song and when I listened to it for the first time, it sounded much more optimistic than I expected; the upbeat tempo of the music betrayed the melancholy I had perceived in the written words.
I often wonder about the note; was the book’s previous owner the writer or the recipient? Who was the note meant for, and were the lyrics (and the book they were tucked inside) significant to them in some way? Like a true romantic, I’ve kept the note all these years and I could never imagine throwing it out.
Have you ever found poetry in unexpected places? Share your story in the comments.