World Book Night: how poetry helps reluctant readers take flight
This year, the annual event to promote reading is giving away an anthology of poems for the first time, and the response has been extraordinarily positive
“Is it mine? Can I keep it?” Kieran has just read a poem aloud in the foyer of St Mungo’s Broadway hostel for the homeless in London’s Covent Garden. Silence by Mourid Barghouti begins: “Silence said: / truth needs no eloquence.”
Why did he choose that one? “Because I like silence. There’s not enough of it.” Kieran, 24, has lived in the hostel for more than a year since a serious motorbike accident interrupted his working life as a mechanic. Soon, he hopes to leave, to find a job, a place of his own.
He is holding a copy of a specially printed edition of the poetry anthology Essential Poems, edited by Neil Astley, one of 250,000 books that is being distributed to mark Thursday’s World Book Night. This annual event, run by the Reading Agency, sees thousands of volunteers share their love of reading by pressing books into the hands of others. The aim is to reach people who rarely read and don’t own books.
But how to tell who reads, who doesn’t? I wonder how the people I see daily on my street – the Irish builders, the Bangladeshi newsagent, the Italian hairdresser – will react to: “Psst! You look as if you rarely read. Can I interest you in a book?”
Oddly, it’s easier to offer a poem than a book. A novel or a biography requires a reader to start at the beginning, plough on to the end, persevering through interruptions. A poem delivers more, with fewer words. An anthology can slot into free moments in a chaotic day. You don’t have to like every page: just one. Seen this way, the quick hit of the single poem is a more promising gateway into reading than any other form of literature.
This is the first year World Book Night has included a poetry anthology in its giveaway – and the response has been extraordinarily positive. The initiative, supported by the Forward Arts Foundation and the Jerwood Charitable Foundation, clearly struck a chord with the 394 individuals and 224 institutions – homeless shelters, prisons, mental health trusts – who were offered a choice of 20 World Book Night titles, all but one written in prose, and went for the poems. 12,500 anthologies were printed: all have been snapped up. The givers’ enthusiasm, as seen on Twitter with the hashtag #shareapoem, suggests an unslakeable appetite for sharing poetry. Why?
Mass redistribution of words: World Book Night prepares for UK-wide book giveaway
Simon Phillips, a basic skills tutor at St Mungo’s Broadway, tells of reluctant hostel-dwelling readers who have been kickstarted into writing their own poems by discovering a poem that works for them: “John Hegley is good that way, and Invictus – the poem that kept up Nelson Mandela’s spirits in prison. People who aren’t confident with spelling and punctuation seem happier writing poetry than prose: there’s a bit more freedom for them.”
Writing a poem can lead to other things: involvement in the St Mungo’s magazine, turning up to editorial meetings, co-operating, being punctual, taking pride in an achievement. “Lots of the clients here have troubles and don’t see anyone except others in the same predicament or professionals – doctors, psychiatrists, nurses, key workers. And they have to describe what’s happened to them again and again. It’s quite depressing. It can get them down. But the right poem gives them something else to talk about,” adds Phillips. Rumi, he says, works particularly well for a client with mental health issues: “He tells me the Persian version: we look at the words in English together. It makes him happier, no question.”
It makes Phillips happier too: “When you read a poem like Frost’s The Road Not Taken with a group, they see their whole lives in it. They all find different meanings. The first time this happened, I’d never heard a conversation go so well: hierarchy goes out of the window.”
The World Book Night edition of Essential Poems includes Frost, alonside Cavafy, Rilke, Neruda, Elizabeth Bishop plus – in a special addendum – work by Emily Berry, Michael Symmons Roberts, Liz Berry and Kei Miller, all recent winners of the Forward prizes for poetry.
The language is current, fresh, vivid: my fears of coming across as a patronising missionary for culture are dissolved by the warmth of the book’s reception. Liz Berry’s poem, about a seven-year old girl pretending to be a boy, gets a hoot of recognition from my hairdresser, who immediately pledges to make her copy go further by offering it to customers with their blow-dries instead of Grazia and Hello! “I like a poem to make you laugh, make you feel good. Who doesn’t?”