London Poetry Library

Time Out discovers the Poetry Library, a serene South Bank treasure with spectacular city views and a second-to-none collection of modern works

  • London Poetry Library

    The Poetry Library on the fifth floor of the Royal Festival Hall

  • ‘Poets,’ as Ogden Nash observed, ‘aren’t very useful/Because they aren’t consumeful or very produceful.’ And of course, that makes them ideal company for anyone whose soul is in need of some balm after a battering from the frenzied production and consumption of life in the capital. So if you’ve yet to discover the oasis of light and calm that is the Poetry Library, let us guide you.

    Situated on the fifth floor of the Royal Festival Hall and connected to levels one and two of the Southbank Centre via a glass lift installed during last year’s radical refurb, the library not only boasts one of the most comprehensive collections of modern poetry in the world, but it also offers a new exhibition space, a listening booth, and some stunning views over the Thames.

    ‘People call it a hidden gem,’ says acting joint librarian Chris McCabe, ‘but that’s not how we like to be seen. We want to be known about. We are open to everyone – it’s a public space.’

    Anyone can join the library free of charge (just take ID with proof of address) and since the collection holds two copies of each of its 90,000 items, you can also borrow anything you want to spend quality time at home with. Among the treasures are many rare books, limited editions and a vast range of audio-visual material featuring one-off recordings such as Allen Ginsberg reading his Beat classic ‘Howl’.

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    The library has an exhibition space and a find-the-poem service

    Founded in 1953 with funding from the Arts Council, the library was part of the post-war flurry of high-minded public works which also produced the Royal Festival Hall, though the library didn’t move to the Southbank Centre until 1988. Under the centre’s latest artistic director, Jude Kelly, poetry is part of a general policy which aims to bring different artistic disciplines together to create new and fertile juxtapositions.

    ‘There’s a poetry element to a lot of the events,’ says McCabe. ‘We’ve got a writer in residence, Lemn Sissay, who’s putting together an anthology of poems that have been used within other performances in the Southbank Centre – poetry that’s used sometimes in a central way, sometimes in quite an implicit way.’

    And it’s not just about performance, either. ‘Often text plays a part in works on show at the Hayward Gallery,’ he says. ‘Grayson Perry is doing a touring exhibition in February of works selected from the Arts Council’s collection, and as part of that the Poetry Library is choosing poems that complement the artworks. He’s selected quiet pieces from the 1940s and ’50s, and we’ve chosen poets like Philip Larkin and John Betjeman to tie in with that.’

    The library is home to poetry dating from 1912 onwards

    The collection goes back to the birth of modern poetry in 1912, when Ezra Pound and the imagists first started rejecting the romantic sentimentalism and Tennysonian portentousness that characterised the late Victorian and turn-of-the-century literary landscape. This modernist bent is still apparent in the library today, in that McCabe and his colleagues deliberately define poetry as broadly as possible when it comes to their acquisition policy: ‘Anyone who’s being creative with text – we will class their work as poetry. It’s quite difficult and dangerous to start saying “That’s poetry, that’s not poetry”. Basically, if someone writes something and says it’s a poem, then as far as we’re concerned, it’s a poem.’

    As performance poetry and hip hop-style poetry slams have grown in popularity, the library has also seen its collection of spoken-word material grow, as well as gathering in any song lyrics – from the Beatles to Leonard Cohen to Tupac – that have been published in book form.

    Some booksellers may see doom and gloom in diminishing sales for poetry volumes, but as far as McCabe is concerned, poetry’s relevance and popularity is growing year on year. ‘One of the privileges of working here is seeing all kinds of poetry coming in,’ he says. ‘We notice trends before anyone else. For instance, there has been a real swathe of political poetry since the war in Iraq – it does interest a lot of our users. And that goes against the idea that poetry is a totally quiet and reflective activity; there are a lot of poets making a lot of noise about things that are upsetting them.’

    Not that you’ll find noise and upset if you visit the library: ‘We have a wonderful quiet space at the back which looks out over the Thames and St Paul’s,’ says McCabe, ‘and people do use it as a space to reflect. That’s what we’re here for. To make poems happen, and to appreciate them, people need to step outside of the rush and take some time.’

    Poetry Library, level five, Royal Festival Hall, SE1 (020 7921 0943/ Waterloo tube/rail. Open Tue-Sun 11am-8pm.

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