The Poetry House

This posting is the text of the paper delivered by Graham Henderson of the Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation at the Bucharest interim conference in May 2015:
 
The philosopher Heidegger, who remains a controversial figure, nevertheless made a sustained attempt to ground modern philosophy not in the realm of abstract ideas but in the world as it is actually experienced by human beings (phenomenology). As part of this enterprise he explores at some length the concept of the house, not as a mere building, but as a place experienced by human beings as hearth, home, family nest, and framer of primal experiences. Granted that the notion of home and hearth may have some specific meanings in German culture, we can probably all still agree that the idea of the house is full of additional and extraneous meanings. The French philosopher Gaston de Bachelard, in his book The Sense of Space, invokes a similar idea. To a human being a door is not just a door, but a gateway to experience, a threshold, a symbol and a metaphor. The same can be said for all of the other features of a house, overlaid as they are by the many meanings and associations they have for us, mediated through stories, images and memories from our childhood.

If even an ordinary house carries such a weight of meaning and significance, how much more weight attaches to a poetry house such as the Rimbaud house in Charleville-Mezieres, the Keats-Shelley house in Rome or the Lorca house in Granada, which carry the stories and the histories of the great poets who once lived there. In these cases the lived experiences of the poets combine with their global significance as artists and with their important place in history. Indeed these individuals and the houses associated with them have grown to dominate our perceptions of the cities where they are situated. Granada is now inescapably connected with the occupant of the Huerta de San Vicente. It is hard to think of Rome without the Spanish steps and the Keats-Shelley house overlooking it, and Charleville-Mezieres is now permanently associated with the image of its most famous poet and his maternal home overlooking the river.  Our experience of these places has been permanently changed.

These ideas are perhaps hard to acknowledge in an age dominated by the materialist philosophy shared by both the Left and the Right. If you believe that culture is merely a reflection of the forces and relations of production you are likely to dismiss the presence of a poetry house as merely a concrete reflection of the prevailing economic conditions. If you see individuals as mere consumers, whose relationship with culture and the arts is fundamentally no different to their purchasing patterns in a supermarket, then you are equally inclined to dismiss or underestimate the importance of such a building in our collective history and imagination.  In this case the poetry house is reduced to merely a diversion, an entertainment, and a customer experience. However, in the world occupied by real human beings the importance of such houses is disproportionately great, because they are the bearers of ideas and cultural reference points which go far beyond the everyday workings of a small house museum. The poetry house does not just commemorate a poet, but points beyond itself to a whole world of meanings and interpretations.
 
When I first visited the San Vicente house in the 1990s I felt that I was recovering an entire world of Spanish European modernity buried for 4 decades by the dictatorship. In the Keats-Shelley house in Rome I felt not so much the presence of Keats, who was very sick and died only 6 weeks after arrival, but the wider context of the late Victorian gothic world view, presided over by ideas of genius and morbidity. And the Rimbaud house museum resonates as a jumping off point for artistic experimentation and modernity and for journeys to the edge of the known world.  These poetry houses are not just repositories of memories, but vehicles for the delivery of much wider meanings and possibilities.

Poetry articulates a sense of place as lived experience. Language is the quintessential human skill, and poetry is the purest and freest form of human self-expression. Its meanings are unconstrained by conventional ideas of fact or truth and can grasp towards ineffable truths, and towards the strangeness of life as it is actually lived. Poetry is not a greater art form than music, dance or fine art, but it is better able to explore in words the specificity of human existence in all of its rich complexity, for the benefit and enrichment of others.  As a result the poetry house can perhaps bear a greater weight of symbolic meaning than a gallery, a theatre or an industrial museum. This is not to diminish the importance of these institutions, only to say that poetry has the unique ability to articulate its own significance in language. This includes playing a wonderful and rather understated role in helping to articulate the importance of other art forms.

The digital revolution means that we are now entering a new world, where the meanings of these poetry houses can be made manifest in new and much more dynamic ways. In the past the constraints of bricks and mortar, and the need to attract visitors to a small house museum, to maintain collections and funding, have perhaps prevented the development of the wider potential for these houses. In the digital age the poetry house can become a symbol and a gateway to wider participation in the arts. As well as houses they are now brands, but not brands designed to sell washing powder or entertainment. They are brands of unimpeachable integrity, bearers of cultural weight, guardians of history and literature, bearers of meanings. In a digital age a poetry house can be a curator of rich arts content, and an important educational resource. It can both promote culture and provide access to it by the wider community.  The number of people who can access it online may be much greater than the number who can access it locally and in person. Rather than a limited resource for locals, the poetry house now has the potential to become a gateway for the many to discover and participate in the arts.  Content can be accessed from anywhere, and the vision and ideas of a poet can inform the whole world.

In a world of severe financial constraints it is perhaps impossible for one poetry house to realise this vision of combining the local with the global. But in partnership with others the potential for the poetry house model grows exponentially.  In the digital age poetry houses can operate as nodes in an international system of exchange and collaboration. Web designers from Romania can support an arts organisation in London. An academic conference organised in Rome can attract speakers and academic experts from all over Europe. A show developed in London can tour internationally. Together we can be immeasurably stronger than we are apart. The ideals of the European Union are ultimately not economic ideals, but cultural ideals, based on human values and our shared history.

If the EU is to be maintained and to hold together in adversity it will do so not because of economic self-interest or collective institutions, but because of this sense of solidarity and shared culture. Poetry is the universal language of humanity, and gives us insights into the fundamental values that we all share as members of this humanity. By working together we accomplish the European project, and a lot more. The poetry house can be the opening, the gateway, to a wider world of culture and engagement. When I visit Charleville-Mezieres and reflect on a talented young poet who invented modernity, or the Lorca house and consider the untimely death of a great champion of tolerance and inclusivity, or consider the contribution and literacy legacy of a poet like John Keats, I realise that what we do is important, and that the ‘poetry house’ is so much more than just a house.

Posted on: Sunday 14th June, 2015