In large bookshops, poetry sections always seem a little bit homeless. They often share a shelf with Drama, overshadowed by The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, and feel like an annexe to the fiction section. This is hardly fair.
Poetry has been the preferred mode of creative expression since Ancient Greece and its Homeric epics, long before the novel as a form was a twinkle in anyone’s eye. It was common to civilisations across the world, all of which brought their own styles, forms and conventions to the genre so that it would express exactly what it was that people wanted to say about their homes, their families, their great romances and their terrible wars in words that everyone felt deep down in their softly stirring souls, but only the great wordsmiths could articulate for them. It is an art form that can express the complexities and inconsistencies of the human heart and mind in a way that – I don’t believe – any other art form can.
It deserves more than a few anthologies in the back corner of Waterstones. And yet, shockingly, Hay-on-Wye’s Poetry Bookshop is the only bookshop in the UK dedicated solely to poetry. Londoners are lucky enough to have the Poetry Library at the South Bank – a fantastic resource and a quiet place to read – but we rarely have the opportunity to go somewhere where poetry is more than an afterthought, where we can find volumes of poetry to bring home and keep, stain and spill on and dog-ear and write in and defer to in times of need. It seems a shame, to me.
Thankfully, one poetry bookshop exists, good enough while we wait for the idea to spread. The couple who own the bookshop are friendly and helpful. They will let you browse quietly on your own but I have no doubt of their impeccable taste in and knowledge of poetry, should an idle browser need a recommendation. As I moved slowly around the A-Z collection of English poetry in the main room, the bookshop’s popularity became clear. Regulars came in to chat with the owners, including the owner of one of Hay’s other bookshops who came bearing gossip about the Festival. At one point the owners’ springer spaniel came bounding in and everybody seemed to be used to this.
Around the walls of the main room, poets great and modest are represented. Ezra Pound has a disproportionately large section, as does Seamus Heaney, but they by no means dominate the selection. Places of prominence are returned to other poets, whether they’re literary heavyweights like Chaucer and Tennyson or relative newcomers. It was here that I found the books I came home with. I bought U.A. Fanthorpe’s Selected Poems, including the brilliant ‘Not My Best Side’ and many other amazing poems for £7. I also bought a small green edition of James Joyce’s Chamber Music from the 1950s for £8.
The selection continues on the shelves in the centre of the room. On top of them, beautiful and rare collections of poetry are displayed for our admiration. Their shelves are full of more books and anthologies and one is dedicated to Old English poetry. And I mean Old English poetry that’s not Heaney’s translation of Beowulf (which my absolutely legendary Old English teacher dubbed ‘The Heaneywulf’), but translations of other poems like ‘The Wanderer’, ‘The Seafarer’ and my personal favourite ‘Deor.’
There’s a line in ‘Deor’ which goes ‘þæt ofereod, þisses swa mæg’ or ‘That passed over, so may this.’ This one line, coming to us from a thousand years in the past, is a perfect example of how we can carry poetry with us through our lives. I have kept it in my mind as a refrain, almost like a mantra, when I am going through hard times, as a reminder that we have come out all right in hard times before, and can do so again.
But enough of English poetry, modern or ancient. Downstairs, in what feels like a cellar, is the shop’s collection of international poetry in translation. This basement brings poetry in Japanese, Russian, Chinese, Sanskrit, Urdu, Belarusian, Hungarian, German, Polish, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Gaelic, Welsh, various Native American languages and I have no doubt many others that I’ve forgotten to curious readers. As you duck down to fit through the door, you can’t help but feel that you’re complicit in something. Rummaging through the shelves full of new and mysterious poetry feels a bit like reading under the blankets with a torch after bedtime, or whatever it was that normal children did to rebel. Whenever I visit my grandparents, I love exploring the photo albums, old books and boxes full of toys and clothes that fill their basement, in the hopes that I’ll find some treasure from the past and uncover the story is carries with it. That poking-around-in-grandma’s-trunk feeling is exactly what this basement recreates. It’s the distinct feeling that you have stumbled upon something that has the potential to be magical. Of course, poetry in translation is never quite as good as the real thing, but it’s certainly a start. And if you’ve ever felt the urge to learn Ukrainian, discovering that your new favourite poet wrote in it is a pretty good motivator.
The final part of the shop is the little space upstairs. On the walls in this little mezzanine are more books of poetry, as well as books about poetry and poets and other miscellaneous works. There are some interesting titles, but perhaps my favourite thing about it is that the books cover the walls on either side of the staircase, creating a wall full of books that carries the reader all the way from top to bottom without having to look at an inch of dull, uninteresting wall. I never realised that the boringness of a wall was a major problem until I saw this bookcase, but now that the book wall is in my mind, nothing will ever be the same again. I want one.
Charmingly, one of the walls on the top floor is covered in penciled height measurements of several different children. Whether these are the owners’ children, nieces and nephews, friends of the family or loyal customers is left for the browser to imagine, but in the end it doesn’t actually matter. The most important thing this suggests is the way in which all of us, not just those whose parents sell them, grow up with books and with poetry in particular. From nursery rhymes to lullabies, silly limericks to advertising jingles, poetry is all around us and it defines us in the years that we grow up. I heard a speaker at the Hay Festival talking about the way we live in a world filled with poetry and was completely convinced by his argument. Long after we’ve forgotten exactly what the difference is between an scalene and an isosceles triangle, or whether a motion is centripetal or centrifugal, we remember every word of something as seemingly trivial as ‘Winkin’ Blinkin’ and Nod.’ A poem from Mother Goose or something as silly as a radio jingle has the transportative power that all good writing always has, recalling worlds and lives we thought we’d left behind and reminding us that the deep and personal emotions to which poetry gives voice are never forgotten.