When Sir Philip Sidney wrote The Defense of Poesy (An Apology for Poetry) in 1579, he probably hoped that his passionate arguments would settle for ever poetry’s value to society. He probably also knew that this battle would have to be fought again and again.
Recently I was selling books at a talk given by the Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo, author of Dead Aid. Now, I know next to nothing about economics and am shamefully lazy about learning more—words like capital or credit or investment seem to function like really bad tags, warning me off rather than inviting me in—so I was only half listening while failing to do the crossword, and then she said something that got my attention. I won’t pretend to quote exactly, and if I in any way misrepresent her opinions then I apologise, but she seemed to suggest that a society, and an education system, should be focussed on science and technology because they are what grow an economy, and the arts and humanities, however lovely, are unnecessary and unimportant. This got me cross, because it always gets me cross. And then came the Q&A session and I did nothing. There were all sorts of reasons for me not expressing my view there and then, some of them quite good—like wanting to keep my job—but when it comes down to it I made no attempt to change anybody’s mind. And that made me more cross.
Later that same evening I was on the bus home and still cross when I remembered my favourite true story. It comes from Alberto Manguel’s wonderful book The Library at Night. In 1990 the Colombian government set up a library scheme to take books to the farthest reaches of the country. A librarian on the back of a donkey would travel out with a satchel of books, drop them off, then leave. After a set period of time the librarian would return to collect the old books and drop off a new load.
According to one librarian, the books are always safely accounted for. ”I know of only one instance in which a book was not returned,” she told me. ”We had taken, along with the usual practical titles, a Spanish translation of the Iliad. When the time came to exchange it, the villagers refused to give it back. We decided to make them a present of it, but we asked them why they wanted to keep that particular title. They explained that Homer’s story exactly reflected their own: it told of a wartorn country in which mad gods wilfully decide the fate of humans who never know exactly what the fighting is about, or when they will be killed.”
So there, I thought. Yes they needed books teaching them how to construct irrigation systems and treat diseases in their livestock, but the one book that they decided they could not do without was the epic poem.
I don’t know whether they felt themselves part of a wider community, thousands of years old, when they read Homer—but they were. Just as we are when we attend Poet in the City events to hear poets read. Just as we are when we award prizes to the people we consider the best poets of the year. And now I’m thinking about Derek Walcott and the way poetry allowed him to make an ancient alien tradition, in the always wise words of Louis Walsh, ‘his own’. And we got Omeros, and now White Egrets, which for my money was the best book of last year, and a worthy winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize.
One last hectoring word on libraries: please join your local one if you are not already a member. People need them and membership rolls are taken in to account when decisions are made about cuts. I walk past my local one on Kentish Town Road in London more or less every day, and each time I glance through the window I see people, mostly children, indulging in the absolutely useless pleasure of reading. So I’m going to make amends for not challenging Dambisa Moyo by joining them.