This section offers a fuller description of the collections briefly listed on the site’s home page. There are links here to information on the poets or poem titles involved in each collection and links too to some examples of the poems.
To access and view the collections themselves, each with its poems listed and available for downloading, you need to register or log-in and then go to “Poem Collections” along the top of the home page.
Click here for the names of the fifty poets commissioned to contribute to this collection. A Birmingham-based poet and ex-priest called David Hart did the commissioning. David had previously worked for years in arts/health, and in effect was one of the pioneers of the arts/health “movement.”
A significant number of well-known UK poets contributed – such as Carol-Ann Duffy, Andrew Motion, Fleur Adcock, John Agard, Roy Fuller, Dannie Abse, UA Fanthorpe, Selima Hill. Other contributors are unknown on the literary circuits. They come from David Hart’s own local circles, creative writing groups and so on.
The idea of putting poems about waiting into NHS waiting rooms was my own, tentatively proposed. The sheer scale and ambition of the idea of commissioning as many as 50 contemporary poets to accomplish this task came from the Arts Council.
The collection includes a number of non-English languages, most of these either Gaelic or south Asian. The Gaelic poems came from David Hart’s own roots and contacts ; the south Asian poems are due to the good offices of the poet Debjani Chatterjee.
The collection was compiled between 1999 and 2001 and for those in the know, it was an exciting time, as fifty creators around the country pondered the same subject, the experience of waiting common to us all. David didn’t just approach people for a poem and then make a judgement, but worked alongside many of them as their contributions came to fruition, acting as critic, as guide, almost as midwife. You can read David’s account of how he accomplished his commissioning task here.
The collection was funded initially just by the Arts Council of England “New Audiences” scheme. Later, NHS Estates contributed, making a major re-print possible.
The collection is remarkable not just for its prevailing high quality, but for its variety. Despite the common subject, and the large number of contributors, there is no duplication, nor even any striking similarity between poem and poem.
Poems for…All Ages
For a list of poets and titles in this collection, click here.
The selection of poems available in this collection is similar in range to the celebrated Poems on the Underground posters in their first few years. Judith Cernaik and the Poems on the Underground anthologies were in fact of major help in our search for material. So also was that other marvellous anthology The Rattlebag edited by Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney and published by Faber and Faber.
Several old favourites are included in the collection, including work by Blake, Wordsworth, Yeats, Housman, DH Lawrence. There is a passage each from Beowulf and from the Song of Solomon. There is a translation by Ezra Pound from the Chinese, and by Anon. from the Navajo. There is a poem in English by the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, translated from his own Bengali.
We also chose ten poems especially for young children. To select them, a group of interested NHS receptionists and administrators based in Kensington and Hammersmith came together and spent an hour or two sifting through books, looking for suitable material.
The collection numbered over eighty poems, later cut back to fifty. Over time, this website may be an opportunity to revive a few of the missing thirty.
The King’s Fund’s investment in the project included funds allocated for a small evaluation. This last was conducted towards the end of the two years required to select and print the collection. The approach and implementation of the evaluation were greatly assisted by Dr Gillie Bolton. The resulting report is available on this site. Along with an excerpt from an earlier report for the Poetry Society, and a later one for the Arts Council, it can be found here.
Poems for…One World
This is the project’s largest collection. It evolved over more than a decade. Click here for a list of titles and poets.
Fifty languages are now represented in the “One World” collection, each with its English version printed alongside. There are significant language gaps and although we cannot hope and do not aim to provide a poem for every language spoken in the world, we hope in time to continue to rectify the most obvious omissions.
There is work in this collection by poets of international reputation. The production of many of the poems has provided a rich and rewarding story in itself – in the securing of a suitable font, in the contact with the translators involved, even simply in securing the necessary permissions.
In the different phases of its compilation, I received editing help from the following good guides : the poets Fiona Sampson, Debjani Chatterjee, Stephen Watts.
How it began – the Foreign Office
The “One World” collection began with ten poems chosen to celebrate the EU Enlargement in 2004. The poems can be distinguished by the FCO logo along their respective bases.
The arrangement came about following a letter I wrote to Dennis Macshane, then Minister for Europe. The upshot was that one poem would be selected from each of the ten countries now joining the EU, later to be published as widely as possible. I worked with Fiona Sampson on the poem selection.
The nations were : Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Greek Cyprus, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia.
Here is an example of one of the poems.
But EU “enlargement” was just an event and events quickly fade into the past, however lasting their effects. By contrast, difference is not an event and does not fade. Poems to ease the EU enlargement were thus just the beginning of a developing idea that subsumed, absorbed and now includes that initial ten under the title of Poems for…one world.
With funding from the Baring Foundation, they were joined by thirty five more in 2005, the languages represented now ranging from Albanian to Vietnamese and including Arabic, Hindi, Hungarian, Kurdish, Mandarin, Punjabi. Like the earlier ten bilingual poems, each of these is accompanied by a translation set out alongside.
Initially, the poet Debjani Chatterjee and later the poet Stephen Watts were my guides and mentors for this collection.
The combined Poems in Praise of Diversity, later called Poems for…one world and numbering 45 bilingual poems, was launched by the Poet Laureate of that time Andrew Motion in October 2005 at the Central Middlesex Hospital in West London. The launch left behind ten of the poems, greatly enlarged, on permanent display in the Acad building there.
Thereafter and for several years, I continued to build up the “One World” collection, working with Stephen Watts to find and select new work. At the time of writing, it numbers well over 100 poems, with fifty different languages represented.
But adding to the collection over the years has not been a matter just of applying a system, such as ticking off languages in alphabetical order. History and the subjective and chance and even philosophy have also been determining factors. Here below are some examples.
A group of Burmese poems joined the One World collection in 2012, rather later than most of the other languages. This coincided with the easing of army rule in Myanmar, and the consequent lifting of some of the nation’s publishing restrictions. The inclusion of Burmese poems also benefited from the publishing in the UK of a bilingual book of Burmese poetry called “Bones will Crow,” edited and translated by ko ko thett and James Byrne. The publishers were Arc Publications. For their help in my selection, thanks are due to everyone involved in the production of that book, and also to individuals working in the UK embassy in Rangoon, including Vicky Bowman, ex ambassador there.
“These are the Hands” by Michael Rosen
A poem called “These are the Hands” by Michael Rosen is included in the One World collection, acting as a kind of “sub-section”. The poem celebrates the NHS and in fact Rosen was actually commissioned to write it by the NHS, for its 60th birthday in 2008.
We were given permission by both the poet and the relevant office of the NHS to display the poem as part of the Poems for…the wall project, hoping by this means to bring it to the widest possible audience. But also the poem draws us back to where the Poems for…the wall project began. After all, our first title was Poems for the waiting room and waiting rooms in the UK are still usually NHS ones. This was a further reason for having “These are the Hands” published and freely available here on our website.
And is it just white Anglo-Saxons who sit and wait to see the doctor in these rooms ? No it is not. And are the doctors and nurses and district nurses and occupational therapists and midwives, whom these people are waiting to see, are they all white Anglo-Saxons ? No they are not.
So let’s acknowledge the international grandeur and generosity of the NHS vision (now under threat, despite the constant official protestations and denials) by having Rosen’s poem of celebration published in several languages. Thus, you will find that the One World collection includes not only Rosen’s English original of “These are the Hands” but also translations of it in Turkish, Greek, Somali and Punjabi (in both Urdu and Gurmukhi scripts). Thanks are due to the translators in each case, who are, respectively : Mevlut Ceylan, Spyridoula Politi, Abdullahi Botan Hassan and Amarjit Chandan.
Beyond Language Difference
In essence, the One World collection is about addressing and crossing and dissolving frontiers. It is about opening up, not shutting out. In doing so, it does not deny the issues and the problems that can be created by difference. But neither does it fear those things. On the contrary, difference enriches, as the collection amply demonstrates.
The vast majority of the poems in the “One World” collection feature differences of language and culture. But in the process of putting the collection together, it became impossible to ignore other differences that divide people and too often limit and degrade lives. Usually, it is our fear operating. In fear, we turn away ; in fear we stigmatise and distort (and in some cases sentimentalise) ; in fear we abuse. So as part of this realisation, there are several pairs of poems in the collection that are not bilingual, but instead cover a subject in which stigma or avoidance or distortion can often be a feature. These subjects are : mental ill-health ; learning disability ; physical disability ; death (the latter pair of poems were written by someone about to die).
During 2014 and 2015, the pairs of poems on mental ill-health and on learning disability became the basis of two whole new collections on those subjects. See below.
Poems for…self at sea
This collection features thirty poems and was launched in Bristol in the Autumn of 2015.
Its poems all concentrate on mental ill-health or distress and include various perspectives and places of witness and experience. These include the first hand experience of psychiatric in-patients, as written in a monthly creative writing group I ran for years, each time cycling a stretch of the Grand Union canal towpath in west London to get there. They also include some witness of my own, having worked for decades as a social worker, running mental health centres in the community. I would call this latter form of witness not so much “observational” as “relational.” The poems come from a trusting relationship and the voluntary sharing of a confidence. They put form to the confidence and the relationship. I would want them to do the confidence and the relationship and the experience honour.
And a few of the poems come from the perspective of the family “carer,” someone who lives with mental ill- health almost as centrally as the patient him or her self.
Thanks are due to the commissioning branch of the NHS in Westminster for helping to fund the collection ; also to the charity United Response for organising its launch.
Poems for…bridges to learning disability
“Poems for…bridges to learning disability” consists of twenty poems and was launched with the “self at sea” collection in 2015.
The charity United Response played a crucial part here, allowing me access to its impressive “Postcards” project, as well as allowing me to visit some of its agencies and to talk to some of the people who attended them, as well as to its staff. Thanks are due to the large number of United Response staff who helped, above all Diane Lightfoot.
A large proportion of the poems in this collection were written by me. This is because quite a few of the people I talked to couldn’t write well, or at all, and it was inescapable that my words, if carefully and humbly enough written, could do more justice to their experience, and communicate it better, than their own writing could. And communicating the experience to people “outside the ring” being the main point of the exercise, it was my task to listen to them as well and as empathically as I could, so that my words could do them sufficient justice.
The expenses incurred in the making of this collection were met by a small bequest left to me by my parents. They had put it aside in case my sister Kim, who had Down’s Syndrome, had need of extra funds for her support at any point. Kim died in 2012 and the money, previously unused, came free. There could not have been a better use for it than the compiling of this collection and I decided to put it together in tribute to her and to say so openly. I also used some of my own experience as a family member, as part of the witness the collection offers.
I continue to hope that both these recent collections, “Poems for…self at sea,” and “Poems for Bridges to learning disability,” will find their way into schools as plentifully as the bilingual collections, there to continue to “open people’s lives to each other.”