More poetry is needed

December 6, 2019 2 Comments

These are dark times.  Walking through the streets of central Swansea, it can seem that the dark is rising.  More shops close with every month, leaving empty and boarded windows.  In some parts only charity, pawn and vape shops appear to be in business.  Never-ending cuts have reduced what were once thriving public and third sector institutions to shadows.  People walking the streets look ill and old (the young and well-off must be somewhere else).  Homeless and lost people sit in groups in alleys – many more than before. 

There’s almost no money left, from Europe, London or Cardiff, to help stem the tide of impoverishment.  What little there is, like the so-called City Deal, is spent on old-fashioned nostrums like retail regeneration, and on grands projets like the absurdly-named Digital Arena.  (It’s good that Swansea Council’s is trying to improve the Kingsway, though whether the result will be, as it claims, an ‘urban park’ is doubtful.) 

All this means that we have to take comfort and encouragement from whatever we can in the city around us.  Since 2014 one of the most prominent features of the streetscape has been Jeremy Deller’s wall at the back of the Quadrant shopping centre.  It was created as part of the celebrations of Dylan Thomas’s centenary, thanks to the charity Locws International’s ‘Art across the City’ programme.  Against a plain black background Deller set just four huge words in white lettering, ‘More poetry is needed’.  The stark white-on-black format, the stern serif font and the full stop give the sentence the air of an order rather than an invitation.  But the message couldn’t be clearer.  In a world of globalised isolation, the tyranny of commerce and heedless destruction of the earth, we’re urged to turn back to simpler, more creative ways of living that connect us to one another without resorting to exploitation and degradation. 

Every time I cross the pedestrian bridge across Oystermouth Road, the only completely safe way of walking from one part of the city centre to the other, and catch sight of ‘More poetry is needed’, I feel a bright colour restored to the grey scene ahead, a reminder that we can find hope in creating anew.  The wall is obvious to anyone on Oystermouth Road across the car park between them, and hundreds of thousands of motorists over the years must have seen the words ‘More poetry is needed’ when waiting in queues at the traffic lights.  There were spin-offs: the novelist Rachel Trezise was commissioned to produce a series of coasters for distribution to bars and cafes around Swansea.  They feature ‘micro-fictions’ inspired by the wall’s words.

Now the Council wants to demolish the wall as part of its plans to create more shops (which will probably drain life away from some other part of the city centre).  It has no plans to relocate it.  A ‘spokesman’ is reported as saying,

This temporary artwork was installed around five years ago.  It was commissioned by an arts agency as a temporary item that was always intended to be removed when work on the £1bn regeneration of the city centre got underway.  Of course, we’d have liked to keep it but, sadly, due to its size and the fact that it’s painted directly on to a brick wall of a building due for demolition, conservation was always going to be impractical and costly to council tax payers.

Jeremy Deller

This statement could not possibly be more depressive or depressing.  Its dismissive phrases (‘around five years ago’, ‘an arts agency’, ‘a temporary item’), its implicit privileging of the commercial imperative and scorn for the value of art (‘costly to council taxpayers’), its false regret (‘of course, we’d have liked to keep it’) and its refusal to admit alternatives to demolition – all of them make the reader’s heart sink.  You can imagine some Council Mr Jobsworth in a Guildhall basement, his soul hardened against any feeling for what matters, cranking the words out quickly before going to lunch.  Maybe, on rereading his text, he thought he should be a bit more emollient, and added another paragraph:

We will preserve memories of the artwork and the contribution it has made to the city centre through photographs which will be available for future use.  Also, the regeneration of the city centre will create significant opportunities for arts commissions, events and culture.

This just makes things worse.  The West Glamorgan Archives Service is a wonderful, outward-looking institution, but even its archivists would be hard put to give ‘More poetry is needed’ as much visibility as it enjoys now.  Shrinking a huge wall to a small photograph doesn’t sound fair exchange.  And a vague promise about ‘significant opportunities’ for quite different projects is an irrelevance.

Digital Arena (model)

We should ask Swansea Council some questions before accepting Mr Jobsworth’s ruling.  Could the wall not stay where it is?  If not, and it had to be repositioned, why couldn’t the Council, which admittedly is itself suffering financial hardship, find other funders to pay for the relocation – or ask others to find sponsors?  Why couldn’t the wall be installed as part of the new Digital Arena, which seems to have a large budget?  (The mock-up of the Arena looks faceless and forgettable, and could benefit from some additions.) 

The Deller Wall is part of Swansea today, and it deserves to stay.

Lately I took the wall’s advice and went to buy a book of poems I’d been meaning to read for ages: the selected poems of the New York poet Frank O’Hara.  His writing is bright, urban and subtle, and often deals with the nature of poetry itself.  Here is the opening of his poem ‘Radio’, which should be required reading for our Council bureaucrat, and a rebuke to his lack of vision and possibility:

Why do you play such dreary music
on Saturday afternoon, when tired
mortally tired I long for a little
reminder of immortal energy?

Comments (2)

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  1. Clifford says:

    Call me a philistine, but I’m non-plussed about the fate of the Deller Wall. It was always just a placeholder on the fag end of the last remaining part of the derelict old St David’s Shopping Centre, which has long been earmarked for demolition. The sign says nothing to me about commerce, the environment or globalisation; given its location I’ve always thought the subtext of the slogan to be a blunt “This place is a bit rubbish really, isn’t it?” Anyway, I’m glad the windswept surface car parks it looks out over – a waste of real estate in any city – are going to have something built on them. Swansea Council’s website says that “Swansea Central phase 2” will include a business school alongside “retail and leisure”. That’s good, and should help bring footfall into the struggling city centre.

  2. Keith H says:

    I’m totally with you here Andrew. Deller is one of my fave artists & this display is superb. Cannot believe how philistine the council are in dismissing it so lightly. Absolutely gutted when I heard it’s fate…

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