Some years ago, I was invited by curator Nigel Rigby to come up with a poetic spin as a counterpoint to Empire footage from old movies, Pathe newsreels etc. I enjoyed that quirky collaboration on what became a video/installation for the Trade and Empire Gallery, which is now making way for Atlantic Worlds.
And now, here I am as poet-in-residence, thanks to an initiative of Indie Choudhury. I'll be housed two days a week for three months in the Learning and Interpretation Department and my point of contact is Flora Gordon. So far I have been doing readings and meeting staff from various departments, wandering around and losing my way in the process but getting a feel of the NMM’s wide range of activities; also meeting visual artists and nosing around the library's intriguing resources.
Who knows what might inspire a poem? Often a little insignificant-seeming thing. The Muse might not descend in the rankified uniform of Captain Cornwallis! Like the other day, I noticed in the London Maritime section, this little quaint remark on the city's hybrid history by the reverend Sydney Smith (1771-1845):
"He who drinks a tumbler of London water has literally in his stomach more animated beings than there are men and women and children on the face of the earth."
Take that Volvic! So now you know the secret of global awareness and diversity - A tumbler of London water. How about the Commission for Racial Equality getting together with the Thames Water Authority and planning a National Tumbler of London Water Day?
And since a poem is grounded in a voice, how about the poem being put in the mouth of a rather eccentric(?) King who would gladly surrender his Kingdom for a tumbler of London water?
So here's a London-Maritime inspired poem I'd like to share with you.
WHAT AILS THE KING
He who drinks a tumbler of London water has literally in his stomach more animated beings than there are men and women and children on the face of the earth
Reverend Sydney Smith
1771-1845
A tumbler of London water
A tumbler of London water
And make that sparkling hybrid
A King can’t have enough of this polytonic fluid
I want to feel as Druid as oak
As Roman as that Libyan Severus
As pagan-powered as up-in-arms Boadicea
As lettered as that black Victorian Sancho
Water from the well of hidden histories
As angel-infested as Blake’s Soho
As Sabbath-lit as a Jewish window
As spice-warm as a Huguenot-haunted curry house
I want to salaam as shalom
As dragon-driven as Chinatown
Where old grey Thames meets the Yellow River
And the little bardic people of the Irish Sea
O my kingdom my sceptered kingdom
for a tumbler of London water
Let animated beings invade my being
Let a King imbibe the globe in one swallow
How else can I do my Polish mazurka
between the strains of Handel and Bob Marley?
John Agard (Poet-in-residence)