Emergency Supplies

Three months ago, on a summer evening in London, poetry fell from the sky.

You might have read about it, or clicked on a video. Or if you happened to be standing in Jubilee Gardens on the south bank of the Thames River on a late June evening, you might have seen it yourself: one hundred thousand bookmark-shaped pieces of paper dropping from a helicopter, flickering through the air past the Big Ben and the London Eye; a crowd of hundreds looking up and cheering, their arms raised, waiting to catch them. Some people – the taller and pushier ones – were soon gripping thick stacks of poetic booty in their hands. Some exchanged the bookmarks with each other like they were trading baseball cards. Some sat down to read what they’d grabbed.

The event was the work of the Chilean art collective Casagrande, who since 2001 have staged similar happenings in Santiago, Dubrovnik, Guernica, Warsaw, and Berlin. Their idea is simple, unassailable in its clarity and basic decency: to go to cities that have been bombed during past wars, and to bomb them with poetry. “It is a gesture of remembrance as well as being a metaphor for the survival of cities and people,” they write on their website.

But there was something odd, and a little confusing, in the coverage of the London event. Officially it was called Rain of Poems, and the headlines and news stories kept sliding between these two metaphors – rain and bombs – to describe it. “Poetry Bombing: 100,000 Poems Rain on London” read the piece in the Huffington Post. CNN.com began their feature with this: “It’s midsummer in London and it’s raining.” It later refers to the event as a “delightful deluge.”

How did all this water come to overtake – to dilute – the clean symbolism of the original premise? It has to do with funding. “It’s like a script,” Julio Carrasco from Casagrande explained when I met the group during their stay in London. Whenever they sit down with city officials to discuss their proposal, the fact that they call the event a bombing becomes cause for concern. Inevitably, someone in the meeting has an idea: Hey, what if we called it rain? The group has been approaching representatives of other countries and planning their next bombing, and they’re almost certain the same conversation will play out again.

Casagrande don’t take it much to heart that bureaucrats insist on mangling the central idea of their performance. They seem amused by it, and largely unfazed. To them it’s a small price to pay: they know they couldn’t pull off their stunt without financial and logistical support.

Indeed the Rain of Poems was one of the many events embedded within a multilayered nest of government-sponsored cultural initiatives occasioned this summer by the PR extravaganza that was the London Olympics. First, it marked the start of Poetry Parnassus, billed as the largest-ever gathering of poets in history, which invited poets from all 204 nations and territories taking part in the Olympics to a festival of readings and discussion. Poetry Parnassus, in turn, was part of the London 2012 Festival, itself billed as “the most exciting festival the UK has ever seen,” and which, according to their homepage, produced 12,000 events across the country. This festival included other ambitious sub-festivals, such as Globe to Globe, the staging of thirty-seven Shakespeare plays in thirty-seven different languages, and Metamorphosis: Titian 2012, in which choreographers from the Royal Opera House and the Royal Ballet were commissioned to create interpretive dances to three of the artist’s most famous paintings. It was also responsible for the Piccadilly Circus Circus,  which took over the streets of central London and culminated in a band of acrobats dressed as angels flying thirty meters above ground on ziplines and then releasing over one ton of ­feathers upon the crowd below; an artwork that consisted of a full-sized replica of a coach hanging off the roof of a building in homage to the heist film The Italian Job; and the Peace One Day concert, an Elton John-headlined show that encouraged ceasefires in the world’s war zones. Moreover, the London 2012 Festival was only the finale of the four-year-long Cultural Olympiad, which included a slew of large-scale projects: commissions for twelve public art pieces and twenty new musical works, contests to identify 2,012 species of animals and plants in the UK or to create short films that celebrate “Olympic values.” The estimated cost of the Cultural Olympiad was ninety-seven million pounds.

Buried inside the Cultural Olympiad’s London 2012 Festival’s Poetry Parnassus’s helicopter performance art grand opening were, of course, some poems: verse printed on paper, written by one person to be read by another. Surely much of the work was skillfully done; surely many of those poems fluttered into someone’s hands and did the work of literature, to startle and reveal and relate. It’s clear, however, that the actual writing was beside the point. For their bookmarks, Casagrande chose three hundred different poets, one for each Olympic nation and an additional fifty from Chile and the UK. They prioritized writers younger than forty-two but did not discriminate for theme. They did discriminate for size, however: The poems had to fit on a small and skinny piece of card stock.

The group admits that they themselves aren’t interested in poems necessarily, and that their intention is to create a gesture, an occasion. “In the Rain of Poems it is the use of poetry that matters, not the individual person or the specific topic,” they write in their proposal, “because poetry speaks as a whole.”

Yet by choosing Casagrande’s piece to launch their festival and by presenting it as they did, Britain’s official guardians of Literature broadcast a particular outlook about the uses and future of poetry. Here poetry was designed to be as untroubling as possible: distributed for consumption in bite-sized portions from an aircraft, like feeding distracted toddlers by pretending the fork is a plane; cleansed of any negative associations (rain not bombs). The event strived to match other Olympic-style spectacles, which went aerial whenever possible (feathers, the Queen and James Bond falling from the sky; acrobats and dancers bungee-jumping off a bridge; a bus suspended in mid-air; fireworks galore). And together with Poetry Parnassus itself, it emphasized the idea of poetry, and culture more broadly, as diplomacy, as a kind of annex of international relations (peace on Earth; every nation represented).

All this effortful institutional packaging ultimately called attention to the very anxieties it tried to counteract. Making poetry accessible solidified the notion that it is difficult to access; publicizing it as exciting and insisting on its political significance affirmed that it was dull and inconsequential.

In the context of London in 2012, I began to see that the most useful way to think about the poetry drop was not as a metaphor for war or weather but rather as a symbol of a coming shortage.  After the Games, after the 100 million pounds that have gone towards promoting culture and the idea of culture this summer, the UK returns to its fiscal reality, which is massive cuts across all public spending. Austerity measures across Britain will cause – are causing – a thirty percent decrease in arts subsidies. In a country that has traditionally relied on government funding for art (unlike the US, for instance, which has for better or worse built up a system of corporate sponsorship), this represents a significant threat to the national infrastructure of artistic activity. The Rain of Poems was an airlift, and this summer’s Cultural Olympiad served as an infusion of supplies to a society facing blockade.

The question that arises is whether poetry can be deemed a societal benefit in the way that healthcare or education or food or peace-keeping forces are, whether it is a substance that should be provided to a public by any means necessary. It’s certainly nice to think so, to think of literature as a service or a material good that worthy governments and government-funded bodies can endeavor to convey to its people. But it might be closer to the truth to say that poetry has no inherent value. Like all language, its value is contextual; it’s no more and no less than a specialized and elaborate method that people have developed over centuries to communicate to each other across time and space. In other words, it’s a delivery system. And once a delivery system needs its own delivery system – a promotional campaign, an airlift – to reach its users, it’s fair to say that it is no longer acting as one at all.