Leading poets come to Cambridge

Anthie Karavaggelis - News Reporter 12 November 2012

Ten of the UK’s leading poets have been invited to write poems inspired by some of Cambridge’s most unique artefacts.

The project, known as ‘Thresholds’, will include renowned poets such as Gillian Clarke, Don Paterson and Daljit Nagra. Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, who is curating the project, described it as “a stunning level of commitment to poetry and poets”, but has provoked debate among prominent Cambridge poets and academics.

Each poet will be matched with museums and collections across Cambridge and will spend two weeks there between January and March talking to researchers and staff, exploring the collections and writing a poem inspired by their experience.

The items include Captain Scott’s farewell letter to his wife, held at the Polar Museum, Isaac Newton’s copy of ‘Principia Mathematica’ at the University Library, and the animal specimens collected by Charles Darwin on the Beagle voyage, which reside in the Museum of Zoology.

The project, backed by Arts Council England, is thought by Duffy to be an “unprecedented initiative” which will create “a meeting of minds and disciplines and a catalyst for ideas.”

However, Cambridge poet and lecturer Dr Ian Patterson disagrees, describing the project as “absurd” and adding that, despite Cambridge being a “centre of the most serious, interesting and accomplished poetry now for some fifty years, none of those associated with poetry in Cambridge were consulted about this publicity-driven piece of triviality.” Fellow poet and lecturer, Dr Drew

Milne, commented that “the project reveals a scandalous indifference to Cambridge poetry” and warned that such “exercises in journalistic publicity…rarely come cheap.”

Cambridge students have expressed mixed views about the project. One Archaeology and Anthropology student commented: “Normally we only hear of these objects in terms of their history and significance to our subjects; it will be interesting to see them conveyed in a different way.” Another student said that it was “encouraging to see an initiative breaking down the barriers between academic disciplines.” However, many students were less enthusiastic about the project, with one third-year astrophysics student, who wished to remain anonymous, commenting: “I don’t get it. Surely the Arts Council have better things to do with their money than pay a lot of poets to stand around in museums all day.”

Owen Sheers, one of the poets involved in the project, said: “As a writer I’ve always been attracted to putting myself in unfamiliar situations or within specialist areas of life that wouldn’t usually cross my path… I’m looking forward to discovering the idiolect of the Fitzwilliam, and to hopefully unearthing the human experience of some of the items in its collection.”

The poets and their places of residency are: Sean Borodale – Museum of Classical Archaeology; Gillian Clarke – Museum of Zoology; Imtiaz Dharker – Cambridge University Library; Ann Gray – Cambridge University Botanic Gardens; Matthew Hollis – The Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences; Jackie Kay – Kettle’s Yard; Daljit Nagra – Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology; Don Paterson – Whipple Museum of the History of Science; Jo Shapcott – The Polar Museum, and Owen Sheers – The Fitzwilliam Museum.

Anthie Karavaggelis – News Reporter