The world’s biggest knitted poem?
“The whole thing starts with a single knot / and needles. A word and pen.”
from ‘How to Knit a Poem’ by Gwyneth Lewis
There was a huge response to the Poetry Society’s idea of creating the world’s first giant knitted poem. More than one thousand knitters and crocheters worldwide furiously clicked needles and hooks to contribute the individual letters for the final poem and the blank squares that form spaces between words and line breaks. Letters arrived as multi-coloured 12” squares, which were joined together into words throughout September. The identity of the poem however remained a well-kept secret till its public unveiling at the British Library, London, on 7 October 2009.
The crafts of knitting and poetry
The project was hatched as a fun, grand-scale project in which many people could participate: “something that was about ‘poetry’ but also summoned up the idea of ‘society’, to reflect all the thousands of people who’ve kept the Society going since 1909,” explained Director Judith Palmer.
“Most poems are small, but the significance they can play in our cultural and emotional lives can be huge. It seemed appropriate to celebrate our centenary by upping the scale to reinforce the message of poetry’s importance in society.” Award-winning artists Rachael Matthews and Louise Harris of ‘modern haberdashers’ Prick Your Finger, London, were brought in to help design the letter templates.
“Readers sometimes need reminding that poems don’t drop out of the sky onto the internet,” Palmer added. “I hope people will see the work involved in the knitting and reflect on the poet’s sleepless nights crafting the text.”
The project also explores the symbiosis between the crafts of knitting and poetry. Poets including Jo Shapcott, Jackie Kay, Roy Fisher, Anne-Marie Fyfe, Yvonne Green, John Hartley Williams and Gwyneth Lewis have written poems which made this link. Throughout the summer, their poems have been posted weekly on the Poetry Society website, alongside others by writers such as Alfred Lord Tennyson, Pablo Neruda and Emily Dickinson. “I’ve always thought that the process of writing poems is much like knitting. If you hit a problem, like dropping a stitch, the problem is often a few lines or rows back,” said Gwyneth Lewis. “There’s a similar rhythmic repetition, which leads to a light trance in both, and I love the way that both are made out of ordinary, everyday time, often stolen in between more so-called important activities.” She added: “I don’t want to push the analogy too far however. As a knitter I only reached the level of hot water bottles and Dr Who scarves. I attempted a sock recently and failed miserably, so I’ve had to accept that I like writing poems about knitting far more than the activity itself.”
The perfect opportunity for learning poems by heart
Knitter Pamela Elliott, who produced a letter ‘D’, explained how knitting presented the perfect opportunity to learn poems by heart. “I set myself up on the sofa with a poetry book on one side and my knitting stuff on the other. I read a line before I started the row and tried to remember it while I was on that row. At first the poems didn’t seem to be going in but then all of a sudden they just sprung into my mind. It was a bit magical and I love the fact that the poems are in my head wherever I go!”
Each knitter was asked to think of their favourite poem while they knitted, and name the poem on the back of their square – some even embroidered the full text there. In first place at the moment, as knitters’ favourite is Yeats’s ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’. Possibly it was because the poem was knitted in capital letters that so many knitters chose ee cummings. Participants swapped favourite poems on Facebook and the online forum Ravelry, encouraging others to read choices as varied as Anne Sexton’s ‘I Remember’, Leo Marks’s ‘A Code Poem For The French Resistance’ and Harold Monro’s ‘Overheard on a Salt Marsh’. “It’s the love of poetry, knitting and the sheer largeness of the project that attracted me!” explained poem knitter Marcia Kile of Pittsburgh.
The secret poem that was selected for the ‘Knit a Poem’ project was only revealed when the magnificent 40-foot square work was unveiled at the British Library on 7 October 2009: Dylan Thomas’s ‘In My Craft or Sullen Art’.