Sunday, 13 November 2011

Library presentation on the theme of 'The Gift', 2005

The presentation referred to here was the Haddon Library's contribution to the Cambridge University Alumni Weekend, 2005. The poem was written, around the time of the 2008 Alumni Weekend, for the Sefton poetry competition. The Sefton theme that year, reflecting the status of Sefton's neighbour Liverpool, was 'culture'.


That year, instead of readings, and to match
our theme, I thought we'd stage our own potlatch.

The anthropology curator, knowing
Canada by research and her own growing,
said no: cross-cultural representation
was strung in certain trouble and vexation,
and the destructive potlatch, as a seam
of thoughts I longed to throw at such a theme,
was controversial: far from all would show
that potlatches meant that, or happened so.

Back to the trusted pattern, then, instead.
Mauss on the potlatch was one thing we read;
and Thorstein Veblen's sneers; and Titmuss' blood;
and a Toronto matron's giverhood;
and Malinowski on the kula ring,
and in more recent women's questioning;
and while the readings went on at the front,
a pass-the-parcel game as running stunt,
every stopped sheet unwrapping one more quote --
Oscar Wilde, Monty Python, Henry Root,
and Miss Manners, and, for one lucky player,
museum postcards wrapped in the last layer,
seeing they were a gift whose best use lay
in the receiver's giving them away.

And all the time, throbbing, the things I did
to presents I had had when younger: presents
I had not thanked for, presents I had sold,
presents I had misused, broken, wholly destroyed.
How stage a potlatch? Who does what to whom?
Better the script, the readings, and the wrapping,
the shelter, the diversion, the cooling, the keeping.

On the poem's allusions: a web search will lead you to far more than I can tell you about the potlatch, the kula ring, Marcel Mauss, Thorstein Veblen, Richard Titmuss, and Bronislaw Malinowski. (And, come to that, about Monty Python, Oscar Wilde, Henry Root and Miss Manners.) I first came across the potlatch, many years ago, in a journal article -- possibly this by Lloyd DeMause -- which linked it with the sort of hang-up that makes you distrust your own good fortune, and destroy what is valuable for fear it goes bad. That, as the poem says, is a controversial view of what the potlatch is about, but it was what stayed with me.

Another of my entries in that Sefton competition won a prize. True to form, my prizewinner had been specially written for an earlier competition, and had no success there. The present poem, specially written for Sefton, has now appeared in Sunrise 3, November 2011, p. 5.


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