Poetry has been used for ages as a tool to critique the social anxieties du jour. Now, for the first time ever, a poem is being used as a physical remedy to one of modern society’s biggest challenges – air pollution. The poem by Simon Armitage has been printed on a 10 meter by 20 meter piece of material coated with microscopic pollution-eating particles of titanium oxide. According to the University of Sheffield, the institution that invented it, the material is capable of absorbing pollution from 20 cars every day.
The titanium dioxide particles on the printed material uses sunlight and oxygen to react with nitrogen oxide pollutants to purify the air. Professor Tony Ryan, pro-vice-chancellor for science at Sheffield University says that this simple additive could actually help cut disease and save lives. “This poem alone will eradicate the nitrogen oxide pollution created by about 20 cars every day. If every banner, flag or advertising poster in the country did this, we’d have much better air quality.”
The poem has been attached to the side of a building at the university, where it will be on display for one year. Armitage set out to write an accessible poem that could be easily enjoyed by people wandering by, but also one that was “robust and intricate enough to sustain deeper inquiries.” Seeing his poem so huge on the side of a building has been an interesting experience for Armitage, who says that “poetry often comes out with the intimate and the personal, so it’s strange to think of a piece in such an exposed place, written so large and so bold.” The full poem reads:
In Praise of Air by Simon Armitage
I write in praise of air. I was six or five
when a conjurer opened my knotted fist
and I held in my palm the whole of the sky.
I’ve carried it with me ever since.
Let air be a major god, its being
and touch, its breast-milk always tilted
to the lips. Both dragonfly and Boeing
dangle in its see-through nothingness…
Among the jumbled bric-a-brac I keep
a padlocked treasure-chest of empty space,
and on days when thoughts are fuddled with smog
or civilization crosses the street
with a white handkerchief over its mouth
and cars blow kisses to our lips from theirs
I turn the key, throw back the lid, breathe deep.
My first word, everyone’s first word, was air.