The titanium dioxide coating can absorb the pollution from 20 cars every day.
A new poem from Simon Armitage is setting out to do more than merely tug at the emotions and expand the horizons of its readers: this particular piece of verse from the award-winning poet is intended to purify the air.
Armitage’s In Praise of Air has been printed on a 10m by 20m piece of material which has been coated with microscopic pollution-eating particles of titanium dioxide. These use sunlight and oxygen to react with nitrogen oxide pollutants and purify the air, with the material said by the University of Sheffield, which devised it, to be capable of absorbing the pollution from 20 cars every day.
The poem has been attached to a building at the university, where it will be on display for one year. “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,” writes Armitage. “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.”
It ends: “My first word, everyone’s first word, was air.”
The bestselling author said he had “enjoyed working with the scientists and the science, trying to weave the message into the words, wanting to collaborate both conceptually and with the physical manifestation of the work”.
“I wanted to write a poem that was approachable, that might catch the attention of the passer-by and the wandering mind, and one that had some local relevance too,” said Armitage. “But I also hope it’s robust and intricate enough to sustain deeper enquiries … 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.”
Professor Tony Ryan, pro-vice-chancellor for science at Sheffield University, called the project “a fun collaboration between science and the arts to highlight a very serious issue of poor air quality in our towns and cities”.
“The science behind this is an additive which delivers a real environmental benefit that could actually help cut disease and save lives,” he said. “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. It would add less than £100 to the cost of a poster and would turn advertisements into catalysts in more ways than one. The countless thousands of poster sites that are selling us cars beside our roads could be cleaning up emissions at the same time.”
The poem in full:
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.