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‘Flags’: The poem that’s written on the streets of Manchester, The Manc

‘Flags’: The poem that’s written on the streets of Manchester

For years, Lemn Sissay’s Flags has been slowly eroding under our feet. Now it’s been rewritten and restored in cast iron on Tib Street.

First installed in 1997, Lemn Sissay’s poem Flags stretches a little under a mile down Tib street – running from Market Street up toward Swan Street.

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Originally part of the Tib Street art trail, created to draw people back into the Northern Quarter when it was in serious decline, Flags has long been a part of the area’s fabric.

Over the years, some of the poem’s stones have disappeared: leaving us to guess the missing letters and marvel at the way a simple act of feet treading the pavement has, over time, changed the meaning of the Chancellor of the University of Manchester’s words.

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On his blog, academic Dr. Tony Shaw calls it “living poetry, uncertain poetry” – where “sometimes you have to kick aside cigarette ends to read more clearly, or wait for a momentarily parked car to move.”

And for the past 24 years, that’s exactly how it has been: A piece of urban poetry slowly eroding under our feet, the very meaning of the art changing as stones disappear, wear away or – as artist Tim Rushton notes – are taken home as souvenirs.

But now, the poem has had a serious glow-up.

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In a bold move, the full work has been immortalised in a new ‘cast iron’ rendering – restored on Tib Street in full, with a new version of the poem written especially by Sissay for the occasion.

Supported by Manchester City Council, Bruntwood, and the Arts Council, Sissay was able to work once again with artist Rushton – who designed the original poem’s font back in 1997 – on the new installation.

Rushton had designed a special font called cypher for the piece back in the ’90s, which is used again on the new rendering.

“In the last couple of years it has become obvious that Lemn Sissay’s poem Flags on Tib Street has finally become past reasonable repair,” said Tim, reflecting on how the poem on the pavement has changed over the years.

“General wear and tear, scaffolding pole drops and souvenir hunting has rendered [the original poem] very patchy.”

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Sissay’s poetry can be found across Manchester. In fact you’ve probably noticed one of his most famous, Rain, painted on a wall above Gemini takeaway near the Oxford Road university campus.

‘Flags’: The poem that’s written on the streets of Manchester, The Manc
Lemn Sissay’s poem Rain can be found above Gemini Takeaway on the Oxford Road corridor / Image: Gerald England

Now an internationally respected poet with work recognised across the globe, Sissay has come a long way from using his unemployment benefit to self-publish his first poetry pamphlet Perceptions of the Pen.

The official poet of the 2012 London Olympics and Chancellor of the University of Manchester since 2015, for this year’s Manchester International Festival Sissay has also co-curated an exhibition at HOME with Hans Ulrich Obrist.

On display until 30 August, it’s called Poet Slash Artist and is all about forging new links across cultures, continents, languages and generations – joining up poets and visual artists to connect words and images across gallery walls and city streets.

Just like the Tib Street poem, it’s not all found in the gallery: Rather, the new exhibit has spilled out onto the streets of Manchester: creating a new trail that runs from Deansgate to Whitworth Street West.

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A full map of the locations for these new works of living art can be found here.

Flags by Lemn Sissay – the original poem (deciphered by Dr. Tony Shaw) versus the new edition:

The original 1997 poem:

These pavement cracks
are the places where
Poets pack their
warrior words

These pavement
cracks are the
places where
sleeping shadows
of moving
bridges stole

Where dying
dust of dreams
slides where
the slits silt
turns to food

Where home
truths trickle
home and confide
Where the silent
forests brood

Where spines bent?? the bridges
arches where they
vaulted with asice(?) to ? speak

And unity sown
on to the sun
of alll trades
perhaps they’re
a script words
of the street

Perhaps these pavement
cracks are the places
awhere flattened flags
lies solidified waves

The telling lines
within a sea of faces
where sufferers
take cover
of street caves

The telling lines
within a sea of faces
Where sufferers
take cover
of street caves

Where wander the
wayward and lost
Where the runaway
can chart his
journey back home

Where the water runs
as the world defrosts
The street breathes
beneath this stone

And perhaps the
pavement cracks are
the pattern of
concrete butterflies

Where thoughts
carefully
cultivated
waiting to
waken grow
wings and fly

Like us they hold
the people of a
modern earth
This world
between the
windswept flags

Where pavement
cracks are the
places where
sleeping shadows
of moving
bridges stole

The cold

The updated 2021 poem:

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Pavement cracks
are the places

Where poets pack
warrior words

Verses to catch the
surfeit of faces

Where seeds slip
from bitter birds

Trip and fall
between the ledges

Where sweeping
silent rivers run

Hidden roughened
toughened edges

Where darkness
swallows the sun

Pavement cracks
are the places

Where shadows
of bridges roll

Where water falls
water races

Heat crouches
beneath the cold

The dust of the
city slides

And secret silent
worries wait

Home truths
trickle home

Cracks are the
lines of fate

These pavement
cracks are patterns

of concrete
butterflies

A perfectly
positioned parallax

Waiting to wake
grow wings and fly

And perhaps these
pavement cracks

Hold the
Manchester myriad———————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

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The cracks the cracks
the cracks!

The world between
the windswept flags

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