Poetry and place
Poetry is inseparable from place. Every story has a setting; every poem a landscape of its own. Whether you look outwards when you write, or inwards to imagination and memory, there’s always a place where a poem is born. It may not be obvious, but it is there. Under the fleeting impressions that drive you to take up your pen — something concrete waiting to be discovered.
I’ve found place to be an anchor when I’m writing poetry. Feelings are ephemeral. Memories of people, watery and elusive. Like sudden scents, they rise — vivid for a moment, then gone. Places, on the other hand, are full of simple, solid details. Even if none of those details end up in the final poem, they will help you make your way towards it. Details bring ideas to life. If you picture a place clearly, it may give form to the emotion you are reaching for.
The landscape of memory
When I wrote Limehaven: Poems for my grandparents, I struggled to remember my grandparents. Their faces would swim out of focus as soon as I called them to mind. Yet daydreaming about their little bungalow, with its lush and sprawling garden, came easily. The real place ‘Limehaven’ was long gone, but my memory of it remained intact. As I wrote in the introduction to the book:
“I’ve walked once more through its rooms, running my fingers over the furnishings: the coarse cotton antimacassars, the crocheted doilies, the bobbly settee… I’ve conjured clocks and chairs, wardrobes and wallpaper in shimmering 3D. Bringing my grandparents into focus has been more difficult. Whenever I tried to summon them, they’d beetle off into another room. I’d hear a rattling cup or a chesty cough or catch a whiff of mint rising from a saucepan. Still, I couldn’t picture them. In the end I found them in the fabric of the place.”
This is true. With place as your anchor, writing becomes a treasure hunt. One detail leads you to another. A room leads you to a cupboard. A cupboard to an object. Suddenly you’re looking at the person holding that object. They smile at you. They’ve been waiting for you all along…
Living in two places
Writers must dwell in two places. The landscape of memory and imagination, and the workaday world. We’re not always good at it. Anyone who lives with a writer will recognise the distant stare, the vague answers, the absent-minded smile. “Hello, where are you?!” Here, of course! Just don’t ask me where I mean.
Being part-time inhabitants of vivid imaginary worlds is a guilty pleasure we share with many readers. But there’s another sense in which writers experience a duality of place. The place that inspires you to write is not always the place you write about.
My first book is set in the place where I grew up. But I had to move more than 300 miles north before I could write it. Maybe some people have to leave a place before they can see it clearly. Or maybe fresh new vistas encourage creativity. I certainly feel the pulse of life more strongly in my adopted city and am grateful when it flows into my writing.
Pride of place: Poem of the North
People become attached to the places they adopt. Here in the North East of England, regional pride abounds. When the Northern Poetry Library commissioned a new digital artwork to celebrate its 50th anniversary, I was excited to contribute.
Poem of the North includes the work of 50 selected poets, each writing on the theme of ‘North’, using a poetic form specially created for the project. Inspired by the number assigned to English poetry in libraries, the ‘821’ is an 11-line, 3 stanza poem. It twists and turns at every verse — imagine a sonnet crossed with a haiku.
Writers were also asked to submit a short accompanying paragraph on the theme ‘My North’. For six months, readers watched the online artwork grow as a new voice was added every three days. Contributors included Linda France, Pippa Little, Ellen Phethean, John Challis and many more.
The theme of ‘North’ clearly tapped into strong feelings of place and identity. Poet and project curator Lisa Matthews likened reading the submissions to “releasing a flock of singing birds.” The poetry of place is often found in the language of its people. Landscapes shape language – and words, when spoken, have a landscape of their own.
Great Exhibition of the North
A few years back, another celebration of place and creative inspiration came to town: the Great Exhibition of the North. It was a two-month festival celebrating culture, design and innovation in the North of England. There were festivities of all kinds – from big exhibitions and showy set pieces across the city, to street art and local outpourings of community spirit. It was a vision of what is possible when the people of a place get together to rejoice in their shared creativity.
One of my favourite installations was the Winged Tales of the North street art trail. It was somewhat off the beaten track and, years on, few traces of it remain. As you can no longer experience the trail in its original glory, I’m including the blog post and photo diary I made about it at the time. It seems a fitting end to my musings on poetry and place. A reminder that words will rise from any landscape — and may return, one day, to transform it.
Article and all photos © Vicky Arthurs