The Hillary Lecture, Oxford – 2 March 2015
In the summer of 2014 I spent three days with the Baltimore Police Force, riding around in the back of a squad car, interviewing detectives and staring at dismembered cadavers from the viewing gallery of the autopsy theatre, which was all very exciting, given that I’d actually gone to that city to look at dolls’ houses. Except these were no antique collectables or middle class playthings rescued from lofts in leafy avenues; these dolls’ houses were serious pieces of kit, very probably priceless and in every case fatal.
Baltimore is one of North America’s murder hotspots, an unwanted claim to fame publicised though not necessarily exaggerated or sensationalised by the hit HBO television drama series The Wire. The shiny new purpose-built Office of the Chief Medical Examiner is directly adjacent to the area of open ground where actors posed as dealers selling hard drugs from a call box on the corner, and just a few blocks away from where real-life gangs trade narcotics through reinforced letterboxes and gunshots from the windows of passing vehicles. All the victims of suspicious deaths in Baltimore end up on a slab in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, and nobody in the department disagreed with me when I ventured that they must be pretty busy.
On the third floor is a windowless room housing eighteen exhibits that would be more at home in the Smithsonian Institution, the Whitney Biennial or as peep-show curios in travelling circus, if they weren’t useful tools in the teaching of forensic science and crime-solving to trainee detectives in the State of Maryland. At a scale of one inch to one foot, the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths, as they have come to be called, were devised and built by the eccentric and wealthy Sherlock Holmes fan Frances Glessner Lee in the 1940s, and are painstaking reconstructions of actual crime investigation scenes, dioramas of suspected foul play, detailed to the point of obsession. So the model barn where Eben Wallace swings from a rope was fashioned using wood and timber strips from a hundred-year-old outbuilding in a part of the USA where his death had occurred. Kitchen shelves are lined with tins bearing brand-names of the day in the three-room dwelling where Mr and Mrs Judson and their baby Linda Mae lie dead in their blood-stained bed-sheets, and popular 40s magazines litter the floor of the blue bedroom where we discover the body of Charles Logan. The magazines are authentic in their cover photographs and typography, and legible right down to their sub-headlines. Apparently Glessner Lee insisted that a model rocking-chair be remade over and over again until it oscillated the same number of times as its real life counterpart before slowing to a halt. Each Nutshell Study is a dramatic story frozen at a point in time, housed within a three dimensional set reminiscent of a Pollock’s Theatre and about the size of a domestic fish tank. Staring at them, puzzling over clues, shining a flashlight into their darkest corners, I realised that as much as anything they reminded me of poems. In fact I wrote poems about three of the Nutshell Studies, and they were the easiest poems I’d ever acquired. All I did was describe what was there, then threw in a few half-rhymes at the end of lines.
On the few occasions I’ve been to lectures on poetry given by poets, it turns out that the best kind of poetry, and indeed the right kind of poetry, is coincidentally very similar to that of the lecturer’s. And something of that kind will no doubt happen today. But I hope not to use this hour to lay down the law about what poetry is or what it isn’t. And I should apologise in case the title ‘Putting Poetry in its Place’ has attracted people under false pretences, brought curious citizens cycling over the cobblestones hoping I might belittle my chosen art or give it a bit of a dressing down in public. All I want to do, in fact, is to celebrate the role of setting and situation in poetry, and to gently worry if part of poetry’s inheritance is being gradually forfeited in favour of more ethereal tendencies and styles. Its environmental birthright squandered for a mess of lentil stew.
Most poets I know teach, and most of them teach poetry, and the focus of much of their work is not the poetry of Dickinson or Shelley or Chaucer but the poetry of their own students. Poets teaching poetry has become something of a given over the past three or four decades, to the point where the term ‘poet’ is as much a university pay-grade as it is a description of a person’s literary accomplishments, particularly in the United States. Whether this relationship between creative writers and Creative Writing is a good or bad thing is open to question. To some it’s a necessary way of providing esteemed practitioners with financial security, recognising their artistic merit within an academic setting, disseminating knowledge among dedicated novices, and spawning future protégés through a professionalised form of intellectual apprenticeship. To others it’s a shameless method of raiding the bank accounts of unrealistic students, battery-farming sterile poets, cloning anaemic poems in the poetry workshop’s fluorescent daylight, and ensuring poetry’s descent into kind of software programming language incomprehensible to all but the Masonically initiated. If it’s the latter then I’m as guilty as anyone, having presided over hundreds of poetry workshops and seminars through several lectureships, professorships and visiting professorships in this country and abroad, but the Hogwartian system of poetic education isn’t my subject here. What concerns me, fascinates me, occasionally horrifies me but now rarely surprises me, is the number of times students bring poems to class which leave fellow students baffled and bewildered, and leave the tutor in much the same state. Poems which even after the most rigorous, in-depth reading they’re ever likely to receive, by several high-functioning individuals with a declared commitment to the cause, still resist the most basic analysis. The class might marvel at the clever use of a gerund in line three, or spend 35 minutes debating the relative merits of a semi-colon over a hyphen, or the poem might lead us into a discussion about recent breakthroughs in neuroscience. But by and large it remains a mystery. Which wouldn’t be a problem if mystification or deliberate vagueness was the author’s intention, but upon interrogation it usually turns out the poet had a very clear picture of the poem in his or her mind, a sort of framed vision, outlining a very definite set of circumstances. When I ask the author to replace the title, ‘Echoes’ it might be called, or ‘Conundrum in the Key of Clouds’ as I had recently… when I ask the author to replace the title with a geographical place-name appropriate to the poem’s subject matter, or to replace an adjective with some straightforward description of the poem’s whereabouts, seven times out of ten everything becomes clear. The poem’s unintended obscurities are resolved.
Two poems whose spells I fell under at a formative age, Ted Hughes’s ‘Full Moon and Little Frieda’ and Seamus Heaney’s ‘A Constable Calls’, both lay down firm foundations on planet earth before setting out their stalls and building their cases. Photocopied from school anthologies, they were stuck with blobs of overused Blu-Tack which had once held my sister’s Donny Osmond and David Cassidy posters on the wood-chipped wall next to my bed, and occupied positions reserved for images of Leeds United’s Alan ‘sniffer’ Clarke or local speedway stars in the bedrooms of other teenage boys in the villages of upstate Huddersfield. For me, ‘Full Moon and Little Frieda’ and ‘A Constable Calls’ were gateway poems, serving as points of entry into the language and landscape of what was then contemporary verse, offering a way forward, and then later, during times of disorientation, suggesting a route home.
Full Moon and Little Frieda
A cool small evening shrunk to a dog bark and the clank of a bucket –
And you listening.
A spider’s web, tense for the dew’s touch.
A pail lifted, still and brimming – mirror
To tempt a first star to a tremor.
Cows are going home in the lane there, looping the hedges with their warm
wreaths of breath –
A dark river of blood, many boulders,
Balancing unspilled milk.
‘Moon!’ you cry suddenly, ‘Moon! Moon!’
The moon has stepped back like an artist gazing amazed at a work
That points at him amazed.
– Ted Hughes
The Hughes poem came as a surprise, a tender and delicate piece among the blood-and-guts and cut-and-thrust of his other work, poems described as ‘horrible and violent’ by Hughes’s own Aunt, and from a poet with declared interest in ‘opening negotiations with whatever happened to be out there’. When he wrote about a fox’s ‘sudden sharp hot stink’, the pungent earthy reek seemed to rise from the page, as if we’d been given the scratch n’ sniff version, and before reading ‘View of a Pig’ our English teacher Mr Bamford suggested we don butchers’ aprons. There is certainly darkness in ‘Full Moon and Little Frieda’, the literal darkness of the encroaching dusk, the acknowledged darkness of the dark river of blood, the metaphorical darkness of the wreaths of breath and the ominous, unspoken darkness implied by the lack of mother figure and the substitute lunar matriarch. But more than anything there is wonder, beginning with the miraculous juxtaposition of the title, a kind of see-saw with the word ‘and’ as its fulcrum, an equation in which Hughes’s young daughter stands equal to a planetary body, a cosmological balancing act to preface the poem. The poem which isn’t just action within a constructed set, but construction in action, as line by line Hughes brings his props and sound effects and backcloth into the tiny theatre. ‘A cool small evening shrunk to a dog bark and the clank of a bucket’ he begins, miniaturising, modelling this bonsai dusk in a Devon farmyard. ‘A spider’s web, tense for the dew’s touch’, he goes on, tightening the tenterhooks, readying the senses and the nerves. In the midst of his scene-setting Hughes begins peopling the stage with characters, or rather its lone child star, ‘And you listening’ he says, placing her centre stage. There isn’t enough time or scope to follow this poem through to its remarkable conclusion via its sudden escalation of focus, or expand on the idea of the poem as a secular nativity play, or to consider it as an involuntary sonnet, but just enough time I think to mention my favourite word in the whole piece, the ostensibly innocuous ‘there’ tucked away in the middle. ‘Cows are going home in the lane there.’ It’s the pin in the map, the identification of a familiar place acknowledged by the use of a casual conversational mannerism ‘in the lane there’ – somewhere local and true, pointed at by the finger of the tongue. The poem is, in my view, Hardyesque, and Hardy is the set builder par excellence. His poems are the ultimate Nutshell Studies, little theatres in which mini-psychodramas are played out, scenes with characters, stories and punch-lines, though Hardy’s punch-lines tend to be in the form of devastating blows, dire warnings, reality checks, doom-laden metaphors or grim ironies. Put a penny in a Hardy poem, crank the handle, and within its lamp-lit clockwork motions the figurines perform their tiny piece, and the model maker delivers his rabbit punch to the kidneys. The Serbian-born poet Charles Simic is the contemporary Thomas Hardy; his work is more absurd, and more filmic, and occasionally teeters on the brink of the surreal, but poems like ‘Hotel Insomnia’ and ‘Country Fair’ are direct descendants of poems such as ‘The Whitewashed Wall’, ‘Heiress and Architect’ or ‘Beeny Cliff’, and part of a tradition of putting on a little show on a stage about five inches by six inches made out of flat paper.
A Constable Calls
His bicycle stood at the window-sill,
The rubber cowl of a mud-splasher
Skirting the front mudguard,
Its fat black handlegrips
Heating in sunlight, the ‘spud’
Of the dynamo gleaming and cocked back,
The pedal treads hanging relieved
Of the boot of the law.
His cap was upside down
On the floor, next his chair.
The line of its pressure ran like a bevel
In his slightly sweating hair.
He had unstrapped
The heavy ledger, and my father
Was making tillage returns
In acres, roods, and perches.
Arithmetic and fear.
I sat staring at the polished holster
With its buttoned flap, the braid cord
Looped into the revolver butt.
‘Any other root crops?
Mangolds? Marrowstems? Anything like that?’
‘No.’ But was there not a line
Of turnips where the seed ran out
In the potato field? I assumed
Small guilts and sat
Imagining the black hole in the barracks.
He stood up, shifted the baton-case
Farther round on his belt,
Closed the domesday book,
Fitted his cap back with two hands,
And looked at me as he said goodbye.
A shadow bobbed in the window.
He was snapping the carrier spring
Over the ledger. His boot pushed off
And the bicycle ticked, ticked, ticked.
– Seamus Heaney
An invitation from Poetry Ireland to write a few paragraphs on a Seamus Heaney poem of my choice, for a special issue of that magazine following Heaney’s death, gave me the opportunity of reflecting on ‘A Constable Calls’. And since they provided the initial idea and impetus for this lecture I’d like to repeat those paragraphs and say them out loud today. I admire and remember ‘A Constable Calls’ for the same reasons I admire and remember the Hughes poem, namely for its striking sense of place, indoors on this occasion, though where Hughes devotes much of his poem to the set-building I’ve described, Heaney moves into the director’s chair, gets the thing on its feet and runs the scene. In my view, the poem fits comfortably into a tradition of sketch-writing in British and Irish poetry. The poem as playlet, storytelling in a reduced, allegorical form. No modernist fragmentation or post-modern irony here. Instead a kind of ‘common sense’ prevails; we find progression of story, continuity of logic and the ramping up of dramatic tension, until the poem becomes a little show which presents a national situation within a domestic microcosm. The setting is the Heaney’s rural homestead, the cast is Heaney senior the farmer, Heaney junior the farmer’s son and future poet, and the intrusive police constable, a more corporeal version of JB Priestley’s uninvited inquisitor in An Inspector Calls but no less sinister to the young boy. Heaney’s listing of the props, from handlegrips right through to the revolver, puts the officer of the law unequivocally in the ‘baddie’ role, and I’m particularly interested in the way the poet’s cataloguing of apparel and weaponry runs parallel to the constable’s stocktaking, the poem as a silent and subversive version of the ledger, the ledger which is a written down form of the field, which as we know is Heaney’s page.
It’s often said that for a drama to succeed there has to be at least one likeable character, someone the audience sides with or roots for. As a reader I want to play the part of the boy, see it from where he sees it, not least because of the time when a copper came to our house to talk to my father about something I’d done, and I sat in the kitchen while they whispered in the living room with the door closed. But the poem won’t let me do that. Through its unambiguous them-and-us perspective I’m assigned the role of reader-as-constable, nosing around in someone else’s house, poking about in their business, and I assume ‘small guilts’. As a bleak forecast for the future of Northern Ireland and a warning as to the dark consequences of oppression, the ticking of the bicycle reads as convincingly appropriate. And is there, as well, a whiff of vengeance in that line, or at least comeuppance, as if the poet had momentarily and uncharacteristically been tempted by the cruder possibilities of the metaphor? On a blog site some months ago I saw a posting from a man who thought the constable in question might have been his father. The person who responded said he hoped not, because the poem implies he would have been blown to bits.
Every year at the University of Sheffield I ask my new students to write down their definitions of poetry. They should know what it is they’re trying to make, shouldn’t they?, especially if they’re forking out a few grand to make it. A Radio 4 presenter once asked me to supply my own definition of poetry live on air, and in a moment of haste I heard myself saying it was language in zero gravity. It’s a workable definition, I guess. I was thinking of the poem as its own world, free and proud to exist as an entity of just a few lines, not requiring the solar system of neighbouring chapters or footnotes to explain its properties or define its progress. But I still assumed such a poem would have a breathable atmosphere and would exist within a plausible universe, habitable by readers. I wasn’t advocating a poetry with all the insubstantiality of gas discharged into gas, losing its concentration, dispersing endlessly. I’ve encountered any number of those effluvial mixtures, and in my homemade opinion they compare poorly to those poems which find a point of anchorage or a toehold or gain traction through contact with the known world. I’m not sure if that’s a contention that poetry-writing Professors of Poetry past and present at this university would agree or disagree with, but I find persuasive examples of it in their best work. Early in Section 1 of Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns, among a rich and indeed poetic-sounding list of titles and names for the eighth century monarch King Offa, the poet throws in the epithet ‘overlord of the M5’, and reading that phrase never fails to produce a giddy, impish pleasure.
from Mercian Hymns
King of the perennial holly-groves, the riven sandstone: overlord of the M5: architect of the historic rampart and ditch, the citadel at Tamworth, the summer hermitage in Holy Cross: guardian of the Welsh Bridge and the Iron Bridge: contractor to the desirable new estates: saltmaster: moneychanger: commissioner for oaths: martyrologist: the friend of Charlemagne.
‘I liked that,’ said Offa, ‘sing it again.’
– Geoffrey Hill
It’s partly the deliciously anachronistic thought of an ancient tribal kingdom sliced by a six lane motorway, and the projected incongruity of Offa himself presiding over a bank of CCTV monitors at Strensham Services or answering the traffic cone hotline. But isn’t there also a sensory satisfaction experienced when expansive thinking and heightened language finds purchase on solid ground, when the road less travelled intersects with a notoriously congested section of the transport network. I felt something similar when I read, for the first time, of Sir Gawain on his horse Gringolet riding through the wilds of the Wirral, though of course the Gawain poet couldn’t have foreseen the forest of power station chimneys and pylons along the banks of the Dee that would become his young knight’s latter day backdrop. Wirral: a quick word, two syllables, an economy of language. M5: a capital letter and a single digit number. It is minimal contact, but note how those poems balance and spin on such surfaces, like a toy gyroscope on a fingertip.
No such minimal contact in James Fenton’s anthemic poem Tiananmen, where the place-name of the title is repeated on a further eight occasions and forms a concluding half rhyme with the two previous lines, an acoustic ripple suggesting ongoing echoes beyond the end of the poem.
Is broad and clean
And you can’t tell
Where the dead have been
And you can’t tell
What happened then
And you can’t speak
You must not speak.
You must not think.
You must not dip
Your brush in ink.
You must not say
What happened then,
What happened there.
What happened there
The cruel men
Are old and deaf
Ready to kill
But short of breath
And they will die
Like other men
And they’ll lie in state
They lie in state.
They lie in style.
Thrown on the pile,
Thrown on the pile
By the cruel men
To cleanse the blood
Truth is a secret.
Keep it dark.
Keep it dark.
In our heart of hearts.
Keep it dark
Till you know when
Truth may return
Is broad and clean
And you can’t tell
Where the dead have been
And you can’t tell
When they’ll come again.
They’ll come again
Hong Kong, 15 June 1980
– James Fenton
Tiananmen in this poem is geographical location, actual historical event and shorthand for other such future events: we know what a grimacing Orla Guerin or a melancholic Fergal Keane would mean if they talked of ‘another Tiananmen’ in some other part of the world. In banging the drum of the place-name Fenton orchestrates a protest chant, in what might be described as a protest poem. Its power, though, lies not in a shoulder-to-shoulder demonstration of solidarity but in the way the word also becomes obstinate, oppressive, retaliatory, so its rebellious chant is also its own robust, pulsing reply. Who will come again to Tiananmen? The protesters, such as so-called ‘tank man’ with his shopping bag in his hand, one citizen in a white shirt and black trousers apparently holding back the faceless, camouflaged, endless military might of China on his way home from the grocery store. He’ll come again. But so will the shot and the beaten. They’ll be back. And the shooters and the beaters. And those tyrannical dictators of verses three and four, lying in state, pun intended. They’ll be back as well.
Establishing some sort of terrain or locale in a poem frees the reader from the anxieties of feeling lost, unguided, and allows the poem to put on its show, such as the show Paul Muldoon brings to town in his ‘Duffy’s Circus’.
Once Duffy’s Circus had shaken out its tent
In the big field near the Moy
God may as well have left Ireland
And gone up a tree. My father had said so.
There was no such thing as the five-legged calf,
The God of Creation
Was the God of Love.
My father chose to share such Nuts of Wisdom.
Yet across the Alps of each other the elephants
Trooped. Nor did it matter
When Wild Bill’s Rain Dance
Fell flat. Some clown emptied a bucket of stars
Over the swankiest part of the crowd.
I had lost my father in the rush and slipped
Out the back. Now I heard
For the first time that long-drawn-out cry.
It came form somewhere beyond the corral.
A dwarf on stilts. Another dwarf.
I sidled past some trucks. From under a freighter
I watched a man sawing a woman in half.
– Paul Muldoon
Once the poet has thrown up his big top, the trapeze artists, magicians and jugglers can enter the spotlight and do their stuff, and details are usually what that stuff is, such as when a clown empties ‘a bucket of stars over the swankiest part of the crowd’. Listen to the stressed vowels in that line: ooh, ah, ah, ah, ow. It’s fun because we’re in the tent, in the audience, being showered with glitter. And there has to be a well-established interior so there can be an exterior, an ‘out the back’ place where the goggle-eyed and sexually naive young poet witnesses ‘a man sawing a woman in half’. Her name, I think, is Ireland.
I’ve always been captivated by Robert Graves’s poem ‘The White Goddess’, his manifesto piece pledging devotion to the maternal deity and denouncing orthodox religious teaching and the literary worship of male gods, but I don’t properly fall under its spell until the third line of the first stanza, when the poem moves from statement to journey, from idea to embarkation. ‘All saints revile her, and all sober men ruled by the god Apollo’s golden mean’ Graves begins. Then, ‘In scorn of which we sailed to find her’, at which point I sail with them, board the vessel and join the voyage. I experience transport.
We all know how boring other people’s dreams are, and W H Auden’s poem ‘The Lesson’ is made up three of them. But midway through the second verse the poet recalls: ‘We came at once to a tall house, its door / wide open’. And at that invitation we step inside. We inhabit.
Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.
The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name
And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.
And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
– Edward Thomas
Earlier on I mentioned how I sometimes recommend that students adopt a place-name for a poem’s title, and Edward Thomas’s ‘Adlestrop’ could be said to be the flag-bearer for the British place-name poem. The word ‘Adlestrop’, decorating the station platform and ‘unwontedly’ sliding into view, becomes a dictionary definition to a lost England of innocent summers and pre-Beeching branch lines. It’s sounded twice more within the body of the text, self-reflexively on one occasion in the phrase ‘Adlestrop – only the name’, to be followed by that double geographical reframing and deliberate exaggeration at the end of the poem, in which our author invokes all the birds of two counties. The blackbird which initiates the chorus sings ‘for that minute’; for sixty seconds’ duration, yes, but surely also in commemoration of that minute, in remembrance of it, as it were. ‘Adlestrop’ began life as a prose journal entry but crystallised into elegiac poetry over a six months period during which Britain lurched from peacetime into war. The old station sign now adorns the village bus stop, but Thomas’s appropriation of it has had such an immortalising effect that to many it can only be read as the title of poem detached from its text, in the same way that the village itself has become detached from its station and its past.
A poem by Jorie Graham which I often use in a workshop setting operates by a slightly different method.
How hard it is for the river here to re-enter
the sea, though it’s most beautiful, of course, in the waste
of time where it’s almost
turned back. Then
trussed . . . . The river
has been everywhere, imagine, dividing, discerning,
cutting deep into the parent rock,
scouring and scouring
its own bed.
Nothing is whole
where it has been. Nothing
Sometimes I’ll come this far from home
merely to dip my fingers in this glittering , archaic
sea that renders everything
where mind and body
blur. The seagulls squeak, ill-fitting
hinges, the beach is thick
with shells. The tide
is always pulsing upward, inland, into the river’s rapid
with its insistent tragic waves — the living echo,
says my book, of some great storm far out at sea, too far
to be recalled by us
whole onto this shore by waves, so that erosion
is its very face.
– Jorie Graham
There’s no cartographic location here or grid reference, though the poem is all geography. In fact it is too much geography, knowingly so, or perhaps more accurately too much fluvial geomorphology, as Graham devotes the greater proportion of the poem to a semi-scientific, partly-anthropomorphic description of wave action and river action on coast and estuary, a seemingly uncontextualised lesson in tidal erosion and cliff formation. I present the poem to students without its title, without its negative terminal, if you will, which when supplied allows a sudden emotional charge to arc across the gap. The poem is called ‘Wanting a Child’. Like many poets, Graham seems ready to convert coincidence into significance, or ready at least to impose significance on a given set of circumstances. Her observations of the coastline happen to mirror her mood at time, reflect her thinking, and she responds accordingly. By which I mean with a poem. Perhaps it’s wrong of me to assume the poem is personal, though I hope it is, because it seems to operate by sharing a confidence (‘Sometimes I’ll come this far from home’ says its speaker midway through the poem), and a large part of my response to the poem is governed by a sense of empathy. In any case, there’s an echo of the poem in an interview given by Graham to the Harvard Magazine, where she recalls visiting the Emily Dickinson Homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts, during her pregnancy, a journey she describes as a kind of pilgrimage or a visit to the oracle. ‘I went to Dickinson’s house to sort of ask her for a clue,’ she says. The Homestead is closed, but the caretakers finally relent to her supplications and allow her upstairs. She looks towards the room where she hopes to see Dickinson’s writing table – a totemic object for Graham, given that she lists Dickinson among an inner chamber of influences, alongside Sappho, Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore – all ‘maidens’ as she calls them.* Ironically the table is missing, taken to Harvard University, where Graham will become a professor in the future. In its place is a cradle, the cradle Dickinson had slept in as a child. Graham recalls: ‘The minute I saw that cradle I knew I was going to name the child I was carrying Emily.’ That journey across the States to a room in a house, the refusal at the door – no room at the inn – the disappointment of the missing table, the revelation of the crib, the epiphanic moment…it’s a poem I’d like to read. Or perhaps it’s a poem I’d like to write, when I think back to standing in that same room myself, when I think about standing in a basement room of the Robert Frost Library on the other side of town marvelling at loosely coiled ringlet of Dickinson’s auburn hair. When I think about the name we gave our own daughter.
‘But am small, like the Wren, and my hair is Bold, like the Chestnut Bur – and my eyes like Sherry in the Glass, that the guest leaves.’
That loop of hair, like a wren’s nest in fact.
It’s been pointed out on many occasions that in the field of popular music the American place name has a romance and an atmosphere that struggles to find its equivalent on this side of the Atlantic. ‘24 Hours from Tulsa’, ‘The Lights of Cincinnati’, ‘New York, New York’, ‘Is This The Way To Amarillo?’ etc etc. Even the dried up towns of the dustbowl and the oxidised cities of the rust belt and the hollowed out communities of the coal belt still manage to tug at the heartstrings and sound like desirable destinations when accompanied by the right chord sequence. In comparison, ‘24 Hours from Tulse Hill’, ‘The Lights of Billericay’, ‘New Cross, New Cross’ and ‘Is This The Way To Amersham?’ wouldn’t really cut it, lyrically speaking. Distance is one of the determining factors; in a country as spatially vast and diverse as the USA, regions remained relatively strange and exotic to each other up to relatively recently. Not so in the UK, a place where the road movie can only ever be an ironic undertaking, because before you know it you’re in Margate. When it comes to poetry, though, the tables appear turned. Our relative familiarity with the compact and intimate geography of Britain, with its connection to dialect, language and therefore identity has offered poets a ready made set of references through the ages, a sort of alternative thesaurus, where a place name or the mention of a region delivers a rich set of images and ideas, including prejudices I might add, directly into the reader’s mind, and has done so from the Domesday Book to the Ordnance Survey. British and Irish poetry is steeped in place, and the places of Britain and Ireland are suffused with poems, as the App which responds to its current location by offering a place-sensitive poem will demonstrate, if only someone would hurry up and invent it. What is Crabbe without Suffolk; what is Wordsworth without the Lakes; what is Hardy without Wessex (granted, what is Wessex even with Hardy); what is Housman without Shropshire, no matter how fictionalised his view of it; what is Hughes without the Calder Valley, and what is the Calder Valley without Hughes? Sorley Maclean, George Mackay Brown, Dylan Thomas, RS Thomas, Gillian Clarke, the list of British poets whose works and reputations are built on actual places is virtually inexhaustible. And Ireland is the same, if not more so. In fact I struggled to find a single Irish poet whose poems aren’t inked all over the map. When Stepping Stones was published, the late Dennis O’Driscoll’s book of interviews with Heaney, his UK publishers Faber & Faber thought it useful and desirable to produce two maps as part of the introduction, a map of Ireland and an exploded inset map with Mossbawn at its epicentre, as its omphalos, so readers could explore the micro-geography of Heaney’s childhood and begin to understand the rich pickings he found within such a relatively small territory. Who doesn’t love a book with a map in the front? And even when locations are unspecified or imagined, a topographical backdrop or geographical feature can have a transforming effect. What is the medieval poem Pearl without the river that flows between the dreamer and his lost girl. A potentially very dull and sterile theological debate, I’d suggest, but moving and upsetting and memorable and convincing when conducted across the unfordable meniscus of the water, when given the particularity of place.
In preparing this lecture I started to think about one specific unit of geography, namely the ‘street’, and the extent to which that word has become a signifier of credibility and coolness. The street that a brisk and breezy Auden speaks of when he begins, ‘As I walked out one morning, / Walking down Bristol Street’ probably isn’t the same kind of street we’re being asked to imagine when some of today’s spoken word artists are described as ‘street’, though the 52nd Street New York dive he writes from in ‘September 1, 1939’ might be closer to the mark, as might ‘Beasley Street’ seen through the eyes of punk poet John Cooper Clarke. ‘Keith Joseph coughs and a baby dies / in a box on Beasley Street’ he tells us, in a line the BBC chose to censure, not comfortable with the idea of a causal relationship between a government minister’s tickly throat and infant mortality in Salford. Those edgy, ungentrified streets, we might conclude, are some kind of front line of experience and language, with those who speak from it or about it operating at the cutting edge of contemporary culture. But the street that always comes to mind in my mental concordance of street poetry makes no such claims. Terry Street was Douglas Dunn’s 1967 first full-length collection, and was daring, I’d argue, in its depictions and descriptions of lives and a landscape that rarely showed up on the poetry map of the day, being neither obscenely glamorous or outrageously poor, being neither stultifyingly suburban or cringingly bohemian, just unremarkably terraced and working class, or as unremarkable as anywhere can be until it comes under poetic scrutiny. Those dioramas in Baltimore made me revisit Terry Street. Reading the poems again was like zooming in on Google Earth, but with the power to peep through letterboxes, open doors, peer though windows, lift the lids on houses and look in.
On Roofs of Terry Street
Television aerials, Chinese characters
In the lower sky, wave gently in the smoke.
Nest-building sparrows peck at moss,
Urban flora and fauna, soft, unscrupulous.
Rain drying on the slates shines sometimes.
A builder is repairing someone’s leaking roof.
He kneels upright to rest his back.
His trowel catches the light and becomes precious.
– Douglas Dunn
In the poem ‘On Roofs of Terry Street’, Dunn observes a builder, post-rainfall, mending someone’s leaking roof, and concludes, ‘His trowel catches the light and becomes precious’. The sharp, fleeting brilliance of that final image seared itself into my memory on first reading and has never dulled. It captures the chance moment when an artisan tool reflects the celestial glow of a yellow dwarf star 93 million miles away and becomes adamantine in its brightness. It’s offered with a little nod and a wink to those whose who know that a plasterer’s pointing-trowel is diamond-shaped, but it’s the work that Dunn has undertaken in the previous seven lines and previous seven poems – his street building and scene setting – which allows those closing words their full transformative effect, bestowing on the labourer a dignity and integrity which transcends his unglamorous activity, his non-literary trade and his mundane surroundings.
A few years ago I was at an event with a very fine poet of this diocese, Jamie McKendrick, and we began talking about Thom Gunn, the British-born poet who made easy-going laid-back California his new home and easy-going laid-back free verse his new approach, wriggling out of the straight jacket of rhyme, form and metre which had characterised his earlier work. The 1965 post-apocalyptic sequence Misanthropos is transatlantic in origins and style having been written both in London and in San Francisco, but I like the formal bits the best, and the best of the formal bits is section XI, subtitled ‘Epitaph for Anton Schmidt’, which reads more like a stand alone poem. It commemorates a ‘Feldwebel’ – kind of field officer in the German Army, who helped Jews escape the Nazis and was executed for his treachery. Without any special effort on my part to learn or remember it, the final quatrain of that piece has stuck in my mind, and I was just about to quote it to Jamie as an example of Gunn at his most compelling when he started to talk about a passage of Gunn that had lodged in his memory, which turned out to be the same four lines, which we then quoted in unison.
‘I see him in the Polish snow,
His muddy wrappings small protection,
Breathing the cold air of his freedom
And treading a distinct direction.’
I wonder if that quatrain is so memorable because it’s so composed. Composed in the sense of being assured and relaxed, not desperate for attention or looking to isolate the God particle of language, just confident and at ease with itself as an act of controlled communication. Composed also in the sense of being made, fashioned, with the line as the primary unit of expression. One layer of location, then one line of description, then one of action, then one of implication, the poem building to its conclusion as it digs towards the bottom of the page, so it feels like construction and excavation at the same time. Composed also in the sense of being lyrical, combining both measured and informal phrasing; just as its about to fall into a regular beat, look and listen how it pulls off a little Waltz-like change-of-leading-foot coming round the corner between line two and line three, and then again between line three and four as it prepares to set out in that distinct direction. And composed in a pictorial sense, a framed monochrome image of a dark human figure against a white snowy background, like a letter on a page, satisfyingly situated and effortlessly positioned within a political context, a historical setting and a geographical area, captured within time and space.
Poetry is my passion. It has become my way of life. But occasionally I prefer to watch The Wire, set in Baltimore, because in comparison to some poems, many of them contemporary, I know where I am with it.
* A papyrus fragment from Oxyrhynchus and Fragment 132 of her work suggest that Sappho may have had a daughter called Cleis.