sheenaghpugh: (Trollfjord in Norway)
[personal profile] sheenaghpugh
I've been involved in a Facebook discussion about the naming and evoking of places in poems, and how the naming of places, while it can sometimes invite the reader in, can also sometimes exclude. At one point the poet and translator Peter Daniels, who's kindly given me permission to quote him, remarked 'There are poets that can evoke "my place" as a magic invitation to the reader (e.g. Yeats with Innisfree, Longley with Carrigskeewaun), and others (e.g. Brooke with Grantchester) that are too much of a private party - "you had to be there"'.

The more I think about it, the more I think it hinges on the fact that places, at least as far as people are concerned, exist in time and context. However much we may love a place for its landscape, its light, or anything else intrinsic, it will also, in our minds, be the place where we grew up, or fell in love, or were happy in our work. And while everyone's particular place-references will be different, the roles those places occupy in their history will be similar and can be evoked by a writer referring to a quite different place, provided he/she somehow finds the universal element that links them. As usual, example is easier. William Barnes has a poem called "The Wife a-Lost" (he wrote in Dorset dialect) in which a grieving widower spends all his time in a gloomy grove of beech, a place his wife disliked and never spent time in. The rationale is simple:
Below the beeches' bough, my love,
Where you did never come,
An' I don't look to meet ye there,
As I do look at hwome.
- he feels some easing of his grief in this grove because it's the one place where he does not expect to see her at every turn. Now this particular place-association is specific to the poem's narrator, but almost any reader could empathise with the basic idea, and substitute his own place for the beech-grove.

The example Peter gave, Innisfree, is an imagined paradise; it does exist in reality but its function in that poem is as an escapist's dream for a man who, standing on the grey pavements of an unnnamed city, fantasises going back to nature. Since nearly every urban dweller with a job of work has done the same (and would doubtless be as useless at growing beans and building wattle-and-daub huts as Yeats would have been), we can easily, while reading, substitute our personal paradise for his. Wordsworth's "Composed upon Westminster Bridge", which Peter also mentioned at some point in the discussion, works, I think, in the same way. It seems, at first sight, specifically located, and indeed for anyone who knows London and has stood in that spot, it would be. But when you look closely at it, there is nothing after the title to tie it irrevocably to London; it is a big city seen in the still of early morning. The man could be standing on a bridge in Prague, Rome, Paris or any number of cities, and no doubt for many readers that's exactly what he is doing.

Not that it's impossible to use place-names; often they can make a place-poem more 3-D, but you need to make sure they are acting as an invitation and not as a barrier, which means keeping your eye on the universal element. The usage we were discussing on FB was a reference to an Arvon writing centre, a place I'd never dare mention in a poem because I would fear it would be seen as an exclusive, luvvie poet-reference to a place non-writers simply do not know or go to. A prose example that recently annoyed me was in a short story (from a published and praised collection) which attempted to describe an area of Hamburg by saying "it was more Muswell Hill than Belgravia". This was irritating partly because, as description, it was (a) lazy and (b) useless to anyone, like me, who knows neither, but also because I sensed that she thought I ought to know them, and was indeed writing for those who did. If this sort of writing creates a magic garden, it's one we are invited only to peer in at from the outside - you had to be there... (ED: now I come to think, Muswell Hill and Belgravia may have been t'other way about, that's how useless the reference was to me.)

When it does work, it's an irresistible invitation. Sean O'Faolain has a description of Cork which comes so alive that when I finally went there, some 50 years after he wrote about it, I felt I already knew the streets. The same would be true of Konstantin Paustovsky's Odessa, if it hadn't unavoidably changed so much since the 1920s. But those guys were unusually good at the two things they did best, namely observing forensically everything they came across (Paustovsky is like a human sponge, soaking up every passing impression for dear life) and capturing the spirit of a place, the universal in the particular. O'Faolain reaches literally and metaphorically below the streets of Cork, to its subterranean rivers, to capture its essential watery quality. Paustovsky's Odessa is a place rooted in a moment; it's the place where he happened to be when the world was new, he was young and everything seemed possible. We've all been there, though we may not have called it Odessa.

I do have one poem where I consciously tried to pull off this trick, to fix experiences with specific references in the hope that readers would substitute their own. All the place-names in this poem come from my life, but the story does not; it is invented and grafted on to them, a sort of everyman-story, hopefully:

Times Like Places

There are times like places: there is weather
the shape of moments. Dark afternoons
by a fire are Craster in the rain
and a pub they happened on, unlooked-for
and welcoming, while a North Sea gale
spat spume at the rattling windows.

And most August middays can take him
to the village in Sachsen-Anhalt,
its windows shuttered against the sun
and a hen sleeping in the dusty road,
the day they picked cherries in a garden
so quiet, they could hear each other breathe.

Nor can he ever be on a ferry,
looking back at a boat's wake, and not think
of the still, glassy morning off the Hook,
when it dawned on him they didn't talk
in sentences any more: didn't need to,
each knowing what the other would say.

The worst was Aberdeen, when they walked
the length of Union Street not speaking,
choking up, glancing sideways at each other,
but never at the same time. Black cats
and windy bridges bring it all back,
eyes stinging. Yet even this memory

is dear to him, now that no place or weather
or time of day can happen to them both.
On clear winter nights, he scans the sky
for Orion's three-starred belt, remembering
whose arms warmed him, the cold night
he first saw it, who told him its name.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-08-07 11:15 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] reapermum.livejournal.com
With your poem, everywhere worked. Though I think Aberdeen is weaker than the other verses. When did you write it? Which collection is it in?

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