Knowing your place: locating the poetry of landscape

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Poetry and ‘landscape’. This lodged in my mind last week, probably because I’ve just finished an essay/review/guest blog post which has taken me, one way or another, more than nine months to write. It’s a review, of sorts, of Yvonne Reddick’s Ted Hughes: environmentalist and ecopoet. It’s an elegant, erudite book which at one point explores the concept of topological poetry, the poetry of habitat.

Before that, I’ve spent a lot of time over the last couple of years reading Robert Macfarlane on the language of physical, topographical landscape, the iconographies of place. Some time ago, the poet Lindsey Holland put up a short post on her Facebook page about teaching the first session of her undergraduate course on Poetry and Place. I immediately felt envious. I wanted to be a student on the course, and I simultaneously wanted to teach it. I wanted to proselytise about Raymond Williams and the shifting meanings of the ‘country’ and the ‘city’, of the urban and of the pastoral. I wanted to explore how I become aware that, though I’ve lived in towns all my life, there’s almost no urban imagery in my work at all. I wanted to explore why and how that might be.

I was thinking about this one day, when the poet and blogger Roy Marshall sent me an email in which he wrote, among other things:


"I’ve been very interested in the contrast between us - you are from a place and know that place intimately – I was born in one place and moved three times before I was ten. Also, my mum is from another country. I am currently living somewhere that I don’t really feel is ‘home’, but then I’m not sure where that is exactly."


What interested me was that I have somehow given the impression that I am from a place, and that I know it intimately. It’s true that I know it spatially and visually, but I went to university 100 miles away in Durham, and then in Newcastle. I taught for six years after that in Middlesbrough, and lived in a former iron-mining village not far from the sea. After that I lived and taught in Newcastle for four years, and after that, for 10 years, in Leeds. I still have traces of a north-east accent, but not a trace of cities in my writing, except for a short sequence about Leeds in my collection Much possessed.


'The poets and poetry I respond to are northern'

For the last 30 years I’ve been living in a small town less than 10 miles from where I was born and grew up. More or less in the same valley. And I still don’t know the street names, which tells me that somehow, unconsciously, all this time I’ve been thinking of it as temporary. So if I’m from ‘a place’ I think that place is ‘North’ and my thinking and imagery is ‘North’. The poets and poetry I respond to are northern. I don’t ‘get’ poetry written out of warm or hot or lush or metropolitan or exotic landscapes. It’s my loss but there it is.

Another thing. A friend wrote to me another day about the alien nature of a place without trees, wondering how and what autumn could mean without trees. Trees don’t engage my imagination (except in the context of axes and chainsaws) … maybe it’s the way they obstruct a view; maybe it’s all that greenery and complicated lush texture … but I understand what she meant, how her life and imaginings needed trees. So when a poet says to me that he’s not exactly sure where ‘home’ is, I’m engaged.

Robert Macfarlane’s lovely book Landmarks begins with this sentence:


"This is a book about the power of language - strong style, single words – to shape our sense of place."


I think I want to turn that on its head; I find myself speculating on ways in which language (and therefore, our writing) is shaped and informed by the landscapes where we feel we belong. How we come to feel secure in one landscape or another is a mystery. But I recognise that the poets I love the best are ones informed by their landscapes. Norman MacCaig has dual citizenship in Assynt, in north-west Scotland, and Edinburgh … but just think of that poem of his, 'London to Edinburgh', when he’s travelling ‘home’, the train heading ‘North’… he knows for a certainty where he belongs and that he needs to be there: "I'm waiting for the moment / when the train crosses the Border / and home creeps closer / at seventy miles an hour." RS Thomas wrestles his language out of the incorruptibly bleak, out of the hard thin lands of upland farms and the disciplines of faith. Tony Harrison is always Leeds (and Beeston) no matter how far he travels. I’ve never been one for cities, but Leeds is different. It’s part of home. Poor old Larkin, I sometimes think, always aware of a kind of rootless homelessness among the Mr Bleaneys and the hare-eyed clerks in municipal parks, of the world through train windows, other people’s weddings, and memorably, ruefully (?) ...


     Coming up England by a different line
     For once …

     'Why, Coventry!' I exclaimed. 'I was born here.'

     I leant far out, and squinnied for a sign
     That this was still the town that had been ‘mine’
     So long, but found I wasn’t even clear
     Which side was which ...

    I suppose it’s not the place’s fault,’ I said.

    ‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.’

                                              (I Remember, I Remember')


It’s as though he can’t locate his personal history in the history of place, as though it had no significance other than the awful paradox of making no impression. And then you set that against the beautifully realised landscapes of Holderness, the churches, the lanes, and you see how where he belongs is in the condition of the outsider, the dark watcher. Place isn’t just topography. It’s story and where you place yourself in the narrative.


A mill town in the West Riding 

I grew up in a mill town in the West Riding. There was a mill at the bottom of the street. Behind the mill, on the steep valley side, a railway line; beyond that, farm lands and old farm buildings. Beyond them, opencast mining, brickworks, all interpenetrated by woodlands and small bits of farm land. At the top of our street was a ramshackle dairy farm, and beyond that, old pit workings, a prefab council estate, more farmland, small mills, a foundry. One of the dairy buildings was a barn that my art teacher found had been a chapel of the Knights of St John. It was hundreds of years old. Some time in the 1960s the farm was sold and it was all torn down. No one noticed. Basically, I grew up in layers of history that no one seemed to take much account of, in the industrial West Riding where fields and woods and 16th-century manors like Oakwell Hall were a short bike ride away.

Most of the mills have been torn down, or converted to designer apartment units; the handsome 19th-century chapels are carpet warehouses or have been demolished and replaced by shiny mosques. History round our way doesn’t come in neat layers, like it does in the first history book I saved up to buy when I was nine: Our Island Story, by HE Marshall, that splendid romanticised Whig account of why Britannia shall forever rule the waves. Real history is like those layers of geological strata that are buckled and riven by tectonic forces, scoured by glaciers and ice sheets and rivers and weather. It’s full of nonconformities and erratics. 

At the end of the day, we write out of where we believe we are and have been, and out of what we have read (which includes films and paintings and adverts and newspapers, and comics and …). Part of our landscape is the people we meet (or imagine) in it, and I’ll be writing a follow-up post about the responsibility we owe to these people when we write them into poems. I’ve always argued, when ‘training’ future teachers, that the basis of imagination is the focused use of memory. [I think this just committed me to a post on the uses of memory].

What am I saying? Trust your memory and your habitat. That’s where your poems live. Like this one that told me what my memory of the farm at the top of our street might signify.


Local history


Maskell’s: not much of a farm.

That German Shepherd.

You stick to the edges

on the way to the door.

The chain stops him short.

Maskell’s wife will sell you eggs.


That barn by the house; at night

he’ll put his six cows in there.

He doesn’t know how old it is.


God knows. Alpha and omega,

He knows it’s older than Shakespeare,

old as the Crusades. A chapel

or  chantry of the Knights of St John.


He knows that after I’ve grown up

and gone, and Maskell’s dead, no longer

dropping ash from Woodbines

in his churns, He knows the land is bought,

the small herd sold, the dog put down

the house demolished, out-buildings

burned, six small semis built.


He knows the tale from thread to needle.


There’s days I wonder if

it’s only me and Him who know

about the men in surcoats, men with swords,

men who pegged morticed hammer beams

with elm, lived by holy calendars,

lit candles, told out silver coins for Masses

in Maskell’s old cow barn

at the top of our street

that once had a farm at the top,

where there is still a mill at the bottom.


(First published in Advice to a traveller. Indigo Dreams Publishing 2018)


You never know; the next poem you write might be right up your street.


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Julian (Admin)

Tue 5th Feb 2019 09:31

Another wonderful, inspirng blog, John. Your writing makes me want to pick up my pen once more. Thank you.

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Greg Freeman

Mon 4th Feb 2019 10:02

Many thanks for this thought-provoking blog, John. As someone residing in the home counties - nearest landmark the M25 - I find it sometimes hard to write poetry about place. But I will keep trying!

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