In our latest blog post, Professor Andrew McRae, University of Exeter discusses the community arts initiative, Places of Poetry, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, The National Lottery Heritage Fund and Arts Council England, and the relevance of poetry today.
Poetry makes us pause. As a writer it requires a degree of thought and reflection, a personal investment in the moment and the subject. For centuries, poetry has served as a powerful vehicle for engaging with the world.
The Places of Poetry project was created with this in mind. We know and love the canon of poetry concerned with English and Welsh places, and we were inspired in particular by Michael Drayton’s sprawling seventeenth-century epic of national description, Poly-Olbion. We wanted to use the modern method of crowd-sourcing to create a truly poly-vocal map of thoughts and impressions from the summer of 2019.
Our map is open for contributions for five months (ending 31 October 2019), and we recently passed the halfway point with 3,500 poems pinned to it. So what exactly are people writing about? What purpose is poetry serving for people engaging with our project?
A sense of belonging
Across history, home has been one of the greatest subjects for poetry. And so Places of Poetry reveals the pleasures of being in familiar places, maybe picking plums ‘[t]he colour of late sunsets’, or painting a wall. Writers reflect on periods of life spent in one place, a house perhaps that had already ‘stood for centuries’. They also comment with affection on surrounding environments, from Dartmoor in the west to the fens in the east, and from small villages to our biggest cities. One writer, Sarah Reeson, responded to Places of Poetry by writing 26 poems about her hometown, Southend-on-Sea, while in Long Eaton, a class of children wrote poems about their town and its history: ‘a small town / That all started with lace’.
People also write movingly about homes they have left behind. The ‘I come from’ poem has emerged as something of a Places of Poetry sub-genre, with writers recording moves both distant and recent. As Stephen Poole writes of Paignton, Devon: ‘I feel like a stranger, / Yet this should never be, / For the streets of my childhood / Now seem alien to me.’ Such poems can be resonant with local detail, as Chrissie Banks’s poem about childhood on the Isle of Man: ‘Bunty and Jackie, Green Goddess shampoo, / hydrangeas and roses, a rhubarb patch.’ Whatever social theorists and politicians might say about the ‘Somewheres’ and the ‘Anywheres’, our map of poems teaches us that places leave deep impressions on everyone.
The anxieties of change
It wasn’t our intention to run Places of Poetry in the shadow of Brexit, but rather than receiving an influx of Brexit poems, as we had anticipated, it has become more of a subdued presence. Janine Booth, for example, pinned ‘Widening Roads’ to the A256 in Kent, reflecting on ‘lorries / carrying loads / of no-deal worries’. ‘Dover Beach Again’, by Wordwool, stretches from allusion to the Victorian Matthew Arnold, through the world wars, to the present day as it comments that ‘Europe / lies at the edge of sight.’
Changes to the environment have also been another issue weighing on the minds of many. In Jacobean England, Drayton was the first ever English poet to raise concern about the destruction of woodlands. In 2019, our poets are concerned about general changes in land-use and climate, but are also moved by local details. They register the shock of ash dieback in the Peak District, or the sorrow at seeing a beloved urban tree in Stevenage hacked to the ground after ‘Eighty years of growing’. One writer expresses ambivalence at his experience of farming: ‘I worry I am just making things worse, the land lacerated.’
A part of something bigger
During the summer, our writers have also been thinking about nations and their borders. Our project does not cover Scotland or Northern Ireland – partly for practical reasons, given the scale and cost of our engagement activities, and partly because Drayton only covered England and Wales in Poly-Olbion – but this has perhaps only intensified a focus on Britain’s internal nations.
Some poets discovered that despite our claims to the contrary, they could post on the map north of the border. Initiative of that kind seemed to deserve its reward, so we have left the poems there. Poets have also focused on the troubled history of the northern borderlands, where ‘knives are sheathed in the soft grasses and bones / are ground to compost within a rich loam’.
The Welsh borders, meanwhile, have been the focus of numerous poems reflecting on the complex cultural and national identities of people who move back and forth either daily or across the course of their lives. For instance, Steven Thomas-Spires posted a poem in the Dee Estuary near Chester, titled ‘Border Language’ and written in alternating lines of English and Welsh. There are also notes of anxiety around the edges of our island. Memories of the wars influenced writers early in the summer, at the time of the D-Day anniversary. Sue Finch turns a family story into a poem about men finding a German airman’s corpse at sea off Reculver, and towing it casually back to land. Others focus on the significance of borders today, like Rob Miles’s ‘Zones of Exclusion’, pointedly pinned in the sea, just off Dover.
Just as for Drayton in the seventeenth century, poetry today opens a pathway to complex, subtle, occasionally mythic relations between the self, place and history. On the Places of Poetry map our poets are seizing these opportunities in a huge variety of ways. Poetry is a creative medium which lends itself to capturing the diversity, heritage and personalities of place. We’ve been excited by the sheer breadth of entries from all ages and backgrounds, all of which highlight the value of poetry in helping us to think about the world around us.
To submit a poem, or to read the inspiring entries, visit the Places of Poetry website. The project will also be featured on Countryfile (8th September) – make sure you tune in!