Tuesday, 26 November 2013


Looking beyond the plain

Revelin Moss, November

Beyond the marled fell
beyond the slate path
beyond the bent larch
stripped bare of needles.

Beyond this seat my left hip leans against
beyond the shale-grey flanks of Skiddaw
this drystone wall, Derwentwater lying below me.

Beyond Castlerigg's stone circle,
low clouds rising like steam from a train
down in St John’s-in-the-Vale.
Beyond the slate-grey track
miners' ghosts tread at midnight.

Beyond the plain where the Pennines' boned back
tucks itself around the first snow of winter, curled
inside the knuckled thigh of Clough Head.

Beyond Icelandic ponies’ hooves
branding the fells’ backs
down to where the Irish Sea swings
its greenblue hammock.

from 'The Other Side of the Bridge' Indigo Dreams

“Looking Beyond”: the Temporal and the Spatial

Bakhtin theorized the connections between literature and the world in terms of the chronotope - "the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature" (Dawn Morgan 1996).  I want to begin this chapter by thinking about some of the ways in which, in my own work, this “intrinsic connectedness” forms a central thematic thread.

I shall explore this theme by analysing the poem, ‘Looking beyond the plain.’ Besides placing the poem in a specific place and time it also shows movement outwards, through the words ‘looking beyond’.  Revisiting the poem, I see how fully it embodies Massey’s concept of place as “multiple, shifting, possibly unbounded.” 

Although the character in ‘Looking beyond the plain’ has paused to reflect it is not a static poem as the person’s mind and imagination are active.  It invites the reader to stand alongside the poet’s persona, who is doing the looking, and do two things: one is to look beyond the Plain, that is, the Solway physical, external, in constant flux with movement of tides and people and in the poem physically out of sight; two, the poem invites the reader to look with the ‘inner eye’ to see beyond what is said to be ‘plain’ and to try and understand the intrinsic nature of anything that may be termed as such.

It is a poem that not only exhibits the openness of places by gesturing towards the long history of diaspora and transience, but also demonstrates a recurrent characteristic of my poetry, that when I’m in one place my mind spirals outward to other places, in an attempt to make conscious connections.

The act of walking is for me a stimulus in making connections. When I stopped at the viewing point I thought of the many feet which had trod the paths up and down the valleys, through passes, over packhorse bridges, on foot or on ponies’ backs. For example, the German miners, brought in during Elizabeth the First’s reign to share their expert knowledge of mining techniques; of gangs who waylaid miners to steal plumbago; of smugglers, heading to and from Whitehaven smuggling spices, rum and slaves; of those who built Castlerigg’s Neolithic Stone Circle and of the hands who built the dry stone wall I rested against. As Massey notes, each place contains an ‘accumulated history’ which is “the product of layer upon layer of different sets of linkages, both local and to the wider world” (Massey 2007: 156).

The complexity of any given place, therefore, relates both to its own nature and to my subjective experience of it; of memories, thoughts, ideas and anticipation that rush into my mind when writing in response to a place, whether familiar or unfamiliar. This aspect of a place containing an ‘accumulated history’ with its layers of social, political, emotional and physical aspects is similar to that of a poem and the way a poem is read. It too is visited by the reader, journeyed through, re-visited, remembered, anticipated and added to by each reader’s own history, memories and experiences.

It could be argued that a poem exists as a locus of consciousness through its interlocking linguistic/physical/sensory/cultural and spiritual dimensions. Extending the idea that a poem is like a place it could be further argued that a poem is an eco-system. As William Rueckert observes in his essay titled ‘Literature and Ecology’: “The first Law of Ecology – that everything is connected to everything else – applies to poems as well as to nature. The concept of the interactive field was operative in nature, ecology, and poetry long before it ever appeared in criticism” (Glotfelty and Fromm 1996: 110).

Before I’d read this I’d already formulated the idea that a poem could be seen as recyclable energy. A poem has its inception in a poet’s environment before it’s processed through the poet’s creative imagination, experience and memory. The poem is then read, or heard, by a reader or audience who in turn contribute their own energy, experiences and memories to it. Rueckert observes:

A poem is stored energy, a formal turbulence, a living thing, a swirl in the flow.
Poems are part of the energy pathways which sustain life.
Poems are a verbal equivalent of fossil fuel (stored energy), but they are a renewable source of energy, coming, as they do, from those ever generative twin matrices, language and imagination (Glotfelty and Fromm 1996: 108).

However unchanging the landscape may appear it too is a “swirl in the flow”, inexorably changing. Sometimes the change is slow, through the action of frost and heat, sometimes change comes swiftly in floods, blizzards, earthquakes or tornadoes.

The fixed identity of a place is a myth. For example, the name ‘Cumbria’ only came into being in 1974 with boundary changes. Prior to that it was the counties of Cumberland, Westmorland and Lancashire, North of the Sands (of Morecambe Bay). Its inhabitants have ranged from Scandinavians, Vikings, Picts, Anglo-Saxons, Celts, plus people from the Roman Empire, including Bulgarians, North Africans, Armenians and Spanish, each of whom brought with them their own religions and culture. For example on Hadrian’s Wall there’s a stone altar to Mithras.

This ingress and egress comes right up to the present day when many villages in Cumbria are largely composed of second homes and towns within the boundary of the Lake District National Park swell in number with an influx of tourists. As well as the physical shifting and changes of the land there has also been a constant movement of people. In Space Place and Gender, Massey, developing her point about the fluid identities of place, suggests that:

the particularity of any place is… constructed not by placing boundaries around it and defining its identity through counter-position to the other which lies beyond, but precisely (in part) through the specificity of the mix of links and interconnections to that ‘beyond’. Places viewed this way are open and porous (Massey 2007: 5).

In this sense a poem shares the same fluidity of movement as that of a place.  Over time different readers put their own ‘stamp’ on it, their own non-carbon footprint as they journey through it with their eyes. When a place is visited a person tries to get his or her bearings. Similarly in a poem we hook onto what is familiar, thrilled when we discover something unexpected around the corner, something surprising that jolts us out of our comfort zone.  Or when we’re in the midst of the familiar and a sudden turn of a head, a shaft of sunlight, or an object shakes us out of ourselves and make us see the familiar afresh.

Poems can have this effect on us, just as places do. They spring their element of surprise by juxtaposing two words, ideas, images or sounds that one wouldn’t normally associate together, or by turning the corner of an idea through the use of enjambment or volta. Like places, poems too are about culture, social relations, human activity, human populations on the move, power relations, social and personal history, the familiar and the unfamiliar, the physical and the metaphysical.

To understand a place we need to know its social and political dynamics. New geographers, such as Massey, argue that “All attempts to institute horizons, to establish boundaries, to secure the identity of places, can in this sense be seen to be attempts to stabilize the meaning of particular envelopes of space-time” 
(Massey 2007: 5). 

The idea of a place being unfixed, boundary-less, or having fluid boundaries can also be applied to a poem, to one’s identity and to the mind. For example, rather than having the concept of one’s mind as being a static and bounded container, another way of thinking of the mind is of the “[mind] as fiction, the compelling output of a storytelling machine” (Fernyhough 2005.)

extract from "An Exploration of Identity and Environment Through Poetry" PhD Creative Writing Thesis September 2011. Viva Examiners: Prof. John Burnside and Tom Pow. PhD Supervisors Prof. Graham Mort and Dr Lee Horsley


No comments:

Post a Comment