When I began writing poetry sixteen years ago I had no idea that place would be at the heart of my work. I wrote what I was moved to write and in the writing I discovered the importance of place in my imagination. In poetry of place my inner and outer worlds meet and find expression.
‘Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.’
Mary Oliver, Wild Geese
Writing poems inspired by the farm where I grew up was not an act of nostalgia, rather I wanted to explore the complexities of attachment to place and people. The poem ‘Dusk’ in my first collection The River evokes the beauty of the farmyard rituals on a winter’s evening but also my desire to get away from the constraints of life there. I also explored this theme of love and separation in ‘The Suck’ and ‘Inheritance’ and again in ‘Map’ and ‘The trouble’ in my second collection When the Tree Falls.
In my imagination I see people in their place, the places that have shaped them and that they in turn have shaped. I found that I couldn’t write about a person who was important to me without seeing them in their place. A poem about my grandmother baking bread had to be located in her kitchen in east county Galway with echoes of Portnablagh on the north west coast of Donegal where she grew up; a poem about my mother had to be in the farmyard where she raised hens; a poem of wedding vows to my wife had to be set in Glenmalure where we made our home together.
‘I stare and stare. It seems I was called for this:
To glorify things just because they are.’
Czeslaw Milosz, Blacksmith Shop
Poetry of place is spiritual in the sense that it comes from our concerns with what is most important in life; love, mortality, loss, our potential and our frailty. It helps us explore meaning and connects us to each other through our shared humanity. Reading and writing poetry has changed my relationship with place in the present. Poetry requires me to be more aware of where I am, to be mindfully present in the here and now, to tune into what I’m seeing, hearing, touching, smelling as well as what I’m feeling. It inspires me to find names for what I see and so over the years I have turned to the naturalists to learn about the world around me. Poetry gives me a way of celebrating the beauty, wildness and mystery of place. In poetry we remember how small we are, how short-lived and how the earth goes on without us. Writing a poem of place could be seen as a political act at this time when the earth itself is under threat. We need to renegotiate our relationship with the natural world. Writing and reading poetry of place induces love and love induces the desire to protect.
‘Place’ in poetry includes not only the geographical location and natural environment, but the history of human presence there. While researching a sequence of poems inspired by the mining heritage of Co. Wicklow for a BBC Radio 4 poetry programme I spoke to two of the few remaining miners and watched interviews with their former colleagues. Their relationship with the mines and the mountains in which the mines were located reminded me of Wordsworth’s ‘a presence that disturbs me with the joy’ from Lines Composed A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey. They spoke of the beauty and the threat of their surroundings in the same breath. Many of these men were born and reared in the shadow of the mountains in which they later worked in appallingly dangerous conditions. Place is imbued with the past; geological, socio-political, communal, narrative.
‘No ideas but in things’, William Carlos Williams’ maxim reverberates. Every place has its distinctive things and its distinctive names for those things. Part of the pleasure of writing is tuning into and playing with the language of that place. My grandmother used to say, ‘she’s wheezing like a plibín’. How long will this expression survive now that the lapwing has almost disappeared from our fields? Other words from my childhood found their way into poems; leebeens, the bottoms, flaggers, scraw, turloughs. A scald crow in Roscommon is a hoodie in Wicklow. Our home in Glenmalure presents other sense-experiences, other music, other language; mica-schist and shale, granite and feldspar, stags rutting, glacial valleys, red kites, chaps, brooks and furze.
Reading poetry of place by other poets helps me experience my place anew. The ‘clank of a bucket’ in Ted Hughes’ ‘Full Moon and Little Frieda’sent me back to a farmyard in Fuerty on a winter’s evening. Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Moose’ set me off on a journey down the Hill Field to the river. ‘Let Evening Come’ by Jane Kenyon sends me back to my task as a poet – to assemble words in such a way that they resonate in the hearts and minds of the reader, so that the place I see in my mind’s eye becomes the place you see in yours. Poetry has taught me that as we engage with memory and imagination, we find ourselves alongside Lucille Clifton in her poem celebrating survival, ‘on this bridge between/starshine and clay’.