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Re-writing the Map

Maps, like poems, can mean different things to different people.

If I were to draw a map of my neighbourhood I might include completely different things to my neighbours, or the lady in the flat upstairs. I would be sure to include the homes of the friendlier local cats, the house with the boarded-up windows, the café with the best cake. Mapping in this way is selective and is based on your priorities; I probably wouldn’t mark the one-way streets because I can’t drive so I’ll never have to worry about them, and I’ve only lived here for two years so any historical references might be limited. In other words, my map would be a selective report of the things that I think are important within this neighbourhood, and that I want other people to know about.

The process of map-making has to be selective, even for an organisation like the Ordnance Survey who aim to give an accurate representation of the land, and poetry has an important part to play in recognising and questioning these selections. Eavan Boland’s poem That the Science of Cartography is Limited describes the poet’s visit to a famine road in Connaught:


‘Where they died, there the road ended

and ends still and when I take down
the map of this island, it is never so
I can say here is
the masterful, the apt rendering of
the spherical as flat, nor
an ingenious design which persuades a curve
into a plane,
but to tell myself again that

the line which says woodland and cries hunger
and gives out among sweet pine and cypress,
and finds no horizon

will not be there.’


Using this map the poet cannot truly address the history of her country and instead questions the decision of the map maker, for all their artistry, in making a choice that has such political implications.

Kei Miller’s Forward Prize-winning collection The Cartographer Tries to map a Way to Zion  examines the difficulties of mapping through the character of the Cartographer, charged with creating a map of Jamaica. The task becomes difficult as he learns more and more about the land he is supposed to measure and starts to understand its complicated and sometimes brutal history, much of which is bedded in the place names of the island: Flog Man, Bloody Bay, Wait-a-bit, Me-No-Sen -You-No-Come.  It is impossible for the Cartographer to remain indifferent to the stories he hears, but it is also impossible for him to put them all on his map. As his sometime guide the rastaman  says:


‘draw me a map of what you see
then I will draw a map of what you never see
and guess me whose map will be bigger than whose?
Guess me whose map will tell the larger truth?’



The poet, then, has an important role to play in asking questions of the map and its choices through poetry, we can identify what might be lacking in those precise,  scale-drawn maps we use to navigate. We can show the things in our environment that the cartographers can’t. As Rebecca Solnit says in her Field Guide to Getting Lost: ‘The landscape in which identity is supposed to be grounded is not solid stuff; it’s made out of memory and desire, rather than rock and soil’ (p.121). As poets we can represent the many layers of stuff that surround any physical location, from the personal to the historical, the landscape is ever-changing.

My own poem ‘Guided Tour started life as the story of my walk to work, which at the time was quite long and boring. The poem is full of anecdotes and things I had seen or made up. I also used Google Maps to try and actually turn it into a guided tour, the results of which you can see here. I found the use of digital technology to be a great way of ‘augmenting’ a physical location with multiple meanings through poetry, and I’m not the only one – check out Alec Finlay’s fantastic ‘white peak / dark peak’ for a beautifully curated poetry map of the Peak District. Digital technology can give us both vehicles and subjects for writing about place; for example, how many times have you ‘been’ to the place you’re about to visit using Streetview, before you’ve even stepped out of the front door? What would a poem written by a SatNav system sound like, and where would it want to go?

Writing poetry as a process of exploration and map-making is the subject of Peter Turchi’s book Maps of The Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer. A writer first explores their territory, emotionally and logically, and then presents it to the world as a piece of writing that expresses and represents what they have discovered, but can only go so far as an accurate representation. If researching and writing are a ‘path through the wilderness’ in some uncharted land then the finished poem is the bits that end up being brought back to put in a museum.

You can’t tell everything, and along the way you must make choices, do research, omit some things, and include others in order to tell the story of the places you’ve found. On my upcoming online course, Re-Writing the Map, I will aim to make poets into explorers, both of their environments and this terra incognita of our own ideas.

Write poetry to map the histories, landscapes and ideas that storiate our surroundings and book your place on Suzannah’s new online course Re-Writing the Map or ring us on 0207 582 1679.

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Image Credits:

Image: the Hyde Park Glove Map, designed for George Shove in 1851, showing the Great Exhibition, held in Hyde Park, and its surroundings.

Image credit: The National Archives