‘Come to where I’m from.’ So writes Glyn Maxwell in his masterpiece of place, ‘Birthplace’, from his 2013 collection Pluto. The great energy of the poem, its enormous historic sweep, is a great advertisement for what place can do for a poem – or for what this poet can do for any subject at all.
Where I live, in a small village in South Wales, it’s difficult to imagine saying ‘Come to where I’m from’ to anyone, because I feel the place does that so eloquently for itself. To speak technically, it’s gorgeous here. I look out the window at the mountains there or I walk up the mountains and look down at the village here and, either way, say ‘Phwoar.’ This particular mountain now, to my right, is such a show-off. It re-paints itself every season and, whatever the time of year, whatever the weather: ‘Look at me’, it says. ‘Look at me’.
So the places in which we live, the way they look – whether that’s full of nature or whether it’s a gritty urban landscape – can do so much in generating poems which celebrate or explore them. But this is just one of the things that place can do for poetry. One of my favourite poems of place, Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘A Week as my Home Town’, makes clear how effective place monologues can be. The poem offers us a week in the life of a town, with each day being written from the point of view of a different place – the museum speaks, the disco hollers, the library whispers. What would the street you walk down every day say if it could speak? What would the postbox at the end of your road shout if it could? What would a place say about you or the people you know or, better, what would it say about the years before you were born, the history it’s seen? Hand your poem over to place and let it write for you. Listen to it and just jot down what it says, and poems will follow.
History, the way in which place stores it, is of course one of the many gifts place can give to poetry. I am lucky in where I live because of the rich history of working-class dissent I have to draw on in writing. Events such as the Chartist Uprising and the Rebecca Riots are fascinating to write about, and engaging with the history of where you are from can generate tremendous writing. One of the most powerful poems of place I know is Alan Gillis’s ‘Progress’, about the history of Belfast, from his 2004 debut Somebody, Somewhere. The poem is a sardonic, deeply moving elegy for the tragedies of his place:
They say that for years Belfast was backwards
and it’s great now to see some progress.
So I guess we can look forward to taking boxes
from the earth. I guess that ambulances
will leave the dying back amidst the rubble
to be explosively healed.
Wherever one lives, whatever the political history of an area, it doesn’t take much research at all to uncover fascinating things from the past to put into a poem, to create empathetic connections across time. What if you could step out of your door, now, and find yourself in the same place, seventy years ago? What job are you going to? What song are you singing? Poetry can put you there, in that experience, better than anything else.
If people of the past are one way that place can generate poems, this is even more true of people of the present. No one knows this, perhaps, better than R. S. Thomas. His observations of people in the communities he lives in – the tragedy of ‘Evans’, the mock-celebration of technological progress in ‘Cynddylan on a Tractor’ – offer a way of writing about people which was taken up by Owen Sheers in his character sketches, such as ‘Unfinished Business’ and ‘News of the World’, in his first collection The Blue Book. All of this offers an interesting contrast with Dylan Thomas’s celebrations of people in a community in his masterpiece Under Milk Wood, with all of its Captain Cat and Rosie Probert, all of its Mr Mog Edwards, the draper mad with love. Who are the characters in the place where you live? Who are the neighbours, the postmen, the shopworkers? What is the gossip? What goes on here behind these walls, down these lanes, in these pubs? Poems are happening, if you listen to them or sniff them out.
And when you listen, you might find the poems are speaking beautifully, musically, in a way that is utterly distinctive to your area. Vernacular writing and the distinctive dialect of a place can be a great way of creating poems which are unlike anyone else’s. Writers like Tom Paulin, Liz Berry, Don Paterson and Stephen Knight are among those who know this. ‘Christmas Eve’, Berry’s incredibly powerful poem of place, which manages to be both panoramic in its treatment of the Black Country and pinpoint in the detail of lives, is further enlivened by its snatches of dialect:
though we ay never ’ad a bit o luck in ower lives…
because there ay nuthin in it that’s mon’s werk,
really bab, there ay…
What are the phrases and ways of saying things of people from your area? What words do you hear on a train or far away from home, what lilt of the voice, and feel a connectedness, a kinship, a yearning? There is such gold here for the language of poems.
So to return to Maxwell’s command, ‘Come to where I’m from.’ Or rather, to write great poems, stay right where you are. Look around you at the landscape, the people, listen to the voices, write down what you see and hear. Travel on a train to the place where you live, take a day trip to where you’re from, explore it as a stranger. What’s going on in these streets, these lives? What’s weird and wonderful, beautiful and bruised about here? Let your poems sing for a place no one else has. Let your poems be something mountains can approve of. Let them be a journey you make by standing still.
Book here for Jonathon Edwards’s course ‘Where I’m From’: Poetry & Place (Masterclass).