Places of Poetry: Mapping the Nation in Verse is a collection of poems, taken from the Places of Poetry project, recording how people have engaged with the many parts of the UK. The scope of the poems is refreshing with recent poems written by schoolchildren sitting fittingly beside work written by revered poets from 200 years ago. For many of the poets, this collection is their first publication, and so it is heartening to see a place for new poets, rather than staid collections that merely rearrange already published works.
The mix of places and poets is mirrored by the range of poetic styles present. It would be an exaggeration to suggest every English language poetic form is represented here, but only a slight one. This range of styles helps to provide a clear voice to each work, and avoids it becoming a monotonous series of similar treatments of different places.
It is structured by regions and follows a spiral, like the perfect inward curve of a snail’s shell, from the South West up to Scotland and back down to the South East and up again to the North West. This structure provides a framework that is fleshed out by the myriad of places mentioned, from the famous to those known only for a moment. You can almost imagine setting out using this collection as a guide, with the confidence that you will finish your trip with a keen sense of the UK.
To give context to the collection there is a comprehensive introduction by Paul Farley, which covers the idea behind the project and how the poems were chosen for the book. It also touches on the ways in which poetry has been tightly connected with the landscape and places of the UK. Part of this includes the history of such poetry, linking into the 17th century Epic Poly-Olbion, by Michael Drayton.
The book itself is a rather elegant yellow affair, and before each section, there is a map showing which places inspired, or are addressed by, each poem. I only wish that it were a slimmer book more suited to a coat pocket so it could be carried easily, and dipped into in relevant places.
As a collection, Places of Poetry is perfect for dipping into, and I am sure it will end up kept in easy reach for me to consult at leisure. Yet it has a sense of flow so that each poem complements the others. The reader is given a feel for the totality of the UK and how interlinked and yet distinct different areas are. Of course, it is not encyclopaedic and so I am sure that almost every reader will wish, like me, that it might just cover this or that specific place.
Many such collections would focus just on the ‘natural’ world. Here no such artificial distinction is made and so the collection accurately gives a snapshot of the UK from wild seas, to well-managed fields, even to specific shops on a street.
This is a rather refreshing change to so much nature writing which focuses only on those places typically seen as natural, and to the idea that places befitting poetry have to be beautiful or sublime. Writing about place only works because it links into other things. This collection touches on issues from religion to gentrification.
I particularly liked A Costa in Deptford by John Davison. The mundanity of a new chain café gives a sense of universalism to the poem, but the personal response to it relies on very specific context. The same poem would be meaningless if discussing a new Costa in most of London. Poetic skill comes in knowing which details play best against each other to highlight an issue, feeling, or concern.
Although the poem covers a very individual experience, focused in one place, it feels applicable to so much else and speaks of all our concerns for the places we live in. It is this personal sense that makes the collection work, for in many ways it is more a collection exploring the people of the UK rather than simple geography. This in turn lends a timely nature to the collection.
As the COVID-19 pandemic eases in the UK, and summer makes itself apparent, people are increasing their travel and are starting to experience different parts of the country. In doing so many people are altering how they interact and understand their landscapes, be it gaining familiarity with a local park, reassessing the limitations of so much public infrastructure, or igniting a desire to visit parts of the country previous overlooked in favour of typical holiday destinations.
Poetry has a peculiar effectiveness when it comes to capturing the imagination. In particular, imagination linked to memory. This is so much more potent now, with restrictions still limiting most people’s lives. Many of these poems capture the mind by linking into the pleasures we had before the pandemic and those that we hope to have again.
I find myself drawn, again and ageing, to one poem in particular, Borderline, by Anthony Wilson. It is focused on the Exe estuary, which I know to the point that I can picture every turn of the route that runs along its western bank. It is not just that I enjoyed that place and wish to be back there. It is that the poem taps into my personal sense of the place.
So, for me, that poem will always be read with a slightly nostalgic sense of possibility, and freedom. Reminding me not just of those cycles I used to go on just before the pandemic, but the few escapes I made by bike from the enforced isolation of lockdown to enjoy the isolation of an empty field looking out over the estuary “with flanks of weeping slip / which shimmer mother of pearl, / silver, molten”.
And like that estuarine silt, poetry (such as this collection) can one moment look like simple words upon a page, but in the right moment with eyes glossed with emotions, it can appear like quicksilver: beautiful, changeable, potent, and transformative.
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