on writing poetry


The reason for landscape, nature and place poetry’s resurgence is the inherent struggle between the subjective sense of self and the neutrality of both nature and a specific location. My first themed collection of poems explores the inhabitants and surroundings of the small village of Virtsu and this essay considers the role of the observer in topographical poetry and in my own writing.

The village was once a boastful place of industry but has now been decimated by urbanization. The inhabitants have aged and become ghosts of bygone times, with their children leaving the countryside and flocking to cities in pursuit of financial security. Only occasionally does the village see newcomers – birdwatcher on route to the national park nearby. The reader will be, in a sense, on a similar path and following a clear series of way points, a road map of evolving ideas and thoughts. What will start out purely topographical, rooted in an objective nature, will be replaced by personalities, characters and subjective memories.

In The Ground Aslant, Harriet Harlo remarks that however innovative new landscape poetry is, it still ‘clings to its hold on the local and physical world.’[1] She makes the point that the observer can be somewhat limited, but examining Colin Simms’ poetry, we see a possible freedom. His poetry is exploring nature as much as it is nature exploring us. His lines are ragged and seemingly chaotically placed onto the page, thus evoking a sense of accidentality or a world filled with incidental cruelty and gentle beauty. In the poem Snowy Owl, Simms creates the wings of the owl twice – once in the way as the text sits on the page, and a second time in the rapid rhythm and flutter of the words as ‘shuffling cards coils diamonds dull white cools clubs spades coals real-slack glow.’(Ground Aslant, p. 21).

Where is the observer in this world? Simms has taken the role of an attentive listener and refrains from injecting subjectivity or ‘human’ into the poems. He never questions and instead takes what is offered. A dissimilar poet would be Charles Wright who is a clear participant, if not an actor, in his poetry. In a poem, he reflects: ‘It always amazes me/How landscape recalibrates the stations of the dead, /How what we see jacks up/the odd quotient of what we don’t see.’[2] This is an observer who is actively questioning, wondering and even challenging his surroundings.

J.A. Baker offers another interesting insight into how a writer, as an outsider, enters nature. In the novel The Peregrine, we see the main character shift from observer to participant. His view on this small section of life is so intense and passionate that it overtakes him and assimilates him into this world he has created. The ‘I’ in his book slowly transforms into ‘we’:

Looked into the wood. In a lair of shadow the peregrine was crouching, watching me, gripping the neck of a dead branch. We live, in these days in the open, the same ecstatic fearful life. We shun men. We hate their suddenly uplifted arms, the insanity of their flailing gestures, their erratic scissoring gait, their aimless stumbling ways, the tombstone whiteness of their faces.[3]

J.A. Baker’s following misanthropy is interesting exactly for its intensity and I am keen to explore this in my own writing as the nearby national park of Puhtulaid gives ample opportunity to ‘assimilate’ with the nature around me. As a former islet, it is almost entirely cut off from civilization and only occasionally visited by passing ornithologists. Jakob von Uexküll, the Baltic German biologist and philosopher, spent entire summers there and, in a strange coincidence, was also interested in exploring what subjectivity means in the animal kingdom. In A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans: With a Theory of Meaning, he studies the simple life of a tick and remarks that ‘every subject spins out, like the spider’s threads, its relations to certain qualities of things and weaves them into a solid web, which carries its existence.’[4]

He called this theory Umwelt, which Kalevi Kull, another notable biosemiotician, described as a semiotic world that ’includes all the meaningful aspects of the world for a particular organism.’ [5]The idea that different animals, belonging to the same ecosystem, are living in worlds that are separate from each other’s is a fascinating one and adds to the idea of the battle between the sense of place and the sense of self. Exploring the landscape through this prism should be a worthwhile endeavor, but I also have a specific inhabitant of the natural world in mind for closer study.

Birds provoke a natural envy and fascination in poets. Simon Armitage writes in the afterword of The Poetry of Birds anthology about this fascination:

Poets, I believe, seek and find in the world of birds unlimited and unequalled reflections of their own world. In their extinctions and predicaments they are icons of environmentalism; in their colours and costumes they are a huge cast of characters; through the opportunity to list and catalogue them they speak to our obsessions and compulsions.[6]

This is fertile ground for observation. The comings and goings of birds are also deeply tied into the myths and folklore of Estonia. Some are foretellers of death, some bring hope and even the galaxy is called The Bird Path in reference to the migratory routes of birds seemingly mirroring the stars in the sky. The national park is often visited by ornithologist and I am interested in their passion as well. It is a strange, ironic hobby that forces one to remain still for long periods of time to catch sight of an animal that is the freest there is.

So, examining and following the animal kingdom into a subjective view of nature will be the first landmark to anchor the reader, and myself as a writer, into a place. The national park and my own personal connection to it will allow for a multilayered investigation of a raw ‘place,’ free from any human involvement. The poems will form a path as we follow the bird-watchers, the invaders, and start onto a journey back towards the village. There is an opportunity here to explore the guilt associated with humanity and nature. Linda Hogan expresses this guilt in her poem Moving the Woodpile: ‘I’ve always wished/to hold the truly stolen, broken world together/but my every move is to break/by degrees, acres, even the smallest atom.’[7] Environmental concerns are an inescapable theme when it comes to landscape poetry and even though I have no desire to approach this head-on, I am hopeful that the change of focus from landscape/nature towards the human will provide enough of a contrast to make the readers question their own relationships with nature.

David Mamet has called being alive ‘the burden of consciousness’ [8] and I find it interesting how many of the poets I have read are seemingly trying to shed this burden by searching for an entrance into natures neutrality. Assimilation, it seems, is a constant connecting thread as described in Thomas A. Clarke’s poem: ‘you are the one/walking alone/intermediary between/earth and sky’ (Ground Aslant,p. 41). I would argue that readers have no interest in seeing an objective view of the world as much as artists have no interest in presenting art devoid of their personality. Readers crave to see the proof of others and their consciousness, they crave to see the inner world inside the outwardly one.

B.H. Fairchild has been described as someone who writes about ‘the dream of the old frontier, of the settlers and the unsettled, containing therefore more resignation than possibility.’ [9] There is a tragic beauty to Fairchild’s forlorn towns and villages. They are bleeding out and are, ‘suicidally beautiful.’[10] These abandoned towns exist everywhere and Fairchild finds the beauty in their ‘dearth of cars, motion, grind of gears, noise of commerce, chatter / and cry of farm kids dangling from the beds of rusted-out pick- / ups, murmur and guffaw of old men.’ [11] These places are hollow and yet busy until Fairchild goes on to cut them down entirely describing them as ‘quiet as a first snow. Somewhere a dog barks. / A wire gate slams shut.’ (Abandoned Towns, p.9).

This scene that B.H. Fairchild paints is a familiar one. Towns in Estonia both flourished and suffered under Soviet-era grit, steel and oil and once that time ended, a silence crept in. The Estonian poet Jaan Kaplinski writes:

Silence is always here and everywhere;
sometimes we hear it more clearly:
on the meadows there is mist, the door of the granary is open,
far away a redwing sings and one
white butterfly wings incessantly
around the branch of an elm that
sways slightly against the background of the setting sun.
Twilight leaves everything without faces or script,
only the difference between light and dark remains[12]

Whilst the two poems are both about silence, we also see how contrastingly differently the two poets approach it. Kaplinski sees the silence as something with clear contours that is then taken away from him as ‘an old pocket watch on the desk/ suddenly starts very loudly/to tick.’ Important to note, however, is that Kaplinski is reflecting on silence as a direct observer, but Fairchild does this through characters and personalities. He finds this ‘dawn of absence’ (Abandoned Towns, p.10) in the ghost-like actors in his poems.

A third approach can be seen in Edgar Lee Masters seminal work Spoon River [13] where characters speak plainly and frankly about life and death. Herbert K. Russell observes that the characters ‘blame others, events and occasionally themselves while expressing themselves unambiguously in free verse,’ he continues on to reflect that most of them confront their deaths ‘with only a simple truth or two, a few lines distilled as the essence of their existences.’ [14] I have experienced this matter-of-factness in the few interviews I have already conducted and am interested in just how much of their voice will enter into my own poems. The villagers of Virtsu have conveyed to me an unrelenting sadness over the state of their home as it loses both people and services. There is a defeatism there and an objectivity of voice, like Edgar Lee Masters’, will be difficult to retain as I am familiar with the place. This struggle should remain apparent, however, as I rediscover, remap and refold the town and its surroundings.

My hope is that arriving at this village, after experiencing a more objective, indifferent nature, will tie the reader to a place that they know and have experienced. I would argue that Fairchild’s poetry is popular mainly because of how universal his themes are. The towns in his works are weaved into the constructs we have of our grandparents and elders. The towns in his works are the ones that have stayed the same for millennia but entering them as outsiders, unexpectedly, allows the readers to experience them more wholly.

These, somewhat surprising, changes in the setting will be the driving force behind my collection of poems and should provide unexpected insights. Carol Watts found the same when constructing a similar project:

The placing of poetry understood as a form of practice can reveal a raft of topographic or spatializing intents and indifferences, lived alongside and unthought, which the poetry itself continually breaks open.[15]

In effect, there will be three ‘placings’ in my collection: the nature as the beginning, the town for the midpoint and the end, which is to say the absence of a place or even its consumption. The text on the page will play an important role here. As Foucault wrote, ‘we must locate the space left empty… follow the distribution of gaps and branches, watch for the openings.’ [16] This spatiality could be an interesting avenue for the reader to follow and connects clearly with the nomadic nature of the collection as a whole. This would also provide me with a section for experimentation with the ‘self’ in these poems. Ian Davidson reflects on how the ‘I’ is used as a tool by poets and lyricists:

Just as there is an arbitrary relationship and, for poets, a creative gap, between language and meaning, there exist creative possibilities in the relationship with others, and one of those others is the self as it is perceived and represented in poetry. (Ideas of Space, p. 100)

This freedom and creative possibility serve as the logical endpoint for the collection. Having run out of nature or relationships with others or the world, I will be left with myself. There are a few poets that I have researched and read in preparation for this stage and I purposely refrained from old favorites in order to dig deeper. One of my discoveries is Frank Stanford, ‘one of the great voices of death’[17] as called by Franz Wright.

Frank Stanford’s poetry has a very human surrealism to it. Like Fairchild, he writes about haunting beauty, of barbed wires, bleeding and loneliness, but focuses more on the individual:

 

 

a man by himself in a bar
feels a shadow behind him
thinks of his wife eating
bleeding meat
hears the rain by the sea
tries to forget his day laid out like dresses for the dead
he knows his heart is closed up for the night
and the people
who are poor and cannot sleep look through the blinds[18]

 

 

This character could easily fit into Fairchild’s abandoned towns and his attitude is similar to the prism through which I want to explore these places that are so familiar to me. We get a glimpse of Stanford’s inner landscape in another poem:

 

My father and I lie down together.

He is dead.
We look up at the stars, the steady sound

Of the wind turning the night like a ceiling fan.

This is our home.

I remember the work in him

Like bitterness in persimmons before a frost.

And I imagine the way he had fear,

The ground turning dark in a rain.[19]

 

 

Seemingly effortlessly, Stanford connects his grief, memories and sense perception with a landscape.

Tõnu Õnnepalu is yet another poet and writer to follow in search of this melding between the inner and outer landscapes. This was the primary theme in his novel, Paradiis [20] that takes place on a remote island, next to a small village. The writer had lived there for many years, but the novel focused less on relationships and more on geography and topography. The novel brought together a few different landscapes: a historical one, composed from the stories shared by the villagers, the solitary/past one, which was the writer reminiscing about the time he had lived there, and finally the one that resided in the present, with him returning to the island. All these elements created a novel and a place that was dynamic and changing, easily muted by memories and yet could incite newfound feelings. Brita Melts writes about the novels mercurial nature:

 

The place has been metaphorically renamed Paradise in the novel and is subjected to deliberate, selective and multistage reshaping with temporal, spatial, objective and emotional ramifications. However, the description never diverges from the writer’s intimately personal and occasionally wishful base of perception.[21]

 

The landscape that Õnnepalu presents is one spurred from a personal, reflecting sense of self and even though geography and topography have a place in the novel, it is often perturbed by memories and throws of imagination. This is a landscape composed both from and of memories, the habitual day-to-day activities and subjectiveness, but what makes it ‘real’ is the playful rearrangement of the three time periods by the author.

Like my collection of poems, his novel is a narrative supported by a very clear set of waypoints: a remote location, filled with bleak perspectives that are then replaced by the warmth of memories, and transformed into a ‘paradise’ even when the actual landscape remains grim. This is a ‘paradise’ that is wholly subjective, wholly bendable and plastic, where the ‘sense of place’ can easily be shifted by instinct and feel. It is his perspective and subjectivity that brings richness to the novel.

Having set markers of my own to follow should now enable me to craft a richer world where the reader is taken from an observer into an active participant. The subjective sense of place seems to rise as much in thanks, as in spite, of what is actually there and, as illustrated by the writers, incorporating personal memories and perspectives is what elevates the work. Any location or a place is, above all, a mirror that is begging to be processed, assimilated or recorded which makes the observer an invaluable part of the landscape itself.

              


 

 

References

Armitage, Simon, The Poetry of Birds (London: Viking, 2009), p. 283

Baker, J. A, The Peregrine (London: William Collins, 2017), pp. 101-102

Bakken, Christopher, “The Plains Pastoral of B.H. Fairchild”, Contemporary Poetry Review, 2018 <http://www.cprw.com/Bakken/fairchild.htm&gt; [29 January 2018]

Cuddihy, Michael, The Ironwood Review, 1981, 105

Davidson, Ian, and Zoë Skoulding, Placing Poetry (New York, N.Y.: Rodopi, 2013), p. 282

Davidson, Ian, Ideas of Space in Contemporary Poetry (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 93

Fairchild, B. H, The Art of The Lathe (Farmington, Maine: Alice James Books, 2015), p. 15

Fairchild, B.H, “Introduction B. H. Fairchild”, Ploughshares, 34 (2008), 7-10 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/40354246&gt;

Fisher-Wirth, Ann W., The Ecopoetry Anthology (San Antonio, Tex.: Trinity Univ. Press, 2013), p. 338

Kaplinski, Jaan, “Four Poems – Jaan Kaplinski| Estonian Literature”, Estonian Literature Centre, 1985 <http://www.estlit.ee/elis/?cmd=writer&id=46378&txt=8066&gt; [29 January 2018]

Kull, Kalevi, “On Semiosis, Umwelt, And Semiosphere, 1998, Pp.”, Semiotica, 3/4 (1998), 299-310 <http://www.zbi.ee/~kalevi/jesphohp.htm&gt;

Mamet, David, “WRITERS ON WRITING; Hearing the Notes That Aren’t Played”, Nytimes.Com, 2018 <http://www.nytimes.com/2002/07/15/arts/writers-on-writing-hearing-the-notes-that-aren-t-played.html&gt; [29 January 2018]

Masters, Edgar Lee, Spoon River Anthology (Lanham: Dancing Unicorn Books, 2017)
Melts, Brita, “Tõnu Õnnepalu’s Literary Paradise”, Language and Literature, 2014
<http://kjk.eki.ee/en/issues/2014/7/519&gt; [29 January 2018]
Õnnepalu, Tõnu, Paradiis (Tallinn: Varrak, 2009)

Russell, Herbert K, Edgar Lee Masters (University of Illinois Press, 2005), p. 70

Stanford, Frank, and Michael Wiegers, What About This: Collected Poems of Frank Stanford (Copper Canyon Press, 2015)

Stanford, Frank, “Riverlight” <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/50131/riverlight&gt; [29 January 2018]

Tarlo, Harriet, The Ground Aslant (Exeter: Shearsman Books, 2011)

Uexküll, Jakob von, A Foray into The Worlds of Animals and Humans (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), p. 53

Wright, Charles, Appalachia (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), pp. 34-35

 

[1] Harriet Tarlo, The Ground Aslant an Anthology of Radical Landscape Poetry (Exeter: Shearsman Books, 2011), p. 7. Subsequent references to this anthology are given in the text as ‘Ground Aslant’, followed by the page number.

[2] Charles Wright, Appalachia (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), pp. 34-35.

[3] J. A Baker, The Peregrine (London: William Collins, 2017), pp. 101-102.

[4] Jakob von Uexküll, A Foray Into The Worlds Of Animals And Humans (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), p. 53.

[5] Kalevi Kull, “On Semiosis, Umwelt, And Semiosphere”, Semiotica, 3/4.120 (1998), 299-310 <http://www.zbi.ee/~kalevi/jesphohp.htm&gt;.

[6] Simon Armitage, The Poetry Of Birds (London: Viking, 2009), p. 283.

[7] Ann W. Fisher-Wirth, The Ecopoetry Anthology (San Antonio, Tex.: Trinity Univ. Press, 2013), p. 338.

[8] David Mamet, “WRITERS ON WRITING; Hearing The Notes That Aren’t Played”, Nytimes.Com, 2018 <http://www.nytimes.com/2002/07/15/arts/writers-on-writing-hearing-the-notes-that-aren-t-played.html&gt; [29 January 2018].

[9] Christopher Bakken, “The Plains Pastoral Of B.H. Fairchild”, Contemporary Poetry Review, 2018 <http://www.cprw.com/Bakken/fairchild.htm&gt; [29 January 2018].

[10] B. H. Fairchild, The Art Of The Lathe (Farmington, Maine: Alice James Books, 2015), p. 15.

[11] B. H. Fairchild, “The Beauty of Abandoned Towns “, Ploughshares, 34.1 (2008), 7-10 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/40354246&gt;. Subsequent references to this anthology are given in the text as ‘Abandoned Towns’, followed by the page number.

 

[12] Jaan Kaplinski, “Four Poems – Jaan Kaplinski| Estonian Literature”, Estonian Literature Centre, 1985 <http://www.estlit.ee/elis/?cmd=writer&id=46378&txt=8066&gt; [29 January 2018].

[13] Edgar Lee Masters, Spoon River Anthology (Lanham: Dancing Unicorn Books, 2017).

[14] Herbert K Russell, Edgar Lee Masters (University of Illinois Press, 2005), p. 70.

[15] Ian Davidson and Zoë Skoulding, Placing Poetry (New York, N.Y.: Rodopi, 2013), p. 282.

[16] Ian Davidson, Ideas of Space in Contemporary Poetry (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 93. Subsequent references to this collection is given in the text as ‘Ideas of Space’, followed by the page number.

[17] Michael Cuddihy, The Ironwood Review, 1981, 105.

[18] Frank Stanford and Michael Wiegers, What About This: Collected Poems Of Frank Stanford (Copper Canyon Press, 2015).

[19] Frank Stanford, Riverlight <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/50131/riverlight&gt; [29 January 2018].

[20] Tõnu Õnnepalu, Paradiis (Tallinn: Varrak, 2009).

[21] Brita Melts, “Tõnu Õnnepalu’S Literary Paradise”, Language And Literature, 2014 <http://kjk.eki.ee/en/issues/2014/7/519&gt; [29 January 2018].

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