Places of Poetry: giving voice to environmental heritage

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Calling all poets! Read on to find out about a wonderful new project inviting contributions of poetry that celebrates and commemorates special places around England and Wales. Guest blog by Professor Andrew McRae from the University of Exeter.

On Britain’s disappearing woodlands, Michael Drayton, writing four hundred years ago, was as articulate and passionate as any modern environmental campaigner. Describing in Poly-Olbion the ‘wound[ing]’ of one tree in Blackmore Forest, Dorset, by ‘man’s devouring hand’, he reflected soulfully on ‘The losse that to the Land would shortlie come thereby, / Where no man ever plants to our posteritie’. Today, as environmental campaigners call for a massive tree-planting initiative and the re-wilding of large areas of British land, there is cause to reflect not only on the environmental heritage of our land, but also the history of environmental writing. Places of Poetry, a community arts project running over the summer of 2019, will encourage the inhabitants of England and Wales to do both.

Places of Poetry was inspired by Poly-Olbion. Its quirky use of places as points of entry to history – with the narrative burden often assumed by geographical features, such as rivers or forests – retains the power to intrigue. So too does the sheer mass of detail: the way Drayton values the local and obsessively pursues a fantasy of encyclopedic knowledge. I have been working on it as a critic and editor for too many years, while my colleague on the Places of Poetry, the poet Paul Farley, has been rewriting the poem for the twenty-first century. But we wanted to create something truly polyvocal, and thus devised the model of crowd-sourced poems pinned to a two-layered map. We have been given access to Ordnance Survey data, down to a high level of detail, and we will overlay on this a new map of England and Wales modelled on the decorative and iconographic style of the county maps published with Poly-Olbion.

Poly-Olbion is about more than the natural environment. It is capacious and inclusive, covering the history of settlement, details of civil wars, naval leaders, saints, monarchs, and anything else Drayton perceives to be of significance to the national story. But the environmental detail was unprecedented in the prose genre of chorography, from which Drayton took his structure and much of his information. While some pamphleteers and politicians were becoming concerned about the perceived depletion of woodland, especially for industrial use, Drayton is arguably the first ever poet to respond to this phenonenon emotionally. He also includes catalogues of wildlife, such as fish and birds, and details in another passage the ‘soils’ or agricultural regions of England. Therefore, when planning Places of Poetry and thinking about different kinds of heritage that we wanted to foreground, the environment was always critical. We wanted the project to prompt reflection on the history of the English and Welsh environment, and the ways in which it continues to change.

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The principle of Places of Poetry is that anyone can pin a poem anywhere on the map. But we will use events and activities at partner organisations across England and Wales, supported by professional poets-in-residence, to model different ways of thinking about place and heritage. One of these will be at Sherwood Forest, a site now managed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, but best known for containing some of the oldest oak trees in the country. The Major Oak, now supported by an architecture of props, was already mature in the years when Drayton was lamenting the destruction of woodland. Another will be Dovedale, in the Peak District, which has attracted visitors as a site of natural beauty for centuries. Drayton and his contemporaries were fascinated by ‘the wonders of the Peak’. Thomas Hobbes even wrote a Latin poem about them, De Mirabilibus Pecci. And another still will be the Lake District, where we will be based at Dove Cottage.

But rivers were without question the most significant natural features of Poly-Olbion. On the maps, created by the engraver William Hole, they are unnaturally enlarged and lend shape and character to the landscape. Roads were not registered on maps at all in England and Wales until later in the seventeenth century. In the poem, rivers are the principal routes of navigation, and are traced in such detail that it can today be difficult to identify some of the hundreds of streams that Drayton lists. Although Poly-Olbion is not explicitly a river poem, it assumes a key place in a tradition that can be traced from classical texts through to the extraordinary contemporary work of Alice Oswald. Rivers provide pathways into narratives about places, nations, ecosystems.

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The Severn is important to Drayton, not least because of his positioning of it as an informal border between England and Wales. In the fifth song of Poly-Olbion, the Severn – ‘a Queene, miraculouslie faire, / … absolutelie plac’t in her Emperiall Chaire’ – passes judgement on a singing contest between the rivers of England and Wales for sovereignty over the Isle of Lundy. Later Drayton acknowledges the myth of Sabrina, the innocent girl slain for being caught in a love-triangle that involved both of her parents, her body ‘dissolv’d into that crystall streame’. While he does not dwell on the wildlife of the Severn, some of his best fluvial descriptions are devoted to rivers in Wales and the west of England, including a stunning description of salmon migrating upstream:

Forc’t by the rising Rocks that there her course oppose,
As though within their bounds they meant her to inclose;
Heere, when the labouring Fish doth at the foote arrive,
And finds that by his strength but vainlie he doth strive,
His taile takes in his teeth; and bending like a bowe,
That’s to the compasse drawne, aloft himself doth throwe:
Then springing at his height, as doth a little wand,
That bended end to end, and flerted from the hand,
Farre off it selfe doth cast; so doth the Salmon vaut.
And if at first he faile, his second Summersaut
Hee instantlie assaies; and from his nimble Ring,
Still yarking, never leaves, untill himselfe he fling
Above the streamefull top of the surrounded heape.

While Drayton is not greatly interested in why the salmon travels upstream, the commitment to description of this natural phenomenon is nonetheless remarkable. Few writers of his age attempted this level of engagement with the struggle of an animal barely mentioned in any context other than as a foodstuff.

In Drayton’s time rivers were already being blocked to the passage of fish by weirs and other obstructions. It thus feels appropriate that another of our Places of Poetry partners is the ‘Unlocking the Severn’ project, the largest and most ambitious river-restoration project in Western Europe. At its heart is the twaite shad, a migrating fish that will be given improved access to breeding grounds in the upper reaches of the river by a series of fish-passes. So we will invite writers to reflect on environmental heritage by engaging with a river in the process of a process designed to undo centuries of human intervention. And we will have Isabel Galleymore, a poet with an established interest in environmental writing, as our Severn poet-in-residence.

Pinning a poem on a river defies hydrographical logic. As John Donne observed, rivers undermine a cartographer’s myth of stasis: ‘Nor are (although the river keep the name) / Yesterday’s waters, and today’s the same’. The Severn is also a very long river: 220 miles from source to sea. While we cannot make our pins float downstream, we will be curious to see where writers choose to pin their river poems. We hope that our focus on the Severn will inspire poets across England and Wales to put their local rivers – as well as other natural environmental features that matter to people, from ponds to forests, beaches to moors – onto the map. And we hope that our focus within Places of Poetry on the relation between heritage and place will lend a distinctive inflection to the resultant environmental writing, prompting writers and readers to reflect on changes to the natural world. As Drayton observed, these changes have most commonly had detrimental effects; however, as Unlocking the Severn demonstrates, it remains possible to change for the better.

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You can read a recently published poem by Isabel Galleymore, Severn poet-in-residence, here. Isabel’s new collection Significant Other has been shortlisted for the Forward’s Felix Dennis Prize for a first collection of poems.

 

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