For me, landscape has always been inextricably tied to my writing. Perhaps it is so for most poets. Such poetry has a long history, from the topographical poetry popular in 18th century England, to the picturesque work of the Romantics, to the contemporary work of poets of place like Frost, Levis, James Wright, Hugo, Szymborska, Shara McCallum, James Harms, etc. I often come to know a place (or know it better or differently) after I read the poems of writers who expand my notion of it. Even as a born and bred New Yorker, my appreciation of Manhattan would be lesser if not for O’Hara’s poetry.
I recently participated in a celebration of Seamus Heaney’s life and work here at East Carolina University. Heaney, of course, must be included in any discussion of poets for whom poetry is inseparable from place. During my preparations, I remembered a piece I had read years before, “The Sense of Place,” which appears in his Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978. The lecture’s first sentences express what I wish to get at: “I think there are two ways in which place is known and cherished, two ways which may be complimentary but which are just as likely to be antipathetic. One is lived, illiterate and unconscious, the other learned, literate and conscious. In the literary sensibility, both are likely to co-exist in a conscious and unconscious tension . . ..”
One of the biggest problems my poetry students have is in establishing the tension, the something at stake, that any piece of writing requires to be called art. What is it, I ask, that stands in the way of the speaker’s desire? In fact, what exactly is it that the speaker wants? For poets today, that tension is frequently tied to the land from which the poet arose, land that is unstable and at the mercy of economic forces over which we may feel we have no control. Speaking in 1977 Ulster, at the end of that lecture, Heaney is able to write that though “we are no longer parishioners of the local,” nevertheless, “ . . . I am convinced . . . that it is to . . . the stable element, the land itself, that we must look to for continuity.” But I’m not sure such certainty is still possible when it comes to landscape for many of us, even though it’s that certainty that we want.
David Baker aptly describes the atmosphere of my second book of poetry, Anticipate the Coming Reservoir, by writing of it, “The pressures are everywhere intense—from above and below . . ..” It is largely a collection that attempts to parse what becomes of a place, and a soul from that place, in the wake of a shifting landscape. The stability Heaney is able to suggest exists in 1977 Ulster can no longer be assumed as a given in 2013. Thanks to the mall mentality, to fracking and strip mining, to McMansions on suburban hillsides, to changes in the very roads one may have walked and driven in an earlier stage of life, nothing now is constant. Of course, it never really was, but today’s hyper speed has caused change that explodes with such rapidity that many of us are doomed to lives of skitter, fret, and uncertainty, and it is this, then, it seems to me, that is the great subject matter of the decades to come: the tension we inherent in the push of the “learned, literate and conscious” and the pull of the “lived, illiterate and unconscious” as it pertains to landscape. As familiar topography is pulled out from under us and we fall, what is it we come to understand as come crashing down? And where is it that we land?