Place and soul
George Szirtes - 13 June 2008
I have just returned from my fifth visit to Romania, to a festival where writers read and talk about matters that concern them. Each time I go though I am struck by the difference, the slightly down-at-heel intoxicating air of the place. That is compounded of buildings, streets, rooms, fields, skies, faces, voices, gestures, and all those countless things that constitute individuality. I have written poems about Romania as a kind of extension of the soul, the poems made up chiefly of detail that seems to hang together in a way that conjures something of the meaning of the place to me.
Clearly, places are important to poets. There are various anthologies that collect poems of place. There is a difference, of course, between a known local place and an unknown distant one. The danger of the first is that we know it all too well, so well we no longer see or feel it properly. The danger of the second is that we write a kind of tourist verse, noting only difference, not the voices or ghosts it awakens in us. I wonder about this strong interdependence of the known and unknown. Might be it, for instance, that we might write better about our local home if we returned to it after a time away? That we might write better about strange places if they awoke the memory of something familiar? Seeing afresh is vital, but only when what we see matters at a deep level. I wonder what you think are the best poems of place, and why. I don't necessarily mean 'geography', I mean poems like Coleridge's 'Frost at Midnight'as much as Wordsworth's 'On Westminster Bridge'; as much Paul Farley's 'Liverpool Disappears for a Billionth of a Second' as Alice Oswald's 'Dart'.