The place in a poet, the poet in a place
Owen Sheers - 18 May 2009
This week's film is about the Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown who rarely ever left his home town of Stromness on the main island of Orkney. Stromness and the history and landscape of Orkney were huge shaping influences upon George's work. But what also really came to interest me while I was in Orkney was George's place within his place, the position he occupied in the town and on the island as its dominant poetic voice for so many years.
Travelling thorugh Orkney you can use George's writing, both his poetry and his prose, as a map to the island's places and its history. While we were filming there we were also lucky enough to have the memories of people who'd known George as a kind of 'mirror' map to his own landscape and history. Stromness, where George lived, became his still point from which he could explore and examine the world in perhaps greater depth than more widely travelled poets. You get the sense that in staying still George could hear more, that his eye and ear became atuned to the detail in the everyday in a way that few people's are. It also became clear that George was very much a part of the community. This was powerfully illustrated when, on visiting people's houses we'd often be shown an acrostic poem (a poem in which the first letters of each line spell out a name or place) that George had writen for someone's birthday, christening, anniversary or some other celebration. It was an incredible experience, as if everywhere we went there George was. Which, of course, in a way he was as you can't go many places on Orkney that he hadn't written about in one way or another. In so doing, he gave the town back to itself, he showed it reflected in and through his writing. As Pamela Beasant, a local poet says in the film, when George died it was like Stromness had 'shed a skin, like it was just Stromness again.'
I was very struck by these elements of George's life, that sense that in Stromness the poet was another natural cog in society's wheel - the baker baked bread, the fishermen fished and the poet wrote poems. George was undoubtedly an important cog, and it's to Stromness's credit that he was valued as such. In the light of all this and in the wake of recent Poet Laureate and Oxford Professor of Poetry appointments I'd be interested to hear what you think about the 'role' of the poet in a society, either on a national or a local level. Is there or should there be a role at all? Have any of you ever experienced being on either side of this fence? I know that ultimately a poet will write a poem for themselves, but in practice we know that no one writes in a total vacuum. So, let me know - where exactly do you see the 'place' of a poet today?