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?

Comments:

As a 15 year old, Where I live, poetry is slowly dying a death as the people I've been growing up with consider poetry to be "boring" or "useless". Poets around here, dispite living in South Wales (!!) are quite hard to come by. There are some people in my town who consider me to be "weird" for liking poetry and I think that sort of thing will contribute to the demise of the poets and poetry itself unless something is done. I guess that a poet's role in society isn't as active as it was 20/30 years ago when poetry was a big part of my town. Thanks.

Thank you for another inspirational programme. I am looking forward to reading Mackay Brown and Edwin Muir on the strength of it. I love Kathleen Jamie's work - and have just bought Jen Hadfield's book.

Dear CAIT!!!! Sorry for the capital letters. There's loads going on in South Wales. Check out welshpoetry competition on Facebook,Google Red poets, poetry in Wales is maybe not as vibrant as one would like but its there and happening.Join in and you'll see. BEst of luck.

Thanks Caroline, I'm glad the films are sending you to more poetry and other poets, that's what I'd hoped. And thanks Chris and Cait too. I agree with both of you really. It can seem hard to 'see' where poetry is playing a part in our communities, and certainly you can come against opposition to it as a medium, especially among people who think it is something it's not. But belive me, scratch the surface and it's there. Where in South Wales are you Cait? The Academi has a great website with lots of details about readings etc. all over Wales. They also run some wonderful writing squads for under 18s which are worthwhile getting involved in if you;re interested in writing poetry too.
I think you asked me a question about 'Amazon' on one of the other threads. Not sure this is the place to be talking about my own work, but that poem isn't about any specific person. The character was built from a number of different peole I knew at the time who were all tackling the same challanges of breast cancer. Hope that helps, O.

Thank you so much Owen and Chris!
I live near Bridgend so i'll check out some of the things you've been talking about.
Thanks!

What a poet! I'd not come across him before but I've already ordered his collected works. As someone writing poetry and finally in a place where I'm finding my own subject and voice after so many years of imitation it's a pleasure to be watching this series which deals with something so at the heart of my own interest Owen. I think it's going to be something that will become increasingly important, even though many don't realise it yet. Our relationship to the land is crucial, even if only for the most basic, perfunctory reason that it provides everything we need to survive. And this land is increasingly under threat now. Poets are important in interpreting and sustaining this symbiotic relationship. Brown does exactly this. As does your own work.

I think that your poem about swans was our poetry question on my Englist Literature GCSE paper, if so you are an amazing poet, and as a keen poet myself, you are very inspirational.

In cherishing the story of his life, George Mackay Brown helps us to cherish the oral tradition of storytelling by doing the same. I have joined a poetry group at Kingsgate Community Centre W.Hampstead

Poetry has taken a bit of a battering in the national press this last week... It is, of course, an art form that will never disappear. Writers groups aplenty on Tayside!

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