A Poet's Guide to Britain
Owen Sheers - 28 April 2009
For the past year I've been making a TV series for BBC 4 called 'A Poet's Guide to Britain.' In one way the series does pretty much what it says on the tin - Through six different poems of place, written by 6 very different poets, 'A Poet's Guide to Britain' does indeed guide a viewer through elements of Britain's landscape and poetic history. But for me making this series, which will begin airing next week, wasn't so much about making a 'guide' as going on an exploration - an exploration through an ongoing conversation between the British landscape and her poets.
For a small island Britain has a remarkable variety of landscape. From village to city, from beach to mountain, from mundane to dramatic, in Britain you can travel between vastly contrasting landscapes in a matter of hours, often much less. The long and tumultuous history of Britain means these places tend to have fiercely unique personalities and perceptions of themselves, so as well as looking different they also feel very different.
Britain also has a remarkably various poetic heritage, and while I'm not suggesting this is solely down to the variety of her landscape, I do believe that place and landscape have played a very important role in the forming of that heritage. A small island means that land is valuable, and over time often highly contested, sometimes physically, sometimes linguistically, sometimes politically. This means that places and landscapes tend to carry a significance way beyond just their appearance. Our disputes, our ambitions, our advances and our declines all mark the landscape in which we live, and while the people who made that history might pass on, the history itself remains, embedded in the landscape, often physically and nearly always figuratively, in the memories of those who come afterwards.
All of this makes landscape and place rich ground for poetry. In the same way a place is more than its visual appearance, so every good poem wants to be about more than just its subject, the thing it is 'using' to give itself voice. One of the things poetry does best is to speak about the abstract world of thought, feelings and history in terms of the concrete world of things, the physical world we can touch. Landscape can provide a particularly powerful conduit for that process; especially because the associations of a landscape are so often simultaneously deeply personal and universal. A poet might be writing about a beach because of an important memory linked to that beach, but at the same time they can tap into the general consciousness we all have about beaches, about how we feel in those liminal places, on the edge of land, facing up to a raging ocean. In this way when a poet writes about a landscape they have the opportunity to write about so much else, while still keeping their poem rooted in the physical, visual world of that place, as well as drawing upon its vocabulary to furnish the 'speech' of the poem.
One of things that's always particularly fascinated me about this conversation between poets and places is the back and forth nature of it, the dialogue. The poetry of Wordsworth, for example, is shaped, moulded, marked and imprinted with the landscape of the Lake District in Cumbria. But in return, if you go to the Lakes today, after reading Wordsworth's poetry, I challenge you not to see it through his words, his ideas, his vision. The landscape that so shaped Wordsworth's writing is, in turn, shaped in the eyes of future generations by his poetry. But then the place will effect another writer in another way (in the Lakes, Norman Nicholson for example) and so it will continue, a back and forth of influence between place and poet, between the landscape and the page.
So, how to get into all this into a TV series? It's a good question. TV and poetry aren't necessarily the most natural of bedfellows. TV's pulse tends to be quicker than poetry's, its narrative is reliant on an almost entirely visual world, and its attention span is definitely shorter. But then I thought about the pleasure I get from really getting to know the contours of a single poem, from becoming so well acquainted with it that I learn its unique language and see the world it evokes through the colours and tones of its unique lens. Why not try capture some of that enjoyment in a TV series? Instead of trying to talk about poetry and landscape by making six films about six poets, why not make six films about six poems instead? In the writing and the reading of a poem poetry asks us to slow down, to take out time, to hang around before rushing off. So this is what I wanted to try in this series - to use six poems of place as six doors - into themselves, into the places they write about and into the lives of the poets who wrote them.
But then I realised that there was another element I wanted to try and include in these films. This was another ongoing conversation, that between generations of poets, between those who have written and marked the landscapes around us, and those who are writing now, who are still negotiating both their relationships with the places around them and with the 'presiding spirits' of the poets who have influenced them. It's for this reason that each film in the series follows a thread of association from our original poem and poet to a contemporary poet who shares some kind of a territory, be it geographical or thematic or philosophical, with the subject poem of the film. What I loved about this part of filming was being in the presence of the enthusiasm of these contemporary poets. Much of the enjoyment in writing can be found in simply trying to do it better, and when you hear contemporary poets such as Simon Armitage, Paul Farley and Kathryn Grey talk about the poems in the series, I think you'll feel a privileged sense of eavesdropping in on the thought processes of pupils admiring the work of their mentor; not just appreciating the result of their writing, but also trying to work out how that result was achieved. How does Wordsworth manage to write such a swift, compact and yet expansive eulogy to London? How does MacNeice effortlessly move from description to history to childhood memories without ever losing his focus or rhythm? How does Lynette Roberts make such a familiar scene so electrically new again?
As you can see, we set out with lots of aspirations for this series. There was always, though, one overarching aspiration that governed nearly everything I did during filming. That was to put six fascinating and interesting poems on TV in such a way that at the end of each 30 minutes a viewer couldn't help but feel acquainted with that poem and, hopefully, had their world changed, in however tiny a way, through that acquaintance. Did we succeed? Well, that's not for me to decide, that's up to the viewers. TV is, by its nature, a medium of compromise, so I'm sure we lost some of what we'd hoped to catch. But just like poetry TV can sometimes work best when it throws up surprises. I know there were plenty of those in the making of these films, and that as a result we discovered much valuable material along the way that we didn't know existed when we embarked on the film.
Over the next six weeks I'll be posting a weekly blog on the Poetry Archive, introducing each film in the series and talking a bit about both why I chose that poem as the subject and about what I learnt about it in the making of the film. The six poems, and their broadcast dates will be as follows, all broadcast at 8.30pm on BBC 4.
'Composed Upon Westminster Bridge' by William Wordsworth - May 4th
'Wuthering Heights' by Sylvia Plath - May 11th
'Hamnavoe' by George Mackay Brown - May 18th
'Dover Beach' by Matthew Arnold - May 25th
'Poem from Llanybri' by Lynette Roberts - June 1st
'Woods' by Louis MacNeice - June 8th
I hope you enjoy watching the films as much as I enjoyed making them. I also hope that once you have you'll read more by the poets featured in the series, and in so doing become a part of those ongoing conversations yourself.