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This term's poet in residence

Owen Sheers

A Poet's Guide to Britain By Owen Sheers
28 Apr 2009 - 06:17 PM

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.

33 Comments at the moment

Dan Burgin at 3 May 2009 - 07:22 PM

Hi Owen - I've long been an admirer of your poetry and especially your fiction! I'll be tuning in for this series for sure. You have a keen sense of place in your own writing - so your a great choice to front this, cheers, Dan

SHEILA HAMILTON at 3 May 2009 - 09:59 PM

I've been given the heads-up about this series by an American writer who writes about Plath. I'm going to be writing a review for his blog of your "Wuthering Heights" programme.And very much hoping to catch the other programmes in the series. I'm glad to see that the BBC hasn't entirely abandonec poetry !Heights" programme.

SHEILA HAMILTON at 3 May 2009 - 10:01 PM

Whoops! That should be ". . . hasn't entirely abandoned poetry."

Owen at 5 May 2009 - 05:47 PM

Thanks Dan, and Sheila. The Plath film is an interesting one. Although Wuthering Heights is certainly the focus we were also able to follow the progression of her relationship with the moors through several poems. She even first tried writing a short sotry about the place...The sequence of poems are, I think, a great insight ito a writer negotiating with place - and not just any place either, but the homeland of her new husband...

Julia Tonkinson at 7 May 2009 - 12:18 PM

Where can I find the poem which introduced your Poet's Guide to Britain please? I loved it.

Owen at 7 May 2009 - 08:18 PM

Ah, yes, the title poem. I'll be honest, that's something I wrote for the series myself. I'm thinking of maybe using it as an epigraph for the tie-in anthology, and if that's the case then you'll able to find it there...otherwise I'm afraid it isn't published anywhere as yet.

Dominic Gover at 8 May 2009 - 04:51 PM

Hello, This T.V series is a fine thing which I'm sure I'll enjoy, but why, oh why, oh why is Ted Hughes ommitted. This is a series about Britain, but no place for the finest poet of Britain's natural life, still? And yet the American (and campus favourite)Plath is included?? Seriously, tell me: this is a conspiracy by the liberal campus quasi-intelligensia at the BBC, isn't it? The absence of Hughes blows a gaping hole in the body of this work, and it will struggle for credability in the eyes of this viewer. Shame really, as it seems like a fine show.

Katherine at 8 May 2009 - 09:20 PM

I thought the way you introduced the Wordsworth episode was really interesting, as it linked to Skirrid, and helped visualise the place for your Skirrid Hill collection. Sylvia Plath looks like another interesting one - I have heard a few of her poems but never really experienced them in detail.

Owen at 9 May 2009 - 05:36 PM

Hello, Thanks for your comment Dominic. ted Hughes is one of my favourite poets, and a wonderful poet of the natural world, as you rightly say. There are several answers to your question. Firstly, we only had six programmes with which to make this series. Apart from Hughes there were many other wonderful poets of place who haven't been featured - Edward Thomas, Larkin, RS Thomas to name just a few. We had to choose, and in any choice there are, of course, ommissions. I was keen to do surprising things in this series, even with the more familiar names. MacNeice in Dorset, not in Belfast, Wordsworth in London and in the Yorkshire Moors, not a poem such as Hughe's 'Horses', but a poem by a poet new to the landscape. A familiar name, but a poet not usually associated with landscape poetry. Obviously, Hughes comes into the story in the PLath film - his voice and guiding hand were a huge influence upon her writing in those years, just as hers were on his. Another reason was that, if oyu look at British poetry pre 1950 or 1960 it is, compared to US poetry say, pretty shockingly male dominated. I wanted not just a geogrpahical spread in this series, but also a gender spread. Lastly, Plath wrote a series of poems about the moors, each one echoing the one before to a certain extent, and together I think they tell a fascinating story about a young writer negotiating her way through a new but potently charged landscape. So, no, I'm afriad not a conspiracyconspiracy.conspracySorrySSSorry to disappoint. Out of interto est though, which Hughes poem would you have chosen? There are many great place poems of his but I'm not sure I found one that would have worked well in the treatment of a series such as this...?

Lesley at 9 May 2009 - 07:34 PM

Just watched the programme about Wordsworth's Upon Westminster Bridge. To answer your earlier question, yes, you certainly did succeed. I enjoyed every aspect and look forward to the rest of the series especially Louis McNeice (even if he is in Dorset!). Many, many thanks. Hope you and the BBC will think about a further series.

owen at 9 May 2009 - 08:56 PM

Thank you Lesley, and yes, I'd certainly love to do another series. Let's see...and I should have mentioned in my answer to Dominic's question (in which my computer went slightly strange, sorry about that) that other poets, including Hughes will be well represented in the tie-in anthology I'm currently compiling. That should be out in the Autumn with Penguin. Oh, and although 'Woods' is set in Dorset, we do also include some of MacNeice's northern Irish and West of Ireland poems too. One of them read by a wonderful actress and wife of a former poet laureate...

Trish at 10 May 2009 - 10:02 PM

I thoroughly enjoyed your Wordsworth programme - accessible, interesting - about time there was something like this on TV. Will definitely try to use this to enthuse my otherwise disinterested Y10 pupils. I have long been a fan of yours and use several of your poems in school- I am really looking forward to any new work and also hope for a second series. What a joy to see such a down - to - earth approach to poetry crit. combining social context and meaning with such ease. More please!!

SHEILA HAMILTON at 12 May 2009 - 11:40 PM

Owen, I watched the Sylvia Plath programme last night and really enjoyed it. Really enjoyed the snippet from her interview in which she says how she had always idolized England, for example "Milton and his mulberry tree in Cambridge"-didn't know Milton had a mulberry tree ! I think it often takes an outsider to tell us these things !

elaine at 13 May 2009 - 07:22 PM

Your programmes are so well presented and have sparked my interest in these poets.Wonderful images in the Plath poem. Will the tie-in anthology also have biographical details and include pictures of the landscapes they describe?

owen at 13 May 2009 - 07:45 PM

Good question Elaine, all to be discussed as I'm just putting the poem selection to bed and haven't yet spoken about details with the editor at Penguin. And thank you Sheila, both for your comments above and your review of the Plath programme.

SHEILA HAMILTON at 14 May 2009 - 08:31 PM

I'm glad you got to see the review. By the way, will the series air in the United States ? And if so, when ?

elaine at 14 May 2009 - 09:15 PM

could you confirm the word in line 7 of Plath's poem is "solider" and not soldier? there seems to be some confusion in the copies I have seen of her poem. Thanks!

Dominic at 16 May 2009 - 02:07 AM

Hello. I appreciate your responding to my question on poor old neglected Ted. It is a fine series too. Your 'Which Hughes?' poser is tough. It's a big one too, see size and actual weight of his Collected Poems. Time and place are absent from a lot of his work for me, so now I see the problem. I cant really think of a piece suited to the series MO. I see making telly can be tough. Who'd have thunk it. Plath's Wuthering Heights package, I enjoyed a lot. May I rec Sheep in Fog or Fog sheep by the same. Another quality piece. Not so irked at paying the licence fee now. Thanks again for your full reply.

Owen at 16 May 2009 - 11:30 PM

Hello, Hmm, not sure about the US. That would be great, but it is a very British series, even though Plath is in there. If it did I'm guessing it would go out on PBS. Elaine, I'm pretty sure it's soldier colour, evoking the British redcoats, I'd always thought, which gives a whole other layer to the line really, given the US/UK juxtapositions of the story behind the writing of the poem. And I'm glad you mentioned 'Sheep in Fog' Dominic, as I see this as the most extreme and complete poem in Plath's series of moor poems, where she and the landscape really do finally appear to become one.

Janet Hughes at 17 May 2009 - 06:01 PM

Than you for the wonderful Wordsworth programme - I'm teaching AS Language and Literature and it's in the WJEC Anthology. When I showed it to my students they were spellbound for half an hour, and their discussion of the poem afterwords was a delight! Brilliant. Can't wait for Dover Beach - such a relief to show my students that ordinary blokes in jeans like poetry!

Maureen Kincaid Speller at 18 May 2009 - 01:16 PM

Owen, I've just stumbled across this page while hunting for more information about Plath's poems about the Yorkshire moors. As I'm doing this because of your programme, I thought I should add a word of thanks to you. I've never particularly cared much about Plath's work, one way or the other, and hadn't realised she'd written poems about the Yorkshire landscape. Your programme, which I really enjoyed, has prompted me to look more closely at her work. It's wonderful to have intelligent literary programming on tv for a change, something that actually discusses poetry in depth. Thank you.

Tom Conoboy at 18 May 2009 - 09:08 PM

Fascinating series Owen. I hope, if you do a second series, you'll consider Sorley Maclean's Hallaig. Now there's a poem that resonates. 'Time, the deer, is in the wood of Hallaig

owen at 19 May 2009 - 09:05 PM

'Time, the deer, is in the wood of Hallaig' - what a great line! I'm afraid I don't know the poem Tom but will go an look it up now...A second series would be great, and I'd love to open the selection up to viewers' comments and candidates, but let's see...up to the powers that be. I'm glad the film sent you back to Plath's work Maureen, that's exactly what I'd hoped this series would do - be a spur to returning and looking again at the poets we think we know. While I've been compiling the tie-in anthology I've been so struck by how some of our best known poets can be pigeon-holed by a very few poems. Nearly every poet is actually so much more diverse than we imagine, I think. And Janet - I'm thrilled the films are being shown in schools. My own work has just gone on some of the A level boards, so I'm especially pleased this series can also play a hand in the classroom.

lisa at 21 May 2009 - 12:51 PM

Owen, I have many questions for you! Somewhere on a site that you are linked to you quoted a line from Robert Frost relating to ice melting - it was beautiful, but I didn't write it down, and now I can't find it - can you tell me which poem it was from, and how you see it? Also, as someone living in New York, do you have any opinions on the Gotham Writers Workshop? They provide online courses, but I wonder how they are rated? Thanks so much

Richard Baguley at 25 May 2009 - 03:32 PM

Owen, as a Brit living in the US, I am greatly enjoying this series. have you considered doing one about the USA? Lots of poetry about place here...

Owen at 25 May 2009 - 05:02 PM

Lisa - I believe that line is from something Frost wrote about writing poetry...I'll try to hunt it out but I'd have a look in 'Strong Words' published by Bloodaxe, I've a feeling it's in there. Richard - I'd LOVE to do a similar series in the US. I've been very interested in how US poets really took part in the spirit of pioneerism, claiming the land with their poems...more women poets too. But as ever, it;s somewhat in the hands of the powers that be. But let's see...

Katherine Meusey at 29 May 2009 - 11:58 PM

If you do another series, consider Thomas Hardy. I presented an event with Clarie Tomalin a few years back who wrote a book about Hardy, but addressed his poems quite a bit.

Si Philbrook at 31 May 2009 - 02:56 PM

Dear Owen, I have now watched the first four in the series and would like to congratulate you on them. You have certainly achieved many of the aims set out above. I did not know George Mackay and have never been a fan of Matthew Arnold, but you have turned me onto one, and made me think again about the other. I was also fascinated by your choice of Wordsworth poem; I would have assumed that a programme about landscapes and poerty that featured a Wordsworth poem would have to featured a lakeland poem "...Tintern Abbey" being the obvious one. What you did was very refreshing, and I has also not thought of Plath as a landscape poet before. I have a question. How did you select the poems? Did you choose the poets first then a poem, or let the poems lead you? Was there a shortlist? Anyway congratulations on this series. Each one does act as a doorway, and I hope you get the chance to do more. Si

Jane Delafons at 2 Jun 2009 - 03:30 PM

Just watched the programme on Lynette Roberts - a poet I'd never heard of and felt totally inspired by her work and life. Thank you. Infact the whole series has made me go back to the books I had when I was at school, blow off the dust and become immersed once again. I'm now the ripe old age of 39! Thanks and I'm looking foward to the anthology. ps: the link to Alun Lewis, also new to me, was an added bonus.

PJ Fleming at 6 Jun 2009 - 09:41 AM

Owen, I have just had the pleasure of catching all your programmes in one hit. Inspiring! I have come latterly to the joys of poetry and your series has identified a yearning that has long lain dormant. The chosen poets were encouraging in their diversity, style and content, and particulalry in their humanity - and the whole experience has been truly motivationa1.Here's hoping for a second series ......

Craig at 10 Jun 2009 - 10:33 AM

Owen, I have really enjoyed the programme and have caught up with episodes I missed on the iPlayer. I particularly enjoyed the episode on 'Hamnavoe'. I am a teacher and would like to show classes the film - are there plans to release the series on DVD?

Tricia at 11 Jun 2009 - 12:13 PM

Thanks for reviving my love of poetry. The 'Westminster Bridge' episode had me hooked as it is one of my favourite poems, but I've been blown away by 'Hamnavoe' and 'Dover Beach' which I didn't already know.

Rachel Fox at 12 Jun 2009 - 02:02 PM

Just stumbled on this when I was trying to find out what those introductory lines were. Every week I've liked them more and more (because I have kept watching...). And thanks for Lynette Roberts...I loved the whole 'getting the bus for a bath' section.

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