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The importance of place

Where do you write your poems? We’re fascinated by the places where poetry happens, the idea that inspiration might not just be a moment-in-time but in a moment-in-place. The Guardian’s regular feature on is popular for just that reason: there’s something very compelling about being able to see inside an artist’s study (or shed, in the case of Louis de Bernieres), almost as if we imagine there might be traces of what provoked the work snagged in the hairs of the carpet or shadowing the walls. As if a room can be responsible for a poem. No wonder writers become almost superstitious about the environments they write in, from Andrew Motion’s insistence on a bare desk to Michael Longley’s presiding talisman or “genius loci – a raven created out of scrap metal by the magnificent Scottish sculptor Helen Dennerly.”

But others find the notion of a writing room restrictive. As Philip Hensher remarked: “I don’t have a writing room, and don’t want one. I’ve never written successfully at a desk.” As someone who writes primarily on the move, I can sympathise with him. Most of my best poems are composed when I’m out running, walking or even rock climbing (though hard rhymes and hard reaches can make for a hazardous combination). There’s something about the rhythm of moving through a landscape that helps the rhythm of the poem and something about the strange, half-delirious states that distance running can induce that helps me form unusual connections. I often take an initial idea or line for a poem out for a run with me and build on it, trying out different phrases that suggest themselves. As the poem grows, I become increasingly terrified I’ll forget it. But, inevitably, by the time I get home, the best lines have stuck and only the weaker ones, the ones that didn’t quite work, have been forgotten.

This preference for writing on the move is by no means unusual. A recent book by Merlin Coverley, ‘The Art of Wandering’, discusses writers who have combined walking and writing, from Wordsworth to Iain Sinclair. Coverley’s interesting thesis is that walking and writing are essentially one activity. To illustrate this he looks at a diverse range of walker-writers stretching from early pilgrims, to Jean-Jacques Rousseau to the present day, via John Clare, William Blake, the English and American romantic poets, Parisian flâneurs and many more. Similarly, Robert Macfarlane’s new title ‘The Old Ways’ explores the significance of Edward Thomas’ walking journeys.

When we journey on foot, perhaps it’s ‘place’ in the broadest sense that inspires us: the landscapes we pass through (or rather, the landscapes that permit us to pass through them), whether urban or rural. As a previous poet in residence at The Wordsworth Trust, I was lucky enough to live in Grasmere for a year and had the chance to explore the Cumbrian fells that inspired the Romantics. Strangely, I found myself writing poems that were mostly set in the ex-industrial area of North Derbyshire around where I grew up. It was as if the scale of the Lake District was too vast and too beautiful to write about, so when I ran through it I found myself thinking of elsewhere. Sometimes, we can only write about places when we aren’t in them.

If you’re thinking of entering the Magma poetry competition this year, why not try writing on the move? I can only imagine walking a poem is like walking an unruly dog: you’ll have to stop, go round in circles and you’re likely to be dragged round hairpin bends and down dark, suspect-smelling alleyways. But you’ll certainly end up somewhere interesting.

This Post Has 19 Comments

  1. I can connect with the idea of writing on the move; though less active movement than rock climbing, running or even walking. More likely, for me, writing whilst being moved – by train or plane. Or when about to move – at the station or airport. These opportunities are intensified by the time limits they impose. The stimulus of place is only part of the story – I think its the practicalities that such situations offer – a writing room is all very well but if there’s displacement to be found nearby I will find it.

  2. Mine come in dreams (or rather in that spilit-second/limbo eterniny between sleeping/waking in depths of night) then written straight down barring a few minor details, in the daytime., as if already there rhymes cadences genre and all (mostly lyric but a few narrativem haiku and SMS) others come as words (not images) that suddenly drop into my mind agt night or the early morning with no connection t anything else I;vde been thinking about, usually difficult ones: how can I POSSIBLY write a poem about a beetle (the hardest challenge and one of my best efforts I think, let me know if you’;d like to read it?) or a mole? a CHIMNEY!!

    they are not mine I know (at 78 I have written academic prose but never poetry), yet whose else can they be? they come in profusion sometimes everal a day over the last 6 months, now as many as a\round 100 in all, in two voloumes (not yet pubished, next yhear perhaps). .

  3. WAITING.

    Poetry is in the waiting,
    Waiting for a birth
    Conceived in some past
    Reckoning of heart and mind;
    A whisper into the head
    From an unknown voice,
    A singing faintly heard
    From leaves of Summer trees
    Or in the receding recall
    Of waves on a Winter shore,
    Or listening to silence
    In a darkening room
    And waiting for it to break
    And make you a poet again.

    Harry Haines.

  4. Usually I write at home, mostly in bed late at night and early in the morning. But recently, oeying my heart guru, I’ve been walking for an hour every day.

    On my solitary constitutionals around the local countryside, for some reason I cannot fathom, the poetry that comes flooding into my mind demanding to be written before it disappears for good is always in French! Silly French, at that!

    Question

    Que fallait-il faire
    de la mouchoir jadis
    quand les gens portaient
    tout simplement, les peaux d’animaux ?
    Fallait-il porter une sacoche?
    Combien ça serait moche.
    Plutôt inventer
    les poches.

    or

    What did they do with their hankies
    in the days when folk wore animal skins?
    Did they carry a bag, to put them in?
    That must have been a pain,
    so someone thought up pockets.

    Fortunately, my elderly memory dictates that most of the words disappear before I get home. To accommodate that, I’ve made a bumbag big enough to carry notebook and pen,(ny hands being otherwise occupied wielding Nordic Poles) thus adding to the reputation of “les fous anglais” hereabouts.

  5. Walking on Exmoor; absorbed, I thought, by the scenery; this poem popped into my head in it’s entirety. I honestly hadn’t thought about Gloria for 40 years:

    POETRY AS THERAPY

    Gloria, you were so vain, that 40 years
    on – it’s still a pain,
    to think of your smug self-satisfied grin;
    you clearly got right under my skin.
    On one occasion, I wished you dead,
    when stretching your elegant legs you said:
    ‘In Chinese astrology, I’m a horse’,
    (thinking a thorough-bred – of course).
    ‘You’re a monkey’, you say, ‘What lively chatter!’
    (thinking thoughts that clearly didn’t flatter).
    Well, forty years on, let’s see what really matters:
    I’m still in good company, and I expect
    you’re at the knackers!

  6. My song to be

    My song to be
    My song to be made
    My struggling to create
    to raise from the waves to theland
    to fish from the depths of the sea
    Why do you not come to me?

    See through my hole in the ice
    the little trout that I seek
    why not come from the brine
    come from the salty sea
    answer my soft pulling line
    get yourself caught by me?

    by my line by my mind by my art
    imagined in from the wild
    why so hard to sing
    to make, to catch, to hold?

    (After the Eskimo)

  7. For me the right time and place is in silence. I imagine we all take dictation when it’s offered, on any surface from receipts to skin, but I try to keep to an early-morning schedule because it’s quiet then. I’m usually at my kitchen table, but only because of the hour and my age. Place matters, but in another way; where I’m writing often enters or steers the poem as tone or mood. When the mood is circled by quiet it dresses in words.

  8. Making a poem.

    To me a poem comes when the first gift lines
    Smile into my head
    Like my wife across a room at parties
    Making me feel good all evening,
    Valued in a world of strangers.
    I wait, unthinking and yet willing
    The words to speak again and listening
    Hear a voice as though reciting
    From the turned page of an unwritten volume,
    And each line that follows called out from where
    My mind is bound like wisps of mist
    To the opaque surface of lake water
    Very early on a Sunday, sunny morning.

    Harry Haines.

  9. most of my poems come at night in bed when my consciousness is clear of all the day’s mental jumble. i have paper and pen handy just in case the muse strikes and i try and write it down in the dark so as not to interrupt its flow.
    if i try and remember in the morning it’s lost, gone, run away…………………….
    donna

  10. Place is not only somewhere one writes but also a place where one has been. See my poem ‘We Passed Through Nazareth’ in my website www. harryhainespoet.com. It’s too long to print here

  11. My best poems come when I’m in water – swimming, bathing or showering in it. I haven’t worked out how to write on soggy paper yet, so I just have to remember and hope that the best words survive.

    Pen

  12. I tend to write on public transport – usually trains and buses. I find the clearest space in my head is when I am surrounded by the white noise of hundreds of busy people going about their daily lives. It helps me to focus on nothing but the pen and the notepad in front of me and then the words pour out, filling the page and the margins as I grimace over speed bumps and frown, clenching all my muscles as the bus or train carriage lurches around corners. I used to write in cafes, but I found too many strangers started to take an active interest in my scribbles, asking questions and breaking my chain of thought. I prefer the anonymity of public transport.

  13. The morning commuter train to Waterloo. Seventeen minutes of life. Seventeen minutes to get something down that will – southwest muse willing – engender a poem later. That’s the time-space where ideas, word combinations, and the incongruous come into focus. Those seventeen minutes are life. Life with its pauses, changes of scenery, with people entering and exiting randomly. Life with its eye contacts, observations, couples speaking in intimate ellipses, the person absorbed in book, i-pad or mobile. It is life, it is time, it is universe; and platform 3 in Waterloo is another dimension.

  14. I tend to be happiest writing on my iPad – something about being able to delete words and keeping the page pristine and white. It doesn’t work for me using pen and paper. I’ve taken to using a dictaphone thingy when I go out for walks so I don’t have to sit and write. Above all, wherever I am, I need quiet. 3am is a good time for me to write mostly or later in the morning.

  15. And all that I shall ever write,
    Before the morning, beyond the night,
    Could not whisper and could not shout
    Softer, louder what life’s about
    Than my dumb lips on your dumb lips
    Or our silent speaking finger tips.
    O never be it otherwise!
    The gift line is given in our eyes
    And lips and hands and bodies make
    The sleeping poetry come awake
    To sing and celebrate above
    Our mean knowledge and poor love.

    Harry Haines

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