On Thursday 30 August, as part of the National Library’s Laureate programme, a poetry reading was organised in the wharewaka on Wellington’s waterfront. Its principal guest was Andrew Motion, who was Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1999 to 2009. In 2012 he became President of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, a responsibility formerly shouldered by the American writer Bill Bryson. Andrew teaches poetry as Professor of Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, University of London, where one of the teaching themes is ‘the poetry of place’. The Wellington occasion, which included memorable readings by Bernadette Hall and Bill Manhire, had this theme in mind in its title, albeit in a tweaked form.
The title, ‘The Place of Poetry’, has a double meaning. Poetry is often associated with places; and it occupies a place in cultures and societies. Are these kinds of location related, and if so how?
Aboriginal song-lines, Horace’s Sabine farm, Wordsworth’s Lake District, Robert Burns’s Ayrshire, the burnt-off country of Blanche Baughan’s ‘Bush Section’, Elizabeth Bishop’s Brazil, Pablo Neruda’s Chile, Judith Wright’s Australian ‘Blood Country’, Robin Hyde’s Island Bay, the Gallipoli of Paraire Tomoana’s ‘E pari rā’, Allen Curnow’s Lone Kauri Road, Kendrick Smithyman’s Tomarata, Mahmoud Darwish’s Galilee, the ‘my country’ of A.R. Ammons’s The Snow Poems, Ted Berrigan’s New York City, the place of exile in Bei Dao’s poems, the view from Jenny Bornholdt’s work-shed window, the ‘environs of the goat’ in Sophie Loizeau’s poems...
Some poems seem to have uttered their locations; those of us who know the poems find it hard to know the place without the poem. The experience of place mediated in this way recalls Georges Poulet’s description of reading, ‘I am a consciousness astonished by an existence which is not mine, but which I experience as though it were mine...’ And of course it’s in the place of language that the ‘astonished’ exchange of consciousness takes place.
This exchange can take many forms. A mountain that is one person’s geological feature may be uttered as another’s ancestor. An uttered landscape may ground a spirit of national resistance, a place where blood and language are spilled together. A poem may imbue a place with the vividness of the perpetual emigré’s fascinated gaze. It may become the topos around which an argument or idea is constructed. The poem may be recited over and over in order to call up a place that can no longer be lived in, or that can only be lived in through uttering or writing the poem. The poem may mark the place where whenua establishes an inseparable link between birth and earth. It may equally mark the place where language itself is the poem’s only location.
All these utterances lead to another sense in which poetry is placed: how and where is it placed in culture, what role and significance does it have? Is it an object of delectation in the literary salon, the anthem of popular uprising, the etherised patient of academic forensics, the repository of community memory, the lyric downloaded from iTunes, the challenge at a poetry slam? What kind of esteem does poetry command in the cultures of different societies? And how does this esteem – this cultural location – relate (or not) to that other meaning of ‘place’, to physical location? Mahmoud Darwish’s last public reading in Beirut early in 2008 filled a stadium with an estimated 25,000 people; in Bangladesh, the vast crowds that assemble at the Shaheed Minar on Language Martys’ Day every year on 21 February know by heart Kazi Nazrul Islam’s poem ‘Rebel’, a rallying-cry in the 1971 war of liberation. In these instances, the two ‘places’ of poetry appear almost indistinguishable; the ground you kiss is unimaginable without esteemed language.
My thanks to the poets who took part in ‘The Place of Poetry’, to the National Library for organising it, and to the audience that came along. I didn’t notice an outbreak of ground-kissing afterwards, but it was a great place to be on the night.