Look, Stranger!

Owen Sheers - 11 May 2009

In this week's film we're taken to the North Yorkshire Moors with a poem by a poet who knew this landscape in literature and through the memories, character and stories of her new husband, but who had never actually been there herself before she wrote these poems. Sylvia Plath's 'Wuthering heights' was a fascinating subject for this series for many reasons, but I became increasingly interested in it as a great example of a poet writing powerfully about a place not from a position of familiarity, but with the invigorated vision of a stranger.

It isn't surprising that some of our best poets of place are poets who know their particular landscape intimately, deep in the bone. Frost in Vermont, Edward Thomas in the English and Welsh countryside, Heaney in rural Ireland. It's through such intimate knowledge that a unique vision and access into what Hopkins might call the 'inscape' of a place is often achieved. Through long familiarity with a landscape, a poet's vision is given depth born of detailed observation, and breadth from an increasing store of knowledge about the weather, history, flora and fauna, all of which can emerge in the perfectly precise word, phrase or image. There are times when a line by Heaney describing the irish bogland, or RS Thomas evoking a bird on a cliff in Wales feels as if it is backed up by centuries of accumulated experience, linguistic shifts and historical events. Which of course, they are, poetry providing the sharpest leading edge of all those elements of place.
But then there are times when the opposite can also be true, when the sense of wonder inherent in the vision of a newcomer provides a different, but equally energised vision. I know I experience this to a certain degree when I travel. I moved to New York 18 months ago. In those first few months my notebooks were full of observations of the ordinary life of the city. Over the months, however, what had once seemed strange lost its sheen of otherness, of newness and I found myself having to look harder to see beyond the dulling of familiarity.
The best poems and poets do just this - look through and beyond what we know well to describe it in such a way as to make us see it afresh again. Plath's poem about the Yorkshire Moors is a wonderful example of this, charged as it is in every line and image with this voltage of seeing things clearly, right to their heart with new eyes. I wonder if any of you have had this experience - had a place you thought you knew well suddenly revealed to you anew by a poem or song? I'd be interested to know...hope you enjoy the film.

Comments:

I'm absolutely gutted - a series on poetry on TV at a time when I have no signal; living in the midst of the French Alps and after a winter of oh so much snow that the dish has been jiggled out of kilter. However, just reading your description of the series and the poems is such to give me a taste of what it had to offer and lead me to read poems I had not read before. Inspiring. Love love love Plath, and Wuthering Heights just socks it to you with her amazing use of words - almost malleable, tangible; I feel I could pick up the pieces from the page/screen and hold them. Would love to ponder the question of whether any poem has changed my view on a place ; so frustrating then that I cannot find a copy online of Woods by Louis MacNeice as I grew up in Dorset.....any links to sites where it can be found known?? Have already got Poetry Archive on my bookmarks, but oddly enough hadn't logged on for a while and came to your week in residence via a writing course link. As I cannot get Podcasts in France either, when will any anthology be available of the series? Thanks, and I look forward to reading more about the series....

After watching tonights program on louis Macneice's poem 'woods'I wanted to read it myself but I can't seem to find it online. Do you know where I can find it?

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Term of the day

Synecdoche

The use of a deliberate confusion of scale, in which a poet refers to one thing in terms of a part of it - or in terms of what it is a part of.

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