Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Poetry of Place

This year's Sunflower Writing Workshop theme - less planned than organically evolving into - would seem to be emerging as PLACE and the poetry of place.

Poetry of place localizes yet, for all that, is universal and timeless. Pausing in one place to observe, reflect, absorb refreshes us from the effects and exhaustions of restless progress. Contemporary and especially US culture and literature value moving on - literal and figurative road trips, lighting out for the territory ahead of the rest, instead of staying in one place and knowing it well. Still, our identity remains tied to place: We don't know who we are unless we know where we are.

About Poetry of Place
A poetry of place is a poetry which values locales, which sees and lets the reader experience what makes a place unique among places. Much contemporary poetry focuses on psychological states, feelings, intellectual concepts, or language play totally devoid of reference to the real, lived, sensually experienced and infinitely varied physical world. Poetry of place may focus on such interior subjects, but it lets us experience them more profoundly and more authentically because theyíre rooted in a specific time and place.

In its fullest sense, the term "place" in poetry includes not only the geographical location and natural environment, but the history of human presence and before. "Place" includes the people living there now, and, as in all poetry, the voice of the speaker of the poem. As Leslie Marmon Silko says, "Viewers are as much a part of the landscape as the boulders they stand on." The speaker may be passing through, or better yet, a longtime resident of a place


Dale's Manzano Sunflowers, keynote poem for both Sunflower Festival and Poets & Writers Picnic, is a place poem.

Yet poetry of place is not exclusively rural landscapes and nature. My own favorites are urban, possibly the lingering effect of a dissertation on cityspace in literature (poetry and novels).

Baudelaire and "Le cygne" hold a special place. Swan/sign evokes multiple times and places from the poet's remembering of a single moment observing an escaped swan in the Place du Carousel. But Cavafy's Alexandria poems take first in my personal poetry & place sweeps. Too many poems vying for preference for me to choose one and stick with it. Sometimes it's "The City," another time "Waiting for the Barbarians," "Exiles" yet another - and so many more. Cavafy's Alexandria poems do more than evoke place: they conflate time in that space. Alexandria, palimpsest.

Cavafy writes, "It goes on being Alexandria still" (Exiles, 1914), referring not to Alexandria in his time but to the one ruled by Emperor Basil, Byzantium. I re-read it here and now in the 21st century, a continent, an ocean and nearly a century away from Cavafy's, and am transported back to Alexandria in the 60s, perhaps taking an Italian ice at Groppi's (still there too) and listening to Greeks waxing nostalgic about pre-War II Alexandria in much the same terms: "However much smaller it has become, it is still a wonderful city"

What's your favorite poem of place?

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