Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

When we do these exercises where I ask the students what they see through the window, or what they notice in the room where we are sitting, they often ask me what I see; what I notice. I am reluctant to say, in case they think that they should be taking what I see as some kind of a model, which it is not. But of course the exercise is always as instructive for me as it should be for the students. We have just done the exercise where I ask them to list what they notice about the room we are in. What might I write? What did I notice this time around?

First, as always, I notice myself, looking out at the world from inside my body. I am conscious of the familiar window through which I always look. Next, I see the room in its context: a particular, tiny location surrounded by a huge framework  of space, and a particular tiny moment surrounded before and after by a huge framework of time. I make a deliberate effort not to be side-tracked into a discussion of Proust.  Seen in that overwhelming context of history and geography the room reminds me instead of the “Total Perspective Vortex” in Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, which is a device that shows the person connected to it exactly where they are in the huge totality of the Universe – a tiny, tiny dot in space and time, so utterly insignificant relative to everything that ever has existed or ever will exist that the human mind cannot survive the confrontation. I see the room in context with its surroundings as the smallest inside edge of everything that is beyond it, and as the tiniest moment of time swamped before and afterwards by the rest of history. It is as though I am inside a tiny bubble surrounded by an infinite fog. All I see is the inside edge of the fog but I know it stretches out to touch everything else – all the space and time that I can’t see from here. And so, by touching the fog, I touch all of that.

Mervyn Peake wrote a poem “Is there no love can link us?” in which he referred to “this hectic moment, this fierce instant striking now its universal, its uneven blow… this sliding second we share: this desperate edge of now”.  When I look out into the room that is what I see – the sliding second, constantly slipping to the next and leaving itself behind. A moment surrounded by, and connected to, all the other moments.

Having drawn on Mervyn Peake to provide an illustration of the room’s historical context I think of another of Peake’s poems for a spatial context to describe how I notice the room as a tiny part of a bigger whole.  In “Suddenly, walking along the open road” Peake describes how – while walking amongst the “banal normality” of the houses and fields and trees of Wiltshire – he becomes intensely aware of his place on the surface of a ball spinning through space: “the world below my feet became a planet”, “a marble spinning through the universe wears on its dizzy crust, men, houses, trees…”.  As I look out into the room, I notice – and pay attention to the fact –  that the room is situated on that marble spinning through the universe, and I remember how I often used to say that a Geographer should be able to feel the world spinning.

Do I say all that to the students? No, not really. I say: “try to see the room first of all in its broader context. See the big picture. Try to think at different scales.”

Then, having thought a little bit about the big picture, I can move on and start to consider the more local, human scale… Of which, perhaps, more in a later post. Perhaps then I’ll use Proust, or at least a madeleine… or a small piece of fairy cake.


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An idea: a blackout book!

How about this for an idea? I’ve written previously about “blackout poetry”, inspired by the work of Austin Kleon. (Here’s that previous post)  The idea is that you make a poem by blacking out most of the words on a printed page of a newspaper, leaving just a few words behind. Previously, I tried it with the first page of a Geography text-book as a way of teaching. Now I’ve had an idea… rather than just doing odd pages, how about doing a whole book? Blackout Kerouac. Blackout Hemingway. I could do a separate little poem for each page of the book, or perhaps they could be tied together into a blackout poetry epic stretching through page after page. As with my idea for using blackouts to help students find deeper meanings in text-book pages, I could make the blackouts into a book-within-a-book, telling a deeper story, or a counterpoint story to the one originally printed. So… what book to use as a starting point? I’m thinking something from classic literature like Moby Dick or Anna Karenina. But, then, that would be a mammoth task. Perhaps I want something smaller. Heart of Darkness? Death in Venice? Yes, there’s an idea. Watch this space but, as ever, don’t hold your breath.

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I worry occasionally, of course, like most people, not only about whether there is such a thing as truth but whether, if there is, it matters anyway. Perhaps I worry about it more than some. When there is more than one truth available (yours and mine, the one seen from here and the one seen from there), should we choose between them or should we just leave them both out there? I usually find myself coming back to my old anecdote about T.E.Lawrence’s house in Dorset. I grew up believing that he had the inscription “Nothing Matters” over his door, and that notion made a deep impression on me over many years. Subsequently I became unsure as to whether that inscription really was there, but I decided that, in fact, it didn’t matter whether it was or not. What mattered was that I had spent all those years living with the notion. In a way, now that I am in doubt, I prefer not to know for sure.

Recently I have been reading again, a lot, John Keats’ poem “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” – the one that begins “Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold, And many goodly states and kingdoms seen…”. In that poem Keats uses a couple of examples to illustrate a feeling of astonished discovery. One of his examples, the idea of discovering a new planet, makes perfect sense, ties well into historical fact and would have been especially topical for Keats because he wrote the poem only a few decades after the discovery of the planet Uranus.  Keats’ second example, the one that ends the poem and keeps bringing me back, is the one about “Stout Cortez”.  “Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men Look’d at each other with a wild surmise — Silent, upon a peak in Darien”. The story that Keats had in his mind, apparently, is the story of Cortez crossing the Isthmus of Panama to make the first European sighting of the Pacific coast, telling his men to hold back as he went to the crest of a hill and looked out at the Pacific for the first time. His men, from below, could see Cortez’ reaction, but could only imagine what he must be seeing. It’s a great story and a great example of that kind of moment of discovery, but it turns out Keats got it wrong: the conquistador in question was not Cortez, but Vasco Balboa. One commentary that I have read suggested that Keats was quickly made aware of his mistake, but decided to leave Cortez’ name in the poem and to leave Balboa out of it. Perhaps the name was harder to scan or rhyme. Clearly, Keats didn’t think it really mattered. For a long time I took Keats’ story at face value and believed that Cortez “discovered” the Pacific.  I only recently found out about the Cortez / Balboa mixup. What should I do with that? The poem is now seriously, deeply flawed in a matter of historical fact. The Cortez reference has no truth in it… or at least the truth has been thoroughly garbled. Does it matter? What would Lawrence of Arabia have said?

While I was embroiled in all this over the last few weeks, the Chief Executive of the Environmental Protection Authority of South Australia threw another spanner in my works. I tweeted, combining references to Elton John and John Keats in what I thought a pleasing way: “I feel as though I live my life in wild surmise upon a peak in Darien”. The Chief Executive tweeted back: “Ah, that failed Scottish overseas experiment derailed by capitalists and climate change….?!”

One of the great things about Twitter is the way that in 140 characters, or fewer, somebody can cast your own point of view into an entirely different light and throw open a whole new book, a whole new Realm of Gold, of which you were previously ignorant. If I ever knew much about the 17th Century Scottish Darien Scheme, then at some point it leaked away and deserted me entirely. Evidently it is historically very important. Some people see it at the root of Scotland’s acceptance of the Act of Union with England, and others at the root of Scotland’s subsequent emergence internationally as a business-oriented economy. Others, such as myself, have ignorantly developed our personal world views largely (ok, entirely) unaware of the facts of Darien. But looking now closely into those facts, one fact in particular catches my Geographer’s eye: the fact that the events on the frontier were deliberately misreported so that a false impression of what was going on would make a particular desired effect when the news reached home. It reminded me of the North American Agrarian Myth, the (mis)naming of Greenland, and many other geographical deceptions in the name of propaganda. Truth is a slippery thing, and may not be the thing which makes the difference in the end.

For now, however, I struggle on through these difficult weeks, wrestling with Cortez and Balboa, Keats and Lawrence… and the Myth of Fingerprints.

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Perhaps because it’s the turn of a year I have encountered over the last couple of weeks a lot of people completing, or embarking upon, projects to do something every day or every week for a year. It’s the kind of thing I think I would love to do, but the kind of thing for which I always tell myself  I don’t have the guaranteed free time. One obvious option would be to do something connected directly to work: a Glacier of the Day blog for students to enjoy, perhaps? Perhaps not. An appealing and more sensible alternative would be to choose one of those things for which I keep telling myself I must find more time but which, year after year, continue to go undone. I want to paint more. I want to write more. I want to re-watch more old cowboy films. And then I’m back into the old trap of  there being so much I want to do that I can’t choose, and I go off for a cup of tea, or back to work, instead. But then I saw two websites that seem to have focussed my intent.  The first was Valerie Wetlaufer’s Poem a Day blog (the title kind of explains what she’s doing there) and the second was Jenny Matlock’s “Saturday Centus”, in which a weekly prompt is provided to inspire participants to write 100 words. In my writing (can I really call it that?) the fundamental problem limiting worthwhile output has been that I have nothing much to say, so while I work off-stage on that particular problem here’s a nice game to motivate that all important act of actually writing by providing (forcing) a constraining idea.  Perhaps this might help to kick-start my stalled writing engine and keep it ticking over until I discover what my point is. This way I don’t have to wait until I have the perfect idea for a poem – I just have to write 100 words this week on that topic. Let’s try it and see where it goes.  My first thought (as usual) was to spend the day setting up a new blog or web page to house the flood of great writing that I was about to produce. Luckily I recognised that old trap, and will just put my first attempt here right away. If I manage to keep it up (ie do another one!) or if I graduate to something more like Wetlaufer’s one a day, then I’ll take this outside and move it onto the website. So here’s my first go at the Saturday Centus:

The  “prompt” this week was a photograph of an orange, growing on a tree, but with snow on it (a bit like a little hat of snow sitting on the orange). You can write whatever you like, limited to 100 words. Here are my 100 (well, 96), which come from a context of seeing snow in cruddy back streets of Stoke and Newcastle this winter while teaching classes about ice ages and thinking about The Earth.


I live near the Goose Street car park.
Where the gas works used to be.
This is rain country with short, cool summers.
We don’t grow oranges here.
Before people, a glacier a mile deep
Covered everything for a thousand miles.

Snow fell last night.

When it felt the first, soft, silent, falling flakes
Did the ground remember the mile-deep ice?
Those prison years must have started the same way.
Oranges don’t have fears as old
Or memories as long and cold as that.

To them, today, the snow is just some funny kind of hat.


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