Back in May, we supported the launch of Places of Poetry with a blog about the project with details on how our mapping is involved. Led by poet and Radio 4 regular Paul Farley and academic Professor Andrew McRae, to celebrate National Poetry Day Andrew has kindly written a guest blog for us…
Maps and poems are radically different forms of description, promising different orders of truth. But through the past summer, Places of Poetry has brought the two together, inviting writers across England and Wales to pin poems to a digital map. After four months, and with one left to go, the map holds over 5000 poems.
Despite their differences, the connection between maps and poems is in fact longstanding. It is most memorably demonstrated in the collaboration between the poet Michael Drayton and the engraver William Hole in the seventeenth-century epic of national description, Poly-Olbion. For Places of Poetry we took inspiration from this model, adapting Hole’s unique county maps to create our distinctive map of England and Wales, which we overlaid on detailed Ordnance Survey data.
Our poets have relished the invitation to bring their poems, about places they know and love, onto the iconic detail of the OS cartography. We have had poems pinned to fields and villages, cathedrals and football grounds, ports and train stations, street corners and parks. There is a roughly even mix between poems about rural and urban landscapes, while many writers have focused on the coast, even thinking about events that have happened off-shore such as shipwrecks. Although many arts projects are criticised for being London-centric, Places of Poetry poems are widely scattered. Some surprising cities and towns, such as Portsmouth and Stoke-on-Trent, emerge as hives of poetic activity.
Poets have also enjoyed the opportunity we have provided to reflect on maps and mapping. John Gilham, in ‘Rights of Way’, takes the familiar experience of searching on the ground for a path marked on the map as occasion to consider the nature of his nation: ‘For England is not a wilderness: this is a patchwork / where every stitch has some intent’. Another poem, titled ‘An Ordnance Survey Map of Liverpool (Published 1851)’, surveys the overwhelming change, but also outposts of continuity, in an urban landscape. The poet is mildly amused by the map’s sense of assurance, so corroded by time, and muses ‘how a fact / Is felt as a fiction when the past remains; / The likes of Toxteth chapel still intact.’
Other poets record the limitations of the OS. Deborah Harvey describes finding the starting point of a walk ‘omitted’ from her map, and resorting to the more intimate knowledge of a farmer, proud of ‘our land’. And what of the OS’s confident lines of demarcation between fluid and solid, water and land? Many poems have been pinned to liminal, tidal zones. Anthony Wilson, for instance, writes of the River Exe estuary:
These are the flatlands
stitched between flood-plain and ditch,
ooze and sluice.
No map can ever quite capture the tangible, lived experience of such places.
Finally, one of our finest poems, Alan Parkinson’s ‘Six Inches to the Fenland Mile’, depicts the conceptual struggle between cartographers and a landscape that humans have attempted over hundreds of years to reduce to order. Parkinson imagines the OS cartographers in 1926 surveying the fens, unnerved by experiences of a ‘fluid and protean’ environment. On Ely Station, reviewing their work before the journey home, a local fenland man notes wryly that they missed a ‘purl’ (local word for a stream). As some of the great landscape and nature writers throughout history have asserted, for the poet there always remains a truth just beyond the reach of the map, no matter how skilful its maker or rich its detail.