Now and then, someone organises a scholarly conference on the importance to writers of a sense of place (generally in some place unreachable by public transport). But the other reason I never end up going is that, with a few exceptions, or apparent exceptions, the writers who fascinate me do not have a sense of place so much as a sense of displacement.
Though I think this may always have been so, I became conscious of it while teaching on the University of Glamorgan's Masters in Writing degree when I was successively tutor to three poets, all émigrées to the UK from the USA – Tamar Yoseloff, Karen Annesen and Barbara Marsh. What struck me about all of them was that they observed the place where they now lived differently; they noticed and highlighted things that for a native-born poet might not have stood out, and over and over, their sense of the place where they were was informed by their equally keen sense of that other place where they had once been, but now were not.
A perfectly adjusted organism would be silent
- E M Forster: A Passage to India
Most teachers of writing have had students ask the question "why is poetry so unhappy?" particularly with reference to love poetry, and have replied with some variant on Forster's remark. The very act of writing suggests something out of kilter in the writer's relationship to his world and it's notoriously difficult to write a happy love poem well, simply because there seems no occasion, nothing wrong enough to write about. I would suggest that the same may be true of place-poems: poets who are at home, happy in their place and in no danger of losing it, have no occasion to write about it and if they do, are not liable to write very memorably. (Someone is about to object "but what about so-and-so the famed, rooted, brilliant place-poet?" but bear with me, we shall come to him presently.) Just as love poems tend to be most memorable and successful when they concern love unconsummated, disappointed or recalled from the past, so a sense of place becomes keenest and most powerful when the place it relates to is not possessed but desired, not present but recalled, not here but there. "I wish I were in Carrickfergus", as the old folk-song says. And why is the place in this Arthur Waley translation of an anonymous first-century BC Chinese poem so haunting?
In a narrow road where there was not room to pass
My carriage met the carriage of a young man,
And while his axle was touching my axle
In the narrow road I asked him where he lived.
"The place where I live is easy to find,
Easy to find and hard to forget.
The gates of my house are built of yellow gold,
The hall of my house is paved with white jade.
On the hall table flagons of wine are set,
I have summoned to serve me dancers of Han-t'an.
In the middle of the courtyard grows a cassia tree,
And candles on its branches flaring away in the night"
("Meeting in the Road": 170 Chinese Poems).
Even if we do not happen to know, as a Chinese reader of the time would, that in Chinese myth there is a cassia tree on the moon, this strange encounter in the midst of a busy city is irresistibly beckoning, and surely it is because the place is elsewhere, the mysterious young man or god not surrounded by the beauty he describes but somehow exiled from the place so hard to forget. "Ich am of Irlaunde", says his cousin in the Middle English 13th-century poem, inviting us to come and dance in that "holy londe" where he or she clearly is not.
Now dispossessed of the great sea
- Charles Causley: "Sorel Point"
Charles Causley spent most of his life rooted in the Cornish town of Launceston, not of his own volition; like many a child whose father died in the Great War, he later found himself providing emotional and financial support to a widowed mother. But if the first world war eventually confined him, the second temporarily made a globetrotter of him, for he joined the navy and saw service all over the world, for six years which were to become the keynote of his poetry. He lived into his mid-eighties, but decades after that six years, his imagery, vocabulary, subject matter were still haunted by his time in the navy and by a constantly expressed longing for the sea. "Return to Cornwall" optimistically begins
I think no longer of the antique city
Of Pompey and the red-haired Alexander
- but in the next verse, in the midst of an attempt to evoke Cornwall, "the children build their harbour in the meadow", a parenthesis creeps in:
(O the cypress trees of Mahomed Ali Square!)
The fact that his heart was elsewhere, on the great sea of which he felt himself dispossessed and in the places where it had taken him, did not prevent him observing very clearly the place where he found himself; it never seems to. One might suppose that a writer hankering after the place where he was not would find his attention distracted from the one where he was, but if anything the opposite seems to happen, rather as it does with children growing up bilingual, whose progress with language acquisition is if anything helped by learning to think in two tongues at once. In Samoa, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote both his unforgettable evocation of "The Beach of Falesa":
I saw that island first when it was neither night nor morning. The moon was to the west, setting, but still broad and bright. To the east, and right amidships of the dawn, which was all pink, the daystar sparkled like a diamond. The land breeze blew in our faces, and smelt strong of wild lime and vanilla: other things besides, but these were the most plain; and the chill of it set me sneezing
and Catriona, in which the streets of Edinburgh come to life as if he had walked them the day before. The narrator of "The Beach of Falesa", Wiltshire the copra-trader, is himself a displaced person. A wanderer like his creator in an environment and culture that did not breed him, he belongs nowhere in particular until marriage and parenthood root him. At the end of the story he is living with his Polynesian wife, having given up on his dream of returning "home" and opening a pub, and the only worry on his mind is how his half-Polynesian children are going to find a place to belong in the world.
Home is made for coming from, for dreams of going to,
Which with any luck will never come true.
- Alan J Lerner: "Wand'rin' Star"
It would of course have been a disaster had Mr Wiltshire indeed gone "home" and opened his pub. For there never was a truer word growled than by Mr Marvin: going back to a once-loved place after a long time away is a recipe for disappointment (and some fine poems), and this is because places, at least as far as people are concerned, exist in time and context. However much we may love a place for its landscape, its light, or anything else intrinsic, it will also, in our minds, be the place where we grew up, or fell in love, or were happy in our work, and we can no more return to that place than we can step twice into the same river, as Heraclitus puts it; time and the current have moved on. Any change in the place that we recall – a missing tree, a new building – is likely to strike us as a change for the worse, simply because when it was in its former state we were younger, which for any species subject to death is a good enough reason to prefer the old to the new. I think this can even be true of rooted writers, for he who stays in one place all his life is eventually liable to find himself mentally living in the version of it which he knew from his childhood or youth. George Mackay Brown was such a writer, who regarded even the advent of a nearby Co-op as a potential disaster for his beloved Stromness. His fictional name for it was Hamnavoe, which had been its name in Viking times, and the undoubted keenness of his vision of the Stromness where he lived is shot through with an elegiac longing for the Hamnavoe that had gone before his time: even this most apparently rooted of writers was in his way an exile.
And it may be worse if the place doesn't change at all, for we shall be the more conscious of the changes in ourselves, like A E Housman, ruefully reflecting on the fair where once in his youth he stood and looked at things he couldn't afford:
Now times are altered: if I care
To buy a thing, I can.
The pence are here, and here's the fair,
But where's the lost young man?
In his later years, freed of responsibilities, Charles Causley took to globetrotting again and wrote of his travels in Canada, Europe, Australia. And how did he get to all these places? Why, he flew… granted, some of them were long-haul trips but he was in no hurry. I think he was cannily avoiding any return to the sea, the place from which exile had so inspired him. This place, after all, was not just "the sea" but the sea in the early 1940s, in wartime, from the point of view of a sailor in the Royal Navy, and to that place, and that version of himself, that lost young man, he could not return.
Therefore when a person says, I am well and wish to be well, or I am rich and wish to be rich, and I desire simply to have what I have - to him we shall reply: "You, my friend, having wealth and health and strength, want to have the continuance of them; […]. And when you say, I desire that which I have and nothing else, is not your meaning that you want to retain what you now have in the future? […]Then, said Socrates, he and every one who desires, desires that which he has not already, and which is future and not present, and which he has not, and is not, and of which he is in want?"
- Plato: The Symposium
I suggested earlier that lost or unrequited love produces more powerful writing than the fulfilled kind, and that displacement is similarly more productive than rootedness. Yet there are writers who celebrate fulfilled love, and rootedness in a loved place. I think it is Plato who gives us the key to how they manage that. For when I said "poets who are at home, happy in their place and in no danger of losing it, have no real occasion to write about it" I was surely, in the italicised words, posing a condition that can't exist. The ending of the love story, "and they got married and lived happily ever after" is incomplete: it should read "and lived happily ever after until one of them died". In the same way, we are all not only in danger of losing the place we live in but utterly certain to, unless we have found the secret of eternal life.
No poet is more conscious of this than Louise Glück, and none has a keener sense of the world she lives in, for it is the bitterest of ironies that the more sensitive you are to the beauty of the world, the more agonising is the thought of losing it. If Causley was unusual in that his beloved locality was the entire ocean, she is even more so, for hers is the planet: which particular bit she inhabited would make no odds to the anguish of the narrative voice in "October", so conscious of each manifestation of beauty
Sunrise. A film of moisture
on each living thing. Pools of cold light
formed in the gutters
and simultaneously conscious that
This is the light of autumn, not the light of spring.
The light of autumn: you will not be spared.
In "Arboretum", from The Seven Ages, she confronts head-on our longing to stay for ever in the loved place
We had the problem of age, the problem of wishing to linger[…]
merely wishing to linger, to be, to be here
and the logical consequence of this apparently harmless take-up of space by those who ask
so little of the world; small things seemed to us
immense wealth. merely to smell once more the early roses
in the arboretum; we asked
so little, and we claimed nothing. And the young
But knowing a thing is so makes it no easier to accept; it is a condition of humanity that growing to love the temporary, which "place", for us, will always be, brings grief.
I know what you planned, what you meant to do, teaching me
to love the world, making it impossible
to turn away completely, to shut it out completely
it is everywhere; when I close my eyes,
birdsong, scent of lilac in early spring, scent of summer roses:
you mean to take it away
- "Vespers": The Wild Iris
In the end, I think that to be completely rooted and at ease in a place, a writer would need to live in the moment, with little or no sense of that place's context in time, its past and future - or indeed his own. Such a writer Constantine Cavafy emphatically was not: when he walks the streets of early twentieth-century Alexandria, he plainly wouldn't be surprised to bump into Mark Antony or the Emperor Julian round the corner, for their times and their versions of Alexandria are as real and vivid to him as his own. Two of his most famous poems concern a loved place, and at the heart of both is Plato's sense that love is less for what we have than for what we have not. In "The God Abandons Antony", a man's luck and the whole shape of his life are figured in the city, his and Cavafy's own Alexandria, a place and a time fusing into a moment the more precious because it is about to be over, because it is time to "say goodbye to her, Alexandria you are losing". In "Ithaka", the loved place is a memory but also a goal, the home made for coming from and for dreams of going to. And Cavafy's advice is clear: we had better "hope the journey is a long one", for the best thing our dream destination can offer us is the journey there.