…And how This Land Was Made For You And Me
In 1612 and 1622, the poet Michael Drayton published Poly-Olbion: an epic poem that travelled the landscape of England and Wales through nearly 15,000 lines of verse. Divided into thirty songs, each section covers – and extols the beauty of – one to three counties.
An interesting feature of this work is its form. It is a topographical poem that does not rely on words only, but exists alongside – and seems to converse with – elaborately engraved maps of each county, drawn by William Hole.
These maps depict the cultural, socio-political and historic themes of each county through anthropomorphic illustrations. Rivers (a predominant feature of the work) contain nymphs and spring deities while towns and cities are presented as women with crowns in the shape of castles, church spires or instruments/weapons.
Words and image thus work together to convey a multi-textured narrative that combines the anecdotal, allegorical, legendary and factual. In this way, the words seem to locate themselves within the maps (and therefore the land) and vice versa: an imaginary space superimposed – and woven into – a physical one.
Drayton’s (and Hole’s) work has recently been revisited by the poet Paul Farley and academic Andrew McRae. Their joint enquiry into the exploration – and mapping of – national landscapes with national past and memory has resulted in The Places of Poetry project.
This collaborative venture uses the original illustrated maps of Drayton’s verse in a digital format that is overlaid against Ordnance Survey map data in order to create a dynamic canvas for new poetry. Throughout the whole of this summer, anyone with a poem about – or inspired by – a geographical place can ‘pin’ their poem on to the map.
Hosting events and working with community groups across the country, the project is encouraging different perspectives, histories and connections to convey all the emotions and incidents felt, thought, witnessed, and experienced in shared spaces. Poet Laureate Simon Armitage kicked things off on 31st May with his poem Snow. Swarms of entries have since followed, populating the nation’s highways, byways, soil, streets and seas with verse.
The result is a polyvocal landscape that – like Drayton’s original – explores heritage, the self, identity and the environment, and the relationship – both public and personal – between these things.
I absolutely love this idea. Maps! Topography! Folklore! Poetry! Place, land and landmarks! And if that’s not enough overstimulation for someone like me, it also calls to – and allows a forum for – the creative possibilities of the palimpsest.
The act of ‘overlaying’ (on to something that has already been ‘overlaid’ several times in several ways) illuminates how we interact with the landscape of the same country through the lens of a completely different age. How places shape us, and how we shape them. How meaning, memory and language constantly evolve. How the past, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, can never be fully archived.
Amazing. But perhaps more importantly, it also democratises both poetry and place.
Places of Poetry uses ‘high art’ to initiate a sense of belonging. By sharing our poems (and being invited to do so) we also share our ties to physical places; we locate ourselves not just to place, but to people – now and across four hundred years of time.
This, in turn, becomes a collective act that exposes land and creative expression (two things often associated with elitism/privilege, property and exclusivity) as something ‘shared’.
I’ve contributed something I had for Portsmouth and another for Tremadog (in Wales), already.