Bettys or Whitby? Poems with a sense of place

13 Nov 2012 @ 5.15 pm
| News
The Whitby seafront and Bettys in York: could either inspire poetry?

YorkMix Poet In Residence Carole Bromley considers writing which tells you where to go


I am back from my travels again – this time from the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival – so Saturday night saw me listening to Jackie Kay and I missed Strictly.

I’ve caught up now, of course, and was rather sorry to see Colin go. I especially liked his Basil Fawlty impression.

Someone has had a word in Darcy’s ear and she is saying Yeah? less often but unfortunately she’s replaced it with OK? I reckon Louis and Flavia will be hard to beat, providing he can sort his samba from his salsa.

Aldeburgh, in case you were wondering, was wonderful. A big feast of poets, readings, workshops, craft workshops etc etc. Plus it has to be one of my favourite places. Nothing beats that pink sunset over the pebbles…

I had been planning to set readers the challenge of writing about place and had visions of you all rushing out and about with pad and pencil (or maybe some fancy app on your phone) and emailing me poems about all corners of York and North Yorkshire and I had collected a small pile of books with relevant examples in. Then I was lucky enough to go to David Wheatley’s workshop in Aldeburgh which was called “The Importance of Elsewhere” and that gave me a few more ideas.

The poets of place people brought up in the discussion were Norman MacCaig, John Clare, William Wordsworth, Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney, Elizabeth Bishop, Edward Thomas, Douglas Dunn, Alice Oswald and Ted Hughes but really, if you think about it, any poem worth its salt is likely to evoke place in some way, whatever its subject. If you look in any collection by any of the above poets you will find wonderful evocations of place, in some cases not a million miles from here (Dunn, Larkin, Hughes).

While I was away I also bought a delicious hard-backed edition of The Collected Poems of Basil Bunting. Here is the great man in Briggflatts conjuring a scene you might recognise:

Skulls cropped for steel caps
huddle round Stainmore.
Their becks ring on limestone,
whisper to peat.
the clogged cart pushes the horse downhill.
in such soft air
they trudge and sing,
laying the tune frankly on the air.
All sounds fall still,
fellside bleat,
hide-and-seek peewit.

See how the poet uses his eyes and, especially his ears? You might want to try that. Go for a walk at Fountains Abbey or along a wintry beach and just listen.

Here’s Ted Hughes taking us to the yard where his daughter first said “moon”:

A cool small evening shrunk to a dog bark and the clank of a bucket –

And you listening.
A spider’s web, tense for the dew’s touch.

(from Full Moon and Little Frieda)

So few words and so beautifully done. While we’re not watching he plays with those hard sounds, “shrunk”, “bark”, “clank”, “bucket” and we’re there.

Here’s Larkin (who hated travel and said he wouldn’t mind going to China if he could be back for tea), homesick in Ireland and transporting us there with a smell, a sound, a sensation and a sight:

Their draughty streets, end-on hills, the faint
Archaic smell of dockland, like a stable,
The herring-hawker’s cry, dwindling…

Still closer to home, here’s York poet Antony Dunn giving us a scene in the small hours in Fossgate:

Peace on Earth


Christmas came in mid-October
at half past three in the morning:

a host of impatient angels
from the city council, swooping

tall storeys, window to window
on the golden wings of their hoists

in the unearthly orange light,
fanfaring their great glad tidings –

a chorus of drills and hammers –
notating their song with coloured bulbs.

House by house the sleepy townsfolk
rubbed the unbelief from their eyes,

the streets an advent calendar
of curtains in unlit bedrooms,

and by the time their focus had cleared
the angel-crews had upped and gone

but this remained: the fading song
from the next street down, then the next,

then nothing but the merest hum
from their phosphorescent wake

and one light already on the blink –
the first of the doubtful filaments

to fade and fail and put itself out.

From Bugs (Carcanet OxfordPoets 2009).
Reproduced by kind permission of the author and Carcanet Press

I love those council workmen seen as angels “on the golden wings of their hoists/in the unearthly orange light/ fanfaring their great tidings”. Like all really good poems this one has a great sense of place while there is more going on under the surface.

You can’t just write about place or your poem will be the equivalent of a show of holiday slides. There are a number of ways round this. Try writing about somewhere you know well but make it strange in some way, or revisit (either literally or in the imagination) a place which has significance for you.

Start in the present and find a way to take us back into the past. This could be a pub where you used to meet a lover, the house where you were born, a place you used to visit with someone who has since died, your old school, anywhere that brings back feelings and memories.

Go to the Castle Museum and find an object that takes you back to childhood, look through an old photo album, visit your granny, pick up that shell on the mantelpiece and just listen. Here is MacNeice in Soap Suds, a wonderful poem in which the speaker (and it doesn’t have to be you) is taken back to a childhood scene by a smell:

This brand of soap has the same smell as once in the big
house he visited when he was eight: the walls of the bathroom open
To reveal a lawn where a great yellow ball rolls back through a hoop
To rest at the head of a mallet held in the hands of a child.

How effortlessly he does it. Follow that.

Wouldn’t it be exciting to receive emails containing poems about places in York and North Yorkshire? Places that are special only to you – a particular park bench, a tree, an alcove in a pub, that table in the window at Betty’s, the Museum Gardens after dark – or maybe somewhere magnificent like the Minster.

Go there and find a little area you can write about – a gargoyle, perhaps, or the pane of a stained glass window. There are even some panes of restored glass at ground level at the moment.

This is one of my own poems about a day when I went there to think about a friend who was dying, only to find I’d picked the very day they were starting to take out the panes of the Great East Window:

A Candle for Lesley

I lit a candle today, one of those night-lights
it’s difficult to get a flame going on.
Felt a fool but had to do it anyway,
having gone in. January, and the Minster
emptied of chairs, the nave an echoing expanse
where school parties were shepherded
from Rose Window to roof bosses upside down
in a mirrored trolley. The whole of the East end
was a mass of scaffolding, workmen taking out
panes, shouting down to one another as if
they were fitting PVC. And me,
in the middle of it all, thinking of you.
Not praying exactly for how could I in that place?
You might as well try to be alone with God
in Newgate market, or the fruit and veg aisle
in Tesco’s which was where I was standing
when you rang. You said you were not ready
and I said I should hope not, and afterwards
stood with my phone, my list, my half full basket.
A man reached across for bananas
while his wife steered round me and sighed.

Carole Bromley
(from A Guided Tour of the Ice House, Smith/Doorstop 2011)

Tesco or York Minster. You choose. Click here to email your poems to YorkMix. I’ll look forward to reading your efforts and the most interesting responses will be published here.

Please send poems by Wednesday, November 28.