March 28, 2012

The Poetry of Place: Northern Minnesota

I search for poetry that rises from the roots, flows like the winding St Louis River to Lake Superior, and surges inside, wave against wave. I search for moments of the past that cast their light upon the hands. It is in the body, visceral and geologic, in the stones broken for mineral deposits, in the cities on ice. It is in the scent of wintergreen and yarrow. I search for the knock and echo of the pileated woodpecker, the call of the bittern and the Canadian goose. In the hidden things, the just whelped wolf pups playing amid the tangle of shadow and light, the endless roads taken by the wild and civilized or the wind, in the encounters and surprises, in breath and word, I find my music.

Writing about place offers poets the opportunity to explore stories that are layered and deep. There is a wisdom in the landscape and secrets spoken without our knowing. Writing that begins or ends with the land is a way to ground ourselves, hold to the elemental and enduring, and access the part of history or heritage right before us. "The Blessing" by James Wright begins:

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.

In another of his poems, James Wright writes about the curious light inside the river, and the curious light held within the hair of a woman that he admires. The secret of light has passed through each of our bodies. Within memory, in a scent, a sound, a touch it comes back to life inside of us. It is in dreams. It is in our art. Of James Wright's poem, "The Secret of Light," James Galvin writes: "So the poet of place situates himself in place in order to lose himself in it. Poetry of place is actually a poetry of displacement and self-annihilation. The poet replaces self with situation, turning himself, as it were, inside out, so that the center of "knowing who you are" becomes the circumference of uncertainty."

Another interesting connection exists between "The Secret of Light" and the work of another poet, Edward Thomas, of whom James Wright said: [Thomas] was "one of the secret spirits who help keep us alive." and "I would rather have written that poem than go to heaven." Many of the James Wright's poems, including The Blessing, The Secret of Light, and others seem to resonate with Thomas' work, titled "Like the Touch of Rain." Edward Thomas' poem has a spare and beautiful form, and Wright's is a rangy prose poem that seems to also hold the touch Thomas' poem inside of it. All poets have connections like this, poets who keep them alive, whose work they absolutely love, and those poems serve as a "secret light."

Barry Lopez writes about place in his essay, "Landscape and Narrative" in his book Crossing Open Ground. "One learns a landscape finally not by knowing the name and identity of everything in it, but by perceiving the relationships in it--like that between the sparrow and the twig." It is these relationships and patterns that are important. He suggests the exterior landscape is projected inside us, and it becomes a second, interior landscape. Landscape is inextricably bound with story. The stories that we tell, the stories that also detail the relationships and patterns of the land like the stories of the Navajo, are powerful.

To inhabit a place is to give oneself that the land owns us. We are momentary, ephemeral, migrating across regions that are not ever completely known and that are lonely and sometimes even brutal. 

Richard Hugo wrote an interesting book, The Triggering Town. It was his practice to start writing about a town. He learned that it triggered another subject that was the "real subject" and then, he went on from there. Here is an excerpt from the introduction to his essay:

"Once a triggering subject is located as a base from which to write, Hugo argues that a poet should turn his attention to the play and music of the language, allowing a private language—a personal connection, and perhaps frequent return, to certain words, and the richness of the poet’s complex associations with those words—to drive the poem forward. Notes Hugo, “Your triggering subjects are those that ignite your need for words. When you are honest to your feel­ings, that triggering town chooses you. Your words used your way will generate your meanings. Your obsessions lead you to your vocabulary. Your way of writing locates, even creates, your inner life. The relation of you to your language gains power. The relation of you to the triggering subject weakens.”

If language is a boat, then it is a good idea to launch from a particular landing, terra firma.
Donald Hall said, “For some poets place is golden, and the golden place like the golden age is usually unattainable—either because it is in the historical past or because it is in the biographical past of the poet, or both. (Such doubling is a poetic habit.) The poem wishes to attain—perhaps does attain, for a moment—a rare condition of blessedness, which the place sponsors.”The constant changing world owns us. The land holds us. We tie ourselves in many ways -- to it and to others -- but our claims all temporary because we can not help but change.

A robin arrives, sways upon the branch by the window, staring at its reflection. This robin has a territory to defend. It sees itself, but thinks it is another and flies against the glass over and over, to drive away the image. We walk through our place, but all the while we walk in the territories of the wild. Maxine Kumin wrote, "In a poem one can use the sense of place as an anchor for larger concerns, as a link between narrow details and global realities. Location is where we start from." Place is a way to "ground" the poem.

The Poetry of Place: James Wright "The Secret of Light"
essay by James Galvin

For an example of Hugo's poems, see
and his essay: 

see Edward Thomas, "Like the Touch of Rain" at

James Wright, “A Blessing” from Above the River: The Complete Poems and Selected Prose. Copyright 1990 by James Wright.

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