How Place Fosters Art
In a lovely piece at the Poetry Foundation, “Prioritizing Place,” Sandra Beasley ponders the rootedness (or roaming) of various poets. Does it help poets’ art to remain in one place? She writes:
Region need not monopolize your motifs. To paraphrase Molly Peacock when she talks about received forms, regionalism is not a box to cram your poems into; regionalism provides the bones that let the skeleton dance. Some geographic affiliations are involuntary, tied to childhood or marriage years. The poet may learn to love the unbeautiful, working through distaste toward deeper understanding of a community.
Yet at the same time, Beasley’s piece looks at region as the clay, and poet as the model. She quotes Richard Hugo, a poet of the Pacific Northwest, who once told a pupil, “Everybody’s a regional poet to some extent, but the region from which you write is merely the lens. The real region is you.”
Contrast this with the attitude of poet Wendell Berry, whose work seems to suggest that place is the shaper, and we are its clay. His works all center in an around a singly community which, in its tangled and sundry doings, created a rhythm of human relationship. Driving roots into community, living amongst others with constancy, is something different than living within region as mere lens.
Berry’s poetic living requires love: love for land, and for people. Without this love, it is very easy to escape into other territory—whether it be physical roaming, or an inner withdrawal. There is nothing to suggest in Beasley’s piece that place has a sort of authoritative cadence or order by which its inhabitants live. She writes of towns that have “been made great largely by its fixed stars, their immediate gaze and winking light.”
This is where Phillip Jensen’s excellent insights at Cardus come in. This farmer writes of the “liturgy” inherent in creation, the rhythm and song embedded within the very fabric of the universe. By farming and building a relationship with the land, he writes, he has found himself more fully “in tune” with this song: “This liturgy of creation has been sung since the beginning but is today in need of formal recognition and articulation because our lives have become so distant from its song.”
The poet should always be looking for the rhythm, the cadence undergirding common life. This, Jensen suggests, is something that can be found—not exclusively, but with greater depth—in and about creation. His suggestions in the article (to explore wilderness, work the land, wonder in creation, and worship through liturgy) should, in this sense, be useful to any writer or poet.
One thinks of King David, the famous “warrior poet” whose poetry often revolved around creation and its awe-inspiring beauty—“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” he wrote in Psalm 8:2-4.
The city, notes Jensen, has beauties and rhythms of its own. However, he adds a worthy note of caution to the urban dweller: “…The separation that city life, when unbalanced, can engender between our lives and creation, coupled with an insidious utilitarianism, means that we rarely hear the song and when we do we think the song is about us.”
This seems to be the pitfall of Beasley’s piece: she has heard the song, or at least a few notes of it, but seems to think this song is stemming from listeners—when in fact, they are merely channeling its presence.