Thursday, October 19, 2006

Just reeling off their names is ever so comfy

I spent last Saturday in Nottingham at a conference on place names organised by the Poetry Society and the English Place Names Society. I shan’t discuss the papers in detail — the day as a whole was interesting and informative, although inevitably perhaps none of the speakers managed to break through and make their discipline fully available to the other. Still, the glimpse (which is all you could really ask) of someone else’s territory was fascinating and reminded me how even a ‘poetry person’ reading a poem can miss a large amount of suggestion and detail. You can’t specialise in everything.

One point which came up but was not pursued was the problem for a poet of naming places that are numinous for her but not for others. It’s a paradigm of the problem of private feeling that afflicts all poets – places, things, and words may have particular associations for the writer which others don’t share. Of course the poet’s task in that case is to make other words reproduce the response, or, more realistically perhaps, to conjoin words and ideas to produce some worthwhile effect in her readers. In that case the naming of places in a poem must play a role other than the conjuring of particular associations – although it shouldn’t be beyond a reader to see where a place-name is being used to refer to a particular sort of place and imagine accordingly. Even a poet has to come from, and live, somewhere.

I’m reminded obliquely of Auden’s comment that a poet should be like a valley cheese: 'local, but prized everywhere'. And also of his ‘Lakes’ Bucolic, where he recites the names of sorts of lake: ‘Moraine, pot, oxbow, glint, sink, crater, piedmont, dimple...?/ Just reeling off their names is ever so comfy.’ I rather like Auden’s fey, or coy, late manner. While it shows off its dilettantism, it’s pleasingly discreet about its learning and enthusiasms — here Auden’s liking for geography is made both un-nerdy and infectious. These lines command my assent before I’ve stopped to consider the incongruity of being comforted by scientific terminology. This points to one way to make place-names work in poems, and like all recipes for success in poetry it rests on something more complicated and elusive than analysing the associations of particular words: having Auden’s beguiling touch.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You have a blog! Cool. Interesting, that place name conundrum. On the other end of it, for some reason I think of Kipling. Probably un-PC to say it, but reading Kipling made lots of place names in India "numinous" for me. Never been there, though. Cheers, Nic

10:49 AM  
Blogger Tony Williams said...

Hi Nic
My first comment! Thanks.
the Kipling thing is interesting - an example no doubt of associations of the name veering from the reality; but I wonder if anyone's associations of anywhere are ever realy 'true' in the sense of an inviolate authenticity. And, for all the problems of empire, race, etc, Kipling is a cracking writer. The place names become numinous because he writes so well.

10:55 AM  

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