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Poetry and landscapes: gardens

Some poets are brilliant at drawing inspiration from their own lives. They can talk about their experiences and personal circumstances in a way that’s accessible to a wide range of readers. Sharon Olds is one of these poets. So too is Danez Smith and, at least some of the time, Mark Doty. I admire each of these very different poets, who write what’s sometimes called ‘confessional’ poetry. But not all poems have to be about facing your experiences or expressing your opinions. I’m just as keen on poets such as Ian Hamilton Finlay, who in the early 1960s was scathing about what he called ‘the now-fashionable poetry of anguish and self’. Although the poems I write draw on places I’ve been, and contain my ideas about things, I’m not really one for putting myself on the page – I’m not very interested in reading about me, and am happy to spare others this privilege. What I’m most interested in is writing about the world around us. So in a series of blogs I’m going to look briefly at four kinds of landscape – gardens, rivers, forests and islands – as a way of introducing what these mean to contemporary poets. I hope this will inspire you to consider how you might go about responding to places in your writing, and stimulate some future research and reading ideas. In the rest of this first blog I’ll discuss gardens.
In everyday conversation gardening is sometimes viewed as being the opposite of edgy. Writing about flowers might seem quaint, not least because there are so many bad Victorian floral poems. Roses are in the premier league of poetic clichés. You might disagree with these generalisations, but this is certainly how some reviewers responded to Louise Glück’s 1992 collection The Wild Iris, a book-long sequence of short lyric poems set entirely in a garden where flowers are given voices in which to speak to their gardener. In turn, the gardener walking through her cultivated landscape uses this setting as a way of trying to speak to God. And God, through the weather and the seasons, speaks back. This probably sounds corny, and that’s what I love about this book – Glück takes a huge risk with corniness, and gets away with it. The collection draws on all the mythology of gardens: Adam and Eve in Eden, walled gardens as symbols of a person’s purity, snowdrops and other bulbs being emblems of hope and regeneration. But it’s not a collection of myths. The garden becomes a 3-D version of the poet’s mind, giving voice to all her ambitions, anxieties, doubts, fears. She’s walking in the midst of them. In the end, it’s not just about flowers, but what it is to be human.
Other poets write very differently about gardens. David Harsent’s collection Night (2011) includes several poems about suburban gardens which are, well, decidedly creepy. Harsent thinks there’s something sinister about the urge to cut, prune, train, and kill things in the garden. His poems are a bit like short stories, in which characters face guilt, temptation and desire in a place where the cosy domestic arrangements of indoors give way to nettle patches, weeds, and holes in the garden fence. There’s something threatening in these poems, something which can’t be pruned or prettified. One piece, for instance, expresses the fear of seeing someone drowned in a water butt. If you like horror which verges on the surreal, Harsent’s intricately-crafted poems will make you think differently about walking down the garden path.
These are just two ways of writing about gardens. For more perspectives, have a look at Douglas Dunn’s Barbarians, in which the landscape gardens of stately homes are seen as symbols of power and wealth, and the high garden wall represents the ways in which people have been denied access to life-affirming culture. Or the aforementioned Finlay, whose avant-garde poems are actually situated in his garden, which is called Little Sparta: they’re carved on benches, inscribed on stone, and even painted on watering cans. Or Alice Oswald, whose Weeds and Wildflowers is a poetic field guide to the secret lives of the daisy, narcissus and the wonderfully-named bristly ox-tongue. Which leads me to a closing question: are there places which you think deserve more attention? Not just gardens, but multi-storey carparks, supermarkets, passing places, petrol stations… How might you write about these?
Image Credit: © Garry MacKenzie

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Posted by author: Garry MacKenzie

9 thoughts on “Poetry and landscapes: gardens

    • That’s definitely an unexploited niche! We were in Chester once – the old clock is apparently the ‘second most viewed in the UK’ or something, surely an impossible thing to measure. But absolutely everyone used it as a landmark, navigation tool and meeting point.

  • I am studying drawing and proposed to my tutor a project around my garden. She persuaded not to do it because of the difficulty of transcending the banalI guess the solution lies in trying to find a new way to look at something seen or spoken of so often.
    I am fascinated by the use folk make of a small local green space, originally a gravel pit. The joggers stretch and the dog walkers walk. Children learn to ride a bike, an elderly Chinese does tai chi at 7am and I once heard a cellist practicing at a picnic bench. Maybe another project is forming, in a range of media.

    • That’s an interesting point, Steve. I suppose the poets I mention all come at the garden from a distinctive angle, or else combine gardening with ideas from a different sphere (Finlay’s war imagery, for example, which you’ll see in the video link Nina posted below. He has bird tables in the shape of aircraft carriers, etc).
      All the examples you mention about your local garden are people moving across it or stopping briefly. I like the idea of a garden being composed of lines of movement: the people, birds, foxes, worms, sycamore seeds that pass through. That really challenges the idea of a garden being enclosed and rooted. I hope you enjoy thinking about a new project!

  • Perhaps we should all go back to Andrew Marvell’s The Garden. It’s about a garden but it’s also about lots of other things. There are always ways of going somewhere ordinary but avoiding the banal by letting your mind do the extraordinary bit. See Norman MacCaig’s poem: I Took my Mind a Walk.

    • Thanks for the video link Nina – I hadn’t seen this before. It’s a wonderful place, a beautiful garden in its own right, before you even get in to thinking about all the ideas going on in his poetry and art. Jessie Sheeler’s book about Little Sparta is a great introduction to it, and is full of excellent photographs.

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