The room I entered was a dream of this room.
Discussions of a sense of place in poetry often refer to particular places as inspirations for poems. In the Romantic tradition, poets speak about needing or wanting to return to certain places, often childhood places, as touchstones. Some refer to paintings or photographs of places as inspirations, as if the details in them are so vivid as to seem to re-place a “real” place. While I sometimes recognize that I have set a poem in a place that is quite familiar to me, seldom has a place inspired my poems. Most often I can recall the inspiration for a poem in a sense of a rhythm, in music I’ve been listening to recently (mostly jazz) or to words strung together in conversation in ways that intrigue me for quirky reasons. The music might be connected to a place in memory, and so might the conversation, although the latter might have been overheard in an airport or even read in a book. Mostly I just feel lucky to have gotten my poems at all.
In those discussions of place by poets, we often encounter an emphasis on feelings associated with a place, places we have lived in, places we have traveled to. I’m not much of a traveler, and I’m not much of a photographer, and so it would seem I don’t have much in the way of that kind of experience or memory to draw from. I may be more negatively capable of imagining a place, though, imagining myself away from where I live, which is in what some might call a sleepy little Southern town; in fact it is in the state of Missouri, where I’ve lived and worked throughout my professional life, a state, like any, where there is actually a lot to see and do.
These days I wonder about our collective senses of place in the new technological age, which is hardly new in 2014. A former dean at the college where I teach once exclaimed about a new online database in art history, “This is great! We’ll never have to take our students to an art museum again!” I’m preparing to teach a course with some students in the same room I’m in and others about 2,000 miles away and in the room via Skype. A shared sense of place in literature helps to create a reading community, and people tell me that Skype encounters can create a community too. How we define place and space has always been changing. Maybe writing about place, creating a sense of place, the way we keep getting our bearings, gathering our wits about us as we hustle and hurtle forward, texting and tweeting, hanging on.
Although I said I’m not much of a photographer, I find myself very drawn to photography, and particularly to writers who were also photographers, such as Eudora Welty. Most of her work in photography was done early in her career and as a way of making a living, in chronicling the lives of people in her state, Mississippi, during the Depression for the Works Progress Administration. I probably read too many of Welty’s stories before I acquired the books of her photographs, but to me at least some of her photographs could be said strongly to foreground her stories. Wright Morris comes to mind in this way, and so does Allen Ginsberg. Writing teachers like to assign students to write about a photograph. It helps the students to focus on images and the emotional and intellectual power invested in them, and it helps them to understand the shared sense of place we experience in reading poems and stories.
Like Welty, her contemporary Walker Evans, who collaborated with James Agee in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, was drawn to ordinary people under stress in extraordinary times. I came across Evans’ book of photographs Havana 1933 at a yard sale and couldn’t believe my good fortune. I was thinking then about the influence of Cuban music and musicians on jazz and American musicians, such as Dizzy Gillespie and Cal Tjader, particularly in the middle years of the last century. I can’t say that a poem I wrote, “Woman Children,” which is the title of one of Evans’ photographs, was based on a sense of Latin or jazz rhythms. Rather I think it was based on a curiosity about how life in Cuba shaped its musical culture and about how I could imagine that connection and how it reached out to American musicians (and dancers). If music is the universal language, blues is an integral part of its vocabulary, and I hear blues in Evans’ “Woman and Children.”
Closer to home, I have wondered why I haven’t written more poems about the town I live in. People in Missouri often call it “misery,” having mostly to do with summer heat and humidity and backward politics. Achilles was a janitor for many years at the college where I teach, but he was quite different from the other janitors. He was huge, mostly silent, and smart, and he died alone. Some people in Fulton felt we owed Achilles something more at the end of his life. You could say that most people had little if any interest in who he was, although he was a town “character,” a definite part of the place, and when he died, he was missed. This poem uses this place as part of who Achilles was.
Photo By: Jonathan