Geography and Poetry and the Geographer as Poet
GeoPoetics: The Poetry of Place
October 10, 2014
I am pleased to participate in this gathering, bringing together two of my passions. When Alan asked if I’d be willing to talk about my experience as a geographer and a poet, I gladly accepted. And, the focus of this gathering—the poetry of place—resonates with me since one of my responsibilities at the Census Bureau is to define places so that we can provide meaningful data for communities. My colleagues and I spend a fair amount of time thinking about how people perceive and understand “place.”
The word “geography” has its roots in the Greek words for “earth” and “writing” or “description.” Geography, in very broad terms, concerns itself with the study of all there is on earth. It is a subject that does not limit itself to specific components of the physical landscape or portions of the human experience. The same can be said for poetry.
Geographers are observers. We observe people, the landscape, interactions between people and between various phenomena across space. We are interested in distributions and variations. Why is one place different from another? Why do different cultures utilize similar landscapes in different ways? How do people’s life courses play out across space and the places in their lives? We observe, question, describe, analyze, and try to explain.
My academic background is primarily in cultural and historical geography. I studied with British geographers, both in the U.S. and in Britain, who were taught to “read the landscape.” These professors of mine came out of a geographic tradition that saw landscapes as reflections of the personalities of cultures that inhabited them, and the tableau on which myriad historical and cultural possibilities were painted. Reading and describing the landscape, distributions of phenomena, and the connections between peoples and places across space and time was central to their approach to geography. They talked and wrote about the “personality” and “identity” of places and regions. Accurate, clear, well-written description was as important as a map. Indeed, maps were often adjuncts to the text. This may seem odd for those who associate geography with maps, but there are quite a few of us for whom a thousand well-crafted words are better than a picture.
To those of us trained in this tradition, the landscape is a palimpsest. For historical geographers, Faulkner’s words are apt: “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.” It’s all around us, if you know what to look for. The old wooden fence posts with strands of wire amid regrowth in a suburban neighborhood mark the edge of an old farm field. The small cemetery in my North Laurel neighborhood that is the last vestige of the rural Black community that was once there. And, the nearby Sterling Drive, which leads to office buildings located on land that was once the African-American poet Sterling Brown’s family farm, and the setting for his poem, “After Winter.” Each of these could become the launching point for a study of a place, how the landscape has changed, and what that change might mean to us. And, each could provide a prompt for a poem.
The discipline of geography has become more technical, more quantitative, and more scientific over the years. That’s good. But, in the process, I think we run the risk of losing the more artistic and literary side of the discipline—the aspect of geography that really connects with us at an emotional level, where we realize that everything cannot be reduced to pixels in an image, rasters and vectors in a geographic information system, or expressed as mere phenomena to be measured. This is where geography and poetry can connect in ways that help us express more deeply the nature of a particular place.
My first published poem was about Jessup, located south of Baltimore, straddling the Anne Arundel and Howard County boundary, and home to prisons, industrial parks, warehouses, a truck stop, cheap motels, and other uses as well as an interesting mix of people. It’s a microcosm of the kinds of changes that have occurred in urban and suburban landscapes over the past 50 years—businesses and industries that have moved out of the city, uses that are relegated to older, less desirable parts of the suburbs, and older communities that have been subsumed by more recent development. It stands in stark contrast to our usual perceptions of the suburbs. My original intention was to write an essay for an urban geography newsletter, but an objective and detached style of writing just didn’t seem to work when trying to describe Jessup. I wanted to present images of Jessup and, while conveying the geographic processes that have shaped the place, not get bogged down in facts and data. Nor did I necessarily want to present all facets of Jessup. I wanted to focus on the characteristics that come immediately to mind and that inform our perceptions of and reactions to the place. The poem apparently worked; it was published in You Are Here: the Journal of Creative Geography in 2006. (It was republished on the sociology/photojournal blog “Social Shutter” in November 2012; see http://socialshutter.blogspot.com/2012/11/jessup.html.)
While most of my poems are not as place-specific as “Jessup,” a sense of place informs many of them. One of my favorite locations to write is sitting on the pier at my in-laws’ cottage on the Potomac River in the Northern Neck of Virginia. For me, it’s hard to ignore the setting: the river, eagles and egrets flying past, watermen checking crabpots. My poem “Thoughts While Sitting Along the Lower Potomac” draws upon the personality of that landscape in comparison to the seat of political power upriver in Washington and uses the juxtaposition of these two places to also express thoughts rooted in Taoist philosophy.
We’re here today to explore the connection between geography and poetry. Two seemingly different disciplines, but each embodying our desire to observe, describe, depict, and express. When the two come together, they have the power to take us to a deeper understanding of ourselves and our connections to the world around us. This forum is rooted in the combination of geography and poetry to enrich our sense of place. What better place to do this than the Baltimore area, and who better than the four Baltimore poets with us today to help us make those connections.