Photo of Bracknell by David Howard (creative commons)
The number of people who will have actually heard a shipping forecast before they first read Duffy’s ‘Prayer’ or Heaney’s ‘Shipping Forecast’ grows smaller.
Radio player and music streaming reduce the opportunities for slippage into unplanned programming and, to some ears, as the forecast becomes more associated with poetry than with late-night radio or the sea, it grows quaint. Yet the idea of a list of place names ripe with association is one I recognize. I have my own place-list scored into my brain by a thousand repetitions. It doesn’t have the chewy drama of the shipping forecast but, in its own understated way, it is full resonance for me. It’s the list chanted over the station tannoy in town where I grew up: Martin’s Heron, Bracknell, Wokingham, Winnersh, Winnersh Triangle, Earley and Reading.
I come from one of a hundred of similar places in the South East, commuter suburbs with the population of towns and the amenities of villages. It can feel almost embarrassing to admit to, like you’re not from anywhere that’s really a place, more a storage unit for other approved locations. So when I read poems that reveal or celebrate similar areas, I feel the poet is giving me a wink of recognition and it is exhilarating.
That is how I felt when I first read Glyn Maxwell’s ‘Home Town Mystery Cycle’. It’s a poem about a town’s annual celebration, in this case the summer performance of mystery plays, but the tone and details are strongly reminiscent of the ropey floats in my own home town ‘carnival’.
but I know the place well as the front of my hand
so I watch it in zigzag and still understand.
The dawn’s coming up over Handside Green
As Hell’s being harrowed by Christ in sunscreen,
Maxwell’s speaker describes the day with liveliness, gentle mockery and affection, much of it communicated in the poem’s rollicking rhythm, as he zig-zags down his own parade of place-names, ‘Applecroft Road’, Barleycroft lane’, ‘Old Drive’, ‘Handside Green’, ‘the corner of Manicotts’, ‘the scout hut on Gussens’, ‘Attimore Street’ and ‘Mandeville Rise’. ‘Home Town Mystery Cycle’ is, of course, about other things too (notably the speaker’s relationship with Christianity as cultural heritage rather than practiced religion) but it ends with an almost defiant, ‘but you asked where I come from and that’s where it is.’ A defense of the town as much as religious inheritance.
This spring, I am going to be teaching a new online course for the Poetry School, A Life on the Edge: Writing the Hinterlands and Homelands. I am looking forward to exploring poems inspired by the love/hate feelings we have for the not-quite centre places in which we often live. We will be balancing on the domestic volcano’s edge with Kay Ryan, and reading Fiona Dowling as she favourably compares her struggles at home with the more flashy adventurers ‘hanging from a rope about to die’. We will be honing our observation skills to find our own new poems in the woodwork of where we live and to sketch the people we meet.
Whether you find the suburbs and commuterlands to be places of quiet comfort, or they fill you with an explosive rage to escape, we want to hear your poems about the mantra of places that is inescapably part of you.