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Dear Memory...

By Dr Karin Koehler and Dr Catherine Charlwood

In celebration of National Poetry Day, Dr Karin Koehler and Dr Catherine Charlwood tell us about their Being Human 2019 event 'Dear Memory...' which, inspired by the poetry of Thomas Hardy, explores how writing and poetry can mediate and transform our perceptions of the places that loom large in our imaginations and cultural memories.

In Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘After a Romantic Day’ a man travels through a distinctly unromantic landscape with ‘no scope for view’. But this landscape, with its ‘blank lack of any charm’, is transformed for the man by the ‘frail light shed by a slim young moon’ and the ‘visions of his mind’. Emotions, associations, and memories imbue ‘The bald steep cutting, rigid, rough’ with ‘poetry of place’. This concept, ‘poetry of place’, is at the heart of ‘Dear Memory…’, a free workshop being held in Bangor, Gwynedd, as part of Being Human festival 2019. Combining literary, creative, and scientific approaches, we will think about the relationship between place and memory and explore how writing about, or to, a place might change the way we understand ourselves, our relationships with others, and our sense of historic and environmental belonging.

Exploring place and memory

The inspiration for this workshop comes from another poem by Hardy, ‘Alike and Unalike (Great Orme’s Head)’. Hardy is usually associated with his writing about Wessex, a ‘partly real, partly dream’ country based on the South West of England. His poetry is particularly sensitive to how particular places record memories (our own, those of others, and those which transcend the human individual); how places might be transformed by the memories and associations we weave around them; and how the physical transformation or erasure of places might affect our memories and, therefore, our personal and communal identities. This last concern is increasingly pertinent to the 21st century, as climate emergency threatens to turn some of the world’s best-loved and most vitally important landscapes into memories. Most famously, perhaps, memories of place permeate Hardy’s ‘Poems of 1912-13’ in which the speaker revisits the West Country locations associated with memories of a lost loved one. In ‘At Castle Boterel’, the speaker takes comfort in the idea that the ‘Primaeval rocks’ ‘record in colour and cast […] that we two passed,’ becoming a physical archive of a ‘transitory’ human memory.

Journeys and memories

‘Alike and Unalike’ is another poem about a shared journey, but it takes readers to a place less readily associated with Hardy, Great Orme or Y Gogarth in Llandudno. It also offers a more complicated account of the relationship between memory and place: We watched the selfsame scene on that long drive, Saw the magnificent purples, as one eye, Of those near mountains; saw the storm arrive; Laid up the sight in memory, you and I, As if for joint recallings by and by. But our eye-records, like in hue and line, Had superimposed on them, that very day, Gravings on your side deep, but slight on mine! — Tending to sever us thenceforth alway; Mine commonplace; yours tragic, gruesome, gray. What makes this less well-known poem fascinating is its acknowledgement of the fact that two people may watch ‘the selfsame scene’, but remember it in radically different ways. The poem reminds us of what should, perhaps, be evident all along: that any landscape, any place, is a physical repository of contradictory memories and, accordingly, a potential site of connection as well as conflict.

Favourite poems and poetry of place

Our Being Human festival event is inspired by Hardy’s poetry, but our focus lies on the landscapes and places of North Wales and the way in which they record, shape, and are in turn shaped by our memories. We will take poems as a starting point for our discussions and reflections about the relationship between place and memory, providing sample poems in English and Welsh and invite participants to share their own favourite ‘poetry of place.’ We will also think about the role poetry might play in giving enduring life to places that seem increasingly under threat from, or have already been erased by, industrial processes, infrastructural developments and, above all, climate crisis. These concerns have acute resonance in Wales, where the words ‘Cofiwch Dryweryn’ (‘Remember Tryweryn’) – displayed on walls, flags, t-shirts, and car stickers – serve as reminders of the flooding of Tryweryn valley in 1965. As a reservoir supplying water for Liverpool was created, Welsh villages like Capel Celyn were permanently destroyed and communities displaced. Throughout the workshop, we will think through and respond to questions about our memories of place and document these expressions verbally or visually on a series of postcards. Together, we will explore how writing – our own and that of others – can mediate and transform our perceptions of the places that loom large in our imaginations and cultural memories. The workshop is informed by Dr Catherine Charlwood’s interdisciplinary research on the links between memory and poetry, combining literary analysis and insights from cognitive psychology, and Dr Karin Koehler’s work exploring the effects of infrastructural and technological change on communal and personal identity as well as the ways in which material, written records mediate relationships between people and places. Come and discover poetry’s long history of remembering, even preserving, place – and try your hand at writing place memories of your own!

Dear Memory… took place in Powis Hall, Bangor University on Thursday 14 November 2019.