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The place of poetry

By Francesca Brooks and Jess Cotton

In this post, research students Francesca Brooks and Jess Cotton reflect on their experience of the Being writers event at the Enitharmon Bookshop.

What kind of impact does academic research have on contemporary poetic practice? And how much research goes into the making of a poetry collection? London Arts and Humanities Partnership (LAHP) students joined poets Hilary Davies and Nancy Campbell to discuss the common ground that exists between creative and academic practice, and the place of poetry in public life. The evening resulted in an illuminating discussion that raised questions about the way academic research is conducted, and how it feeds back into contemporary culture.

Francesca Brooks on Hilary Davies

On the back of Hilary Davies’ third poetry collection, Imperium, the blurb-writer claims that, in her poetry, Hilary ‘draws from her historical sequences a rich, invigorating music.’ But how exactly can we take our research and make the sources sing? And can the poetic process of researching and writing teach academics anything about their own writing practice? In reading Hilary’s work, I discovered a richness of historical detail and cultural reference that spoke to a recent concern of my own research on the poet David Jones: what is the relationship between poetry and scholarship?

During the conversation I was interested in unpicking the threads that had woven together meticulously researched detail (like the recent archaeology reports that Hilary said informed one of her sequences, so that her poetry actually became more current than the current scholarship) with an ‘intuitive knowledge’ gathered over a lifetime of reading and experience. What is the relationship, for example, between the actually loved and known of Hilary’s Catholicism, and the research required to write a sequence of poems based on the liturgical hours, or the story of Heloise and Abelard?

In his ‘Preface’ to his long modernist poem The Anathemata, David Jones wonders ‘what may be owing’ to, among other things: ‘a small textbook on botany, a child’s picture book of prehistoric fauna, or a catalogue of English china or plate’; presenting us with a treasure-hoard of bound papers whose influence may be so obscure as to be untraceable. For Hilary Davies one such piece of treasured ephemera might be the Ladybird book The Story of Nelson, a book that she described as having ignited her childhood passion for Nelson, Napoleon, naval history and the frequent pilgrimages she made as a child from her Southwark home to Greenwich.

Such revelations made me recognise the complexity of this entangled relationship between research and our own personal experiences. In her poem ‘Faultlines’ Hilary writes: ‘the river banks/ we’ve walked ravel backwards in the night/ like lost highways.’ How much of ourselves ends up in our research? Perhaps like the lost highways of ‘Faultlines’ our readings are steps that can never be completely retraced; this doesn’t mean that we never made the journey.

Jessica Cotton on Nancy Campbell

Nancy Campbell’s first collection, Disko Bay, is preoccupied with shorelines and coastal communities, with the ocean and the land and the edges of things and, more pressingly, with the shifting shape of the Arctic under the insistent pressure of global warming. Nancy herself was born and raised in Northumberland, and her understanding of the way borders and liminal spaces affect the way people inhabit those landscapes informs this collection. It is her representation of the precariousness of these communities’ strategies of survival that makes Disko Bay such a dazzling and timely collection.

Many of Nancy’s poems are structured as a conversation or as a carefully considered poetic – or scientific – dialogue, such as the poem ‘The Debate’ which opens with the question, ‘Where does the Arctic end?’ and closes, ‘Here, where all lines of longitude begin /drift ice obscures the Arctic’s origin.’ In Greenlandic, the word for a climatic condition is also the world for a human emotion and in Disko Bay, Nancy adeptly manages to make us feel and respond in a new way to these environmental pressures. If her work creates the kind of effect that allows us to assimilate hard scientific facts, Nancy is also eager to point out her debt to the work of scientists and linguists in her research so that her poetry becomes the occasion for a meeting point between different languages.

Nancy and I discussed the American poets James Schuyler and John Ashbery, whose pantoums provided inspiration for several poems in the book. Our conversation turned around the question of how – or indeed – whether it is right to conduct research on poets that are either resistant to, or are ill-served by, the demands of academic study. How might we reformulate critical language to better explicate their work? Should academic practice assume more creative forms?

The evening rounded off with a discussion about the way poetry can pose, challenge and explore the big questions (environmental, spiritual and emotional). How does poetry provide us with a different, more emotional, language to register historical, climatic and political change – or show us how those disciplines are interrelated? Can poetry indeed make anything happen? One of the most fruitful discussion points was the idea of poetry as a form of translation and, therefore, the politics of translation as applied to poetry – an awareness of how language is historically shaped and how it continues to shape our perceptions and inform the parameters of culture.

Francesca Brooks is a PhD candidate at King’s College London, funded by the (Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) via the London Arts & Humanities Doctoral Training Partnership. Her research explores the influence of Old English literature, language and culture, on the twentieth-century poet and artist David Jones. She is also the chief editor of a literary journal for research students, The Still Point.

Jess Cotton is a PhD candidate at University College London, funded by the AHRC via the London Arts & Humanities Doctoral Training Partnership. Her work considers the representation of the child in postwar American poetry.

Nancy Campbell is an artist and writer whose first poetry collection, Disko Bay, was published this autumn.

Hilary Davies has three collections of poetry published with Enitharmon: The Shanghai Owner of the Bonsai Shop, In the Valley of this Restless Mind, and Imperium. A fourth collection, Exile and the Kingdom, is forthcoming.