When I was growing up in the Victorian coastal town of Warrnambool (Where Fletcher Jones Trousers Come From!) my father had a man to help him in our very large, almost rural, garden. Mr Akers had come to Australia from Coventry after the Second World War. Ruby, his wife, was a local girl and during her long life, she never ventured beyond about ten miles from where she was born.
Ruby’s was an extreme example of attachment to place. I don’t know whether she was xenophobic – most likely she was. But it’s by no means unusual for someone, including writers, to form close, intimate attachments to one or two particular places and to explore their knowledge of them in great detail. The poet John Shaw Neilson was one such, as is the novelist Gerald Murnane. James Joyce’s Ulysses is probably the most famous example of a microscopic exploration of a single city, Dublin, in English.
On the other hand, I’ve lived in numerous places and written about many of them. Currently, I spend about four or five months each year in Germany, and I was rather surprised to discover how many poems in my newest book are either set there or at least were written there. That doesn’t mean that I consciously set out to write about Germany. Far from it. I don’t write what we used to call postcard poems. But wherever I am that place seems to creep into my imagination when I’m writing, almost like music from another room, and influence what is being written.
But of course, some places seem to demand more attention than that. I have a secret patch of wetland on the Swan River that gave rise to a suite of poems called ‘Swamp Poems.’ The water there is so shallow that one can only get in, as I did, by kayak; and I don’t tell anyone where it is so that its magnificent bird life and natural exuberance won’t be disturbed. In the many years, I used to venture into it – though never during the breeding season – I never saw another human there. ‘Swamp Poems’ are about all kinds of things, and they’re not meant to be a portrait of that particular spot. But I hope they are a way of bringing that secret spot alive into the minds of readers. Certainly, as I wrote the poems, it took on a new life, an added life, within my own awareness of it.
Also, while I was living in Perth, I wrote a book-length poem about the coastline that stretches from Perth back, geographically and through time, to my boyhood coastline at Warrnambool. Sandstone was my way of connecting my early life with where I was when I wrote it, and the coast was my connecting thread. The poem isn’t really about the coast at all, although it figures prominently. But there wouldn’t have been any poem if it hadn’t been for the coast.
Someone once wrote about Wordsworth that although he is known as a poet of the landscape, his interest in landscape was subsidiary to other interests. I’m very interested in landscape too, rural or even urban. (I have a whole book-length poem called Rome.) But even for John Kinsella, who has written some of the best poetry about nature in our time, landscape is not simply nature. Landscape is that subtle and at times magical interrelation of the human with nature, of the mind with the natural world that both sustains it and challenges it. And poetry of landscape is a poetry of that interrelation; it simply can’t be otherwise. That, I hope, is what my ‘Swamp Poems’ are.
So my poem called Rome is also only partly about the city. It is just as much a poem about the mind, of which the modern city with its ancient underground dimensions is an image. And it’s also a poem about the past, and about memory, and what I’ve remembered and even forgotten. Place, for me, is something that suggests, releases, stimulates thoughts and emotions, and also anchors them. It is not an end in itself, but one of many means to the writing of poetry.