“Milestones of Earth Residence”: On Poetry of Place

When I drive home from Hillsdale, I turn the radio to 93.9 as I pass Ann Arbor. It’s just close enough for the signal to come through, and for the rest of the way back to Detroit, I listen to the sound of my teenage years and my college summer commutes. Broadcasting from across the river, the Canadian station plays alt-rock hits until they wear out, relays traffic reports from both sides of the border, and gives the temperatures in Celsius. It feels like home, like the Midwestern “ope” and roads numbered by miles. It’s the kids trick-or-treating in parkas and the empty offices on the first day of deer season. It’s having a basic working knowledge of the auto industry even if you’re a humanities major and insisting that you can fix your car yourself or find a friend who knows how before you’d ever take it to the shop. It’s asphalt in the winter that looks like the surface of the moon, turned grey with white cracks under heaps of salt. There’s not a lot profound here, no deep spiritual truths. But these details form the fabric of our lives.

For all they seem trivial, these elements of the everyday form the aesthetics that become art. Even a cracked parking lot can lead to a poem, and poetry lets us speak creatively into our world. We learn to draw out the beauty and order in our particular circumstance. Modern literature especially calls us to craft art out of our own experience, the aesthetics of our lives.

Particularity is necessary because we live in an age where the general has been described and depicted time and time again until it has become threadbare. Speak of Love or Trust or Shame in abstract terms, and at least half a dozen poets have woven words more finely. This problem isn’t Gen Z or Millenial, 21st century or even Post-Modern. In his poem “East Coker,” published in 1940, T.S. Eliot writes of art,

and what there is to conquer

By strength and submission, has already been discovered

Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope

To emulate—but there is no competition—

There is only the fight to recover what has been lost

And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions

That seem unpropitious.

We cannot dream of overcoming our predecessors through our genius or skill. We cannot imitate them without making ourselves into cheap shadows. But we can seek what has been lost before. Poetry reminds us we can write of love and trust and shame in a way unique to our humanity and present moment.

Eliot does not attempt to craft a second Inferno in the likeness of Dante: rather, in “Little Gidding,” he brings a vision of the Inferno into a night of the Blitz, as London blazed under incendiary bombs and volunteers walked hellish streets. In doing so, the modern poet captures the tension, terror, and misery of his present moment. He brings the universal down into his particular so that he can build it up again, imbuing old beauty with new meaning. It doesn’t matter that Eliot isn’t Dante—he writes as only Eliot can. He reframes the question. It is not, “Who is the greater poet?” But rather, “What can I recover where I am now?”

Eliot is not the only modern poet to achieve transcendence through the personal; his particular style is not the only gateway to good modern art. A generation later, a dramatically different voice from a dramatically different place showed a unique gift for capturing the universal in his own striking particular.

Seamus Heaney reshaped the Irish poetic voice and spoke into the difficulties of a violent world. His verses appear in everything from pop songs (U2, “Peace on Earth”) to presidential addresses (Bill Clinton, “Remarks to the Citizens of Londonderry”). Yet he does not found his poetry on lofty idealism. Instead, he takes in the objects, the people, and the sounds that surround him, making sense of life through their reflection.

In perhaps his most famous poem, “Digging,” Seamus Heaney describes his father working in the garden while he writes. The poet builds up family history: he once dug for potatoes with his father, recalling “loving their cool hardness in our hands.” His grandfather, too, dug with a sense of strength and efficacy. Heaney admits, “But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.” The story does not need to come from a farm in Northern Ireland to be true. This experience is universal, not just for those who grew up on farms, but for any who wonder about family tradition and legacy. Still, the poem relies on more than a shared sentiment.

“Digging” becomes rich in the details that Heaney gives. He opens the poem, “Between my finger and my thumb/the squat pen rests; snug as a gun.” The image evokes the violence present in Northern Ireland at the time, taking the idea of pen mightier than sword and bringing it into a modern moment of terror. Particularity renders these lines more beautiful as well as darker. He writes, “My grandfather cut more turf in a day/ Than any other man on Toner’s bog.” The terms of his grandfather’s work are uniquely Irish; turf, also called peat, is decayed, compressed organic matter that once served as a primary source of fuel (and is still common). The very substance of turf is a natural history, and these bogs have sometimes revealed the remains of megafauna or evidence of prehistoric life, preserved in eerily pristine condition. Through linking this detail of his life and the local culture, Heaney has touched on the history that underlies his family history. As he concludes his poem with the resolution, “I’ll dig with it,” he creates a place for himself in the genealogy of local culture.

Seamus Heaney recorded much of his writing before his death, and his accent remakes the sonic landscape of his poem. In a Northern Irish accent, “u” calls for a deep, resonant note. “Thumb,” “snug,” and “gun” strike the listener like the reverberations of a bell just rung. That his poetry be read aloud is not necessary to make it rich. But, as with other local detail, each facet of his life experience adds a new layer of meaning.

The intensely personal grounds Heaney in his Northern Irish heritage. It adds a broader sense to the universal feeling he achieves. The poet understands himself as a part of a farming tradition, but he sees his heritage as more than that. Through digging, “going down and down,” as his grandfather had, into the ancient material of his country, he represents poetic craft as an unearthing of history. He, like Eliot, has found a place in “the fight to recover.”

Eliot thinks of recovering centuries of Europe lost to war and violence, bringing in the voices of the past to reckon with the present, to move into an impossible future. As a post-colonial voice, Heaney had greater hesitations with this heritage. He refused to have his work anthologized under the label “British,” protesting that to be Irish meant something different. Yet Heaney still participates in a tradition. He won’t absorb Dante and Chaucer in the way that Eliot did, but he writes as one who grew up in the English language, who translated Anglo-Saxon and Greek. These two voices are part of a rich linguistic heritage, but they are not its full extent.

Another beauty of modern literature lies in the sheer cultural variety that has entered the English language. In a post-colonial world, when great Anglophone writers come from Southeast Asia or Africa or the Caribbean, and we have learned to listen to their voices, this territory of poetic experience stretches to fill the globe.

Sujata Bhatt is a contemporary Indian writer who studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and currently lives in Germany. She draws on her personal experiences in her work, often playing with the links between language, place, and identity. In “Another Day in Iowa City,” she describes a conversation with a Russian man in the midst of falling snow.  As the man speaks, she notices his shirt is the same color blue as the nesting dolls her father brought home from a business trip to Russia. The Russian man talks about India, and she recalls

Memories of my mother angry

at the government

for sending all our bananas to Russia

Sturdy memories of Russian dolls and no bananas —

no bananas,

but Russian dolls, one inside the other endlessly —

It’s a story of juxtaposition: memories of India when it’s snowing in Iowa and she’s talking to a Russian man, details that are at once comically unusual and yet painfully intimate. There’s a food shortage in India that makes her mother angry, but the dolls that her father brought home seem to go on forever. She thinks of her father looking desperately for his coat and knows that she cannot share the story without reducing it to humor. This dissonance is the tragedy of distance; the further she is from India, the more comical and literary the story of the Indian man going to Russia sounds.

But, when the Russian man finally asks the speaker “’Don’t you want to visit my country?’ / with such questioning sadness — “, she feels compelled to go there without delay. This question is the moment of genuine human connection: the desire to be known and the longing for home that both foreigners share. The poet has built a foundation for the genuine and the real with details that don’t present any general idea or stereotype of India, but rather a specific memory of her childhood.

Bhatt doesn’t need to establish that homesickness is universal; the Odyssey has told us that. But through recognizing and responding with deep empathy to the Russian man, she brings the universality of the experience into her relationship with him. In both her memories of the past and her recounting of the present, she uses tangible details—snow, wooden dolls, bananas, the tone of a voice, and a blue shirt—to build her worlds, and from there she can speak into the human experience.

In a 1940 review of Yeats, Eliot praises the quality of impersonality as appearing in two forms: first, the poet who will cast off the personal in pursuit of higher things, and second, the stronger of the two,

the poet who, out of intense and personal experience, is able to express a general truth; retaining all the particularity of his experience, to make of it a general symbol.

We can best rise to the universal in art when we learn to read it through the particular. Modern literature, at its richest and fullest, invites in many strong voices, each with a different lens of particularity. These perspectives bring with them not different or inconsistent truths, but a kaleidoscope of experience and understanding as varied as the world itself.

Mary Kate Boyle is a senior studying French and English.