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About Poetry of Place

Against the current tide of globalization, we posit its opposite, "localization." As Wendell Berry points out in The Unsettling of America, our culture and our literature valorize moving on, lighting out for the territory ahead of the rest, as opposed to staying in one place and knowing it well. However, our identity is tied to place: We don't know who we are unless we know where we are. "In this hemisphere," writes Scott Russell Sanders in Staying Put, "many of the worst abuses—of land, forests, animals, and communities—have been carried out by 'people who root themselves in ideas rather than places.'"

Paul Shepard thinks that the lack or denial of our connection to the plants and animals in a given place makes us crazy. Rootless, detached people are dangerous. On the other hand, sanity happens when people understand that where they are is who they are. 

Among contemporary poets, Mary Oliver has been one of the most articulate in stressing the importance for both poets and readers of poetry to connect poetry to the natural world. "Poetry was born in the relationship between men of earth and the earth itself," she says. "Poetry is a product of our history, and our history is inseparable from the natural world."

A poetry of place is a poetry which values locales, which sees and lets the reader experience what makes a place unique among places. Much contemporary poetry focuses on psychological states, feelings, intellectual concepts, or language play totally devoid of reference to the real, lived, sensually experienced and infinitely varied physical world. Poetry of place may focus on such interior subjects, but it lets us experience them more profoundly and more authentically because they’re rooted in a specific time and place.

In its fullest sense, the term "place" in poetry includes not only the geographical location and natural environment, but the history of human presence and before. "Place" includes the people living there now, and, as in all poetry, the voice of the speaker of the poem. As Leslie Marmon Silko says, "Viewers are as much a part of the landscape as the boulders they stand on." The speaker may be passing through, or better yet, a longtime resident of a place whose utterance might be instantly recognizable to other residents, while simultaneously offering insight to strangers resident elsewhere. 

The representation of nonhuman realities may be the greatest challenge of all. The language of myth, especially in the shape-shifting Paleolithic imagination, may be the closest we have come to a verbal representation of animals and landscape. In the Paleolithic world, as described by Calvin Martin, the human relation to nature is direct, intimate, physical, and spiritual in an animistic sense. Beyond myth, the verbal means remaining to us have included images, metaphors, and the pathetic fallacy.  We believe  some new mode must be found, based in the concrete image, some equivalent to the revival of myth in contemporary terms, a transformation of history. Renewing the human relation to nature depends upon poets taking up this challenge.

We hope to encounter again a poetry that finds a pure delight in being alive in the here and now. Such delight is not exclusive to poetry directly expressing exuberance or ecstasy, but occurs whenever the poet reflects the external world in concrete detail, lovingly observed, even in darker moods. And surely, our strong emotions generated by "political poems" often stem from feelings of delight cut short by the hubris and shortsightedness of those who would dispose of nature itself—source of our common meaning and sustenance—for power or profit. In positive terms, we recognize through the resonance of the poem the texture of our own relation to some other place, a spiritual dimension. We hope that Windfall has been a source of such sustenance.

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