Poetry as cartography

A couple of days ago I downloaded from the AAAAARG site a book pointing out that a movie is a kind of map and that film directors can be seen as cartographers. I probably won’t read the book because the first few pages were a bit glib for my taste but the analogy stuck with me. I’ve also been having discussions with a number of people about the arduity project which is essentially an attempt to liberate ‘difficult’ poetry from the academy. During these conversations it has been pointed out to me that we may read poetry in order to understand ourselves. As an ex-social worker, this view seems a bit too therapeutic for me but it is one that is fairly commonly held.

Let’s start with the basics, we use maps to plan routes, to get from point A to point B. We also use maps to give us some context, whether this is the recent floods or (as the FT did this morning) the proposed route of the new train line from London to Birmingham. My son is planning to work in Tiblisi next year and I’ve looked at a few maps to try and work out what this might be like for him.

We need to be taught how to read a map, we need to be aware that there are different kinds of maps for different functions and that different cultures have had different ways of putting maps together. Maps have also been drawn up as an expression of power over the territory that they depict. A further thought, maps can be incredibly beautiful objects.

Cartographers make maps and poets make poems. Do poems tell us where we are are do they enable us to see ourselves more clearly? Or are poems simply mimetic? I’ll readily accept that the poems that mean the most to me have a geographic aspect, from the Faerie Queen and Paradise Lost through to Maximus, The Moose and Stress Position all have a special resonance for me because the poets concerned have taken the time to provide a spatial context for what they are trying to say.

I’ve also started to read Donald Davidson this week and he talks about how literature ‘works’. He uses the term ‘triangulation’ which (if I’ve got this right) consists of an object (whether this is a concept or a thing or a group of things) being viewed and/or experienced by both the writer and the reader and the writer has prepared a text and the reader is looking at the object and comparing it with the text.

Is this how it is? Keston Sutherland may not give me a map of downtown Baghdad but he certainly gives me an impression of the murderous effects of Western imperialism, I may not agree with him but there’s no doubting the brilliance of  his ‘map’.

I don’t share Geoffrey Hill’s faith but he does give me a clear idea of what it is to be a Christian and the struggle that this involves.

Poetry isn’t prose, a poem can and should do more than a story. To extend the analogy, perhaps a poem is a special kind of map using ‘radical economy and truthfulness’ (Prynne) to allow us to measure ourselves against both the thing described and the poet. The Moose can be read  as a straightforward description of a bus ride but Bishop writes with such clarity that most of human existence is on that bus and she gives us the map.

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