Poetry & Place: The impact of location on poetry
There’s no doubt that where you are can heavily influence what you write. Poets from all over the world are inspired by their surroundings, whether it be the wide open skies of the countryside or the hustle and bustle of a busy city. To illustrate just how influential location and geography are in a poet’s work, we’ve selected six impactful topographical poems to explore.
“Cooper’s Hill” by John Denham
Published in 1642 during the English Civil Wars, “Cooper’s Hill” is thought of as one of the founding texts of the topographical poetry style. With a strong ethical message and a rich description of the landscape, this poem influenced English poets for the next 100+ years.
“In Praise of Limestone” by W. H. Auden
Written in Italy in May 1948, “In Praise of Limestone” is one of W. H. Auden’s first poems from his time in Italy. Using the limestone landscape as an allegory for Mediterranean civilization, Auden extrapolates the literal and turns it into something postmodern. The limestone also seems to represent the body at times, allowing readers to infuse the text with their own interpretations.
“My Sad Self” by Allen Ginsberg
Separation and belonging are woven together against the backdrop of New York City in this iconic poem. Specific streets, neighborhoods, and buildings are named along with childhood friends and former lovers of Ginsberg. Although it’s highly specific, the poem never feels too granular. Each piece of the poem helps to build a picture of day-to-day life and day-to-day loneliness in the city.
“Sisyphus in the Suburbs” by Stephen Dunn
Published in the February 2003 issue of POETRY Magazine, “Sisyphus in the Suburbs” is a playful take on a familiar setting. In the poem, Sisyphus appears in a modern place and time, now surrounded by CDs, a housecat, and a quiet evening. Placing this mythical character in such a place highlights the mundanity and loneliness of the modern American suburb.
“Eagle Poem” by Joy Harjo
Former U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo is no stranger to the topographical poem. In fact, her signature project as U.S. Poet Laureate called Living Nations, Living Words: A Map of First Peoples Poetry focused on mapping the U.S. with Native Nations poets and poems. Landscape, culture, and oral tradition are central to her work, and “Eagle Poem” is an unforgettable illustration of that.
“Farm Sonnet” by Kitty Carpenter
Missouri poet Kitty Carpenter merges memory, family, and scenery in this moving poem. Originally published in Rattle in 2020, “Farm Sonnet” tells the story of a narrator who watches their mother toil on an aging farm. While the literal farm work is easy to spot in this poem, its relationship to a changing parent-child dynamic is what makes it an emotional read.
These six poems are just a preview of topographical poetry and what location can mean to a poet’s style and subject. Consider what other poems you know that might be inspired by the poet’s landscape or culture. How might your own location affect how you write or read and interpret poetry yourself?