Flow

March 3, 2014 § 5 Comments

150 years ago this month, the collapse of the newly completed Dale Dyke embankment in the Loxley Valley above Sheffield led to what remains the most devastating event of its kind in the UK.  As part of local commemorations I’ll be talking about the Sheffield Flood and reading a few poems this coming Thursday at Weston Park Museum; and next week, I’ll be discussing the making of this poetry with a student group.  All of which has made me consider how I responded to the subject in writing what was to become my first pamphlet, Some Histories of the Sheffield Flood 1864 – and how my approaches to writing, and any common themes, have developed – or been sustained – in my work since then.

One of the persistent themes has been landscape: and in particular, human occupation in, movement through, absence from, a place.  From ‘Ozymandias’ to Planet of the Apes to the cairn of unopened food cans left by the doomed expedition of the Erebus, I have always been fascinated by remains, vestiges.  So, ten years ago, I took a group of students to places in Sheffield where older inhabitations jutted through, or persisted in, the landscape: the iron age fort at Wincobank, with its wide views east over Meadowhall and the M1 to the flat lands and power stations along the Trent; the General Cemetery, worn stones to Chartists and Cholera victims leaning in the damp shade; and the old market, neon-lit, smoky and stale.  We also walked up the Don to Neepsend, a brick settlement of factories and narrow streets.  On one wall, about 7 or 8 feet above the pavement, was a small plaque, indicating the height of the Sheffield Flood of 1864.  I went home, logged on and started digging.

This process is often the other way around.  My father’s excavations of his family’s past have started a strand of thought which has led me out of the door in search of traces: not, necessarily, in order to tread the footsteps of an ancestor; more, perhaps, to put myself in that landscape: to feel the ache of an emigratory walk, the confusion of drift or flight.  This ‘action research’, however, is what gleans and motivates the writing.  The sense of a place and its bones – whether poking through a nettle bed or flickering on screen – are what does it.

I started with the Flood thing down in the town and worked upstream.  The history was so littered with people, I made the poems without looking up.  Only when I’d almost finished did I go up the valley to Dale Dyke Reservoir and walk through the woods.  It seemed perverse, not to have been there before: but then, there is just the water and the trees.  The past is washed away completely.

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§ 5 Responses to Flow

  • Fascinated by your take on history and poetry. I reckon I have done much the same thing. What got me going was Richard Holmes’ book Footstepping (not poetry) where he went in the tracks of Robert Louis Stephenson.
    This set me off in the tracks of Mary Wollstonecraft round Scandinavia which resulted in my poetry sequence: Dear Mary.
    I then did some footstepping of Wordsworth, Coleridge and Fletcher Christian which let to another sequence: Almost like Talking.
    I’ve also done some family tracking in Bialystok, Poland which resulted in the sequence: Woman taking Notes

    Getting out into the landscape is a great way of using history in poetry but I suppose you can also do a virtual exploration online.
    Talking of lines, do you know Tim Ingold’s book: Lines: a short history. Routledge 2008

  • Rob says:

    Thanks Liz. I’m sometimes surprised not to bump into poets traipsing the land! I’ll look out the Ingold.

  • Fay Musselwhite says:

    Last year I went on a couple of, what we thought of as, ‘art walks’, with photographer Joshua Holt, along the Loxley. The idea was to see what happened, to bear in mind the upcoming flood anniversary, and allow space for artworks about the flood to emerge.

    I guess it’s no surprise that, as we approached the history in this way, is was pieces about place that we ended up making. I came up with three poems, only one of which is set on the night of the flood, while the other two deal with the present day landscape with a nod to the post traumatic.

    There’s always something, isn’t there? for the mind keen on connections to make something of. That seems to be how I work. When I was writing from the notes I’d made on the first of these walks, the depth of resonance made by the clothing detritus that I’d recorded as being strewn along the river bank, didn’t immediately became clear. This kind of waste, where items that have been made, stored, shipped, stored again, chosen and brought home end up discarded in favour of whatever consumerism persuades is next, is commonplace. Not so in 1864 when many working class children living by the Loxley only had one or two outfits to their name, and as the flood came when they were in bed, they could have lost that and had nothing but borrowed sacks and blankets to wear instead.

    So working on the poem, I realised that reference to this wasted clothing, and all it represents in terms of modern restless unmeetable need, would seamlessly bridge into an image of what would’ve been strewn about the valley on the morning after the flood, when people had lost everything. To me as artist, this harnessing of stories across history that are class twins, yet seem to have polarity in actuality; and that the harnessing itself intensifies the light shed on each, is very pleasing indeed.

    When these connections and effects start appearing then I feel I’m discovering rather than creating, and these are the times that I feel I owe it to the material to make the best poetry from it.

  • Fascinating to hear the different processes and triggers that spark the poems. I too have read the Richard Holmes book and was enthralled by it. When I wrote the River Don poems I was very aware of work that already existed – particularly Chris Jones’ poems, so tried to draw on the spiritual and imaginative (pagan) past of the river, writing poems in different voices. Some of them took a further imaginative leap personifying the river as various cabaret characters – very experimental for me and I’m the first to admit that some of them probably work better than others …

  • Rob says:

    Thanks Fay and Carolyn. I think rivers have a particular fascination in the ways they cover / reveal / deposit ‘detritus’ – whether cosmetic or fundamental. I’ve been looking at a painting of Brick Row which was badly damaged by the Sheffield Flood: it makes an interesting contrast with the photograph of the same – the former is romantic in style, with hills, the river, a rustic bridge; the latter much starker and ‘urban’. What brings them back together is the painter’s selection of interior features exposed by the flood: a fireplace and a bedstead.

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