Worn habitual ways: shire & barony
I WAS first introduced to Edward Boaden Thomas's The Twelve Parts of Derbyshire at the Derwent Poetry Festival in Matlock in 2013.
Recognition, admiration and affection were immediate.
Recognition because the instinct, the impulse, to narrate the ties and bonds of belonging to a locale in a verse form was and remains part of my own inheritance as a writer of things; that tussle with place, its familiarity, its ease and dis-ease, in a resolute, focused and relentless way, as epitomised by Boaden Thomas's remarkably sustained imaginative enterprise, is a model in a sense of a deeper engagement with and fidelity to those elements which seem most resistant to the human will – geography, climate, geology, simple habitation – but which establish a formidable platform for the imaginative exploration of the innards of allegiance, belonging and expression; and the reciprocal exchanges between location and the secular human spirit in transit.
I knew immediately what the substantial volume represented; not only in its poetry and its imaginative co-ordinates, but in the very manufacture of the artefact itself – a work for which the local civic council, no less, stumped up the cash, such was the obvious 'added value' of this particular creative enterprise to the understanding of the administrative bailiwick for which it had responsibility. Endorsement of this kind by his inherited democratic structure would only have pleased Boaden Thomas himself. Job done, in a sense.
Of course, beyond the immediate, was the context of this writer's activity - and one might list comrades of the spirit if not the letter in Grigson, Bunting, Hill, yes Mac Diarmid also – especially the strenuous and forbidding effort of On A Raised Beach; as well as, importantly on the edges, Eliot.
As time goes on, I find comparisons and even context, though, much less illuminating than common sense would aver. Somehow – and this is especially true of Boaden Thomas – the construction of a work itself (its creative architecture or exoskeleton) is of such scale as to make its own context; or, at least, to sit beside other constructions as territories or nation-states – in dialogue surely, sometimes at odds, but always within sight of the other.
I say this particularly because, in my own island, the visible dominance of particular poetries – over our hundred years, Yeats and Heaney – has almost forced every foray into the discussion of meaning in particular instances to begin with the sense that X or Y is either a forebear or harbinger of Yeats or Heaney or, indeed, a mushroom sprouted up in either of their shadows.
The importance or value of poetry, then – as oddly in Ireland as in Derbyshire – is in how it takes on an unexpected power in beginning to define key elements of the human enterprise, such as belonging, ownership, neighbourliness, loyalty and dissent.
Where there are vigorously competing populations, then, poetry can be looked to – or resorted to – in fashioning claim and counter-claim.
What is known (a little) in Ireland as ‘regionalism’ – perhaps somewhat shopworn now as a kind of transition between the aggressive politics of the Nation and the Empire – still retains a certain appeal in a world where global communication has tended both wildly to homogenise character and culture and, paradoxically, put a premium on the niche and the distinctive. In the writings of the Northern Irish or ‘Ulster’ poet John Hewitt, regionalism took on the character of a celebration of the local; not quite the ‘parish’ of Kavanagh, still less the ‘provincialism’ of some outpost of the civil service; but a local of light, air, landscape, craft, art and speech which could command the allegiance of some, many, most, if not all, in a deflection from internecine warfare. He might there, with Boaden Thomas, imagine that, anywhere in the region,
A man might live his days
Loving the detailed homely arts,
The worn habitual ways.
In Ireland, it is totally true that regionalism was generally viewed as a cop-out – a way of dodging the big important matters of national identity and political aspiration. For Hewitt, though, and for some others of us, it was a return away from social categories which almost always defined in terms of opposition and dispute, with sometimes heinous results, to an imaginative construction of the lived landscape, the human geography as it were, as one of common ownership, joint legacy, tangible, shared, visible, lived inheritance.
In this, Hewitt sought succour in the old England of the Levellers and the Diggers – the deep democracy of the soil and the urban poor (albeit a tradition not at ease in overwhelmingly rural Ireland); and it is in this common colouring of the people, this arcane and rather archaic ‘left’ of the creative spirit which forms another link with the presiding vision of Twelve Parts, for all its gentry, its minor royals, its captains of industry.
There is little of the threat of looming civil or uncivil war in Boaden Thomas’s vision of a Derbyshire whose parts are separate, distinct, but yet complementary and in tune; but the ingenuity of insight and intensity which seeks to reveal the detail of the living within the very rock, is kin to the Hewitt regionalist ideal; and, to my mind anyway, reinforces the validity of the enterprise across nations. The contemporary investigations of ‘landscapism’ and ‘psychogeography’ bring a new intensity to the contemplation of the natural world and its shaped and managed, or mis-managed corollary, the human habitation within it.
In this context, it is worth referencing The Ascent of Kinder Scout by Peter Riley and the recent collected poems of Ann Atkinson, both of which interrogate something of the same physical territory and some of the same psychic themes as Boaden Thomas, in lyric, very different and memorable ways. There will be other poets and writers in the Derbyshire veldt of whom I am unaware, as the hedges and ditches of attention close over, naturally, from place to place.
Of course, Derbyshire is not vexed by the national imperative which brought violence to Northern Ireland. The ‘region’ of Boaden Thomas is a settled affair – a ‘shire’ in the old sense to which he turns a narrative gaze. The populations within it are homogenous, the tongue more or less English, the habits and customs more or less uniform. What the poet brings to the shire is a historical and social intelligence, a compiler’s mindset, a strange compulsion for thoroughness and a need to fit whatever occurs to him into the heady thrust of his rhymes.
This is a recognisable England, of course, in every sense; and the author is in every sense the English eccentric – who or what else would blithely match his own poetry to ‘embroidery’ as he does in his dedication?
But it isn’t without irony that Boaden Thomas sets off on his task with the observation that ‘Derbyshire maybe as remote as China’ – imagining a readership for which this is literally true, though suspecting a readership much closer to home, for whom the shire is ‘like an old glove’. Nonetheless, his eye travels over the region, ‘making it strange’ at every turn, which is one of the functions of poetry:
Imagination springs from the marriage
Of inner belief and outer symbol
Or faith and form in an easy phrasing:
To cry my faith in Imagination
I have taken the unicorn for sign
And the secret west for his sovereign land.
And it is also the case that the poet’s shire is not uncontested as a viable territory for loyalty and love; if not a rival for the affecting of the 'nation' itself, certainly something as enduring and possibly more manageable and within reach of the common people.
How long will you store in your inner ear
The echo and cadence of the old lore?
How far will it follow you down the years?
This anthology is a testament to the enduring appeal not only of the ‘lore of place’ – dinnseanchas, as the Irish word has it – and the impulse to add to it, augment and amplify it, but also to the durability of Boaden Thomas's epic poem. The structure of the anthology, mirroring the parts of the original, conjuring presences from the poetic text into new forms and inflections, is a quite exhilarating prospect, reflecting the simple power of the word itself uttered in a formal or declaratory manner.
The result is a work which again augments the creative work on which it is based, but also amplifies the methods by which we come to understand a place, its history, its populations; if you like, its purpose. The sense of communal enterprise in constructing and delivering these poems, on the frame of a physical ‘tour’ of the shire – the actual encounter with its camber and gradients – is a visceral achievement.
The original epic poem is, of course, poetry; but crucially it also serves as an imaginative ‘document’, an ‘account’, a ‘narrative’ or narration which sits beside alternative versions of local visible life found in histories, catalogues, memoirs. It takes its place alongside the historical and lived landscape as surely as prehistoric monoliths, outcrops, waterways and thoroughfares across the district.
Why is that an oddity? In Ulster, the little books of verse produced by weavers in the early 19th Century, many of distant Scots origin, became much-cherished artefacts, with the Bible, in households in locales much, much smaller than Derbyshire and Orr of Ballycarry, Herbison of Dunclug, Thompson of Carngranny, left small volumes, bound and re-bound with bits of cardboard and newspaper, as testimony to how close to the people each well-thumbed each volume had been.
Indeed, the enigmatic ‘map’ of Boaden Thomas’s shire, provided by the council in 1988 – ‘Here be dragons’ – only adds to the aplomb of the imaginative effort: the stanzas of a poem indicate, point at, direct towards, geographical or civic features of the natural or lived environment; a tourist guide, of a kind, but one which narrates a tale and a journey, documents a sojourn, of which no living being has or can discover the objective correlative in vista or personality.
If there is an amalgam or gathering of documents relating to the evolution of the shire as a social, administrative or geographical unit, surely Boden Thomas’s work would be included as an indispensable content, a peculiarly privileged account of the region’s journey through history?
If there is the mood of the antiquary about Boaden Thomas's work, and there is; if there is something antique also about the verse forms employed and the idiom deployed in this long poem and elsewhere in his work, and there is; if there is something inward-looking, reflective, overly ‘grounded’ in the imaginative task of understanding, and there is; these are observations, characteristics, features only, which one can note but which it would be a mistake to allow swamp one’s judgement of the work or its value.
It is certainly true that very few, if any, Young Turks in the poetry world will seek out the Twelve Parts as the model for their life’s enterprise, either in theme or manner; but it will be equally true that many people, among them poets, will always find something engaging, authentic, and invigorating, something of The Quest, about the singleness of purpose with which Boaden Thomas sets about his unglamorous, unexpected and risky mission.
On behalf of its readers now and in time to come, I thank Edward Boaden Thomas and Templar Poetry for advancing our knowledge of that fecund and evocative resting-place on the face of the earth which is Derbyshire.
Become a lover of hedge and wall;
Choose your contained articulate whole,
Your English shire, your field, your shell.
Why, thank you. I don't mind if I do.
A version of this appears as the introduction to A Place of Wonder: soundings from Derbyshire (Templar Poetry 2015).