Last weekend, walking along this beach, I wondered about all the bad poems and paintings this landscape has inspired. It's the Suffolk coast between Walberswick and Dunwich (a dangerously "poetic" place because most of it fell into the sea)*.
I once sat on a judging panel for a poetry prize when, exhausted by how much was out there, we began to discuss giving a different kind of award. It would be for not writing (or at least publishing) any poems for a specified period. In European agricultural policy, where farmers have been paid to leave land uncultivated so that it can recover, this is called set aside.
Setting aside the who ... how about the what? Which words, phrases, devices, angles, subjects, etc., would you pay good money not to see in a poem again?
I’d start with decorative taxonomies - those lists, in particular of artist’s colours and birds. No more alizarin, no more godwits.
And any form of epiphany other than the manifestation of Christ to the Magi, also known as January 6th.
And anything liminal, lambent or ludic.
*That is not Dunwich on the horizon. It is a nuclear power station and will have inspired bad poems all of its own.

Originally Published: December 12th, 2008

Lavinia Greenlaw has published three books of poems, most recently Minsk. Her two novels are Mary George of Allnorthover and An Irresponsible Age and she has also published a memoir, The Importance of Music to Girls. Her work for BBC radio includes programs about the Arctic, the Baltic, the solstices...

  1. December 12, 2008
     Mary Meriam

    Every single photo you've posted has captured my attention and made me think or dream or meditate or something like that. There always seems to be a tension between shining things and rot.
    I wonder if limn is acceptable.
    I read an awful lot of poems, but I don't have grievances against any words in particular. It all depends on the context. I do agree about the award for not writing/publishing.

  2. December 12, 2008
     Emily Warn

    Someone left a comment to this wonderful post but forgot to include his or her name. We don't approve anonymous comments, so if you'd like us to publish your comment, please add your name. Thanks! Emily

  3. December 13, 2008
     Kent Johnson

    Sebald walked this beach, didn't he? In Rings of Saturn? Or is my UK geography mixed up?
    Has anyone ever proposed that Rings of Saturn is one of the strangest, most astonishing long poems of the 20th century? Really, since no one yet seems to know how to exactly classify the work: What would be the argument against claiming the work into the poetic canon?

  4. December 13, 2008
     Brian Salchert

    ". . . a nuclear power station. . . ." Perfect.

  5. December 14, 2008
     Lavinia Greenlaw

    You are right, of course, that it all depends on the context. I enjoy a poem all the more if it does something I assume won't work and then surprises me. There are great poems that limn and lude and lambulate (you know what I mean...) as well as those that list colours or flowers, for instance, Michael Longley's "The Ice-Cream Man", in which a child's pleasure in naming is conflated with the adult need to make sense of things in the face of a sectarian murder and the atavistic need to name in order to take control.
    It's not the words themselves I object to but seeing them used as a form of shorthand or glamour or raising agent; often imprecisely, as if the writer has lazily succumbed to their charms. This is a concern that comes out of an awareness of my own susceptibility to the pleasures of language.
    Your geography is fine. This is part of Sebald's walk. I wrote about him and the East Anglian sky in my first post on Harriet. I'd been thinking about the "poetic" (as opposed to the poetic) and what people mean by that. I have reservations about The Rings of Saturn. It has a majestic sense of isolation and a connoisseurial approach to the idea of ruin that I find troubling. I only knew Sebald a little but I think of him as a melancholic and Romantic, for whom interior and exterior landscapes were unusually superimposed. That for me is what makes him poetic, not all the runaway history of churches falling into the sea, grand folly and futile endeavour.
    The landscape of Suffolk is one minute majestic, the next dull, and its dullness can be as inspiring as its majesty. It inspired the extraordinary music of Benjamin Britten, who drew on another local boy, the poet of dullness, George Crabbe, for his great opera, Peter Grimes.
    Here dull and hopeless he’d lie down and trace
    How sidelong crabs had scrawl’d their crooked race;
    Or sadly listen to the tuneless cry
    Of fishing gull or clanging golden-eye;
    What time the sea-birds to the marsh would come,
    And the loud bittern from the bull-rush home,
    Gave from the salt-ditch side the bellowing boom:
    He nursed the feelings these dull scenes produce,
    And loved to stop beside the opening sluice.
    Leonard P. Thompson, who wrote a book about Suffolk smuggling, was as interested in the future of this landscape as in its past. He describes how in 1959, he sat on the beach at Sizewell contemplating the power station that was to be built there. In 1968, he went back and observed that 'in most respects the romantic, strange beauty of the place had been little diminished ... Of course it was immense – awe inspiring. But its splendid lines and pleasing angles, the clean pale grey surfaces of its vast walls, combine in a majestic structure ... born of the atomic age ...’
    All that's left of Dunwich is a cafe, a car park, a bucket and spade shop, a pub, some ruins and a handful of houses. It's in my photo about where the two people are walking ahead of me on the beach.

  6. December 14, 2008
     Mary Meriam

    Shine and Rot
    It's not the words themselves I object to
    the runaway history of churches falling into the sea
    but seeing them used as a form of shorthand or
    a bucket and spade shop
    grand folly and futile endeavour
    glamour or raising agent.
    All that's left of Dunwich is a cafe, a car park, a pub
    as if the writer has lazily succumbed to their charms.
    This is a concern that comes out of
    some ruins and a handful of houses
    where the two people are walking, often imprecisely,
    ahead of me on the beach.
    It's in my photo about an awareness of my own susceptibility
    to the pleasures of language.

  7. December 18, 2008
     Brian Salchert

    Setting aside the power station,
    the shades of the remaining others
    caught in that moment this photograph reveals
    do participate in a stark yet entrancing serenity.