This week I came across a really interesting website about Placing Literature and it got me thinking. I wondered if place could have an influence on our understanding of literature. Can a visual and sensory experience help you connect with a poem or piece of prose?
Look, I’ll come clean…I already believe it can. I saw it myself, during Dylan’s centenary year. Whilst standing precariously on a wall in the middle of my grandfather’s childhood playground, I read his poem, ‘The Hunchback in the Park’. A few people stood still and shut their eyes. It was simply extraordinary to observe, how, while listening to his words, they absorbed the sounds and smells of the landscape all around them and immersed themselves in the poem.
Although, it was far more surreal when it happened to me…As I followed the Birthday Walk trail through Laugharne and heard my grandfather reading Poem in October, I had a strange sensation that he was walking beside me. Weird, I know, just go with it. We walked together along the path past “apples, pear and red currants” and looked down at the “mussel pooled and the heron priested shore and the castle brown as owls.” It truly brought the poem alive for me and gave me a powerful connection with my grandfather that, just reading the poem alone, had not created.
Another time when I had a similar reaction, one that I can only describe like a pleasant kick in the stomach – it took my breath away so much – was during a promenade performance of Return Journey. I was with my grandfather again, experiencing those emotions, trying to make sense of things as he realised his hometown had been utterly obliterated. It was gone. His Swansea was dead.
A curious, and unexpected, effect of visiting the places associated with my family is that it has given me a much fuller insight into who they really were, and has helped me understand why they behaved in a certain way …far more than any biography has ever done. In early September 2009, I was at the top of the steps leading down to Dylan’s Boathouse. I was plagued with terrible sciatica. I had a pram and bundles of baby paraphernalia and my three-week old son Charlie, was screaming the house down. It was at that precise moment, that I had a very strong link with my grandmother, realising the very real difficulties she must have had when living (with very little money) in an isolated part of West Wales, and, with my grandfather’s frequent trips away, how frustrated and lonely she must have been.
And then, just a few minutes later, I was sitting on the chaise longue in the living room and feeding my son, imagining that my grandmother had probably done the same. As I sat there, I looked through the window at the beautiful views of the estuary, and felt remarkably calm (well as calm as you can after only three hours sleep the night before). It was a welcome feeling as we were about to scatter my mum’s ashes into the sea below. I then completely understood why my mum wanted to return here, and also, why it was a place that Dylan felt at home in, somewhere that he could write freely.
One thing I have learnt from visiting the quirky towns that my grandfather made his home, is that he needed a regular routine, and the sea and nature near him, to be able to focus entirely on his writing. However, it’s clear that his trips to the busy cities did give him the chance to mix with other writers, musicians and artists to share ideas. When I’ve been in the Wheatsheaf in London’s Fitzrovia, I’ve just loved picturing the sorts of ‘characters’ Dylan may have met, and only wish I had heard a few sneaky snippets of their conversations. I also speculate what would have happened had Augustus John not introduced my grandparents on that April evening in 1936. Would I even exist? The thought gives me tingles, as did my visit to the White Horse Tavern in New York. I so desperately wanting to go back sixty years and prevent the tragic events that led to my grandfather’s death.
I admit my experiences could well be different to others as I have a very obvious personal relationship with the subject. Still, I actively encourage people to visit the places that inspired poems or where literature masterpieces were written. Look, listen, touch and smell your surroundings and I’m convinced that you will feel the same way.
Hannah Ellis – 12th September 2016.
Hannah is a teacher, writer and consultant. You can learn more about her by visiting the website – http://www.hannahellisconsultancy.com