Poetry of buildings
  • Fiona Hamilton

This essay describes responses of a poet to medieval farm buildings in a state of disintegration and on the brink of re-construction in a rural environment in Wales. Themes of space, time and belonging emerged as the author, a poet, worked with artists, local inhabitants and the place itself. Focusing on ‘spaces’ or fractures in the structure, and noticing absences as well as presences, the writer engaged with both physical and metaphysical dimensions of ‘habitation’ and found ways to engage wider audiences in collaborative spoken word performances on site, as well as in a book of poems with accompanying drawings. The author considers the collaborative and flexible forms the writing took and why these were chosen, raising questions about how poetic responses to buildings relate to genres of nature writing, documentary history and ecopoetry.

Keywords: Poetry – buildings – built environment – nature writing – collaborative art

For this project I was invited to respond in poetry to Llwyn Celyn, a medieval farm that sits at the gateway to one of the narrow eastern valleys of the Black Mountains in Wales. I was to collaborate with two visual artists working alongside other artists who were responding in different ways. The name means ‘place of the holly bush’. Several bushes stand next to an array of buildings – a thick-walled house and outbuildings set in a rural landscape of green valleys, hills and rough tracks, on the edge of a stretch of land with a 12th-century priory that experienced dramatic changes of fortune over the centuries. In 2015 the buildings were in a state of disintegration, awaiting refurbishment by the charity The Landmark Trust. The refurbishment would reconstruct a version of the medieval farmhouse for holiday rentals, while also providing accommodation for groups, charity and community uses. Recently inhabited by people with a long connection as farmers and residents, the site was about to undergo a transformation, and artists were employed to engage local inhabitants and others in the process.

The place was alive with animal and insect life, creatures scuffling into crevices, occupying spaces in the buildings, or shuffling away to find alternatives as the builders began work with machinery and tools. There were human presences and traces evoked by photographs pinned in the temporary hut erected on site, and by found objects: snags of wool, a coil of plastic wedged into a wall, a child’s shoe, a rusting mouse trap, a copy of a book, School geography, on the kitchen floor with an inscription Alice Morris 1861 written in ink on the inside cover.

I walked. Sat. Waited. Listened. Sensed. I hoped to allow a mingling of sensory and emotional impressions with facts though this was not to be a documentary or historical response but a felt and experienced one.

Poetry of buildings
Writing about the environment usually falls into the genre of ‘nature writing’, with its related genres such as ecopoetry which focuses on the ethics of human relationships with environment. Contemporary debates about the post-pastoral world highlight the relationships between humans and concepts of ‘nature’. It is worth asking why, just as humans are often differentiated from ‘nature’, buildings are too? Buildings are physical and symbolic intermediaries between land and human worlds.

Yet poetry about the built environment has no distinct genre. Indeed, poems ostensibly about buildings often focus on ‘nature’ at least as much as human-made buildings. In Wordsworth’s sonnet praising the city of London (1802) ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge’, words describing natural phenomena (fields, sky, air, sun, valley, rock, hill, river) outnumber those for human-built structures (ships, towers, domes, theatres, temples, houses), and at the heart of the poem is their effect on the poet – a profound sense of calm. Katherine Gallagher (1993) takes a more contemporary ‘tourist-eyed’ view of Chartes Cathedral’s ‘unmatched spires’ but the Romantics’ legacy is evident: she experiences awe at the skywards-pointing structures that are indicators of constancy and transcendence. Basil Bunting’s ‘At Briggflatt’s Meetinghouse’ (1975) describes a humbler Quaker building whose ‘stone and oak shelter/silence’. Here too the natural landscape in which the building is located is as important as the building itself, and the silence within it are the poet’s primary interest rather than the building itself.

Given the ubiquity of the built environment wherever humans exist, it is perhaps surprising that poetry that directly attends to buildings is relatively rare. In the best-selling anthology ‘Staying Alive’ (Astley, 2002) contemporary poets, when they are interested in buildings, see them as places where human experience can take place (Story of a hotel room by Rosemary Tonks, One Raglan Road by Patrick Kavanagh), or as structures rich in metaphorical significance (Clearing a space by Brendan Kennelly). Poems articulating emotional and atmospheric qualities of buildings are often primarily concerned with impacts on the human inhabitant or visitor rather than the bricks and mortar themselves. The title of Jacob Polley’s Moving house is a play on words. The poem issues instructions to an unknown person who is moving, and recasts parts of the house in living, malleable forms that carry emotional weight. In Not at home Elizabeth Jennings is concerned with the appeal of an unoccupied, museum-like room, while Jane Hirshfield personifies A room and connects its ‘hinge and plaster and wood’ with the body, and with exchanges between the room and the humans who transiently occupy it. While there have been notable poets who were also architects (Michaelangelo, Thomas Hardy), there are not so many poets who engage with the substances and construction of buildings as subject matter per se.

Academic studies by poets and literary specialists that examine architecture’s connections with poetry are likewise sparse. Chiasson and Rogers’ exploration (2009) of geometries in the sonnet form does not explicitly relate to buildings though they refer to analyses by poet Don Paterson (1999) and writer-philosopher Paul Oppenheimer (1982) of the sonnet’s possible correlations with built structures. Journalist Jonathan Glancey (2008) describes being vigorously contested by poet Iain Sinclair and poet Denise Riley at a talk in which he suggested that features of poems and buildings could be equated directly. At a subsequent encounter with poets it was suggested this is an affinity rather than a direct correspondence.

Figure 1: Line Sculpt. Photo by Jamie Lake

Architecture, poetry and spaces
Architects seem more willing to incorporate elements learned from poetry into their practice. There are a number of cross-disciplinary studies by architects looking at their practice in relation to poetry and some of these have informed my reflections on the project. Architect Jill Stoner’s anthology Poems for architects (2003) invites architects to learn from poetic forms and themes. Finch and Jacks (2004) explored poetry’s relationship with architecture, making parallels between each discipline’s concepts and use of ‘rhythm’, ‘metre’ and ‘proportion’. They invited students at Miami University to design buildings using proportions found in sonnets. Finch’s sonnet with coda ‘About poetry and architecture’ written during the project, talks of:

lines in a poem that know to enclose us
and guide us through spaces we need to inhabit,
make local, remember, name, touch and be stirred
in, share with those who love, understand, or oppose us

This work highlights how buildings and poem both create spaces: rooms within walls; meanings within words. Words can ‘enclose’ just as walls can, but they also ‘guide us through spaces’ just as the solid materials of a building may draw the eye and the human body into a space which can become a habitation, or an arena for actions, or contemplation, or rest, living or dying. The solid materials may be what initially claim attention, particularly if the building is historically significant and has physical features to indicate this. However, it is the empty spaces between the solid parts that also demand attention.

Architect and academic Mark Meagher in ‘Designing for change: The poetic potential of responsive architecture’ employs the term ‘poetic’ to mean ‘those functions of responsive architecture whose purpose is not primarily instrumental’ and highlights connections between the ‘poetic’ in buildings and

the use of ornament as an articulate surface that embodies cultural meaning and informs the reading of the building as a whole. The finishing of surface materials, the color of surfaces, the built-in objects and furniture: all these are elements that can contribute to the beauty and legibility of the building. (Meagher, 2015)

Meagher’s use of ‘poetic’ refers also to [an] ‘expressive, and potentially subversive element in architecture’ as well as mobile elements in the construction and design that enhance a building’s ability to adjust to the needs of its inhabitants.

Movement, body, interactions
As a poet I am interested in these architecturally-based ideas of ‘poetic’. In responding to Llwyn Celyn, principles of movement, the body, and interaction informed the project as I got to know the buildings with their various enclosures and apertures, their solidity and their space, their presences and absences.

I moved physically around a site. I moved internally, in my feelings and perceptions. I moved between physical phenomena and abstract feelings, states, and ideas. I moved in relation to two visual artists and alongside the work of other artists. Builders, historians, local residents, craftspeople, animals, insects, birds, machines, inanimate objects, moved on the site. Objects (stones, pipes, tools, fencing) were moved from place to place. The weather had moved and was moving particles of stone and dust on a microscopic level, slowly, in a time frame that was beyond-human as well as evident to the attentive observer from the signs of erosion and change in the building’s structure.

Engaging with interior and exterior phenomena in this place was physical. Inhabiting the body, the senses, was a place to be with what was happening around me. While entering the different spaces, I had to let this place ‘in’ to my space so that I could find a way to express, experience, and become part of the encounter. This was poetry not primarily of page, but a form of geopoetics, which ‘seeks to express that sensitive and intelligent contact with the world by means of a poetics i.e. a language drawn from a way of being which attempts to express reality in different ways e.g. oral expression, writing, visual arts, music, and in combinations of different art forms’ (White, 1989). The involvement of multiple participants and multiple art forms prioritised a sense of this place not as a reified static building, but something alive and changing, with which humans could have a relationship as well as inhabit and use.

The creative process was collaborative. The buildings were inescapably part of multiple interactions, forces and reactions – they held daily dialogues with rain, wind, sleet, sun, varying temperatures (often cold!) and over centuries had sheltered scores of humans and uncountable non-human life. Water had flowed off the hillside and through part of the house. Nature was inside as well as outside. Birds nested in the stable rafters. Mice and insects had cosy nooks in barns and former pigsty. There were bats in the roof whose mating seasons would determine when the builders could start work and would influence the architects’ drawings – they would need to preserve a space for this endangered species. The creative project evolved and changed as new ideas and responses informed it. From printed poems on a page that were read in a barn as dusk fell, to a spoken dialogue with video projected onto the uneven surface of the threshing barn wall, this was a mobile process.

clare e potter’s poems in Welsh and English were spoken and played as recordings inside rooms; Toril Brancher’s images were displayed large on walls; Catherine Baker’s maps evoked multiple encounters with the environment; Stefham Caddick’s musical instruments made out of ‘found objects’, and an orchestrated a piece in which spontaneous noises of planes, cars, sheep, cows, birds became part of the piece.

Sounds of various kinds played a strong part in many responses, perhaps because of their intrinsic bodily involvement and mobility, connecting with the states of transition being attended to. In The spell of the sensuous: Perception and language in a more-than-human world (1997) philosopher and ecologist David Abram argues that written language, rather than forging bonds, has contributed to humans’ dislocation from the other-than-human world. He describes oral cultures’ sensory and environmentally-entwined language, and provides examples of aural connections between word and landscape:

It is not by chance that, when hiking in the mountains, the English terms we spontaneously use to describe the surging waters of the nearby river are words like “rush”, “splash”, “gush”, “wash”. For the sound that unites all these words is that which the water itself chants as it flows between the banks. If language is not a purely mental phenomenon but a sensuous, bodily activity born of carnal reciprocity and participation, then our discourse has surely been influenced by many gestures, sounds, and rhythms besides those of our single species. Indeed if human language arises from the perceptual interplay between the body and the world, then this language “belongs” to the animate landscape as much as it “belongs” to ourselves.
(Abram 1996: 82)

The project involved close observation and close listening. Poetry allows feeling to be carried on the sounds of words.

Gaps and fractures
The artists I worked with, James Lake and Will Carter, were interested in the transitional state of the buildings and exploring ways to expose and highlight fractures in the stone walls of the buildings:

The fractures were visceral signs of change: the often overlooked but violent signs of dissolution. Conservation and restoration as a project can appear to work contrary to this, filling in the fissures and bringing back together what has fallen apart. I wanted to bring the fractures into focus, to record them before they were resealed, and to reflect on the mutability of Llwyn Celyn.
(Lake 2016)

Figure 2: Fracture. Photo by Fiona Hamilton

The artists’ preoccupations steered my attention to gaps in walls, fissures where mortar had slipped or softened in rain, snow and wind, forcing stones to crack apart slowly, hinting at potential further erosions or possible collapse. These thresholds between inside and out were not constructed places in themselves, and not habitations, or at least not intentionally. These cracks were fault lines that might cause the buildings to crumble, visible and tangible evidence of the impact of time and weather. These were empty spaces between stones, aereated, unstable ‘in-between’ locations that were not intrinsic or planned parts of the buildings. Lake and Carter illuminated some of these cracks so that they could be seen from different perspectives. At night, across the fields, or from high on a hill, they transformed the look of the farm, strikingly drawing attention to its vulnerability and its solidity. Later, one crack’s line was formed into a metal sculpture, inverting the ‘absence’ into solid form.

Figure 3: Illuminated Fractures by Jamie Lake. Photo by Fiona Hamilton

I consider spaces between and around words to be eloquent elements of a poem, whether pauses in spoken words, or line breaks or other unmarked areas on the page. In a study of spatial values in concrete poetry and other abstract, non-mimetic visual poetry Knowles et al (2012) comments on the influence of the French Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé who ‘directs the reader towards an awareness not only of the spaces between words, but of the entire space of the printed page’. The authors cite Adler and Ernst who argue ‘that Mallarmé was the first to use spatial values in a conceptual manner’ by creating ‘abstract textual ‘constellations’, in which ‘the locations of words and the spaces between them are as important as the words themselves’. Knowles et al studied how space may encourage non-linear readings. They comment that whereas in prose gaps in time may be indicated verbally at various points such as between chapters or within a sentence, in poetry such gaps are likely to be indicated visually or aurally in precise ways, since ‘all aspects of poetic form invite the attribution of significance, and visual poetry appears to equip material gaps with semantic meaning’. In parallel, the buildings’ gaps, when attended to artistically, yielded meaning, pointing to themes of mortality, change and constructed/remembered lives.

In reflecting on this project, I have been considering how the poems relate to poems of landscapes and place and the genre ‘nature writing’. While writing the poems, I received many sensory and other impressions of the place. Nature writer Richard Mabey dispels the Romantic idea that the writer would:

submit to nature, to hope that it would ‘take you out of yourself’, dissolve the membrane between you and the world of health to which you naturally belonged

He then goes on to describe:

a sense of being taken not out of myself but put back in, of nature entering me, firing up the wild bits of my imagination. (2008: 223-4)

Initially, it seemed to me that the focus on buildings would not create the same sense of movement or conjure the ‘wild’ since they were by definition domestic, tamed, interior, fixed. Yet in attending to the minutiae of materials and movements, I discovered a different ‘wild’:

It is in the gaps
cracks and crevices

that particles dance
wildly trusting

the substantiality
of air
        ​(from ‘Trust’ by Fiona Hamilton, in Carter, Hamilton and Lake 2016)

Figure 4: Light and gaps. Photo by FIona Hamilton

Tangible to abstract
Writing about buildings brought me into contact with solid materials, with spaces between them, and with ideas and feelings about Space, Time, Mutability. Somehow the physical buildings retained enough presence to ground the themes and prevent them from becoming mere abstractions.

During the same period I wrote a piece ‘Clay Bricks’ for a radio series and book, ‘Cornerstones’ (2018), part of a collection in which diverse writers draw on ‘geologically inspired imagination’ to probe below the surface of the earth and reflect on stones, rocks and other substances, not as geologists, but in ways that bring out emotional and reflective human responses. Here again, a building – my brick-built home – provided a ‘way in’ to writing and prompted an imaginative journey back through industrial revolution Britain and far back in time to clay pits and myths about human origins. From touching the physical brick, realms of deep time opened up. Editor Mark Smalley, commenting on WH Auden’s poem ‘In praise of limestone’, says that ‘it fast becomes a spiritual inquiry, a meditation on love, mediated perhaps by soluble landscape’. Llwyn Celyn’s ‘soluble landscape’ provided inroads to exploring concepts of trust, belonging, and transience, and raised questions about which narratives in a building’s life endure, and which are blown away on the wind.

Spaces within
The poems were spoken and printed in English and Welsh. The Welsh language has a word for a feeling of connection with a place: hiraeth, which may include both longing, a kind of homesickness, and warmth. It refers to a cluster of feelings for a place that a person knows, which can be homeland or a sense of home. In engaging with an actual place, feelings and questions about Place and Belonging arose. As well as noticing, noting, observing, capturing, I felt I was making a space ‘within’ so that the poem could find form. In ‘Topo-poetics: Poetry and place’ Cresswell (2015) notes the etymology of the term – ‘topo’ meaning ‘place’ – quoting Heidegger (1951) who wrote that ‘Poetic creation, which lets us dwell, is a kind of building.’

In her thesis on ‘Performance, poetics, and place: public poetry as a community art’ Schmid (2000) quotes James Sullivan’s (1997) definition of poetry ‘as a malleable cultural practice that can involve a host of people, moments, intentions, and uses’ that is not ‘a reified set of texts (whose ultimate frame of reference is the historical and biographical moments of their composition)’. The multiple artists’ forms created a range of encounters with Llwyn Celyn and became part of malleable cultural practice for people who walked around, inside and outside, listening, talking, sharing, responding. Art helped to provide ritual during a period of transition. Poetry and song have long traditions as modes to express displacement and to forge new language and bonds, or to find ways to inhabit unfamiliar places.

Figure 5: Llwyn Celyn Brecon Beacons. Photo by Fiona Hamilton

Fractures, gaps, shadows and unknowns in the buildings pointed to what could not be expressed fully, but which could be felt, sensed, or hinted at. People stepped into physical spaces temporarily transformed by artistic interventions. Spaces, amongst other things, are breathing spaces – moments in which we can arrive into our bodies and minds and feelings, in relationship with physical spaces that are moving, like us, in time.

From ‘Two Voices’, spoken word dialogue (2018)

Old inhabitants shuffle out of corners and crevices
insects, beetles, the small birds in the corners
martins, whose nests were neat cups in the rafters
spiders, whose threads stitched walls to ceilings
bats, who had their own chamber in the roof
snails, stopped in the mossy slop of the sheep dip

The buildings and barns hold stories from before:
the estate with the abbey
the hills with their driving rain

Beliefs and disbelief
Triumph and misery
The hard trudge through the mud
A table heavy with meat and cake

Fields full of sheep imported from Spain
Paths planted with sweet chestnuts and larches
The men and women for whom this was home

Imprints, tracks, and traces
the footprints of lives
remembered, dispersed
recalled in the whispers of wind
in the fragments …


Works cited: 

Abram, D 1997 The spell of the sensuous: Perception and language in a more-than-human world, London: Vintage Books

Astley N (ed) 2002 Staying alive, Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books

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https://www.dur.ac.uk/basil-bunting-poetry.centre/poems.quotes/meetinghouse/ (accessed 19 October 2018)

Chiasson, M and Rogers, J 2009 ‘Beauty bare: The sonnet form, geometry and aesthetics’ in Journal of Literature and Science at
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https://pure.royalholloway.ac.uk/portal/files/25313757/Complete_poems.2015.final_signed.pdf (accessed 19 July 2018)

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