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The Poetry of Place

A guest post for National Poetry Month by Texas poet Annie Neugebauer.

You might think you know your little corner of the South like the back of your hand – and maybe you do; I feel like I know Texas that fully – but let’s put that in perspective. How often do you write about the back of your hand?

And, more importantly, how often would you want to read about the back of someone else’s?

We’ve all read “landscape poems,” and some of them are truly stunning. I’d be willing to bet that most of us have also read some pretty lackluster ones. Like so much of being an author, writing about what’s around you is an easy thing; it’s doing it well that’s difficult.

Why are so many poets drawn to their surrounding landscape as subject matter? Well, for one thing, a setting grounds the poem. Putting your reader squarely in a place prevents that “floating head” or “green-screen” feeling.

It can also very effectively set the tone. As Edgar Allan Poe said, “A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.” I believe that holds true for poems as well, and a distinct setting is one of the most effective, efficient ways of portraying a specific vibe.

On top of that, a well-rendered setting transports. Before a poem even has time to portray message, atmosphere is most often what will “hook” your reader. Any poem that can suck me in and make me feel as if I’m elsewhere is a good poem.

Finally, there is one more enormous reason that poets across the South (and the country, and the globe) are so drawn to setting as inspiration: within our landscape is ample fodder for message.

If a poem that transports is a good poem, a poem that transports and leaves me thinking after I’ve put it down is a great poem. The difference lies in message. Now, honestly, the word “message” sort of rubs me the wrong way because it sounds a little after-school-special, but by message I simply mean the emotional, philosophical or mental value of the poem. What’s the take-away? What’s your point? Why did you write the poem? That’s your message.

Most poetry readers don’t like being preached to. Telling them that the night in South Carolina is sacred can be amateurish; making them feel that the night in South Carolina is sacred is powerful. Your setting can help you convey that in a subtle, masterful way.

Read Neugebauer’s own poems Nights in Texas and Rust Never Sleeps in our Poetry section.

And because you know your own landscape better than any other settings (and perhaps, in your heart at least, better than anyone else does), it can be a brilliant source of inspiration for any poet. “Okay,” you might be thinking, “I’m on board. Where do I start?”

Well, if you’re like me, your strength – knowledge of your landscape – is the same as your weakness. There’s a fine line between familiarity and boredom. My trick to getting inspired by the landscape around me is changing up my point of view.

Changing perspective can be as elaborate as a vacation to a nearby city or a simple as climbing the tree in your back yard. Try taking advantage of public parks. It’s amazing how many people think of “sightseeing” as something to be done only when you’re away. Most cities have at least some trail, scenic lookout or interesting skyline to check out. Where do visitors go? Go there.

See a different part of your town. Drive an hour away and go on a hike. Lie down in the grass and see your yard from the ant’s perspective. Rent a kayak and get on the river instead of looking at it. Jog your usual running path starting at the opposite end. Stand on top of a building.

Your familiarity gives you the edge of mood: you know what your landscape says, how it feels, what it’s like to be immersed in it. Your new perspective will give you the edge of inspiration, like seeing it through a new pair of glasses. Add to that a message worth sharing, and you’ve got yourself a place poem worth tackling.

Happy writing, and Happy National Poetry Month!

Annie Neugebauer is a short story author and nationally award-winning poet living in Texas. She’s had poetry published in the Texas Poetry Calendar by Dos Gatos Press, Wichita Falls Literature & Art ReviewEunoia ReviewAdrent! PoetryVersifico, the Poetry Society of Texas’s A Book of the Year and Voices de la Luna. She won second place in the 2011 Edwin M. Eakin Memorial Book Publication Award sponsored by the Poetry Society of Texas and has work appearing or forthcoming in The Spirit of PoeUnderneath the Juniper Tree, the British Fantasy Society journal Dark Horizons and the National Federation of State Poetry Societies’ prize anthology Encore. Neugebauer is also vice president of the Denton Poets’ Assembly as well as president of the North Branch Writers’ Critique Group. 

Pennies From Heaven
Rust Never Sleeps
  • Regina Richards / April 18, 2013

    I don’t write poetry, but I enjoyed this article and was struck by how much of what is true in poetry should also be true in other forms of prose, but sometimes is not.

  • Annie Neugebauer / April 19, 2013

    Thanks Regina! I know what you mean, and I agree. I’d love to see some workshops on what poets and prose writers can learn from each other, some time!

  • Nina / April 25, 2013

    Annie, it is so great to see you here with this wonderful post. It’s funny how much it connects to what I wrote this week on the blog. It may not be obvious to you at first but it really does connect.

    Off to read the poems. You’re on a roll my friend.

  • Annie Neugebauer / April 25, 2013

    Thank you Nina! I just found your blog, and I can see exactly what you mean. It really does tie in. I’m off to comment there; thanks for stopping by here!

  • Beth / May 6, 2013

    Annie, I think you caught “place” very well. I have not tried climbing a tree recently, but even if I don’t have a limb within my reach, I can put myself on a branch beside a squirrel and view the world as fresh, with a whole new perspective.

    Thank you for your thought-provoking ideas on place. I’ll practice putting myself in new places and see where I go!