Poetry & Geography: Space and Place in Post-War Poetry

By Neal Alexander; David Cooper | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 8
‘Whitby is a statement’:
Littoral Geographies in
British Poetry

Amy Cutler

Post-war British poetry displays an ambivalent attitude towards littoral geographies, equivocating between residual Romantic understandings of ‘sublime’ coastal prospects and conceptions of the coast as a space crisscrossed with economic and political interests.1 Monastic understandings of the coastline as the threshold between the earthly and the heavenly also conflict with the modern globalised understanding of it as integral to traffic and shipping interests.2 The kind of poetry that makes profound geographical demands of its readers, with which this volume as a whole is concerned, uses these differing literary traditions to raise questions about the counterpointing of sea and land in our culture, habitation and politics. In this essay I will undertake readings of poetic texts by Colin Simms, Wendy Mulford, Peter Riley and Mark Dickinson in light of recent work in oceanic and maritime studies.

This work is the topic of a 2010 special issue of PMLA, in which Margaret Cohen addresses the ‘hydrophasia’ of twentieth-century literary criticism: critical practice which focuses on the literary representation of territorial scales such as the city, the empire and even the self; ‘a pervasive twentieth-century attitude that the photographer and artist Allan Sekula has called “forgetting the sea”’. Cohen defines ‘hydrophasia’ as a thoroughgoing ‘disregard for global ocean travel’ in which even novels with explicit ocean-going themes are read as allegories for processes taking place on land.3 She advocates instead a criticism which would show the importance of saltwater transport networks in the forging of global modernity, acknowledging the ship as ‘a pioneering technology of mobility’ and ‘a motor of value essential to capitalist modernity, along with the more familiar processes of production, circulation, exchange, and consumption’.4

The emerging maritime studies have a symbiotic relationship with

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