Following the brilliant poems we received for our Ways to be wilder challenge in 2016, we’ve partnered up once again with the charity People Need Nature and T. S. Eliot Prize-winning poet Jen Hadfield. This time we’re asking you to consider the names we use every day and the histories lurking behind them.
The poet Don Paterson says, ‘Every morning the writer should go to the window, look out and remind himself of this fact: aside from his own species, not one thing he sees – not one bird, tree or stone – has in its possession the name he gives it.’ (The Book of Shadows)
This Young Poets Network challenge is all about naming, renaming and un-naming. What happens when we give names to places, plants, and creatures? Do names make it easier or harder to know exactly where we are? What histories do names smuggle into the present day? What witches and myths crouch behind the names of everyday places and plants?
Haunted by history
I live on the Shetland archipelago, an island group haunted by mysterious names and characters. For instance, in the parish of Nesting is a croft (or farm) called ‘Finnister’, which probably derives from the family name Finnie. The Finnies were related to the Finns. Half-witch, half-midwife, they possessed all kinds of magical powers. They were shape-shifters. They could brew a storm at will, cure or kill your cow. They possessed phenomenal strength, and could row to Norway in just seven strokes of their oars. The storyteller Davy Cooper believes the Finns or Finnfolk were real people, perhaps nomadic Saamis who fled the north of Norway because of persecution from their southerly neighbours.
In midsummer, Shetland’s marshes are covered in bog cotton, which you might know as cotton grass. Mops of gleaming floss, they bob and shine in the wind. In Shetland, the plant is known as Lucky Minnie’s Oo. ‘Oo’ means ‘wool’… and Lucky Minnie is ‘one of the guidficks, or fairies.’
Shetland is full of fascinating place-names that people say every day but rarely write down. Da Buggin, the Rummelies, the Swimming Pool carpark (where there is no swimming pool). I know of a house called ‘Krowdrah’, which is ‘Hard Work’ backwards. The same thing happens everywhere. In Argyll, locals fondly call the town of Helensburgh, ‘Hell’. The service bus, swinging wildly along the winding shore of the loch, is known endearingly as the ‘Vomit Comet’.
I love place-names, their stories and the sound of them. I love their mystery. Once, crossing Canada on the train, after three days of uninterrupted forest, we got side-tracked by a hundred-car freight train. Looking out the window I saw a clearing, like an island in the forest, a hut, and a sign which said ‘Lucky Seven’. I’ve puzzled over it ever since. In the Rockies, the rivers have names like ‘Two O’Clock Creek’. What happens if you arrive at five? But names don’t always mean what they seem to. The wild North-west corner of Scotland, Cape Wrath, was named by the Vikings. Doesn’t it sound like a terrifying place? But Wrath comes from a much milder word Hvarf, meaning ‘Turning Point’ in Old Norse.
Checking the map on a walk in Yorkshire once, I saw the very ordinary field we were about to cross had a name: ‘Nigh-No-Place’. It often happens this way, but the mystery of the name inspired me to write. My poem, ‘Nigh-No-Place’ is simply a rhythmic list of place-names, which you can listen to here. Some of the places are real and some are made up.
Lost language, secret names
Words change over time, for a whole host of reasons. Perhaps the way we say them changes, or we lose regional variations of a standard word, or we forget what certain words used to mean. Names are no exception. In Brian Friel’s play Translations, set in Ireland in the 1700s, English soldiers are sent to record the local place-names for the new Ordnance Survey maps. They don’t speak Gaelic, and don’t know that ‘Druim Dubh’ for example, means ‘The Black Ridge’. So they change the names to something that sounds roughly similar. ‘Druim Dubh’ becomes ‘Drimdoo’. It’s like a game of Chinese Whispers – and it would be funny, except Drimdoo is the name that goes down on the OS map. The made-up word has displaced the original meaning. Hugh, the local teacher in the play, says ‘a civilisation can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape […] It’s an eviction of sorts.’
Across Aboriginal Australia hums a network of private, precious meaning taking the form of ‘songlines’. Journalist Paul Daley describes ‘songlines’ as ‘the oral archives of Indigenous history that chart the very creation of the land and sea by the Dreaming totems (animals), and the various marks – trees, waterholes, rocky outcrops and creatures – along them. The songlines also hold the stories of the people and the eternal spirits who inhabit them.’
A songline can mark the arrival of the first Muslims in Australia or the journey of the creator lizard as he looked for the perfect grinding stone. Indigenous Australians navigate great distances by following these songlines, which must be sung to keep the land alive. But it isn’t only in Australia that people renew their relationship with their land in melody and sacred stories. Gaelic poetry often evokes a land in long, loving lists, as Sorley Maclean does in his long poem ‘The Island’. Here is an extract translated into English:
… great beautiful bird of Scotland,
your supremely beautiful wings bent
about many-nooked Loch Bracadale
your beautiful wings prostrate on the sea
from the Wild Stallion to the Aird of Sleat,
your joyous wings spread
about Loch Snizort and the world.
Doesn’t the poem sound love-sick, almost like a person repeating the name of their beloved until it sounds strange?
Following in this Gaelic tradition, Robin Robertson uses names to take us on a voyage around the cliffs and stacks of St Kilda:
… Past the Beak of the Wailer, Cleft of the Grey Cow,
the Landing Place of the Strangers, to An Torc, The Boar,
rising from the sea under Mullach Sgar and Clash na Bearnaich,
and The Notches that sit under Ruaival
the Red Fell, pink with thrift…
I can’t decide if Robertson’s very long poem describes his own experience, or imagines what it was like for the islanders who had to say one last goodbye to these islands when they were devastated by famine and disease in 1930. Have you ever had to say goodbye to a beloved place yourself – maybe a favourite beach or lake or graveyard or tree? Do you have private names for places you know deeply and love?
A Trail of Breadcrumbs
Our names for our world help us get lost and home again, like Hansel and Gretel’s trail of breadcrumbs. But sometimes we forget that names are just labels. The name we have for ‘mountain’, for instance, no longer really conjures the terrifying, overwhelming reality of a mountain. When we use a word too much, it becomes easy to lose the essence of what we’re talking about. According to Gertrude Stein, poetry can wake us up to the ‘thingness’ of things again:
Now listen. Can’t you see that when language was new – as it was with Chaucer and Homer – the poet could use the name of a thing and the thing was really there. He could say ‘O moon’, ‘O sea’, ‘O love’, and the moon and the sea and love were really there. And can’t you see that after hundreds of years had gone by and thousands of poems had been written, he could call on those words and find that they were just worn out literary words. The excitingness of pure being had withdrawn from them; they were just rather stale literary words. Now the poet has to work in the excitingness of pure being; he has to get back that intensity into the language.
Maybe this is the game we’re always playing with poetry: dancing between the familiar and the strange, so we can see our well-kent world as if for the first time.
When writing, we have to ask ourselves, too, whether we’re talking about the landscapes that surround us, or to them. David Abram believes that when we invented writing, we stopped speaking to the natural world.
We talk about such beings … but we do not talk to them … And how insulting to the other beings – that no longer sense us talking to them, but only about them, as though they were not present in our world … we talk about them behind their backs…
Before we kept it in books, our poetry was in living dialogue with the world around us. We prayed the sun up and thanked the salmon when they swam into our nets. We addressed our world by name to ask it to hold us gently. How can we use poetry now to reopen our direct line to the natural world?
Create a poem inspired by names or a name.
You might be inspired by a name on a map or a road sign, or you decide to make names up for insects, flowers, or feature in your local landscape. You might want to do a bit of local history and ask the older folk in your neighbourhood about place-names that are being forgotten. What are the new folk-names for the places near you? Write your own songline for your local landscape. Make an extinction list of imagined species. Or, as thousands of people have done before, look at our moon (perhaps through binoculars) and name the white mountains and lakes. Take a star map and dot-to-dot your own constellations. Write your own love poem to a personally precious place.
Whatever you choose to write, ask yourself how you can use your poetry to really root yourself in your local landscape.
Winning poets will have their poems published on the Young Poets Network and receive an exclusive Young Poets Network notebook, book tokens, and other assorted poetry goodies.
How to enter
This challenge is now closed. Thank you to everyone who entered – we’ll let you know as soon as we have a result!
About the author
Jen Hadfield has published three collections of poetry. Her first, Almanacs, won an Eric Gregory Award, and her second, Nigh-No-Place, the 2008 T. S. Eliot Prize. She has family in Canada and England and lives in Shetland. Her third collection, Byssus, was published by Picador in 2014.
Our thanks go to People Need Nature for helping to make this challenge possible. Find out more about their work.