The city has been with poetry for a long time. Take the two oldest surviving works in world literature: Gilgamesh and The Iliad. Gilgamesh starts and ends in the Mesopotamian city of Uruk around 2750 BCE. It is where the tyrant / hero king Gilgamesh reigns and it is where all his many adventures begin and end. After he has ventured into the forest and killed the monster Humbaba, Uruk is where he comes home triumphant. After the death of his ‘blood-brother’ Enkidu and the failure of his quest to secure the secret of eternal youth, Uruk is where he returns to find what consolation he can. It is a monumental city expressive of the greatness of its King and the collective strength of its people. The craftsmanship of its massive wall, its foundations, its market places, temples and gardens are what will survive each generation. Its sheer impressiveness embodies the spirit of civilised humanity. In Uruk, every day is a festival. People sing and dance in the streets, music is everywhere, and even old men are roused from their beds. Under the aegis of the Goddess Ishtar and her priestesses, sexual fulfilment is promised to all.
Homer’s Iliad revolves around the Trojan city of Troy. Troy is a city favoured by the gods. Ruled by King Priam, its hero is Priam’s son, Hector, a man renowned for the heroic virtues. Troy is, above all, a place of ultimate refuge. Against the marauding Greeks, Hector defends his family and his fellow citizens beneath its walls. It even remains a refuge for Helen and Paris – the lovers who brought the Greeks to fight their 10-year war. If the Greek king Agamemnon is portrayed as greedy and dominating, Priam embodies more attractive qualities. This is seen nowhere more clearly than when he visits the tent of Achilles, who has killed Hector and savagely mutilated his corpse. Priam goes unarmed in order to honour Achilles and beg for the return of his son’s body. Even Achilles is moved by this and relents. Still, however great Troy is – however civilised and accommodating – it will be sacked and burned by the Greeks. Its people will be slaughtered, enslaved, or forced to flee into the wilderness. Centuries will pass before Virgil tells the story of its ‘rebirth’ in his idea of Rome.
Chris Jones and Andrew Hirst have been writing about the city for as long as I can remember. In this essay I’d like to think about how their ideas reflect or depart from the mythical blueprints of Uruk or Troy. In what sense is their city a refuge, a monument or a palace of human fulfilment? I’ll start with Chris Jones’ poem, ‘Home’. The poem is a meditation on a 15-year-old girl who goes missing. There is a complexity to this poem that makes it more than just a compassionate elegy to a lost girl. The middle section makes it clear that the speaker works in a prison, and it evokes that sterile, all-male environment keenly. This is a place where life goes stale and men survive as ‘ghosts of themselves’. It is a place that the speaker cannot get out of his head, even when he’s left its perimeters. It carries on in his sleep where ‘slow, grey men lumber through [his] dreams / and whisper spite.’ The poet’s sense of the innocent (the girl) is played against his awareness of the fallen or corrupted (the men). She lingers in his mind even after her disappearance has passed out of public consciousness. She becomes ‘his girl’, not ‘a girl’, or ‘the girl’, and it is tempting to equate her with the poet’s own anima. He imagines her as ‘gristle in the city that would swallow her whole.’ The final and most tender movement of the poem takes place in his imagination. He projects her tracing her way back through a hard life on the streets until she returns past the shops, ginnels and gardens she knows to her own door where she announces ‘it’s me, I’m home.’ Home is a place where her unique voice is recognised.
In many respects, the city in this poem represents the antithesis of home. It’s a place where people disappear and are forgotten. It’s where the voices of the ‘homeless’ go daily ignored. Elsewhere the city is a prison, where home is always deferred, unless, worse still, prison becomes home when a prisoner is institutionalised. In Jones’ work, home is usually a nesting ground for human care against the insatiable city or the impersonal institution. The heart of his city, where it has one, is domestic, familial, rarely civic. People return home to recover what the modern city takes away. Home is small and vulnerable, but it does endure, if only as a humane idea in the minds of those somehow lost or retracing their steps.
Andrew Hirst’s poem ‘Frome XIX’ begins with a striking declaration: ‘The city I love so much is disappearing’. If Uruk is the monumental city, a stab at permanence, then Hirst’s city is one where cultures and communities are subject to rapid decline and redevelopment. The poet in ‘Frome XIX’ nuzzles ‘in between two gable ends / down a pitch black alley, at the alley’s end / a coppice gate, beautifully wrought’. Is he trying to find some sense of intimacy with the disappearing city of skilled manufacture and industry? The speaker is somehow left behind, out in the cold, even when he looks out from ‘unlit rooms’, where the only monuments are ‘ponderosa pines’ swaying in ‘agonies of light and shade’. Even the stars are ‘replaced’, presumably by artificial lights. This is a city that doesn’t quite know what it is, or who it belongs to; or if it does, it’s not to everyone, not equally. The poet is ‘ashamed of the class [he’s] from’ and resorts to the language of recovery without ever seeming to believe in it. There is an odd, displaced beauty to all this, a kind of heroic stance, but it is never allowed a sense of victory. The poem stutters, loses its thread or its sense, is interrupted by its own contradictions, much like the place itself. This city is a kind of dream poem conjured by human beings, but somehow not quite human. Nothing exists here without being distorted. I find the closing lines stirringly ambiguous: ‘voices / of children flare up, acetylene behind the stanchions / of the abandoned giant works, a parched toad / heading for the sewer, any water.’ Sewage systems are one of the triumphs of the modern city over squalor and disease. They are one of the most significant advances ever made. For the toad, however, they are a last ditch, a place of exile, where nature itself is flushed away. If this image seems bleak, or dark, it is also an image of the survival instinct. It isn’t the image of a toad being flattened under a passing car, as it so easily could be. It strikes me that Hirst’s poetry is full of such difficult consolations. The durable has passed out of the buildings and back into life or the spirit of life. I find that a hopeful place to begin again.
Essay commissioned for Sideways & Familiar, a poetry walk through Sheffield led by Andrew Hirst and Chris Jones on 17 October 2009. The walk began at the main train station in Sheffield (with readings in the goods yard), continuing to Brown Street (via a stepped passageway) for a further reading, on to a semi-enclosed space adjacent to FirstPoint (near Norfolk Street) for the third reading, through the Winter Gardens and into Upper Chapel courtyard for the fourth reading, past Sheffield Cathedral and down a side street for the fifth reading, and through a series of narrow passageways opening into Paradise Square for the final reading. A podcast of Sideways & Familiar (recorded in several locations in and around Sheffield city centre, 13 September 2009) can be heard below:
The three sculptures ‘Mother and Child’, ‘Angry Woman’ and ‘Running Woman’ by George Fullard (1923-1973), currently situated in the courtyard of Upper Chapel, Sheffield, were photographed by Brian Lewis.