Landless space


In a discussion event I organised as part of London Word Festival, Melanie Challenger advocated a poetry that is intimately tied to landscape.

We need to anchor everything back to the real, to the physical world, to the landscape […] The urgent task of everybody is to tie together land and word and world […]

She also said…

It worries me that poetry is finding its home in a virtual realm, in a landless space, in a place that isn’t attached to anywhere where it’s trying to place information that will have direct action on those who are living real lives somewhere.

I was interested to hear what Melanie had to say, particularly as I strongly agree with her first point and strong disagree with her second.

An example, if I may.

The phenomenon of flashmobbing – however trite, crude or (sometimes) entirely absent its message – reconnects people with their environment, with their urban landscape. Flashmobbers, free-runners, skateboarders and other urban street game enthusiasts transform, if only for a few moments, the way we use space and the way we perceive place. These practices are conspicuously ‘real world’ but they rely on the internet (and to a lesser extend, mobile technology) as a means of communication. They simply wouldn’t be possible without it.

Without wanting to read too much into Melanie’s words, I think her views are based on a now-outdated conception of the internet as a socially-isolating force. Yes, that danger always exists, but so does the potential for the internet to bring people together in innovative, dynamic social contexts. If the internet in the ’90s was characterised by isolation and in the ’00s by interaction, it is now becoming a place of integration.

According to the blog Mobhappy

This combination of the virtual world and meat space is something we’re going to see a lot more of over the next 10 years. As the real world becomes highly networked (in urban areas anyway) it’s going to be completely integrated with the online world. Who knows what the consequences of that might be. But the future’s never going to be the same again.

This chimes in with the work of architect and cultural theorist William J. Mitchell in his excellent book Placing Words: Symbols, Space, and the City. Mitchell prophesises the increased use of technology in urban spaces, the embedding of interactive media and nanotechnology within architecture, what he calls ‘urban information overlay’. This might sound scary, almost Orwellian (actually more Matrix), but it’s already with us. Just think of the rapid spread of Wifi coverage (The City of London was entirely covered in 2006 courtesy of commercial operator The Cloud). This is all Mitchell.

By the dawn of the twenty-first century, [digital technology] had become a ubiquitous, ghostly presence that flowed ceaselessly through global networks and lurked everywhere within the objects we encountered in our daily lives.


Physical spaces and the information space of the World Wide Web no longer occupy distinct domains – meatspace and cyberspace in the provocative trope of the cyberpunk nineties – but are increasingly closely woven together by millions of electronic devices distributed throughout buildings and cities. These devices add a dynamic layer of electronic information to the mise-en-scene established by an architectural setting and the meaningful objects and inscriptions that it contains.


Architecture no longer can (if it ever could) be understood as an autonomous medium of mass, space, and light, but now serves as the constructed ground for encountering and extracting meaning from cross-connected flows of aural, textual, and graphic, and digital information through global networks.

Whilst I share some of Melanie’s anxieties, it’s no good sticking your head in the sand and pretending the internet doesn’t exist.

For a start, there’s no reason why a literature that is tied to the land can’t be distributed in and through the ‘landless space’ of the internet. Secondly, what ‘land’ are we talking about here? I live (have always lived) in the city, in a largely built environment. Melanie talked of how man names his landscape, how he produces meaning from his surroundings. And this is what my poetry of place is concerned with, however irregularly it succeeds. The City is as much landscape as, say, the wilds of Dartmoor. I have written on the submerged river Effra, a tributary of the Thames which flows from Norwood to Vauxhall. But it is also a place that is peopled – if man names his landscape, the City is furious palimpsest not blank canvas. If the future City integrates the physical and the digital in its streets, skyscrapers, parks, shops, squares and public spaces, then I hope the poet, the artist, is there to record it.

Apologies to Melanie if I’ve misconstrued her words at all!

*** Please check comments for Melanie’s response ***


Lyrical terrorism

The trial of Samina Malik has come to a conclusion at the Old Bailey. The self-proclaimed ‘Lyrical Terrorist’ was found not guilty of possessing articles for a terrorist purpose, but guilty of collecting articles ‘likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism’. Amongst the evidence levelled against Malik were two of her poems, entitled ‘How to Behead’ and ‘Beheading – How it Feels’. She is, as we say in the business, working a groove.

Malik is hardly unique. Plenty of people with beliefs bordering on the psycopathic have taken to writing poetry. Mao Zedong was a respected poet in the Chinese Romantic tradition. Stalin also penned Romantic verse and was published in his teens. Ezra Pound’s antisemitism and fascism are well-known. Saddam Hussein wrote numerous novels as well as poems like this. And we even find a minor poet behind the anoraked figure of Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

This might appear to be merely coincidental. Surely lots of people write poetry? But there is something, I think, that draws together Mao, Stalin, Pound and the unlikely figure of 23 year-old Samina Malik. It is an adherence to perfection, a belief that the world can be redrawn according to a set of common principles (communism, fascism, islamic fundamentalism). The impulse to rule over people is not so far from the impulse to create art. The poetry I like is open-ended, messy, inconclusive, even contradictory – it is language interrogating itself. But poetry can easily be escapist (like Saddam’s fantasy novels) or push black-and-white political or philosophical agendas. Poetry and power are both products of the dreamworld.

*  *  *

Contrary to the popular stereotype, poets can be busy people. And not just with mass murder. I received an email today from Melanie Challenger who writes:

I am currently mid-Southern Ocean, and the sea is liquid platinum and sublime. Albatrosses arc down to the undulating surface and it is as though we were all upon the back of a whale, quietly sleeping.

Melanie is an Artist in Residence for International Polar Year 2007-8, working alongside scientists in Antarctica and developing her novel Extinction. Perhaps a sign that writers can affect positive as well as negative (see above!) change, Extinction will explore the environmental dangers threatening our world, set against the awesome backdrop of the Antarctic. We are all waking up from a bad dream.

I wish Melanie luck on her voyage, and look forward to welcoming her back in March for a special event at the Bishopsgate Institute – ‘Make Nothing Happen: Writers and writing in a threatened world’.