In celebration of World Poetry Day (Thursday 21 March), James shares a blog about his research into the representation of ‘home’ in poetry.  

Home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answered to, in the strongest conjuration. 

                                                                    – Charles Dickens 

In Art and Literature, evocations of ‘home’ are often highly emotive. They can help us locate our past, or orientate our present. They can provide us with consolation, or act as historical witness. They can be mythological, political, or explore the jigsaw of personal identity. In recent decades, the question ‘where’s home?’ is one to which an increasing number of poets have been drawn. From Daljit Nagra and Patience Agbabi’s explorations of hybrid identities, specifically those of second-generation immigrants, to the broader, more metaphysical approach to human journeys in Ruth Padel’s collection The Mara Crossing, contemporary British poets have used their expressions of ‘home’ to challenge, update, and reimagine notions of identity and belonging.   

          My own preoccupation with the concept of ‘home’ started with a loss – the sudden and unexpected passing of my mother. In this sense, the loss of one ‘home’ became the necessary condition for the seeking and creation of others. Put bluntly, my mum had always been a vital centre of gravity in my life, had always been ‘home’, and her death instigated a necessary process of renewal – a reimagining of who, what, where ‘home’ was to be from then onward. This process started alarmingly quickly, before I was ready to acknowledge it, and was/has been, I must confess, both personally and creatively enriching. I still find acknowledging this quite uncomfortable. The poems written as part of my creative-critical thesis seek to explore this conflict, as well as the various ways that ‘home’ can be created, lost, reimagined, reinvented, experienced, and expressed. Poetry, then, in the context of my research, employed as a form of epistemological inquiry – as a means of ‘probing’ the ever-changing perimeters of ‘home’. 

          As a mode of articulation that explores and subverts language, that mixes the physical and the metaphysical, the past, the present and the future, that ‘tilts’ perceptions and sheds sideways light onto fixed ideas, poetry is uniquely placed to probe complex questions related to the human experience. It is, as Joseph Brodsky remarked, society’s “evolutionary, linguistic beacon”. That which helps us navigate a world increasingly characterised by global shifts of populations and rapid, sometimes dizzying technological development. A world in which constant change has become the status quo. 

          The creative component of my research thesis comprised of a book-length collection of original poetry titled Piano for Elephants. The collection is divided into three sections: ‘Hostland,’ portraying the cultural displacement of an English expat in Sicily and the search for belonging through language and shared experiences; ‘Homeland,’ featuring dramatic monologues from diverse perspectives within the UK, exploring uncertainties of belonging and the interplay of self and ‘other’ through poetic form; and ‘Home,’ examining the aftermath of the speaker’s mother’s death and the quest for a new sense of ‘home’. The poems trace the creation, loss, and search for new ‘homes’ as instigated by changing circumstances, changing relationships, changing socio-cultural-economic and environmental settings. 

         One key creative research method of my research project is dramatic monologue. The dramatic monologue has a rich historical lineage as a poetic form that explores and negotiates experience, from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point’ to contemporary monologues like Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Deportation’ and Patience Agbabi’s bailiffs, gang members, punks, and businesswomen, some born in the U.K., some not, that subvert and update the language of contemporary Britain. Characterised by its fictionalised voices and exploration of the dynamics between self and other, the dramatic monologue provides a poetic method of thinking beyond ‘home-thoughts’ and instead about the world at large in order to evoke and articulate different perspectives. By blurring the lines between self and other, the dramatic monologue reveals that ‘difference’ or ‘foreignness’ is an internal characteristic as much as an external one. The notion of dialogue (between self and ‘an other’) is therefore, paradoxically, at the heart of the dramatic monologue. Within this creative space, it is possible to begin to pose important questions about contemporary notions of identity, belonging, nationhood, and alterity. To explore the question ‘where’s home?’.   

          In a sense, we are always in the process of departing from one ‘home’ to another. As what we think of as ‘home’ changes, we change, which changes what we think of as ‘home’. In an increasingly globalised world, traditional notions of ‘home’, often rooted in history, country, and nationhood, can at times seem anachronistic, at others become politically divisive. Considering this, the task of reimagining what ‘home’ is and can be – less fixed, less static – becomes one of both personal and political importance. Poetry, as a form of articulation that allows a tilting of frames of perception, is ideally suited to the task. We can see this in the dialect-inflected reinvention of contemporary English in Patience Agbabi’s poetry, in Moniza Alvi’s reframing of cultural identities, in the disruption of accepted histories, values, and gender roles in verse by Kei Miller, Eavan Boland, and Choman Hardi. These poets, and others, show us that conventional and fixed ways of thinking of ‘home’ can no longer hold. 

          Most people have a particular mental image of ‘home’ – perhaps with links to community or family, rooted in place or belonging, often malleable, usually subjective and deeply emotive. In the fifth book of her autobiography series, poet and writer Maya Angelou wrote that “the ache for home lives in all of us”. One problem, perhaps, is that what one means by ‘home’ can be subject to change, to caprice of fate, to the direction of the wind. While the concept of ‘home’ is complex and ever developing, what is certain, is that we are all in some way the product of deposits of memory, custom, history, language, Art and culture; a whole universe of connected cultural imagination that begins at ‘home’ and, if we are lucky, ends up there. 

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