Poem for the Summer Solstice

Four Seasons, BBC Radio 4, Weds 21st June

For the last 12 months writer and radio producer Tim Dee has celebrated the year’s turning-points – solstices and equinoxes – as days of poems on Radio 4. This summer solstice, June 21st, he has invited me to read a poem ‘made from the middle of the year’ live on Woman’s Hour.

I’ve chosen my reading from a long poem about a ruined castle, Dunstanburgh on the Northumberland coast. I love this place for its remoteness – to reach it you have to walk a mile across fields – and for its mystery. It stands on a crag at the edge of the sea, and – while its human purpose passed centuries ago – now, reclaimed by the natural world, it seems more alive than ever. All winter it sings in the wind; and all summer, swallows animate its hollow towers.

How will it feel to read this poem, originally recorded on site, in a windowless studio in central London? How will listeners receive it in very different parts of the country?  I hope that, whoever and wherever you are, there is universal appeal in a place where sea meets land, in its wild birdsong at dawn, at midsummer. I like to think that if listeners close their eyes for a moment, radio will take them there.

In the last half century we’ve seen a profound change in the way that people relate to place. It’s not something that we tend to talk about. In my own coastal area, a generation which knew every inch of the local land and sea-bed has given way to one which is less hands-on, which sometimes seems to appreciate the world around it primarily through a smartphone app, a camera or a screen. This is a sudden change, a fault-line, and it brings with it far-reaching consequences, spiritual, intellectual and environmental. It is as if we have all become outsiders looking in.

How can we reconnect with the non-human world? ‘Nature writing’ is a slippery term, as if Nature was not an essential part of us, or us of it. I am interested in art and writing which explores human culture, not as separate from Nature but as an efflorescence of it; and which places the human in a multiple perspective – glorious and terrible in what the imagination can achieve, vanishingly small in the history of the planet.

I hope that listeners who catch my solstice reading through the magic of technology, whether it be digital or old-fashioned ‘wireless’, will let the magic of imagination carry them to that place. I hope that the edges – sea and land, night and day, human and not-human – will flow into one another. Poetry, that most ancient art-form, can help reconnect these broken sentences, promising a wholeness that we yearn for, often without even knowing what it is we miss.

Catch the reading on Wednesday June 21st between 10am and 10.45 and afterwards on i-player.

The full poem, Dunstanburgh, is available in my collection, Two Countries, published by Bloodaxe Books.

2 Dunstanburgh by Katrina Porteous

Photo by Katrina Porteous

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