Our seventh sense is of place: Colin Will on Zen and the poetry of gardening

Sunday 3 March 2013

Poet and publisher Colin Will has been actively involved in developing Scotland's poetry organisations, including StAnza, whose Board he used to chair. Based in Dunbar, he runs Calder Wood Press. His poetry reflects his training as a scientist and his wide-ranging travels. But it is the homing instinct which starts this blog, on the theme of Legacy & Place.

I write on lots of subjects, but reflections on places feature very strongly. I have a good visual memory, and it’s relatively easy for me to form pictures in my mind of the places I’ve been, and the things I experienced or imagined in these places. In the preface to my second collection, Seven Senses (diehard, 2000), I said this:

To the accepted senses of sight, touch, taste, smell, hearing we often add a sixth sense of intuition, of knowing without knowing why. There is a seventh sense known to the salmon, to the wild geese, and other migrating and homing creatures. Our lives too are shaped by the places in which we are born and pass our formative years. More than that, these places affect the way we view the world, the surroundings we enjoy, and the things we take comfort in. This seventh sense - a sense of place - carries with it an unstated and unconscious network of associations and feelings. We all sense our landscapes in different ways, navigating by unrecognised beacons. Walking by the sea, or on the Cuillin ridge, will be different experiences for those from East Anglia or Easter Ross.

At a previous StAnza – I forget which year – I had the privilege of introducing Kenneth White’s reading. During the interval, offstage, we had a rare old natter on geopoetics, and I was delighted to find that in many respects we are kindred spirits. His geopoetics and my sense of place are very similar concepts.

Simply put, place is where you are at a moment in time. The meanings and values you assign to that place depend on many things: your personality, your interests, your knowledge and experience of the world. I know, for example, that in some places I am comfortable, in others I feel uneasy. I’m in my own skin when I’m in the hills, in a country landscape, or by the sea. Cities, especially crowded cities, increase my feelings of anxiety. It’s not claustrophobia, it’s just a sense of not belonging, despite being born in Edinburgh’s city centre, and spending my first fifteen years there. And yet I have happy memories of cities like Barcelona, Berlin, Rome, Paris, Beijing, San Francisco and Tokyo.

I’ve long had an interest in geology, and when I studied the subject at the Open University in the 1970s, it gave me a whole new insight into landscapes. Before that I had an eye for the beauty of a mountain scene, and after it I had an understanding of the forces and events that had shaped that scene over millions of years. And knowing how these places came to be served only to increase my sense of joy in their beauty.

Ginkaku-ji garden, Kyoto, Japan

Place and time feature naturally in the Japanese literary aesthetic, and that’s another element of my poetry. The Zen feeling of place, and capturing the Zen moment, are essential to the writing of haiku and other Japanese forms. The Japanese garden is an exercise in representing the essence of natural landscape in a formal space. And gardens are among my favourite places, a thread which runs through my most recent collection, The propriety of weeding (Red Squirrel, 2012).

Website: www.colinwill.co.uk

Blog: http://sunnydunny.wordpress.com

Photo  by Colin Will