Poem of the North

Fifty years of the Northern Poetry Library


The  Poem of the North blog is a discussion point for poetry and all things poetical, the North and Northern-ness – and anything library-related.

Photo: Melanie Ashby

‘Better were the northern skies’

In 2010, a time when I was in a struggling relationship and working an ill-suited job in the overly ambitious world of advertising, I relocated from London to Newcastle. Moving north signalled a new stage in my life; liberation through new surroundings and an opportunity to re-focus my energies on writing. When I was asked to contribute to Poem of the North, the first thing I thought about was the direction itself, which seemed to me irreducibly progressive.

After I’d finished writing my 8-2-1 poem, ‘North’, I shared it with a friend who reminded me that my final line, ‘what matters / most is keeping north, and keeping north inside’, echoed a line from a Louis MacNeice poem in Letters from Iceland, the book he co-authored with W.H. Auden about their 1936 Icelandic adventure.

In ‘Epilogue for W.H. Auden’, MacNeice considers landscape and our reception of it as something that the traveller brings with them. For him, the north was linked to the Icelandic Sagas he had read, which he and his companion found reflected in the landscape. The line my friend referred to is actually attributed to Auden, the second ‘don’, who MacNeice quotes in his poem:

And the don in me set forth
How the landscape of the north
Had educed the saga style
Plodding forward mile by mile.

And the don in you replied
That the North begins inside,
Our Ascetic guts require
Breathers from the Latin fire.

There is a considerable fear that the political atmosphere of the late 1930s when MacNeice composed ‘Epilogue for W.H. Auden’ has once again reared its fascistic head throughout Europe and the US. Instead of positioning the north as something that only ‘begins inside’, I wanted my poem to work as a mantra, a compass in itself, to encourage the reader to take action in that northerly direction. We must remain progressive, collectively and in ourselves, we must keep going northwards.

John Challis is a Poet in Residence for the Northern Poetry Library; he lives in the North East and works as a Research Associate and Teaching Fellow at Newcastle University. He is the recipient of a Northern Writers’ Award and a Pushcart Prize. His debut pamphlet of poems is The Black Cab (Poetry Salzburg, 2017), and poems have appeared on BBC Radio 4, and are published in magazines including Butcher’s Dog, Clinic, Iota, Magma, Poetry London, Poetry Salzburg Review, The Rialto and Under the Radar.

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