Saturday, May 16, 2015

Prompt #222 – A Sense of Place by Guest Blogger Margo Roby

This week, I’m very happy to introduce Margo Roby 
who joins us with a guest prompt about place in poetry. 
Margo, poet and blogger, has written in her poetry journal:

“I, as far as I knew, did not have a poetic bone in my body, although I always loved reading the stuff. Dimly, in a well-buried brain cell, I remember writing a nativity poem, in quatrains, many quatrains, for my parents. There was a drawing on the card, too. I cannot draw. But that was long, long ago and definitely far, far away.

In 1992, a miracle happened in the shape of the poet Jack [James, if you are Googling him] Penha, who arrived to teach English lit and Creative Writing, in my department. He was, and is, an internationally published writer. I was a brand new teacher not at all sure how one analyzed a poem, never mind taught it. I asked whether I could attend his poetry writing semester in the hopes that if I knew what went into writing a poem, I would be able to analyze a poem. I was right. Bonus: I discovered I had an ability to write poetry. I have been in thrall ever since.”

Be sure to visit Margo’s blog Wordgathering:

From Margo:

Think about what you mean when talking about place, in poetry. Is it physical, emotional, or facts? How do you go about establishing, or creating, a sense of place?

Place, or a sense of place, is one of the aspects of poetry that continually gnaws at the corners of my brain. Place fascinates me because it encompasses everything: time, past, present and future; a locale’s inside and outside; whether it is natural or man-made, landscape or city; as well as, what makes each place unique. A sense of place includes the history of each place, what has happened in the past, how the place has evolved, what it might become. A sense of place includes its geography, everything from its topographical features to its weather.

I saw it referred to—on the now defunct blog, Inkseeds—as a sense of “whereness.” Where we fit, how we fit, wherever we may be. The author speaks of building our personal mythologies and our identities “largely from the materials of where we are from, where we have been, where we are, where we wish we were... place is formed by our personal and cultural myth, which in turn creates the very concept of place.” No place, no us. Place is our context for being.

Jennifer (no last name) goes on to say: “Place [is] also the impact of human presence – people who are in a place now, people who lived there before. Place includes politics, environmental concerns and community. It includes both the effects of time, and our changing perceptions over time. Any stories we have or poems we make about place include us, as poets, as part of the landscape whether we are just passing through or are a permanent resident.” That’s something to consider, isn’t it?

Place is informed by all our senses. Think of the place you say you are from, or the one you call home. Along with images are going to come smells and sounds. In some cases, like mine, taste might come into it. I grew up eating Chinese food. It informs my sense of place when I think of where I am from, Hong Kong. I tried to grapple with capturing Hong Kong in a poem, my sense of Hong Kong, for others to experience. I ended up with a list poem of imagery. All the senses. A long list.

With all the digital access to places, we have entry points to anywhere we wish to be, but a sense of place requires feet on the ground to anchor a place’s persona. We have to experience a place, its history and its culture, the aspects that make it Tuscany, not Wisconsin, Chicago, not Paris, a coffee shop, not a five star restaurant.

Dr. Thomas Woods (Making Sense of Place, Inc.) describes it as “The feel of the sun on your face or the rain on your back, the rough and smooth textures of the land, the color of the sky at morning and sunset, the fragrance of the plants blooming in season, the songs and antics of birds and the cautious ramblings of mammals are environmental influences that help to define a place. Memories of personal and cultural experiences over time make a place special, favorite objects that shape to your hand or body with use, songs or dances that emerge from the people of a place, special skills you develop to enjoy your area—these too help to define a place and anchor you in it.” (

You can tell I can go on, but I want to start you thinking about place in your life. Get out your pen and notebook, your tablet, your recording device and let’s go. List places you have lived. As you list, jot notes, sensory details that define a place, for you. List places you have visited. List places in your day to day life. Yes. More notes. Sensory details. While you are jotting, your brain will continue pulling up details for places on your list. Here are some possibilities for what you can do with your discoveries:

You can either choose a single place and give us a sense of the place;

Or, you can find commonalities, a thread that connects more than one place, and focus on that thread;

Or, you can write about your connection to a place, but remember the sensory details that will help us be there with you (remember the speaker is never the writer -- if you need to change facts for the good of the poem, do so);

Or, maybe you have a truth you want to convey about a place that is being/has been lost, whether for natural, economic, or political reasons;

Or, you can look at a poem such as Sandburg’s ‘Chicago’ (link below), choose a place of your own and mimic the poet’s structure.

When you consider establishing the sense of place in your poem, remember sensory details and think about whether a specific form will work to enhance the content.

You will notice that a sense of place is inextricably tied to a poem’s mood as well as a speaker’s tone. Here are a few poems that give a strong sense of place. Their authors tend to focus on place in their poetry. Go through the poems after you read them and study how each poet establishes a sense of place.

Robert Frost  “A Late Walk”

Elinor Wylie  “Sea Lullaby” (if I were a child and read, or heard this, I’d never go near the sea again)

James Wright  “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” (The title, alone, gives a tremendous sense of place.)

Seamus Heaney  “Bogland”

Many thanks, Margo!


  1. It's interesting how often a sense of place figures in our own poems and in the poems of famous poets. I don't think I've given the idea much thought prior to this blog post, and I send my thanks to Margo Roby (and to you, too, Adele).

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Jamie. I agree with you that place does figure strongly in many poems.

  2. Amita Jayaraman (Mumbai)May 17, 2015 at 8:13 AM

    This is wonderful, filled with ideas and suggestions for poems. Thank you, Margo Roby!

    1. Thank so much for your comment, Amita! I'm happy to hear that you enjoy the prompt.

  3. I read Margo's blog from time to time, and it's always enjoyable. So nice to see her here.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Rich! Yes, Margo publishes a wonderful blog—one that I recommend to all!

  4. Thank you, Margo and Adele. I posted but I don't know if it actually posted.

    1. You're very welcome, Risa, and, yes, your post came through just fine!

  5. Koreatown NYC

    grey concrete city
    incense and paper lanterns
    at home yet foreign

    1. Wonderful images, Risa, to power your fine sense of conveying a lot through very few words.