While maps are, first and foremost, sensible aids to navigation, many people also consider them to be beautiful works of art. For others, they serve as a launch pad from which they can escape into a world far removed from reality.
This is illustrated by the presence of maps in literature, in particular poetry. With this in mind, we’ve put together our top five map-based poems. Take five minutes out of your hectic day and soak up the cartographical images these poems throw up.
The Map by Elizabeth Bishop
“The names of seashore towns run out to sea,
the names of cities cross the neighbouring mountain"
Recovering from flu in 1934, Elizabeth Bishop, wrote this meditation on what a map is and what it has the potential to be.
Focusing on the North Atlantic, she brings the map alive with simile. Take for example, “These peninsulas take the water between thumb and finger/ like women feeling for the smoothness of yard-goods.”
This poem forms one of Bishop’s first collections, North and South: A Cold Spring, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1955.
Click here to read the full text.
Cartography For Beginners by Emily Hasler
“Take a little licence with rivers,
especially their curves and estuaries. Add
an oxbow lake if at all possible.”
Contemporary English poet Emily Hasler uses East Anglia as a good place for the cartographic novice to begin - not because it might be any easier than other locations but because of the presence of water that she seems obsessed about.
She says, “If the area you/are mapping has no seas/lakes/rivers/streams,
I have to question why you are bothering/ You won't get to use that lovely blue you spent so long
There is a playfulness to the poem which reflects on the dichotomy of cartography: the need for accuracy and the desire to make it look beautiful.
Read the poem with commentary here
Map by Wislawa Szymborska
“My human breath
creates no stirring air
and leaves its total surface
Polish poet, Wislawa Szymborska, winner of the Nobel prize for literature in 1996, questions the static nature of the traditional map, “Its plains, valleys are always green…”
In contrast to the digital map, physical maps can be misleading. However, this is something Szymborska finds appealing: “I like maps, because they lie/ Because they give no access to the vicious truth.”
Click here to read the full poem.
The Map-Maker On His Art by Howard Nemerov
“This my modest art
Brings wilderness well down into the range,
Of any budget…”
This poem, written in 1957, seems to suggest the cartographer is undervalued in comparison to the intrepid traveller. Reflecting on the ‘bronze, heroic traveler’, Nemerov says, ‘they will name a hotel for him/And none for me.’ Don’t worry Nemerov, us map geeks see cartographers as the real heroes!
The Whitsun Weddings by Philip Larkin.
“That Whitsun, I was late getting away
Not till about
One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday
Did my three-quarters-empty train pull out…”
Strictly speaking this highly regarded poem should fall into the transit category rather than cartography. It tells the story of the poet travelling from Hull to London and his observations along the way, most notably the various wedding parties that pop up at the stations of ‘nondescript’ towns.
As he approaches his destination he says, “I thought of London spread out in the sun/ its postal districts packed like squares of wheat.”
Brilliantly evocative of a sleepy, dusty England long gone, it stands as one of the greatest poems by one of the most celebrated, if deeply misanthropic, poets of the 20th century.
A statue of Larkin was unveiled in 2010 and stands on the concourse of Hull train station: it shows the poet in a rush to catch the train, echoing the opening lines of of this very poem.
You can read the full text at Poetry Archive along with an audio recording by the man himself.
image credits: "Szymborska 2011 (1)" by Chancellary of the President of Poland; "EBPL" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia. "Philip Larkin in a library" by Fay Godwin; "Howard Nemerov" by not known. Wikipedia.