Landless space


In a discussion event I organised as part of London Word Festival, Melanie Challenger advocated a poetry that is intimately tied to landscape.

We need to anchor everything back to the real, to the physical world, to the landscape […] The urgent task of everybody is to tie together land and word and world […]

She also said…

It worries me that poetry is finding its home in a virtual realm, in a landless space, in a place that isn’t attached to anywhere where it’s trying to place information that will have direct action on those who are living real lives somewhere.

I was interested to hear what Melanie had to say, particularly as I strongly agree with her first point and strong disagree with her second.

An example, if I may.

The phenomenon of flashmobbing – however trite, crude or (sometimes) entirely absent its message – reconnects people with their environment, with their urban landscape. Flashmobbers, free-runners, skateboarders and other urban street game enthusiasts transform, if only for a few moments, the way we use space and the way we perceive place. These practices are conspicuously ‘real world’ but they rely on the internet (and to a lesser extend, mobile technology) as a means of communication. They simply wouldn’t be possible without it.

Without wanting to read too much into Melanie’s words, I think her views are based on a now-outdated conception of the internet as a socially-isolating force. Yes, that danger always exists, but so does the potential for the internet to bring people together in innovative, dynamic social contexts. If the internet in the ’90s was characterised by isolation and in the ’00s by interaction, it is now becoming a place of integration.

According to the blog Mobhappy

This combination of the virtual world and meat space is something we’re going to see a lot more of over the next 10 years. As the real world becomes highly networked (in urban areas anyway) it’s going to be completely integrated with the online world. Who knows what the consequences of that might be. But the future’s never going to be the same again.

This chimes in with the work of architect and cultural theorist William J. Mitchell in his excellent book Placing Words: Symbols, Space, and the City. Mitchell prophesises the increased use of technology in urban spaces, the embedding of interactive media and nanotechnology within architecture, what he calls ‘urban information overlay’. This might sound scary, almost Orwellian (actually more Matrix), but it’s already with us. Just think of the rapid spread of Wifi coverage (The City of London was entirely covered in 2006 courtesy of commercial operator The Cloud). This is all Mitchell.

By the dawn of the twenty-first century, [digital technology] had become a ubiquitous, ghostly presence that flowed ceaselessly through global networks and lurked everywhere within the objects we encountered in our daily lives.


Physical spaces and the information space of the World Wide Web no longer occupy distinct domains – meatspace and cyberspace in the provocative trope of the cyberpunk nineties – but are increasingly closely woven together by millions of electronic devices distributed throughout buildings and cities. These devices add a dynamic layer of electronic information to the mise-en-scene established by an architectural setting and the meaningful objects and inscriptions that it contains.


Architecture no longer can (if it ever could) be understood as an autonomous medium of mass, space, and light, but now serves as the constructed ground for encountering and extracting meaning from cross-connected flows of aural, textual, and graphic, and digital information through global networks.

Whilst I share some of Melanie’s anxieties, it’s no good sticking your head in the sand and pretending the internet doesn’t exist.

For a start, there’s no reason why a literature that is tied to the land can’t be distributed in and through the ‘landless space’ of the internet. Secondly, what ‘land’ are we talking about here? I live (have always lived) in the city, in a largely built environment. Melanie talked of how man names his landscape, how he produces meaning from his surroundings. And this is what my poetry of place is concerned with, however irregularly it succeeds. The City is as much landscape as, say, the wilds of Dartmoor. I have written on the submerged river Effra, a tributary of the Thames which flows from Norwood to Vauxhall. But it is also a place that is peopled – if man names his landscape, the City is furious palimpsest not blank canvas. If the future City integrates the physical and the digital in its streets, skyscrapers, parks, shops, squares and public spaces, then I hope the poet, the artist, is there to record it.

Apologies to Melanie if I’ve misconstrued her words at all!

*** Please check comments for Melanie’s response ***


  1. Melanie Challenger says:

    Hey Tom,

    I’m going to write a proper response to this in the next few days but, as you know, I’ve only just come back from a long physically and mentally exhausting trip to Antarctica, so I have to wait for the neurons to dethaw and some spark of thought to return! But I’m glad you’ve got the ball rolling on a debate, and I just wanted to clarify for any readers now, as your comments could lead to a very false perception of me and what I was actually saying.

    Firstly, I was clear in the event on Friday that I am an Internet nut. It’s a subsidiary brain for me, and a useful prosthetic. I research it and I research on it. Many of my colleagues and friends are conjured in spite of the physical miles by its thaumaturgical faculties, and I conduct important aspects of my life through it. I am a huge advocate of the internet. What I was actually saying was that the considerable and growing presence of poetry on the internet is something any conscientious poet should recognise with some circumspection. The relocation of any culture, person, species is usually the result of an erosion of space elsewhere. I was simply warning against the forces that might have been causing this erosion, rather than skipping for joy at the presence of poetry in its vast virtual space, and turning a blind eye to the predator or predatorial forces that might have forced it into the new territory.

    I love that you mention free-running. Funnily enough, I use free-running and its history in the new collection of poems I’m currently writing. Free-running is brilliantly modern, and it uses the internet as a social tool, so what? The point with free-running and the fuselage of its prior military influence is all about reasserting an intimate, physical, and willful presence in a sometimes will-less urban space.

    And…I may look like one with the curse of my big old Byronic hair-do, but I’d be downright furious at any assumption that I skip through the dales in my corset and long for the good old days of the corsair! I lived in NYC for ages, and the city is in every poem I now write. As we all now, it was the birthplace of another brilliant urban form: sampling. The only trouble with sampling and the bloody ease of the e-state it’s all disembodied, and anything can find itself lifted to triteness and misinterpretation.

    But I’ll try and respond properly soon, as this is all fascinating territory, and it’s great to get some dialogue going on it.

    Oh and I’d REALLY love to read Effra. Please send it. Sounds fantastic.

  2. permanenttourist says:

    Wow Mel, you’re swift! Thanks so much for responding. I do remember you mentioning that the internet was like your surrogate brain (an excellent image by the way), but I thought I’d leave it to you to fill in the gaps.

    The issue of poetry on the internet, which was – it’s true – where your argument came from, is a tricky one, and it really depends on whether you’re talking about *publishing* on the internet, or using the internet for some other means. I reserve a fair amount of cynicism about the former (see here for more), but am a strong believer in the internet as a promotional tool, linking producers of poetry (writers, publishers, promoters &c.) with new readers. New avenues for niche products is what the internet does best. And poetry is still, yes, niche.

    Salt’s a good example of how online marketing can boost sales of real, paper books. The internet affecting how real people spend their disposable income.

    I agree that it’s worth investigating the ‘erosion of a space elsewhere’ that may have caused poetry to go online, but I certainly don’t think that poetry is a dying artform (I’m not suggesting you think this either, but it is a widely-held belief). In fact, I’m not even sure that poetry has relocated online to the degree that you think it has. There are plenty of new print magazines, for instance, that have sprung up in the past few years, all edited by young people (ie. under 35s). I do think that the ‘centre’ of poetry is becoming increasingly conservative, and is alienating potential new audiences, which is why it’s great that there are people doing important work on the fringes.

    * * *

    Parkour poetry? Now that’s something I wanna read. Seriously.

    I used to skateboard, back in the day. Loved every second of it, until my ankles collapsed.

    Thanks for dispelling the dales/corset/corsair image 🙂 And I agreed with a lot of what you said about hip-hop and sampling.

    Effra is an oldie (c.2001) but happy to share if I can dig it out (the poem that is, not the river – that would require some effort).

    T x

    More later.

  3. Sarah Dustagheer says:

    I think one of the issues that Melanie’s points raises, I’m not sure if this is her intention, is the Marshal McLuhan’s adage ‘the medium is the message’. The fact that poetry is booming, and some would argue exclusively booming, on the internet is a valid and important topic for analysis. Poetry is developing in a new medium, the internet, and the internet clearly shapes and develops the art form in ways that should be investigated. Melanie and Tom both have valid points about the effect of the internet, which are by no means mutually exclusive. The internet is, as Melanie points out, ‘landless’, at once everywhere and nowhere. Yet, it can also be, as Tom points out a space of social connection.

    What I would be interested in is how these two characteristics of the internet, two of many, shaped the poetry that is created on the internet. Does the medium become the message, and if so, how?

  4. permanenttourist says:

    Hi Sarah,

    Thanks for joining the debate!

    In my opinion, if the internet is changing anything re. poetry, it’s changing the way the artform is promoted and received. Very few poets are actively engaging in the medium as a creative force (with some interesting exceptions, such as Andrea Brady).

    I do think that the internet is (I think very usefully) rebalancing the poetry ecology, giving space and exposure to emerging writers, and to those groups/traditions previously marginalised by the centre. So when I think of the ‘e-zines’ I like, read and respect, they tend to be coming out of avant-garde literary scenes (The Archive of the Now, Intercapillary Space &c.). This is hardly change at all for some, who have always sought out marginal spaces – sometimes very consciously.

    I would be interested to see more examples of poetry that makes use of the internet and/or digital technology in new and interesting ways.

    T x

  5. permanenttourist says:

    I’ve uploaded ‘Effra’ to my blog here. Bear in mind it was written when I was 18!

  6. Tim Wells says:

    Isn’t the interweb just a new type of jam for the toast of poetry?

    Sampling certainly came from Jamaica before it hit NYC. Both great places though. Lee Perry’s ‘Cow Thief Skank’ is oft claimed by music nerds (I’m in the reggae category) as an early example. Anyway, I digress.

  7. Neil Dawn says:

    Fascinating listen. I am 28 minutes into the first half, Melanie has just begun at her “colossal rate of cultural” Extinction, great title Mel, mine is Poetry Assassin, a print on demand gag only now possible to execute as a bore talking of the important things, making others aware of the next big wave of opportunity for us perhaps, to talk of it, to sell our wares in the physical realm of sensible commercial practice, for the good of a verse-leader Astley, the most interesting of the bunch and his reasons, completely genuine. Hearing him read what a poem in which the most physically fundamental occurence of his life apart from the final breath he so truthfully found, as a man who knows how to drum up interest, due to his own genius as Ed, and hearing hi8m read put it all in perspective, his accent devoid and detached from the others, respectfully whispering almost his name, for he is the main force, and a great business head, and his call to save the planet by buying his books, a touch of the messanic comedy of divine will to be oneself in our chosen art, alone we are all unique, each of us a poem, and i will get back to the eco-system, forces of change, lets do useful things, “i was in a pub talking to an oceanographer” and it was only then i heard about the humpback transmission, cultural ownership, back to basics, imitation is action, that’s why we have massive evolutionary forces of planetary talk, about buying my book, Desmond Swords: Poetry Assassin, out at the end of the year, get thinking about dealing direct with the saviour of verse, the zeitgeist in overnight change, dreaded up, feeding the ocean of pubs in the iconography of the seat of any given arl doff i don to fail, bet yer rotten dollars, dazed and abused, excluded by a language sounding structured in a cruicible of, eye eye, it’s all a loada hot air innit Mel, the Extinction of culture, and tom, i have only ever worked online and find it is the perfect place to praise my work and explain myself experimentally in a way impossible in trad print rag routes to wherever we are going, d’yer gerrit, lingo extinct, nea, but the accent needs defining, the stress of this and that, buy the book, Astley knows how to do it, a balance of doom and hope, in equal measure, his windyt metric founded on a solid base the day his brothers house blew down, in a life and event unmakeupable, unique, the life a poem, lived as the “music of what happens” cuchullain and finn mcCool spoke first, not george szirtes, who got it offa heaney, DC centrality, CD out soon, space to home attached amateurs and lovers of pros, free from refrain, the game is self anointment, to know that poetry is not reaching as many as possible, it worries me, information in drag, dressed for reflection in the resistance of a clock tied cultural tick tock, MORan doRAN, i stood their a stereoptype cliche freeloading on the value system, spending the carbs, observing to impart the hieratic ending, the prohpetess, Extinction ms is about atomisation of landscape, abstract nounless verbal event, academic verse of Ideas and the scientist blue blood, up beat light verse, here out heart in the heart of the big L lah diddle dee doh, poetry makes nowt th’appen lard, ard ri, coerce, it doesn’t MAKE sat on the BAKE, THINK!!! MYSTERY and unknowing, i recently got a commsssion coz we gotta do the spendz, heat the air blue, change the planet at the trough of state subsidised worlds, think-heavens, mental spaces where language lives and the wet root of Seigas i will meet you at this year, whoever’s there, here where poetry lives, on the line of advanmced guard, johnny ball, in schism with rolf harris, two shifting motives in Astley lead the rest of the cloned wan…phwoar, poetry as panacea living in the jingoeeze of a bulldozed depluralising gobble dee consciousness rebooted to third point fave philospher, cultural DNA, loss of codes for poetry, have a gander at the four cycles and see the frame the thralls in Neil’s stable do not,

    grá agus síocháin..

  8. jane Holland says:

    Call me simplistic, but I can’t see how Melanie’s idea of poetry needing to be tied to a physical space prevents us using the internet as a medium for distribution. We don’t tend to write poetry ON the internet; we just publish it there. Sarah Dustagheer’s question is the one to ask: does the medium become the message, and if so, how?

    I know my poetry has changed since shifting away from writing directly onto a computer screen – how I used to compose – to writing longhand in a notebook, with a pencil rather than a pen. I’m more adventurous now, more open to ‘alternative’ versions, now that I can circle things and add stuff alongside the original. On screen writing demands new pages for new versions, or makes viewing alternative versions at the same time as original versions rather trickier than on paper. This seems to me making my writing both more fluid and more organic. I seem to have more space and freedom to develop my ideas and am less concerned with the ‘finished look’ of a piece of writing – which was the big advantage of writing directly onto a screen in the beginning, i.e. being able to see immediately how it would look on the printed page. Now the ‘look’ of the poem comes later and the language itself – sound allied to meaning – automatically takes precedence. Which can only be good.

    So for me the medium certainly affects the message. But it’s an extreme viewpoint to believe that it actually becomes it.

    I agree that the centre of poetry feels increasingly conservative. These things are cyclical though; at some point the centre of poetry will swing wildly, as a reaction against that conservatism, and then regain some sort of balance for a while. What we have at the moment is a build-up of pressure. When it explodes may be due in part though to the more immediate medium of the internet: people talking about poetry, publishing poetry, reacting against poetry, in ways that are far quicker and perhaps more centralised than would have been possible in the past.

    Our entire culture is now bound up with technology – as you rightly point out, Tom. Resistance, as the Cybermen would say, is futile. Poetry needs to find a way to work with that, and there’s no reason to think that the ability to freely publish online is going to lower standards at the ‘top’. Nor is it divorcing poetry from a physical location. We don’t live in cyberspace, after all; we just think and communicate there: our bodies are on the earth, and irrevocably connected to it.

    Now when we start living in space stations … THAT may be the time to start worrying about poetry’s lack of connection with the land. 😉

  9. kayvee says:

    hmm, probably not quite the right place to leave this comment, but just wanted to say thanks for the comment Tom, and the add, and most of all for helping put on such a great show the other week. hope all the other events have gone well too!

  10. permanenttourist says:

    Thanks for all the comments. Neil/Desmond – loving ‘Johnny Ball in schism with Rolf Harris’! Very interesting to hear, Jane, about how paper/screen affects the way you write, edit, cross-reference etc. And I think you’re right that a big distinction is that you’re more likely to be concerned about the visual aesthetics of a poem if you write directly onto screen. At Book Futures on Thursday Martyn Daniels brought up another good historical analogue, the introduction of the typewriter, a kind of half-way house perhaps.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s