Sarah Maguire
Cross-Fertilisation: Poet in Residence at the Chelsea Physic Gardens

Sarah Maguire

Sarah Maguire has published two collections, Spill Milk and The Invisible Mender, which was a Poetry Book Society Special Recommendation. A trained horticulturist, she worked as a gardener before becoming a full-time writer and broadcaster.

 


In the beginning was a garden. And a poet to write about the garden. The garden, and the plants it nurtures, is a subject which has occupied poets of all times and places more consistently than any other apart from love and its inconsistencies. Think then of the bewildering possibilities facing a poet let loose in a gardenÂ….

The aim of this small project is to stimulate the connections between poetry and gardens; to interest horticulturists in poems about plants, and to inspire poets and poetry-readers to look at plants afresh.

Chelsea Physic Garden was founded in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of the Apothecaries of London. At that time, botany and medicine were indistinguishable and the purpose of the garden was to allow medical students to study plants used in healing. Hence its title of 'physic' garden, the old name for the art of healing. As the study of plants became separated from medicine, newer 'botanic' gardens (most famously at Kew) were established. Chelsea is the only garden to retain not simply its original title but its original purpose: many of the plants grown there are used for scientific and medical research.

Chelsea is a small garden - three-and-a-half acres (two hectares) - close to the Chelsea Embankment, which is one of the appealing aspects of working there as the poet in residence. Not only is it possible to get a grasp of the gardens, but I've got to know the curator and the head gardener, as well as many of the staff who work there. Chelsea also has a history of working with artists, and has a fresh and flexible approach to interpretation.

My main contact has been with Dawn Sanders, the inspirational and hard-working Education Officer. Dawn has been involved in many exciting projects attempting to open up the gardens to different groups of people. Most notably, she's worked with Moroccan women from the Al-Hassanyia Centre in North Kensington, encouraging them to share their extensive knowledge of the plants from Morocco, which has proved to be moving and exciting for the women involved.

Given twelve days work at Chelsea Physic Garden, the easy option would have been to hold a series of creative writing workshops with staff or members of the public and leave. But Dawn and I decided that we wanted to make a more permanent poetic mark on the gardens, one that could be an important resource long after the funding for this project had expired.

Because Chelsea is a physic garden, it's laid out in a different way to other botanic gardens. Although Kew, for example, is the world's most important site for botanical research, most visitors to the garden are struck by the aesthetically designed planting schemes. Chelsea, on the other hand, whilst undeniably 'beautiful' is unusual in that the visitor is always conscious this is a 'working' garden; that the plants are there not for pleasure (simply) but for their function. This 'utilitarian' aspect of the garden of course allows for unexpected and pleasing juxtapositions of plants. The part of the garden where its scientific role most clearly takes precedence is in the Dicotyledonous Order Beds. It's here that we've decided to intervene with a little poetic ordering of our own.

The name 'dicotyledonous' means 'two seed-leaves'. All plants are either monocotyledons (with one seed-leaf: bulbs and grasses are the most common example) or dicotyledons (the far larger group, encompassing everything from rambling roses to the Giant Redwood Tree). Within these two main groups, plants can further be divided into family groups, here represented in the Order Beds. All botanic gardens will have Order Beds (the ones in Kew are quietly tucked away) because it's in the Order Beds that their function of being botanical rather than pleasure gardens is most clearly revealed. The Order Beds are the raison d'être of a botanic garden. The science of botany depends on classification, classification which most famously began in the eighteenth century with Linnaeus. He began collating plants into groups depending on their shared characteristics, such as the number of petals in their flowers and the arrangement of their reproductive systems (inflammatory stuff circa 1750). The system currently used in the Order Beds at Chelsea (and elsewhere) was further modified by the nineteenth-century botanists, George Bentham and Joseph Hooker. But these classification systems, whilst fascinating for botanists, can seem terribly off-putting to the casual visitor to the garden because the family resemblances simply can't be 'seen' by the untrained eye. There's no doubt that the Order Beds are the least examined part of Chelsea Physic Garden; all the more reason for our intervention there.

What we've decided to do is to 'plant' poems in the Order Beds, poems which, in some way, are connected to the plants. Gardens, of course, are full of plants which poets have written about. But the Order Beds are full of plants which very few poets will have heard about, let alone been inspired by into verse. There are forty-nine Order Beds at Chelsea, and my first (exhaustive) task has been to 'map' the Beds, noting down the names of plants which may have a matching poem (sunflower, anemone, peony etc.) or looking up the translation of the scientific name of the plant which could provide a clue ('Aster' means 'star' in Latin, for example). Stage two (now underway) is to track down suitable texts for the plants. Stage three is to select a couple of lines from each poem, engrave them on a standard plant label, and then 'plant' them amongst the blooms.

Please visit the Chelsea Physic Garden website on http://www.cpgarden.demon.co.uk

At the conclusion of this residency, The Poetry Society published a book edited by Sarah Maguire. For more information, see "A Green Thought in a Green Shade" on our publications page.

 

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