Saturday, February 23, 2008

Poem Prompt 2 - Refreshing Cliché

Clichés abound in our spoken language though, generally, in poetry we tend to avoid them, unless, for example, we're using them deliberately in a persona poem to suggest character. The use of cliché, in this case, can serve to strengthen the reader's belief in the speaker. The use of cliché, or over familiar language, elsewhere can suggest that the poet hasn't worked hard enough to find their own way to express an idea and has fallen back on a communal 'shorthand'.

The American poet, Kay Ryan, consciously works with clichés and familiar expressions, often taking one as the title of a poem and freshening it in some way for the reader. She might 'interpret' it, or explore an idea behind it, usually with brevity (lots of her poems are less than 14lines long) and always with precision, lyricism and wit. I highly recommend her book The Niagara River.

In the following poem she explores the phrase 'green behind the ears', the ideas of youth, innocence, and nostalgia. Read this for inspiration and then, working with your own chosen familiar expression, explore the ideas behind it in a poem of not more than 14 lines.

Off the top of my head, the following clichés/phrases come to mind, but brainstorm for your own list too:

one volunteer is better than ten pressed men
don't count your chickens
beauty is in the eye of the beholder
sly as a fox
pretty in pink
dead men don't talk

Green Behind the Ears

I was still slightly
fuzzy in shady spots
and the tenderest lime.
It was lovely, as I
look back, but not
at the time. For it is
hard to be green and
take your turn as flesh.
So much freshness
to unlearn.

Kay Ryan
from The Niagara River
Grove Press New York 2005

Buy it at The Book Depository.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Notebook Idea - 777 - Day 7

And here's the seventh, and last, 7 minute writing prompt. I'll be posting the next poem prompt in a few days. See you soon.

February 18th: dream home

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Notebook Idea - 777 - Day 6

Nearly there! Here's the 6th writing prompt. Just seven minutes, that's all you need to find.

February 17th: the sudden smell of...

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Notebook Idea - 777 - Day 5

And the 5th seven-minute-writing prompt is:

February 16th: all day rain

Friday, February 15, 2008

Notebook Idea - 777 - Day 4

Here's the 4th of the 7 'seven-minute-writing-prompts':

February 15th: stones

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Notebook Idea - 777 - Day 3

Here's the 3rd prompt out of the seven. Write for 7 minutes.

February 14th: what lies beneath love

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Notebook Idea - 777 - Day 2

Remember: it's only writing freely for seven minutes a day for seven days.

Prompt 2:
February 13th - the road is blocked

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Notebook Idea - 777

How do you feel about writing for 7 minutes every day for 7 days? Everyone can manage 7 minutes. No excuses. So set your alarm clock, cooker timer, or mobile phone, start writing and stop when it goes off. If you feel brave, you might even decide to post a draft poem, or even the notes for a poem, that you write every day. Under your own name, a pen-name, or even anonymously.

Prompt 1:
February 12th - nooks and crannies

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

February Poem Prompt 1 - Persona

January’s Prize Poem was a persona poem: a poem written in the first person (I or we) but which uses a voice other than our own, i.e. the poet adopts someone or something else's identity, and allows them to speak.

When we write a persona poem we have two options:
1. We can take on the persona totally and speak with that voice and through the identity of that persona. We sustain that voice, remain faithful and accurate to that persona's story or imagined life, and do not lapse into our own voice or concerns. The January prize poem uses that approach.
2. We can project our own pre-occupations into that identity, so the persona's voice becomes a sort of metaphor for ourselves and can enable us to express intimate thoughts in surprising ways. We can alter the story in any way we choose, or project whatever thoughts we choose onto that persona’s voice. The poem might act like a ‘mask’ in the same way that fancy dress can protect and liberate us at parties! If you know the work of Carol Ann Duffy, take a look at her collection, The World’s Wife, and in particular the poem, ‘Mrs Midas’, which updates the Midas myth to a contemporary woman’s experience of her husband’s greed and explores the effect this has on their relationship.

Of course, we could say that whichever approach is used some opinion of the poet will always be present, after all, language, imagery, and even the subject matter in the first place are all down to a particular poet’s preferences. But what matters is that we work consciously with either approach and also try and convince the reader of the persona’s world. If the reader believes the world the persona lives in then they’ll be more easily persuaded by what they have to say. Using precise concrete detail will help us do this – language that appeals to the reader’s senses, things they can see, hear, feel, touch, taste and smell.

The following poem, by Nigel McLoughlin, makes me feel the farmer’s connection to the landscape, how it is almost a part of his own physical body: The dark mass of the hill/is mine to the bone. Look through some poetry collections and anthologies and read some more persona poems, seeing if you can identify which approach you feel the poet has taken, then have a go at writing your own.

A Hill Farmer Speaks

No-one envies me my spire of fields
when the sun barely creeps above the maam
in the bowl of winter, the whirlpool of early spring
and I'm out pounding the land in all weathers
climbing up the sheer face after sheep
or up to my oxters in lambing time.

Not even the hill walkers want
to cross my bare quarter, under
the brooding bulk over Doire Ui Fhril
where the wind sheers in from Toraigh.
It's no wonder I took the second job
to see the animals foddered over winter.

No-one understands why I stay,
why, day in and day out I hob-nail
my barren acres, where I know every stone
and own each knuckle of ground.
The dark mass of the hill
is mine to the bone.

Nigel McLoughlin
from Dissonances (bluechrome 2007)

Available from Amazon.

Friday, February 01, 2008

January Prize Poem

I’ve chosen the moving poem ‘Hibaku’ by Margaret Beston as the prize-winning poem for January.

The form works very effectively with the subject matter: each couplet contains an image, and each image builds from the previous to create a specific physical scene. The progression of the poem is measured: this isn’t a poem of anger, it’s more Wordsworth’s ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’; a poem of acceptance and moving on. It’s hard to imagine how anyone can really accept and escape from such an event, but the poem, for me, is a testament to the power of the human spirit, and I feel honoured to be in the presence of this ‘voice’.

It’s a very difficult task to write about other people’s tragedies, particularly ones of such huge proportions, like the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Holocaust. But one way of tackling them is to create a specific persona, or voice, to speak of their particular experience, in this case the collective persona of the Hibaku, in the first person plural. That way we avoid self-aggrandisement, or any sense that we’re making someone else’s story ‘our story’.

The poem’s language is consistently very well chosen but I particularly like the image of the ‘butterfly leaves’ in the 4th couplet. It makes me think of ‘the butterfly effect’ (the phrase refers to the idea that a butterfly‘s wings might create tiny changes in the atmosphere that ultimately cause a tornado to appear, or prevent a tornado from appearing) and how even small events can have repercussions, that our actions, and even our thoughts, have an effect on other people and our environment. A good poem makes me feel and think, and ‘Hibaku’ does just that.

Many congratulations, Margaret. Your ‘prize’ is in the post. And here's the poem for everyone to enjoy.

Hibaku *

In the precinct of the Kokutaiji Temple
the camphor tree has been uprooted

the fireball has scorched the bark
of phoenix trees, hollowed out their trunks

charred stumps of temple ginkgos
scar the landscape, their

butterfly leaves incinerated
by the apocalyptic blast

no life, no greenery, our city
is a sterile wasteland

then we see the water of the Ota river
running fresh and clear and

beneath scorched earth
green roots spread and grow

sending out defiant shoots
‘bearers of hope’

like the rainbow appearing
when black rain fell

we will lift the phoenix trees
plant them deep among the ashes

spread their seeds of peace
around the world and

in April fragrant Oleander blooms
will fill the acrid air.

Margaret Beston

* ‘Hibaku’ is the name given to survivors of the Hiroshima A-bomb.