Sunday, April 27, 2008

April Poem Prompt 3 – Using Models

Artists do it all the time: they copy master paintings to learn how to achieve particular approaches and effects. So why not writers? I suppose we might be concerned that we’ll lose our own voice; that we’ll be a parody of another poet, that we won’t be original. And yes, there’s the risk of all those things, but think about what we might learn about form, language, sound and image by using a poem we admire as a model; what we might gain in the long term will surely outweigh the risk of any temporary absence of authenticity.

Here’s a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins:


A Nun Takes the Veil

I have desired to go
Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail
And a few lilies blow.

And I have asked to be
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea.

Manley Hopkins uses full end-rhyme (go/blow, fail/hail, be/sea, come/dumb) yet the rhymes don’t dominate the poem because of the structure of abba and cddc, the rhythm of the longer 3rd line in each stanza, and some enjambment: notice that there’s no punctuation at the end of the 3rd line in the 1st stanza so there’s no heavy pause on hail and we can read across to the next line and come to a stop at the end of that.

I also like the repetition of I have (I can feel the personal incantation in those lines), while his wonderful alliteration asks to be read aloud over and over again: notice the use of s and f and l which unify the poem so it becomes a tightly crafted song, or a prayer, or even a spell.

My challenge to you is to write a poem using this one as a model. You’ll need to have:

1. two four line stanzas rhyming abba, cddc
2. a longer third line in each stanza
3. a short phrase that’s used in each stanza
4. some alliteration to add music to the poem, but not deafen it!
5. at least one enjambed line

However, don’t resort to the inverted syntax that Manley Hopkins uses to accommodate the rhyme. To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail would be more naturally expressed today as To fields where no sharp and sided hail flies and it’s important that our poems sound like contemporary poems, not parodies of earlier traditions.

And of course the other important thing is to write about something that will be served by the form and rhyme I’m asking you to use. I mentioned ‘song’ and ‘spell’ above and you might like to explore those ideas: what could be celebrated in a short song, what kind of spell could you cast? But these are only suggestions; feel free to work with whatever feels appropriate to you.

As we’re quite close to the end of the month, I won’t be choosing April’s Prize Poem until the end of the first full week in May, so you have until 9th May to post your poems to this or any other prompt.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Notebook Idea: Why do we write?

Here are three things I’ve thought about:

As a celebration: of the diversity and perversity of the world, of the choices we make, of the people we meet, the things we do.

As a form of prayer:
a meditation, or a single-mindedness, a focused activity that is often done during consecrated time, time that has been devoted to the task, time that will not be shared with any other activity.

To inquire and question: Flannery O’Connor said, I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.

Open your notebook and start writing: I write because… Be spontaneous, honest, allow yourselves to be vulnerable, and not worry what other people might think, or what you imagine they might think. Try and be honest with the page. Keep writing, don’t stop to think. If you feel stuck, start again I write because… Write for 20 minutes.

I was introduced to this exercise by Tony Weeks-Pearson, a writer and tutor at Maidstone Adult Education in the early 1990s. It was Tony’s passion for writing – the process, the craft and the work of other writers – that set me off on my own writing path. A truly inspirational man.

Monday, April 14, 2008

April Poem Prompt 2 - Take a colour, any colour

In March I had a haiku published on tinywords:

all this green forgiving the rain

which I wrote as I was driving home from Wales last year (there can't be many literary forms you can write, edit and re-edit in your head as a complete thing!) and anyone who was living in the UK last summer will remember the amount of rain we had between the end of May and the beginning of August.

The green in this haiku is the literal green of the landscape but green has other associations too, e.g. youth, naivety and jealousy.

Here are a couple of groundwork 'colour' exercises:

1. Choose a colour and brainstorm for associations around it: single words and phrases, concrete objects, emotions, songs, familiar expressions, whatever comes into your head. Keep making random notes for at least 10 minutes.

2. Working with the same colour: .......... is the colour I remember. Continue writing for at least 10 minutes.

3. Now look at the colour wheel above and, using the opposite colour to your choice, write freely about what you like and don't like about this colour, what it reminds you of, what it makes you feel. You might even try addressing the colour directly, e.g. you were my school years, or, you're the taste of guilt... .

By this stage you might already feel the theme and shape of a poem emerging. If so, work your ideas and images into a draft then let it sit for a day or two before going back to edit. If you're still stuck, don't read back over your notes. Leave them for about a week and look over them then; it's possible that something will strike you as worth working with when you have a little bit of distance.

Happy writing.

Monday, April 07, 2008

April Poem Prompt 1 - Joy

Villa Les Marronniers. That’s the name of our new house in Antibes. Up until today we’d only ever been there in the presence of the old proprietor, an elderly lady who had lots of dark furniture and who kept most of the shutters closed. But this afternoon we opened all the windows, doors and shutters on every floor, let the sunlight stream across the old tiles and the walls with their ghosts of paintings, and Tony played the baby grand piano (the only piece of furniture left) and it felt like the house had woken up from a long, long sleep, almost as if it might be singing!

Yes, I’m euphoric.

What has lifted you? What has made you feel joyous? A place of natural beauty, or a town or city? Someone or something? Maybe a colour, or a shape, or a sound? Is it easier, or is there a more common tendency, to write about tragedy or loss than celebration? Perhaps that’s something Linda Pastan had in mind when she wrote the following poem:


I want to mention
summer ending
without meaning the death
of somebody loved

or even the death
of the trees.
Today in the market
I heard a mother say

Look at the pumpkins,
it’s finally autumn!
And the child didn’t think
of the death of her mother

which is due before her own
but tasted the sound
of the words on her clumsy tongue:
pumpkin; autumn.

Let the eye enlarge
with all it beholds.
I want to celebrate
color, how one red leaf

flickers like a match
held to dry branch,
and the whole world goes up
in orange and gold.

Linda Pastan
from Carnival Evening, New & Selected Poems 1968-1998
WW Norton & Co 1998

Buy now from The Book Depository

What is it you want to celebrate? Be expansive, throw open your poetic arms and don’t be frightened to show the world what brings you joy.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

March Prize Poem

I’m torn between three poems this month: Alyss Dye’s ‘Scarves on the Stairs’, Wisty’s ‘Pool’, and Margaret Beston’s ‘Journey’. They’re all very different with regard to subject matter and form, and I like them all for different reasons.

In Alyss’s poem a mother talks about her daughter’s departure from the house. The words earthquake, debris and muddle effectively describe the mess the daughter leaves in her wake, but apply equally as well to the mother’s emotional muddle about a young woman who once needed her guidance so much. In ‘Pool’, Wisty trusts the imagery to show nature’s ability to restore itself after humankind’s destructive interventions. The pool becomes symbolic of peace, reinforced by the image of the ‘flag’ growing at its edge, and the last line – like wings – lifts us as readers, with joy, with hope perhaps. Margaret Beston’s ‘Journey’ is relentless and sinister. The use of the command form, the repetition of familiar phrases, and the objectification of the ‘bodies’ shake me as a reader and I can’t help but think about the London Underground bombings of a few years ago.

In the end, after poems satisfy at the level of craft, then personal preference comes into play, and for this reason, I’ve chosen Wisty’s ‘Pool’. I love the economy of this poem, its rhythm and internal rhymes. The precise description draws me into the scene and atmosphere, but this isn’t just a pretty picture, it makes me think too. And the ideas of redemption and restoration are ones that touch me.

Congratulations, Wisty. I don’t have any contact details for you so if you’d like to send me your postal address ( I’ll send you your prize. Allow a week or so for it to arrive as it’ll be coming from France.


amongst sallows
and sedge
a pool
where once a bomb
pitted this marsh
now green blades
pierce its rim
and petals
of yellow flag
like wings