Monday, May 26, 2008

May Poetry Prompt 2 - Contrasts

Contrasts are a good way to add tension and texture to a poem, by, for example, suggesting opposing emotional states, or clashes of personality, or environments. They can also act as a structuring tool, as the following poem by Jay Leeming illustrates:

The Light Above Cities

Sitting in darkness,
I see how the light of the city
fills the clouds, rosewater light
poured into the sky
like the single body we are. It is the sum
of a million lives; a man drinking beer
beneath a light bulb, a dancer spinning
in a fluorescent room, a girl reading a book
beneath a lamp.

Yet there are others — astronomers,
thieves, lovers — whose work is only done
in darkness. Sometimes
I don't want to show these poems
to anyone, sometimes
I want to remain hidden, deep in the coals
with the one who pulls the stars
through a telescope's glass, the one who listens
for the click of the lock, the one
who kisses softly a woman's eyes.

Jay Leeming
from Dynamite on a China Plate: Poems
Backwaters Press 2006

Buy now at The Book Depository

This poem uses light and dark in its two stanzas. It also shows us a whole city (a million lives) in the 1st, and the particular thoughts and desires of one person in the 2nd. It may be that once you use one pair of conrasting images and ideas then others find their way into the work too.

Brainstorm for a list of contrasts and opposites. Here are a few to start you off, but write freely for 5 or 10 minutes and find what matters to you:

wet and dry
mountains and valleys
death and birth
sound and silence
cold and warmth

Work on a draft of a poem that uses two stanzas to explore your opposing ideas.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

May Poetry Prompt 1 - Image and Statement

Some of you will know that I am the new haibun* editor at Simply Haiku, an online Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry, and in honour of the latest issue this prompt will ask you to work with a minimum amount of words, and a limited amount of poetic tools.

The following poem is a tanka by Dave Bacharach**:

empty flower pots
stacked upside down
inside each other
we wonder why
the kids don’t call

Tanka traditionally have five lines with some kind of ‘break’ in the poem, often around the middle. They don’t have titles, and adopt a similar approach in their construction to haiku, in that the economy of the form demands that every word counts.

What I admire about this tanka is how the image in the first three lines, sets us up for the statement in the last two. The relationship between empty flower pots and wondering ‘why the kids don’t call’ is not explicit, but the poem immediately feels right to me. When I go back and unpick the image to find out why, I note:

1. the flower pots that presumably once held flowers make me think of the home and the children who used to live there
2. 'upside down’ is not the way a flower pot is meant to function, so something isn’t quite right here, or maybe it’s not the season for flowers now
3. there’s both a sadness and an intimacy suggested by the pots being ‘empty’ and stacked ‘inside each other’

I’m sure there are other observations to be extracted from this short poem too, and feel free to post your responses in the comments box.

While I‘m not going to ask you to write a tanka, as there’s far more that needs to be said about the particularities and possibilities of the form, I am going to challenge you to write a five line poem, some of which might end up being tanka:

Write an untitled, five line poem with each line being no longer than 5 words:
The first three lines should contain an expanded image.
The last two lines should contain a statement.
And it goes without saying that each part needs to inform the other.

Bon courage… as people keep saying to us here when they see how much work we have to do on the house!

*Haibun is a form that combines prose and haiku, with each part being autonomous, yet informing each other at the same time.

**Dave Bacharach is editor of Ribbons, a quarterly journal and the official publication of the Tanka Society of America

Sunday, May 11, 2008

April Prize Poem

Working with form is an interesting process. It restricts by virtue of its pre-determined shape, yet it liberates because we can focus more on what we want to say, our ideas and language choices, rather than deliberating at length over the line breaks as we would during the making of a free verse poem.

In the poem prompt based on Gerald Manley Hopkins’ poem I said:

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.

And for this reason I’ve chosen ‘Peace of Mind’ by Mary Rose as April’s Prize Poem.

The poem is both a lament for someone lost (‘amid grieving’) and a poem of perseverance in the face of that grief (‘the only way’). It bears witness to the strength of the human spirit, but does not idealise it, as the last line movingly states: ‘the blessing of night’ brings relief from the harsh situation that the light of day all too glaringly reveals.

The long third lines in each stanza are particularly effective in this poem as they both contain ‘lists’ and the accumulation of the items adds to the atmosphere of someone keeping busy.

I also admire the line break after ‘peace to be won/’ – the fall to the next line works very well with the emotion expressed there as well as slowing us down as readers to feel the impact of what is said.

I wasn’t sure, at first, about the title – is it too familiar a phrase, verging on cliché, perhaps? But when I read the poem again I realised how the familiar phrase is being concretised by the poem, and that the activity of gardening IS the peace of mind the poet seeks, although what is also interesting about this poem is that there’s no specific point of view. For me this choice contributes to the universality of the poem: the poem was written in response to one particular person’s grief yet we are all included, we have our own memories of keeping going, or we feel comforted by the fact that we are not, or we will not be, alone.

Many congratulations, Mary Rose. Your prize will be in the post next week.

Peace of mind

It’s a garden for today
where work waits to be done.
There’s a stream to keep clear, weeds to uproot, peace to be won
amid grieving, the only way.

There’s a bonfire to light,
seeds to be sown,
plenty to leave for another day, edges to trim and grass to be mown.
First the blessing of night.

Mary Rose

Friday, May 09, 2008

May - Ideas for Free-writing

Where has the beginning of May gone? Well fourteen hours of it was spent driving from Calais to Antibes yesterday which is my excuse for not having chosen April's Prize Poem yet. And because I want to give them all an appropriate amount of time, I'm going to read them again this weekend before I choose.

In the meantime here are some free-writing prompts. Don't set out thinking 'this will give me a poem', rather see them as a work-out for stretching your creativity. Be as free as you can, just start writing with the first thing that comes to you in response to these phrases/ideas, and don't edit.

1. No one likes to remember this...
2. Write a list of excuses.
3. You are powerless...
4. What's hidden from me.
5. Write about being lost. Then found.