Sunday, February 08, 2009

February Poetry Prompt 1 - Imperative

Prose poems are not easy to write, though there are one or two poets who have the gift of making them seem effortless. Patricia Debney is one of those poets.

How Not to Be a Woodlouse

Avoid damp, dark places. Try not to hide. Your shell is for protection only.

Seek sunshine, dry weather, fresh flowers. Develop a taste for clean, clear water, and the smooth, pungent skin of just-picked fruit.

Celebrate the lightness of your touch, the way your feathery caress holds people still.

Remember, that, like you, the world is not black and white, but made up of delicate shades of grey.

Patricia Debney
from How to be a Dragonfly
Smith Doorstop 2005

Buy now from The Book Depository

However, what I'd like to explore during this prompt is not how to write a prose poem. although the option is there, but how we might use the imperative.

The imperative is the verbal form that expresses command, entreaty, advice, exhortation, and generally exists in the 2nd person (Pick up the book - literally 'you' pick up the book) or the 1st person plural (Let's catch a train.)

We use imperatives from day to day for different reasons, e.g.
telling people what to do: Close the window.
giving instructions: Put the coin in the slot and press the red button; Add 3 oz of sugar.
giving advice: See the doctor - it's the best thing.
making recommendations: Have the fish, it’s always good here.
making offers: Have a bit more wine.

There’s an idea of authority behind the use of the imperative, but its use doesn’t imply that the addressee will succumb to the suggested authority of the speaker.

Patricia Debney's poem is a list of instructions that takes the form of an extended metaphor: we realise that these actions and insights translate to the human condition. This is persuasive, gentle advice (to the poet herself, to a specific person, or to a more general audience) that transcends any one individual's experience and addresses a collective consciousness. The use of the imperative is an essential part of the poem's effect on the reader.

However, the imperative can also be aggressive, accusatory, judgemental. It can express anger, fear. It can exhort, and even suggest hopelessness. Think of Dylan Thomas's 'Do not go gentle into that good night/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light' - a poem that asks for the impossible, that is without authority to change anything.

Flick through an anthology and look for poems that use the imperative. Try and identify:

1.the effect of the imperative (tone, mood, theme)
2. who’s speaking to whom
3. the degree of authority

and then try writing your own poem that uses the imperative either as a principal shaping tool, or at some point in the poem for a particular effect.

I look forward to reading your poems, and in the meantime here's one of mine from my collection, Learning How to Fall:

The Path

What woke you last night –
screech of owls,
the moon smothered by clouds?
This morning a fracture
of tail-feathers on the path,
wind scouring the glen,
your own breath sucked in
through clenched teeth,
and this bush choked by holly –
green berries hard as stone.
Don’t touch them. Don’t stray
into the tangled woods
with your gift of fruit,
your feet twisting in hollows.
Don’t look up
through the cracked
kaleidoscope of leaves
to see what that cawing is,
the world tipping, your heart
unsure where it belongs.
Go back.
...........At the place
you started from, an open door,
heat, a man and woman
laughing – voices
you will begin to recognise.

Lynne Rees


Keith said...

Don't look for me

Don't search for me
in grey clouds and Autumn rain,
biting winds
and bitter moments.
Don't look for me
through distorting tears,
unfinished conversations
and vague 'if onlys'.
You'll find me
veiled in the phrasing of a gentle tune
or stirring anthem.
I'll surprise you
within the hint of an aroma
passing by on the breeze
or the subtle hue
on some abstract canvas.
I'll whisper remembrance
hidden in the punch line of joke
or the feathered touch
of a stranger in a crowd.
You'll know me
in the secret smile
that crosses your heart.

Keith Wallis

Lynne Rees said...

Hello, Keith, and thank you for posting at AppleHouse. I like your poem's movement from the present tense to the future tense - 'I will/you will' both add a sense of comfort, something to look forward to.

Martin Cordrey said...

Tale of the white rabbit

A man with one ear ring walked his dog in the woods, came home with a white rabbit on a lead; he offered to cook the mammal for his young bride as a love gift who broke down in tears, phoned her mother who suggested parsley and a low simmer. In the morning she wrapped the bones in a silk slip, buried the package in her herb garden. Back inside the honeymoon was over.

Martin Cordrey said...

Life of a six-inch nail

Looking down
from on high

the possibilities
appeared endless

the first tap
tap, tap

were exhilarating

the point
head long

into a new

Tap tap
tap tap


Abegail said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Abegail said...


She looks down at guilty ankles,
she cannot lift her head.

He tells her mania is bad,
but she doesn’t think

that’s the type she has: because
hers is being the sun at midnight.

annie clarkson said...

Another wonderful prompt, I love Patricia Debney's prose poems...

Here's my attempt:

After the accident

Sit in a garden chair and stare at the sunflowers all day. Notice how they bend in the wind, how they lean away from the wall, straining to escape from the string that fastens them there.

Sit outside all day and watch the way light shifts. Follow the sunflowers’ shadows as they dance on the garden wall. Learn their complex movements so you can improvise your own flamenco: an intricate dance that matches the sunflower’s passion, the emotional turn of its head in the wind.

Listen to a cante libre in the rustle of leaves and birdsong, click imaginary castanets as you stare, stare, stare at gypsy flowers expressing all the emotions you feel inside.

Imagine walking across the grass. Imagine freeing the sunflowers from their tethers so they can experience all their sadness and pain and be truly free to move.

John Kenny said...

Caring for llamas and camels

Oh, don't ever mock a llama,
no don't ever make one cry.
For they're much inclined to drama
and the foolish beast may die.
When you stand before St Peter,
when you wait before his gate,
if you are a llama harmer
don't expect a happy fate.

And the same thing goes for camels
and for dromedaries too
For all the creatures that are classed
as ungulates in the zoo.
Don't go creeping up behind
to give their back a hefty thump
(having always on your mind
the thought to make the poor beast jump),
for such a cruel whack
may quite distress the hapless mammal,
thus bringing on a heart attack
and leaving you 'sans camel'.

And later, in the dead of night,
as in your bed you lie,
you may perceive a ghastly light,
may hear an eerie cry.
Yes you may see, beside your bed,
there in the ghostly gloom,
a camel risen from the dead
to haunt you in your room.

Martin Cordrey said...

How to knock down my school

Dig up the frozen pond
where we younglings were thrown by bigger lads.

Bulldoze the hall where I learnt pyrotechnics
and lights distribution.

Dissect where I caught a male and female Biology teacher
demonstrating the creation theory.

Erase the room where a chemistry teacher
exposed me to the poetry of the Irish.

Dismantle the space an English teacher discussed the financial break down
of the Soviet Union a decade before the fall of the wall.

Eradicate where I spoke to my first black person and SG
showed me her new breasts.

Demolish where I learned to sing Jesus Christ Super Star.
Where I kissed a girl, and I liked it.

Obliterate where I burnt my ‘welsh rabbit’
Where I set off a fire extinguisher to get out of carving with wood.

Destroy the playing fields I learnt to kick with my weaker foot
and realised I’d never me an Olympiad…

Then, pour concrete over my life, without my permission
after knocking down my school.

Stephen Fryer said...

Why don't you
destroy my mood
with your entrance?

Destroy my mood
with your entarnce,
why don't you?

Martin Cordrey said...


Howzatt goes the shout
hard luck, sorry your out.
Loud applause from the gallery
one hundred and eight his final tally
flat caps fly in the air
bowled middle stump, fair and square

great innings, well done old boy;
the stories, the laughter, and joys.
No! Cries a lady in a fur hat

that’s not how it should be done
out for only one

that’s not cricket, they complain.
Please God let her bat again.