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Rea

Dream Poet

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Dream Poet

 

You sat upon her heart

and danced a merry jig

She loved the adulation

and tripped upon the fig

 

 

She wished to see your face

that launched the sun and moon

But time and love needs patience

and hearts break hungry swoons

 

 

I wished that it was, I

concealed behind your eyes

To sit within your heart with love

and whisk with joy, your smile

 

 

She spoke to you from within

body, soul, and mind

In your heart, you misread

a thousand words, unkind

 

 

She wanted just to tell you

Your poetry is bliss

Your similes and metaphors

Breathe with perfumed kiss

 

 

But, you were just too anxious

To be a loving heart

You inked with perfect passion

your chords that melt, apart

 

 

Now the past has dwindled

the esctasy and joy

of love, the unrequited,

silence, locked behind each sigh

 

You illuminated her world

for a minute in the stars

A life time in infinity

where love light sparkles are

 

 

© Rea 20th May 2011

Edited by Rea

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Perhaps less telling and more showing. Some notes I copied from elsewhere:

 

Notes from a course I took a while ago:

 

Show or tell?

 

The general rule for poetry, and, indeed, most good writing, is: 'Show, don't tell'. That is: don't explain your 'message', but instead exemplify it through the use of images or narrative. Many poems never advance beyond the message, or telling, stage.

 

When writers insist on spelling things out, or planting oversized signposts directing us towards enlightenment, it can seem like an insult to the reader's intelligence. Most readers hate to be underestimated in this way, and would actually prefer doing some of the work, by contributing to the final interpretation with their own act of imagination. A successful poem, by its very nature suggests or evokes a theme. When writers step in to explain the message, they have abandoned the poetic in favour of the polemic.

 

In the following poem, a breadcrumb trail of clues gradually yields up the story behind the poem, rather than the writer telling us what happens. Follow the trail.

 

The story of the white cup

 

I am not sure why I want to tell it,

since the cup was not mine, and I was not there,

and it may not have been white, after all.

When I tell it, though, it is white, and the girl

to whom it has just been given, by her mother,

is eight. She is holding a white cup against her breast,

and her mother has just said good bye, though those

could not have been, exactly, the words. No one knows

what her father has said, but when I tell it,

he is either helping someone very old with a bag,

a worn valise held in place with a rope,

or asking a guard for a cigarette. There is, of course,

no cigarette. The box cars stand with their doors

slid back. They are black inside, and the girl

who has just been given a cup and told to walk

in a straight line and told to look like she wants

a drink of water, who screamed in the truck

all the way to the station, who knew, at eight,

where she was going, is holding a cup to her breast

and walking away, going nowhere, for water.

She does not turn, but when she has found water,

which she does, in all versions of the story, everywhere,

she takes a small sip of it, and swallows.

 

Roger Mitchell

 

Gradually the story of this poem is revealed: a child has been encouraged to pretend she wants a drink of water, so she can slip unnoticed away from the chaotic crowd, away from the train. It may be unclear immediately why. The punctuation is carefully placed in the simple statement 'There is, of course, no cigarette', for dramatic effect and import. The girl's father receives no cigarette, but seems not to have expected one. He wants instead, we are to infer (because we are being shown, not told), to distract the guard. It may be that at this point we start to comprehend the context for this poem: the type of train, and the guard who neither helps old women nor provides a cigarette 'of course', and the dark of the 'cars' are all our clues. Note, too, how punctuation and phrasing delicately indicates, without explaining, how the parents cannot say goodbye, without risking a scene which would spoil their plan. Overall, the extraordinarily emotional context is never commented upon directly (or 'told'), but is conveyed through concrete images and events: the worn valise, the guard and the box-car clincher among them.

 

Interestingly, the author is self-consciously present right from the start, flagging possible fictional aspects of the narrative, a device which nevertheless doesn't overshadow its reality. As Michael Donaghy puts it, 'this is the story of the story of the white cup. Like Coleridge, Mitchell has interposed a voice compelled to bear witness' (Donaghy, 1999, p.91). We can be pretty sure that even if this exact story didn't happen, something like it did. Later, the writer takes advantage of his own mythologizing of history's great and terrible events, by inventing the happy ending we'd all prefer. In this sense, it is a poem of hope, a quality you may think is enhanced by the Biblical connotations of the cup and water. Despite the presence of these objects that we might read symbolically in this way, the success of the poem is due to its handling of such an emotive subject in an understated way. Relying on the strength of his images, the author does not depend on emotional expression to convey an emotional subject. There are only a few adjectives, you'll notice. Less is more.

 

A way of theorizing this approach to poetry is given in the following quotation, which refers specifically to this poem:

 

The style is a studied artlessness – no similes, no metaphors, no discernible poetic diction – but the storyteller must offer us specificity, focus, or the story evaporates, so he fills in the gaps … [W]hatever its colour, the one object beyond fabrication is the cup, the talisman at the centre of the story.

(Donaghy, 1999, pp.36–7)

 

'Narrative' is the word we use to describe a poem with a linear development, and which tells a story. Poems generally fall into this, or one of a further 2 sub-divisions: the 'lyric ' and the 'dramatic'. (Dramatic poetry was originally associated with 'blank verse' – unrhymed iambic pentameter.)

 

Let's look at another poem, which also offers a slice of gritty real life, through images and an unfolding narrative of events.

 

Snow joke

 

Heard the one about the guy from Heaton Mersey?

Wife at home, lover in Hyde, mistress

in Newton-le-Willows and two pretty girls

in the top grade at Werneth prep. Well,

he was late and he had a good car so he snubbed

the police warning-light and tried to finesse

the last six miles of moorland blizzard,

and the story goes he was stuck within minutes.

So he sat there thinking about life and things;

what the dog does when it catches its tail

and about the snake that ate itself to death.

And he watched the windscreen filling up

with snow, and it felt good, and the whisky

from his hip-flask was warm and smooth.

And of course, there isn't a punchline

but the ending goes something like this.

They found him slumped against the steering wheel

with VOLVO printed backwards in his frozen brow.

And they fought in the pub over hot toddies

as who was to take the most credit.

Him who took the aerial to be a hawthorn twig?

Him who figured out the contour of his car?

Or him who said he heard the horn, moaning

softly like an alarm clock under an eiderdown?

 

Simon Armitage

 

What is the tone of this poem? What is actually happening, and what questions are raised by the story that it tells? What is odd about the third stanza?

 

Feedback

 

The tone of this poem is demotic, or like ordinary speech. The poem tells a story in joke form; its black comedy is introduced through the pun in the title. As in 'The story of the white cup', a deceptively simple story raises questions (although here they are related to the comedy of the poem): if the man is dead, for example, why are those in the pub congratulating themselves? The 'Volvo' image is highly effective, as well as blackly comic; it seems appropriate that such a smug guy, who seems to have it all, should be brand-marked in this way. His own 'finesse' (a sophisticated strategy or ruse, often used in card-playing) is his undoing. Once more, we see examples of the poet using images to build up the picture of the man and his personality.

 

This poem, like 'The story of the white cup', also raises some interesting points about truth and fiction. How does the speaker know what the man thought while he sat in his car, as described in the third stanza? A good storyteller, like a good joke-teller, embellishes the truth, to make it more real – offers details even when none were originally there. As Shakespeare writes in As You Like It, 'the truest poetry is the most feigning' (Act 3, Scene iii).

 

Please glance back briefly at 'The story of the white cup' and 'Snow joke'. Look for the number of adjectives employed. They are used sparingly in both poems. Beginning writers tend to want to rely too much on ornate adjectives, which are a way of 'telling', at the expense of the narrative spine, as we'll call it. If poems lean too heavily on poetic devices and description, the poem can lose its forward momentum.

 

Now think of an anecdote or story which you might relate at a party, for example. This could be something which recently happened to you or a story someone told you, or perhaps a dream. Use this as the basis of a poem of 8–10 lines. You are permitted similes or metaphors but no adjectives. Your description is limited to the unfolding story: what happens to whom, and how.

 

Feedback

 

You could have started your poem with variations on the first lines of 'The story of the white cup', if you wanted. Remember our discussion about poetic truth. If you had forgotten or didn't know a particular detail you should have made it up. Now go through the poem carefully and identify the most dynamic and muscular verb you used; it is this verb which will have propelled the narrative of your poem forward. Next, add 2 carefully-chosen adjectives at most. Do they improve the poem significantly, do you think?

 

In 'The story of the white cup', the cup leads us through the narrative in a very cinematic way; we follow its progress and glean the story from clues along the way. In the following poem, the writer reads into the object a possible narrative, giving the story a more meditative quality, but moving backwards and forwards in time, so past and present collide. The writer alternates between the fan in hand (what it looks like, where it's from) and the story it evokes, which seems to be part truth and part imagination – like most poetry and literature, in fact. In a strange way the object both distances and draws the narrator closer to the story behind it.

 

The black lace fan my mother gave me

 

It was the first gift he ever gave her,

buying it for five francs in the Galeries

in prewar Paris. It was stifling.

A starless drought made the nights stormy.

They stayed in the city for the summer.

They met in cafés. She was always early.

He was late. That evening he was later.

They wrapped the fan. He looked at his watch.

She looked down the Boulevard des Capucines.

She ordered more coffee. She stood up.

The streets were emptying. The heat was killing.

She thought the distance smelled of rain and lightning.

These are wild roses, appliquéd on silk by hand,

darkly picked, stitched boldly, quickly.

The rest is tortoiseshell and has the reticent,

clear patience of its element. It is

a worn-out underwater bullion and it keeps,

even now, an inference of its violation.

The lace is overcast as if the weather

it opened for and offset had entered it.

The past is an empty café terrace.

An airless dusk before thunder. A man running.

And no way now to know what happened then –

none at all – unless, of course, you improvise:

the blackbird on this first sultry morning,

in summer, finding buds, worms, fruit,

feels the heat. Suddenly she puts out her wing –

the whole, full, flirtatious span of it.

 

Eavan Boland

 

Instead of insisting on the truth of her story, the writer makes it a speculative narrative, fraught with drama and nostalgic romance. When we finally 'return' to the final image of the fan, it seems as if the past itself – its hidden stories – were 'flirting' with the reader.

 

The following poem is not a narrative poem as such, but in writing it my aim was to use groups of objects to suggest the invisible narratives behind these objects. I wanted objects (like the cigarette, or the guard) to exemplify large, emotive subjects, not as a diversion, but as a way of approaching a difficult subject. This is because an expression (or 'telling') of horror – particularly a literary expression of horror – may not adequately convey horror.

 

The refinery

 

You cannot look at narrow-brush moustaches.

You cannot think about gas-cookers, their ovens

flame-rimmed, the diadem of fire, or hear the bell

when it's done. Or think of teeth, lamp-shades, soap,

the refinery chimney-stacks, puffing cheerfully.

You cannot raise your hand in history class

to ask a simple question; your arm freezes

in a parody of salute. You cannot write 'horror'

because Horror is a good film for anyone

with a strong stomach and a taste for gore.

Anyway, the antique photographs are grainy,

have blurred into art – that Vaseline trick with the lens.

At dinner you sip the rot-gut wine

and listen to the table-talk – an operation botched

or an ache in the joints the doctor couldn't diagnose.

You choke with rage at the meal, gibbering,

while the devil samples your soul like buttered croissant.

 

Eva Salzman

 

Every object, or gesture which suggests a sub-text, I wanted to seem to loop back to the same terrible narrative, to which we can't help but return. It is important, though, in the light of our recent discussion, that the Holocaust itself is never actually mentioned. In one regard, the poem is about metaphor itself; these objects have become tropes, and can never again rid themselves of their associations.

 

It is worth being aware of the fact that pictorial representations – in this case photographs of the Holocaust – are often more distanced from the event they depict than are the objects which at face value may have nothing to do with it. This is because they have been transformed into works of art. Attempts at representing an event using photographs may fail, but we can't escape the messages expressed through the objects in our sight and hearing, which are additionally imbued with the complicity of the witness.

 

I intended the dinner-table chat in the last verse of the poem to suggest another kind of horror. The poem seems precisely to be about the impossibility of writing adequately on certain subjects. The refinery, the object which towers over all the others, is no longer just a chance reminder of the camps; it is also the factory through which the impossible subject, and the guilt one feels about this, gets processed.

 

Danger zone

 

Some poets seek out extremes to use as material, practising a sort of Disaster Tourism. In fact, it's almost too easy to write about the Truly Awful. However, the importance or emotional impact of a subject does not necessarily confer on a poem artistic credibility or quality. (In fact, big subjects often encourage a preponderance of 'telling' rather than 'showing' in poetic terms.) A news item reporting the dead is not poetry; however, a poet may turn this news item into the kind of poem which relies on artlessness for its primary effect. Such an approach may honour the subject more than the use of clever images.

 

The poem from the picture

 

The following poem is based on a painting.

 

Oi yoi yoi

(for Roger Hilton)

 

The lady has no shame.

Wearing not a stitch

she is lolloping across

an abstract beach

towards a notional sea.

I like the whisker of hair

under her armpit. It suggests

that she's not one of those women

who are always trying to get rid

of their smell.

You were more interested

in her swinging baroque tits

and the space between her thighs

than the expression on her face.

That you've left blank.

But her mons veneris

you've etched in black ink

with the exuberance of a young lad

caught short on a bellyful of beer

scrawling on the wall in the Gents.

As a woman I ought to object.

But she looks happy enough.

And which of us doesn't occasionally

want one of the old gods to come down

and chase us over the sands?

 

Vicki Feaver

 

Although a substantial proportion of this poem is dedicated to describing the painting from the speaker's perspective, the speaker also reads into the work certain character traits about both artist and his female subject. In addition, it is her own final passionate and desirous comment which encapsulates the exuberance described by the picture.

Successful poems based on pictures do more than simply describe. Ezra Pound's poem, below, written in response to a painting, is all imaginative enterprise, and no description. It represents, then, a further stage in the way a poem can use a picture for its poetic story, and yet avoid 'telling' as well.

 

The picture

(Venus Reclining, by Jacopo del Sellaio – National Gallery, London)

 

The eyes of this dead lady speak to me,

For here was love, was not to be drowned out.

And here desire, not to be kissed away.

The eyes of this dead lady speak to me.

Ezra Pound

 

The imagination bag game

(as designed by George Szirtes)

 

Select a painting, photograph or picture from a book, magazine or postcard. Write as follows:

1. 2 lines describing it

2. a question relating to its contents

3. a personal memory or association triggered by it

4. a potential title for the picture, or an alternative if it already has one

5. the first sentence of a story about/around it

6. the last sentence of same

7. a line of a potential poem about or around it, from anywhere in the poem. Indicate if it is from the beginning, middle or end.

Now write a poem using some or all of the above ideas, bearing in mind that you may have to edit them, or move them around. You don't have to write the poem in your voice; perhaps you want to write in the artist's voice, or in the voice of someone in the picture?

 

Feedback

 

The idea of this exercise was to encourage you in a poetic response to visual stimulus. If you chose a personal photograph, this would obviously make for a very particular kind of poem. Your choice may have meant your poem has a personal tone – especially if you chose a first-person poetic voice. But if your photograph was from a newspaper or a magazine, you may have found that your poem ended up trying to address much wider issues.

 

What do you think now about the picture that you chose? It may have led you into territory where it was hard to suggest, and show without telling, as we have been discussing. This may have been the case if you either knew the picture very well, if it was a photograph of a friend, for example, or if it was of a current disaster zone in the developing world. Perhaps, in the end, then, a painting rich with evocative objects (like the 'whisker of hair' for Vicki Feaver) might have been more productive.

Overall, if your picture didn't provide you with ideas with much potential, or subjects which intrigued you, or suggestive and productive images, see if you can jot down an idea from another picture for a future poem instead.

 

Big themes, little objects

 

In narrative poems, if we are trying to write Big, we carry with us many received ideas of what constitutes poetic language and thought. Consequently we may lumber a poem with Big Words, describing Big Themes – such as beauty, evil or freedom. We may believe that these Big Words automatically confer depth on our ideas. However, these words are vague, and abstract, and as such may be opposed to the useful concrete images that have been our focus so far. You will know what these abstract ideas are because you can't see, touch, taste, smell or hear them. One of their dangerous characteristics for the poet is that they will mean different things to different people. So: we might want to say that if the writer wants a successful poem, it is his or her duty to locate a specific, concrete image to represent a particular abstraction. Use images to approach the Big Theme instead of dealing with it alone.

 

The best poems often channel 'big themes' – love, death etc. – through 'small things' (concrete images). This can simply be by way of juxtaposition, as in the following poem. We start off with an initial intriguing if abstract concept – 'The prisoners of infinite choice' – but the poem quickly grounds itself in the natural world which clearly inspired it.

 

Leaves

 

The prisoners of infinite choice

Have built their house

In a field below the wood

And are at peace.

It is autumn, and dead leaves

On their way to the river

Scratch like birds at the windows

Or tick on the road.

Somewhere there is an afterlife

Of dead leaves,

A stadium filled with an infinite

Rustling and sighing.

Somewhere in the heaven

Of lost futures

The lives we might have led

Have found their own fulfilment.

 

Derek Mahon

 

In relation to this poem, we might want to say that the abstract idea for the poem is conveyed by numerous small (and in this example natural) things. Writers may carry around with them for years a particular idea, minus accompanying images, or images lacking an idea, until one day a spark is thrown and a connection made, which had previously eluded them. Perhaps an event lights the spark, or circumstances shed a different light on something.

Let's now read a passage in which the poet T.S. Eliot might be said to describe the 'epiphany of the ordinary moment', or the way an image might begin to attract an idea.

 

[Why] out of all that we have heard, seen, felt … do certain images recur, charged with emotion, rather than others? The song of one bird, the leap of one fish, at a particular place and time, the scent of one flower, an old woman on a German mountain path, six ruffians seen through an open window playing cards at night at a small French railway junction where there was a water-mill: such memories may have symbolic value, but of what we cannot tell, for they come to represent the depths of feeling into which we cannot peer.

(Eliot, 1975, p.91)

 

In this passage, Eliot presents a collage of evocative images to describe an early stage in the poetic process. A few words invoke a simple image, suggesting more than is literally presented; the observer brings to this image a whole set of experiences and references, which influence a final poetic interpretation. But the image itself seems charged with emotional intensity, before the poet actually manipulates it in any way.

 

Although the images are evocative in many ways, it might still be hard initially to see how Eliot might eventually use them convey a big theme. Such is the value of the interpretation of the image. For instance, the station example he gives is not only French, but also small: this could indicate a place off the beaten track, a lonely place, a mysterious place. The previous existence of the water-mill might suggest decay in the poem, time's inexorable movement and the loss of the heart of the small community.

 

Expand on the images in the T.S. Eliot quotation by discussing them with other students in your FirstClass conference, and playing imaginative games. For example, what other ideas or images does a water-mill bring to mind? Describe further the surroundings. Where is the woman headed on this mountain path? Say more about the ruffians playing cards. What do they look like? What might they say? Who's winning, and how? What's the prize at the end of the game? What happens next? Send these ideas back and forth. You may build up a narrative with one particular person, or withdraw from the game to write it yourself.

 

Feedback

 

The important thing to take away from this activity is the length of the imaginative journey it is possible to take from a stimulating image. The questions that you asked each other, and the thinking that you did, were ways of navigating this journey, and mapping it along the way.

In the following poem, the big theme – on this occasion death – is never mentioned. We join the speaker in an unexpected isolated encounter with herself in the bathroom mirror, during a brief interlude away from some social occasion, perhaps. Like the writer, we may be reminded of Hamlet's famous soliloquy, as she peers below the surface of her face, and meditates on the fragility of her own body, with dispassion, compassion, and, finally, with love.

 

Small female skull

 

With some surprise, I balance my small female skull in my hands.

What is it like? An ocarina? Blow in its eye.

It cannot cry, holds my breath only as long as I exhale,

mildly alarmed now, into the hole where the nose was,

press my ear to its grin. A vanishing sigh.

For some time, I sit on the lavatory seat with my head

in my hands, appalled. It feels much lighter than I'd thought;

the weight of a deck of cards, a slim volume of verse,

but with something else, as though it could levitate. Disturbing.

So why do I kiss it on the brow, my warm lips to its papery bone,

and take it to the mirror to ask for a gottle of geer?

I rinse it under the tap, watch dust run away, like sand

from a swimming-cap, then dry it – firstborn – gently

with a towel. I see the scar where I fell for sheer love

down treacherous stairs, and read that shattering day like braille.

Love, I murmur to my skull, then, louder, other grand words,

shouting the hollow nouns in a white-tiled room.

Downstairs they will think I have lost my mind. No. I only weep

into these two holes here, or I'm grinning back at the joke, this is

a friend of mine. See, I hold her face in trembling, passionate hands.

 

Carol Ann Duffy

 

The narrator of the following poem approaches his monumental subject via his mother's wedding ring, and rituals associated with death.

 

Timer

 

Gold survives the fire that's hot enough

to make you ashes in a standard urn.

An envelope of coarse official buff

contains your wedding ring which wouldn't burn.

Dad told me I'd to tell them at St James's

that the ring should go in the incinerator.

That 'eternity' inscribed with both their names is

his surety that they'd be together, 'later'.

I signed for the parcelled clothing as the son,

the cardy, apron, pants, bra, dress –

 

 

The clerk phoned down: 6-8-8-3-1?

Has she still her ring on? (Slight pause) Yes!

It's on my warm palm now, your burnished ring!

I feel your ashes, head, arms, breasts, womb, legs,

sift through its circle slowly, like that thing

you used to let me watch to time the eggs.

 

Tony Harrison

 

These intimate objects (the skull in 'Small female skull' and the wedding ring in 'Timer') revert to their ordinary, detached existence and reinforce the finality of death. They become simply paraphernalia, part of the official ritual surrounding this momentous event. Eventually the ring brings us full circle, with the poem managing to reinstate the object's significance, through the personal memory it evokes.

 

Both Duffy and Harrison have found an image or thing to act as the vehicle for their over-arching emotion or idea. When we settle, as poets, on abstract words such as 'beautiful', 'great' or 'ugly', it is often because we've not worked hard enough to locate a more precise word which quantifies these abstractions. It's not that abstract words are banned, but their use often signals authorial laziness. Check when you use them, in poems that you write, that there isn't a more precise, more concrete, and thus more successful, way of rendering them in poetry.

 

8. Divide a piece of paper into quarters. Write the heading 'Abstract' in 2 of these quarters. Then, under each heading, write down a single-word abstraction. (You might want to look at the hints below first.)

9. Next, head the remaining 2 quarters with the word 'Concrete'. Think of a concrete (i.e. real) object. This time, do not write down the object in a designated quarter. Instead, write 3 or 4 sentences in one quarter describing that object without ever mentioning its name. Pretend you are describing this object to a visitor who has just arrived from outer space and who has never seen one before, no matter how ordinary the object may be. Do this once more, for a second concrete object, in the remaining quarter.

10. Cut the paper into its 4 quarters, and pair each concrete object with an abstraction as if they were made for each other, although one has nothing to do with the other. Now define the abstract through the concrete, by reading your combined definition aloud as follows (you may need to jiggle the grammar slightly):

Love … A large rectangular pane of glass, which you can hang on a wall. It clouds up easily when there's moisture in the air. You can see yourself in it.

 

Hints

 

Some examples of abstractions: feelings such as 'elation', 'despair', 'jealousy', 'love', 'sadness', 'boredom', 'excitement', 'anxiety' etc.

Ideas such as 'freedom' are also abstractions.

Concrete objects may be made of wood or glass or anything you can see or touch.

An animal or person is a concrete object.

If your concrete object is 'table', remember don't write 'table'. Instead, you might write something like 'A flat piece of wood, often square or rectangular. It rests on 4 legs, and you eat off it'.

Include things like what your object looks like – how big it is, what it's made of – where it's kept, what it's used for, etc.

 

Mix and match your concrete and abstract pairings online with those written by others, perhaps trying out different ones. See if there is general consensus as to whether a pairing 'works' – that is, which concrete objects best match which abstractions. Describe the effects of these unlikely juxtapositions. Are they funny? Surreal? Evocative? Scary? Why and in what ways?

You could also devise new definitions yourself, or expand on ones which seem to invite further elaboration. You may be able to see now how you can entitle a poem 'Love', without ever mentioning 'love' explicitly in it. Love is suggested, perhaps by a mirror for a narcissist, instead.

 

Feedback

 

Of course, it no longer matters that the pane of rectangular glass used to be a mirror. It is no longer a mirror; it is 'love'. This is how 'love' looks and works. This is what it is made of. This is what it does. Or maybe the mirror is 'hate' or 'envy'.

 

This game with its surprise element will, I hope, have suggested weird and wonderful metaphors. Some pairings will have fitted better or resonated more than others. A description may have offered a useful, new perspective on an accompanying abstraction. To some extent, your assessments will have relied on personal references, and will have been individual. But you will perhaps also have discovered that there is a great commonality of opinion with regard to what 'works' or 'doesn't work' in terms of your pairings.

 

Even if a pairing doesn't work as well as the 'love' and 'mirror' one, it's equally important to analyse why something doesn't work. This is good practice in general. If you don't like a poem, you should seek to explain exactly what you don't like, and why. It's not that qualitative judgements aren't allowed, but that often they are unanalytically subjective, and it's our duty as writers to test and question them. I may dislike the subject of a poem, but that doesn't mean I dislike the poem or how it's written. If I don't care for a poem's style, that doesn't mean it's a bad poem.

Having learned about the concrete and the abstract, we must also bear in mind that there are ways of breaking some of the rules we have been examining so far throughout this block.

 

11. Images themselves may be unspecified, and evocative in an unnamed way.

12. Images can have too much work to do, and take over the poem in some way.

13. The concrete image may not be intended to convey or symbolize anything at all. (As Freud apocryphally said: 'Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar'.)

 

Consider the following quotations, which deal with the abstract and the concrete, and the function and use of symbols. Consider why the writers thought as they did.

 

Don't use such an expression as 'dim lands of peace'. It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete. It comes from the writer's not realizing that the natural object is always the adequate symbol.(Pound, 1966, p.32)

 

The artist seeks out the luminous detail and presents it. He does not comment …

(Pound, quoted in Sansom, 1994, p.40)

 

All that is personal soon rots; it must be packed in ice or salt.

(Yeats, 1966, p.24)

 

I believe that the proper and perfect symbol is the natural object, that if a man use 'symbols' he must so use them that their symbolic function does not obtrude; so that a sense, and the poetic quality of the passage is not lost to those who do not understand the symbol as such, to whom, for instance, a hawk is a hawk.(Pound, 1966, p.37)

 

Choose an abstraction as your title for a poem. Thereafter, all abstract words are banned! Next, jot down lines answering the following questions:

What does it look like? – or what would it look like if you could see it? (Colour, size, etc.) Be precise. Big … as a breadbox? A continent? Small … as a catamaran compared with an ocean liner? Small enough to carry in your pocket?

What does it feel like (texture, shape, etc.)?

What does it sound like? If it talks, what does it say?

What does it smell like?

What does it taste like?

Throw in a few more questions like:

Where does it live? Describe.

What happens to it at night?

What happens when people get close to it?

Where is it made or manufactured? In a factory or at home? Who manufactures it? Why?

Make up some of your own! Using the more interesting notes, identify a possible order and structure, and compose a poem.

 

Hints

 

 

Vary the structure, perhaps by changing the order of the lines so, for example, your beginning becomes the end.

Play around with line-breaks; if you've got lots of 'likes', then you must be employing similes. Why not take out some 'likes' and make a metaphor instead?

Don't feel you have to use everything. Follow your instincts, discarding any words or lines which seem less exciting.

Select the ideas or images which seem to be examples of the 'logic of the imagination'.

 

Feedback

 

Pay attention to any associations which may surface, even if they are unrelated to this exercise. Some exercises are warm-ups to the 'real' poem, and will eventually get discarded. It's partly up to you to follow the strongest leads you yourself have created.

 

The poem in the object; the object of the poem

 

In the following poem, a domestic object, an article of clothing, takes on the afterlife of its owner, becoming the symbol for the loss of its owner. The description of the object might end up, however, saying more about the living than the dead.

 

Black silk

 

She was cleaning – there is always

that to do – when she found,

at the top of the closet, his old

silk vest. She called me

to look at it, unrolling it carefully

like something live

might fall out. Then we spread it

on the kitchen table and smoothed

the wrinkles down, making our hands

heavy until its shape against formica

came back and the little tips

that would have pointed to his pockets

lay flat. The buttons were all there.

I held my arms out and she

looped the wide armholes over

them. 'That's one thing I never

wanted to be,' she said, 'a man.'

I went into the bathroom to see

how I looked in the sheen and

sadness. Wind chimes

off-key in the alcove. Then her

crying so I stood back in the sink-light

where the porcelain had been staring. Time

to go to her, I thought, with that

other mind, and stood still.

 

Tess Gallagher

 

Now think of a person you feel strongly about – from your past or present – and also think of an object you associate particularly with that person. Even better, think of a few things before choosing one. The object might be a watch, an article of clothing, a chair they sat in, or another object they may have used or owned, such as a mirror, tool or clock.

Write a poem in which the main focus is the object. You might include: what it looks like, where it's from, how the object is transformed through use, how the person interacts with the object.

 

Feedback

 

Regarding this use of an object, T.S. Eliot used the phrase 'objective correlative' to describe what is, as he puts it:

 

the only way of expressing emotion is by finding an 'objective correlative'; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion …

(Eliot, 1993, p.136)

 

In your poem about an object, you were evoking the person, and thus the emotions, associated with the object.

Your writing will, of course, be coloured by emotions and personality. But these remain inaccessible abstractions until they are conjured up by a relevant, apt object. Remember that by simply saying the word 'sadness' in your poem, you will not necessarily evoke sadness in your reader. (Try it if you don't believe me!) The reader needs to identify with the emotion, not just understand it intellectually.

 

The following poem is precisely about reading into objects a further meaning, or portent.

 

Signs

 

Threading the palm, a web of little lines

Spells out the lost money, the heart, the head,

The wagging tongues, the sudden deaths, in signs

We would smooth out, like imprints on a bed,

In signs that can't be helped, geese heading south,

In signs read anxiously, like breath that clouds

A mirror held to a barely open mouth,

Like telegrams, the gathering of crowds –

 

 

The plane's X in the sky, spelling disaster:

Before the whistle and hit, a tracer flare;

Before rubble, a hairline crack in plaster

And a housefly's panicked scribbling on the air.

 

Gjertrud Schnackenberg

 

Before considering what the speaker's possible references might be, think of your own associations. For example: the letter X is often used to cross something out, or can denote buried treasure, and so on. If you have time, return to earlier poems and free-associate with the images you find there.

 

Feedback

 

By first considering the varied associations one brings to images – or signs – one can choose more carefully those which will work most effectively, or perhaps uncover some hidden implications, not immediately apparent.

 

In the following poem, the author takes on the voice of an inanimate object. In this instance, the use of the inanimate object means that the tone is cool and detached, even though the subject involves fear and hysteria. This is another way of using the concrete to gesture towards the abstract.

 

Mirror

 

I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.

Whatever I see I swallow immediately

Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.

I am not cruel, only truthful –

The eye of a little god, four-cornered.

Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.

It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long

I think it is part of my heart. But it flickers.

Faces and darkness separate us over and over.

Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,

Searching my reaches for what she really is.

Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.

I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.

She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.

I am important to her. She comes and goes.

Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.

In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman

Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.

Sylvia Plath

 

Write a poem from the point of view of an inanimate object, which may be speaking for the very first time. We can help get the object talking by suggesting a few questions which could be answered by it.

What do I like?

Where do I live?

Where am I from?

What do I see?

What does it feel like when I'm utilized/touched/looked at?

What's happening around me?

Can I hear anybody talking and what are they saying? How do I feel about these people?

How do I feel about my position in life?

Where/how do I sleep at night?

What do I wish for?

 

Feedback

 

Once again, it's not mandatory to include all of the above; these are just pointers to get you going in the task. The idea here is to investigate the poetic potential of objects in the way you can use them to throw your voice, as it were, to come at a poetic idea or abstraction from a new perspective.

Like Plath, you may have found yourself wanting to write from the point of view of a mirror. This may offer a new and interesting way to write about yourself, for example.

The following poem suggests yet another approach. The poet writes in the second person ('you').

 

Earth

 

Let the day grow on you upward

through your feet,

the vegetal knuckles,

to your knees of stone,

until by evening you are a black tree;

feel, with evening,

the swifts thicken your hair,

the new moon rising out of your forehead,

and the moonlit veins of silver

running from your armpits

like rivulets under white leaves.

Sleep, as ants

cross over your eyelids.

You have never possessed anything

as deeply as this.

This is all you have owned

from the first outcry

through forever;

you can never be dispossessed.

 

Derek Walcott

 

Beginnings

 

Pick an object and describe it in as much detail as you can in about 10–15 minutes. Don't worry about whether you're writing in poetry or prose. Write continuously. Elaborate beyond all reason, covering anything and everything: colour, texture, size, etc. Now and again, some effect may invite a tangential reference, reminding you of something else – a simile? – but always return to the object itself. Exchange and discuss with others what you've written. Which sections approach the condition of poetry? Which are the most vivid, and why and how?

 

Feedback

 

Now read the following poem which is about the nature of observation. Note the similes and metaphors, and what the writer is saying about simile and metaphor, and one's approach to these subjects.

 

 

To a male intellectual

 

you say

colour is clear:

fields lie, little

tucked-up

beds of taut green silk

an orange car comes by

glossy as caramel, colts

kick up their smart white socks

I tell you

look again

brown is brighter than shorn curls

and bronze ditches

are deep with the purple of figs

the hedges' olive mouths

are stained with plums

those forests flush, that

beech-flame interrupts

the willows' silver-grey

only your language knows

where rust ends

salmon, pink begin

I tell you

landscape is truer than you

less curt

and more careless

 

Michèle Roberts

 

This poem also takes us back to our discussion about truth, since there is no right way to observe. The poem is about a narrow and limiting approach to writing – and is about a relationship, too, of course.

 

The Woodward poem is an ode which defamiliarizes an ordinary object, partly by directly addressing it. In this case, the object effects a kind of identification which involves memory and perhaps also ideas of progress and social change.

 

We can look to images themselves to inspire us into thought, but we should always remember the importance of the opening of the poem, since with all our attention to detail, we might forget this.

If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act.

(Chekhov, quoted in Rayfield, 1997, p.203)

 

This quotation refers to drama but it could apply to poetry too. It's not that the gun has to go off, but earlier elements may have a purpose which is only fully revealed later on. Although poems don't need to return predictably to their beginnings, a first line may well contain the seeds of what is to follow. If you choose to invest your opening line with a strategic function, bear in mind that formulaic approaches can detract from a poem's mystery. A poem is not a crossword puzzle to be solved.

The first lines set the scene, or establish a style, voice or idiom. (Recall from our editing work that the first line you write doesn't necessarily work as the first line of the poem. The back door may be the best way into the house.) You need to find ways of grabbing the reader's attention. And your first line is a good place to start. Use it to stop your reader in his or her tracks.

 

Here is a list of first lines. Which ones make you want to read further, and why? What is it that you find arresting about these particular lines?

 

 

Now it is time to say what you have to say.

Billy Collins

 

 

Here we are, without our clothes,

one excited watering can, one peculiar rose...

Craig Raine

 

 

The best lack all conviction while

The worst have gone the extra mile

George Szirtes

 

 

I wonder if the ground has anything to say.

Carol Ann Duffy

 

 

Don't talk to me of love. I've had an earful

James Fenton

 

 

The Lord wants me to go to Florida

Gwyneth Lewis

 

 

The end of love should be a big event.

It should involve the hiring of a hall.

Sophie Hannah

 

Now write 5 of your own beginning lines, which will draw the reader in and compel him or her to read further. (This is another addictive game!) Don't worry if there's nothing to follow. You might also want to return to previous poems and rethink your opening lines.

 

 

In your tutorial group, exchange and discuss which of your 5 lines work or don't work so well. Afterwards, pass on a first line to another member of the group, who writes a second line, making it couplet. Afterwards, do the same with another first line, perhaps passing it back and forth 4 times to make a quatrain.

 

Feedback

 

There are many ways to grab the reader's attention: through surprise, humour, mystery, dramatic tension, an interesting or odd use of language or a gripping, imperative address to the reader.

 

First, read the following poem.

 

 

Some questions you might ask

 

Is the soul solid, like iron?

Or is it tender and breakable, like

the wings of a moth in the beak of the owl?

Who has it, and who doesn't?

I keep looking around me.

The face of the moose is as sad

as the face of Jesus.

The swan opens her white wings slowly.

In the fall, the black bear carries leaves into the darkness.

One question leads to another.

Does it have a shape? Like an iceberg?

Like the eye of a hummingbird?

Does it have one lung, like the snake and the scallop?

Why should I have it, and not the anteater

who loves her children?

Why should I have it, and not the camel?

Come to think of it, what about the maple trees?

What about the blue iris?

What about all the little stones, sitting alone in the moonlight?

What about roses, and lemons, and their shining leaves?

What about the grass?

 

Mary Oliver

 

Now write a series of first lines – all questions, not necessarily related or following on from the previous ones. Next, rewrite these lines, answering the questions. Finally, you may want to rewrite this again, developing a line of consecutive thought.

 

Alternatively, you can take a single question and answer, and develop this into a poem. Feedback

 

You will recognize this litany-style poem. Make conscious use of lateral thinking. Remember: none of it has to make sense – thankfully! This exercise might yield a quirky or humorous nonsense poem. Whichever route you pursue, be consistent with the tone.

 

Billy Collins writes with a deceptively light touch and a clear linear narrative, with both humour and tenderness too.

 

In the following poem, from which that opening line was taken, you will find subjects with which you may well identify. If this is so, use them, write about them, and return to his poem when you feel the need for further inspiration for your own developing writing.

 

Silence

 

Now it is time to say what you have to say.

The room is quiet.

The whirring fan has been unplugged,

and the girl who was tapping

a pencil on her desktop has been removed.

So tell us what is on your mind.

We want to hear the sound of your foliage,

the unraveling of your tool kit,

your songs of loneliness,

your songs of hurt.

The trains are motionless on the tracks,

The ships at rest in the harbor.

The dogs are cocking their heads

and the gods are peering down from their balloons.

The town is hushed,

and everyone here has a copy.

So tell us about your parents –

your father behind the steering wheel,

your cruel mother at the sink.

Let's hear about all about the clouds you saw, all the trees.

Read the poem you brought with you tonight.

The ocean has stopped sloshing around,

and even Beethoven

is sitting up in his deathbed,

his cold hearing-horn inserted in one ear.

 

Billy Collins

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Perhaps less telling and more showing. Some notes I copied from elsewhere:

 

Notes from a course I took a while ago:

 

Show or tell?

 

The general rule for poetry, and, indeed, most good writing, is: 'Show, don't tell'. That is: don't explain your 'message', but instead exemplify it through the use of images or narrative. Many poems never advance beyond the message, or telling, stage.

 

When writers insist on spelling things out, or planting oversized signposts directing us towards enlightenment, it can seem like an insult to the reader's intelligence. Most readers hate to be underestimated in this way, and would actually prefer doing some of the work, by contributing to the final interpretation with their own act of imagination. A successful poem, by its very nature suggests or evokes a theme. When writers step in to explain the message, they have abandoned the poetic in favour of the polemic.

 

In the following poem, a breadcrumb trail of clues gradually yields up the story behind the poem, rather than the writer telling us what happens. Follow the trail.

 

The story of the white cup

 

I am not sure why I want to tell it,

since the cup was not mine, and I was not there,

and it may not have been white, after all.

When I tell it, though, it is white, and the girl

to whom it has just been given, by her mother,

is eight. She is holding a white cup against her breast,

and her mother has just said good bye, though those

could not have been, exactly, the words. No one knows

what her father has said, but when I tell it,

he is either helping someone very old with a bag,

a worn valise held in place with a rope,

or asking a guard for a cigarette. There is, of course,

no cigarette. The box cars stand with their doors

slid back. They are black inside, and the girl

who has just been given a cup and told to walk

in a straight line and told to look like she wants

a drink of water, who screamed in the truck

all the way to the station, who knew, at eight,

where she was going, is holding a cup to her breast

and walking away, going nowhere, for water.

She does not turn, but when she has found water,

which she does, in all versions of the story, everywhere,

she takes a small sip of it, and swallows.

 

Roger Mitchell

 

Gradually the story of this poem is revealed: a child has been encouraged to pretend she wants a drink of water, so she can slip unnoticed away from the chaotic crowd, away from the train. It may be unclear immediately why. The punctuation is carefully placed in the simple statement 'There is, of course, no cigarette', for dramatic effect and import. The girl's father receives no cigarette, but seems not to have expected one. He wants instead, we are to infer (because we are being shown, not told), to distract the guard. It may be that at this point we start to comprehend the context for this poem: the type of train, and the guard who neither helps old women nor provides a cigarette 'of course', and the dark of the 'cars' are all our clues. Note, too, how punctuation and phrasing delicately indicates, without explaining, how the parents cannot say goodbye, without risking a scene which would spoil their plan. Overall, the extraordinarily emotional context is never commented upon directly (or 'told'), but is conveyed through concrete images and events: the worn valise, the guard and the box-car clincher among them.

 

Interestingly, the author is self-consciously present right from the start, flagging possible fictional aspects of the narrative, a device which nevertheless doesn't overshadow its reality. As Michael Donaghy puts it, 'this is the story of the story of the white cup. Like Coleridge, Mitchell has interposed a voice compelled to bear witness' (Donaghy, 1999, p.91). We can be pretty sure that even if this exact story didn't happen, something like it did. Later, the writer takes advantage of his own mythologizing of history's great and terrible events, by inventing the happy ending we'd all prefer. In this sense, it is a poem of hope, a quality you may think is enhanced by the Biblical connotations of the cup and water. Despite the presence of these objects that we might read symbolically in this way, the success of the poem is due to its handling of such an emotive subject in an understated way. Relying on the strength of his images, the author does not depend on emotional expression to convey an emotional subject. There are only a few adjectives, you'll notice. Less is more.

 

A way of theorizing this approach to poetry is given in the following quotation, which refers specifically to this poem:

 

The style is a studied artlessness – no similes, no metaphors, no discernible poetic diction – but the storyteller must offer us specificity, focus, or the story evaporates, so he fills in the gaps … [W]hatever its colour, the one object beyond fabrication is the cup, the talisman at the centre of the story.

(Donaghy, 1999, pp.36–7)

 

'Narrative' is the word we use to describe a poem with a linear development, and which tells a story. Poems generally fall into this, or one of a further 2 sub-divisions: the 'lyric ' and the 'dramatic'. (Dramatic poetry was originally associated with 'blank verse' – unrhymed iambic pentameter.)

 

Let's look at another poem, which also offers a slice of gritty real life, through images and an unfolding narrative of events.

 

Snow joke

 

Heard the one about the guy from Heaton Mersey?

Wife at home, lover in Hyde, mistress

in Newton-le-Willows and two pretty girls

in the top grade at Werneth prep. Well,

he was late and he had a good car so he snubbed

the police warning-light and tried to finesse

the last six miles of moorland blizzard,

and the story goes he was stuck within minutes.

So he sat there thinking about life and things;

what the dog does when it catches its tail

and about the snake that ate itself to death.

And he watched the windscreen filling up

with snow, and it felt good, and the whisky

from his hip-flask was warm and smooth.

And of course, there isn't a punchline

but the ending goes something like this.

They found him slumped against the steering wheel

with VOLVO printed backwards in his frozen brow.

And they fought in the pub over hot toddies

as who was to take the most credit.

Him who took the aerial to be a hawthorn twig?

Him who figured out the contour of his car?

Or him who said he heard the horn, moaning

softly like an alarm clock under an eiderdown?

 

Simon Armitage

 

What is the tone of this poem? What is actually happening, and what questions are raised by the story that it tells? What is odd about the third stanza?

 

Feedback

 

The tone of this poem is demotic, or like ordinary speech. The poem tells a story in joke form; its black comedy is introduced through the pun in the title. As in 'The story of the white cup', a deceptively simple story raises questions (although here they are related to the comedy of the poem): if the man is dead, for example, why are those in the pub congratulating themselves? The 'Volvo' image is highly effective, as well as blackly comic; it seems appropriate that such a smug guy, who seems to have it all, should be brand-marked in this way. His own 'finesse' (a sophisticated strategy or ruse, often used in card-playing) is his undoing. Once more, we see examples of the poet using images to build up the picture of the man and his personality.

 

This poem, like 'The story of the white cup', also raises some interesting points about truth and fiction. How does the speaker know what the man thought while he sat in his car, as described in the third stanza? A good storyteller, like a good joke-teller, embellishes the truth, to make it more real – offers details even when none were originally there. As Shakespeare writes in As You Like It, 'the truest poetry is the most feigning' (Act 3, Scene iii).

 

Please glance back briefly at 'The story of the white cup' and 'Snow joke'. Look for the number of adjectives employed. They are used sparingly in both poems. Beginning writers tend to want to rely too much on ornate adjectives, which are a way of 'telling', at the expense of the narrative spine, as we'll call it. If poems lean too heavily on poetic devices and description, the poem can lose its forward momentum.

 

Now think of an anecdote or story which you might relate at a party, for example. This could be something which recently happened to you or a story someone told you, or perhaps a dream. Use this as the basis of a poem of 8–10 lines. You are permitted similes or metaphors but no adjectives. Your description is limited to the unfolding story: what happens to whom, and how.

 

Feedback

 

You could have started your poem with variations on the first lines of 'The story of the white cup', if you wanted. Remember our discussion about poetic truth. If you had forgotten or didn't know a particular detail you should have made it up. Now go through the poem carefully and identify the most dynamic and muscular verb you used; it is this verb which will have propelled the narrative of your poem forward. Next, add 2 carefully-chosen adjectives at most. Do they improve the poem significantly, do you think?

 

In 'The story of the white cup', the cup leads us through the narrative in a very cinematic way; we follow its progress and glean the story from clues along the way. In the following poem, the writer reads into the object a possible narrative, giving the story a more meditative quality, but moving backwards and forwards in time, so past and present collide. The writer alternates between the fan in hand (what it looks like, where it's from) and the story it evokes, which seems to be part truth and part imagination – like most poetry and literature, in fact. In a strange way the object both distances and draws the narrator closer to the story behind it.

 

The black lace fan my mother gave me

 

It was the first gift he ever gave her,

buying it for five francs in the Galeries

in prewar Paris. It was stifling.

A starless drought made the nights stormy.

They stayed in the city for the summer.

They met in cafés. She was always early.

He was late. That evening he was later.

They wrapped the fan. He looked at his watch.

She looked down the Boulevard des Capucines.

She ordered more coffee. She stood up.

The streets were emptying. The heat was killing.

She thought the distance smelled of rain and lightning.

These are wild roses, appliquéd on silk by hand,

darkly picked, stitched boldly, quickly.

The rest is tortoiseshell and has the reticent,

clear patience of its element. It is

a worn-out underwater bullion and it keeps,

even now, an inference of its violation.

The lace is overcast as if the weather

it opened for and offset had entered it.

The past is an empty café terrace.

An airless dusk before thunder. A man running.

And no way now to know what happened then –

none at all – unless, of course, you improvise:

the blackbird on this first sultry morning,

in summer, finding buds, worms, fruit,

feels the heat. Suddenly she puts out her wing –

the whole, full, flirtatious span of it.

 

Eavan Boland

 

Instead of insisting on the truth of her story, the writer makes it a speculative narrative, fraught with drama and nostalgic romance. When we finally 'return' to the final image of the fan, it seems as if the past itself – its hidden stories – were 'flirting' with the reader.

 

The following poem is not a narrative poem as such, but in writing it my aim was to use groups of objects to suggest the invisible narratives behind these objects. I wanted objects (like the cigarette, or the guard) to exemplify large, emotive subjects, not as a diversion, but as a way of approaching a difficult subject. This is because an expression (or 'telling') of horror – particularly a literary expression of horror – may not adequately convey horror.

 

The refinery

 

You cannot look at narrow-brush moustaches.

You cannot think about gas-cookers, their ovens

flame-rimmed, the diadem of fire, or hear the bell

when it's done. Or think of teeth, lamp-shades, soap,

the refinery chimney-stacks, puffing cheerfully.

You cannot raise your hand in history class

to ask a simple question; your arm freezes

in a parody of salute. You cannot write 'horror'

because Horror is a good film for anyone

with a strong stomach and a taste for gore.

Anyway, the antique photographs are grainy,

have blurred into art – that Vaseline trick with the lens.

At dinner you sip the rot-gut wine

and listen to the table-talk – an operation botched

or an ache in the joints the doctor couldn't diagnose.

You choke with rage at the meal, gibbering,

while the devil samples your soul like buttered croissant.

 

Eva Salzman

 

Every object, or gesture which suggests a sub-text, I wanted to seem to loop back to the same terrible narrative, to which we can't help but return. It is important, though, in the light of our recent discussion, that the Holocaust itself is never actually mentioned. In one regard, the poem is about metaphor itself; these objects have become tropes, and can never again rid themselves of their associations.

 

It is worth being aware of the fact that pictorial representations – in this case photographs of the Holocaust – are often more distanced from the event they depict than are the objects which at face value may have nothing to do with it. This is because they have been transformed into works of art. Attempts at representing an event using photographs may fail, but we can't escape the messages expressed through the objects in our sight and hearing, which are additionally imbued with the complicity of the witness.

 

I intended the dinner-table chat in the last verse of the poem to suggest another kind of horror. The poem seems precisely to be about the impossibility of writing adequately on certain subjects. The refinery, the object which towers over all the others, is no longer just a chance reminder of the camps; it is also the factory through which the impossible subject, and the guilt one feels about this, gets processed.

 

Danger zone

 

Some poets seek out extremes to use as material, practising a sort of Disaster Tourism. In fact, it's almost too easy to write about the Truly Awful. However, the importance or emotional impact of a subject does not necessarily confer on a poem artistic credibility or quality. (In fact, big subjects often encourage a preponderance of 'telling' rather than 'showing' in poetic terms.) A news item reporting the dead is not poetry; however, a poet may turn this news item into the kind of poem which relies on artlessness for its primary effect. Such an approach may honour the subject more than the use of clever images.

 

The poem from the picture

 

The following poem is based on a painting.

 

Oi yoi yoi

(for Roger Hilton)

 

The lady has no shame.

Wearing not a stitch

she is lolloping across

an abstract beach

towards a notional sea.

I like the whisker of hair

under her armpit. It suggests

that she's not one of those women

who are always trying to get rid

of their smell.

You were more interested

in her swinging baroque tits

and the space between her thighs

than the expression on her face.

That you've left blank.

But her mons veneris

you've etched in black ink

with the exuberance of a young lad

caught short on a bellyful of beer

scrawling on the wall in the Gents.

As a woman I ought to object.

But she looks happy enough.

And which of us doesn't occasionally

want one of the old gods to come down

and chase us over the sands?

 

Vicki Feaver

 

Although a substantial proportion of this poem is dedicated to describing the painting from the speaker's perspective, the speaker also reads into the work certain character traits about both artist and his female subject. In addition, it is her own final passionate and desirous comment which encapsulates the exuberance described by the picture.

Successful poems based on pictures do more than simply describe. Ezra Pound's poem, below, written in response to a painting, is all imaginative enterprise, and no description. It represents, then, a further stage in the way a poem can use a picture for its poetic story, and yet avoid 'telling' as well.

 

The picture

(Venus Reclining, by Jacopo del Sellaio – National Gallery, London)

 

The eyes of this dead lady speak to me,

For here was love, was not to be drowned out.

And here desire, not to be kissed away.

The eyes of this dead lady speak to me.

Ezra Pound

 

The imagination bag game

(as designed by George Szirtes)

 

Select a painting, photograph or picture from a book, magazine or postcard. Write as follows:

1. 2 lines describing it

2. a question relating to its contents

3. a personal memory or association triggered by it

4. a potential title for the picture, or an alternative if it already has one

5. the first sentence of a story about/around it

6. the last sentence of same

7. a line of a potential poem about or around it, from anywhere in the poem. Indicate if it is from the beginning, middle or end.

Now write a poem using some or all of the above ideas, bearing in mind that you may have to edit them, or move them around. You don't have to write the poem in your voice; perhaps you want to write in the artist's voice, or in the voice of someone in the picture?

 

Feedback

 

The idea of this exercise was to encourage you in a poetic response to visual stimulus. If you chose a personal photograph, this would obviously make for a very particular kind of poem. Your choice may have meant your poem has a personal tone – especially if you chose a first-person poetic voice. But if your photograph was from a newspaper or a magazine, you may have found that your poem ended up trying to address much wider issues.

 

What do you think now about the picture that you chose? It may have led you into territory where it was hard to suggest, and show without telling, as we have been discussing. This may have been the case if you either knew the picture very well, if it was a photograph of a friend, for example, or if it was of a current disaster zone in the developing world. Perhaps, in the end, then, a painting rich with evocative objects (like the 'whisker of hair' for Vicki Feaver) might have been more productive.

Overall, if your picture didn't provide you with ideas with much potential, or subjects which intrigued you, or suggestive and productive images, see if you can jot down an idea from another picture for a future poem instead.

 

Big themes, little objects

 

In narrative poems, if we are trying to write Big, we carry with us many received ideas of what constitutes poetic language and thought. Consequently we may lumber a poem with Big Words, describing Big Themes – such as beauty, evil or freedom. We may believe that these Big Words automatically confer depth on our ideas. However, these words are vague, and abstract, and as such may be opposed to the useful concrete images that have been our focus so far. You will know what these abstract ideas are because you can't see, touch, taste, smell or hear them. One of their dangerous characteristics for the poet is that they will mean different things to different people. So: we might want to say that if the writer wants a successful poem, it is his or her duty to locate a specific, concrete image to represent a particular abstraction. Use images to approach the Big Theme instead of dealing with it alone.

 

The best poems often channel 'big themes' – love, death etc. – through 'small things' (concrete images). This can simply be by way of juxtaposition, as in the following poem. We start off with an initial intriguing if abstract concept – 'The prisoners of infinite choice' – but the poem quickly grounds itself in the natural world which clearly inspired it.

 

Leaves

 

The prisoners of infinite choice

Have built their house

In a field below the wood

And are at peace.

It is autumn, and dead leaves

On their way to the river

Scratch like birds at the windows

Or tick on the road.

Somewhere there is an afterlife

Of dead leaves,

A stadium filled with an infinite

Rustling and sighing.

Somewhere in the heaven

Of lost futures

The lives we might have led

Have found their own fulfilment.

 

Derek Mahon

 

In relation to this poem, we might want to say that the abstract idea for the poem is conveyed by numerous small (and in this example natural) things. Writers may carry around with them for years a particular idea, minus accompanying images, or images lacking an idea, until one day a spark is thrown and a connection made, which had previously eluded them. Perhaps an event lights the spark, or circumstances shed a different light on something.

Let's now read a passage in which the poet T.S. Eliot might be said to describe the 'epiphany of the ordinary moment', or the way an image might begin to attract an idea.

 

[Why] out of all that we have heard, seen, felt … do certain images recur, charged with emotion, rather than others? The song of one bird, the leap of one fish, at a particular place and time, the scent of one flower, an old woman on a German mountain path, six ruffians seen through an open window playing cards at night at a small French railway junction where there was a water-mill: such memories may have symbolic value, but of what we cannot tell, for they come to represent the depths of feeling into which we cannot peer.

(Eliot, 1975, p.91)

 

In this passage, Eliot presents a collage of evocative images to describe an early stage in the poetic process. A few words invoke a simple image, suggesting more than is literally presented; the observer brings to this image a whole set of experiences and references, which influence a final poetic interpretation. But the image itself seems charged with emotional intensity, before the poet actually manipulates it in any way.

 

Although the images are evocative in many ways, it might still be hard initially to see how Eliot might eventually use them convey a big theme. Such is the value of the interpretation of the image. For instance, the station example he gives is not only French, but also small: this could indicate a place off the beaten track, a lonely place, a mysterious place. The previous existence of the water-mill might suggest decay in the poem, time's inexorable movement and the loss of the heart of the small community.

 

Expand on the images in the T.S. Eliot quotation by discussing them with other students in your FirstClass conference, and playing imaginative games. For example, what other ideas or images does a water-mill bring to mind? Describe further the surroundings. Where is the woman headed on this mountain path? Say more about the ruffians playing cards. What do they look like? What might they say? Who's winning, and how? What's the prize at the end of the game? What happens next? Send these ideas back and forth. You may build up a narrative with one particular person, or withdraw from the game to write it yourself.

 

Feedback

 

The important thing to take away from this activity is the length of the imaginative journey it is possible to take from a stimulating image. The questions that you asked each other, and the thinking that you did, were ways of navigating this journey, and mapping it along the way.

In the following poem, the big theme – on this occasion death – is never mentioned. We join the speaker in an unexpected isolated encounter with herself in the bathroom mirror, during a brief interlude away from some social occasion, perhaps. Like the writer, we may be reminded of Hamlet's famous soliloquy, as she peers below the surface of her face, and meditates on the fragility of her own body, with dispassion, compassion, and, finally, with love.

 

Small female skull

 

With some surprise, I balance my small female skull in my hands.

What is it like? An ocarina? Blow in its eye.

It cannot cry, holds my breath only as long as I exhale,

mildly alarmed now, into the hole where the nose was,

press my ear to its grin. A vanishing sigh.

For some time, I sit on the lavatory seat with my head

in my hands, appalled. It feels much lighter than I'd thought;

the weight of a deck of cards, a slim volume of verse,

but with something else, as though it could levitate. Disturbing.

So why do I kiss it on the brow, my warm lips to its papery bone,

and take it to the mirror to ask for a gottle of geer?

I rinse it under the tap, watch dust run away, like sand

from a swimming-cap, then dry it – firstborn – gently

with a towel. I see the scar where I fell for sheer love

down treacherous stairs, and read that shattering day like braille.

Love, I murmur to my skull, then, louder, other grand words,

shouting the hollow nouns in a white-tiled room.

Downstairs they will think I have lost my mind. No. I only weep

into these two holes here, or I'm grinning back at the joke, this is

a friend of mine. See, I hold her face in trembling, passionate hands.

 

Carol Ann Duffy

 

The narrator of the following poem approaches his monumental subject via his mother's wedding ring, and rituals associated with death.

 

Timer

 

Gold survives the fire that's hot enough

to make you ashes in a standard urn.

An envelope of coarse official buff

contains your wedding ring which wouldn't burn.

Dad told me I'd to tell them at St James's

that the ring should go in the incinerator.

That 'eternity' inscribed with both their names is

his surety that they'd be together, 'later'.

I signed for the parcelled clothing as the son,

the cardy, apron, pants, bra, dress –

 

 

The clerk phoned down: 6-8-8-3-1?

Has she still her ring on? (Slight pause) Yes!

It's on my warm palm now, your burnished ring!

I feel your ashes, head, arms, breasts, womb, legs,

sift through its circle slowly, like that thing

you used to let me watch to time the eggs.

 

Tony Harrison

 

These intimate objects (the skull in 'Small female skull' and the wedding ring in 'Timer') revert to their ordinary, detached existence and reinforce the finality of death. They become simply paraphernalia, part of the official ritual surrounding this momentous event. Eventually the ring brings us full circle, with the poem managing to reinstate the object's significance, through the personal memory it evokes.

 

Both Duffy and Harrison have found an image or thing to act as the vehicle for their over-arching emotion or idea. When we settle, as poets, on abstract words such as 'beautiful', 'great' or 'ugly', it is often because we've not worked hard enough to locate a more precise word which quantifies these abstractions. It's not that abstract words are banned, but their use often signals authorial laziness. Check when you use them, in poems that you write, that there isn't a more precise, more concrete, and thus more successful, way of rendering them in poetry.

 

8. Divide a piece of paper into quarters. Write the heading 'Abstract' in 2 of these quarters. Then, under each heading, write down a single-word abstraction. (You might want to look at the hints below first.)

9. Next, head the remaining 2 quarters with the word 'Concrete'. Think of a concrete (i.e. real) object. This time, do not write down the object in a designated quarter. Instead, write 3 or 4 sentences in one quarter describing that object without ever mentioning its name. Pretend you are describing this object to a visitor who has just arrived from outer space and who has never seen one before, no matter how ordinary the object may be. Do this once more, for a second concrete object, in the remaining quarter.

10. Cut the paper into its 4 quarters, and pair each concrete object with an abstraction as if they were made for each other, although one has nothing to do with the other. Now define the abstract through the concrete, by reading your combined definition aloud as follows (you may need to jiggle the grammar slightly):

Love … A large rectangular pane of glass, which you can hang on a wall. It clouds up easily when there's moisture in the air. You can see yourself in it.

 

Hints

 

Some examples of abstractions: feelings such as 'elation', 'despair', 'jealousy', 'love', 'sadness', 'boredom', 'excitement', 'anxiety' etc.

Ideas such as 'freedom' are also abstractions.

Concrete objects may be made of wood or glass or anything you can see or touch.

An animal or person is a concrete object.

If your concrete object is 'table', remember don't write 'table'. Instead, you might write something like 'A flat piece of wood, often square or rectangular. It rests on 4 legs, and you eat off it'.

Include things like what your object looks like – how big it is, what it's made of – where it's kept, what it's used for, etc.

 

Mix and match your concrete and abstract pairings online with those written by others, perhaps trying out different ones. See if there is general consensus as to whether a pairing 'works' – that is, which concrete objects best match which abstractions. Describe the effects of these unlikely juxtapositions. Are they funny? Surreal? Evocative? Scary? Why and in what ways?

You could also devise new definitions yourself, or expand on ones which seem to invite further elaboration. You may be able to see now how you can entitle a poem 'Love', without ever mentioning 'love' explicitly in it. Love is suggested, perhaps by a mirror for a narcissist, instead.

 

Feedback

 

Of course, it no longer matters that the pane of rectangular glass used to be a mirror. It is no longer a mirror; it is 'love'. This is how 'love' looks and works. This is what it is made of. This is what it does. Or maybe the mirror is 'hate' or 'envy'.

 

This game with its surprise element will, I hope, have suggested weird and wonderful metaphors. Some pairings will have fitted better or resonated more than others. A description may have offered a useful, new perspective on an accompanying abstraction. To some extent, your assessments will have relied on personal references, and will have been individual. But you will perhaps also have discovered that there is a great commonality of opinion with regard to what 'works' or 'doesn't work' in terms of your pairings.

 

Even if a pairing doesn't work as well as the 'love' and 'mirror' one, it's equally important to analyse why something doesn't work. This is good practice in general. If you don't like a poem, you should seek to explain exactly what you don't like, and why. It's not that qualitative judgements aren't allowed, but that often they are unanalytically subjective, and it's our duty as writers to test and question them. I may dislike the subject of a poem, but that doesn't mean I dislike the poem or how it's written. If I don't care for a poem's style, that doesn't mean it's a bad poem.

Having learned about the concrete and the abstract, we must also bear in mind that there are ways of breaking some of the rules we have been examining so far throughout this block.

 

11. Images themselves may be unspecified, and evocative in an unnamed way.

12. Images can have too much work to do, and take over the poem in some way.

13. The concrete image may not be intended to convey or symbolize anything at all. (As Freud apocryphally said: 'Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar'.)

 

Consider the following quotations, which deal with the abstract and the concrete, and the function and use of symbols. Consider why the writers thought as they did.

 

Don't use such an expression as 'dim lands of peace'. It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete. It comes from the writer's not realizing that the natural object is always the adequate symbol.(Pound, 1966, p.32)

 

The artist seeks out the luminous detail and presents it. He does not comment …

(Pound, quoted in Sansom, 1994, p.40)

 

All that is personal soon rots; it must be packed in ice or salt.

(Yeats, 1966, p.24)

 

I believe that the proper and perfect symbol is the natural object, that if a man use 'symbols' he must so use them that their symbolic function does not obtrude; so that a sense, and the poetic quality of the passage is not lost to those who do not understand the symbol as such, to whom, for instance, a hawk is a hawk.(Pound, 1966, p.37)

 

Choose an abstraction as your title for a poem. Thereafter, all abstract words are banned! Next, jot down lines answering the following questions:

What does it look like? – or what would it look like if you could see it? (Colour, size, etc.) Be precise. Big … as a breadbox? A continent? Small … as a catamaran compared with an ocean liner? Small enough to carry in your pocket?

What does it feel like (texture, shape, etc.)?

What does it sound like? If it talks, what does it say?

What does it smell like?

What does it taste like?

Throw in a few more questions like:

Where does it live? Describe.

What happens to it at night?

What happens when people get close to it?

Where is it made or manufactured? In a factory or at home? Who manufactures it? Why?

Make up some of your own! Using the more interesting notes, identify a possible order and structure, and compose a poem.

 

Hints

 

 

Vary the structure, perhaps by changing the order of the lines so, for example, your beginning becomes the end.

Play around with line-breaks; if you've got lots of 'likes', then you must be employing similes. Why not take out some 'likes' and make a metaphor instead?

Don't feel you have to use everything. Follow your instincts, discarding any words or lines which seem less exciting.

Select the ideas or images which seem to be examples of the 'logic of the imagination'.

 

Feedback

 

Pay attention to any associations which may surface, even if they are unrelated to this exercise. Some exercises are warm-ups to the 'real' poem, and will eventually get discarded. It's partly up to you to follow the strongest leads you yourself have created.

 

The poem in the object; the object of the poem

 

In the following poem, a domestic object, an article of clothing, takes on the afterlife of its owner, becoming the symbol for the loss of its owner. The description of the object might end up, however, saying more about the living than the dead.

 

Black silk

 

She was cleaning – there is always

that to do – when she found,

at the top of the closet, his old

silk vest. She called me

to look at it, unrolling it carefully

like something live

might fall out. Then we spread it

on the kitchen table and smoothed

the wrinkles down, making our hands

heavy until its shape against formica

came back and the little tips

that would have pointed to his pockets

lay flat. The buttons were all there.

I held my arms out and she

looped the wide armholes over

them. 'That's one thing I never

wanted to be,' she said, 'a man.'

I went into the bathroom to see

how I looked in the sheen and

sadness. Wind chimes

off-key in the alcove. Then her

crying so I stood back in the sink-light

where the porcelain had been staring. Time

to go to her, I thought, with that

other mind, and stood still.

 

Tess Gallagher

 

Now think of a person you feel strongly about – from your past or present – and also think of an object you associate particularly with that person. Even better, think of a few things before choosing one. The object might be a watch, an article of clothing, a chair they sat in, or another object they may have used or owned, such as a mirror, tool or clock.

Write a poem in which the main focus is the object. You might include: what it looks like, where it's from, how the object is transformed through use, how the person interacts with the object.

 

Feedback

 

Regarding this use of an object, T.S. Eliot used the phrase 'objective correlative' to describe what is, as he puts it:

 

the only way of expressing emotion is by finding an 'objective correlative'; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion …

(Eliot, 1993, p.136)

 

In your poem about an object, you were evoking the person, and thus the emotions, associated with the object.

Your writing will, of course, be coloured by emotions and personality. But these remain inaccessible abstractions until they are conjured up by a relevant, apt object. Remember that by simply saying the word 'sadness' in your poem, you will not necessarily evoke sadness in your reader. (Try it if you don't believe me!) The reader needs to identify with the emotion, not just understand it intellectually.

 

The following poem is precisely about reading into objects a further meaning, or portent.

 

Signs

 

Threading the palm, a web of little lines

Spells out the lost money, the heart, the head,

The wagging tongues, the sudden deaths, in signs

We would smooth out, like imprints on a bed,

In signs that can't be helped, geese heading south,

In signs read anxiously, like breath that clouds

A mirror held to a barely open mouth,

Like telegrams, the gathering of crowds –

 

 

The plane's X in the sky, spelling disaster:

Before the whistle and hit, a tracer flare;

Before rubble, a hairline crack in plaster

And a housefly's panicked scribbling on the air.

 

Gjertrud Schnackenberg

 

Before considering what the speaker's possible references might be, think of your own associations. For example: the letter X is often used to cross something out, or can denote buried treasure, and so on. If you have time, return to earlier poems and free-associate with the images you find there.

 

Feedback

 

By first considering the varied associations one brings to images – or signs – one can choose more carefully those which will work most effectively, or perhaps uncover some hidden implications, not immediately apparent.

 

In the following poem, the author takes on the voice of an inanimate object. In this instance, the use of the inanimate object means that the tone is cool and detached, even though the subject involves fear and hysteria. This is another way of using the concrete to gesture towards the abstract.

 

Mirror

 

I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.

Whatever I see I swallow immediately

Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.

I am not cruel, only truthful –

The eye of a little god, four-cornered.

Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.

It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long

I think it is part of my heart. But it flickers.

Faces and darkness separate us over and over.

Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,

Searching my reaches for what she really is.

Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.

I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.

She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.

I am important to her. She comes and goes.

Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.

In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman

Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.

Sylvia Plath

 

Write a poem from the point of view of an inanimate object, which may be speaking for the very first time. We can help get the object talking by suggesting a few questions which could be answered by it.

What do I like?

Where do I live?

Where am I from?

What do I see?

What does it feel like when I'm utilized/touched/looked at?

What's happening around me?

Can I hear anybody talking and what are they saying? How do I feel about these people?

How do I feel about my position in life?

Where/how do I sleep at night?

What do I wish for?

 

Feedback

 

Once again, it's not mandatory to include all of the above; these are just pointers to get you going in the task. The idea here is to investigate the poetic potential of objects in the way you can use them to throw your voice, as it were, to come at a poetic idea or abstraction from a new perspective.

Like Plath, you may have found yourself wanting to write from the point of view of a mirror. This may offer a new and interesting way to write about yourself, for example.

The following poem suggests yet another approach. The poet writes in the second person ('you').

 

Earth

 

Let the day grow on you upward

through your feet,

the vegetal knuckles,

to your knees of stone,

until by evening you are a black tree;

feel, with evening,

the swifts thicken your hair,

the new moon rising out of your forehead,

and the moonlit veins of silver

running from your armpits

like rivulets under white leaves.

Sleep, as ants

cross over your eyelids.

You have never possessed anything

as deeply as this.

This is all you have owned

from the first outcry

through forever;

you can never be dispossessed.

 

Derek Walcott

 

Beginnings

 

Pick an object and describe it in as much detail as you can in about 10–15 minutes. Don't worry about whether you're writing in poetry or prose. Write continuously. Elaborate beyond all reason, covering anything and everything: colour, texture, size, etc. Now and again, some effect may invite a tangential reference, reminding you of something else – a simile? – but always return to the object itself. Exchange and discuss with others what you've written. Which sections approach the condition of poetry? Which are the most vivid, and why and how?

 

Feedback

 

Now read the following poem which is about the nature of observation. Note the similes and metaphors, and what the writer is saying about simile and metaphor, and one's approach to these subjects.

 

 

To a male intellectual

 

you say

colour is clear:

fields lie, little

tucked-up

beds of taut green silk

an orange car comes by

glossy as caramel, colts

kick up their smart white socks

I tell you

look again

brown is brighter than shorn curls

and bronze ditches

are deep with the purple of figs

the hedges' olive mouths

are stained with plums

those forests flush, that

beech-flame interrupts

the willows' silver-grey

only your language knows

where rust ends

salmon, pink begin

I tell you

landscape is truer than you

less curt

and more careless

 

Michèle Roberts

 

This poem also takes us back to our discussion about truth, since there is no right way to observe. The poem is about a narrow and limiting approach to writing – and is about a relationship, too, of course.

 

The Woodward poem is an ode which defamiliarizes an ordinary object, partly by directly addressing it. In this case, the object effects a kind of identification which involves memory and perhaps also ideas of progress and social change.

 

We can look to images themselves to inspire us into thought, but we should always remember the importance of the opening of the poem, since with all our attention to detail, we might forget this.

If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act.

(Chekhov, quoted in Rayfield, 1997, p.203)

 

This quotation refers to drama but it could apply to poetry too. It's not that the gun has to go off, but earlier elements may have a purpose which is only fully revealed later on. Although poems don't need to return predictably to their beginnings, a first line may well contain the seeds of what is to follow. If you choose to invest your opening line with a strategic function, bear in mind that formulaic approaches can detract from a poem's mystery. A poem is not a crossword puzzle to be solved.

The first lines set the scene, or establish a style, voice or idiom. (Recall from our editing work that the first line you write doesn't necessarily work as the first line of the poem. The back door may be the best way into the house.) You need to find ways of grabbing the reader's attention. And your first line is a good place to start. Use it to stop your reader in his or her tracks.

 

Here is a list of first lines. Which ones make you want to read further, and why? What is it that you find arresting about these particular lines?

 

 

Now it is time to say what you have to say.

Billy Collins

 

 

Here we are, without our clothes,

one excited watering can, one peculiar rose...

Craig Raine

 

 

The best lack all conviction while

The worst have gone the extra mile

George Szirtes

 

 

I wonder if the ground has anything to say.

Carol Ann Duffy

 

 

Don't talk to me of love. I've had an earful

James Fenton

 

 

The Lord wants me to go to Florida

Gwyneth Lewis

 

 

The end of love should be a big event.

It should involve the hiring of a hall.

Sophie Hannah

 

Now write 5 of your own beginning lines, which will draw the reader in and compel him or her to read further. (This is another addictive game!) Don't worry if there's nothing to follow. You might also want to return to previous poems and rethink your opening lines.

 

 

In your tutorial group, exchange and discuss which of your 5 lines work or don't work so well. Afterwards, pass on a first line to another member of the group, who writes a second line, making it couplet. Afterwards, do the same with another first line, perhaps passing it back and forth 4 times to make a quatrain.

 

Feedback

 

There are many ways to grab the reader's attention: through surprise, humour, mystery, dramatic tension, an interesting or odd use of language or a gripping, imperative address to the reader.

 

First, read the following poem.

 

 

Some questions you might ask

 

Is the soul solid, like iron?

Or is it tender and breakable, like

the wings of a moth in the beak of the owl?

Who has it, and who doesn't?

I keep looking around me.

The face of the moose is as sad

as the face of Jesus.

The swan opens her white wings slowly.

In the fall, the black bear carries leaves into the darkness.

One question leads to another.

Does it have a shape? Like an iceberg?

Like the eye of a hummingbird?

Does it have one lung, like the snake and the scallop?

Why should I have it, and not the anteater

who loves her children?

Why should I have it, and not the camel?

Come to think of it, what about the maple trees?

What about the blue iris?

What about all the little stones, sitting alone in the moonlight?

What about roses, and lemons, and their shining leaves?

What about the grass?

 

Mary Oliver

 

Now write a series of first lines – all questions, not necessarily related or following on from the previous ones. Next, rewrite these lines, answering the questions. Finally, you may want to rewrite this again, developing a line of consecutive thought.

 

Alternatively, you can take a single question and answer, and develop this into a poem. Feedback

 

You will recognize this litany-style poem. Make conscious use of lateral thinking. Remember: none of it has to make sense – thankfully! This exercise might yield a quirky or humorous nonsense poem. Whichever route you pursue, be consistent with the tone.

 

Billy Collins writes with a deceptively light touch and a clear linear narrative, with both humour and tenderness too.

 

In the following poem, from which that opening line was taken, you will find subjects with which you may well identify. If this is so, use them, write about them, and return to his poem when you feel the need for further inspiration for your own developing writing.

 

Silence

 

Now it is time to say what you have to say.

The room is quiet.

The whirring fan has been unplugged,

and the girl who was tapping

a pencil on her desktop has been removed.

So tell us what is on your mind.

We want to hear the sound of your foliage,

the unraveling of your tool kit,

your songs of loneliness,

your songs of hurt.

The trains are motionless on the tracks,

The ships at rest in the harbor.

The dogs are cocking their heads

and the gods are peering down from their balloons.

The town is hushed,

and everyone here has a copy.

So tell us about your parents –

your father behind the steering wheel,

your cruel mother at the sink.

Let's hear about all about the clouds you saw, all the trees.

Read the poem you brought with you tonight.

The ocean has stopped sloshing around,

and even Beethoven

is sitting up in his deathbed,

his cold hearing-horn inserted in one ear.

 

Billy Collins

 

 

 

Hello Badger

Thank you for giving me all those notes to read, appreciated, but maybe it's best I delete it, I tried to last night and could not find delete button.

If it has nothing offer as a poem, it is not redeemable.

Best wishes

Rea

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Dream Poet

 

You sat upon her heart

and danced a merry jig

She loved the adulation

and tripped upon the fig

 

 

She wished to see your face

that launched the sun and moon

But time and love needs patience

and hearts break hungry swoons

 

 

I wished that it was, I

concealed behind your eyes

To sit within your heart with love

and whisk with joy, your smile

 

 

She spoke to you from deep within

her body, soul, and mind

In your heart, you misread

a thousand words, unkind

 

 

She wanted just to tell you

Your poetry is bliss

Your similes and metaphors

Blend with perfumed kiss

 

 

But, you were just too anxious

To be a loving heart

You inked with perfect passion

your chords that melt, apart

 

 

Now the past has dwindled

the esctasy and joy

of love, the unrequited,

silence locked behind each sigh

 

You illuminated her world

for a minute in the stars

A life time in infinity

where love light sparkles are

 

 

© Rea 20th May 2011

I don't think the poem is irredeemable or that Badge implies that it is. He makes his point with the information he provides. The mantra "show, don't tell" has probably been repeated millions of times in critiques. By giving these examples, Badge has followed that advice and shown, rather than simply told, what the expression means. This is not to say that it's not okay to tell, but it's difficult to tell without sounding trite. I get the point of the poem, or at least I think I do: poetess is flattered by poet; she wants to be the one he thinks about; she bares her soul to him; she tries to flatter him, but it backfires; and now, though it's all in the past, for her the memory lives on.

 

You've used some rhyme. Rhymed poetry, even trite rhymed poetry, should be in meter. I think you would benefit greatly from studying meter. You have a good ear for meter -- it may come naturally to you -- but you probably haven't studied it, because this poem is a hodgepodge of iambic trimeter, ballad verse, and occasional lines of iambic tetrameter. Some are flawless, others need work. Your poem, no matter how banal, could be greatly improved with perfected meter. At least then no one who knows what he's talking about can say the meter is off; it's only the content that would come under scrutiny. ;) And I know this from experience, as I have a reasonable grasp of meter and often use it to serve up some pretty banal stuff.

 

Tony

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Dream Poet

 

You sat upon her heart

and danced a merry jig

She loved the adulation

and tripped upon the fig

 

 

She wished to see your face

that launched the sun and moon

But time and love needs patience

and hearts break hungry swoons

 

 

I wished that it was, I

concealed behind your eyes

To sit within your heart with love

and whisk with joy, your smile

 

 

She spoke to you from deep within

her body, soul, and mind

In your heart, you misread

a thousand words, unkind

 

 

She wanted just to tell you

Your poetry is bliss

Your similes and metaphors

Blend with perfumed kiss

 

 

But, you were just too anxious

To be a loving heart

You inked with perfect passion

your chords that melt, apart

 

 

Now the past has dwindled

the esctasy and joy

of love, the unrequited,

silence locked behind each sigh

 

You illuminated her world

for a minute in the stars

A life time in infinity

where love light sparkles are

 

 

© Rea 20th May 2011

 

Hello Tony

 

Thank you and Badger for the lengthy replies. I agree with you, I need to study structure of Poetry, on saying so, Wordswsorth did not always have

perfect grasp of metre in poems.

I know this poem stops and starts, some verses run very smoothly, but as I play guitar, ear is a key factor, and maybe more accurate, for breaks and pauses.

When reading a poem, the writer will read their own work more accurately, but I will read and study Badgers feedback, your input is valued, and appreciated.

 

In relation to the poem;

"The content of the poem, has no relevance to the love of a Poet", "It's the Poets Poetry, the writer is in love with", as in this verse;

 

She wanted just to tell you

Your poetry is bliss

Your similes and metaphors

Blend with perfumed kiss

 

It's a bit like Romeo and Juliet, but "Romeo, in this poem, is the Poets, Book of Poetry"

I hope that clarifies.

 

Best wishes

Rea

 

Edited by Rea

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When reading a poem, the writer will read their own work more accurately ...

Thanks for the follow-up reply, Rea. We do have an audio forum where poets can post readings of their works. So, don't be shy!

 

Tony

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..., but as I play guitar, ear is a key factor, and maybe more accurate, for breaks and pauses.

 

I find that listening to a recording also helps rhythm, pacing and expression.

 

Personally I would not direct you to meter or rhyme, but to listening to poets. Of course the models you find there may well lead you back to meter and rhyme!

 

Some audio sites:

 

http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive...et.do?poetId=75

 

http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15297

 

Edited by badger11

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Both, badge and tony have made valid points, and I am glad you put this poem in Workshop, because it needs work, evn if I find no fault with the essence of the poem, but you must spend time to learn all about the 'craft' part which they point out so well.

 

I am fine w/the supposed unevennes of meter. It has its own charm and avoids the monotony even many fine old poems can suffer being overmetricated, and rhyming can stand even w/o meter as many modern poets have done. However, I do not like to quote chapter and verse, but two features stand out.

 

1. Rhyming should not drive the poem, and, in the lines you let it do that, it is difficult to glean what the poem is about and what is your emotional position toward the subject. You may try to say/show that first w/o the rhyme and then look for rhyming words that are native to the subject and its telling. As tony said, it is impossible to avoid telling altogether, but the telling can be wrapped in images made up of more words which hint, rather than those that merely name exactly what your attitude toward the subject is. In summary, you are occasionally distorting the normal syntax and grammar and the semantics (the finer deeper meaning tour tale brings) in order to make a line mechanically accommodate the rhyming words.

 

2. Trite phrases and clichees or near clichees should be avoided unless they are undeniably apt to what you are trying to say.

 

I am going to take a day or a few to post spot on edits of the lines where your otherwise significant poem stumbles in delivering its overall promise. The reason it takes me a while is that I always fear my edit could seriously alter your poems essential thrust.

An edit should be taken as a possible aid , a way to look at one's poem from a less passionate viewpoint than an author is otherwise capable of.

 

Please accept my heartfelt praise for your truely poetic bend.

 

waxwings

Edited by waxwings

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Both, badge and tony have made valid points, and I am glad you put this poem in Workshop, because it needs work, evn if I find no fault with the essence of the poem, but you must spend time to learn all about the 'craft' part which they point out so well.

 

I am fine w/the supposed unevennes of meter. It has its own charm and avoids the monotony even many fine old poems can suffer being overmetricated, and rhyming can stand even w/o meter as many modern poets have done. However, I do not like to quote chapter and verse, but two features stand out.

 

1. Rhyming should not drive the poem, and, in the lines you let it do that, it is difficult to glean what the poem is about and what is your emotional position toward the subject. You may try to say/show that first w/o the rhyme and then look for rhyming words that are native to the subject and its telling. As tony said, it is impossible to avoid telling altogether, but the telling can be wrapped in images made up of more words which hint, rather than those that merely name exactly what your attitude toward the subject is. In summary, you are occasionally distorting the normal syntax and grammar and the semantics (the finer deeper meaning tour tale brings) in order to make a line mechanically accommodate the rhyming words.

 

2. Trite phrases and clichees or near clichees should be avoided unless they are undeniably apt to what you are trying to say.

 

I am going to take a day or a few to post spot on edits of the lines where your otherwise significant poem stumbles in delivering its overall promise. The reason it takes me a while is that I always fear my edit could seriously alter your poems essential thrust.

An edit should be taken as a possible aid , a way to look at one's poem from a less passionate viewpoint than an author is otherwise capable of.

 

Please accept my heartfelt praise for your truely poetic bend.

 

waxwings

 

 

Hello Waxwings

Thank you for the lengthy, but where are you?

I'm waiting patiently, have you any suggestions? I did not think it would knock you out, 13 days to be precise!

Best wishes

Rea

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hi rea, i often write poems like this one. i work hard on trying to improve ones liike this. but after working hard to improve meter ect... i loose drift of the heart of my poems meaning trying to please others. i love poetry such as the way you presented it. smoothing it out in 4 or 5 places in choppyness is all it needs in emprovement.

 

 

 

victor michael

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hi rea, i often write poems like this one. i work hard on trying to improve ones liike this. but after working hard to improve meter ect... i loose drift of the heart of my poems meaning trying to please others. i love poetry such as the way you presented it. smoothing it out in 4 or 5 places in choppyness is all it needs in emprovement.

 

 

 

victor michael

 

Hello Victor

Thank you for replying, I have read and re-read, if you have any ideas to change or exchange, let me know?

By the way, I like the way you write, I do not always comment, but I read.

Best wishes

Rea

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Hi Rea, I miss you. the beauty and heart of your poems I love also. I think like you about how i love the muse of the poetess writing, but not the poetess. you inspired me to indulge a writing in 5 minutes on poetry connection after you posted this poem. it actually hurt my feelings because at first you didn't like it. i have choppiness in my poems also. sometimes just placing words and sentences in a different structures might vastly inprove this. this is my favorite poem by you and would not change much. but.. you asked for examples and know one has gone up to bat. so why badger did this is beyond me. i write long poems and he perfers that it is strictly poetic and that is it. there isn't a story in all of his poetry in my opinion. every poem i wrote has a story behind it. some i have no problem tinkering with others are perfect to me even if considered cheesy by others. ok please come back. i love your poetry. your poetry has inspired three of my writings. this one truly inspired one of my poems. peace poetess.

 

Dream Poet

 

Rea:

You sat upon her heart

and danced a merry jig

She loved the adulation

and tripped upon the fig

 

Michael:

He touches her romantic passion

and in turn she dances to his tune.

She loves his articulate adulation

and she stumbles upon a fig branch.

 

 

Rea:

She wished to see your face

that launched the sun and moon

But time and love needs patience

and hearts break hungry swoons

 

Michael:

She wishes to see his continence

believing it launches the sun and the moon.

But it takes time and patience for love

and their hearts break hungry swoons

 

Rea:

I wished that it was, I

concealed behind your eyes

To sit within your heart with love

and whisk with joy, your smile

 

 

She spoke to you from deep within

her body, soul, and mind

In your heart, you misread

a thousand words, unkind

 

 

She wanted just to tell you

Your poetry is bliss

Your similes and metaphors

Blend with perfumed kiss

 

 

But, you were just too anxious

To be a loving heart

You inked with perfect passion

your chords that melt, apart

Michael:

The Master of words she tought

in reality he was to anxious to love.

He inked with perfect passion and his

musical melody melts chocolate kisses.

 

Rea:

Now the past has dwindled

the esctasy and joy

of love, the unrequited,

silence locked behind each sigh

 

You illuminated her world

for a minute in the stars

A life time in infinity

where love light sparkles are

 

 

© Rea 20th May 2011

 

ok you do not have to change anything. other people inspire me to do stuff like this. i don't dare do what i did here because it is plagerism to change some one's work like this.

 

love,

viictor

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