47 – Learning Your Lesson

‘The best thing for being sad,’ replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, ‘is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then – to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you. Look at what a lot of things there are to learn – pure science, the only purity there is. You can learn astronomy in a lifetime, natural history in three, literature in six. And then, after you have exhausted a milliard lifetimes in biology and medicine and theo—criticism and geography and history and economics – why, you can start to make a cartwheel out of the appropriate wood, or spend fifty years learning to begin to learn to beat your adversary at fencing. After that you can start again on mathematics, until it is time to learn to plough.’  - The Once and Future King, TH White

He’s right, of course. It’s a long quote because I love it – and poetic enough in its repetitions and structure to maybe count as a prose poem, if you believe in that sort of thing. And this week’s is a short prompt because it’s self-explanatory: what have you learned?

What did you learn at school, at university - was it any use? Then again, what did you learn during thirty years of working for the civil service, or ten years of domestic abuse? If you were to title your poem ‘Things X Taught Me’ then what is X – a dog, a river, Wigan Casino, alcohol, the Incredible Hulk? You might list the things you learned, like Kate Bingham – or make an oblique study of, for instance, The Way I Learned to Write.

Booby trap alert: beware sentimentality, pomposity, mawkishness, a Hallmark-card poem wistfully telling us that you have learned How To Be Kind or Not to Interfere. The solution: avoid abstracts ruthlessly – wisdom, pain, joy etc. Keep it concrete. Illustrate every lesson with the five senses. Resist the urge to say in those fatal last two lines – and so I learned that…. It should be clear by then.

And please, dear poets, don’t do ‘What I learned in 52′. Nothing so easy. We can do better; be brave or breezy, but make this one count.

46 – Spoken Word

“We have a very equal relationship. She does all the cooking, I do all the welding.”

That sentence, overheard recently on a bus, sends me back to a favourite theme – on which we built the Bugged project in 2010. This week is all about the overheard.

A poet’s job is to pay attention. Look. Listen. Learn. So, go forth and eavesdrop: at the bus stop, in the newsagent or at the school gate. Sometimes, overheard words give you a flavour of the life lived by the speaker.  Sometimes (often!) they make no apparent sense. Sometimes they’re only the starting point for a train of thought.

Incorporate a single overheard phrase in your poem. Or make the whole poem reported speech – you may have to invent some of it, but it can be tremendously powerful. It need not be pleasant – it might be abusive, contemptuous, embarrassing. And remember, just because your poem starts from an overhearing, it doesn’t have to start with an overhearing. Sometimes the strongest telling is the wrong way up, so that we arrive at the spoken phrase last.

Some of you will squirm at this mission. But writing well means developing new skills. This prompt gives you license to sit in a coffee shop and listen; or to pay attention, as we always should, to what is said at the service station, the supermarket, the hotel reception desk. Give us a sense of the space in which you did your snooping. If you can’t get out, then use the radio but make sure it’s spontaneous, and not scripted, speech – a phone-in or an interview, not a documentary or a drama.

Much of what you hear will be banal and uninteresting. Don’t sit around waiting for someone to confess an affair or a bank robbery. You aren’t looking for a whole story, just a hook to hang one on. Even Good morning Mr Jones - has that phrase been uttered twenty times this month with a cheery face, but with a growing sense of hatred/ unrequited love/ bitterness? Tell that person’s imagined story – or remember someone saying something similar to you. It can even be a historic overhearing – a family argument, a phone call you wish you hadn’t heard – but an overhearing, not something said directly to you.

Cheers, big ears. Listen up.

[NB for those of you in our Facebook group, I know that FB destroys formatting so italics - the usual way of showing reported speech - will be lost. You'll have to use speech marks or dashes!]

45 – The Uncertainty Principle


In the eleven months we’ve been sharing these prompts, few poems have struck me as powerfully as this one. Read every last word of it. Now read this familiar anthem.

If your experience is anything like mine, then the second poem will pale into triteness by comparison with the slowly unfolding anger of the first. Both poems, however, operate on the same principle. Everything hangs on the word IF. The outcome - whether it’s making up your mind in a split second whether to shoot your pursuers, or conducting yourself through a lifetime as a man apparently should – depends on the choice which you, the reader, make in response to that uncertainty posed by the writer. The writer asks a question – the reader answers it. That little I-word makes the reader complicit.

And that little word is the first word of your poem. Whatever follows it, your piece begins (or its title begins) with If.

Where do you go after that? Go flippant-but-serious, like Joyce Grenfell. Use it to address a question which may or may not be real, as Niall Campbell does here. Be concise and profound, like this. Address the big ifs – if there is life after death, “if the Son shall set you free….” or consider those sliding-door moments when you took one path, and wonder what might have happened if you had taken the other. If I had bought that red sports car/ taken heroin when offered/ not taken heroin when offered/ stabbed my ex-wife to death – how would my life have been different? If I had superpowers, what would I do with them? Or share a private moment that may or may not have happened, like William Carlos Williams.

Poetry is about extracting maximum value from each word, even the tiny ones. The two letters of ‘if’ stand for all kinds of uncertainty. Uncertainty is what will drive your reader on through the poem, until you deliver some kind of certainty.

If, of course, you choose to.


44 – Moving pictures


This month we welcome guest poet Rachael Boast. Rachael’s first collection Sidereal won the Forward First Collection Prize and her second, Pilgrim’s Flower was one of four shortlisted (from 539 international submissions) for the Griffin Poetry Prize. Often described as a modern metaphysical poet, she lives in Bristol and owns a tiny boat. Order Pilgrim’s Flower here

Moving images is a phrase that evokes several interpretations. As noun, we immediately think about the genre of film, but could also interpret this phrase as any images that are perceived to be moving, as opposed to fixed in one place. As a verb, it could be understood as the imaginative act of moving an image from one place to another – in a sense, this is what the imagination does when at work on poetry. An image in a poem can ‘move’ from having one association to having another and may also move from meaning to meaning, depending on the active effects of other images in a poem.

Write an ekphrastic poem about a film, or clip from a film, that has literature or a literary figure as its subject or as its creator. Ekphrasis, as we know, simply means ‘art about art’ (more commonly translated as ‘description’). For our purposes it refers to an attempt to expand the meaning or significance of a film through the heightened use of language particular to poetry, and in so doing bring that moving image alive with a new intelligence. Examples are the films of Andrei Tarkovsky (especially ‘Mirror’ which incorporates poems composed and read by his Father, Arseny Tarkovsky), or ‘Pandemonium’ (on Coleridge and Wordsworth).

Here’s another example: A Room and a Half, released in 2010 and directed by Andrey Khrzhanovskiy, is a biopic on the Russian poet Joesph Brodsky, who wrote poems in which images seem to float free of any fixed meaning (how on earth did the knickers get into this poem?) This clip is wonderfully textured: the moving image (film) of moving images (floating piano, levitating french horn, violins and the shadows of violins).

This is also a good excuse to watch the films of Jean Cocteau who saw film, as well as drawing and painting for that matter, as a form of (moving) poetry (‘Heurtebise’ is both the subject of a poem and a film character). My second collection, Pilgrim’s Flower, began and ended with ekphrastic poems based on Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête and Le Sang d’un Poèterespectively.

Written your film poem? Next: what would your poem look like as a film?!

[You don't have to watch all the films right through, of course. But Rachael gives us the excuse to consider any film, moving image or TV programme - and the associations that they bring. From Belle de Jour to Captain Pugwash - get the popcorn out and get cracking!]

43 – The Unseen


‘”All right,” said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.’ - Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

Be careful what you wish for, 52ers. I give you license to write about the unseen. But read on, McDuff. I don’t mean God, Time, the ghost in the upstairs bedroom or anything so purely abstract.

I mean those physical things that we know to exist – but which we can’t see with the naked eye. Under this heading would come WH Auden’s microbes; the fish that you know must be in the local canal; the bicycle ditto; or a group of people with whom you feel kinship though you haven’t met them – fellow joggers, for instance. The rivers that run underneath our cities. The cities that lie beneath our fields. The ever more distant boundary of the universe or, somewhere spinning within it, the Voyager satellite with its cargo of recorded sound.

Consider the unseen neighbour eating Weetabix (or worshipping Satan) as you eat your boiled egg on the other side of the wall. The bats rustling in the roof space; your wife singing to herself in the room next door; the bones of buried pets in your former garden. The doctor receiving your blood sample. The skylark, singing too high to spot. Or, indeed, wild goats roaming unseen in nearby hills. If you know it exists, but you can’t see it, then it’s a possible subject. The things you can’t see are often more interesting than the things you can.

It’s perfectly simple. All you have to do is, pick a thing you can’t see and look at it very closely. Then show us what it looks like.




42 – With a song in your heart

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Song is our subject this week. Song, a complex and simple thing that goes from the ear straight to the heart – a primitive, sophisticated, tribal, private, joyous and tragic thing. For our purposes, there are at least three ways of tackling it.

1    Write about the act of singing. A ragged family rendition of Happy Birthday, a drunken get-together when you sang your way home, a lullaby, a familiar hymn…. Perhaps you joined the rugby club in a rousing version of Eskimo Nell, shared the tribal holler of a football chant or overheard a little child singing nursery rhymes. Maybe your grandmother, like mine, was a Methodist with hymns hard-wired into her bones. Singing can also be a glorious relief from the suffering which can’t be expressed in words.

2   Write the song itself – or more precisely, a poem which calls itself a song.  In poetry the word implies a mood, an intention, rather than a very metric and repetitious form. You don’t want your elegy to sound like a Gilbert & Sullivan number. Even so, a song usually has repetition and structure, no matter how simple and joyous it is. Yours may be a battle song, a song of loss or of praise for your new hoover; an exhortation to a friend to come through a hard time. It can be an anthem for a cause, more memorable than a politician’s soundbite; a moment from myth which unfurls into comment on the contemporary; or a moment of perfect silliness – though examination of this famous piece may reveal something more than nonsense.

3   Write about a recorded or famous song that has meaning for you. Our Song; the national anthem; the moment when Kate Bush took to the stage. Beware: this approach is a minefield of sentimental tosh. “Do you remember that fantastic moment at the Bob Dylan concert when we all sang together…..?” Nope. So make it matter to the reader who wasn’t there, as well as to the writer.

Off you go, with a pen in your hand and a song in your heart. But not this one. That belongs to my dad.

41 – Food for thought


One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.
― Virginia Woolf
There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.
― Mahatma Gandhi

It took me ten months to ask you to address this subject. How peculiar. After all, food is an obvious theme, right?

Exactly. Easy subjects come with deep pitfalls, and we don’t do obvious here at 52. We do subtle, we do rich and meaningful, we do funny and vulgar and startling and downright unnecessary – but not predictable. We don’t, for instance, do long nostalgic poems about how the taste of your mother’s stew can send you back to 1968. [Unless, of course, we do. Your poem, your rules. But it had better be damn good stew].

Whatever came to mind first, may not be the best ingredient for a poem. Like a talented chef, fish around for the best stuff. After all, you have eaten every day of your life and usually more than once; sometimes barely noticing your hurried breakfast, sometimes taking time to consider even a snack. Food is a sacrament, a gesture of love, a chore, a political statement, a cultural identifier. So basic a need, so often met, opens up a huge hinterland of association and memory. What was your first meal? What might be your last? Write a poem as a recipe – or a recipe as a poem. Remind us of a very specific hunger (fourth poem down, here.)

As at a good dinner party, food needs to be on the table, but only as the catalyst for conversation about other things. Finding it can be (yes, alright) a remembered act, or a reflection on world affairs. If avocados remind you of that holiday in Mexico, then away you go. Consider the privacy of the unbroken egg, the risk of an out-of-date yogurt, the injustice of food banks versus high street banks. If Oxo cubes dissolved in boiling water kept you alive during a childhood illness, then explore that weakness.

Whet our appetites. Leave us hungry for more.

40 – Heads and Shoulders, Knees and Toes


The dark, dark liver – love it, love it and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize. ― Toni Morrison, Beloved

Listen to your heart. No, not in the pop song sense. Listen. There it is. What if it went wrong? Perhaps it already has, and you’ve been forced to think about it. Now consider all those valiant body parts which have not gone wrong. Your strong legs, your unthanked eye. Maybe it’s time to let them know how glad you are to have them.

Ask yourself - do your toes have a secret life?

Body parts are your subject. Not the whole body, because we’ve done that – and not necessarily your own body part. Consider how much one organ (yes, including that one) can tell us about the whole person. Consider a friend’s near-fatal brain injury. Consider the surgeon’s hand or van Gogh’s ear. Address the old theological conundrum – if Adam was the first man, then did he have a belly button?

Be a hypochondriac and think, for once, about all the things you try not to think about. Use the right language to avoid cliché or sentimentality. Reflect on the subtleties of the brain, the tongue, the inner ear. Do some homework. Why do we still have an appendix if it does nothing? What happened to your baby teeth after your mum put them in that little box? Does the clitoris or the root canal really extend that far? Ah well, that would explain it.

This is not about The Body. That way lies vagueness, and in vagueness lies mediocrity. Besides, we did it in Week 3. So this week is all about one specific part of the body. Write an ode to it, celebrate or chastise it (but please, not another amusing poem on how your knees give out after sixty).

Get your teeth into it. Put your back into it. You get the idea.

39 – Your Schiehallion


Our guest poet for September is the astonishing Helen Mort, named this month as one of the Next Generation Poets for 2014. Helen is deeply committed to her native land (and mine), the Peak District edge of Chesterfield and Sheffield. She engages with it not only by writing about its politics and cities, but also physically. A dedicated climber and runner, her recent win in the Chesterfield Marathon sits alongside five (count’em) Foyle Young Poets wins, an Eric Gregory award and the Derbyshire Laureateship. Helen’s collection Division Street was shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize 2013. Her earlier pamphlet A Pint for the Ghost was a moving stage show. She has just completed her PhD.  Rumours that she can leap tall buildings at a single bound should surprise no-one. Helen writes:

“‘Oh, / There’s a Schiehallion anywhere you go. / The thing is, climb it’ - says Norman MacCaig in his poem Landscape and I [this poem will download, look at the bottom of your screen for it]. He’s writing about this Scottish peak but I think he’s also writing about so much more – about mountains of the mind, about the way that places can seem very special and particular to us, but also so universal.

I remember climbing Schiehallion with my dad and his friend Dave when I was a teenager. We had to wait for ages at the top for Dave to catch up because he’d befriended a female hiker and was telling her all about the habits of black grouse. It was an unconventional chat-up line, I’ll give him that. When we reached the top of the slope, I felt as if I was in the centre of Scotland and the world was made of nothing but mountains – the hills circled us like a moat.

I can remember every mountain I’ve climbed in better detail than I can remember what I did yesterday. When Norman MacCaig says ‘there’s a Schiehallion anywhere you go’, I think part of what he means is that there are places of significance waiting for us everywhere, places that can imprint themselves on our memories.

Here’s another place that has done that for me, a kind of city Schiehallion. The place is Lowedges in Sheffield, only a ten minute drive from where I live: here’s the poem.

Read this poem by Kenneth Rexroth. He starts with mountains, but the journey in his poem takes us utterly elsewhere. Or how about this very different, very concise take on mountain scenery from Li Po?

What’s your Schiehallion? What memories do you have of being outdoors that you’ve never forgotten? It doesn’t have to be a climb or an account of a great adventure. Your Schiehallion could be a corner of a garden, a swing in the park, a single, stolen flower. It could be an urban place instead of a rural one. But I’d like to hear about a place or a memory of being outdoors that means something to you.

Happy climbing.”

[Like all our guest poets, Helen gave us this prompt for free, and in her case at very short notice. Special thanks to the most modest poet I know, who has so much cause to be immodest, and whose favourite poets coincide so neatly with mine. Why not express your gratitude by buying Division Street if you haven’t already?]

38 – Whatever it is, I’m against it

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This prompt goes live on the day when Scotland asks – what are we for? What are we against?

So I thought we’d get topical for a moment. Watch this enlightening short video on Marxist politics (trust me…..)  Now, ask yourself again – what exactly are you against?

This isn’t just something you dislike – chewing gum on pavements, reality TV – but something you really oppose. Something that offends you enough to send you to the barricades, or to take up arms, or write a stiff letter to the Giggleswick Herald. It might, in fact, be chewing gum on pavements. Or manicured grass. But it may be something much larger.

There is a fine tradition of ‘Against….’ poems. Like all traditions, it comes with pitfalls. Beware the ill-tempered rant, the immoderate polemic, the language of the pub bore. By all means rail against The Modern World or Traffic Wardens, but not predictably. What’s that you say – you’re against Death? Well, so is everyone else. Your take on it had better be fresh. In poetry as in politics, anger reduces an argument to bigotry or hyperbole. Keep your temper. State your case.

Think of something that hurts, or mystifies. Are you against loneliness, or marriage, or ice hockey? If you’re stuck, think of something you’re absolutely FOR, and look for its opposing number. If you love opera, write against jazz. If you love summer, write against winter. Enjoy a moment of perversity; think of something that everyone is for, and take up arms against it to write Against Travel or Against Motherhood and Apple Pie. You might write about someone else’s Against. My father was ‘against’ homosexuality. I was against him in that. Eileen Myles is against peanut butter.

For and against. Yes and no. It’s a simple, binary construct. Yes?

No. We are not simple, binary creatures: we are all about shades of maybe and perhaps. That may be where the interest of your poem lies. Is Fleur Adcock really Against Coupling [yes, we have had this one before]? Roddy Lumsden claims to be Against Naturism, but it looks as though he’s all for nakedness (and iambics). Leave room for ambiguity.

Our last poem this referendum week is a Gaelic one (translation underneath) from lively Hebridean, Aonghas MacNeacail. Good luck and great love to you, Scotland – whether you vote for or agin.