29 – The Proverbial


In these islands, our daily speech groans under the weight of proverbs and quotations. We’re laden with idioms, sayings and epigrams so well-worn as to be part of our daily language – ancient proverbs from the Bible, lines from Shakespeare, memes from Facebook. The best ones chew over the wisdom of the ages and spit it out as a memorable nugget of useful advice.

Pick one and run with it. If you can’t think of any right now, start listening out for them – they bubble up everywhere. Once bitten, twice shy. Be careful what you wish for. A fool and his money are soon parted. Many hands make light work. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. If you get stuck, look here or here – or travel further to borrow the sayings of another culture. Even if we don’t know the proverb we might be able to deduce it from the poem.

If you don’t fancy the proverbial, then start from a famous quotation - Burke’s ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’ or the Dalai Lama’s ‘Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.’ Remember or invent a story to illustrate it in practice.

Don’t rely too heavily on the phrase itself. It is the spark for your piece, not the punchline. You needn’t include the saying at all; it could be the title, or an epigraph. Take liberties with it – this is a great exercise in trusting your reader, who knows the language just as well as you do. Don’t labour the point. You might even go off on a flight of fancy – the gift horse speaks to complain of people always looking in its mouth, the tired sage mashes up all the proverbs into one.

Many of our time-worn idioms come from Shakespeare, the Bible or poetic sources, and it can be tempting to follow them into a sing-song rhyme or ballad style. Try to resist that – use the proverb as the grit in your oyster shell, and make the pearl your own way. If you do include the phrase in the poem, try to avoid making it the last line. By their nature, proverbs are punchy. They can sound like a gong announcing the moral of the story, or the homespun moral at the end of Little House on the Prairie.

And we wouldn’t want that.

28 – Stop all the clocks


I have outlived
my youthfulness
so a quiet life for me

where once
I used to

now I sin
till ten
past three.

As Roger McGough reminds us in Scintillate, time flies whether you’re having fun or not. And time is a hard subject to tackle. It is, after all, infinite. There are so many ways to approach it that you can end up with a grandiose failure.

The key to avoiding that booby trap, as we’ve seen so many times, is to balance specificity and generality. In the immortal words of Norman Hadley, ‘your poem must be about left handed widgets but also about Everything.’ A poem has to be specific enough for us to believe in the writer’s experience – but general enough for the reader to find it relevant, interesting, useful in negotiating a path through the world.

So this week’s prompt is not about time in general – but about a particular time of day, a specific time on the clock. Think first about your own routines. Do you do the same thing at eight o’clock every day – make the coffee, put the radio on, pray? Or does the time stick in your mind because something terribly significant happened one day at eight o’clock? The hour might be central to the telling, or it might be mentioned in passing, as Robert Hass does here. It might be shown as a detail in the larger picture, as Fleur Adcock does with gentle wit and warmth. Use the time to stand for something else, as Eavan Boland does.

Make an appointment to meet your lover, your optician, your cancer specialist. Notice the clock stopped at ten to three, and ask yourself why. Remember the silence at 11.00 on Armistice Day, or consider the small horrors of the 4.00 school run. Join the 7am swimmers or the midnight feasters.

Get writing. The clock is ticking….



27 – Saying Sorry


What do you say when you tread on someone’s toe – or, if you are English, when they tread on your toe? You use the word we use to end a relationship or a world war. Here is Glyn Maxwell, apparently meaning it, but we often say it insincerely or sarcastically – ‘I’m sorry but I disagree’, ‘I’m sorry but you’ll just have to park somewhere else’. When spoken from the heart, it can be a large word indeed – as it is here [and look how the poet builds a sense of tension, with us expecting a different outcome till the very end].

So. Say sorry to someone. This, incidentally, is about ‘sorry’ in the sense of a direct apology – not feeling sorry for someone, or being generally sorry about the state of the world.

Make a long-overdue apology for that thing you did. Yes, that thing. When you stole little Bobby’s tractor at playschool, or slept with Jane’s husband; when you said something wrong, and swiftly glossed over it, but never stopped wishing you had apologised. Do it now instead. Apologise for queue-jumping or adultery, for shoplifting those socks from Top Shop in 1982, or for something vast and political which you were not actually responsible for. Say sorry to someone who died before you knew you owed them an apology; or to someone who never felt wronged in the first place. Say sorry to your wife for not bringing her breakfast in bed, or to your mother for not understanding her difficulties earlier. As ever, keep it specific rather than general – use a particular incident as a hook to hang the poem on.

Your apology might be almost incidental. In Snakes, the word appears once, in the middle of the poem – but the whole piece gives a feeling of confusion, of being angry and sorry all at once. Being sorry implies shame, and shame is difficult. Let it show.

If you are a saintly type who has never done anything to apologise for, or the sort of git who never apologises, or an Edith Piaf type singing je ne regrette rien, then make an angry or insincere apology. If you can’t face up to your own mistakes at all, then apologise for someone else. Nigel Farage apologises to the Romanian nation. Julius Caesar apologises for conquering Britannia. Pope Joan apologises for fibbing about her gender.

Now….. go to your room. And don’t come down till you’re ready to say sorry.

26 – Written on the Body

26Our guest poet for June – and marking the halfway point for 52 – is Neil Rollinson. Wholly engaging, wholeheartedly physical, startlingly honest and deep, Neil’s poetry pulls no punches on any subject. He is one of our boldest and best. His latest book is Demolition. Neil writes:

So midsummer is upon us – we’re all hot under the collar. I know what’s on your mind! Yes, the birds and the bees, so let’s repair to our boudoirs and pen a little erotica.

Before we begin, let’s lie back and consider a few pointers. This is a subject rife with cliché. It is all too easy to get over excited and before you know it, your poems are more like a Mills and Boon love-in, with all manner of heaving manhood and palpitating hearts. We need to look at this with a fresh eye. So calm down, get a cold shower, put on a clean shirt and let’s begin. As Wordsworth said: poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility, and that’s a good start for those of us with an erotic bent. Let’s try and come at this from a different angle, a fresh angle.

Let’s write an erotic poem that’s about other issues: illness, growing old, familial and domestic disappointment perhaps. Does that sound promising? Well, Deborah Harding does exactly this in her marvellous poem Baseball in the Living Room.

Not only is it fiercely honest in its eroticism, that wonderful lustyness, it is also a heartbreaking poem, about her parents. And funny to boot. A good ruse of course is to let something else carry the focus, or energy, and let the erotic take a back seat. Whatever you’re doing though, whatever you’re writing about, you must seek to deepen the experience of the poem. Superficial or one-dimensional poems are never successful, but you know that already.

So that’s one way of doing it, but we can also write in a more direct way about sex, perhaps from our own perspectives, but this is a much harder ask. We live in prurient times, and you could be asking for trouble, so make it as good as you can, steer clear of any cliché – I can’t stress that enough – and make it fresh and original, even funny, if you can. My advice would be this: be serious. Flippancy in matters of sex always looks bad. You can be as explicit as you like, so don’t worry about that – many of my own poems have been noted for their explicit nature, like this one: but don’t be gratuitous. Be honest. All experience comes from the same wellspring. If you are being honest in your telling, then we as readers will recognise that, and empathise.  My poems are anecdotal and knowing in their way, which helps to keep a distance between myself and my subject; a similar approach, though much more powerful, is the confessional. For my money, Sharon Olds’ is one of the best.

It doesn’t get much better than that. It is graphic in its way, but also lyrical. You can feel its sincerity. It is both honest and celebratory, both qualities that will help your poem relate and endure, and lyricism of course will always elevate the tone of anything you write about.

Then there’s the humorous. For this I’d go in search of Catherine Smith who has a very good comic touch and timing. The poem Losing it to David Cassidy on this page is seamlessly sexy and funny, it’s difficult to write a poem this good. Heckmondwike a little further down is also very funny.

Right, let’s get going. The key here, as always is originality, clarity, focus and precision of imagery. Avoid  abstraction, concentrate on concrete nouns, and avoid cliché like the plague, which is itself a whopping great cliché. Good luck.

[Jo adds: Scared? Good. Remember week 3, when I asked you to write about your own body? This is more exposure in the same vein. Dig deep for the true stuff, the good stuff. See you in there].


25 – Sounds Off


Listen. Listen. What can you hear, right now?

“You can hear the dew falling, and the hushed town breathing. Only your eyes are unclosed to see the black and folded town fast, and slow, asleep. And you alone can hear the invisible starfall, the darkest-beforedawn minutely dewgrazed stir of the black, dab-filled sea where the Arethusa, the Curlew and the Skylark, Zanzibar, Rhiannon, the Rover, the Cormorant, and the Star of Wales tilt and ride.

Listen. It is night moving in the streets, the processional salt slow musical wind in Coronation Street and Cockle Row, it is the grass growing on Llaregyb Hill, dewfall, starfall, the sleep of birds in Milk Wood.”

Dylan Thomas is describing something close to silence here. Edward Thomas did the same in this poem which is 100 years old on Monday. It endures partly because of its subtle finish which cocks the reader’s ear, leading you out from the platform to listen for yourself.

Listen to the world around you. Start now. Seriously. Close your eyes and begin to hear all the things you normally filter out. Even the most ordinary sound can be a gateway to something extraordinary and wise. Then again, take a flight of fancy in which sound is just a vehicle for some larger idea.

Write, then, about sounds – but stay away from music, or speech! That’s altogether a different experience and not for this week.

Church bells or school bells, the beep of the smoke alarm running out of battery, the jingle of your computer as it starts up, the remembered sound of an old car, the roar of a football crowd…. At the other end of the scale, choose something which seems silent but whose importance is cosmic.

As I type this I hear my fingers tapping on the keys, and ducks tapping on the hull of my boat; the engines of other boats chugging past, and the lock gear clattering as they work their way up or down hill. There is the quiet openness of water and trees, but also the loud rattle and honk of a train at the level crossing, the tick of a steel hull cooling after a hot day. I can’t hear a cat, a husband running a bath, a teenager playing with an iPad. I can’t hear gunfire or Niagara Falls. But all these sounds are out there, somewhere.

What can you hear? Listen.

[PS on Monday 23rd June, the Poetry Society will be remembering Adlestrop at 12.45pm - see how you can join in here.]

24 – I Can See A Rainbow



Colour is my day-long obsession, joy and torment – Monet


Critic:   ‘And what, sir, is the subject matter of that painting?’
Monet: ‘The subject matter, my dear good fellow, is the light.’

Colour is present everywhere. At the fruit market, in the crazy colour-bombs of Holi and, horribly, in illness and death. In this poem by Dannie Abse, it is the precisely named colours that do the visual and emotional work.  Yet the same kaleidoscope of refracted light gives us yellow sunflowers, red wine and the jewel box majesty of the Sainte Chapelle.

Write about colour (but not skin colour, which exercises different poetry muscles and is not for this week). This is a wide-ranging, enough-rope-to-hang-yourself with prompt. There are lots of ways to tackle it.

You could pick a single colour and pursue it through all its manifestations. Write a list of the blues you know (your father’s eyes, the mould in Stilton, the Adriatic, the Facebook button). Enumerate the shades of green in an English hedgerow; the many kinds of white in an antarctic landscape or hospital waiting room; the outlandishly named colours on a Farrow & Ball paint chart. Have a go at all the colours in the landscape around you as Luke Davies does here.

You might write about a particular coloured object. A blue dragonfly, a pink vibrator. Every colour carries a host of meanings after all – Kim Addonizio gets full-throated, red-blooded value out of her red dress. Or use colour as a metaphor – you’re in the pink or seeing red, singing the blues, black-hearted or green-thumbed, troubled by the green-eyed monster. Read up on the science of colour - and look at that second quote of Monet’s above. Your subject, as ever, is not purely the object you’re describing but the way we see it, the way it makes us look a little differently at the world. A poem is never about what it’s about.

Pitfall alert: those Technicolor words like vermilion, indigo, burnt umber can sound a little florid. Use them sparingly, to enhance your palette of primary colours. Homer famously spoke of ‘the wine-dark sea’ to convey its colour. In this and many other subjects, the simple word is often the most effective. Red. Purple. White.

After all, William Carlos Williams did alright out of them.

23 – Great lives


Your 23rd mission is to write about a historic figure in whom you have an interest. It may help if you admire them, but that’s not compulsory. Think it over whilst having porridge with John Keats (and listen to Kinnell reading it, a breakfast-time delight). Admirable or not, choose a person who is

a) real

b) famous

c) dead

Einstein or Beethoven, Maya Angelou or Bobby Moore, Elizabeth Bishop or Jesus, Gandhi or Edith Cavell or Freud. It DOES need to be a famous person, not just a person in your own life. That person is your subject.


Or rather, not. It’s hard to write about these people without overloading them, hanging virtues around their neck like flowery millstones. It’s hard to avoid polemic or “and-so-she-showed-us-that-War-Is-A-Very-Bad-Thing” triteness. Also, you don’t want to write a short, worshipful biography, which does nothing more thought-provoking than an entry on Wikipedia.

How to avoid all that? I offer you two tips – which you can disregard of course.

First, concentrate on one incident. Gandhi weaves the piece of homespun cloth which he sent to Elizabeth II as a wedding present; Coleridge gets up to open the door to the person from Porlock, who interrupted him in writing Kubla Khan (a damn good thing too, and see how Stevie Smith goes off on her own marvellous tangent). Sylvia Townsend Warner writes here about the moment of Elizabeth I’s death. Consider the moment before the famous moment; Neil Armstrong about to step onto the Moon, Joan of Arc stepping out to the pyre. Consider the anti-climactic aftermath; Pontius Pilate, wondering what all the fuss was about. And remember that we are after truth, not accuracy. If you have discovered a series of fascinating facts about Frida Kahlo, you don’t have to cram them all in.

Second tip: take a point of view which shows us the person as an ordinary human. Put your subject in a domestic setting, as Kinnell did with Keats, or inhabit a person on the sideline – the ship’s cook on the Beagle complaining about Darwin’s eating habits…. One very good way to make someone less godlike is to marry them as Carol Ann Duffy does in many of her poems. The very best way to make someone human is to become them. Be Marie Antoinette at the banquet, Freud buying cigars.

No, forget that last one. It will only lead to trouble.

22 – Purple prose


Our guest poet for May is Luke Kennard. Prolific, funny, fiercely intelligent and charming, his work is fresh and inventive – sometimes unsettling, always a stimulant to the poetry palate. After several full-length collections and an acclaimed novella Holophin, his latest pamphlet is Planet-Shaped Horse.  He is particularly known for his prose poetry so this week he brings us a proper challenge. If this prompt makes you uncomfortable – good. Out of your comfort zone is where you should be writing, whenever you can. Luke writes:

“Put simply, if a free verse poem does away with strict rhyme and metre, a prose poem also does away with line-break. That’s a very negative way of looking at it, of course, and it may be more edifying to consider the possibilities the form allows. Shorn of any other outward manifestation of the poetic, we’re left with imagery alone.

Most prose poems look like little paragraphs of prose. Here are some by Charles Baudelaire, who was arguably the first poet to use (and name) the form in the 1860s. Here’s a sample of his Paris Spleen. No, I have no idea why he thought they were poems either, even after writing a thesis on the subject.  The form became popular on the Coninent and in the U.S., but didn’t take off in the U.K. because T. S. Eliot (after writing one vaguely misogynistic prose poem called Hysteria) declared that he despised it. Up-and-coming writers tended to want to stay on his good side. Here’s a beautifully surreal piece by the American poet Maxine Chernoff, Miss Congeniality (1972).

One way of introducing extra form to the proceedings is to impose a template on the prose: complete the sentences and repeat the pattern to create a sequence of variations. This is an exercise I often use when I’m introducing the idea of form and pattern to a new class. I also use it myself when I’m feeling low in confidence, which is most of the time. Like any form, it has the advantage of forcing your hand, unearthing thoughts and ideas you didn’t know you had. Here’s my starter template:

When I reached the edge of the desert I saw…

You told me…

I couldn’t…

It was as if…

The first sentence asks for some physical description, the second and third introduce a companion and possible conflict, the fourth asks for some kind of analogy to sum up. I set a minute or two to complete each sentence, then a further 5-10 minutes to write out two variations using the same template. Some of the best results come from the writer trying to link together a kind of narrative between the three variations. As I said, this is a starter-template, so the real challenge is to come up with your own sentence/word pattern to repeat and work with.”

[Jo Bell adds: some of you will be screaming in horror at this prompt. Well, welcome to the not-in-your-comfort-zone zone! It's a very subtle thing, this distinction between prose and the prose poem. If you don't get it (like me) then do your best and have a go, in the spirit of 52. It's a really good way to get a feel for your own rhythms, patterns of rhyme or subject matter. In the meantime if you are filled with a powerful urge to give something back to the 52 project - click here to donate to a favourite charity. ]

21 – Ant Music


If we were to wipe out insects alone on this planet, the rest of life and humanity with it would mostly disappear from the land. Within a few months.                     - E O Wilson

I don’t care how small or big they are, insects freak me out.                   - Alexander Wang

There is poetry everywhere, even in flies and nettles. This week we concentrate on the former. Insects buzz and flutter and sting the air around us. They have us outnumbered, and they will outlast us. Insects thrive in every evolutionary niche - from the bluebottle, living on excrement and unpopular in the kitchen, to the Wandering Violin Mantis (yes, really – watch this to see it and its curious friends).

The butterflies and ladybirds in the garden, the wasp that spoils your picnic, the spiders that live behind the kitchen cupboards: if it has six legs or eight, it’s fair game for us this week. Consider the astonishing life cycle of the caddis fly or the Song of the Death-Watch Beetle. Don’t just swat them away as annoyances – look at the world from the dung-beetle’s point of view. Explore what it’s like to grow up in a chrysalis.

You may want to do some research. Is it true that ants make up two-thirds of the biomass of insects in the world, or that anatomically, the bumblebee shouldn’t be able to fly? Why was the scarab beetle held sacred in ancient Egypt? Mine the rich language of a field guide for facts and proper names. Look at folklore about insects  (but go steady on those Telling the Bees poems, they are common as flies).

Above all, pay attention. All good poems begin with close observation, as shown here - but to be interesting for a reader, it needs to be more than that. As Thoreau said, “the question is not what you look at but what you see”. So Tony Hoagland renders a moment with a dragonfly as both meaningful and innocent, without sounding trite. Use your insect as a metaphor, as an incidental character in a bigger story, or as the centre of the universe.

After all, Kafka did alright out of it.


20 – Is that an epistle in your pocket, or….?


Dear 52:

Do you remember how we used to write letters? We wrote to lovers, to friends, to potential employers, to children at boarding school and soldiers on service, to old aunties who sent us Christmas gifts. We sent letters of advice – though seldom as splendid as this one (pay attention to point 12 especially).

Nowadays the scarcity of physical letters lends them a sense of occasion. This week we join the tradition of epistolary poets – writing a poem in the form of a letter. Letters are vivid, personal, revealing. Doing research once, I found a letter from Isambard Kingdom Brunel to a stroppy customer who had dared to complain that his order (a boat of Brunel’s design) was late. The great engineer signed off with this magnificent flourish of temper -

‘I am, sir, your obedient servant. And if you were mine, I should give you a damn good flogging’. 

For video readings of moving, contemporary or historic letters, visit this wonderful selection of readers sharing letters of note.

So write a letter. This isn’t a poem about a letter – it’s a poem which is a letter, for its immediacy and a more intimate register of language. Let’s not have any laments about how we-used-to-write-letters-but-now-it’s-all-newfangled-emails-and-isn’t-it-sad. You don’t need to begin with ‘Dear God, I thought I would write you a letter.’ That’s obvious – and besides, that particular addressee would already know.

Write to a particular addressee – for moral instruction, for amusement, for catharsis, for the hell of it. Make it angry and accusatory, in a letter to Michael Gove. Make it sexy and serious, in a letter to your lover coming home after a month away. Make it whimsical and mindful, as Rebecca Dunham does here. Write to Martin Luther King or the Buddha. Write to your sixteen-year old self, or a letter to the dead telling all those things you never said. Come to that, write a letter from the dead. After all, we’re poets. Who can stop us imagining?

Whoever your addressee is, let us know – but remember that in a letter to your closest childhood friend Tibby, you would never say ‘Dear Tibby, you were my closest childhood friend’. Make it clear in some other way, perhaps in the title. Write with your own rhythms, your own tics and phrases (or, if you write in another voice, invent convincing tics).

Oh, and one other thing.

Mean it.

I am, ladies and gentlemen, your humble servant – and if you were mine, I should be most awfully surprised –

Jo Bell