34 – So Near and Yet…



“I nearly…sang ‘Bat Out of Hell’ to Bill Clinton and Kevin Spacey but Jack Straw stopped me.”

Now there’s a story.

Oh, the things we nearly did. Think of your own ‘I nearly…..’ Not just something that didn’t happen, but something that very nearly did. Have a look at this collection of Nearlies (including the quote above) to get you thinking. That ‘nearly’ is your subject.

You nearly went to college, but got pregnant and stayed at home. You nearly married that girl, but found out just in time about her kleptomania, and now she’s dead. You nearly took a job in Ipswich; nearly got a tattoo but chickened out; nearly met John Lennon but went to the snooker club instead. You nearly passed the 11+ and your life was changed. You nearly failed the 11+ and wish you had. You nearly died; you nearly missed being there when someone else did. What happened in that exact moment – were you aware of your choice, or was it an innocent split second that changed everything without you even grasping that you had made a choice?

The things we do shape our lives – but the things we nearly do, the events we nearly miss, the people we nearly shared our lives with, the advice we thought about taking but thought better of – these things also make us who we are.

Nearly takes us to conditions of health and hope – and not always our own. When Milton was almost blind, when Newton was moments away from an understanding of gravity – or when a child in the park is nearly able to walk – what does the proximity to such a great event, the anticipation of it show us?

Don’t think too hard about the word – just see where it takes you. Even a small opportunity, whether missed or taken, will provide you with your ‘nearly’. You could detail all the minutiae of the moment, explaining what you so nearly did. Or use the title to explain all that, and expand instead on what happened – and what it led to.

Sometimes, the things we nearly did leave a subtle taste of failure. Sometimes, the idea of them is so powerful that it almost seems we did them after all – ask Wendy Cope. The difference between what nearly happened and what really happened? That, dear 52er, has made all the difference.

33 – The Machinery of Grace


Sometimes a poem has such grace and weight that you know it will survive far beyond the lifetime of its writer. Machines by Michael Donaghy is one such; listen to him read it for the full Donaghy experience.

Is this poem about bicycles? Is it hell as like. It’s about love and balance, and plenty more besides. (The trick he pulls at the end, by the way – that elegant reversal of words – is called chiasmus.)

Look around you. How many machines do you see, including the one that brings you this prompt? Life is full of machinery – the answer phone, the iPod that goes running with you, the printer that hates you and chews up your essential document when you are in a rush. Some of it, like the kitchen clock or the immersion heater, is so familiar you barely see it. Some is vast and mysterious, a source of awe or fear.

Machinery confounds us – what is that under the bonnet of the car? It delights us, as the simple intricacies of the bicycle or the steam locomotive become clear. Perhaps your machine is an imagined one – a bullshit detector, an engine powered by daydreams or jealousy. Perhaps it’s a historic one – the first clock, the first telephone. A gun is a machine. So is a pacemaker.

Whatever it is, be precise in your choice. Describe it, see where it takes you. But remember too that the machine is not the point. Use it as a prism for seeing beyond it. If changing a tyre for the first time or working out how to plumb in a washing machine were rites of passage, then the interesting thing is not the machine but its action on you. If the first compass or the enormous boring machines that cut the Channel Tunnel have some appeal, then work out why and follow that thread.

Machines, after all, are not the important thing, as EE Cummings (who wrote his own name with capitals, smarty pants) told us here. Set your brain to work – and your heart too.

32 – Money talks


In 1940s Sheffield, my mum and her brothers grew up with little money and plenty of chores in a Methodist household with strict values. On one occasion they were told to take out the rubbish and sweep the yard. They set to it, whistling and bantering as they worked – and were amazed that my granddad gave them a shilling each when they finished.

“That’s not for doing it,” he said. “That’s for whistling as you did it.”

That’s a story about money. Oh, hang on – no it isn’t. It tells us something about that family, about poverty, about their attitude to life after the war. The money – in this case, a specific coin which also places them in time – is only a hinge on which the story swings.

Think about money. You could mine the obvious references – your first pay slip, the cost of a car in 1978, a coin given to a beggar, the decision over whether to tip the hairdresser. By all means, have a vitriolic rant about what money means – here’s one to start you off.

But stories, like coinage, depreciate if handled carelessly. Don’t debase the currency with nostalgia or vitriol. Work out what interests you about a particular image and pursue it so that it is about more than a coin or a car, or the predictable statement that monetary values change. Make money the focal point of a larger picture. Say something more than ‘Ooh, folk today don’t know the value of anything.’ Or say that – but say it afresh.

Think of what money can buy – including simple pleasures like these – and what it can’t. What payment really means. The coin that the tooth fairy left. The hoard of Roman coins reported in a newspaper. The settlement in your divorce. The fact that the poor often tip better than the rich. The tiny purchase that takes on more meaning later. The wallet left in a taxi and returned – or not returned. The lottery ticket win, the casino loss. A sixpence in the Christmas pudding. The notes pinned to a Greek bride. Or imagine a different currency: how would it be if we paid for goods and services with paintings or, God help us, poetry? Not everyone values poetry.

Money talks, indeed. But listen carefully – it may not be saying what you thought.

31 – Home sweet home?

Our seventh guest poet is Angela France. Her third collection Hide was published last year – full of meditations on womanhood, nature and change, some of which you can read here. Angela is part of the editorial team at respected journal Iotaand founder of the long-running and successful poetry reading night Buzzwords in Cheltenham. Angela writes:

Think of the place you think of as home, whether actual or spiritual. Is there a single quality you associate with it? A word that captures its essence?

We are always told, in poetry, to avoid the abstract and use concrete detail but for this part of the prompt, abstract qualities may be what comes to mind. You may think of a mood, a quality of light, a temperature, a type of weather; or, as in the case of this poem by Sheryl St Germain, a pace.

It’s all there in the disappearing light:
all the evenings of slow sky and slow loving, slow boats on sluggish bayous;
the thick-middled trees with the slow-sounding names—oak, mimosa, pecan, magnolia;
the slow tree sap that sticks in your hair when you lie with the trees;

See how she turns the whole poem into a meditation on ‘slow’, how she uses the long, languorous lines to reinforce the slowness, how her word choices and vowel sounds are slow and rich. The poem reads as a celebration of New Orleans’s slowness – or does it? One reader in a workshop thought it reads as a complaint about the frustration and claustrophobia of the slowness; the quality you associate with home may not be a positive one.

Martin Figura’s poem Piggotts, from his wonderful book and show Whistle also uses lists and long lines but to entirely different effect.  The Piggotts were the large, rowdy, chaotic family who rescued Martin from a children’s home. The words breathlessly tumble over each other, not only evoking but invoking an overwhelming atmosphere of chaos and warmth. The verbs, often beginning a sentence, drive this poem with unstoppable energy; from just the first few lines – bashing clouting jammed flying dragged thrown. Phew!

And finally, see how Ofelia Zepeda’s poem Smoke in our hair uses the scent of woodsmoke to talk about home and how, just as with the other two poems, the details are specific and concrete so that the reader can fully enter into the world evoked.

So, off you go. Have fun!

[Jo adds: Before you head HOME, have a look at Buzzwords' current competition - well respected, well subscribed and with an excellent 52-friendly judge in Jonathan Davidson, whom many of you met in Stratford. You still have a fortnight to enter it.... you know what to do.]

30 – With Friends Like These


It’s 2.00 am and after several cans
of Tennents we’re getting a bit
philosophical Jim says he’ll pack in
writing songs and go up the Amazon
in a canoe Mike says he fancies
lying around all day in the forest getting
pissed on jungle juice and Brendan says
that when they’re all too smashed to go out
and kill a creature they’ll send the
women off to gather berries they ask what
will you do I say I’ll teach the women
to be assertive so they can tell you to
fuck off and pick your own berries.

Sylvia Dann’s Back to Nature sounds like a damn good night with your mates. Look at how she does it – those unpunctuated, disrupted lines sound like a drunk person, the language is plain-spoken and her killer last line closes the argument with a hiccup and a slur. She knows when to stop – she doesn’t say “…and so we carried on until dawn, arguing and being close, and we will do it all again one day.” We know that.

Your theme is not Tennent’s lager but time with friends. Your starting point will be different, but still a single moment shared – and aim for the same vividness, the same fidelity to the moment. If it’s mournful then slow it down with vowel sounds like oh and ah – if a motorbike ride, keep it fast with consonants and short vowels.

A friend or friends, then. One you see a lot, or haven’t seen for years (like Chris Beckett, writing in the Ethiopian tradition of praise poems). One who is lost to you through death or distance; one who lives next door, one who you last saw when you were six. One much older or much younger than you. Not, please, one who happens also to be your mother or your husband. Keep it platonic eh?

Remember an extraordinary or ordinary moment spent with them. Don’t intellectualise, don’t try to make it Mean Something. It means something. Get right inside it. Remember what was on the stereo, how bad the pasta was, how awful that man’s hair, how a friend helped you take the bins out when you slipped a disc. Tell the truth, in the language of the occasion – giddy as teenagers, mournful as pallbearers. Try addressing it to the friend directly, for the same immediacy as our epistolary poems in week 20. Fill it with love and keep it concrete.

Then phone a friend. Poems, even the best of them, are only representations of the important stuff. Oh, and erm, have a listen to this - a poem written long before 52 brought so many poets together in a truly invisible space.

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.]