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.

37 – Water, Water Everywhere


“Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.”

What took me so long? You always knew that it would come to this. This week, join with Auden (above) and with Larkin to write about the metaphysical force that is water.

It’s vast, in the oceans. It’s tiny, in a single raindrop. It’s wild and murderous, or cheerily domestic as in this poem by Sean O’Brien. It’s familiar when seen in the bedside glass, but thoroughly strange and unknown when not seen at all. It’s a rich source of bizarre or memorable stories like these. From giant squid to tadpoles, from diving in the sea to diving under the garden sprinkler, it saturates our frame of reference.

It’s so ubiquitous, in fact, that you may find yourself drowning in ideas. You know what to do by now: get specific. Think about familiar landscapes – the seasides or streams you enjoy, the loch you fish in, that night of kayaking; your daily contact with water in the tap, the bath, the ritual of shaving. Think about episodes involving water; washing the dog, the laundry, the car or a moment when you nearly drowned. How to convey those sensations, the way the water catches light? Think about (ahem) canals with their particular balance of the natural and artificial, their urban wildlife. Visit the entirely addictive Museum of Water.

Water may take you back to a basement flood or The Flood itself; to a vase of flowers or the wreck of the Titanic; to climate change and global water shortages, or right inside yourself to the personal reservoir that constitutes so much of your brain, your blood, your self. Go on a trip up the Amazon, down the Nile, around the Arctic Circle.

Follow, as water does, the path of least resistance.

Elementary, dear poet. Jump in.

36 – Signed, Sealed, Delivered

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Lord I know, and I know you know I know
this is a drudge’s penance. Only dull scholars
or cowherds maddened with cow-watching
will ever read The Grey Psalter of Antrim.
I have copied it these thirteen years
waiting for the good bits — High King of the Roads,
are there any good bits in The Grey Psalter of Antrim?

(text illegible here because of teeth-marks.)

Think of an important document. It may be a medieval psalter – we’ll come back to that – but will more likely come under the heading of Necessary Paperwork. Your first driving license, or the one that you forfeited after drink-driving. The adoption certificate that changed everything. Your house deeds, your license to practice, the RSA Stage II Typing Qualification. It might be dreaded or longed for – the Decree Absolute, the diagnosis. The accounts you hate doing. The first passport in your new name.

Remember the moment when it arrived. Root it in the physical world by telling us what it looked like. Use its impersonal language or its structure to inform your own piece.

Well, that’s going to be a bundle of laughs isn’t it? We don’t actually want to read about a tax return. So as ever, write from the subject rather than about it. A poem called Sod the Accounts, I am Going To The Pub or perhaps I Have Fallen In Love With The Traffic Warden is far more interesting. Start from the thing itself, but write about what it stands for. If it’s important, then what it stands for is important. Denise Levertov uses a map and birth certificates to range around ideas of place, home, identity – whilst this poem rejects dry documents altogether and looks to other priorities.

Or, go for a document that records someone else’s life. Adriana Trigani wrote of

paperwork filed on behalf of my grandparents and great-grandfather. The ship’s manifest showed that they could read and write. I am still emotional when I look at those boxes checked yes.

You can happily lose days in this brilliant archive of letters. Consider a legal document like Magna Carta or Domesday Book, or private ones like the Vindolanda tablets (ghastly website, translations on the right). Whatever you choose, focus on one particular manuscript. That word means ‘handwritten’ so tell us what it looks like, what the ink is made of. No-one uses historical documents better than Ian Duhig.

Get it on paper. Beware sentimentality. Make it a document worth keeping.

35 – Rites of Passage


35We need this thing. There’s not one
mineral in Stonehenge that our blood can’t also raise. 

- Albert Goldbarth, Stonehenge

Ritualalways different, always the same and always, apparently, necessary. What makes a ritual? A sense of occasion, marking a great moment in life. A quality of closure or commencement, a moment of witness.
Ritual can be grand and timeless, rooted deep in the culture you came from, like a bar mitzvah or baptism. If you left that culture behind, smaller rituals can be hard to shake – crossing yourself when you enter a church, singing a certain hymn as you do the washing up. For us non-theists, remember a wedding, a funeral. Conjure up a moment of ceremony glimpsed whilst travelling, or think how a ritual borrowed from another culture might be useful.
Then there are are the funny or curious ‘pretend’ ceremonies. An animal’s funeral. What do the children think is happening when the teddies get married? What is the kid at the back of the mosque doing, while the adults worship? What did happen to the hamster when it died?
Ritual can also mean the behavioural tic that one has to do without knowing why. Every day I make my morning coffee in the hissy little stove-top thing given to me by a friend. Every canal bridge I pass underneath, I reach up to touch. A football match, the preparation of Sunday lunch – each is a ritual with its paraphernalia and patterns. In Eightfold Chant Brian Komei Dempster gives as much weight to the cleaning lady’s professional rites as the prayers of his white and black ancestors.
Invent a ritual for something which requires one – Dancing on the Grave of a Son of a Bitch does just that [and by the by, illustrates why you don't need to explain a poem - read it without the prologue, and then see if the three-paragraph explanation tells you anything you hadn't worked out already].
Be serious, or silly. Something so universal has a lot to offer. Devise a new ceremony for the opening of a Facebook account or the final payment of your mortgage. Make a ritual sacrifice to mark Getting Over Her, or a Blessing of the Car Keys; have a cremation of desire or low self-esteem.
Take a vow to write a poem a week. Oh no, you did that already.
Amen to that.

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.