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


We 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.

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.