52 – A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

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“Write a poem a week. Start now. Keep going.”

Everything is going to be amazing, said our first prompt in January. And lo, it was. Thousands of you have written from these prompts. Hundreds joined a Facebook group to share work. We had ten amazing guest poets. Work from 52 is now published in the finest literary journals and placed in international competitions. Most important, we have shared work which is astonishing in its exposure, its humanity, its courage. 

More in a day or two about the two books that will emerge from the 52 experiment. But right now you have a turkey to cook and more importantly, a poem to write and oh my God, is that the time already? So let’s get on with it. 

Our first prompt was a rip-roaring declaration of energy and appetite for 2014. The last is, of course, a leave-taking – but one in which sadness is prohibited. Taking your cue from Donne, your mission is to write A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning. A valediction (a poem of goodbye) implies a parting, a leaving behind. But yours will turn an ending into a triumph.

Now, John Donne is many things but ‘childishly easy to understand’ is not one of them. ‘Metaphysical’ is after all Greek for ‘much cleverer than you’. If you find his valediction a bit of a brain-teaser, you are not alone. Here’s a good and funny dissection of it. Now, read the Donne again until your head hurts; which it will do, especially if you’ve had too much sherry trifle. Basically he’s saying – I’ll be back. We can’t be separated, because we’re always together. Likewise Cummings’ poem here, if not exactly a goodbye, finds the good in being apart.

Then you can spend the whole of Boxing Day reading this long and wonderful Hymn to Life which, if it anticipates death and leave-taking, does it in a blaze of gratitude for good things. What do you want to say goodbye to? This blog? Fair enough, but that might be a waste of a moment with the Muse. Perhaps the bright new poetry exposed by 52 means saying goodbye to what preceded it. A poem of beginnings or discovery – like this one – implies a farewell to what came before. Or imagine a historic goodbye – Elizabeth I still haughty on her deathbed, Neil Armstrong saying goodbye to the much-loved Earth and wondering what his mission to the moon might bring. Goodbye to parents as you leave for university – goodbye to a marriage which, though it’s over, has taught you things you needed to learn. Goodbye to the bloody family as they leave on Boxing Day, allowing you to reclaim the house. Goodbye to 2014, and welcome to 2015.

Whatever it is, make it a valediction without mournfulness. Say goodbye with joy.

52, I love you. KEEP GOING.

*turns back into pumpkin*


[If you’ve enjoyed the 52 project or just admired it from afar, you can help us to fund the two new books which will give it a meaningful legacy, and get a copy of the first one as a thank you! Have a look at our record-breaking Crowdfunder campaign here.]

51 – Year of the Goat


Week 51. In the weeks since January 1st these prompts have achieved an immense amount, which I shall gloat about at length next week. I will also unveil a little legacy. 52 has been an act of collective discovery and rediscovery – finding, together, that we can each write about anything. As Carol Ann Duffy says, “You can find poetry in your everyday life, your memory, in what people say on the bus, in the news, or just what’s in your heart.” The raw material is everywhere. But the subject is always the same.

The subject is you.

Your appreciation of a flower, your horror at the Peshawar school massacre, your new shoes or old feet: even in identifying a subject, you make a statement. Your job as a poet is to be as wholly human as possible. The value of our endeavour is in sharing experience, precisely and with impact. Poetry is communication. Poetry is the opposite of small talk. Poetry is when a writer says I think the world is like this. Is it like this for you? and the reader says Yes. But I didn’t know how to say it till you showed me.

And yet, and yet…. as GK Chesterton famously said, “The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese”. There’s always some fresh angle on the old human experience. Let’s look at how a single word can appear in many poems – and then see what it can do to yours. It isn’t cheese, but it’s only one step away from it. You trust me, right? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you as your trigger word – the title of this poem by Jo Shapcott.

Stop tittering at the back. Goats are an in-joke in the Facebook group which accompanies this blog. They have been (ahem) the butt of our jokes for long enough. Now they get to amuse themselves at our expense. The humble goat has something to teach us, and an appropriate thing for this late stage. Settle down please.

Goats are mystical dream creatures. They are horribly real, and yet still somehow dreamlike. Even when described with precise physicality, they have a powerful otherness that takes the reader elsewhere – or in this case, takes the narrator back to a long-abandoned place. They are sometimes simply domestic, often a signal of oddity and sexuality, and sometimes (warning: graphic) an object of sacrifice. But in every one of these poems, the flavour of goat adds something to the mix.

Start from the word ‘goat’. If you have a goat in your life or can remember one – from childhood, from the Pyrenees, from an experience of goat curry or being a Capricorn or seeing that constellation – so much the better. If you don’t, then write whatever you like. But make sure there is a goat in it somewhere; a real one, an ornament, a toy. Don’t be obvious; don’t fall back on the comic unless by deliberate choice. Dig deep, as you always have, and see if something unusual comes of your caprine subconscious.

Am I really going to ask you to do this? Yes I am. Are you really going to take it seriously? Yes you are.  No kidding.

50 – Pulling punches


“To paraphrase several sages: Nobody can think and hit someone at the same time.”
Susan Sontag
“People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready 
to do violence on their behalf.”


It’s the season of goodwill to all men, peace on earth etc etc. So naturally, your theme this week is violence.

I mean an incident of personal violence. It may have happened to you – a parent smacking you, a racist attack. It may have been the aftermath – a friend’s black eye the morning after. You may have contemplated violence, and make a passing reference to it.

Before you settle into the comfortable skin of the righteous victim – even if that is exactly what you were – challenge yourself. In poetry, comfort is a kind of cowardice. Have you never enjoyed violence – in a playground fight, an act of spite or revenge, at a political march or a boxing match? Did you listen to a fight next door and do nothing? Dig deep. There may be shame in the memory, but do not add ‘and I felt ashamed’ at the end. We’ll know that.

Here’s a powerful trick for tackling the dark stuff. Change your viewpoint. If this is a tale of you doing something awful, change it to the third person and see if that makes it easier to tell. If it’s a story of you being attacked, try writing as the attacker. It will be ugly; it should be. And resist, resist, resist those damn abstracts. Don’t say ‘pain’ or ‘shock’ or ‘terror’show us how it looks and smells. Show the reader your actual bruises, and trust them to deduce the deeper ones.

Write around a particular incident of violence against an individual. Of course mass violence is A Bad Thing, of course war and genocide and violent crime are Bad Things. This is so plainly true that a poem written on a global scale – lamenting the 9/11 attacks or the fate of Guantanamo Bay prisoners – can seem utterly trite. The way to tackle incomprehensible violence is to make it comprehensible, through one illustration – as Thom Gunn does here in the person of a young Nazi. On a good day after all, poetry itself is a little pistol.

There is good in the world. Sometimes even violence reminds us of that. Go forth. Pull no punches.

49 – Everything is illuminated


The days are getting shorter. Ergo, the nights are getting longer, for another two weeks at least. It’s time to think about light, and its many forms and shapes.

Consider daylight first. This morning, the quality and sheer quantity of sunlight in my living room was astonishing. A vase of roses was luminously pink, because of the way light works. On the ceiling, a wobbly reflection of water; on my way to Birmingham, a dangerous burst of sun in drivers’ eyes. In the city centre, the Library of Birmingham was gilded with it. When the natural light lessened the many artificial lights came on – street lamps, headlights, fairy lights on the municipal Christmas trees.

And now that it’s dark…. but it isn’t, of course. There’s an almost-full moon, giving a cold but bright light. There are stars, each with a different quality of luminescence – some rose-pink, some white – and occasionally a plane with its tail lights flashing slowly. Trains pass over the nearby bridge, every window a little yellow square. In my living room, the woodburner gives out a warm firelight which would devour everything if released.

These are the obvious kinds of light, but its interest lies in interaction with other things – a lover, a cancerous mole, a fading curtain. In photography and in certain personal circumstances, it means exposure. In medicine it is a diagnostic tool. Light – or its absence – lends drama or suspense to a situation. In nature it’s a source of wonder or death. In art it can be moving and subtle. Think of candlelight, moonlight, flash bulbs, fireballs.

When the lights go out, what happens in the dark? In the darkroom, the bedroom, the coffin, in the cave when your torch gives out? When it’s dark here, what’s happening on the other side of the world or the galaxy? What is it like to lose light – to go blind, or to enter the extreme Arctic winter longing for a dawn that won’t come for six months? Read Donne’s famous lament after the death of his wife, a cry of despair and loss in the longest night. If that depresses you then (indulge me) read my own life-affirming response to it here. Or watch this simple experiment to renew a sense of wonder.

Illuminating, no?

48 – Macaroni, No Cheese


Our guest poet for November, Philip Gross, is one of our most versatile and exploratory. He loves to play with language, its possibilities and limitations. Philip often works with other artists, or revives archaic forms like the glosa, to enrich the ore from which poetry is dug. His 2013 collection Later will be joined by a new poetry-art book A Fold In The River (publ Seren) in spring – and in autumn ’15, by another Bloodaxe collection Love Songs of Carbon.   Philip’s prompt is a little more technical than we usually have on 52 but read on – and see my take on it, below, for those who are more timid. Philip writes:

Macaronic verse is poetry in which two languages co-exist, often in alternating form, so that one implicitly comments on the other.  Historically, this has sometimes been used for irony or protest; this poem from 14th century England alternates lines of Middle English with medieval Latin – roughly, the language of the common people set against the language of power in that time. (The translation on the right is very rough!) If you’re struggling to read these examples click here.


“Incidentally this can be a brilliant discipline for the ear: asking one language to rhyme with another makes us very aware of the different, maybe never quite compatible,  sound qualities of each. Macaronic verse can be used to explore more sensitive emotions too – the poem below may make a real French speaker wince, but the distance and sound-slippage between the languages is meant to be part of the point:


“You do not need to possess two language to write macaronically. Not only are there dialects and accents within English, there are many registers of language – the legal, say, or the bureaucratic, the languages of medicine or therapy or politics, or of any occupational sub-culture; each has its own tone and vocabulary, its own resident references and clichés.

“If you feel moved to try a bilingual piece, of course, do… but for the purposes of this exercise try a macaronic poem in two registers of English. How you define those registers, and even the use of rhyme or not, is up to you. The main thing is to hear the difference between them, and make creative use of it.”


[Jo adds: The focus here is the interplay between two kinds of language. If you really struggle with this and want to write a piece which simply incorporates Scots/ legalese / Yorkshire dialect/ advertising language, or which uses a phrase like je ne sais quoi as a starting point, go ahead. Examples here and here. The key thing is that your poem includes both your own kind of English, and words from another language which is either foreign, or foreign to you. Here’s one of my favourite examples, read first in Gaelic and then in English.]


47 – Learning Your Lesson

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

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

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

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

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

46 – Spoken Word

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers, big ears. Listen up.

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

45 – The Uncertainty Principle


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

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

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

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

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

If, of course, you choose to.


44 – Moving pictures


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

43 – The Unseen


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

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

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

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

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