NaPoWriMo April 2017

I shall try hard to write a poem a day, this list of prompts from Jo Bell will surely help:
Day 1   Write to yourself as a sixteen year old. What warnings, what advice would you give? If you have time – write back.
Day 2   ‘January freesia, hot coffee’. Read Elaine Feinstein’s Getting Older. What small, physical things delight you? Write about them. Stick to the physical. See where it goes.
Day 3   Thirteen Ways. Everybody knows this poem by Wallace Stevens. Not everyone knows this response by RS Thomas. Choose some physical thing to write about. Write about it, in thirteen ways.
Day 4   Trains, Planes and Automobiles. Write a poem that takes place entirely inside one of these – or a boat, of course.
Day 5   Read Alden Nowlan’s poem Great Things Have Happened. Write about a great historic moment and how it affected – or didn’t affect – your life. Diana’s death in Paris – 9/11 – the assassination of a political leader. Resist the urge for great philosophical pronouncements. Just tell it like it was.
Day 6   Write about a friend, or friends. It needn’t be cute or even kind – see this disturbing poem as an example – but on the other hand, it could be a wonderful celebration. Keep it focused on events you have shared.
Day 7   Mechanical disaster. That time your car/ washing machine/ plumbing broke down. What happened? Who fixed it? Was it all bad?
Day 8   Read Roddy Lumsden, The Young. Now think of a group of people you want to address – the old? Hippies? (It will help if you don’t like them). Write a poem addressing them, as Lumsden does.
Day 9   Read Mervyn Morris, A Chant Against Death. Write a chant against something dark – death, grief, loneliness – by summoning up the things that defeat it best. It doesn’t have to take this form, but make it strong and affirmative.
Day 10   A litany is a poem or prayer in which a single word or phrase is repeated at the beginning of each line. Here’s a classic example, the Litany of Loretto – and three modern examples from Billy Collins, Allen Ginsberg andRichard Siken. If stuck, use one of these as your repeated word: Unless, Or, Whatever, If, Finally.
Day 11   List twenty intensely physical experiences you have had. Write about one of them. It doesn’t have to be a good one!
© Jo Bell 2013
Day 12   Read this poem by Anne Bradstreet. Now read these poems about Anne Bradstreet by Eavan Boland and John Berryman. Now write a poem addressed to a favourite (or unfavourite) poet of yours. Think of where, how and in what style s/he wrote. Talk to them. Tell them things.
Day 13   A valediction is a poem of goodbye – to a lover, a deceased relative, a situation. Read examples here from Ann Ridler, from Billy Collins, and from John Lyons: now write your own.
Day 14   A laudation is a poem of self-praise. Read this one from Tomaz Salamun and write your own. British persons in particular will complain that this is too hard. It’s meant to be hard, you slackers. Pull all the stops out, show your wit and celebrate yourself unapologetically!
Day 15   Read this poem from Liz Lochhead, A Favourite Place. Think of a favourite place of your own and make notes on it. Write a poem about it. Include one personal name, and one piece of reported speech (something someone said, quoted directly). Focus on one event or occasion. If it takes you somewhere else, like Liz’s poem – so much the better.
Day 16  Write about work. It can be yours, someone else’, the job you hated most or what ‘work’ means. Look at Alan Dugan’s Monologue of a Commercial Fisherman: Cornelius Eady’s The Cab Driver Who Ripped Me Off, and Gavin Ewart’s Office Friendships.
Day 17   Blessings. Here’s one by me (blushes) and one by Galway Kinnell, the justifiably famous Saint Francis and the Sow. Now – write a blessing…. but hang on, that’s too easy and trite. I want you (on this day of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral) to write a blessing for someone you dislike. Make it sincere, not snide or sarcastic. Dig deep and find the best of yourself.
Day 18   Read two poems called Shame – one by Joshua Weiner, the other by CK Williams. Now – write about something you are personally ashamed of, whether small or large.
Day 19   Read Bodkin by Vona Groarke, which is clearly about a favourite word. Think of a favourite word of your own – either you like its meaning, or simply its sound – and write about it. See where it takes you.
Day 20   A springy prompt, with video accompaniments. Watch this best ever poetry video and observe that the poem is not just about daffodils. Watch this and observe that the Edward Thomas poem is not just about Tall Nettles. Watch this and remember that Housman’s poem is not just about cherry trees. Now get outside and walk, or sit, for half an hour. Write about something green, something growing. Your poem may (indeed should) turn out to be about something else.
Day 21    Got your Sunday paper? Well then, you can do one of these. Your blackout poem may not be a work of genius but it might spark off a train of thought that leads to another poem.
Day 22   To Do Lists. Make a list of the life ambitions you haven’t yet achieved – climb Everest, learn to make the perfect omelette – and write about one of them. Inhabit it as fully as possible. What would it smell, sound like? How would it feel to actually achieve it?
Day 23   Read Sharon Olds’ First Sex. Now write about the first time you did something – anything!
Day 24   A Museum Visit. Read these three poems –Waka 99 (a waka is a war canoe), In the Museum at Teheran and Beginnings. Now visit a museum. Haven’t got time? Then look at the British Museum, TheWellcome Collection or an oddity like Leila’s Hair Museum. Pick an object and write about it. Try, as ever, to make it about something more than the obvious subject.
Day 25 An argument poem. Get mad at someone. Hit the ground running. Open with a strong statement and let rip!
Day 26   Write about your parents in a rough sonnet. Six lines on your mum, six on your dad and two on yourself to conclude. If you want to make it a Shakespearean sonnet, it should rhyme ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.
Day 27  Read (and more importantly, listen to) Michael Donaghy’s A Repertoire.  Now make time to listen to your favourite piece of music, or to one with strong associations. Remember where you first heard it, what it means to you, who you were with when you heard it at a concert etc. Write about that – don’t worry if the poem takes you a long way from the music.
Day 28   Read Fear by Ciaran Carson, Fear of Happiness by AE Stallings and Things by Fleur Adcock. What are you afraid of – really? Write about it. Be honest. Do not be afraid.
Day 29  Proverbs. Read this by Eliza Griswold, and this by Geoff Page, and my own duet with Max Wallis based on an Arabic proverb, here. Now – make a list of sayings or proverbs (or cheat by looking here). Write a poem starting from one of these.
Day 30  Write about love. Write it true and deep and plain, and as you are feeling it now – whether fresh, or weathered, or lost, or unspeakably painful. Speak it. Write the best poem you ever wrote. No pressure. But tell your truth. Here are some examples of poems about different kinds or stages of love – Sharon Olds’ True Love, Vikram Seth’s Protocols and Raymond Carver’s Late Fragment.

NaPoReMo #1: A little support for NaPoWriMo


National Poetry Writing Month started in the US, but it belongs to us all now. Lots of you are having a go at writing a poem every day this month. Here once again is my own list of 30 brief prompts to give you a creative prod every day. Click here to see it and (I think) CTRL + click on each link within it, to see the poems I mention.

There’s one tool for writing good poetry that sometimes gets neglected during this month of frenetic writing. To write well, you have to read well. Read wide and deep, read things you don’t like as well as those you do, and ask each poem why it works – or doesn’t.

Every day this month, I’ll post a poem for you to read and think about. There will be classics and brand new poems, comic and tragic, complex and simple. The first one is a jolly little number…. have a read. Enjoy it, and have a look at my comments below.


Connie Bensley

I’m sure you will be very happy with this bra, Madam,

she said, her manicure seriously red as she tapped the till.

Of course I did not ask her how she knew.

Who is rude enough to challenge the clairvoyant,

the diagnostician, the prognosticator?

But she was right. As soon as she folded up

the lacy garment – its ticket swinging insouciantly –

and handed it across the counter

in its raspberry-pink bag, my spirits rose.

Outside, traffic parted for me like the Red Sea:

the sun appeared and gilded passers-by

who nervously returned my random smiles.

The days, the weeks, wore on in a numinous haze

of goodwill. Who knows why? Be cynical if you must:

I only record the sequence of events.


Connie Bensley uses a perfectly ordinary comment as the starting point for her poem – I’m sure you will be very happy with this bra, Madam. But she turns that phrase around, and considers all possible meanings for it. What if a bra really did make you happy? What if it could change everything in the world around you? Anything at all can be a trigger for a poem. Noticing the phrase, the body language, the small incident is the key thing. Judith Wright called this ‘the artist’s isolating eye’ in her own poem Request to a Year.

Line breaks. Do they work? For the most part, each line break follows the grammatical sense of the sentence. Occasionally they break it up – as in ‘a numinous haze/ of goodwill’. This one creates a tiny cliffhanger – a numinous haze of what? Oh I see, of goodwill. The stanza breaks are pretty straightforward too, each one following the sense of the poem. The exception is ‘she folded up//the lacy garment’. Does that have a logic to it, or is it there because Connie Bensley wanted each stanza to be the same length?

Adverbs – as a rule, words ending in ‘ly’ are to be suspected in a poem because they do work that can be better done by the right verb. Bensley doesn’t for instance say that the traffic parted ‘magically’ because we understand that. But the words ‘nervously’ and ‘insouciantly’ both add something to the mood and the information of the line.

The beginning and end are just right. We are straight into the action of the poem – there is no shilly-shallying, no ‘I went into the department store and then, in the lingerie department…’ She just gets right to the point. The ending makes us smile; we’re invited to draw the conclusion that the bra caused all this happiness, but like a good storyteller Bensley walks away with an air of mystery.

Off you go, NaPoWriMo folk. But don’t forget to read as well as write; I’ll be here every day in April with a titbit to reward you for your efforts.


Oh western wind, when wilt thou blow

that the small rain down can rain?

Christ, if my love were in my arms

and I in my bed again!


I thought for a while about what to post for this last day of my NaPoReMo series. I considered my favourite poem of all time, WH Auden’s In Praise of Limestone: but it’s very long and there would have been too much to say. My relationship with that poem is partly about my own geographical hinterland, so you might not feel quite so excited about it as I do.

I wanted something that would take us back to the essence of poetry. I wanted a poem that would remind us why we write, how simple it can be at base – and how reading well helps us to write well, which has been the whole point of these blogs. So instead of Auden’s magnificent, multi-layered reflective poem (which I urge you to read anyway), I offer you this ancient gem.

It’s four lines long and one of the oldest poems we know in recognisable English, dating probably from the fifteenth century. It’s tiny and true and simple. It has survived for six hundred years. Why does it work? Surely you agree that it does work. It’s a nameless man (almost impossible that it should be a woman, given the time and the subject) saying something that we’ve all felt. And it’s memorable because it’s more than a sentence; it’s a little poem.

Oh western wind, when wilt thou blow

that the small rain down can rain?

Christ, if my love were in my arms

and I in my bed again!

Three words suffice to give it a rhyme and structure; rain, rain, again. It’s mostly written in iambs (look it up) – especially if you lose the word ‘that’ which modern translations put in to ease the meaning. If you’ve done a workshop with me you’ll have heard my mantra: concrete, concise, conviction. Concrete means use the five senses. Here we have wind, rain, the lover in his arms and the cosiness of the bed. Concise means, make it no longer than it needs to be. I don’t think we can accuse him of rambling on in this one. But the greatest of these three is conviction: mean it.  Mean it. And surely, he does mean it. The plaintive ‘oh’ that begins the poem, the rhetorical question that he knows will get no answer, and the forceful wishing ‘Christ’ in the third line make this a groan of tiredness and need. It’s the simplest wish of all; to be in bed with your lover, safe and warm with the rain beating on the roof.

The sensation I have on reading this poem is the same that I had when working as an archaeologist, on finding a piece of Roman kitchenware in the mud. I’m a human, it says. I have lived on the earth where you live. This is a piece of my life. Hello. It feels like a greeting; it feels like a moment of holding hands with a person from another time. It’s lasted for centuries. And there’s the rub: if you try and write a poem that will last for centuries, you will very likely fall on your arse. Tell your experience, with enough physical detail to make the reader feel it with you. Abandon all hopes of impressing people, and you may write something impressive.

The poem isn’t complicated or technically challenging but we share his experience in the telling, and he uses a simple form to make it memorable. Short and sweet is often more powerful than long and clever. Some people enjoy technical experimentation in poetry for its own sake, and feel that communicating experience is not the main point. But for me it is: and this is my blog, so there. The poems I’ve chosen this month all speak to me in some way. I don’t always like what they say or identify with it, but I can hear it loud and clear.

I have of course had a not-very-secret agenda in writing these articles. You have to read good poetry to write good poetry. Every single writer I know whose work is loved or respected will tell you the same thing. Every person I meet whose poetry is lazy, cliched or simply bad, honestly hasn’t taken reading seriously as a tool for learning to write; so it seemed important to show what we mean by saying ‘read’. Of course we read first for pleasure. But to read poetry as a writer of poetry, you have to do more than let your eyes pass over it and take in the gist. Examine every word; ask why the poet used this word and not another; query the bits that feel weaker and find out why. Don’t just feel the effect a poem has on you, but ask how that effect is worked on you. Lift the bonnet and have a look at the engine of the poem. Reading poetry will teach you more about writing poetry than just writing poetry ever can, because you’re reading people who (for the most part) are getting it right already. It’s not just about paying your respects to the dead giants. It’s the single best tool to make your own poetry better.

Why did you want to write well in the first place? Surely, to communicate the things which are so damn hard to articulate in daily life. We make time in poetry to talk about what matters; to make each other laugh, or think. It’s a small act of solidarity, an act of affirmation and faith in human nature. So do keep reading, keep writing and above all, keep sharing what it is to be human.

A great poem says; This is how my life is. Do you recognise this too? If the poem works, the reader will answer yes – no matter how distant you are in time or space. And for a brief moment, you’re holding hands.


NaPoReMo #29: Here and now

by Jo Bell





There’s no law against my listening

to this thrush behind the barn,

the song so loud it echoes like a bell,

then it’s further off beyond the lawn.

Whatever else there is, there’s this as well.

There’s no law against this singing –

nesting I suppose – up in the silver birch,

even though we build a common hell,

have done, and will make it worse.

Whatever else there is, there’s this as well.


Maitreyabandhu is an ordained Buddhist, and his work naturally combines vivid attention to detail with a sense of what we might call the spiritual life. This is a small moment, conjured up in a small poem. In fact, many of the poems I’ve used in this series have been short. The poems I see in workshops and competitions are often much longer, taking their cue from the forty-line limit used by many poetry competitions and journals. Make your poem as long as it needs to be but remember that the limit is a limit, not a target. Shakespeare said everything he wanted to say about love in sonnets, after all.

This neat poem describes a single moment of paying attention. There’s not much to notice, but Maitreyabandhu notices it. The sound is first loud, then further off. There’s precision without artifice; not a building but a barn, not a garden but a lawn, not a tree but a silver birch. Specificity helps the reader to imagine the scene, and bolsters the feeling that this really happened. It also gives us valuable information, setting the scene succinctly. When you speak of a carpet is it an Axminster, a Cappadocian kilim or a rag rug? Each signals something different about the room.

Both stanzas have the same beginning and end. They are bookended by ‘There’s no law against….’ and ‘Whatever else there is, there’s this as well.’ I’ve more than once quoted Glyn Maxwell’s dictum that ‘repetition isn’t repetition. Ever.’ So what does it do here? Both statements become a kind of reiteration of something important. ‘There’s no law against…’ reminds us that we have the small but important freedom to stop and pay attention, whenever we like. I know you don’t do it very often, it seems to say; but there’s no law against it. Nothing to stop you if you feel like it. The last line becomes an affirmation that will stay with you as you leave the poem, and in my case for a lot longer.

For me, this poem is a little unsteady on its feet. Often when you write a poem, you think that the reader might not understand what you’re saying. You don’t quite trust them to follow your wise and subtle hints (or rather, you don’t quite trust your own powers of communication) so you over-explain. I suspect this is happening in the line ‘even though we build a common hell’ and the line that follow. The idea comes into the poem suddenly, sits on its own and feels somewhat shoehorned in, as if to say ‘and the moral of the story is….’ I think we would have understood what he’s saying perfectly, without this and the line that follows it. I wonder too if the rhyme scheme has backed Maitreyabandhu slightly into a corner. A half rhyme like ‘all’ or ‘full’ might have given the poem cohesion without being quite so visible a structure.

Any fool can criticise, and many of them do. Critics often blame a poet for not writing the poem they themselves would have liked to write…. and yet didn’t. It’s not discourteous, however, to ask questions of a poem and see how you might handle it differently. Give yourself permission to read critically, and if a poem you enjoy seems to have a hairline crack in it, take Maitreyabandhu’s mindful approach – notice it, but don’t let it spoil your enjoyment of the poem as a whole. The poems we learn from, like the people that we learn from, can be imperfect.

We all hear birds every day, and can use them as a cue to pay attention. I love this poem for that reason, and it comes back to me often. You may have had a terrible day, it says: bad things are undoubtedly happening in the world, and will continue to do so. Whatever we can do, it’s not enough. But there is still birdsong, light and a moment in which to notice it. Whatever else there is, there’s this as well. It’s a simple consolation, but a consolation all the same.


NaPoReMo #28: Still waters run deep

by Jo Bell



Glencoe Lochan by Alex Boyd (


James McGonigal

Smooth slope of a hill and fornication undoubtedly

taking place in its lee. Ash trees shivered

in a wind that still had the delicious flick of

frost about it. No shame in discussing

a lochan’s peatiness out there beyond the shore,

the presence of trout, or how his hand bent

as it entered water, and then the legs

and chest folded in thereafter.


Our responses to poems depend partly on the lives we’ve lived so far. I don’t know how this short, slow-burning poem affects you but since I first read it in James McGonigal’s new collection The Camphill Wren, it has stayed in my mind inexplicably. ‘Inexplicably’ is no good though, is it? These blogs are precisely about explication. Why then do these eight lines affect me, and how?

The word ‘lochan’ places us in Highland Scotland, which I love, but that’s not enough. The title gives us no clues at first. A title can prime a reader so they know what to expect, or give them a jigsaw piece which only fits in when they’ve completed the rest of the reading. We’ll come back to it.

In the rest of the poem, the five senses are very present. The slope is ‘smooth’ – that’s touch. ‘Wind’ and ‘frost’ also make the skin prickle. ‘Peatiness’ is taste and smell. Ash trees shivering, and the description of ‘how his hand bent/ as it entered water’ are visual and tactile both at once. McGonigal could have said that the landscape was isolated or remote or wild, but none of these large words resonate in the body: all of them tell the reader what to feel, rather than showing us what it feels like. Glyn Maxwell says in On Poetry, ‘Poets – your brain’s in your body’ and there’s no better motto for us. Always, always come back to the five senses.  They are always the best way to make the reader share the writer’s lived experience. Even the metaphysical needs the physical.

The line breaks are mostly enjambed, that is to say the meaning of the sentence carries on around the line break. So we have ‘fornication undoubtedly/ taking place in its lee’, ‘Ash trees shivered// in a wind’, then ‘the delicious flick of/ frost’ and so on. Why go to the effort of enjambing, which makes the lines flow like conversation, and then put the poem in couplets which emphasise its… er… poemness? Perhaps to make it feel spacious and slow, so that the space is a visual and not an aural quality as you read it. And I hope you do read it aloud. Poetry is for the mouth and ear, not just the eye.

Back to that first line. Fornication is not a neutral word for sex but a judgmental, Presbyterian or Catholic concept, which is probably why a couple of lines later we have ‘no shame in discussing…..’ I can’t see why else there would be any shame in discussing the peatiness of a small loch, or the presence of trout. I think these people must be fishermen, who would be interested in those qualities. They don’t mind a touch of ‘delicious’ frost, and they aren’t much interested in fornication. That sounds like fishermen to me. So the poem is pretty much a description of a chilly landscape in Scotland, with two or more people in it, talking.

Until the last two lines. They discuss peatiness and trout; and then in the same calm vein, they remember ‘how his hand bent// as it entered water, and then the legs/ and chest folded in thereafter.’ Someone died here, surely. Someone known to them, so well known they don’t name him, crumpled into the water and collapsed. If he was diving, his chest would hit the water before his legs. ‘Folded’ is a slow, relaxed word. He didn’t plunge or jump, he folded. At least one of the people in our poem was there when it happened, since they can recall these visual details. There is no further information about what happened after; only stillness. Have I misunderstood? I think not. At any rate something momentous happened here, and then life went on for the narrator and his companion.

A man who came to a workshop of mine once said that he thought the title and last line of a poem work like ‘the two ends of a swimming pool – any movement or current in the pool travels from one end to the other, then bounces back through it to the beginning making little waves.’ It’s a great explanation. The title launches you into the poem but when you arrive at the last line, it often sends you back to the title, which now has some extra meaning. I can’t say it often enough – the title is a part of the poem, and must be active within it. It isn’t just an aid to filing.

The title is Pulse. At first I thought it was going to be about the rhythms of life; the ash tree, fornication, the seasons. By the end, I surmised it was about the stopping of someone’s heart. It’s still about the ash tree, fornication and the seasons, but a man’s life has also been placed within that system of natural rhythms. Like the others, he was just passing through. The place and the poem is no less peaceful for it.

[This poem appears by kind permission of the author. It appears in The Camphill Wren, published by Red Squirrel Press. If you’re enjoying these blogs and want to show your appreciation, you can make a donation of any size by clicking here. Thank you.]

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NaPoReMo #27: The Truth About God

by Jo Bell



God’s Justice

Anne Carson

In the beginning there were days set aside for various tasks.

On the day He was to create justice

God got involved in making a dragonfly

and lost track of time.

It was about two inches long

with turquoise dots all down its back like Lauren Bacall.

God watched it bend its tiny wire elbows

as it set about cleaning the transparent case of its head.

The eye globes mounted on the case

rotated this way and that

as it polished every angle.

Inside the case

which was glassy black like the windows of a downtown bank

God could see the machinery humming

and He watched the hum

travel all the way down turquoise dots to the end of the tail

and breathe off as light.

Its black wings vibrated in and out.


Anne Carson’s sequence The Truth About God, from which this poem comes, is a small part of her deep and broad output. She often writes work that falls between categories, or for which no category has yet been invented. It’s not the sort of thing you can read absent-mindedly whilst watching The Simpsons.

Before we start thinking about this poem, read it slowly. How does it make you feel? What mood or atmosphere does it create? A good poem, like a good painting, will affect you emotionally before you understand how it does so. Another question – what is it about?

It makes me feel that there is something dark at work; something with a life of its own, beyond what God intends and beyond what I can perfectly understand. There’s a feeling of great power in this poem. First, that grand title: God’s Justice. This is not going to be a lightweight piece, as the first line confirms. There is no phrase in English more resonant with baggage than ‘In the beginning….’

The stanza breaks consistently bolster the sense of the sentences, and build a little tension. ‘God got involved in making a dragonfly// and lost track of time.’ Again; ‘The eye globes mounted on the case// rotated this way and that.’ Carson makes us wait to see what the eye globes did. The similes are precise and odd. Lauren Bacall, for instance, was not two inches long with turquoise dots all down her back, but she was super-slender, elegant, seductive, dangerous. It took me four words to say that, and all of them are vague. Poetry has to use shorthand to show us all the ideas in play. The carapace of the dragonfly is ‘glassy black like the windows of a downtown bank’. Like the Lauren Bacall image, this one is both physically precise and suggestive of something else: wealth, power, impenetrable secrets.

God is a rather innocent being by comparison, the sort who can lose track of time. Once he’s made the dragonfly, God seems to have no influence over this creature. He’s as fascinated as we are: he ‘watched it, as it set about cleaning the transparent case of its head.’ Its wings vibrate, its innards hum without any further input from him. The words chosen to describe it make it thoroughly alien. Its head is ‘transparent’, its eyes ‘globes’. It has ‘angles’. Its body is ‘glassy’ and full of ‘machinery humming’. There is nothing to suggest emotion or softness. You can be impressed by it, like a Stealth bomber, but you aren’t meant to like it. The only hint of goodness is the hum breathing off ‘as light’. But then the ‘black wings vibrated in and out.’ The final image in a poem always has extra power. It’s the one that hangs in the air as we leave the poem wondering what that was all about. The dragonfly is not going to give us any clue.

And then you remember what we were told at the beginning of the poem…. this was what God made when he got distracted from making justice. It has beauty, but you’re never sure what direction it will take or where it will land. He didn’t get around to making justice, as he intended in the first orderly days. This light, fast, unpredictable and inscrutable creature – impenetrable even to God – is what we got instead.

[Glass, Irony & God is published by New Directions (1996). If you’re enjoying this blog and feel a powerful desire to say so with a donation, however small, then please click here to donate via PayPal.]

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NaPoReMo #26: Barfly

by Jo Bell



Stampede by Richard Lithgow


Charles Bukowski

“your poems about the girls will still be around

50 years from now when the girls are gone,”

my editor phones me.

dear editor:

the girls appear to be gone


I know what you mean

but give me one truly alive woman


walking across the floor toward me

and you can have all the poems

the good ones

the bad ones

or any that I might write

after this one.

I know what you mean.

do you know what I mean?


Many of Charles Bukowski’s poems go something like this: ‘I went out/stayed in drinking last night. A woman came round. We had sex. We had an argument. We woke up, had an argument and had sex. She left. I lit a cigarette.’

I exaggerate, but not much. I do it with affection because I love Bukowski’s poems. He writes about low life, bar and club life, life at the racing track. He writes about hangovers and casual sex. He swears a lot, though not in this particular poem. The swearing is important, as Stephen King explains in On Writing:

If you substitute ‘Oh sugar!’ for ‘Oh shit!’ because you’re thinking about the Legion of Decency, you are breaking the unspoken contract that exists between writer and reader – your promise to express the truth of how people act and talk.

In poetry as in life, no words are forbidden – but in poetry as in life, if you swear only to shock, it bores the audience and makes you look childish. Bukowski knows that his subjects and his language shock, and no doubt he enjoys it: but I think he also does it ‘to express the truth of how people act and talk’ in his world. Time and again he returns to the idea that most people live sedate, safe lives at the expense of risk and emotional exposure. He and his barfly friends might be looked down on, but they are feeling the real joys and pains. You don’t have to agree with him to believe that he believes it.

As with Ian McMillan yesterday, Bukowski earths a grandiose statement with down-to-earth wit. The editor flatters him that his poems will still be read ’50 years from now when the girls are gone.’ His reply gives a blast of bathos; ‘dear editor: / the girls appear to be gone/ already.’

Why the absence of capital letters? Surely not for the same reasons as EE Cummings, who wanted to refresh and shake up the language by surprising the reader. Bukowski uses punctuation and capitals when they’re essential to meaning. I suspect that he leaves them out elsewhere because he likes a bit of dishevelment. He doesn’t want to wear a tie, as it were, or toe someone else’s line regarding the tidiness of a sentence. That’s how it reads to me.

If you don’t have much time for free verse, this poem may not persuade you but I think it’s a fine example. At first sight it might seem randomly put together, but look at the line breaks. Each one gives a little moment of suspense or emphasis. That dry ‘dear editor:’ is heavy with cod-formal sarcasm, while ‘the girls appear to be gone’ knowingly echoes the editor’s own phrase. The word ‘gone’ sits heavily at the line end and ‘already’ sits on its own, making us think about it. Already they’ve gone. The girls are gone too soon, and the fame not yet arrived.

Look at the word ‘tonight’ also on its own line. Imagine if the previous line simply ran on like this:

give me one truly alive woman tonight

walking across the floor toward me

See how Bukowski’s line break makes you give much more attention to the word tonight? It makes this a much more raw declaration of need – tonight is when I need her, now you fool. If you think I’m giving the poet too much credit and the emphasis is merely accidental (something we often think when technique is well applied) then refer back to the title, also tonight. It may mean ‘this happened tonight,’ but it’s also a signpost to the poem’s most important word. Bukowski is a hedonist. Give him ‘one truly alive woman/ tonight/ walking across the floor toward me’ – a simple, animal demand, with ME at the end of the line for emphasis – give him that, ‘and you can have all the poems’. It’s a Faustian deal, with a junkie’s eagerness to trade everything for a fix.

I’ve said before that things stand for other things in poetry. The woman is a woman, of course, but surely she represents every worldly pleasure. Give me wine, women and song, and fame can go hang itself. The last two lines also have more than their face value. He repeats his claim, ‘I know what you mean.’ But this time he counters ‘do you know what I mean?’ The questions too stand for something else. He does know what the editor literally means; Bukowski’s own fame will outlive the women. But does the editor understand that he’s still hungry, and hungry for something more (or less) than fame – or is he one of those who will never understand? The question is left hanging. Bukowski will have to keep writing and writing in an effort to explain, and so will the rest of us.



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NaPoReMo #25: A library for Everyman

by Jo Bell



Why We Need Libraries

Ian McMillan

It is the mid-sixties, and it

does not matter which year exactly;

it may have been the year Mrs White

threw water on the cat. It may not.

At the bottom of the hill, opposite

the football factory which will close

in 1981 (although nobody knows this

because nobody can look into the future

in fact the future is a pair

of stout walking boots in a sealed box)

they are loading books from the old

library to take to the new library

which is near the new clinic and not

far from the new old folks’ home

at the top of the hill. Yes, isn’t

it symbolic that these new things are

at the top of the hill. Yes, isn’t

that Ian McMillan and his pal Chris

Allatt waiting outside the empty new

Library, the green tickets in their

fists, their eyes hungry for Biggles?

It is the mid-sixties, and the future

is waiting to walk away from us, briskly,

as though we smell funny, leaving the new

library to darken and crack into the old

library, closed on Saturday afternoons

Everyman I will go with thee and be thy

guide except on Saturday afternoons and

sometimes all day Mondays and sometimes

certain days for the need of money to pay

the people who open the doors to let the books

out. You never know what will happen, though,

because the future is a book in a private

library. Unless we can request that book

and borrow it and read it and read it.


If you’re ‘just’ a poetry reader, I hope you agree that reading poetry for its own sake does not require special training, any more than reading a novel does. Those who say ‘but you should have to work at a poem’ give lazy writers a cop-out. If a poem seems entirely impenetrable to you, then walk away from it as you would a boring film or play, and let no-one tell you you are stupid. When I dissect poems here, it’s intended mostly for the poetry writer. Writing poetry well does require you to read others’ work critically. Like a car mechanic taking an engine apart to see what makes it purr, we need to understand how poetry does what it does. It saves time.

I say this as we approach Ian McMillan’s poem because his work is supremely readable, and also very rewarding to study. It’s funny, grounded and vernacular. He stands with Roy Fisher, UA Fanthorpe, Tony Harrison and Elizabeth Jennings, great poets who speak plainly but who bear reading again and again, apparently getting wiser with each reading – because we have imbibed their own wisdom, and can reflect it back to the work.

So, to Ian’s poem. He places us roughly in time, around ‘the year Mrs White/ threw water on the cat.’ No, he isn’t going to tell us exactly which year, or why she did that, or whose cat it was: memory is like that. Mrs White sounds real and makes us believe that he’s telling the truth, but perhaps not the whole truth. There are other touches to convince us that the story is real. Chris Allatt, the green library tickets and the football factory are all prosaic and precise. As is often the case with Ian McMillan, he seems to be rambling but actually walks us around a verbal spiral, looking at the past, present and future from different angles. ‘Nobody can look into the future’, he says from what is already the future, thinking back to his young self outside the library.

We don’t know exactly where this library is, though I’d put a fiver on it being Darfield. McMillan only locates things ‘at the bottom of the hill’ and ‘at the top of the hill’. Manufacturing industry is at the bottom of the hill, bright new civic buildings at the top: and here Ian McMillan does another Ian McMillanish thing. He steps into the poem very deliberately and reminds you that you’re reading a poem. ‘Yes, isn’t/ it symbolic that these new things are/at the top of the hill.’ I think what he means is, yes it is symbolic but yes, they really are at the top of the hill. Suspension of disbelief is not for the likes of us; I am telling you the literal truth, he says.

His poems show the sublime and the completely ordinary side-by-side, in all circumstances, in all lives. McMillan is also an expert in bathos, the art of anticlimax. Almost without fail, he sugars the pill of a Big Idea with a very ordinary turn of phrase. The future is waiting to walk away ‘as though we smell funny’. The quote ‘Everyman I will go with thee and be thy/ guide’ is leavened with ‘except on Saturday afternoons’ when the library is closed. The words come from Everyman, the medieval morality play where they are spoken by Knowledge, but we know them better from the frontispiece of Everyman books. These are cheap books which have brought the classics to a mass market since 1906. Joseph Dent, the publisher

was the tenth child of a Darlington house-painter. He left school at thirteen, and arrived in London with a half crown in his pocket. He promised to publish new and beautiful editions of the world’s classics at one shilling a volume, ‘to appeal to every kind of reader: the worker, the student, the cultured man, the child, the man and the woman’ so that ‘for a few shillings the reader may have a whole bookshelf of the immortals; for five pounds (which will procure him a hundred volumes) a man may be intellectually rich for life’. [from]

The line breaks in this poem seem arbitrary, even perverse. Why is it in couplets? Perhaps to give the poem a feeling of space and slow discovery. There’s no formal rhyme, but lots of repetition of key words – new and books and library. Like neuro-linguistic programming, it places and repeats words in a way that influences our reading, and turns in a leisurely circle back to the idea of the future. In the early part of the poem ‘the future is a pair/ of stout walking boots in a sealed box.’ Fifty years on, writes the boy who became a poet through reading free books, ‘the future is a book in a private/ library. Unless we can request that book/ and borrow it and read it and read it.’

There is a place for angry, tub-thumbing poetry, but it has limitations. It acts as a rousing focus for those who agree with it already, but can alienate those who disagree. A gentler touch can make people think about an issue and consider a new point of view: Ian McMillan’s poem takes us, elegantly and with good humour, to the conclusion that libraries change lives. He knows that, because they changed his.

I’m re-reading E M Forster’s novel Howards End at the moment. It’s a different book every time I read it: more likely, I come to it each time as a different reader. The first book to set me alight was not a classic but a book called Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones, which I took out of Dronfield Library in the mid-seventies. It does not matter which year exactly. Then as now, libraries give us what Joseph Dent’s Everyman books were intended to supply: ‘Infinite riches in a little room’.


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NaPoReMo #24: A Warning

by Jo Bell




Malika Booker


Some great-grandmother told her daughter,

Never let no man hit you and sleep,

pepper the food, boil hot water and throw,

use knife and make clean cut down there,

use cutlass and chop, then go police.

Each daughter told over and over,

like brush your teeth, till it stick.

How my mother run-way man with cutlass,

chase him. How my gran use cutlass pon table

to explain to her man, Don’t lose your blasted mind

and raise that hand on me.

And so we are shaped, moulded and made hard.

I remember my aunt kicked her man out

after her child was born, cut him dead

like rotten wood, after he use her like boxing bag,

kicking her womb as she lay on the floor.

That day her blood boiled through swell eye

and buss skin. She knew he could not sleep;

he knew she wanted to kill him bad bad, chop him dead …


Raised in London soil and Guyana sun,

I never understood that need for cutlass,

where it came from, till I visited Grenada,

a place where man fist pound woman flesh

like kneading hard dough. I see bull strength

knock girls flat out when she man full of rum

and carnival. How Ronald buss lash in he woman ass

every Friday and Saturday night, kick she down,

buss she tail. And next day is black eye and bruise.

As Pauline clings onto Ronald’s foot, saying

she love him through each blow, I understand.


I never knew I had it. Thought I was soft,

till that night my friend could not drive

and I offered him my bed to sleep.

I felt something in his look, he and I

alone in that room, and my blood raised up.

My pores swelled, I went to the kitchen,

took down that knife, marched upstairs,

told him, I cutting it off if you lose your mind.

Don’t think it. And if you do, don’t sleep.


If you expected Jenny Joseph’s Warning, the twinkly-eyed romp that begins ‘When I am an old woman I shall wear purple’ then you were probably a bit surprised by this. In Malika Booker’s writing, Caribbean women learn hard lessons the hard way, and pass them on to their daughters the hard way too.

If like me, you have to tune into that Caribbean voice, read it more than once to appreciate its force. The speech of any particular place makes it clear that the speaker has authority to speak of that place. It works for Liz Berry writing about the Black Country or Tony Harrison writing about Bradford, and here it works for Grenada. This language is concise and forceful; ‘How my mother run-way man with cutlass’ is a tighter construction than ‘how my mother made a man run away by chasing him with a cutlass’.

The tradition of violence described here is deep-rooted. It’s not a daughter who is warned, but ‘each daughter’ and they are told ‘over and over…. till it stick’. This is a warning drummed into girls for their own protection as routinely as English children of the 1970s learned the Green Cross Code for road safety. Such a warning is only necessary in a place where violence is endemic. The language borrows from the kitchen and yard where the older women live much of their lives – ‘man fist pound woman flesh/ like kneading hard dough’. Their weapons are a pan of water, a knife or cutlass – the equipment of hearth or field. Booker is succinctly showing us the community these people inhabit by showing us what they have readily to hand.

The terms of violence are brutally simple – ‘chop him dead’, ‘kicking her womb’, ‘knock girls flat out’, or Ronald lashing his woman; ‘every Friday and Saturday night, kick she down, / buss she tail. And next day is black eye and bruise.’ Not a hint of euphemism here to soften the impact or offer an excuse. Even in these brutal transactions there is a flash of wit. ‘How my gran use cutlass pon table/ to explain to her man…’ suggests a very clear explanation indeed. Again we see how to ‘show, don’t tell’ – the poet doesn’t tell us that the women live in fear of abuse, but says ‘I see bull strength/ knock girls flat out when she man full of rum/ and carnival.’ Domestic violence is always worse at times of tribal celebration. In the UK it’s Special Brew and the FA Cup, in the Caribbean rum and carnival.

The line breaks follow the rhythms of speech and sense. The three sections, a form which Malika has used more than once, suggest three chapters in a life story. Are they necessary? Am I imagining the shift in language through the three parts? I think not. The language changes gradually through the three parts of the poem. By the last stanza the narrator is speaking in the standard English of England, geographically removed from the inflections of her birth land – except for the last sentence, the eponymous warning in which she flashes back to the language from which she learned it.

I don’t think her guest will be sleeping much. I think he’ll lie awake in fear, like the women who have learned to give such warnings.

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NaPoReMo #23: The architecture of pleasure

by Jo Bell



Rhetorical Questions

Hugo Williams

How do you think I feel

when you make me talk to you

and won’t let me stop

till the words turn into a moan?

Do you think I mind

when you put your hand over my mouth

and tell me not to move

so you can “hear” it happening?

And how do you think I like it

when you tell me what to do

and your mouth opens

and you look straight through me?

Do you think I mind

when the blank expression comes

and you set off alone

down the hall of collapsing columns?


Hugo Williams’ writing about women often makes me uncomfortable. The poem where he speaks of his relief at realising that the child his ex-lover is carrying can’t be his; the poem where he imagines a woman he sees on a train to be pissing on his face; these and others are written by a person from a different time, gender and class than mine.

Which he is, of course. We aren’t obliged to make the reader comfortable: we are poets, not sick nurses. A poem that challenges my world view may stick in the mind just as firmly as the ones that confirm my prejudices. There is after all a word for writers who always leave their readers feeling comfortable, and that word is BORING.

It isn’t the subject matter that makes me uneasy. I’ve sometimes been asked why I write about sex myself. The question suggests that there are certain things we shouldn’t write about, or certain things that I shouldn’t write about. I’m not having that. Sex is one of our richest, most intimate and isolating experiences – as fitting a subject for a poem as war, or a walk in the Lake District, or rubber ducks. Certainly if you write about it solely to shock, then it becomes a lazy kind of pornography (and second-rate pornography too). That applies equally to writing about war.

This poem is not pornographic. In fact it isn’t even graphic. Only ‘hand’ and ‘mouth’ bring the body into it explicitly; the rest is implied. The poem is, as its title says, a set of four rhetorical questions which provide a simple framework. I’m not certain why it’s in two stanzas and not four, and only at the fourth line was I quite certain that he’s speaking to a lover. The four questions each take us a little further into the love-making until (ahem) the climax. The line breaks all follow the sense of the sentence – no surprises or booby traps. There is a dense scattering of pronouns, ‘you’, ‘me’, ‘I’, appropriately for a poem about making love. There are plenty of ‘ands’ to give the lines a flow, a sense of energy.

What is it, then, that makes me mildly uncomfortable? And why in spite of that do I include it in this series of poems which all illustrate something important about how poetry works?

Those four questions, all beginning ‘How do you think I like it…’ or ‘Do you think I mind…’ sound aggressive and interrogative. This may be the joke; that the questions which so often begin a domestic argument are used here in a very different context. But the tone doesn’t seem quite right for such a very private moment. That sense of curiosity and objective detachment in the man, at precisely the moment when the woman loses control of herself and becomes vulnerable, seems unsympathetic and mechanical. There is for me a slight air of menace or control in it. That may be precisely what Hugo Williams intended.

The reason this poem stays with me as one of the best poems about sex, despite my squeamishness, is its last image. When I started putting these posts together, I knew I had to include the poem that contains this line and conducted a little search of my mental database to find it. How does the lover feel, asks Williams, when ‘you set off alone/ down the hall of collapsing columns?’

It’s a perfect analogy; the moment when the bomb goes off, when the architecture of pleasure reaches both completion and destruction at the same instant. It’s the moment when she goes off ‘alone’ and he can’t follow. For this particular couple, in this particular relationship, it feels completely sincere. Both parties are vulnerable in different ways. At this moment when romantic novels tell us that lovers should be perfectly united, one of them feels excluded and terribly alone. It’s this kind of exposure, not the physical kind, that earns the poem a place in my memory banks. Sometimes one line is enough to hook you forever.


[Rhetorical Questions appears in Billy’s Rain (Faber & Faber), which won the TS Eliot prize in 2000 – and in The Poetry of Sex, ed. Sophie Hannah (Penguin/ Viking, 2014). ]

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NaPoWriMo #22: We are sailing (II)

by Jo Bell



When Considering the Long, Long Journey of 28,000 Rubber Ducks

Kei Miller

To them who knew to break free from dark hold of ships

who trusted their unsqueezed bodies instead to the Atlantic;

to them who scorned the limits of bathtubs,

refused to join a chorus of rub-a-dub;

to them who’ve always known their own high tunes,

hitched rides on the manacled backs of blues,

who’ve been sailing now since 1992; to them

that pass in squeakless silence over the Titanic,

float in and out of salty vortexes; to them

who grace the shores of hot and frozen continents,

who instruct us yearly on the movement of currents;

to those bright yellow dots that crest the waves

like spots of praise: hail.


In 1992, a shipping crate was lost at sea somewhere between Hong Kong and America. It contained – you may have guessed this already – 28,000 rubber ducks. Rubber ducks have three salient characteristics: they float, they are pretty much indestructible, and they are bright yellow. They are also rare outside their natural habitat of the domestic bathroom: so when thousands of them appear in the same place, they are highly visible. For that reason environmental scientists have been able to chart their movements, and have learned a great deal about great sea currents like the North Pacific Gyre from the ducks.

Remember this, next time someone asks you ‘where you get your ideas from’ when you write poetry. The world is full of raw material. Remembering the premise that things in poetry tend to stand for other things, Kei Miller – a Jamaican poet now gracing our shores with his kind, lively and generous work – used the journey of the ducks as a starting point, and went somewhere unexpected with it.

The title is an important part of the poem, not just the bit that helps you to identify it on the contents list. Here, Kei crams into his title the unlikely story that took me a paragraph to tell you. He’s now free to get straight into the subject without further dallying. He doesn’t just tell the story, which is what you’d expect. Instead he addresses the whole poem to the ducks. It’s one single sentence, broken with semicolons and commas to give it a rolling rhythm without stopping till the last, rousing word. And it’s not about ducks.

Then again, of course it is about ducks. A metaphor has to work at both ends. These ducks are described in terms which apply to them literally; they’ve come from the ‘dark hold of ships’ on the Atlantic; they’ve ‘hitched rides’ on waves and ‘grace the shores of hot and frozen continents’. Every one of these phrases is true of the ducks; but also, of course, of the dark diaspora spread by the slave ships of the Atlantic.

Slavery, holocaust, rape: the most awful subjects of all, the ones that poetry can respond to with more force and direction than perhaps any other art form. How can we handle them with integrity? Often the response is with grief, with anger, with shock and proper solemnity. But wit, too, is a powerful tool. These jaunty little ducks have made their own great journey across the sea. To compare them with the Africans scattered by such historical horrors is – what? Offensive? Ridiculous? Whatever it is, it’s unexpected. The very choice of that image – the ducks ‘who scorned the limits of bathtubs, / refused to join a chorus of rub-a-dub’ as they pass ‘in squeakless silence over the Titanic’, is silly and uplifting.

They are ‘bright yellow dots that crest the waves/ like spots of praise’. Or, they are black citizens making their way in countries where daily racism is a norm to be overcome. To them that suffer such hazards and manage to remain buoyant against all odds: what can one say? Miller makes us wait for it through the whole poem. We know he’s addressing the ducks and also the people they stand for. Five times he starts – ‘to them that….’ building the expectation until the last line. What will his message be? It is a powerful, positive word meaning ‘to cheer, salute, or greet; welcome; to acclaim or approve enthusiastically’. To them that have come through, says Miller in a greeting that shows recognition and welcome: Hail.


[This poem appears by kind permission of the publisher, Carcanet. Kei Miller won the Forward Prize for Best Collection with his book The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion. His earlier collection A Light Song of Light is also wonderful.]


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NaPoWriMo #21: I may have been doing it wrong

by Jo Bell




Alison Brackenbury

Sex is like Criccieth. You thought it would be

a tumble of houses into a pure sea

and so it must have been, in eighteen-ten.

The ranks of boarding houses marched up then.

They linger, plastic curtains at their doors,

or, still more oddly, blonde ungainly statues.

The traffic swills along the single street

and floods the ears, until our feet

turn down towards the only shop for chips,

to shuffling queues, until sun slips

behind the Castle, which must be, by luck,

one of the few a Welsh prince ever took.

Or in the café, smoked with fat, you wait.

Will dolphins strike the sea’s skin? They do not.

And yet, a giant sun nobody has told

of long decline, beats the rough sea gold.

The Castle rears up with its tattered flag,

hand laces hand, away from valleys’ slag.

And through the night, the long sea’s dolphined breath

whispers into your warm ear, ‘Criccieth’.


Have I missed something about Criccieth? I’ve been there and don’t get me wrong, it was very nice; but if I was looking for something to compare sex with, it wouldn’t be my first choice.

I’ve talked a lot about beginning a poem strongly with no faffing about. Surely this beats them all. In an entirely characteristic display of gentle wit, Alison Brackenbury drops a startling idea into the first line and then walks away from it as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. We’ve also seen how the events related in a poem often stand for something else, and the rest of this poem is almost wholly about Criccieth. Except of course, it isn’t. Having seen it, we read the whole poem through the prism of that first simile. Alison doesn’t labour the point and goodness knows, she doesn’t need to. It’s memorable enough to stay in your mind through the poem, and very likely for many years afterwards.

I consult the Criccieth Town Council welcome page. “We have a very temperate climate,” they say, “and never experience extreme temperatures.” Ah, I see. Sex isn’t always like Monte Carlo or a thrilling roller coaster ride. With a long-loved partner, it’s perhaps a well-known resort you go back to; not as ‘it must have been, in eighteen-ten’ with its ‘pure sea’, but pleasant, familiar, with memories of the past and the occasional oddity.

Reading it in this way, with constant reference back to the first sentence, makes it a lesson in double entendre.  Yes, the ‘tumble’ in the ‘tumble of houses into a pure sea’ is both literal and metaphorical. Is married sex really ‘the single street’ to ‘the only shop for chips’ in a Welsh seaside town? That’s a sad thought. Will there really be no drama, no dolphins to break through the surface – despite your hopes of seeing them? As for ‘The Castle rears up with its tattered flag’ – er, no, it’s not just you, that also is a metaphor. Good heavens.

How then does Brackenbury avoid making this sound like a pantomime or a Benny Hill gag? By its very gentleness. By the sense that this is not a joke at anyone’s expense but an observation of how things change, inevitably. Above all, by the tenderness of the last stanza which turns the joke of Criccieth into a place of safety, a haven. The old language of poetry comes into play. The sun is ‘giant’ and nobody has told it it’s in decline thank you very much. It ‘beats the rough sea gold’, the castle stands above ‘the valley’s slag’, there is a soft whisper in your ear; and look! there are even dolphins, though you may not see them every time. By the end Criccieth has become a lovers’ shared joke, a long-loved place that you both know.

There are strong end-rhymes all the way through but Brackenbury keeps them from dominating the poem. If you’re going to have a strong rhyme at the end of the line, remember for goodness’ sake that it doesn’t also have to be the end of the sentence or clause. You can enjamb it so that the sentence runs into another line, making the rhyme inconspicuous: ‘Sex is like Criccieth. You thought it would be/ a tumble of houses into a pure sea.’ You can throw in a near-rhyme or not-rhyme every now and then: ‘They linger, plastic curtains at their doors,/ or, still more oddly, blonde ungainly statues.’ And sometimes you can do the full-blown full rhyme: ‘and so it must have been, in eighteen-ten./ The ranks of boarding houses marched up then.’

What does the title, ‘And’, tell us? It appears only twice in the first long stanza, without any apparent weight of meaning. In the second stanza it means something else. It’s at the beginning of the stanza and then the beginning of a sentence, each time wearing its capital letter to draw attention to itself. This poem isn’t called On the Other Hand or But; it’s called And. All of the funny things may be true; the only chip shop in town, etc etc…. AND there is gold on the sea. AND there are dolphins. AND in spite of change, in spite of time, there is love. AND is a word that connects two things, or two people.


[This poem appears by kind permission of the author. Alison Brackenbury’s latest collection, Skies is available here. If you’re enjoying these blogs and would like to make a donation, no matter how small, click here to do so via PayPal.]



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NaPoReMo #20: Yes we can

by Jo Bell



Variation on a Theme by Rilke

Denise Levertov

A certain day became a presence to me;

there it was, confronting me–a sky, air, light:

a being. And before it started to descend

from the height of noon, it leaned over

and struck my shoulder as if with

the flat of a sword, granting me

honor and a task. The day’s blow

rang out, metallic–or it was I, a bell awakened,

and what I heard was my whole self

saying and singing what it knew: I can.


The best thing – the very best thing – about reading poetry widely and deeply is that when you need it, it finds you. Time and again, in moments of grief or love or political upheaval, my subconscious has rifled through the files and come up with something helpful. What do we have on marriage – Auden, or Edwin Muir? What do we have on cancer? Myra Schneider, Jo Shapcott….? Yesterday, hearing news of the impending UK election I felt a mighty need for something to give me a sense of purpose and positivity in the coming weeks.

I punched that into my subconscious, and this is what arrived. ‘I can’, it said. Levertov herself certainly believed that she could: at the age of twelve she sent some poems for comment to T S Eliot, who was good enough to reply with two pages of advice. I don’t know much about Levertov or about Rainier Maria Rilke whose mystical poetry inspired this piece – you don’t have to, poetry is not some kind of ghastly intellectual test – but both were interested in matters of the spirit.

Religious imagery is stitched into the fabric of this poem. We all have registers of language – professional jargon, baby talk, pillow talk. This poem has the rhythms and language of faith. That rather archaic phrase ‘a certain day’ sounds as if it came from a parable. The ‘presence’ or ‘being’ descending from a height is distinctly angelic. If you’re from a Western background you’re probably thinking of the Annunciation.

It’s not an angel, but the day itself which becomes ‘a presence’ and it isn’t descending from heaven, but from its own noonday zenith. It strikes not with a sword, but ‘as if with/ the flat of a sword’. It is a forceful presence but a benevolent one: it confronts her, but that confrontation is immediately lessened with the impression of ‘a sky, air, light’. It strikes her shoulder, but only to grant her ‘honor and a task’. She takes a blow, but only the kind of blow a bell needs to give it voice. The poem is full of interruptions and clauses. There are colons, semicolons, dashes and full stops breaking up the sentences; the poet sounds dazed, overcome.

Levertov’s father was a polyglot Russian Jew who became an Anglican minister, and her mother was Welsh, so she had many registers of sound, language and visionary tradition to draw on as well as Rilke’s mystical poetry. She uses the grand, oracular language of religion, of which we all have a folk memory even if we weren’t raised with it.  The poem that results is innocent, visionary and moving. This special day has given her purpose, but her particular epiphany may be completely secular. It’s only God if you want it to be. Whatever we believe in, let’s believe that we can.


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NaPoReMo #19: Plus ça change

by Jo Bell



I lived in the first century of world wars.

Most mornings I would be more or less insane,

The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,

The news would pour out of various devices

Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.

I would call my friends on other devices;

They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.

Slowly I would get to pen and paper,

Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.

In the day I would be reminded of those men and women,

Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,

Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.

As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,

We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,

To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile

Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,

Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means

To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,

To let go the means, to wake.


I lived in the first century of these wars.




Try not to cry when I tell you that Muriel Rukeyser wrote this untitled poem fifty-seven years ago. I know. I know.


Poems like this are sometimes called ‘prescient’ as if it’s astonishing that history should repeat itself. It is astonishing though that the poem is so relevant. The news ‘pours out of ‘various devices’. For Rukeyser, that’s radio and TV; for us, Facebook and CNN. She writes for people ‘unseen and unborn’. That’s us then. I normally urge specificity upon you but here the vagueness keeps it relevant – ‘setting up signals across vast distances,/ Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.’ That’s a bit of a cop-out but seems oddly specific to the internet age. It’s very moving, isn’t it, how precisely it applies to our times?


Now, I love the fluid, conversational pieces which enrich US poetry. Whitman, Frost, Sharon Olds, Mark Doty, Eileen Myles….. I read them constantly, but I have no idea how they work. I hear music, but I don’t see how it’s made. So let me go back to what I know about poetry and see what I can make of this. I know that Muriel Rukeyser is moving me deeply, but how?


Let’s frisk her for sound effects. There is a slight pattern in some of the line ends, leaving an intermittent trail of N sounds: insane/ unseen/ reasons/ unborn/ women/ imagined/ brightened/ means. The poem is larded with long vowels; not the short O of clock, but the long O of more, stories, pour; not the short A of bat, but the long A of insane, newspapers, careless. Those stretched sounds slow it down, as does the plentiful punctuation. Why? Beats me. I look for meter – a deliberate pattern of rhythm. Nope, there is no syllabic corsetry here: the words jiggle about in happy freedom. There is, however, a chime where words are placed close together. Careless and various; stories and pour; sell and call; lights, night and brightened.


Hmmm. All these effects are slight, and some I can only see in a dim light with my special poetry glasses on. I may be imagining them. So what’s left, to make this a poem and not prose? Repetition, and line breaks.


Bingo. The line breaks are plain and simple, falling where the sense of the sentence does. The repetition is most obvious in the first and last lines. That first line is a jolt; thank you Ms Rukeyser, you have our attention. It’s almost repeated at the end, and you remember what Glyn Maxwell said about repetition: ‘Repetition is never just repetition’. The second time around, we hear resignation or numb appraisal. In between, there are other repeats. Newspapers and news; devices; unseen; lights; and finally, five times in two lines, the most important one: ourselves.


Monotony becomes community. Gradually Rukeyser takes us from an alienating world of devices, news and advertising to a world where we can at least try to find each other, construct peace, make love. For the first half of the poem it’s all self. ‘I would call my friends… I would get to pen and paper.’ But as she starts to think ‘of those men and women,/ Brave, setting up signals’, the pronoun changes. ‘We would try to imagine them, try to find each other’. ‘We would try by any means.’


It might be deliberate that this happens after she’s written poetry. Or then again, that might be bollocks. I only go into such dissections here because I want to show poetry writers how much technique lies behind the seemingly effortless effects of great poems. For the general reader, none of this matters – no more than a cricket fan needs to know about physics to understand where the ball falls. The poem speaks to us, and the tricks by which it is done are incidental.


If a poem has one word at its centre, it is first. ‘I lived in the first century of these wars.’ Muriel Rukeyser knew there would be more. Looking back from the neighbouring century, I’m thinking of Mark Twain’s quote: ‘History does not repeat itself. But it often rhymes.’


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NaPoWriMo #18 – Mustn’t grumble

by Jo Bell



William Stafford

It could happen any time,


earthquake, Armageddon. It

could happen.

Or sunshine, love,


It could, you know. That’s

why we wake

and look out – no


in this life.

But some bonuses, like


like right now, like noon,

like evening.


What is a poem, anyway? Why should this little clot of sentences be called a poem, and not just a Jolly Nice Idea which any of us could write down?

Well, sometimes a poem is indeed a Jolly Nice Idea and not a whole lot more. Let’s not get hung up on the idea that structure or syllable count is the only thing to distinguish poetry from other kinds of writing. Certainly, the machinery so well illustrated by Kathryn Maris yesterday is a big part of it: poetry is about patterning sound. But something that barely seems patterned at all can still be a poem. Some poems derive their power from the act of isolating a thought or a moment, and focusing attention on it – almost like a meditative text. Isolating that idea and expressing it concisely and with clarity, is perhaps the most important skill. You don’t have to be po-faced or grandiose to do it, as today’s poem shows.

This is a very large poem, disguised as a very small poem. William Stafford has a great big idea to deal with here. Broadly, he’s saying There are cataclysms, but there are also miracles. Life, eh? Mustn’t grumble.

Think about the decisions that went into these few lines. Firstly, who does he address it to? Stafford uses the title to suggest that he is answering a question, and incidentally to set the tone for the poem. He begins with an innocuous remark – ‘It could happen any time…’ He’s decided, like other poets we’ve looked at, that the reader doesn’t need any preamble to explain why he’s thinking about this, nor an explanation of who he’s talking to. It could be pillow talk, or a moment of contemplation during a fag break. He might be talking directly to you, dear reader. Unlike Kathryn Maris, who milked every drop from her circumstance and location in yesterday’s poem, we get no information about backdrop or context because unlike Kathryn Maris, the circumstance is not the point of the poem.

Without further ado, only one line in to this informal chat, we’re taken aback by tornado and earthquake – vast physical expressions of disaster. The very words give us a sense of the ground shifting beneath our feet. There are three powerful negatives, escalating: tornado, earthquake and finally Armageddon. Then we’re given a similar list of three powerful positives to balance against them. Sunshine is a shorthand for happiness, as we saw in Jenny Joseph’s poem on Sunday. It’s the first in an escalating list of joys – sunshine, love and the ultimate happiness of salvation. Stafford uses those big abstracts like ‘love’ and ‘salvation’ but only after he grounds us in the real world. He earns those big amorphous words by means of earthquakes and sunshine.

William Stafford doesn’t use many words to shape this huge framework for life. Neither did Carver in his Late Fragment. Verbosity is sometimes a sign that the writer is floundering, trying to express something which actually cannot be expressed. The real sense of a poem might be stuck in the gap between words, and often is. Stafford’s last list is the vital one. It isn’t just a list of times, but a progression through the day. There are ‘some bonuses’ –



like right now, like noon,

like evening.

So that would be every minute of the day, then. Yes.


NaPoReMo #17: For the last time…

by Jo Bell


Darling, Would You Please Pick Up Those Books?

Kathryn Maris

How many times do I have to say

get rid of the books off the goddamn floor

do you have any idea how it feels

to step over books you wrote about her

bloody hell you sadist what kind of man

are you all day long those fecking books

in my way for 3 years your acclaimed books

tell me now what do you have to say

for yourself you think you’re such a man

silent brooding pondering at the floor

pretending you’re bored when I mention her

fine change the subject ask “Do I feel

like I need more medication” NO I don’t feel

like I need more medication it’s the books

don’t you see don’t you see it’s her

why don’t you listen to anything I say

and for god’s sake books on the floor

are a safety hazard remember that man

from Cork who nearly died fine that man

fell over a hurley not a book but I don’t feel

you’re getting the point the point is that a floor

is not an intelligent place for books

books I have to see and books that say

exactly where and how you shagged her

what shirt she wore before you shagged her

I can write a book too about some man

better still about you I can say

something to demonize you how would you feel

about that ha ha why don’t I write a book

about how I hoover your sodding floor

and how you’ve never once hoovered your floor

why can’t I be a muse why can’t I be a “her”

what does one have to do to be in a book

around here do I have to be dead for a man

to write me a poem how do you think it feels

to be non muse material can’t you say

you feel for me what you felt for her

can’t you say I’m better than that woman

can’t you get those books off the floor?


Get it off your chest, why don’t you?

I bloody love this poem. I don’t generally like strict forms; usually, I prefer a subtler weave of sound and shape. But William Carlos Williams told us that poetry is a machine made of words, and he was right. His whole quote, from his introduction to an essay called The Wedge, is this:

A poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words. When I say there’s nothing sentimental about a poem, I mean that there can be no part that is redundant.

Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matter like a ship. But poetry is a machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy. As in all machines, its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character.

Enter Kathryn Maris, mad as hell. At least, her narrator is mad as hell – just because a poem is entirely convincing, doesn’t mean that it’s literally true. And it turns out that the way for this woman to express her fury is in that most formal of forms, a sestina. Look at the first stanza: the words at the line endings are say, floor, feels, her, man and books. Look at the next five stanzas: the same applies, in a different order. The poet chooses splendidly unremarkable words, so they fit into the sense and music of the poem without attracting attention to themselves. Had she chosen sesquipedalian it might have been harder to incorporate so seamlessly. If you want to know more, look up ‘sestina’ on Wikipedia, where it is illustrated with this terrifying diagram. In the meantime, back to the poem.

Arguments are hard to get right in poetry. It’s tricky to catch the vicious energy of the moment, and there’s a temptation to appear as the injured party. Your narrator is, perhaps, a misunderstood soul with a strong resemblance to yourself? Bad news: you can’t stand on your dignity in a poem. It should cost you something to write, and that cost is often some small exposure or lack of dignity. Kathryn’s narrator has, it seems fair to say, lost her rag completely. This is not a later report of the incident in a considered tone: it’s the woman’s own voice, ranting. We get the full and immediate force of it, as does the poor partner.

She is speaking as one speaks in a real argument. It’s been bubbling for weeks or months, and finally it bursts out in a torrent of grievances that she’s been rehearsing in her head over and over. No wonder a sestina lends itself to a row; all those repeats. Yet Maris crams in far more repetitions than are necessary. The word ‘books’ appears eight more times than the form demands. She’s really pissed off about those books.

There’s still more repetition, along with colloquial language that makes it both credible and comic: ‘bloody hell you sadist’ and ‘books I have to see and books that say/ exactly where and how you shagged her// what shirt she wore before you shagged her’. My own books have similar information in them. This conversation sounds pretty authentic to me. An argument with no swearing would be unconvincing, but the cursing here is lightweight and laughable – ‘goddamn’ and ‘fecking’. Kathryn wants her arguer to sound ridiculous, out of control and completely bloody furious.

Now look at the punctuation. Quite right, there isn’t any. Not a comma, not a semi-colon and certainly not a full stop. That’s because she never draws breath. We get one set of speech marks, to quote the man’s own foolish question back to him: ‘”Do I feel// like I need more medication” NO I don’t feel/ like I need more medication.’ More repetition there, signalling mockery and anger. Not only does the poet meet the requirements of the sestina, she buries the necessary repeats in a heap of further ones. The form lends all its strength to the subject but remains completely camouflaged.

The breathlessness also helps to make it really, really funny. We’ve all heard (or alas, made) the kind of intervention that she’s replying to here: ‘fine that man/ fell over a hurley not a book but I don’t feel/ you’re getting the point’. A hurley is a sort of hockey stick, by the way. But I don’t feel you’re getting the point.

As we’ve seen in other poems, punctuation is a vital aid to navigation. If you lose all of it, you risk losing your reader in a maze of confusing sentences. This poem has to supply signposts in some other way, to indicate where to breathe, how the sense of the sentence should be read and whether an exclamation or a question is intended. Maris does it subtly but perfectly, often using a line break roughly where a comma might fall. She uses italics to show emphasis and capitals for that shouted NO. We may be a bit bowled over and occasionally struggle to keep up with the words being fired out – that’s intentional. Nonetheless it’s an astonishing feat, in such a tight format and with no punctuation, to so guide us that we never get entirely disorientated.

An argument, like a poem, is never about what it’s about. Obviously this one isn’t about books at all. The information we need to interpret the subtext is fed to us gradually. The books have been in the way for three years. They’re books he wrote; acclaimed, she spits. It’s clear as the poem goes on that our heroine is a writer too, so that must rankle. The books aren’t even about her, they’re about a previous lover. That woman was a muse: this woman gets to do the hoovering. The last three lines finally speak the fear aloud; ‘can’t you say I’m better than that woman’. This poem is about a very specific argument, but it is so fierce and funny that it reminds us all how silly and layered are our domestic tiffs.

William Carlos Williams wanted a machine whose movement ‘is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character’ and this poem fits the bill perfectly. Every component runs smoothly in the service of the narrative, and the chosen form is exactly right to do the job. When all of those apply, then nothing can beat a bit of precision engineering. If this poem was a car, it would be a Ferrari.

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NaPoReMo #16: Show and tell

by Jo Bell



The sun has burst the sky

Jenny Joseph

The sun has burst the sky

Because I love you

And the river its banks.

The sea laps the great rocks

Because I love you

And takes no heed of the moon dragging it away

And saying coldly ‘Constancy is not for you.’

The blackbird fills the air

Because I love you

With spring and lawns and shadows falling on lawns.

The people walk in the street and laugh

I love you

And far down the river ships sound their hooters

Crazy with joy because I love you.


Look: you know she’s exaggerating. I know she’s exaggerating. But that’s what it feels like, doesn’t it? And in that simple idea lies one way of writing a cracking poem. Stop telling the literal truth, and show us how your experience of love /bereavement / shellfish truly feels. Jenny Joseph wrote the famous poem Warning (‘When I am an old woman I shall wear purple…’), an anthem for women aspiring to a disgraceful old age. She pulls the same trick in that one, with great success.

In today’s poem Joseph is full of exuberance and love. Difficult word, love. Certain words in poetry should be kept in a box, with an alarm that goes off when you take them out. They aren’t forbidden, because no word is ever forbidden in writing, but they have been used and re-used to the point of caricature. Shard; gossamer; twilight; soul; heart; almost every abstract noun (grief, joy etc.) The whole vast resource of the English language is available to you, so why not reach for something a little less threadbare?

Some words demand to be let in, however. There isn’t really another word for love. Bad poets expect it to do all the work in a poem. Good poets know that you have two possible responses to such a heavyweight word. You can treat it with great care, placing it carefully in your poem as if it were a Faberge egg, or you can run naked through the lines, shouting it at the top of your voice, scattering it over your shoulder like spring flowers. Jenny Joseph does the latter. I love you, I love you, I love you she says in every stanza.

Rhyme? Not really. Structure? Regular stanzas of 3, 4, 3, 4 lines. The stanza breaks all fall in a natural break for the phrase: there is no ‘cliffhanger’ effect, just a natural speaking rhythm. The poetry comes from the repeat of ‘I love you’ and the hyperbolic idea that love itself causes the birdsong, the sun and so on. Even the sea itself resists the very tide for the sake of love. Sod the moon; Jenny Joseph is in love. It’s ridiculous and hyperbolic, comic and joyful, rather like love itself. Perhaps after all, some few phrases are above cliche. Lovers never tire of hearing ‘I love you’. In love, as in poetry, you sometimes have to show and tell

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NaPoReMo #15: Writing on a donkey

by Jo Bell




Robbie Burton

The donkey followed me to the ford.

I pointed at the river’s grey colour and told him

how it ran orange back in the steelworks days

and trout and limestone turned rusty.

I showed him how, even now, you could scrape a stone

and still disturb red oxide.

The donkey remained silent, eyeing the depth of water.

I told him about the spring that used to bubble

in the lane, clear and cool.

Still he stood. I couldn’t fathom his thoughts so,

hitching up my skirt, I crossed the ford.

Behind me a clatter, then a splashing. I called out

The river is mostly recycled rain but he continued

upstream. And though he’d told me nothing, his absence

was a cold draught, cold as the incessant water.


[from new pamphlet Someone Else’s Street, Happenstance Press 2017]


It’s Easter, so I thought we should have a donkey.

First, a declaration of interest. Robbie Burton is a dear friend of mine as well as a poet whose work I admire. I’ve hoped for a long time to see her name on a published collection, and now it’s here. I promise, however, that this poem is included on its own merits. It’s unlike any other poem in the pamphlet (click the link above to see another). All of them have the same mix of quiet wit and wisdom. Some of them can make you laugh and cry almost at the same moment.

I keep saying that ‘a poem isn’t about what it’s about.’ I keep saying that the events in a poem usually stand for something else. So what’s with the donkey?

We’ll come back to that. For now, let’s assume that the conversation with the donkey is imaginary, and look at the poem. The stanzas are in neat symmetrical shape – 4 lines, then 2, 3, 2, 4. No rhyme scheme that I can see, nor much in the way of internal rhymes or sound effects. The line breaks are mostly of the ‘little cliffhanger’ type, giving you just a heartbeat to wonder what is coming next – ‘told him/ how it ran orange’ or ‘called out/ The river is mostly recyled rain’ or ‘he continued/ upstream’ or ‘you could scrape a stone/ and still disturb red oxide.’ Each stanza ends with a full stop and there are five other full stops, so the pace is slow and thoughtful but the effect is not clunky and obvious.

Right at the beginning, we’re at a ford. Imagine it. By definition it’s a shallow place where you can cross a river. They belong to edgelands and places at the edge of towns, perhaps in a wood or country lane. More than that, the poem is actually called Ford. This word is important, says the poet. Keep it in mind.

A ford gives us a choice: cross the river, at the cost of getting your feet wet, or stay where you are. There is always a moment of hesitation, of bracing yourself for the shock. In that moment of holding back, the poet explains the history of the river. It’s not a grand, dramatic river requiring a bridge. It’s an ordinary, even grubby channel with evidence of the industrial past clinging to its pebbles if you choose to ‘disturb’ it. But there is other water too, ‘clean and cool’ in the poet’s memory. She’s doing her best to make conversation but the donkey remains silent. She’s doing her best to make the crossing attractive but he remains obstinate, as donkeys will. That’s why he’s a donkey and not a pony or a thoroughbred. We expect recalcitrance of a donkey.

Every word counts in a poem, including ‘and’ and ‘the’. Look at the first line. This is not ‘a donkey’, it’s ‘the donkey’. She knows him already. They have met before.

There is one piece of information that I’m privy to and you’re not, unless you have seen the back of the pamphlet. Ten years ago, Robbie Burton lost her husband, and some of the poems in her collection touch on that loss. You don’t need that information to understand this poem. It’s not explicitly about bereavement. It’s too simple to say that the donkey stands for a lost loved one and the river stands for life, but that is certainly a part of the poem’s power. The river’s movement is ‘incessant,’ making no allowance for grief. It is ‘mostly recycled rain’, embodying its own past in the silt and discoloured stone, but able to take in fresh spring water too. Meanwhile, the donkey is not budging and she can only have a one-way conversation with it. Robbie can’t ‘fathom’ his thoughts – a watery choice of word. Hesitation or indecision makes no difference to either the river or the donkey. Life goes on. What is one to do?

The couplet that answers the question is the hub on which the poem turns. The language is unobtrusive but decisive. ‘Still he stood. I couldn’t fathom his thoughts so….’ See how that line break makes us wait just one second more, for the decision that the whole poem has led up to?

And then the poet makes her choice. She’s done her best with the donkey. Now, in a small act of determination ‘hitching up my skirt, I crossed the ford.’ And goes on. The donkey is still there on the other side. Still, ‘his absence was a cold draught, cold as the incessant water.’ The loss is always there, but the river keeps flowing. We’ve all had a decision like this to make – to stay with our grief/ partner/ job/ home, or to move on at some cost, taking only the memory with us. Robbie offers us one way to tackle it. And as the credits roll, the last image in our minds is not the stubborn donkey, but the cold and incessant water.

NaPoReMo #14: Fried slice



english breakfast

wrestling the perfume of frying eggs,

a trace of whisky orbits the sun.

it is bastille day and the pale sky shrinks.

an ash-tray is slowly filling.

the old man with no fingers remembers

the shriek of the circular saw;

his belligerent jumper straining at the seams

a leaking prostate dampening his spirits.

he had once had a trial with blackburn rovers,

he is dying of something he cannot spell.


[from Union, Smokestack 2011]


This is by Paul Summers. I’m a dedicated fan of Summers, whose new collection Straya is out this month, but no-one would call his poetry cosy. This one is typical. It’s written entirely in lower case, populated entirely by working-class northern English men doing something mundane.

Poetry is often about the extraordinary, the elevated; the moment of great emotion, the moment that shakes you up (as Andrew Greig’s sea journey shook him up yesterday). This one is a moment so ordinary it might go completely unnoticed. The poet notices it, because that’s our job, and records it in plain language. Don’t mistake the vernacular for the unskilled. There is power in clarity. This poem is machine-tooled and its form works with its subject to leave a bitter aftertaste.

Why the lower-case?  Perhaps because this poetry needs to be completely stripped of pretension and correctness. Where EE Cummings did this to refresh language, here it feels like a challenge to the reader; Alright so there’s no capitals, who makes the rules round here anyway? As the poem makes clear, life doesn’t respect grammar so why should poetry? But we still have punctuation and line breaks. There are italics wherever there is a brand name or (as here) a newspaper title, so we aren’t left confused or without guidance. Most of the couplets hold a single sentence. Line breaks are straightforward, following the sense of the words.

The words themselves are not flashy, with the exception of ‘belligerent’ which might be there to suggest ‘belly’. That would fit with the pun on ‘leaking prostate’ and ‘dampening his spirits’. There’s more wry humour in the date. It’s Bastille Day, the day of revolution but clearly no-one here is storming the barricades. Otherwise, most of what we’re told is physical. We have a flavour of whisky and fag ash, a copy of The Sun and the smell of fried egg. Or rather, the perfume – not odour or even scent, but perfume. This poem is not judging the customers’ dietary choices nor offering them up for our judgment. It’s happy to accept a fried egg as a sensory pleasure.

Effective poems often have a central event or character that stands for something else. That’s the meaning of the old saw, ‘Show don’t tell’. The old man with no fingers – no frills, no further description – stands for all who suffer injury or insult in their work. The trial with Blackburn Rovers stands for what might have been, in his life or perhaps in yours. And that killer last line, savage in its precision. Is Summers judging him for his lack of scholarship, or attacking the society that judges him for it?

In his book On Poetry, Glyn Maxwell says

I think a poem you read has to meet the same criteria as a person you meet: did it mean anything to you, matter to you, affect you? If it didn’t do those things you won’t remember it long.

He doesn’t say that you have to like the person, or be comfortable with the poem. Does Summers’ poem affect me? Yes it does. The last line affects me almost physically, because it makes me feel not only pity but shame. I write for a living, I read the Guardian and dammit, yes I do judge people all the time for poor spelling or for reading The Sun. This poem holds me to account for that. It shows me something ugly about myself, and something about other people which I need to be reminded of. So it matters to me, and I do remember it. Poetry can achieve as much by discomfiting a reader, as by confirming her prejudices.


NaPoReMo #13: We are sailing


Cava Island, Orkney

Today’s poem appears in a photo because I can’t do the indents properly in WordPress, and a poem’s appearance is important. The visual and aural content of poetry is part of what distinguishes it from prose. If you centre a poem, leave italics out, change punctuation or line breaks, then you’re changing the decisions made by the writer. So here is today’s poem as it should be seen:


There’s no older tradition in literature than the tale of a journey, drawing parallels between a physical voyage and the journey through life. It was probably one of the reasons for inventing poetry, making a long story memorable through patterns of sound. Even the Odyssey, composed in the Bronze Age, built on an existing tradition of heroic sagas. Andrew Greig’s adventure in Found at Sea, if smaller in scale, is full of salt and adrenaline. It’s a sequence of poems about a short sea passage with a friend from the main island of Orkney to the unoccupied island of Cava. They camp overnight. They come back. It’s a small adventure, but even a small adventure gives scope for self-examination.

This poem from that sequence is a good contrast to Edna St Vincent Millay’s Inland, which we looked at last week. Millay’s poem crammed the sensuality, the exhilaration and possibilities of the sea into a tight shape, with rhymes and repetitions to give structure. Greig does it very differently – breaking up form, interrupting himself and letting the journey unfold through a sequence of poems which jerk and shudder and spill. They use log book extracts and the odd SHOUTED WORD or exclamation to give a feeling of immediacy and travel under sail.

This piece winds metaphor and fact together very tightly. It’s explicitly about ‘our lives/ going forward and clockwise’ but also a precise description of a boat trying to make way, knocked off course ‘by forces so pervasive/ we don’t even see them.’ You don’t need to over-explain in a poem. The reader is as bright as you are.

The first stanza is full of contradictions and antitheses – we are slaves and gods, servants and rulers. In case those analogies seem too grand for a short journey in a small boat, Greig drops in some bathos to lessen his own pomp – ‘that is to say, sailors’. It’s a good trick when you want to disarm readers or reassure them. The line breaks aren’t arbitrary: white space tumbles around the words, redoubling the effect of some line breaks and giving a lively sense of unpredictable movement.

Found at Sea, as the title suggests, is a mid-life collection in which Greig assesses his life on land with family and other commitments, and tests himself against a wilder background with a male friend. That’s the subtext of this poem, and in particular of its ending. In his book On Poetry Glyn Maxwell declares that ‘recurrence of words isn’t repetition. Ever,’ meaning that if a word is repeated, it has a different effect. Here, the poem finishes with a repeat; ‘No, adjust, /adjust.’ Does the sailor try to take a bearing on something transitory,  something fleeting? No. Things change, and the sailor has to adjust. The repetition gives the instruction extra force, like a man bracing himself for a storm. The last line is just ‘adjust’ on its own, with a feeling that the poet is reconciled to that idea of changing tack.

A man testing himself with the ordeal of a journey, and coming home more settled than before? It may not be an original idea but there are no original ideas in poetry. Sex, death or shrubbery; all subjects have been covered. In the end, we are writing about being human, and our readers are human too.



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NaPoReMo #12: Herd instinct

by Jo Bell



Jim Carruth

A toddler double-wrapped in heavy woollens,

wedged snug in the open mouth of a ten-gallon can,

I’d watch my parents work down the stalls of Ayrshires,

drawing off milk along the cobbled byre.

Over hunched shoulders they’d check on me,

high up in my watchtower in that hall of shadows,

before bending again to attach the next machine,

and the next, till the far end swallowed them in its dark,

leaving me for a cluster’s regular heartbeat

with nothing but cattle bellows, the rattle of chains.

I look for them still, listen for their returning voices;

I will them back into the light.


Poems about childhood and deceased parents can descend, more quickly than any other subject, into sentimentality. In trying to do them justice, it’s tempting to give the reader lots of information which is actually only of interest to you. The trick is to make the details of your own life relevant to the reader, rather than simply giving a snapshot of your own family. A good poem turns that snapshot into a mirror, so that the reader finds something in it which relates to their own experience.

Jim Carruth (not to be mistaken for Jim Caruth, also a fine poet) belongs to a dairy farming family. His new book Black Cart, which this poem comes from, is much concerned with memories of his parents and of the farming community he grew up in. He bears the same relationship to the land as Seamus Heaney did – drawing subject matter from the landscape and people he knows best, and returning to them as a way of honouring them.

Is this poem just a snapshot from his own life? Yes. And of course, no. Searchlight is a good illustration of ‘show, don’t tell’. Don’t tell us you miss your parents; that’s sad but commonplace. Show us how it feels. Make us feel it. Take us with you; then we can empathise with your experience, as well as remembering our own.

Almost the whole poem is a description of an actual incident. We see the whole incident through the eyes of baby Carruth. He doesn’t give us any back story, such as ‘my mother double wrapped me in woollens and wedged me….’ We see it as he sees it, the toddler transfixed by the sight of his parents disappearing into the dark. It’s a very powerful recollection; we all remember that small anxiety – will they come back? so it stands for anything in life that might make us feel like that.

Everything in it is a straightforward description of what he sees: but of course he is selecting the right words to create a mood of menace and darkness. Sometimes, to understand why particular words have been used, it’s helpful to think of alternatives. The cattle shed is literally a ‘hall of shadows’ – but there are other phrases Jim could have used. He uses that one because it suggests mystery and half-shapes. Likewise ‘watchtower’, a word suggesting constant vigilance. He could have said ‘vantage point’ or ‘cockpit’ and each would have created a different mood. He wanted that sense of scanning the horizon, being a lookout.

There’s little rhythm or rhyme in the poem, though there are chimes (woollens and gallon, Ayrshire and byre, cattle and rattle) and of course the rhythm of milking gives its own sense of repetition (‘bending again’ to attach ‘the next machine, and the next’). I’m not sure why it’s in couplets but the space between them slows the incident down and draws it out, keeping it quiet and slow. By the time the baby is left ‘for a cluster’s regular heartbeat/ with nothing but cattle bellows, the rattle of chains’ I have a complete sense of the moment. The child is perfectly safe – ‘double-wrapped’ and ‘snug’, and we inhabit the space with him – the clank of chains, the feel of cobbles which have been  succinctly pencilled in.

In the last three stanzas, each line break highlights a tiny moment of anticipation. Finally, the toddler ‘wills’ mum and dad back into the light. It is all a description of one moment, many years ago. Except that of course, it isn’t. The one word that tells us this whole poem is a metaphor is ‘still’ in the penultimate line. ‘I look for them still.’ This is not the toddler but the man, wanting his parents back as the child did before him. In the cattle shed, presumably they did come back into the light and rescue Carruth Junior from his milk churn. In life, of course, they can’t return. But by careful selection of the moment to tell, and the language in which he tells it, Jim Carruth makes this a poem about people we’ve lost, as well as his own parents. It’s that act of generosity, of giving something to the reader as well as recounting his own experience, that makes a poem more than anecdote.


Jo Bell | April 12, 2017 at 14:01 | Tags: jim carruth, NaPoReMo, NaPoWriMo



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NaPoReMo #11: a reckoning

by Jo Bell


Late Fragment

Raymond Carver

And did you get what

you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself

beloved on the earth.


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NaPoReMo #10: Brian fever

by Jo Bell




A Blade of Grass

Brian Patten

You ask for a poem.

I offer you a blade of grass.

You say it is not good enough.

You ask for a poem.

I say this blade of grass will do.

It has dressed itself in frost,

It is more immediate

Than any image of my making.

You say it is not a poem,

It is a blade of grass and grass

Is not quite good enough.

I offer you a blade of grass.

You are indignant.

You say it is too easy to offer grass.

It is absurd.

Anyone can offer a blade of grass.

You ask for a poem.

And so I write you a tragedy about

How a blade of grass

Becomes more and more difficult to offer,

And about how as you grow older

A blade of grass

Becomes more difficult to accept.


[From Brian Patten: Selected Poems, Penguin 2007]


I believe in poetry as a means of connection, a kind of emotional battery which only works if the reader and writer each hold one end. The poet can give a dazzling display of word play, but if s/he doesn’t make contact with the reader then it’s wasted. The risk that we take in trying for that connection is that we can sound trite or emotionally manipulative.

Brian Patten connects every time, in a style so simple that I feel particularly exposed in putting one of his poems under the magnifying glass. Patten was one of the Mersey poets who caused so much kerfuffle in the 1960s. Lazy critics, then as now, assumed that poetry which is easy to access is also shallow. Lazy critics, then as now, tend to assume that everyone who writes in the vernacular is a bit thick. This poem is one answer to that snobbery.

There’s no rhyme, but there is structure. The poem is entirely made up of exchanges between two people. The repetition of ‘You ask for a poem’ and ‘blade of grass’ show the stubbornness of both. The title is obstinately plain too, as in most of Patten’s poems. The four-line stanzas all end with a full stop, and some of the sentences are very short so there’s a choppy, back-and-forth, argumentative feel – until the very end. Then at last the narrator relents, writing the damn poem in a form that his opponent will accept, precisely to make the point that a poem wasn’t necessary at all. Don’t worry so much about the poetry, he seems to say. The poetry isn’t the point. Looking at the world is the point; enjoying simple pleasures is the point; communicating wonder and love to other humans is the point. Ultimately, nothing we write about captures the importance of the thing itself. The signifier never quite attains to the power of the signified.

In writing these posts I do exactly what the person asking for a poem does. I analyse and interrogate poems which are sometimes as simple and strong as a blade of grass. These are works which can only be explained in their own terms; if they could be explained in any other terms, they wouldn’t have needed to be written. It’s like pinning a butterfly into a display so that you can see it more clearly. You only get to examine it by losing that which made it a butterfly in the first place. It needs to be done, so that we can learn from our predecessors. But for me, the lesson of Patten’s poetry is that conviction, humanity and kindness – simply expressed – are essential components of a poem with integrity.

I interviewed Brian Patten once, as part of an event at a literature festival. I asked him something like “There’s a great simplicity to these poems, is there a sort of Zen sensibility behind them?” He made a face. “No, there isn’t a bloody Zen sensibility,” he said, mocking my earnestness with a Scouse laugh; the poems basically say what they mean. Which made his point, and as it happens, mine too.


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NaPoReMo #9: leaping greenly

by Jo Bell



i thank You God for most this amazing

day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees

and a blue dream of sky;and for everything

which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,

and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth

day of life and love and wings;and of the gay

great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing

breathing any – lifted from the no

of all nothing – human merely being

doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and

now the eyes of my eyes are opened)


Sometimes people ask which poem first got me into poetry. It wasn’t the one above – it was this one, also by EE Cummings (and before you get smart, yes he did use capitals in his own name). I wrote out the last two verses and pinned them to a cork board in my bedroom. I still adore it. At seventeen I knew exactly what it meant, and didn’t want it explained. It can be explained, just as happiness can be explained as a ratio of endorphins – but that’s not the point of either poetry or happiness.

Still, my project this month is to offer up my Great Poetry Wisdom, to show how we can learn from others’ poems in writing our own. Some of you hate Cummings but tough: let’s have a go at the one above, untitled like most of his works. It’s a trolley dash through the English language, with Cummings seemingly throwing punctuation marks in randomly or stuffing words on top of one another in the wrong order.

There are always careless writers, writers who can’t spell or who don’t pay close attention to punctuation. Cummings is not one of them. He was mad for poetry from childhood. By his late twenties he was steeped in traditional forms, and proceeded to blow them apart with the kind of textual tomfoolery you see here. Why? The 1920s were a time of experimentation in visual art, music and literature but he didn’t do it for its own sake. Like Edna St Vincent Millay who we looked at yesterday, he was trying to give the reader direct access to the emotions of the writer. Unlike Millay, who built elegant machinery to do it, Cumming plugs us straight into the mains. He bypasses ordinary language structures to shock us beyond reading, into feeling.

There’s no title, so expectations are disrupted from the start; he gets straight into a declaration of thanks. Cummings himself isn’t worthy of a capital ‘I’ (he’s a ‘human merely being’ as he says later) but God gets the traditional upper case. And look at the word order. It’s easy to skip over it and read it as you think it should read, but Cummings doesn’t thank his God for ‘this most amazing day’. He says ‘most this amazing day’. The ‘leaping greenly spirits of trees’? This is all jolly ungrammatical. Call the cops. The third stanza, if it could be ‘properly’ expressed would be something like this – “How should any mere tasting, touching human being, who has been lifted out of nothing by you, doubt you, the unimaginable God?”

There’s no grammatical construction big enough to contain such excitement. Cummings meets the frustration of a poet trying to express the inexpressible, by tumbling out words with the freshness of a child trying to say something for the first time. The effect is ebullient, dizzying and (to some) ridiculous. He gives thanks ‘for everything/ which is natural which is infinite which is yes’. ‘Yes’ as an adjective is nonsense. But it works, don’t you think? Nietzsche said ‘it is the stillest words that bring on the storm’ and it is the simplest words that carry the most power. YES is a sledgehammer of a word; the ultimate, simple affirmation. You can’t do better than YES for positive thinking.

That word ends a list of three because it’s the culmination; a larger idea than ‘natural’, larger even than ‘infinite’. This construction is called a triad, and we do it all the time. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play. An Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman walk into a bar. The last idea generally has the most power. To empower it further Cummings dangles ‘yes’ at the end of a stanza, as the word that hangs in your mind for a second longer than the others. One critic wrote that Cummings used “familiar, even almost dead words, in such a context as to make them suddenly impervious to every ordinary sense… with a great air of being bursting with something very important and precise to say.” This sprinting, athletic word use is there to subvert cliche. Cummings wants to say afresh those great things which we want to say but which, through familiarity, have become trite – ‘I love you, God’. Or ‘Good God, I love you’.

Punctuation disrupts the immediate sense and the appearance of the poem. I think the brackets in this one are where Cummings delivers a little soliloquy, making a sort of aside to explain his own thoughts; the rest of the poem is addressed directly to God. There is no full stop anywhere. You can rest, but never for long; even the semicolons don’t get the customary space after them. Cummings enters the poem at full tilt, and runs off at the end of it without really drawing breath. Like most of his poems, it feels like you’ve been involved in a verbal hit-and-run, and are left a little dazed.

If you try this at home, dear reader, you are likely to produce what I call Artwank. Then again, you may communicate the same breathless, headlong excitement as Cummings, or find something fresh is released in your own style. If you find it obscure, I get that. But as with life, so with poetry; sometimes if you let yourself be carried along by a great force, some of it remains with you afterwards.


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NaPoReMo #8: I do like to be beside the seaside

by Jo Bell




Edna St. Vincent Millay

People that build their houses inland,

People that buy a plot of ground

Shaped like a house, and build a house there,

Far from the sea-board, far from the sound

Of water sucking the hollow ledges,

Tons of water striking the shore,—

What do they long for, as I long for

One salt smell of the sea once more?

People the waves have not awakened,

Spanking the boats at the harbour’s head,

What do they long for, as I long for,—

Starting up in my inland bed,

Beating the narrow walls, and finding

Neither a window nor a door,

Screaming to God for death by drowning,—

One salt taste of the sea once more?


I’m not a big fan of perfect rhymes. In the hands of an inexperienced writer (or me) they can make the most metaphysical considerations sound like Dr Seuss. But Edna St Vincent Millay was not an inexperienced writer; she was a Pulitzer prize winner. Critic Allen Tate said that she successfully used the vocabulary of the nineteenth century to describe the experiences of the twentieth.

This poem is a meeting of large rhymes and large emotions. The basic rhymes are easy to see, in the second and fourth line of each stanza. Ground/ sound, shore/ more, and so on. And there are extra rhymes and sound effects to strengthen the poem without making the whole edifice collapse. In stanza 2 for instance, we’d expect that rhyme of shore/ more – but Millay lobs in an extra one between them with a line ending in ‘for’. Cheeky.

There is consonance, repeating consonant sounds (ground/ sound echoed in the word ‘inland’). There is assonance, repeating vowels (in that first stanza alone, so many ‘ow’ sounds – ground/ house/ house/ sound). There’s a smattering of alliteration – narrow/ neither/ nor and in sucking/ striking/ salt/ sea. In fact, this poem is heaving with sibilants. The hissing S appears in sea-board, sound, sucking, striking, salt, sea, spanking, starting, screaming. Your English teacher would tell you that this makes the poem sound like the sea, and perhaps it does.

Remember how Adrienne Rich mocked a silly question in her Song by repeating the word ‘lonely’? With Millay, it’s ‘house’ that gets the ironic slow clap. We get ‘house’ three times and ‘build’ twice in the first three lines. Either she’s being damn sloppy, or she’s emphasising an obsession with building. ‘People that buy a plot of ground/ Shaped like a house, and build a house there’ are people without imagination or ambition. Repetition serves for emphasis too – ‘Far from the sea-board, far from the sound’ and ‘One salt smell of the sea once more’, a line almost repeated at the end. ‘What do they long for, as I long for’ is repeated as well, with the sense of urgency that we might nowadays hear in ‘What the hell does Trump think he’s playing at?’

Marvellous. All of the dreary terms your English teacher used to suck the joy out of poetry, employed in one poem. I don’t normally analyse poetry in quite this way. As Michael Donaghy used to say, studying English literature because you like poetry is like studying dissection because you like dogs. It’s a tool that can be over-used and start to squeeze the life out of the thing you love. But these are the tricks of our trade, and Millay uses them to make a visceral cry for exhilaration and fresh air. Inside that tightly rhymed machine is a woman ‘beating the narrow walls’ of the claustrophobic inland life and actually ‘screaming to God for death by drowning.’ These are extreme physical reactions to an extreme physical longing. The inland environment is claustrophobic, arid, populated by those who buy and build. The sea is sensual and embodied – it strikes and spanks and sucks and tastes of salt. The sea, in fact, is downright saucy.

In short, it’s a trick. A poem is never about what it’s about. The open sea and the restrictive inland environment might be the source of the poem, but they stand for something else. It may be freedom versus constraint; sexuality versus inhibition; open hearts versus narrow minds. The whole poem pretends to ask why ‘people who build their houses inland’ behave as they do, what they think about. But it’s nothing to do with them. It’s not about them at all. It’s about the narrator, as most poems are.


N0 7

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by Jo Bell





Adrian Mitchell


At the top of the stairs

I ask for her hand.  O.K.

She gives it to me.

How her fist fits my palm,

A bunch of consolation.

We take our time

Down the steep carpetway

As I wish silently

That the stairs were endless.



[from The Apeman Cometh, Cape 1975]


Tell me you didn’t go ‘aaahhh’ when you read it. Of course you did. You recognise that feeling, that experience.


Unlike yesterday’s Larkin, there aren’t any fireworks or special effects in this one. Don’t stare at it like a Magic Eye print in hopes that a hidden structure will appear. It works more or less as it seems to, as a simple moment of recollection. Hardly worth calling a poem, right?


But still, you went ‘aaah’. Mitchell’s poetry is meaningful, memorable and humane. What craft there is here helps to make the piece effective, and what there isn’t lends it simplicity, spontaneity and an innocence which is perfect for the subject matter.

First, look at the title. By the time we reach the first line of the poem, we already know that we’re talking about a three year old girl. Mitchell doesn’t waste two or three lines establishing how old she is, nor does he tell us who she is exactly. We don’t know for sure if she’s his daughter, granddaughter or a little friend (though in fact she was his daughter). He concentrates on the moment: the child’s trusting answer, O.K., with no description of her mood or manner; the sensation of the fist in his palm, showing us how small her hand is; the small shared decision to ‘take our time’. And so we descend carefully through the poem till we reach the bottom.

There’s not much else to say about this one. You might find the ‘bunch of consolation’ a little mawkish, you might think the ‘silently’ is superfluous. But the snapshot of an important, ordinary moment is true and felt. Free verse can be an excuse for formless or lazy writing; or, as it is here, it can be an appropriately handspun form for a recollection that wouldn’t look quite right in Larkin’s haute couture.


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NaPoReMo #6: Rhyme time

by Jo Bell



Best Society

Philip Larkin

When I was a child, I thought,

Casually, that solitude

Never needed to be sought.

Something everybody had,

Like nakedness, it lay at hand,

Not specially right or specially wrong,

A plentiful and obvious thing

Not at all hard to understand.

Then, after twenty, it became

At once more difficult to get

And more desired – though all the same

More undesirable; for what

You are alone has, to achieve

The rank of fact, to be expressed

In terms of others, or it’s just

A compensating make-believe.

Much better stay in company!

To love you must have someone else,

Giving requires a legatee,

Good neighbours need whole parishfuls

Of folk to do it on – in short,

Our virtues are all social; if,

Deprived of solitude, you chafe,

It’s clear you’re not the virtuous sort.

Vicariously, then, I lock my door.

The gas-fire breathes. The wind outside

Ushers in evening rain. Once more

Uncontradicting solitude

Supports me on its giant palm;

And like a sea-anemone

Or simple snail, there cautiously

Unfolds, emerges, what I am.


Brace yourself, I’m going to talk about rhyme schemes. But first, read this poem aloud.

Thanks awfully. So, we have a lyric poem about solitude. (Lyric poetry has nothing to do with rhythm or form, it means a poem of personal experience or emotion usually in the first person.) I chose it because it shows how to handle rhyme without letting it be the boss of your poem. Larkin uses perfect rhymes (like cat/sat/mat), but tempers and disrupts them. The poem has strength and structure without feeling like a nursery rhyme. How does he do it?

Here’s the boring bit. You probably remember breaking down rhyme schemes at school, but to refresh your memory consider the following extract from a work of genius:

I do not like them

Here or there.

I do not like them


I do not like green eggs and ham.

I do not like them, Sam-I-am.

The rhyme scheme is ABABCC – ‘them’ in line 1 rhymes with ‘them’ in line 3, ‘there’ in line 2 rhymes with ‘anywhere’ in line 4, etc. Now look at the first stanza of Best Society:

When I was a child, I thought,                     A

Casually, that solitude                                   B

Never needed to be sought.                          A

Something everybody had,                          (B)

Like nakedness, it lay at hand,                     C

Not specially right or specially wrong,       D

A plentiful and obvious thing                      (D)

Not at all hard to understand.                      C

Each stanza goes ABA(B)CD(D)C. There are strong or ‘perfect’ rhymes – thought/sought and hand/understand. There are further chimes too, shown here with brackets. ‘Solitude’ and ‘had’ don’t rhyme, nor do ‘wrong’ and ‘thing’, but your ear knows that they are related somehow. Larkin is using consonance – repeating consonant sounds. Every stanza has the same scheme, so in the second verse it’s get/what and expressed/just. The consonant lines separate the strong rhymes which would otherwise dominate the sound, so it feels more like quiet clockwork than the loud chimes of Big Ben. Larkin breaks the pattern further by going, not CDC(D) as we might expect, but CD(D)C.

He is meticulous about punctuation, using it to mask that regular metre. The line breaks constantly carry the sense over the line, to further camouflage the rhyme scheme. It’s the punctuation marks, not the line breaks, which tell you where to pause or breathe. The exclamation mark – Much better stay in company! makes that, well, an exclamation obviously, something declamatory and insincere.

The vocabulary is mundane; gas-fires, not gossamer. The words don’t draw attention to themselves. Not one of them feels as if it is shoehorned in to fit the rhyme scheme (except possibly ‘legatee’). Nor does Larkin cram in any clumsy inversions like ‘I down the street did walk’ to get a cheap rhyme. It takes effort to make something as slick as this.

He goes to all that effort to disguise the machinery of the poem, so that the meaning isn’t obscured or encumbered by the clanking of cogs. It surprises me that he stuck to the convention of using a capital letter at the beginning of each line, which few people have done since. For me it creates a little jolt with each line.

By the way, every line has eight syllables, and most are iambic (they go ti-TUM, not TUM-ti). I won’t dwell on that – the point is, this is a highly structured poem which doesn’t feel archaic or mannered. It’s crafted, but the craft doesn’t overwhelm the sense. You notice what he’s saying before you notice how carefully he said it. Like Adrienne Rich’s poem yesterday, it’s a meditation on solitude. I’m not sure Larkin enjoys it as much as she does, but it’s still essential to his sense of self.

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NaPoReMo #5: Are You Lonesome Tonight?

by Jo Bell




Adrienne Rich

You’re wondering if I’m lonely:

OK then, yes, I’m lonely

as a plane rides lonely and level

on its radio beam, aiming

across the Rockies

for the blue-strung aisles

of an airfield on the ocean.

You want to ask, am I lonely?

Well, of course, lonely

as a woman driving across country

day after day, leaving behind

mile after mile

little towns she might have stopped

and lived and died in, lonely

If I’m lonely

it must be the loneliness

of waking first, of breathing

dawn’s first cold breath on the city

of being the one awake

in a house wrapped in sleep

If I’m lonely

it’s with the rowboat ice-fast on the shore

in the last red light of the year

that knows what it is, that knows it’s neither

ice nor mud nor winter light

but wood, with a gift for burning.

[From The Fact of a Doorframe]


A couple of days ago I posted a poem where we heard the narrator’s side of the conversation, and were left guessing as to the reply. In this one we only hear the reply, but we know what the question was. Again we get no clue to context or location, because they don’t matter. Adrienne Rich selects the important part of the encounter.

Somebody asked her if she is lonely (or perhaps only implied it). Her response is impatient, and her impatience succinctly shown. There is no ‘I retort,’ or ‘I answer impatiently’. Rich shows impatience. ‘OK then, yes, I’m lonely.’ This is the response of a woman who has been asked more than once, even badgered to reply. The word ‘lonely’ appears eight times in four stanzas, with a single ‘loneliness’ for good measure. The repetition serves like a fist banging on the table over and over, giving the questioner the word they surely wanted to hear again and again. It appears twice at the beginning of every stanza but the last. Lonely? I’ll give you bloody lonely, she’s saying. There’s no full stop at the end of stanza 2 or 3, as if the speaker is breathless with the energy of her explanation. As she gets into her stride she repeats herself – ‘If I’m lonely….’

I have said it many times and I will say it until they carry me weeping hysterically from my last poetry workshop: Every Word Counts. That ‘If’ is essential. To the questioner, Rich’s first two replies might seem unambiguous. ‘Yes’ she’s lonely, ‘of course’ she’s lonely. But in the second half of the poem, that two-letter word takes us from indignation to mastery. IF the speaker is lonely, she’s lonely like a rowboat – not a liner steered by someone else. IF she’s lonely, it’s like a woman driving day after day, mile after mile (repetition = monotony) but finding her own way and choosing to leave behind ‘little towns she might have stopped/ and lived and died in, lonely’. She’s lonely like an aeroplane, but one which is ‘level’ and ‘aiming for an airfield’, not aimless or lost. She’s the one who’s awake ‘in a house of sleep’. Is that loneliness or is it freedom?

Each metaphor occupies one stanza. Most line breaks emphasise grand landscapes (the Rockies, ocean, country, city, shore) or states of stasis and boredom (lonely, stopped, sleep).

The title and the last three words are crucial too. A song, as I mentioned in my article on Whitman, is usually a joyful and effusive thing. One might describe wood as prone to burning, or in danger of burning, or ready to burn – each phrase gives a different emphasis. The choice of the word ‘gift’ tells us once and for all that this kind of loneliness is not a burden but a benefit. The last word, burning, is flame-fierce; it implies heat, light, a joy in playing with fire – and perhaps the temper of a woman who has been asked once too often if she’s lonely. The questioner presumably retires, shot down in flames. I feel like cheering every time I read it.


NaPoReMo #4: The majority view



Michael Donaghy

Foreign policy does not exist for us.

We don’t know where the new countries are.

We don’t care. We want the streets safe

So we vote for the chair. An eye for an eye.

Our long boats will come in the spring

And we will take many heads.

The name of our tribe means ‘human being.’

We will make your children pray to our god in public.


Majorities (for Brexit, for Trump, for Corbyn) have recently had enormous effects on our political culture, and politicians have forgotten the dangers of hyperbole. Again. At the moment Michael Donaghy’s poem seems horribly apt. It is stripped back to a brutal simplicity; short sentences and naked malice directed against anyone who is not of ‘our’ tribe.

It doesn’t reach the right hand margin; it has line breaks; but is that enough to make it a poem? Donaghy was steeped in technique and knew what he was doing. It’s not his most complicated work but nothing in it is accidental. There is rhyme, though it’s subtle; are/ care/ chair in the first stanza and spring/ being in the second. The short sentences ‘We don’t care’ or ‘an eye for an eye’ leave nowhere to hide, no rhetorical frills.

The line breaks are not arbitrary either. ‘We want the streets safe’ sounds fairly benevolent but he makes us draw a tiny breath before the vicious corollary, ‘So we vote for the chair’. New countries, new policies, even new gods come and go but the vengeful xenophobia of the masses remains, says Donaghy.

Every word counts. The title explains who is speaking, so no untidy explanation is needed. The power is in the tiniest of words, the pronouns; ‘We will make your children pray to our god in public.’ It’s a bald declaration of the will to do harm. Horribly timeless, horribly topical; a manifesto that would apply to any group strong enough to dominate its opponents, from the Romans to the Vikings to the Nazis.

It sent me back to Carolyn Forche’s small  1979 poem The Visitor, which ends: ‘It is a small country. // There is nothing one man will not do to another.’ Like the Donaghy, that poem is bleak and has nothing in it to reassure us. Without the fluid sentences of prose, Majority knocks out the vile platitudes of a strong tribe and focuses our attention on the worst of ourselves. It’s a small mirror, but a mirror all the same.

You’re welcome.

NaPoReMo #3: Dead men talking


I Hear America Singing

Walt Whitman

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,

Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe

and strong,

The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,

The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off


The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the

deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,

The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing

as he stands,

The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the

morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,

The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at

work, or of the girl sewing or washing,

Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,

The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young

fellows, robust, friendly,

Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

Walt Whitman is in the bloodstream of American culture as Shakespeare is in ours. He died in 1892 but if his poetry seems astonishingly modern, it’s because much modern poetry grew out of it.  Read Leaves of Grass for a rich feast of images, for generous, tumbling rhythms and a feeling of exhilaration.

If you want to know how he does it…. then you’re in the wrong place. My focus today is on the relationship of the poem above to the poem below. But in passing, I’ll remark on the value of repetition. Beginning poets often use crude rhyme as a way to give a poem structure. There are other ways to scaffold a poem without resorting to cat/sat/mat rhymes, and one of them is repetition.

Whitman repeats simple words, in simple ways. ‘Singing’ is in almost every line – a simple word which almost always implies joy.  The repetition of work, of boat, of deck; each of these quietly establishes a characteristic of that particular person. He uses a simple metaphor to hold the poem together – the whole of America singing – and delivers it in the first line of the poem, freeing him up to enumerate the many different songs that make up the new country of America.

The last line of a poem is like the last note in a tune – it’s the one that hangs in the air as you walk away. ‘Strong, melodious songs’ is not an accidental description. Like America, the songs are strong; like the mixed population, they are melodious together.

Ten years after Whitman died, Langston Hughes was born in an America which was not at all ‘melodious’ for its black citizens. His poem, below, is a response to Whitman’s American anthem. It is powerful in its own right, and became a touchstone for many who did not know the poem it answers. It too uses plain language – brother, kitchen, laugh, strong. It doesn’t need complex images to make its point, nor does it use abstract words like ‘injustice’ or ‘racism’ – until the very end, when ‘beautiful’ and ‘ashamed’ are set against each other.

Like Whitman’s this poem sets up a simple metaphor – a darker singer, singing the same song – and uses the simplest structure to lay it in front of the reader. Today that singer eats in the kitchen. Tomorrow he will sit alongside his brothers, at the same table as them, acknowledged and equal in their eyes. We understand that ‘tomorrow’ means ‘in the future’. We understand that ‘the darker brother’ stands for all African-Americans currently denied a place at the table. Langston Hughes trusts the reader to work that out.

A new poem can gain strength by association with an old one, particularly a well known one. If you borrow a line or a phrase from the original, you must credit it to avoid any accusation of plagiarism; but don’t be afraid to write in response to someone else’s work. This kind of conversation between poems is a long and honourable tradition. Poets keep talking to one another even after death – and readers are privy to that conversation, if they eavesdrop carefully.

I, Too

Langston Hughes

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.

They send me to eat in the kitchen

When company comes,

But I laugh,

And eat well,

And grow strong.


I’ll be at the table

When company comes.

Nobody’ll dare

Say to me,

“Eat in the kitchen,”



They’ll see how beautiful I am

And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

[The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (Vintage Books, 2004)]

NaPoReMo #2 Mind the gap: reading what isn’t there



Kate Clanchy

I said perhaps Patagonia, and pictured

a peninsula, wide enough

for a couple of ladderback chairs

to wobble on at high tide. I thought

of us in breathless cold, facing

a horizon round as a coin, looped

in a cat’s cradle strung by gulls

from sea to sun. I planned to wait

till the waves had bored themselves

to sleep, till the last clinging barnacles,

growing worried in the hush, had

paddled off in tiny coracles, till

those restless birds, your actor’s hands,

had dropped slack into your lap,

until you’d turned, at last, to me.

When I spoke of Patagonia, I meant

skies all empty aching blue. I meant

years. I meant all of them with you.


In poetry every mark on the page matters, including the ones that aren’t there. There’s a lot of stuff missing from this poem and it’s all the better for it. To start with, there are no speech marks around the only bit of reported speech in this poem – ‘perhaps Patagonia’. Italics generally do the job of inverted commas in poetry. A poem is a visual as well as an aural artefact, and this is a less cluttered way of signifying the spoken word.

Nor is there any information about who is speaking (beyond ‘I’) or to whom – it’s unnecessary, because we guess from the last line that it’s a lover. If the poet made that clear earlier, the last line wouldn’t have such a punch. Also absent is any explanation of where and in what circumstances this conversation takes place. That doesn’t matter because the poem isn’t about the conversation. The conversation is only what Richard Hugo calls ‘the initiating subject’, the incident or object that gives the poet a starting point. It was important enough to get Clanchy thinking, but she uses it to stand for something in the poem. That’s key to many successful poems – an object, a moment, a throwaway phrase which represents something larger than itself.

From that phrase, the poet pans out straight away into a broad vision of a possible future in Patagonia. The physical description is all about that imagined place, and it’s imagined with all the precision of a longed-for future. They’re not just chairs but ladderback chairs, and they wobble. It’s not just a narrow peninsula but a spit wide enough for two. It’s a fresh, wide outdoor scene: the horizon is only round as a coin when you can see all of it, and we have gulls, waves, barnacles, a tide, sun and sea. The cold is ‘breathless’, taking it right into the body. At the end of the reverie, returning to the person s/he’s speaking to, the narrator stays in that tidal register of language – the lover’s hands are like birds, they drop ‘slack’ like the sluggish water between tides. (Incidentally if you don’t see rhyme in this poem, look again at the sounds which echo in each stanza: I/ wide/ high/ tide, then us/ strung/ gulls/ sun, then barnacles/ coracles, then actor/ slack/ lap/ last and finally, strongest chime of all in blue/ you).

I used to read this poem as a straightforward declaration of love – ‘I meant years. I meant all of them with you.’ Aaah, how romantic. But now I read the gaps as well as the words, and I hear what else is missing – the lover’s response. The poet and broadcaster Ian McMillan likes to ask poets which word is at the centre of a particular poem, and I think in this case it might be the word ‘perhaps’. The skies are not a dizzying or bright blue but an ’empty, aching blue’. Almost every line break creates a tiny moment of anxiety – ‘I pictured….’ what? ‘I thought…’ what? ‘Till….’ till what? The waves are bored, the barnacles are clinging and worried. So, I think, is the narrator – every stanza break is tense, emphasising ‘I thought’ or ‘I planned’ or ‘I meant’. It sounds like a sad reappraisal, and the three-times reiterated ‘I meant’ like a defensive explanation after the event. Every word counts; every word signifies mood. The poet could make the lover’s hands quick as fish, or light as sea birds; but no, they are ‘actor’s hands’ – and they drop slack into his lap. He turns ‘at last’ to the speaker, as if he hasn’t wanted to. And what will he say?

At least, that’s how I read it. But maybe I’m reading what isn’t there.

[From Kate Clanchy’s 1996 Forward Prize-winning collection Slattern. Find out more about Clanchy and her work here.]







1.Advice to Sixteen year Old Self

Tell everyone to vote Remain

Don’t believe Blair on Iraq

Invest in Apple, Google and Dyson

Sell all shares in Kodak and Blockbuster video

Compact discs are not the future

Hold on to vinyl

Select lottery numbers 17 24 26 28 45 04 and 12 on 31/7/17

Back Leicester City to win the Premier League at 5000-1

Visit the Twin Towers New York before 11/7/05 but not on 26/2/93

Rick Astley will make one song go a very long way

Tomorrow is always another day .


2.Tales From A Pencil Case

White grey, thumbnail large

Poop collector of the moving hand

Moving on


Gnarled edges claw at graphite error

Smudging , smearing, never quite



Perfectly weighted, if not shaped

For elastic band tension

Classroom length


Bouncing crazily, this way that

In humorous unpredictability



Mined by compass point

A ragged face

Pressed paper tight


Disfigured, mutilated, discoloured

Bought, borrowed, forgotten

Trouser pocket gem


3.4.Birmingham Central Library

1. An Ozymandian conceit

2. Packaged in steel rings

3. Cold birds nest

4. Suicidal platform

5. Finished yet not fully open

6. Sucking the life out of satellites

7. Vain, look at me

8. Uncertain of purpose

9. Pompous and pumped up

10. An over dressed aunt at a jeans and T’s do

11. Where most pass by, awkwardly, mute

12. Seat of knowledge

13. A dot on google maps


4.Ferry Journey

Gaping bow doors swallowed  our cars

Entombed us as tinned sardines

Tethered to Ullapool’s herring quay

Umbilical cords sinew taut


Hillside cottages perched bade us farewell

Beneath Bhein Ghobblach’s glower

Carried in the belly by swollen tide

To the Blue Men of the Minch


Rocking in lazy lullaby beyond ancient loch

Slowly lurching a cradle which rocks

Luring the Blue Men to appear from the brine

To challenge the Captain to burst forth in rhyme


Yet they stayed below

Above, a grey horizon, grey sea, grey skies

Grey coastline uncertainly brushed in the distance

Blurred by soft mist and dancing cloud


Stornoway clings tightly, crouched

A grey seal pressed flat against the wind

Metal clanks on pier, as Viking hull ground on sand

Borne safely, with thanks.


5. 31/8/97


It was a bright August Sunday morning.

Going home day. A day when buckets and spades

Windbreaks and sand all tumble reluctantly

Into a car’s boot.

Warm Norfolk afternoons left behind

Washing and unopened post ahead

The drive home an unwelcome chore

Even the driver is tempted to ask

“Are we there yet”

As the car lurches into life

The car radio an essential tool

To dull the sound of backseat children’s squabbles

To deliver four  hours anaesthetic respite

But the speakers spat no melody

No cheery banal relief

Instead ghastly monotone

Tinged with hesitant foreboding

A spun dial delivered no respite

Diana is dead.


6.The Grief Vulture

He hovers, waiting to swoop

To glide in with silent feathers

Scenting the almost dead

Needing to inhale death


The soon to be corpse

The lifeless cadaver

Hold a special fascination

Drawing him in


Maybe he needs to touch death

To rediscover his own life

Or the absoluteness of what is gone

To grieve for all that has passed.


Each time he descends, he draws

That bit closer to his own demise

Forensically dissecting

All that lies around


His words of comfort are soft

His laments sonorous

His empathy just so

His obsequie – word perfect


His arrival is as if Card X111 has been turned

By a skeletal, wizened hand

Hooded harbinger of eternal darkness

Warm words, cold draught.


Mother, distant cousin

Ancient war dead,

Modern atrocity victims

All are grazed by his touch


Their ebbing presence captured

Shrill keening cries heard

Held fingertip tight

Then slip away -gone


As he is gone

Until the next time



A quiet time to die

Untroubled by birdsong

Traffic or chatter

Just the silence

Of early morning

The hushed promise of incipient



No occasional car stopped to assuage my grief

Odd joggers slapped by unaware

The newsagent bade me good morning

It wasn’t


8.9.The Co-op

We stopped at the shop

And argued about sweets

Too sticky, too sickly, too melty

For tiny ravenous hands

Early morning sun failing to clear

Late night rancour

Behind the tills a squad

Of half eager cashiers

Chewed at the snaking queue

We tumbled into our berth

“What a lovely day it is today

Shame I am working

What time are you finishing

At 4pm

Still time to snatch something from the day

I hopes so

What’s your name


Well you enjoy the rest of your day, Daniella

I will, I wish all of our customers were like you

We left

I wished that all cashiers were like Daniella

The children were not allowed the sweets

For failing to eat their lunch

y much, I am sure everyone, like me, would like to see you work now, END.


9.First Trip out

He snuggled softly

Under my coat

As he had wriggled

In his Mother’s womb,

Safe from autumnal chill

Held tight to my chest

His eyes closed

In contented  reverie

I inhaled his heady scent

Offered in exchange

For close protection

Unbreakable bond.


10.Wall Mirror


I hate you

For what you





I swear that

The image

Is distorted

By sloping mount

Failing light


That somewhere

Between us




You stand


I crouch

In your blazing



No matter

How polished

The surface

How bright

The sheen


Always lingers

Smeared fingers

Leave an






Comely hips

I love you

Stolen glance

Uncertain smile

Your gasp

As your tongue

Glides across your lips

Drawing me

Hair carelessly splayed

Soft pillow

Hard reply

Your desire

In strange disposition

Imperfect polish curls

You growl

A smeared painted war cry

From the soul






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