from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?


– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.


Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.


Roselle Angwin

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

what shall we call it? - poetry: making that little jolt of surprise

One of the things I've been doing the last week is leading intensive poetry workshops, as usual in inspiring places (Glastonbury, as you might have seen, and Buckland-in-the-Moor on Dartmoor).

One of the things I love about my work, in addition to working with wonderful people in stunning locations, is the way in which exploration of our relationship to the world and the expression of that through writing come together. When it's the kind of depth-sounding that comes with poetry, there's a special buzz for me in the synergy and symbiosis generated.

The two recent workshops were intensive poetry days. The Glastonbury day, 'Breaking New Ground', explored how we might disrupt our normal patterns of thinking and writing in poetry in order to create more exciting poems which might move our working practice and what we create on. 

I don't know if it's how it is for everyone, but I certainly find myself stagnating in what I say (write) and how I say it at times. Easy to write in what I think of as self-parody: same old same old. Then, it's easy to fall into a minor despair ('minor' in comparison with how war and environmental degradations affect us all); to imagine I'll never again write a good poem.

The Buckland day was 'Leaps, Lightning Bolts & Bridges'. Similarly, we were exploring how we might shake up our poetry in order to revitalise it, with a view to creating poems that 'have that extra factor, draw surprise and recognition from a reader or listener. What is it' (I wrote) 'that offers a little gap for something invisible to leap, ignite and inspire? We’ll be looking at titles, opening and closing lines and reordering, as well as lateral approaches, to help create the "spark plug effect".'

So in this workshop we spent some time, after my initial warm-up games and exercises to prompt new writing, looking at creating just that – a little ripple of surprise for a reader; a moment of newness, a poem that enables someone to experience, no matter how briefly, a kind of shift of perspective.

An obvious point is that we need to 'show not tell', through the use of concrete imagery to ignite a reader's senses. Another obvious way to help to engage the intrigue and surprise of a reader is to remind the poets of how little they need to include in a poem. What's not said has as much traction as what is, and by requiring the reader to work just a little to meet the poem partway also tends to offer, in the end, more substance, and possibly therefore more satisfaction. I'm suspicious of poems which offer their all on the plate of the page, all at once. It's easy to patronise a reader's intelligence by feeling one needs to spell it all out.

Similarly, a poem is often much improved by removing the opening line or two – and quite often the closing one/s too. As a poet, often the opening lines are a way to drop a hook down into the subconscious, to reel up something as yet unknown; once they've served their purpose, they're often better let go of. A closing line is interesting: how we bring a poem to its conclusion is important, but there is often the temptation to underline it, to emphasise 'the message', and create a kind of punchline.

So often it's becoming almost a standard practice for me now, people find that reordering the poem on the page makes a huge difference to the impact of the poem, and its ability to surprise and be original. Cut the lines up, I say, and play with the order; turn the poem inside out, so to speak, read it from the bottom up, consider making a mirror poem (Julia Copus is credited with this form, in which the poem 'turns' at the middle, and repeats itself backwards. You can read her best-known poem is this form here).

But perhaps the most often missed opportunity is the title. A poem can be utterly transformed by a title that, rather than explaining or describing the content, adds a new element or dimension. 

I spend some time within the modules of the online poetry course I teach discussing titles. We look at titles in relation to the body of the poem by well-known contemporary poets: Seamus Heaney's 'Postscript', Lavinia Greenlaw's 'Night Parrot', Ted Hughes' 'The Thought Fox', Jorie Graham's 'Salmon'. For this day workshop, I added Michael Longley's 'The Linen Industry', and Jack Gilbert's 'Winning on the Black'.

In all of these, to a greater or lesser extent, there's a kind of hiatus, almost like the volta in a sonnet, which gives us pause as our imagination leaps the little gap created by the slight apparent discrepancy between title and poem. The title helps us read the deeper layers within the poem, or adds a small puzzle. Sometimes it helps to find out a little: it helped me with Lavinia Greenlaw's otherwise slightly obscure poem to discover that the Night Parrot is rare, endangered. 

Heaney's title, so simple, is also so masterful: postscripts, supposed afterwords, for instance, are often at a tangent to the body of the letter, often an apparently throwaway comment; and so often they are actually the main substance to which the unspoken agenda of the letter-writer is pointing. In Heaney's poem, there is also the hidden suggestion that we, humans, in all our hurriedness, are also mere footnotes, postscripts, to the Whole

One of the most effective poems I know for this gap of surprise – and one in which the title is crucial for us to gain the range of the poem – is Jane Hirshfield's 'Global Warming':

When his ship first came to Australia,
Cook wrote, the natives
continued fishing, without looking up.
Unable, it seems, to fear what was too large to be comprehended.

(From After, Jane Hirshfield.)

So, I say to participants, don't be in too much of a hurry finding the right title; but don't be lazy by using simply a descriptor, or a kind of summary. The right title can add 100% to the impact of your poem; and when I judge a poetry competition it's one of the things I notice.

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I can offer these two and various other workshops to people wishing to organise a group within GB; please be in touch if you'd like to talk about this.