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, 13 December 2011

metaphors and 'the long dark teatime of the soul'

After a pretty intense term with my Poetry School students I thought it was time we lightened up a little for the last session. The usual format is a week-by-week rotation of close reading of poems in the Staying Alive anthology, then a session writing our own work (usually inspired by one of the poems in the book), followed by an intensive feedback session on the participants' work.

Last night we brought food to share and our favourite poem from the anthology, and I opened the session with a more playful way in.

I spoke yesterday, partly in relation to Andy Brown's blogpost, of my continual preoccupation both as poet and poetry tutor with the way we use the details of the concrete world, as perceived through the senses, to convey the abstract.

One of the things poetry can be very good at is enabling us to see experience in a fresh and different light, out of a different pair of eyes, and recognise it as our own. 

Often it is the element of surprise that enables us to see something afresh, as if for the first time; and in poetry, as in jokes, it is often an unexpected juxtaposition that suddenly seems so right, so apposite, that brings the 'aha!' moment. That's why Douglas Adam's title above has the resonance it does.

An exercise I do with groups as play has this undercurrent of serious intent. I ask people to make three lists: one of concrete nouns ('doorframe', 'woodpecker'), one of abstract nouns ('grief', 'transience'), and one of either verbs to be used as adjectives, or adjectives themselves. I then ask people to combine them into phrases with an eye to surprising conjunctions and juxtapositions.

Often the phrases are just nonsense; but sometimes they really illuminate something. While the results in themselves are often too blowsy to be usable in a poem, they can prompt writers into extending the range of the metaphors they use, and to think more consciously of the impact of words in conjunction.

Here are some off-the-top-of-my-head examples:

the dusty drains of disbelief
the withered bough of grief
the scuffed patina of the afternoon
the peeling lacquer of pretence
the cracked lacquer of despair
the snug jumper of friendship
the pouting squalls of superficiality
the leaking ink of insincerity
the grimy vat of jealousy
the narrow vault of despair
the unadorned wimple of apathy
the scented bower of early love
the mean corral of emptiness
the hardy arbour of belief...

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