Poetry Exercise - The Messenger
Lu Ji’s wonderful book in verse about writing poetry, The Art of Writing (China, 3rd c AD) talks of inspiration ‘hiding like fire in coal/ then flaring to a shout’, but also about feeling totally blank:, ‘When emotions are stagnant/… Mind gets darker and darker,/ you pull ideas like silk from their cocoon./… I stroke my empty chest and sigh,/ what blocks and what opens this road?’ Exercises can pull silk from the cocoon: what comes at first won’t be a poem but might turn into one. I’ve seen a lot of good poems begin as an exercise.
‘THE MESSENGER’ - Seven-Line Exercise in Two Voices
Use the words below in inverted commas, adding your own instead of my xxxxs. It doesn’t have to be only seven lines but it gives you a tight structure, with drama and dialogue, to use your imagination and surprise us. The more economical, the more room for implication. You can be funny, poignant, dark, silly; whatever.
1. “I am your xxxxxxx”
2. “I came to tell you (or ‘I’m here to tell you’) xxxxxx”
3. Give a command (eg “You must xxxx”)
4. Make a personal remark (eg “I see that you xxxx”)
5. Ask a question (eg “Are you xxxx?”)
6 “Is there any message?”
7. “Yes. Tell them xxxxx”
Notes from Milking Time
We are all on the side of the poem! To revise you need a fresh perspective: that’s what a workshop provides. There’s a good chapter on revision, and getting new perspectives, in Stephen Dobyns Next Word, Better Word: The Craft of Writing Poetry, Palgrave Macmillan 2011 p, 171.
• In the first line, grammatically, Bucket in hand ought to refer to the subject of the verb, I. If the poet wants us to think the mother is carrying it she could say I watch my mother leave, bucket in hand, but this does highlight the speaker’s I and one member of the group felt she could drop i altogether; that the speaker gets in the way of this mysterious night-milking scene.
• On the other hand, is the poem perhaps really about the relation of I to mother?
• Maybe, when the mother comes indoors, we could be reminded of the speaker’s presence. There’a confusion here anyway: mother switches on a light: has the speaker been watching in the dark? How has she managed to see all the interesting things happening outside? Might the mother switch on another light?
• Rhythm and implication: does silhouetted like a sentinel help the poem? The rhythm is very different, ok, that might be useful, but what does the sentinel image add? It evokes an expectation of outside danger: is that necessary for this poem?
• Accuracy: if the bucket is for milk, what is icy water doing in it? Becky was so used to this scene she hadn’t explained there was another bucket for water but it’s confusing for a reader, which makes us not completely trust the description.
• Do streaks ‘bathe’ a scene? Bathing sounds nice, but perhaos too nice (Simenon said his first task in revising was to get rid of anything that sounded too beautiful), but is it the right verb with dappled streaks?
• Adjectives: are there too many? They nudge readers towards specific feelings, rather than inviting individual responses. I’d get rid of several. Especially cosy, which tells readers what to feel rather than revealing the scene. Less is more.
Milking Time by Becky Lowe
Bucket in hand, I watch my mother leave…
The door swings behind her, the cosy carpet warmth slams shut
To a world of stars and moonlight, scattered frost,
Compacted earth, layer upon layer of leaves.
The goats’ bodies press close to her;
The steady beat of their hearts, warm, hungry, familiar,
The clouded breath hangs in the hay-strewn air
And melts the icy water over the buckets.
Between her pale fingers, the milk comes quickly,
A long white stream, like silk, sharp and clean
Frothing forth into the buckets; she gathers it up, steaming
Beneath the shivering sky.
Her task completed, she pads, bootless, indoors,
And switches on the light of the kitchen
Bathing the garden in dappled streaks of gold
The shadows, shut out for another evening,
Dissolve slowly away into nothing.
Beyond, the darkened stable stands, silhouetted like a sentinel,
And the moon and the stars, suspended like hay dust
Empty themselves into the night.
Still Life with Wine Glasses by Alan Kellerman
We hung at the bar twisting, a little
too hard, the stems of our wine glasses.
Eight years it's been, and even cancer
couldn't have you. So I knew I'd never
have been strong enough. I haven't
scrubbed out the scuffmarks you circled
with your heel; ground out a full-
stop to a short sentence. On new
year's doorstep, you gift me snapshots
from a life I'll never see again: lofted beds
on rickety splints, a barroom reeking
of piss, a dodgy condom (dodged a bullet).
So much has changed, you say. We've begun
filling the space between us with clichés,
bridging the void with emptier words. We wear
adulthood like battle decorations: I've sheared
off, made home a continent away. Even
my accent is different now. And you – who
always wanted her mother's apron – feel good,
as you imagined, with each tug on those strings.
It's enough. An hour gone of the new
year, glass empty, your embrace,
warm, reserved for an old friend. You still
smell the same, you whisper, and are gone
again. My glass empty; too little left to fill it.
Notes from Still Life with Wine Glasses
• The ‘less is more’ principle: does the poem need the last line? Is it stronger ending on gone? Plus bridging the void with emptier words repeats the point of the previous sentence. Should one at least go, to make the other stronger?
• But does the poem need any of the lines from so much has changed you say to I’ve sheared / off? The poem makes its point - the unease of meeting, for a New Year drink, a lover from eight years ago - strongly. Do these lines add or detract from the power of that?
• The ex-lover’s survival of a life–threatening disease appears in the second couplet. Does the clever-cute idea and tone in battle decorations of adulthood let down the seriousness?
• The same goes for dodgy condom and dodged a bullet: does the tone of this let the poem down?
• Line endings: the fourth and eleventh couplet both split adjective from noun on new You need to have a strong reason to split adjective from joun, especially over a stanza break: you can argue that this poem is about a split, so you can get away with one, but are two too much, especially on the same adjective?
More exercises (not featured in the programme)
Warm-Up Exercise: POETRY TUNES or BLACK SOCKS:
Going round the group, everyone suggests alternately a noun and adjective. One-syllable words are best. You agree on two eg “black socks”. We chose (God knows why) “dour frog.”
a) For Alliteration. In 10 minutes, everyone writes a three-line poem in which each word begins with one of the letters which begin those words. B and S for ‘black socks’ or we had D and F for our dour frog. The original phrase can appear in it once. Read them out, decide which is the most vivid and why.
b) For Assonance. (Much harder). In ten minutes, everyone write a three- line poem, making sense if possible, using only those vowel sounds. The template phrase (eg “black socks” or dour frog) can appear in it once.
Read them out, decide which is the most tuneful – and why.
This exercise concentrates mind and ear on vowels, which make the music, and often the subliminal emotion, of a poem.