Main content

Ian McMillan helps your musical poems take flight

Here you are, listening to a piece of music at this year’s BBC Proms, sitting at the table with a notebook in front of you and a pen in your hand because you’re going to write a poem and enter it in the Proms Poetry Competition. Oh yes you are: you’ve never written a poem before and you’ve been encouraged by that Ian McMillan to have a go so now you’re going to have a go. Pen clicked. Notebook open. Radio on.

And you don’t know where to start. And that’s what I’m going to do, in the next few paragraphs: I’m going to show you where to start.

The first thing is to stop worrying. There is nothing to worry about: the poem you write today will be the best poem you could possibly write and in fact, if it’s your first ever poem, it’ll be the best one you’ve ever written.

Nobody is going to tell you off; the Poetry Police won’t come knocking at your door

Nobody is going to tell you off; the Poetry Police won’t come knocking at your door because you’ve broken the rules. Your poem can rhyme, or not. Your poem can have a recognisable form, or not. Your poem can be funny or serious, and it can be written in the first person, the second person, the third person or a mixture of all three.

How to begin, though? How to confront the empty page and start to fill it? Well, maybe the first thing to do is to do some free writing; cover the page with words and phrases and sentences, think about listening to music and what kinds of music you like, think about the places you like to listen to music, think about where you were when you heard your favourite piece of music for the first time.

Write all this down; don’t worry about grammar or punctuation or spelling at this point because you can work on that as much as you like later on. This page-filling is like the middle-aged man’s exercises I do before I set off for my morning stroll; they clear my mind, they get me ready, they prepare the ground.

And then I stroll; and then you write. Have a look at the things you’ve written down and maybe a phrase or a sentence will bubble to the top. Perhaps you’ve written:

Have a look at the things you’ve written down and maybe a phrase or a sentence will bubble to the top

‘I always listen in the kitchen’ Keep that phrase. Write it again, isolate it on a blank page:

I always listen in the kitchen

Then think about why you always listen in the kitchen; maybe it’s because you like to look out of the window at the bird-table in the garden and somehow that helps the quality of your listening.

So, let’s add a line:

I always listen in the kitchen
And watch the bird table fill with starlings

Maybe ‘watching will work better than ‘and watch’. It somehow seems to make the writing more immediate, and you’ve introduced another sense because you’re watching and listening:

I always listen in the kitchen
Watching the bird table fill with starlings.

BBC Proms

Now you need to add the music. It’s a cello concert, maybe. Maybe the notes are rising. Rising like a bird? Now there’s an idea!

These are just ideas; these are just possibilities because, in the end I believe that poetry is the articulation of possibilities

I always listen in the kitchen
Watching the bird table fill with starlings
As a cello note rises like a bird
That cannot fly.

These are just ideas; these are just possibilities because, in the end I believe that poetry is the articulation of possibilities. Mind you, isn’t that what music is too? Couldn’t you call your poem The Articulation of Possibilities? Now there’s an idea!

Enjoy your listening and writing!

Barnsley FC poet-in-residence and Beat Poet for Humberside Police Ian McMillan presents The Verb on BBC Radio 3 and is a judge on this year's Proms Poetry Competition.

Advice from a past winner

Emily Hana, winner of the Proms poetry competition 12-18 category in 2017, says: "Winning the 2017 BBC Proms Poetry Competition was the perfect send off to a great year of growing as a poet. My poem 'The Planets in Love' was based on Holst's 'The Planets'. You don't have to have much knowledge of music to enter this competition - as cliche as it sounds, the poem is straight from my heart as I wrote the images and feelings the music conjured.

Since winning I have taken part at open mics at uni which has provided me with inspiration and confidence. I've performed the poem live and have received praise from my friends and local poets alike which is the best feeling. Anyone should enter, musical or not, as it was such a fantastic and life-changing opportunity. Even if this is your first time writing, never doubt yourself as you never know where it will take you!"

A poetry masterclass

Elsewhere on the BBC