From the Book of Crow Etiquette
To avoid association with a crow’s death
feign a limp or otherwise disguise your gait
when passing a crow funeral. In order to escape
a scolding, don’t contest a crow’s right
to your roof or disrupt its visceral business
among fledglings and eggs. Crows have memories
like wet tar, can recognize the white-stitched ribbon
of a fruitful carrion road, the location of a yard
from which a stone was thrown. Tame crows
give pet names to their keepers; make of this
what you will. Crows that are damaged or ill
are often assisted by others, or else
done in. Decades may pass before a widowed crow
casts the cross of her shadow
on a long abandoned farmyard. A murder might mob
the one-time owner of a slingshot, now
a grandfather in the park. Crows bring gifts
to those who feed them, to children with…
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Reproduced here by kind permission of the poet, is the extraordinary poem, ‘Wordslast’. Have a good look at it and don’t worry if you don’t immediately ‘get’ it. The joy of this poem is that it creeps up on you, opening doors in your mind until it becomes part of your own experience:
This poem plays with words, using wonderfully thrifty language (not a hint of a hint of pretentiousness or verbosity).
The title is clever and suggests a technique for coming up with your own poems. Notice when you hear or use a phrase to describe a situation and think about the relationship between the situation and the phrase, then try playing around with the words. I’ve listed some examples below. Here we have ‘wordslast’, which brings to mind the saying, “famous last words” , which implies impending doom. It also brings to mind the idea of a person’s last words; more impending doom. We are further unsettled because the words are the wrong way around (should be “last words”) and they’re stuck together, with no space between the words, which is even more unsettling.
Just one word and we are already worried! How’s that for economy? Pretty cool, huh? Onward…
So, start following through the poem and its story. In the first stanza a woman is shouting to shut the window and the narrator is compliant. The second stanza, we have more orders, but this time ‘screamed’ and with a door. In the third stanza, it’s a gate. The window/door/gate are shut/opened/locked to and fro’ as the word order moves to and fro’. Clever, innit?
Bear with me here because at this point I realised I had ‘Money’ by Pink Floyd playing in my head. In the Pink Floyd song, you are bombarded with a continuous rhythm of opening and shutting tills, suggesting that the influence of money is never ending. In this poem, it’s doors/windows/gates that feel never ending, and the sense that there is something still continuing – even today – in the poets’ mind.
By the fourth stanza, you are beginning to want to put your hands in front of your eyes. The word “incorrectly” sticks out of the rhythm and blasts like a car horn. It’s not going to end well. The fifth stanza is so painful, with “wideeyes/Eyeswide” and “struggled”.
The final stanza breaks your heart. At first, I thought it was about holding someone’s hand as s/he/they said their last words, but it doesn’t have to be that – as the reader, it can be about whatever you want it to be!
This poem seems to be about a particular event, which carries a heavy weight of shame on the poet’s shoulders. It also seems to be about a continuous practise of people, maybe children, being shouted at and screamed at. There is a plaintive desperation in the repetition, “I said…I said”, “she pleaded… she pleaded”. The poet’s shame shudders in your mind.
You can ponder over this as much or as little as you wish, of course, but I take three things from it:
- I really must always explain things to people/children, rather than shouting at them.
- I really must recommend Stephen Daniels’ pamphlet to everyone I meet, and
- I really must listen to Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ again.
Here’s a list of examples of throwaway phrases/words that might trigger a poem in you and which you might be able to use with the words mixed up:
Chip off the old block
Insult to injury
Afraid of his own shadow
Against all odds
Fun and games
All in a day’s work
All’s well that ends well
Axe to grind
As the crow flies
At my wits’ end
Better safe than sorry
Bark worse than bite
Bewteen a rock and a hard place
Bites the dust
Bite the hand that feeds
Blessing in disguise
Blow your own trumpet
Busy as a bee
By hook or by crook
Cross that bridge when you come to it
Bright as a button
Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched
Down and out
Down in the dumps
Down to earth
Easy as pie
Fan the flames
Free as a bird
Stephen Daniels edits Amaryllis and Strange Poetry, both online poetry magazines featuring poetry that has something to say. Stephen is one of the fastest editors to respond to submissions – sometimes responding within 24 hours – so is a great choice if you happen to be impatient. I am very impatient. Stephen will always hold a special place in my poetry heart, as he was the first editor to publish one of my poems. Not only did he publish it, but he suggested I send another of my submissions to Three Drops From a Cauldron (https://threedropspoetry.co.uk/), demonstrating his generosity towards new poets, towards other magazines and towards the world of poetry generally. I mean, what a total dude!
If you’re not already aware of them, do have a look:
I knew I was going to enjoy Stephen’s own poetry and pre-ordered his pamphlet ‘Tell Mistakes I Love Them’ from V. Press. You can buy it from the link below:
Door picture from the free website, Pixabay
“…imagine what you are writing about. See it and live it. Do not think it up laboriously, as if you were working out mental arithmetic. Just look at it, touch it, smell it, listen to it, turn yourself into it. When you do this, the words look after themselves, like magic.”
(Ted Hughes, in Poetry in the Making: A Handbook for Writing and Teaching, 2008, Faber & Faber)
I love this quote from Ted Hughes because it makes poetry-writing seem the easiest thing in the world. There are so many Ted Hughes poems I could put on my blog, but I think everything that needs to be said about Ted Hughes and his poetry has probably already been said. I think it’s much better to introduce you to this gorgeous, vibrant poem from Jane Burn, which does just what Ted Hughes recommends. It is reproduced here by Jane’s kind permission and was first published in the literary magazine, Butcher’s Dog (http://www.butchersdogmagazine.com/)
(Just a quick note here to say if you need an explanation of cuckoo spit, you can click https://www.rhs.org.uk/advice/profile?PID=490 )
Now to the poem!
Jane doesn’t so much describe the froghoppers, as become them, complete with their own voice; “Mummy born us”, they squeak, or maybe chirrup, “…we be bred in the purple, like majesties.”
Then look at the dense language and description. Jane Burn puts on such a satisfying show! Every one of the senses is stimulated in this gorgeous cabaret of words.
Another thing to take from Jane Burn’s poetry is the concept of the line: every line in this poem contains something captivating. Look how words are used to make this poem exciting. For example, “lick the stink” rather than, “we eat lavendar sap”; “lettuce-frail” rather than just “small”; “eyes, peepy-black”, rather than “small black”.
In fact, I’ve pretty much decided Jane Burn is a poetic reincarnation of Ted Hughes. (You read it first here!)
Jane has this way of filling her poems with image after sound after feeling until you are reeling. I would highly recommend her most recent collection, ‘Nothing more to it than bubbles’, published by Indigo Dreams. The details are on this link, which will also give you more information about Jane:
So, for writing your own poems? Notice when you are struck by an interesting creature, object, concept and follow Ted Hughes’ advice. Collect your thoughts and ideas as they occur to you over a period of time, then start to form them in to a poem. Try and follow Jane Burns’ example and put on a cabaret!
Please do add a comment if this signpost has pointed you to a poem.
This stunning poem will give you strength.
It was only a matter of time before I fell in love with one of Sheenagh Pugh’s poems. To quote from the back of Sheenagh’s recent collection, ‘Short Days, Long Shadows’ (Seren Books, 2014 – see details below):
“Sheenagh Pugh is a poet, novelist, translator, critic, reviewer and considerable online presence through her popular blog. She has won many prizes including the Forward Prize for best single poem, the Bridport Prize, the PHRAS prize, the Cardiff International Poetry Prize (twice) and the British Comparative Literature Association’s Translations Prize.”
She is also a very helpful person and thoroughly good egg, willing to help people like you and me learn more about poetry. She has agreed to let me reproduce ‘Extremophile’ for you here:
An extremophile is ‘a micro-organism that is capable of living in hostile conditions or an extreme environment’ (Chambers Dictionary, 13th edition). What I love about this word is that it is new to me and, before I looked it up and found out that it was a ‘real’ word, I thought it was a made-up, poet’s word, based on the idea of someone who likes extreme activities, like ‘extreme sports’ and this set me thinking about having a lust for life – cue Iggy Pop. Yes, to me this poem is rock and roll!
How exciting, how interesting, how inspiring that life can “live without sun, thrive on sulphur”! How life-affirming is it that “There is nowhere life cannot take hold… flourishing on bare stone”? And don’t you just love “some chancer”? It makes you smile. It made me think of an art student who put a price tag of £2000.00 beneath one of his paintings at the end of term show and someone bought it! Reading this poem makes you think, “Yes, I will have ago! Yes it is worth a try!”
Look at the settings for the images of the poem: radioactive rock, the ocean floor, hydrothermal vents, Antarctic valleys. All these places are other-worldly, exotic, alien to us and yet real; another clue about life and its endless possibilities.
The end of the poem is breathtaking. The idea that the world itself is “the impetus never to leave it” is so profound and uplifting.
This poem is the first in Sheenagh Pugh’s most recent collection, ‘Short Days, Long Shadows’, published by Seren Books. Here’s a link to the publisher’s website with details of the wonderful book:
Click on this link for Sheenagh’s blog, on which she features some of her poems. Enjoy!
So for writing our own poems?
You could start by hunting out interesting landscapes, unusual places, strange habitats and see where that leads you. There are several outcrops of rocks around my town. They’ve already given me inspiration for one poem, but I think I’ll look closer and see what else springs to mind. I’ve just remembered there’s a yew tree in the park, which you can smuggle yourself inside and that’s definitely worth a closer look.
You could start with a science book. Find something notable or interesting and ponder on it for parallels in life. Think about it as you fall asleep and you may wake up with a poem idea!
Please note in the comments if this has inspired you to write a poem. No need to post your poem (unless you wish to).
A big thank you to Sheenagh Pugh for allowing me to reproduce her poem here.
The featured image is a free download from http://www.pixabay.com
The sky is grey this morning. The air seems to lie heavy on my chest. I am in pain. I have Lupus, an autoimmune disease, so the pain’s nothing new, but that doesn’t make it any easier. Neither is it easy to be cheerful, as I drive my daughter to school through rush-hour traffic, trying not to care whose turn it should be to let people out and that I can’t stop for children trying to cross the road because the arsehole in the black BMW behind is far too close up my backside. Well, my car’s backside.
So here I am, in my dingy living room, with a cup of tea, a blank Word document and Kate Garrett’s pamphlet, ‘Deadly Delicate’. Does the pamphlet help?
Yes it absoflippinlutely does!
Pirates! Misunderstood, doing the best they can, swashing their buckles (or buckling their swashes, even), hiding their hair, drawing blood – theirs or others’ – but only because they have to. And it’s not cartoon silliness, it’s real. These are poems that could easily have been told by the historical characters who speak to you from the pages of this powerpack pamphlet.
My favourite poem is ‘Shore Leave’. I have Kate’s permission to reproduce it for you here (I think it’s rather appropriate that it’s come out a little bit swimmy):
The beautiful rhythm and imagery of the first line put you on the quayside, looking down at the ocean. You almost have vertigo, looking in to the water, which is moving, “drunken[ly]” with the “tide spit[ting] foam at your feet”. Then you feel the shore shift as you stand still. Anyone who’s stood on a beach knows this feeling of not knowing whether it’s you, the shore or the sea that is moving. You are dizzy and dropping and swirling and shifting and I make no skull and crossbones about saying isn’t life like that? Especially as you “look to the ground, the horizon.” But it’s ok; “Keep moving”, we’re told, for “better pleasures lie ahead”. There are taverns! Rum, fun, rest from the sea’s constant tides and the harsh life aboard ship. Once your “crooked sails” are “straightened” you can “climb back on board under the stars; look up” and then “slow the movement of the earth to a slumber.” I’ll say that again, slowly; “slow the movement of the earth to a slumber.” There, that’s better.
This looks like such a simple little poem, but it is skilfully crafted: full of movement and – if we want to see it – a way of coping with life and its relentless tides.
I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Kate read her poems and it’s just as true listening to them as reading them: there is no pretension; no “look at me” – not even any “poor me”, simply a truthful, matter of fact way of looking at the world, which is somehow filled with magic.
You have a choice of where to buy Kate’s pamphlet. For details, you need only click on this link:
A final note on writing your own poems. How about looking at historical characters who interest or intrigue you? Pirates, witches, Roman centurions, Christians thrown to the lions, lions having Christians thrown to them…. Think about what their lives may have been like. If you don’t find inspiration there, then that’s another hat I’m going to have to eat.
“Write a sequence?” Suggested my wonderful poetry mentor. I’m thinking of writing a Coronation Street-style sequence based on my street. Meanwhile, though, here’s a sequence and a half, the adorable and famous ‘Summer with Monika’, by the equally adorable and famous Roger McGough.
Of course, lots has already been said about Roger McGough and his poetry and that is all beyond the scope of this blog. ‘My Signpost Poems’ exists to help you find inspiration to write your own poems. ‘Summer with Monika’ is teeming with ideas!
My copy of ‘Summer with Monika’ was published by Penguin Books in 1990
Here it is, being read by the man himself on Youtube. It’s over 8 minutes long, but so very worth listening to:
To start, ‘Summer with Monika’ was a fairly racy (for the time) Swedish film from 1953, directed by Ingmar Bergman. The film was based on a novel of the same title from 1951. The book inspired the film and the film – possibly – inspired the poem. It hadn’t occurred to me before to look for poem inspiration from book and/or film titles, but I will now.
The language in this poem is beautifully simple and clear. In the first section, he shows how the lovers’ home becomes a whole world, as they are too involved with love-making to go out:
“otherdays we went for long walks
around the table
and picknicked on the banks
of the settee”
The delightful images of the “shilling set[ting] on the horizon” and the milk bottles as carol singers are probably a little dated now, but what I love about this imagery is that McGough takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary. Have a look about you now and see if there are any objects you could make extraordinary. I’m in bed. My bed could be a magic carpet, the chest of drawers could be Pandora’s box, the fireplace could be a portal to a different universe…
Section 5: “when the moon is waiting / for the first bus home / and birds assemble / for morning prayers”. Section 8: such love / as makes unhappiness / appear to have mislaid our address” . There is so much magic in this poem!
The poem begins to change in tone, as the relationship described changes; Section 14; “..our littletown / waiting for the sun /screaming with dull pain / to rise like a spark / from a crematorium chimney”. The poem takes us through the boredom, paranoia and jealousy of the relationship: Section 21, “our love is like a kitten in a well / the death of something young and softlywarm”; Section 23, “when you wear your marriage face / boredom lounges round the place”; Section 40, “…there’s a strange man under the table / wearing only a shirt.”
A poem must have movement. It must have a crescendo. This would be dull and inconsequential if it simply rambled on about how much the characters were in love with each other. The movement through the different phases of the relationship make it a real page-turner and the ending is exciting in its mundanity: “our love has become as comfortable as the jeans you loung about in …. As nice as a cup of tea in bed”. Phew; I’m so glad they didn’t split up!
To conclude, the inspiration we can draw from ‘Summer with Monika’ is of finding ideas in book and film titles, looking at ordinary things and making them extraordinary and ensuring our poems have movement in their tone and/or story and/or ideas.
P.S. This is signpost Eight. Eight! If somone doesn’t comment that they have been inspired to write a poem as a result of reading my blog soon, I’m going to have to eat my hat, or whatever it was I said I’d do…
This is likely to be my shortest blog post ever because pretty much everything that could be written about this wonderful poem has already been written.
There’s a wide choice of websites to read it on. I read it in the book I have as the “featured image”, which is published by Faber & Faber, London 1972.
You can read it on:
I like hearing it read by the man himself on Youtube:
You can also google notes on, explanations of, discussions about this poem. It’s worth reading this information, if you’re in the mood. This one’s easy to read if you can put up with the adverts:
The point of this blog is to share poems that have inspired me to write my own poems and the gorgeous things I find inspiring about this poem are:
- Memorable rhymes. Rhyme can be frumpy and old-fashioned. These rhymes add to the dreary, resigned feel of the poem:
“In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo”
“Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;”
- Imagery, for example that yellow fog
- Gritty realism: “arms downed with light brown hair”, “do I dare to eat a peach?”
- Repetition: “That is not what I meant at all”
So now to the point ; by which I mean the poetry-writing point . Develop as much self-awareness as you can over the following months (an incredibly useful exercise in itself), then create the poem for your own caricature; your own J.Alfred Prufrock.
The self-awareness bit will almost definitely involve asking people what they think of you, how they see you. A kind way to do this is to ask people what careers they think might suit you. You could look at photographs of yourself. Listen to a recording of your voice. Look up your name on a category list (mine is apparently very middle class). Try meditation and notice what thoughts consume your awareness (you may think your thoughts are about work, whereas they’re actually overshadowed by your passions for cheese sandwiches and Ms X in the accounts department). What have you always wanted to do and why have you never done it? What will you be like when you are old(er)?
Then write your very own J.Alfred Prufrock. It should be interesting.
P.S. I am now beginning the habit of asking someone to please add a comment when one of my blog posts has actually inspired them to write something, so, yes; that. No need to actually post your poem.
This blog simply features poems that have inspired me to write poems. The idea is that – having inspired me – the poems might inspire you, too.
To explain the ‘featured image’, Copyright means I can’t just go grabbing someone else’s Sergio Leone picture from the web and stealing it for my blog, so here’s a picture of a dog with a pint of beer. I happen to know Brett Evans would approve.
Back to the point, here’s the poem, reproduced with the kind permission of the poet:
Directed by Sergio Leone
There’s nothing but waiting around to die, so you choose
how to spend that time: swatting flies on your stubbled
throat whilst waiting for a train or riding through
this one-horse world, hell-bent on creed or trouble.
A bottle of rye, a cheroot beneath the bough
may be enough for those who’re simply chasing
a quieter life. Or you could stand or slouch
between hero, villain, gunslinger and assassin;
your idle fingers twitching whilst waiting on a script
to reveal the character to which you are assigned.
An extra in another’s movie, too late you’ve grasped
that at the bar, in bed, on the street, dying’s just dying.
Your final suspicion, that there must have been so much more;
that there must have been music, an unforgettable score.
At this point, I suggest you find yourself a Sergio Leone soundtrack and open it in another tab, then leave it playing while you come back to this tab and read the poem again.
….ok? Right then…
‘Directed by Sergio Leone’ has a pervading stillness. You soon hear Clint Eastwood speaking, his eyes squinting in the sun, lips pursed around a cheroot.
An attention-grabbing first line, but this inevitability of death is not fatalistic because “you choose how to spend that time”. I was brought up in a strict, fundamentalist and – frankly – abusive environment. Realising that there might not be a god, or a heaven, was a dreadful shock and strain to me, but then the mental progression after that, to realising that if you only have one life, it’s pretty important you get on with living it, was liberating. That’s the issue this poem presents to me and it’s reinforced with the lovely old spaghetti-western word, “creed”.
The choices move from the banal “swatting flies”, to “riding… hell-bent”, from“slouch” to “stand”, from “assassin” to “hero” or, of course, the other way around.
However, the environment in which all these choices take place is a “one-horse world” and there’s a feeling of helplessness in having to “wait… on a script” and that you are “an extra in another’s movie”. The poignancy of this and the sadness of being “too late” in realising that “dying’s just dying” is heartbreaking.
To me that poignancy perfectly shows how I felt when I “lost my faith”, as mentioned above. The beauty of the final two lines, though, must leave us ensuring we don’t waste a second, but look for the “music” in our lives; seek out our own “unforgettable score”. This is a cautionary tale, a fable.
Remember me mentioning in a previous blog how a poem needs to “soar”? Your poem needs to go somewhere; it must have a crescendo. This poem moves from the inevitability of death, to the possibility of an unforgettable life.
‘Directed by Sergio Leone’ inspired me to write a poem set in a silent movie. You could write one set in a cartoon, or a horror film or any genre that tickles your tastebuds. It could also inspire you to go from a negative in life (or death) to a positive. Or a positive to a negative – if you must.
It comes from Brett Evans’ Indigo Dreams pamphlet, ‘The Devil’s Tattoo’, which you can buy using this link:
It’s been a long while since I wrote my blog and the reason is that I was introduced to Rosemary Tonks. Oh my god; Rosemary Tonks! Remember, the whole point of this blog is simply to share poems that have inspired me to write poetry, in the hope that the poems will inspire you to write, too. Rosemary Tonks has been like rocket fuel.
Please read this and bear with it; it’s unlikely you’ll understand it immediately:
Now, you can see why I wasn’t in a hurry to post this and explain why this poet has been my inspiration. It is not easy. But I’ll have a go.
The whole sound of this reminds me a little of the Fast Show character, Rowley Birkin QC, who would gabble away nonsensically, his ramblings punctuated by phrases you suddenly understood, like “poisonous monkeys!” Not that Tonks comes over as drunk, but certainly overwhelmed by the feelings she is conveying. I hear a county lady, with a posh voice, in tweeds, sounding exasperated, saying, “…and another thing….!”
“This is not my life…” suggests being stuck in a life the poet doesn’t want to be living, with dull objects, drudgery, greyness.
Think of boring things you’re fed up with, but stuck with: Potatoes!
After reading this I pretty much wrote a complete poem in one sitting and went on to get it accepted for publication! This poem showed me how to write about something I was totally fed up and exasperated with, in an entertaining way.
Have a look at “bolsters from Istanbul!” Very ‘poisonous monkeys’, isn’t it? I imagine someone at her hotel proudly announcing that the bolsters were from Istanbul and Tonks thinking this was a ridiculous thing to be proud of. Think of something that you consider ridiculous to be proud of and try sticking it in a poem.
Look at the things that give the poem movement: draughts, salt breezes, moody isobars. Can you see them, moodily huffing and puffing?
Look at the people described: haberdashers, writers of menus, dentists. Tonks clearly feels they are not her kind of people, that their lives are too dull, yet she is “obsessed” and in the last line, she writes; “And I wolf, bolt, gulp it down, day after day”. She is disgusted with herself. She wants to break out! Who hasn’t felt like that, suffocated by an illness, a dull job, a boring dinner party, a shift that’s gone on far too long on a supermarket checkout?
I’m going to take a risk now. I’m so confident that one of you darling readers will be inspired to write a poem after reading Rosemary Tonks that I’m going to ask you to please comment below this time and say you have. You don’t have to post your poem, but please let us know that Tonks has worked for you. Go now and write that exasperated poem…