Signpost Thirteen, ‘From the Book of Crow Etiquette’, Roy Marshall.




The purpose of this blog is to inspire you to write poetry. This ‘signpost’ is a corker.


I’m going to write that Ted Hughes quote here again:

“…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)


Now look at this gorgeous, clever poem:


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 no prejudice
or fear of crows. You might not need
a stash of broken necklaces, Airfix kit
of sparrow bones, lens cap rinsed in a birdbath,
nor a half heart locket inscribed with ‘Best’.
You may not wish for ‘friends’ to priest a garden fence
or wall, who call before your alarm sounds
and pick at your open dream.


From ‘The Great Animator’ Shoestring Press, March 2017 (link below for purchasing)


The poet has gone beyond describing crows and built up a whole crow world. In this poem, crows have funerals, rights “to your roof”, “visceral business”, memories, “give pet names to their keepers”, etc. Readers tumble into a world they never knew existed before reading the poem, and yet it seems strangely appropriate, believable.

There is a lot of black in this poem, without the colour ever being stated. Crows, funerals, tar, widows and priest, all make me think of a crow-like black. They are all serious, heavy images and yet there’s great humour in this poem, starting with the idea that you should, “feign a limp … when passing a crow funeral”.

The funeral, the limping, having to “escape a scolding”, the mobbing of the grandfather – there’s a lot of action in this poem, making it wonderfully interesting and active, while the images of the “wet tar”, the “white-stitched ribbon … road”, the “Airfix kit of sparrow bones” make me want to jump up and down, shouting, “Yes! Yes, it’s just like that!”

I love the unusual use of the word “priest” as verb. I love that the poet somehow moves at the ending from the idea that crows wake you up on the morning to the delicious words, “call before your alarm sounds and pick at your open dream.”

A word about the first and last lines. A first line of a poem needs to attract the reader’s attention and make you want to read the rest of the poem, and this one certainly does. A last line needs to leave something to linger in your mind just as the “open dreams” do.

So, for writing our own poetry, once again I’d suggest bearing in mind the Ted Hughes quote at the beginning of this post, but interpreting it in the way Roy Marshall has, with a whole world devoted to what you’re trying to convey. Avoid stating the obvious. For example, if your mind comes up with the word “black”, try and think what objects and/or ideas convey black to you and then let your mind run riot until it strikes upon something interesting.

Once you’ve let this poem sink in, I hope you find – as I do – that you feel you could now write a poem about pretty much anything, from a string of sausages to a cardboard box.


Thanks to Roy Marshall for allowing me to reproduce his poem here. It’s from his colleection, The Great Animator and details of how to buy it are on the poet’s own blog: I’d buy it if I were you, because all the poems in it are as good as this one. It’s one of my favourite collections.



Once again, if anyone is inspired to write a poem as a result of reading this blog, please say so in the comments!