Bonkers but sense
Poetry for people who don't like poetry
17 May 2016 Minor edits and smartning-up.
10 May 2016 This is the first complete version. It's a draft where the content is important. One day this will be formatted for the printed page. In the meantime please send your comments to @

Psst! Poetry is for grown ups

At school there was this time each week when we were supposed to be awed by English. But we were kids! There might have been hints of surprises in the words, but that doesn't pay for an hour where the hands of the clock are glued together.

There's nothing wrong with poetry (except the crap of course) because adult poetry isn't for kids. Here's the grown-up's book of poetry. It really does get inside your mind and 'do things' there. The good stuff (did I tell you there was also crap?) adds spice to a shared meal. It's not pompous, difficult, precious or twee... except that crap which I'll show you how to avoid. Poetry is special (it really is, there's nothing like it, and that's not crap) it makes you think a little differently, twists your mind, sweeps away the sludge inside your head.

I'm going to throw you in the deep end with a six line poem that contains a lot of what poetry is. I can't write a specification for poetry any more than I can specify a cloud or some worry, but I can show you examples and dip you a bit at a time deeper into eddies then cold currents then exhilarating rapids.

See how you get on with the first poem then the first section. It is totally bonkers if you read it word for word, but it makes sense in your mind. That's what poetry is. A clever thing which can take you to not being in a lover's arms, can take you to a storm on a moor that fights with your mind, fools you into playing with children only to realise they are nothing but spiteful sub-humans.

There's a lot of variety. If you've had the misfortune to be given a book of doggerel by a well known poet, or showered by worthy performers, or had to suffer the work of enthusiasts without experience, then just jump in and you'll soon be outside the prison of private, piffling, part-finished, pathetic and precious self-straining words. After three or four pages you'll understand this. By the end you'll know why... And pity those left behind.

Poet's detailsHover the mouse over poet's names for instant biography. (Some NYI)

Let's jump straight in

Here's a sweet little thing. Just enjoy it.
Fog Carl Sandberg
  • The fog comes
  • on little cat feet.
  • It sits looking
  • over harbor and city
  • on silent haunches
  • and then moves on.
  • It's descriptive... But in an odd way... It's that funny way, which we'll discuss later, that is one of the defining charms of poetry. Anton Chekhov wrote Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
  • What is it describing? Fog you say? What about a cat? Mixing ideas together is one of the great clevernesses of good poetry. For example it's easy to forget about fog and see a cat jump onto a wall, sit looking at we don't know what for quarter of an hour, then jump down about its invisible business. That's two things that take no notice of you as they come and go.
  • It 'takes us' to that place or moment. We can imagine a bank of fog rolling in from the sea then clearing. Literally atmospheric.
  • It's bonkers! How can a fog 'look over'. Fog doesn't have any sort of feet! From about the age of 2½ we become comfortable with unreality. Play monsters with your kids and they know it's all pretend. Just imagine if we thought fairy stories were real! It's a wonderful thing having a poem mess with your mind. Poetry isn't about sky is blue, grass is green but that time, in the album of your mind when there was this blue associated with... and memories of grass smells
This poem is like an ornamental clock. Nice on the outside and with a clever mechanism inside. If you've sort-of followed along so far then the rest will be easy.

By the way did you notice there were no rhymes? (It's called free verse.)

Now here's a completely different poem. It rhymes, it's emotional and it's 'funny'.
Any news of the iceberg Les Barker
  • On a cold rainy night on a Liverpool quayside
  • In the years before the great war
  • The world was in shock at the loss of Titanic,
  • So proud had they been days before:
  • Relatives gathered for news of their loved ones,
  • To read through the list of the dead,
  • When into the throng came a sad eyed old polar bear:
  • And to the clerk at the counter he said:
  • Have you got any news of the iceberg?
  • My family were on it you see:
  • Have you got any news of the iceberg?
  • They mean the whole world to me.
  • My wife and my children were coming from Greenland,
  • To be by my side in the zoo:
  • Belinda's my wife, and the eldest's called Bernard:
  • And Billy, well, he's only two.
  • I know on the ship there were hundreds of people,
  • And I know that the iceberg's not yours:
  • The polar bear's eyes held the start of his teardrops:
  • He covered his face with his paws.
  • Have you got any news of the iceberg?
  • My family were on it you see:
  • Have you got any news of the iceberg?
  • They mean the whole world to me.
  • It's been over a year since I last saw my children,
  • I left home to build a career:
  • I've worked very hard, I'm a star in the circus:
  • It's all been for nothing I fear.
  • There's my face on the poster: we're in town this week:
  • My children were meeting me here:
  • Everyone watched as he struggled to speak,
  • As his paw brushed away one more tear:
  • Have you got any news of the iceberg?
  • My family were on it you see:
  • Have you got any news of the iceberg?
  • They mean the whole world to me.
  • By now all the people had gathered beside him,
  • His grief was one they could share:
  • The people around him, in silence and sadness
  • Listened to the sad polar bear
  • I wanted my children to see me performing:
  • And Belinda, she would have been proud..
  • At last lost for words, and his tears flowing freely,
  • The question was asked by the crowd:
  • Have you got any news of the iceberg?
  • My family were on it you see:
  • Have you got any news of the iceberg?
  • They mean the whole world to me.
  • Poetry can be funny, and rhyme without being doggerel. It doesn't usually have a chorus, but when Les reads it out the audience like to join in.
  • Getting the reader or listener engaged is one skill a poet must have. If you get lost early on, even if you're reading something by a 'famous' poet then blow a raspberry and skip it. (Remember little cat feet teaser?)
  • As far as I can tell this started as a cartoon by Bill Tidy in Punch in about 1968, with a polar bear at the shipping office, and you can see there is a cartoon flavour to it. Good rollicking fun...
    ...except it's really sad.
  • Here's the trick Les uses. Firstly he shows the scene and we're not too worried. In general we don't burst into wailing at disasters with lots of people in them. Their deaths are thrillingly shocking headlines, and nothing to do with personal grief. Then, when we're right beside the bear, he's obviously a decent bear, somebody a bit like us, it starts to hit home.
  • I expect there were a hundred grieving poems written at the time but would you read through them? No of course not, you want the vicarious thrill of mass destruction rather than the whingeing of people you can't help anyway. But Les does take you there and you stay with him. You have that lifeboat of knowing it's only a fairy story. Completely bonkers... And he traps us with the emotion at the end like a comedian with a punch-line.
We're going to see a lot of emotions later on of course, but as with Any news of the iceberg, it's not cheap tat. We'll find many subtleties and bonkerisms, contradictions, questions and especially playing in grey areas which aren't one thing or another.

Poetry can pull-off the sheets that usually cover-up our minds.
You and IRoger McGough
  • I explain quietly. You
  • hear me shouting. You
  • try a new tack. I
  • feel old wounds reopen.
  • You see both sides. I
  • see your blinkers. I
  • am placatory. You
  • sense a new selfishness.
  • I am a dove. You
  • recognize the hawk. You
  • offer an olive branch. I
  • feel the thorns.
  • You bleed. I
  • see crocodile tears. I
  • withdraw. You
  • reel from the impact.
  • What's this about? I think we all know. Do we need reminding?
  • This is structured and carefully worded, which is normally a mark of something worth investigating, but beyond that it's a list of conflicting words.
  • The 'message' isn't so much the individual words but the whole conflict/frustration thing. As readers we're really good at taking an overview. As with cats and polar bears, we don't have to take the words literally.
  • We could pick the lines apart one at a time. That's the sort of thing they do in school, and it's good for poets to discuss amongst themselves but it's not necessary.
This is a 'what you see is what you get' poem. The brutality and frustration in it may or may not strike a chord with you. We'll see some more of these 'dealing with life' poems later. I've put it near the beginning so that you can see an un-complicated poem that you might dig out for a particular situation.

Warning. There are lots of 'I' poems out there which are banal and for those that don't know better. Already you know better. I'm looking at you Pam Ayres.

Similar but very different view of a fractured relationship.
Where we differW H Davies
  • To think my thoughts are hers,
  • Not one of hers is mine;
  • She laughs — while I must sigh;
  • She sighs — while I must whine.
  • She eats — while I must fast;
  • She reads — while I am blind;
  • She sleeps — while I must wake;
  • Free — I no freedom find.
  • To think the world for me
  • Contains but her alone,
  • And that her eyes prefer
  • Some ribbon, scarf, or stone.
  • Hey that's the same as You and I. Well, yes it is no it isn't. It's still a list of contradictions, and it's still about a mis-match, but mostly no it isn't.
  • Firstly you have to pick this apart at a second reading to understand the mis-match between the worldly and infatuated 'him' and the shallow and casual (according to him) 'her'.
  • You and I is asexual whereas Where we differ is 'him' as the writer and 'her' as the object of frustration. There is a strain of intellectual superiority here compared to even-handed blame-for-nothing in You and I.
If you pick at the words this is just as bonkers as the others. Davies forces us to make up our own version of the conflict. It's a sketch portrait of a relationship drawn with a few strokes.

Just to prove that Shakespeare has his good points, here is a song from As You Like It
Blow, blow, thou winter windW Shakespeare
  • Blow, blow, thou winter wind,
  • Thou art not so unkind
  • As man's ingratitude;
  • Thy tooth is not so keen,
  • Because thou art not seen,
  • Although thy breath be rude.
  • Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly:
  • Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:
  • Then, heigh-ho, the holly!
  • This life is most jolly.
  • Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky,
  • That dost not bite so nigh
  • As benefits forgot:
  • Though thou the waters warp,
  • Thy sting is not so sharp
  • As friend remembered not.
  • Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly:
  • Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:
  • Then, heigh-ho, the holly!
  • This life is most jolly.
  • It's over 400 years old and meant to be bawled-out on a stage so it's quite basic. Given a few seconds, anyone can work out that it's not about the weather, but ingratitude and lack of respect for old friendships and favours done.

    It is extremely common for poetry to be laced with metaphors and symbols. Here it's obvious, but sometimes it's more subtle, even verging on slightly suggestive.

  • Poems don't usually have choruses. This is meant to be performed as a song. Notice that the verses are about the situation and the chorus shows the sardonic view of the character singing it.
    Verse: You're a bastard
    Chorus: But that's life
    Having different parts of a poem doing different things is, so long as they're connected, the mark of a skilled poet.
  • Don't ask us about the strange punctuation. I've put it in here so you can see the principles of Metaphor and structure. (You don't need the Latin name of a flower to smell its scent.)
I lose the plot of Shakespear's plays, but As You Like It romps along and is full of metaphors. Here's a famous one.
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrance...

Jump in summary

There are different sorts of poems. We'll encounter a few more later.

Poems typically have a first impression then, on closer inspection, the detail and technique is interesting and possibly rewarding.

Some poems are particularly meaningful to people who recognise a situation from personal experience. That's good to share similar thoughts. Others draw us into a world that's strange but believable.

Many poems are bonkers with a general message or are just a work of art. The clever thing is when you can't quite put your finger on exactly what's going on. There's meant to be a grey area when it's your imagination, speculation, and hunches that take over.

Paint me a picture

Perhaps the most noticeable thing about good poetry is careful and complete descriptions. You should have enough of a picture to be transported into the poem. You should say 'I know that feeling/place/idea.'
What's being painted here?
The sunlit houseCharlotte Mew
  • White, through the gate it gleamed and slept
  • In shattered sunshine. The parched garden flowers
  • Their scarlet petals from the beds unswept
  • Like children unloved and ill-kept
  • Dreamed through the hours Two blue hydrangeas by the blistered door burned brown
  • Watched there, and no one in the town
  • Cared to go past it night or day
  • Though why this was they wouldn't say
  • But I, the stranger, knew that I must stay.
  • Pace up the weed-grown paths and down -
  • Till one afternoon - there is just a doubt -
  • Bit I fancy I heard a tiny shout -
  • From an upper window a bird flew out -
  • And I went my way.
  • This is Charlotte Mew doing what I think she does best: Painting a picture so you clearly see the scene, then dabble question-marks of feelings over it. I don't really know what it's about, but I do remember as a child how boarded-up buildings were scary.
  • So she's painted two things: First the abandoned house and second a feeling of unease. In just a few lines she's got you curious and feeling creepy.
  • What about the ending? It's an 'OK, we'll never know the inner story.' which is a prefect wrap-up.
This is clear description combined with impressionism. You're not meant to pick apart every phrase to 'understand it'. Of course this adds to the mystery.

Not a selfie or Instagram picture, but a proper painting. Think of Bruegel.
Signs of Winter John Clare
  • The cat runs races with her tail. The dog
  • Leaps oer the orchard hedge and knarls the grass.
  • The swine run round and grunt and play with straw,
  • Snatching out hasty mouthfuls from the stack.
  • Sudden upon the elmtree tops the crow
  • Unceremonious visit pays and croaks,
  • Then swops away. From mossy barn the owl
  • Bobs hasty out—wheels round and, scared as soon,
  • As hastily retires. The ducks grow wild
  • And from the muddy pond fly up and wheel
  • A circle round the village and soon, tired,
  • Plunge in the pond again. The maids in haste
  • Snatch from the orchard hedge the mizzled clothes
  • And laughing hurry in to keep them dry.
  • I've never heard knarls before but I think I know exactly what he means. (Pushing its cheeks and ear along the ground with a little chattering growl is my picture.) The same goes for the wonderful word swops. A sort of lazy flapping of bending wings I suppose. Those gems have been lying there for nearly a couple of centuries waiting for us to discover them.
  • The owl bobs in flight; so that's little swoops. Again he uses the perfect word.
  • This is an interesting historical document, showing drying linen on hedges and a variety of movement in a village or farm-yard.
  • It has a lovely all's well with the world ending. Spot the theme. Poems need endings like sentences need
This is pure observation in perfect focus. So much happening with fourteen lines. We don't often get this quality of description, so when you find it, clip it to keep. If you like descriptions of people in landscapes then read the first paragraphs of Thomas Hardy's Under the Greenwood Tree
If describing nature was easy then everyone would do it. Here's an observation about clouds we can all share.
White Sunshine Lesbia Harford
  • The sun's my fire,
  • Golden, from a magnificence of blue,
  • Should be its hue.
  • But woolly clouds
  • Like boarding—house old ladies, come and sit
  • In front of it.
  • White sunshine, then,
  • That has the frosty glimmer of white hair,
  • Freezes the air.
  • They must forget,
  • So self—absorbed are they, so very old,
  • That I'll be cold.
  • Don't we like to anthropomorphise (give human characteristics to) inanimate objects. No harm in that, in fact clever descriptions do the inverse as well. (Was the fog like a cat or the cat like a fog.) Now we're having old ladies being described to us. We all know what clouds are like... a bit, but do we really? Anyway, surely we've all seen many more clouds than boarding—house old ladies.
  • More teasing our brain cells.
We love to have our minds messed with by strange associations of ideas. The idea that she's somehow owed bright sunshine and the thoughtlessness of others is depriving her is bonkers, yet we all feel miffed when a cloud comes in front of the sun.

Now for a complete change of scene. We're going indoors for a snapshot.
Drugs Made Pauline Vague Stevie Smith
  • Drugs made Pauline vague.
  • She sat one day at the breakfast table
  • Fingering in a baffled way
  • The fronds of the maidenhair plant.
  • Was it the salt you were looking for dear?
  • said Dulcie, exchanging a glance with the Brigadier.
  • Chuff chuff Pauline what's the matter?
  • Said the Brigadier to his wife
  • Who did not even notice
  • What a handsome couple they made.
  • We're curious to know the story of course, but all we have to go on is this few seconds of a scene from three lives.
  • Chuff chuff tells us the Brigadier is retired and probably boringly pompous. (Even in the 1930s this would have been archaic to most people, but emblematic of a certain older generation.)
  • What's that about the ending? (That theme again.) What's going on? We're suddenly privileged to see the (absence) of the Brigadier's thoughts... Oh! He's disconnected from his wife.
A moment captured in such a way that we have a glimpse behind the photograph enough to suggest a failed relationship. It's not the whole story, it's not a novel, but there's a bone full of marrow for the curious.

Now another indoors scene. This time a reverie. Just out of interest, there's one line which seems to grab nearly everyone at first reading. Which is it for you?
Armies in the Fire Robert Louis Stevenson
  • The lamps now glitter down the street;
  • Faintly sound the falling feet;
  • And the blue even slowly falls
  • About the garden trees and walls.
  • Now in the falling of the gloom
  • The red fire paints the empty room:
  • And warmly on the roof it looks,
  • And flickers on the back of books.
  • Armies march by tower and spire
  • Of cities blazing, in the fire;—
  • Till as I gaze with staring eyes,
  • The armies fall, the lustre dies.
  • Then once again the glow returns;
  • Again the phantom city burns;
  • And down the red-hot valley, lo!
  • The phantom armies marching go!
  • Blinking embers, tell me true
  • Where are those armies marching to,
  • And what the burning city is
  • That crumbles in your furnaces!
  • So all this is is imaginings in the fire. Well pretty much. There's no moral about war, just an evening staring into the flames.
  • Notice how he draws us in from the outside. 'Let's look inside' is an irresistible hook.
  • Hold on! The room is empty but five lines later he's in there. How can this be? Is it a mistake? No mistake, it can be both things together. Empty space around him, he's alone. In fact it's emphasised in the second verse. flickers on the back of books is the line that people tend to pick out. Perhaps because it's something easy to imagine...
  • ...But looking into the fire is chaotic. How do you describe chaos? That's the really clever thing that a master like Stevenson can do. I've never seen cities and armies in a fire, but I know what it's like to be drawn into meditation.
It's a clever trick describing what you see in the fire as if it was not a random jumble of flames. Signs of winter was 'easy' for John Clare to write because he was describing things he and the reader could easily picture. Lesbia Harford cleverly reversed a metaphor in White Sunshine, but here it's the state of being mesmerised by the fire that's described without any metaphors at all.

While we're looking at Stevenson, here's a favourite. Remember we like fairy stories and simple nonsense from our childhood.
From a Railway Carriage Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
  • Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches;
  • And charging along like troops in a battle
  • All through the meadows the horses and cattle:
  • All of the sights of the hill and the plain
  • Fly as thick as driving rain;
  • And ever again, in the wink of an eye,
  • Painted stations whistle by.
  • Here is a child who clambers and scrambles,
  • All by himself and gathering brambles;
  • Here is a tramp who stands and gazes;
  • And here is the green for stringing the daisies!
  • Here is a cart runaway in the road
  • Lumping along with man and load;
  • And here is a mill, and there is a river:
  • Each a glimpse and gone forever!
  • Rollicking! This is the first poem we've come across where the rhythm is the essential element. Many readers won't remember the clickety-clack that old railway lines used to make. Coupled with the rhythmic snorting of the steam engine, loose doors and no double-glazing it was a very aural experience.
  • Strangely, this poem starts with the imaginary and abstract, then finishes with real-life examples. Normally it's the other way round. I think it's because he's describing magic of high-speed travel.
  • Obviously this is aimed at children. (Written long before motor cars had been heard of.)
  • In amongst fairies and witches are some closely observed details of people. The child isn't just filling a space, but an adventurous loner. We know children like that don't we.
No wonder this is a classic. Magic, detail, rhythm, memorable pictures and great fun to share.

No wonder all 'modern so called poets' can do is sneer. They can't get close to this quality.

So how did WH Auden do with a similar task. Here he was working to a specific brief and wasn't working alone. So not representative of his work. This is used in the 1936 documentary film Night Mail which is easily accessible on the internet.
Night MailWH Auden
  • This is the Night Mail crossing the border,
  • Bringing the cheque and the postal order,
  • Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,
  • The shop at the corner and the girl next door.
  • Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb:
  • The gradient's against her, but she's on time.
  • Past cotton-grass and moorland boulder
  • Shovelling white steam over her shoulder,
  • Snorting noisily as she passes
  • Silent miles of wind-bent grasses.
  • Birds turn their heads as she approaches,
  • Stare from the bushes at her blank-faced coaches.
  • Sheep-dogs cannot turn her course;
  • They slumber on with paws across.
  • In the farm she passes no one wakes,
  • But a jug in the bedroom gently shakes.
  • Dawn freshens, the climb is done.
  • Down towards Glasgow she descends
  • Towards the steam tugs yelping down the glade of cranes,
  • Towards the fields of apparatus, the furnaces
  • Set on the dark plain like gigantic chessmen.
  • All Scotland waits for her:
  • In the dark glens, beside the pale-green sea lochs
  • Men long for news.
  • Letters of thanks, letters from banks,
  • Letters of joy from the girl and the boy,
  • Receipted bills and invitations
  • To inspect new stock or visit relations,
  • And applications for situations
  • And timid lovers' declarations
  • And gossip, gossip from all the nations,
  • News circumstantial, news financial,
  • Letters with holiday snaps to enlarge in,
  • Letters with faces scrawled in the margin,
  • Letters from uncles, cousins, and aunts,
  • Letters to Scotland from the South of France,
  • Letters of condolence to Highlands and Lowlands
  • Notes from overseas to Hebrides
  • Written on paper of every hue,
  • The pink, the violet, the white and the blue,
  • The chatty, the catty, the boring, adoring,
  • The cold and official and the heart's outpouring,
  • Clever, stupid, short and long,
  • The typed and the printed and the spelt all wrong.
  • Thousands are still asleep
  • Dreaming of terrifying monsters,
  • Or of friendly tea beside the band at Cranston's or Crawford's:
  • Asleep in working Glasgow, asleep in well-set Edinburgh,
  • Asleep in granite Aberdeen,
  • They continue their dreams,
  • And shall wake soon and long for letters,
  • And none will hear the postman's knock
  • Without a quickening of the heart,
  • For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?
  • Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake rhythm as the steam engine works hard to climb the hills. Then rattling over the points and finally the last mile at reduced pace. So good marks for matching words with the rhythm of the rails.
  • If used judiciously repetition is a useful technique in poetry. Here it's hammering-away as befits the mood.
  • Each verse has it's own character.
This was written for a specific purpose. Have a look at the film and see for yourself if it works. I'd say that anything which makes history interesting must be worth looking at. The steam trains and parcels vans are long gone. I can't remember the last time I wrote a letter.

Describing people is incredibly difficult.
Cherry-Ripe Thomas Campion
  • There is a garden in her face
  • Where roses and white lilies blow;
  • A heavenly paradise is that place,
  • Wherein all pleasant fruits do flow:
  • There cherries grow which none may buy
  • Till 'Cherry-ripe' themselves do cry.
  • Those cherries fairly do enclose
  • Of orient pearl a double row,
  • Which when her lovely laughter shows,
  • They look like rose-buds fill'd with snow;
  • Yet them nor peer nor prince can buy
  • Till 'Cherry-ripe' themselves do cry.
  • Her eyes like angels watch them still;
  • Her brows like bended bows do stand,
  • Threat'ning with piercing frowns to kill
  • All that attempt with eye or hand
  • Those sacred cherries to come nigh,
  • Till 'Cherry-ripe' themselves do cry.
  • What a gorgeous opening to this song. Campion was a song-writer. There is a garden in her face What a nice thing to say.
  • So this is the bonkers bit of poetry breezing-in and knocking us over. It's a lyrical tour-de-force of fog with little cat feet. Technically, saying something is like something else which it isn't really is called a simile. Eyes like angels ? Eh? Eyes are nothing like angels!
  • So how is this 'description'? Surely it is just the throwing about of nice-sounding words? It's describing the character of something more than its actual appearance. So her 'angel eyes' are giving her the sympathy, good-will and caring qualities of an angel.
  • There's a tension between irresistible attraction and inviolable chastity that gives the song a wistful plot. Perhaps one day she'll take pity on the poet.
Technical corner

A Metaphor is when you're comparing two somewhat similar things. For example on the news somebody describes a crash/ earthquake/ explosion as It was like a bomb going off. A Simile, confusingly, is where the two things are not similar. Her painted toe-nails were an explosion of colour. (Exploding feet anyone!)

For everyday purposes you don't need to know this, but if you're trying to make a point with words it's a good idea to ask yourself whether to use a real similarity (metaphor) or a series of similes. That is do you refer to your boss as 'Lucifer', or a 'worthless clod of clay' then return to the attack with the clinging properties of clay and how what you need instead is a hard and stable rock.

A fist-full of similes from 400 years ago. You may come across so-called poetry with half-hearted or slovenly applied similes. I say that sort of rubbish is like a cucumber: A watery tasteless banana which can't be bothered to curve.

Women get plenty of poetic coverage. This is similar to Drugs made Pauline vague in that it's describing, in a mirror of physical description, a social and emotional situation where we have to guess what's going on behind the scene.
White Heliotrope Arthur Symons
  • The feverish room and that white bed,
  • The tumbled skirts upon a chair,
  • The novel flung half-open where
  • Hat, hair-pins, puffs, and paints, are spread;
  • The mirror that has sucked your face
  • Into its secret deep of deeps,
  • And there mysteriously keeps
  • Forgotten memories of grace;
  • And you, half-dressed and half awake,
  • Your slant eyes strangely watching me,
  • And I, who watch you drowsily,
  • With eyes that, having slept not, ache;
  • This (need one dread? nay, dare one hope?)
  • Will rise, a ghost of memory, if
  • Ever again my handkerchief
  • Is scented with White Heliotrope.
  • Something erotic going on! But we can only guess at the details. Probably an illicit liaison. Pick the clues out for yourself.
  • Notice the precise description worthy of details in a photograph.
  • We can easily tell the woman is not as young as she used to be.
  • Now you know the importance of the ending. Isn't it strange that the flower in the title doesn't appear until the last line? A simple explanation is that the flower has an exceptionally sweet scent, so this is literally 'sweet memory'. There might be more to it than that, Symons was keen on symbolism so he's associating the flower with the mysterious woman. Dig a little deeper and you'll find Heliotrope and its seeds are poisonous.
  • There's a stillness about this scene that is not mentioned, but obvious when it's pointed out. There's no overt emotion either.
  • As far as the poet is concerned this is memory to be 'photographed' and filed. We all know smells can be very evocative over decades.
A first-person snapshot as a keep-sake with a private key to private memories. Symons makes describing an empty, ambivalent, atmosphere look easy. You try it!

Be prepared to be shocked. Not all poetry is tea and cakes. This is gruesome without a bit of gothic whimsy.
Dance of the Hanged MenArthur Rimbaud
  • On the black gallows, one-armed friend,
  • The paladins are dancing, dancing
  • The lean, the devil's paladins
  • The skeletons of Saladins.
  • Sir Beelzebub pulls by the scruff
  • His little black puppets who grin at the sky,
  • And with a backhander in the head like a kick,
  • Makes them dance, dance, to an old Carol-tune!
  • And the puppets, shaken about, entwine their thin arms:
  • Their breasts pierced with light, like black organ-pipes
  • Which once gentle ladies pressed to their own,
  • Jostle together protractedly in hideous love-making.
  • Hurray! the gay dancers, you whose bellies are gone!
  • You can cut capers on such a long stage!
  • Hop! never mind whether it's fighting or dancing!
  • - Beelzebub, maddened, saws on his fiddles!
  • Oh the hard heels, no one's pumps are wearing out!
  • And nearly all have taken of their shirts of skin;
  • The rest is not embarrassing and can be seen without shame.
  • On each skull the snow places a white hat:
  • The crow acts as a plume for these cracked brains,
  • A scrap of flesh clings to each lean chin:
  • You would say, to see them turning in their dark combats,
  • They were stiff knights clashing pasteboard armours.
  • Hurrah! the wind whistles at the skeletons' grand ball!
  • The black gallows moans like an organ of iron !
  • The wolves howl back from the violet forests:
  • And on the horizon the sky is hell-red...
  • Ho there, shake up those funereal braggarts,
  • Craftily telling with their great broken fingers
  • The beads of their loves on their pale vertebrae:
  • Hey the departed, this is no monastery here!
  • Oh! but see how from the middle of this Dance of Death
  • Springs into the red sky a great skeleton, mad,
  • Carried away by his own impetus, like a rearing horse:
  • And, feeling the rope tight again round his neck,
  • Clenches his knuckles on his thighbone with a crack
  • Uttering cries like mocking laughter,
  • And then like a mountebank into his booth,
  • Skips back into the dance to the music of the bones!
  • On the black gallows, one-armed friend,
  • The paladins are dancing, dancing
  • The lean, the devil's paladins
  • The skeletons of Saladins.
  • That wasn't nice at all. The sardonic descriptions go on and on, putting life into the macabre corpses.
  • I'm guessing the references to Saladins and Paladins is just a way of telling us the corpses are black, not a racial political point.
  • Once a poet takes us to a place or situation then we're curious. Prose is a continuous stream, a bit like being fed your dinner through a funnel. Verses chop up the meal into manageable mouthfuls.
  • In the original French lines 1 and 3 rhyme as do lines 2 and 4. In translation the words are lively to go with the motion.
  • I'm not pointing out 'the good bits' because you're perfectly capable of slowing down and taking a second look at good phrases.
  • After the subtle atmosphere of White Heliotrope this is nothing but a macabre portrait. There's no moral or reaction of the poet apart from the whole sardonic tone.
Stanzas and Free verse

Poetry doesn't have to rhyme and doesn't have to be split into verses (Stanzas). Free verse is pretty much anything goes. You're the ultimate judge of what works.

Unfortunately some 'poets' don't help you, and either lack the skill or deliberately break sentences and ideas at unsuitable places. I wouldn't employ a bricklayer who didn't use mortar and didn't leave holes for the windows, and likewise with poets who won't break when they should or break just because they feel like it.

Poets have to build a structure, and while you can make a heap of bricks, in general a more useful edifice is made by following some basic rules. This isn't to say everything must be uniform, but a pile of words is no use to anyone except a child. If anyone says 'poetry isn't meant to be understood, tell them to vanish up their own fundament.

A grim documentary which keeps our attention through to the end by the use of well structured verse.

Paint me a picture summary

And you thought poetry was boring. Description is difficult, but skilled poets can do it cleverly, take you into their world and then make you decorate it with your thoughts.

But what are they painting a picture of? In The sunlit house there was a very sharp description of an abandoned house. We all got that. But Charlotte Mew was also painting an atmosphere. Its bonkers! How can an atmosphere be painted! It's that grey area of fog with little cat feet. It doesn't really exist! The poet is twisting your mind. That's why poetry is special.

Even a 'black and white' description such as Signs of Winter has an atmosphere. By superb words Clare slows us and makes us watch closer rather than simply pass on to the next 'news item'.

Poetry is clear description of things that can't be described.

Tell me a story

We all like stories. Particularly in the age of the sound-bite and helicopter views of disasters, it's important to slow down a little bit and hear a more subtle and in-depth version. We have twenty-four hour news, but in times past they had melodramatic reports in the paper. There's another reason why poetry can be suited to a lengthy description and that's because the verse structure grasps the reader like the bottom of an up-escalator.

There's a lot of death in these stories, and it's easy to be put off by glancing at their length, but persevere. Not all long poems are turgid and tedious.

Sea LullabyElinor Wylie
  • The old moon is tarnished
  • With smoke of the flood,
  • The dead leaves are varnished
  • With colour like blood.
  • A treacherous smiler
  • With teeth white as milk,
  • A savage beguiler
  • In sheathings of silk
  • The sea creeps to pillage,
  • She leaps on her prey;
  • A child of the village
  • Was murdered today.
  • She came up to meet him
  • In a smooth golden cloak,
  • She choked him and beat him
  • to death, for a joke.
  • Her bright locks were tangled,
  • She shouted for joy
  • With one hand she strangled
  • A strong little boy.
  • Now in silence she lingers
  • Beside him all night
  • To wash her long fingers
  • In silvery light.
  • Wow! What a vivid description of the sea's moods and actions. Everything you see is in your head.
  • Stories tend to have a Gothic strain to them. This starts with a background of Gothic but soon, literally, immerses us in the sea with description after description.
  • Rhyme, rhythm and verse form are ideally suited to '...and then ...and then'. Each verse is like a sentence with 'something going on'.
  • Posh bit. Good for showing-off. This is a perfect example of the Pathetic fallacy. Attributing human emotions to natural phenomena. It's used a lot in poetry. Fog doesn't have feet and the sea doesn't have a hand to strangle but so what. Poetry can be bonkers. It works really well when we have to mix ideas in our heads.
  • Notice the end is calm. Too many poems don't end at the right place with a concluding feeling of completeness.
This is a really good poem to read to an audience. It's easy to see how to change voice and expression. When reading poetry aloud, go extra slowly. There's more scope for making the words flow, and the listeners have time to follow.
Persevere with this one, even if you do feel trapped by the end.
The Quiet HouseCharlotte Mew
  • When we were children Old Nurse used to say
  • The house was like an auction or a fair
  • Until the lot of us were safe in bed.
  • It has been quiet as the country-side
  • Since Ted and Janey and then Mother died
  • And Tom crossed Father and was sent away.
  • After the lawsuit he could not hold up his head,
  • Poor father, and he does not care
  • For people here, or to go anywhere.
  • To get away to Aunt's for that week-end
  • Was hard enough; (since then, a year ago,
  • He scarcely lets me slip out of his sight—)
  • At first I did not like my cousin's friend,
  • I did not think I should remember him:
  • His voice has gone, his face is growing dim
  • And if I like him now I do not know.
  • He frightened me before he smiled—
  • He did not ask me if he might—
  • He said that he would come one Sunday night,
  • He spoke to me as if I were a child.
  • No year has been like this that has just gone by;
  • It may be that what Father says is true,
  • If things are so it does not matter why:
  • But everything has burned and not quite through.
  • The colors of the world have turned
  • To flame, the blue, the gold has burned
  • In what used to be such a leaden sky.
  • When you are burned quite through you die.
  • Red is the strangest pain to bear;
  • In Spring the leaves on the budding trees;
  • In Summer the roses are worse than these,
  • More terrible than they are sweet:
  • A rose can stab you across the street
  • Deeper than any knife:
  • And the crimson haunts you everywhere—
  • Thin shafts of sunlight, like the ghosts of reddened swords
  • have struck our stair
  • As if, coming down, you had split your life.
  • I think that my soul is red
  • Like the soul of a sword or a scarlet flower:
  • But when these are dead
  • They have had their hour.
  • I shall have had mine, too,
  • For from head to feet,
  • I am burned and stabbed half through,
  • And the pain is deadly sweet.
  • Then things that kill us seem
  • Blind to the death they give:
  • It is only in our dream
  • The things that kill us live.
  • The room is shut where Mother died,
  • The other rooms are as they were,
  • The world goes on the same outside,
  • The sparrows fly across the Square,
  • The children play as we four did there,
  • The trees grow green and brown and bare,
  • The sun shines on the dead Church spire,
  • And nothing lives here but the fire,
  • While Father watches from his chair
  • Day follows day
  • The same, or now and then, a different grey,
  • Till, like his hair,
  • Which Mother said was wavy once and bright,
  • They will all turn white.
  • To-night I heard a bell again—
  • Outside it was the same mist of fine rain,
  • The lamps just lighted down the long, dim street,
  • No one for me—
  • I think it is myself I go there to meet:
  • I do not care; some day I shall not think; I shall not be!
  • That's a lot of lines to describe tangled and trapped. Was it worth it? I think so because you're not having to study the poem to write an essay on it. It's a person letting you see how they arrived at their trouble and perhaps get a glimpse of why they're unable to 'move on'.
  • There are lots of twee 'I' poems, many of which ramble or only make sense to the writer. Here there's a story.
  • The creepy, suspenseful ending is different from the ending of Sea Lullaby. It's a bit confusing, but there's hints of ghosts, living-ghosts, how she might have been if things had turned out differently. I said you're not writing an essay but sometimes it's worth pausing for a moment to pick the bones out of interesting sections.
Writers could do worse than read more of Charlotte Mew's poems. I like the way she establishes a scene first and only then develops the poem.
WH Davies was no stranger to the lower reaches of life. Here he shows us part of that, but also it's an intensely human and curious story.
The Bird of ParadiseWH Davies
  • Here comes Kate Summers, who, for gold,
  • Takes any man to bed:
  • "You knew my friend, Nell Barnes," she said;
  • "You knew Nell Barnes — she's dead.
  • "Nell Barnes was bad on all you men,
  • Unclean, a thief as well;
  • Yet all my life I have not found
  • A better friend than Nell.
  • "So I sat at her side at last,
  • For hours, till she was dead;
  • And yet she had no sense at all
  • Of any word I said.
  • "For all her cry but came to this —
  • 'Not for the world! Take care:
  • Don't touch that bird of paradise,
  • Perched on the bed-post there!'
  • "I asked her would she like some grapes,
  • Som damsons ripe and sweet;
  • A custard made with new-laid eggs,
  • Or tender fowl to eat.
  • "I promised I would follow her,
  • To see her in her grave;
  • And buy a wreath with borrowed pence,
  • If nothing I could save.
  • "Yet still her cry but came to this —
  • 'Not for the world! Take care:
  • Don't touch that bird of paradise,
  • Perched on the bed-post there!' "
  • In a very boring poem called An Essay On Man written in 1734 Alexander Pope wrote The proper study of Mankind is Man. I think Davies gives an excellent illustration.
  • If you look carefully there are at least three people here. I say 'at least' because as well as Davies, you, the reader, are drawn into the closeness of the situation. As Charlotte Mew took us into her story, so Davies does the same. It's very intimate. Clever eh?
  • There's no particular social comment element here, but you can't miss it on the rebound because he makes it real.
  • This ending leaves us wondering... The title is a clue. We're not entirely sure but it's probably a warning that can't be heeded for reasons of poverty.
I've said before that poems can mess with your mind. Here it's more of a 'what am I supposed to think?' In pondering the strange situation we might feel more even if the 'facts' remain vague. More power to messing with minds.
The best story poem of all time? William McGonegall was a desperately poor weaver in industrialised Dundee. One day in his mid-40s he decided he had a gift for poetry. He was the butt of japes, didn't do himself any favours, walked 90 miles to Balmoral to ask Queen Victoria if he could be Poet Laureate only to be turned away at the gate.
The Tay Bridge DisasterWilliam McGonegall
  • Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay!
  • Alas! I am very sorry to say
  • That ninety lives have been taken away
  • On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
  • Which will be remember'd for a very long time.
  • 'Twas about seven o'clock at night,
  • And the wind it blew with all its might,
  • And the rain came pouring down,
  • And the dark clouds seem'd to frown,
  • And the Demon of the air seem'd to say-
  • "I'll blow down the Bridge of Tay."
  • When the train left Edinburgh
  • The passengers' hearts were light and felt no sorrow,
  • But Boreas blew a terrific gale,
  • Which made their hearts for to quail,
  • And many of the passengers with fear did say-
  • "I hope God will send us safe across the Bridge of Tay."
  • But when the train came near to Wormit Bay,
  • Boreas he did loud and angry bray,
  • And shook the central girders of the Bridge of Tay
  • On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
  • Which will be remember'd for a very long time.
  • So the train sped on with all its might,
  • And Bonnie Dundee soon hove in sight,
  • And the passengers' hearts felt light,
  • Thinking they would enjoy themselves on the New Year,
  • With their friends at home they lov'd most dear,
  • And wish them all a happy New Year.
  • So the train mov'd slowly along the Bridge of Tay,
  • Until it was about midway,
  • Then the central girders with a crash gave way,
  • And down went the train and passengers into the Tay!
  • The Storm Fiend did loudly bray,
  • Because ninety lives had been taken away,
  • On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
  • Which will be remember'd for a very long time.
  • As soon as the catastrophe came to be known
  • The alarm from mouth to mouth was blown,
  • And the cry rang out all o'er the town,
  • Good Heavens! the Tay Bridge is blown down,
  • And a passenger train from Edinburgh,
  • Which fill'd all the peoples hearts with sorrow,
  • And made them for to turn pale,
  • Because none of the passengers were sav'd to tell the tale
  • How the disaster happen'd on the last Sabbath day of 1879,
  • Which will be remember'd for a very long time.
  • It must have been an awful sight,
  • To witness in the dusky moonlight,
  • While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray,
  • Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay,
  • Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay,
  • I must now conclude my lay
  • By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
  • That your central girders would not have given way,
  • At least many sensible men do say,
  • Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
  • At least many sensible men confesses,
  • For the stronger we our houses do build,
  • The less chance we have of being killed.
  • That's a fierce storm! It was written to be published in the newspaper and I think it does an excellent job of straightforward reporting. Next time you see some reporter on the TV in front of some event, think how trite their waving arms are when compared to this heroic verse.
  • McGonegall had 'form' as far as the Tay Bridge was concerned. What a marvel on his own doorstep. He published two to celebrate its construction. (And why not?)
  • Perhaps one of the reasons some people have called him Britain's worst poet is that there's no subtlety, no messing with your mind, just a recitation of the facts in slightly contrived verse.
  • Many people use this as a party-piece, so it has stood the test of time as a crowd-pleaser. Read it out aloud and see how the words roll around.
  • What about the ending? (Spot a pattern?) In my opinion it's a great and memorable 'moral of the tale'.
  • You might like to compare this with Winter's Night by Robert Burns.

There's a lot of 'Emperor's new clothes' in the world of poetry.

Here's a Daily Telegraph obituary: Peter Porter, ... was one of the most distinguished poets working in Britain. Says who? Obviously not the likes of you and me. At a poetry group I asked people to select the best of three where two were computer-generated with the same words. The computers won.

The Guardian, under the heading The lost talent wrote Mick Imlah was one of the finest poets of his time. No he wasn't. Even the dire Peter Porter was better.

If some 'superior being' sneers at you for being too stupid to see the wonderfulness of meaningless twaddle that is just rambling prose then you make them put up or shut-up. You know ways poetry works so stick to your guns. Don't compromise! Make them explain every line. Making them read it out aloud is even more fun.

Possibly not a story but this next poem is a documentary in a similar sense to Bird of Paradise.
My busconductorRoger McGough
  • My busconductor tells me
  • he only has one kidney
  • and that may soon go on strike
  • through overwork.
  • Each busticket
  • takes on now a different shape and texture.
  • He holds a ninepenny single
  • as if it were a rose
  • and puts the shilling in his bag
  • as a child into a gasmeter.
  • His thin lips have no quips for fat factorygirls
  • and he ignores
  • the drunk who snores
  • and the oldman who talks to himself
  • and gets off at the wrong stop.
  • He goes gently to the bedroom of the bus
  • to collect
  • and what familiar shops and pubs pass by
  • (perhaps for the last time?).
  • The same old streets look different now
  • more distinct as through new glasses.
  • And the sky
  • was it ever so blue?
  • And all the time
  • deepdown in the deserted busshelter of his mind
  • he thinks about his journey nearly done.
  • One day he'll clock on and never clock off
  • or clock off and never clock on.
  • This is more observation than a narrative, but the clever thing is that you get the sense of a life before and after.
  • McGough sometimes uses strange language and odd line breaks. If you think he overdoes it then just ignore it.
  • This is a really good example of close observation...
  • ...combined with quirky imagery.
  • Together we get a distinct feel for the worries of the conductor.
  • Note the structure. Clear start. Developing observations. Showing us the way the conductor behaves and sees the world. Finally the (separate) ending which turns a worrying situation into a grim one that is a bit scary.
  • Deserted busshelter is one of those metaphors that make us stop and think... and share.
My Busconductor could have gone into a number of sections. I put it here as a contrast to the longer 'documentaries'. Sea Lullaby was impressionistic, McGonegall was factual, this is personal.

The Victorians loved epic poems that went on for tens of pages. (Not to mention Chaucer, Marlowe, Spenser.) That tradition has probably died-out now. I'm including one of the better ones, written in 1923 and worthy of a Pulitzer Prize. It's melodrama with a hint of Gothic and as such is perhaps an acquired taste. Give it a go reading it aloud.
The Ballad Of The Harp-Weaver Edna St.Vincent Millay
  • "Son," said my mother,
  • When I was knee-high,
  • "you've need of clothes to cover you,
  • and not a rag have I.
  • "There's nothing in the house
  • To make a boy breeches,
  • Nor shears to cut a cloth with,
  • Nor thread to take stitches.
  • "There's nothing in the house
  • But a loaf-end of rye,
  • And a harp with a woman's head
  • Nobody will buy,"
  • And she began to cry.
  • That was in the early fall.
  • When came the late fall,
  • "Son," she said, "the sight of you
  • Makes your mother's blood crawl,—
  • "Little skinny shoulder-blades
  • Sticking through your clothes!
  • And where you'll get a jacket from
  • God above knows.
  • "It's lucky for me, lad,
  • Your daddy's in the ground,
  • And can't see the way I let
  • His son go around!"
  • And she made a queer sound.
  • That was in the late fall.
  • When the winter came,
  • I'd not a pair of breeches
  • Nor a shirt to my name.
  • I couldn't go to school,
  • Or out of doors to play.
  • And all the other little boys
  • Passed our way.
  • "Son," said my mother,
  • "Come, climb into my lap,
  • And I'll chafe your little bones
  • While you take a nap."
  • And, oh, but we were silly
  • For half and hour or more,
  • Me with my long legs,
  • Dragging on the floor,
  • A-rock-rock-rocking
  • To a mother-goose rhyme!
  • Oh, but we were happy
  • For half an hour's time!
  • But there was I, a great boy,
  • And what would folks say
  • To hear my mother singing me
  • To sleep all day,
  • In such a daft way?
  • Men say the winter
  • Was bad that year;
  • Fuel was scarce,
  • And food was dear.
  • A wind with a wolf's head
  • Howled about our door,
  • And we burned up the chairs
  • And sat upon the floor.
  • All that was left us
  • Was a chair we couldn't break,
  • And the harp with a woman's head
  • Nobody would take,
  • For song or pity's sake.
  • (Continued in next column)
  • The night before Christmas
  • I cried with cold,
  • I cried myself to sleep
  • Like a two-year old.
  • And in the deep night
  • I felt my mother rise,
  • And stare down upon me
  • With love in her eyes.
  • I saw my mother sitting
  • On the one good chair,
  • A light falling on her
  • From I couldn't tell where.
  • Looking nineteen,
  • And not a day older,
  • And the harp with a woman's head
  • Leaned against her shoulder.
  • Her thin fingers, moving
  • In the thin, tall strings,
  • Were weav-weav-weaving
  • Wonderful things.
  • Many bright threads,
  • From where I couldn't see,
  • Were running through the harp-strings
  • Rapidly,
  • And gold threads whistling
  • Through my mother's hand.
  • I saw the web grow,
  • And the pattern expand.
  • She wove a child's jacket,
  • And when it was done
  • She laid it on the floor
  • And wove another one.
  • She wove a red cloak
  • So regal to see,
  • "She's made it for a king's son,"
  • I said, "and not for me."
  • But I knew it was for me.
  • She wove a pair of breeches
  • Quicker than that!
  • She wove a pair of boots
  • And a little cocked hat.
  • She wove a pair of mittens,
  • She wove a little blouse,
  • She wove all night
  • In the still, cold house.
  • She sang as she worked,
  • And the harp-strings spoke;
  • Her voice never faltered,
  • And the thread never broke,
  • And when I awoke,—
  • There sat my mother
  • With the harp against her shoulder,
  • Looking nineteeen,
  • And not a day older,
  • A smile about her lips,
  • And a light about her head,
  • And her hands in the harp-strings
  • Frozen dead.
  • And piled beside her
  • And toppling to the skies,
  • Were the clothes of a king's son,
  • Just my size.
  • Bonkers melodrama from the days before radio and television. It's a fairy story in verse. There's nothing 'wrong' with this genre, but if it gets boring, twee, trivial or confusing then the reader is likely to give-up.
  • The quality of the descriptions should be enough to drag you into the scene. (That's basic poetic skill.) For a long poem, the action and suspense has to keep you there.
  • I'm not 100% sure what a wind with a wolf's head is... But it's just as compelling as little cat feet on fog. I expect most people think to themselves 'that's a cool phrase' and have a little shiver.
  • We all like magic. A bit of the supernatural (or in this case a truck load) adds to the frisson of that world inside our heads where things are not quite as boringly predictable and safe.
  • It's easy to scan the poem and dismiss it as twee hokum, but if you read it aloud, especially to somebody else, you'll probably find it emotional. Just like a comedian builds up to a punch-line so Millay keeps piling on the coals until the inevitable train crash.
There are many long and tedious poems. Some 'work' better if you read them aloud, but if you get bored just skip onto the next one. There's no compulsion to 'do' epics.

I've written 70 and 80-liners which I'm very proud of. If you've got a story to tell then sometimes the structure and rhythm makes it the ideal medium.

Story summary

Why bother with poetry to tell you what happened when you've got the news on TV? Because the pictures are better and the analysis is deeper. The poet can concentrate on one particular thing that perhaps others wouldn't notice and from that make you think and feel. Scenes of a war or earthquake are spectacles, carrying the dead is a gory five seconds on the screen, but a cat starving in the ruins melts my heart.

I think we all blanche when turning a page to find a long poem before us. If the story-teller is good (big if) then actually you're probably in for a treat. This isn't school, if you get fed-up then give up and press on to something more gripping.

Some poets are tempted to pile lots of things into one long poem. Unless these are a progression of events leading to a definite ending, then it's more likely to be a rag-bag of half-stitched thoughts than an interesting tale with little twists.

Close emotions and relationships

Poets are eaten up by anguish and take to drink, laudanum and suicide. That's what I heard. Well there's more than a grain of truth in it. A surprising number of well known poets had non-normal lives. Disturbed childhoods or didn't fit-in. Many in this book had confused or unconventional sexuality.

Now you've got this far, you'll be expecting interesting poems and having to do a bit of digging. I don't have an answer to all your questions. Poetry isn't like mathematics: There's no sure-fire procedure to get a result. Enjoy the mystery, remember that good poems will meddle with your mind and sneak something into it when you're not looking.

Let's start in the land of fairy tale. We like those don't we.
Witch-wife Edna St.Vincent Millay
  • She is neither pink nor pale,
  • And she never will be all mine;
  • She learned her hands in a fairy-tale,
  • And her mouth on a valentine.
  • She has more hair than she needs;
  • In the sun 'tis a woe to me!
  • And her voice is a string of coloured beads,
  • Or steps leading into the sea.
  • She loves me all that she can,
  • And her ways to my ways resign;
  • But she was not made for any man,
  • And she never will be all mine.
  • If you hadn't guessed, Millay was bisexual. She had relationships with a number of women at school and college.
  • We've come across strange ways of description before. The first verse is a beautiful example of an impression. No photograph would come close to conveying how Millay sees her. I love how the negatives in the first two lines give them body. Slowing the brain down to ask immediately what's going on? while at the same time telling us.
  • Obviously a voice can't really be like coloured beads... Except what happens if you pull a string of beads through your hand? There's a sort of chattering. What noise do shoes rushing down concrete steps make? Sometimes you have to unpack meanings for yourself. However that's only my guess. (She was brought up by the sea and obviously spent a lot of time on the shore physically and in her imagination, so perhaps the 'steps' are an invitation?)
  • I'm picking at the words here as an example of where poets can legitimately not make sense. Millay doesn't know how to grasp this love herself (look at all the negatives) so is it any wonder she leaves us uncertain as well.
  • Ending? It wraps up the situation as a wistful compromise.
  • (Look on-line and be amazed at the number of twerps who look at the title and picture a hag on a broomstick. Clearly this is nothing of the sort.)
This is one of those times when we can excuse confusion. She's confused and we're in a wonderland. (On the other hand, drivel and bollocks should go on the fire.)

Another rather different love poem. Still infested with contradictions though.
To my Valentine Ogden Nash
  • More than a catbird hates a cat,
  • Or a criminal hates a clue,
  • Or the Axis hates the United States,
  • That's how much I love you.
  • I love you more than a duck can swim,
  • And more than a grapefruit squirts,
  • I love you more than a gin rummy is a bore,
  • And more than a toothache hurts.
  • As a shipwrecked sailor hates the sea,
  • Or a juggler hates a shove,
  • As a hostess detests unexpected guests,
  • That's how much you I love.
  • I love you more than a wasp can sting,
  • And more than the subway jerks,
  • I love you as much as a beggar needs a crutch,
  • And more than a hangnail irks.
  • I swear to you by the stars above,
  • And below, if such there be,
  • As the High Court loathes perjurious oathes,
  • That's how you're loved by me.
  • Catbird is a North American bird often found in gardens.
    Axis refers to Germany, Italy and Japan in the Second World War.
  • This is technically known as a recital. Listing things can get repetitive and boring, but clever Mister Nash doesn't let it get boring.
  • I love you more than a wasp can sting is a fantastic mind-messing line. It's a contradiction that makes us slow-down and smile and wonder...
  • ...Is his love 100 percent or tainted with irks? All those negatives might be symbolic or something? No it's a celebration of overflowing confidence. Still, he makes the reader pause for a second to reflect so we realise it for ourselves. He could have written I love you 200% but clichés are a turn-off too.
Imaginative people are a treat when they're happy with it. Lists are fine if the ideas are separate and keep being interesting. We like having our minds messed-with.

More imagination used very differently. Is this 'real' or a cartoon.
Little Green Buttons Shel Silverstein
  • The honeymoon ended a decade ago,
  • If he still loves her he don't say so,
  • So she's taking her blues to the House of Tattoos,
  • Getting little green buttons on her birthday suit.
  • Little green buttons all in a row
  • From her face to the place they ain't never gonna show.
  • Might sound crazy but they sure look cute,
  • Those little green buttons on her birthday suit.
  • She had supper in the oven when he came home,
  • Now he's snoring on the sofa to the Late, Late Show.
  • It was ten days later before he knew
  • 'Bout those little green buttons on her birthday suit.
  • But now she's living in a house of love,
  • She's got his attention, he can't get enough
  • He spends every evening trying to undo
  • The little green buttons on her birthday suit.
  • The idea is memorable and bizarre. That's just the sort of thing we like.
  • Through the power of everyday description Silverstein makes the situation easy to identify with.
  • Ending? And they all lived happily ever after. Lovely punch-line.
  • Is there a moral to the tale? Not unless you want to look for one. It's more a funny story than a lesson for us all.
  • The rhymes and rhythm keep the poem moving along.
A story can be about relationships. In this case there isn't the emotional entanglement of the previous poems, but so what?

Here's another husband and wife in trouble.
The Dolls WB Yeats
  • A doll in the doll-maker's house
  • Looks at the cradle and bawls:
  • 'That is an insult to us.'
  • But the oldest of all the dolls,
  • Who had seen, being kept for show,
  • Generations of his sort,
  • Out-screams the whole shelf: 'Although
  • There's not a man can report
  • Evil of this place,
  • The man and the woman bring
  • Hither, to our disgrace,
  • A noisy and filthy thing.'
  • Hearing him groan and stretch
  • The doll-maker's wife is aware
  • Her husband has heard the wretch,
  • And crouched by the arm of his chair,
  • She murmurs into his ear,
  • Head upon shoulder leant:
  • 'My dear, my dear, O dear.
  • It was an accident.'
  • A relationship painted very creepily. By now you're used to bonkers things like dolls talking. In fact it would be strange if a row of dolls didn't have a conversation.
  • You're grown-up so you don't need me to tell you the facts of life. Babies are trouble at both ends. Dolls are no trouble at all.
  • He's quite likely been happy for a long time, making substitute children without real-life imperfections. Now his ordered, responsibility-avoiding life has been taken from him.
  • Could this illustrate a 'battle of the sexes'? That's probably a generalisation too far. This is a personal matter where the man's thoughts are voiced by a male doll, while the wife (who of course 'made' the real baby) consoles the man. It's not a battle, but a portrait of emptiness.
  • Apparently, in later years, Yeats had a thing about how great art lasts while people are imperfect and die. That theme obviously inspired this poem, but it's not the 'message'.
By now we're used to being told about things that aren't there. If you caught-on to the couple's empty life then you're ready for Liminal.

Liminal

Here is one of the most important concepts in close-up writing. Very few people have heard of it, which is a shame as it has put moonlit ripples on many of the poems we've looked at. You know about subliminal (there was some of that going on in The Dolls) which creeps into the mind, and perhaps is always just out of sight like a dream that was err... um... fading even though it was there a few moments before you woke up.

Liminal is a more deliberate grey area where things are neither one thing nor the other, where it's impossible to be certain, a gateway between worlds. It's the the Gothic side of ghosts and the tease in a mystery. Look at The Sunlit house where there's 'something going on' and Charlotte Mew is on the edge of finding out what it is.

Now you're one of the few people who knows what liminal is, you can see the cracks in writing and treat them as strengths rather than weaknesses. How? That's a contradiction to real-life. That's my point.

Vernon Scannell is a good user of liminal. Here it's 'might have been'.
Wife KillerVernon Scannell
  • He killed his wife at night.
  • He had tried once or twice in the daylight
  • But she refused to die.
  • In darkness the deed was done,
  • Not crudely with a hammer-hard gun
  • Or strangler's black kid gloves on.
  • She just ceased being alive,
  • Not there to interfere or connive,
  • Linger, leave or arrive.
  • It seemed almost as though
  • Her death was quite normal and no
  • Clue to his part would show.
  • So then, with impunity,
  • He called up that buttocky beauty
  • He had so long longed to see
  • All covering gone: the double
  • Joggle of warm weighty bubbles
  • Was sweet delirious trouble.
  • And all night, all night he enjoyed her;
  • Such sport in her smooth dimpled water;
  • Then daylight came like a warder.
  • And he rose and went down to the larder
  • Where the mouse-trap again had caught a
  • Piece of stale gorgonzola.
  • His wife wore her large woollen feet.
  • She said that he was late
  • And asked what he wanted to eat,
  • But said nothing about the murder—
  • And who, after all, could have told her?
  • He said that he fancied a kipper.
  • A well-constructed story and window into a relationship.
  • It's not real but it's presented as reality with brutal words packed into small punches. Scannell was passionate about boxing.
  • And it has a proper ending.
A lot of Scannell's poetry has a dark thread of violence in relationships.

Here's something similar.
In the nightStevie Smith
  • I longed for companionship rather,
  • But my companions I always wished farther.
  • And now in the desolate night
  • I think only of the people I should like to bite.
  • I've put this in as a contrast to Wife Killer.
  • It probably helps a bit to know something of Stevie Smith's background and personality, although you don't need much prompting to see she wasn't a laugh-a-minute person.
  • In the last line she tells us about her character. What sort of person keeps on getting angry at enemies?
Dorothy Parker and many others have written about the grimness of being in bed alone.

Anyone who talks of poetry as if it is one thing is as ignorant or stupid as somebody claiming history, fashion, food or people are one thing. There is so much variety, and great stuff if you know where to look and discard the crap.

Here is a moment of peace... With hints of turmoil.
Until this cigarette is endedEdna St.Vincent Millay
  • Only until this cigarette is ended,
  • A little moment at the end of all,
  • While on the floor the quiet ashes fall,
  • And in the firelight to a lance extended,
  • Bizarrely with the jazzing music blended,
  • The broken shadow dances on the wall,
  • I will permit my memory to recall
  • The vision of you, by all my dreams attended.
  • And then adieu,—farewell!—the dream is done.
  • Yours is a face of which I can forget
  • The colour and the features, every one,
  • The words not ever, and the smiles not yet;
  • But in your day this moment is the sun
  • Upon a hill, after the sun has set.
  • The song is ended but the memory lingers on...
  • ... But how many last cigarettes has she smoked? She's rationalising her lover away, but she doesn't fool me.
  • Good pictures and good ending as you've come to expect from good poets.
Friends and lovers passing-on is something we all experience. Getting to grips with our own emotions is a difficult thing to express.

Remember Robert Louis Stevenson describing chaos? (Armies in the fire) That was something he or you could point to and share. Describing chaos or unquiet in the emotions is more challenging if it isn't going to be trite. Here is classic Emile Brontë doing just that.
SpellboundEmily Brontë
  • The night is darkening round me,
  • The wild winds coldly blow;
  • But a tyrant spell has bound me
  • And I cannot, cannot go.
  • The giant trees are bending
  • Their bare boughs weighed with snow.
  • And the storm is fast descending,
  • And yet I cannot go.
  • Clouds beyond clouds above me,
  • Wastes beyond wastes below;
  • But nothing drear can move me;
  • I will not, cannot go.
  • Stormy moors and tempestuous emotions is Emily's home ground. (She hardly strayed far from it.)
  • I'm not sure what's going on. Is she freezing to death in the open or in some place of safety regretting not going earlier? We don't know the story, or anything about a tyrant spell but it's not the background that matters.
  • Whatever, she paints the storm and the way it pressurises her emotionally.
  • Conflict is always good for the box-office.
Pretty melodramatic stuff, rather of it's time perhaps, but nevertheless a powerful poem of dysfunction.

Emotion and relationships summary

One of the striking things about these poems is how they don't aim directly at the target. There's no simple I love you or I hate me. They manage to convey characters with issues in a few lines.

Sometimes the reader is a voyeur, watching from a safe distance at the foibles of other people... Except even then we are pulled into the scene by clues or words or hints or unreality. In The Dolls talk more than the people! That's the liminal spell woven by a good poet on form.

There are plenty of emotional poems, and it's probably worth a quick look in the library for anthologies. Browse with your knowledge of 'it's not what you see, but how you feel' and 'aim to miss the target' to form your own opinion.

Most poetry is liminal.

Tickle me

Wit and amusement can be enjoyed for their own silliness. It's surprising how many poets can't be flippant. On the other hand some have the knack, and give a lot of simple amusement.
Animals and daft people are a rich seam. Hillaire Belloc is nowadays best remembered for his Cautionary Tales for Children
The Tiger Hillaire Belloc
  • The tiger, on the other hand,
  • Is kittenish and mild,
  • And makes a pretty playfellow
  • For any little child.
  • And mothers of large families
  • (Who claim to common sense)
  • Will find a tiger well repays
  • The trouble and expense.
  • It's good fun making-up silly rhymes. It's like chipping at caked sugar in a jar.
  • Also it's really good fun (and educational) to share short silly things with children.
Don't try this at home! It's all pretend. Cautionary Tales for Children is easy to get hold of and opens a real can of tigers.
Word play
AntEaterShel Silverstein
  • 'A genuine anteater,'
  • The pet man told my dad.
  • Turned out, it was an aunt eater,
  • And now my uncle's mad!
  • Just a cartoon in words. One idea. Four lines.
There are lots of talented and interesting people you've never heard about. Have a furtle on the internet.

Ogden Nash originally worked in advertising where slogans had to be snappy, and there was one second to grab the reader's or viewer's attention.
Reflections on Ice-breaking Ogden Nash
  • Candy
  • Is Dandy
  • But liquor
  • Is quicker.
  • This is supposedly a riposte to contemporary and friend Dorothy Parker.
  • Dorothy Parker deserves her own book. Most of her poetry is easy to understand, is clever, has dark sides and show her troubled personality.

Ogden Nash wrote serious as well as trite. Worth exploring.
We'll see many examples of sugar-coated pills elsewhere. This is all sugar until the last line.
SystemRobert Louis Stevenson
  • Every night my prayers I say,
  • And get my dinner every day;
  • And every day that I've been good,
  • I get an orange after food.
  • The child that is not clean and neat,
  • With lots of toys and things to eat,
  • He is a naughty child, I'm sure—
  • Or else his dear papa is poor.
  • Morals and questions for children are fine. Wrapping ideas in a simple eight line poem make it easy to revisit.
  • Notice how the simple words give the scene a certain unbelivability. We know by the language that the child reciting these lines is a 'good Victorian' well trained in middle-class manners.
Robert Louis Stevenson is essential reading for children. Adults might enjoy his poems and novels as well.

Tickle me summary

Collections of 'humorous verse' can easily become dated or are not all that funny. All the authors in this section should be explored further for the variety of their work. I've got other examples elsewhere in this book.

Knowing a few funny lines is a good icebreaker at parties.

As you've seen, there often isn't much depth to this sort of wit. That's ideal for children. Also, while your child may not be like Henry King — Who chewed little bits of string but perhaps, as this sort of thing is fairly easy to write, and you're not being judged on anything except frolicksomness, you can write your own specially for the little beast.

I've kept this section short because for most grown-ups it's a case of easy-come easy-go as there's no depth. Later we'll see the same authors being more subtle with their skills.

Life

A detached view drawing our attention to some aspect of the way the world turns is traditional fare for writers. Poetry can show you something in thirty seconds you might never have realised.

Moral instruction in verse.
To Virgins, to Make Much of TimeRobert Herrick
  • Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
  • Old time is still a-flying
  • And this same flower that smiles today
  • Tomorrow will be dying.
  • The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
  • The higher he's a-getting,
  • The sooner will his race be run,
  • And nearer he's to setting.
  • That age is best which is the first,
  • When youth and blood are warmer;
  • But being spent, the worse, and worst
  • Times still succeed the former.
  • Then be not coy, but use your time,
  • And, while ye may, go marry;
  • For, having lost but once your prime,
  • You may forever tarry.
  • This is a song. Try la-la-la-ing it.
  • It's a basic observation made memorable using a very simple metaphor of the transient flowers and ever-moving sun to kick it off.
  • Of course there's a moral, and the sentiment will often be useful in life when people are hesitating and dawdling.

If you like learning words to show off your extensive (ahem!) knowledge of poetry then this is an excellent poem to choose.

Memorising and recalling things is a skill we need to learn and practise if we're to use it. Although it's unfashionable to 'teach by rote' there is something to be said for memory practise.

Why use blunt phrases such as Time waits for no man, Carpe diem when you can use this charming verse. Putting ideas we don't want to be reminded of (but are happy to remind others of) into a poem softens the blow.

I know people like those described here.
The men that don't fit inRobert Service
  • There's a race of men that don't fit in,
  • A race that can't stay still;
  • So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
  • And they roam the world at will.
  • They range the field and they rove the flood,
  • And they climb the mountain's crest;
  • Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
  • And they don't know how to rest.
  • If they just went straight they might go far;
  • They are strong and brave and true;
  • But they're always tired of the things that are,
  • And they want the strange and new.
  • They say: "Could I find my proper groove,
  • What a deep mark I would make!"
  • So they chop and change, and each fresh move
  • Is only a fresh mistake.
  • And each forgets, as he strips and runs
  • With a brilliant, fitful pace,
  • It's the steady, quiet, plodding ones
  • Who win in the lifelong race.
  • And each forgets that his youth has fled,
  • Forgets that his prime is past,
  • Till he stands one day, with a hope that's dead,
  • In the glare of the truth at last.
  • He has failed, he has failed; he has missed his chance;
  • He has just done things by half.
  • Life's been a jolly good joke on him,
  • And now is the time to laugh.
  • Ha, ha! He is one of the Legion Lost;
  • He was never meant to win;
  • He's a rolling stone, and it's bred in the bone;
  • He's a man who won't fit in.
  • What a rhythm! The ballad style literally made Service a fortune. His most famous piece being The Shooting of Dan McGrew.
  • Very much a man's poet, Service's vivid depictions of rugged men in rugged and exciting landscapes made him a favourite well into the 1940s.
  • Another reason for his popularity was the suitability of the rumpty-tum style to public recital in an era when that's what people did. Having a party-piece was essential when people made their own entertainment.
Service was a bank clerk and not a hardy, bear-wrestling prospector in the Gold Rush. It just goes to show what you can achieve if you have the ear for other's stories and a descriptive pen.

WH Davies was one of those wandering men who didn't fit in until he suffered a crippling accident.
In the Country WH Davies
  • This life is sweetest; in this wood
  • I hear no children cry for food;
  • I see no woman, white with care;
  • No man, with muscled wasting here.
  • No doubt it is a selfish thing
  • To fly from human suffering;
  • No doubt he is a selfish man,
  • Who shuns poor creatures, sad and wan.
  • But 'tis a wretched life to face
  • Hunger in almost every place;
  • Cursed with a hand that's empty, when
  • The heart is full to help all men.
  • Can I admire the statue great,
  • When living men starve at its feet!
  • Can I admire the park's green tree,
  • A roof for homeless misery!
  • The irony was that poverty existed (and still does) in the country as much as the towns. So this is a bit idealistic. (He knew what his audience wanted, they expected rural descriptions.)
  • The only reference to the countryside is in passing in the first line. Eh?
  • Oh! Now I see! He means 'country' as in 'Nation'. You're a naughty man Mister Davies to mess with our minds like that.
  • He's clearly frustrated... But what can you do? That's 'you' as in 'you the reader'. It's our problem not just mine is the moral.
He was writing about Britain in the first three decades of the 20th century. For another writer's documentary on the hard times look at Down and out in London and Paris by George Orwell.

Teenagers must have their rants. Perhaps there's more to this. I know mature people who empathise very much with the anger here.
This be the VersePhilip Larkin
  • They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
  • They may not mean to, but they do.
  • They fill you with the faults they had
  • And add some extra, just for you.
  • But they were fucked up in their turn
  • By fools in old-style hats and coats,
  • Who half the time were soppy-stern
  • And half at one another's throats.
  • Man hands on misery to man.
  • It deepens like a coastal shelf.
  • Get out as early as you can,
  • And don't have any kids yourself.
  • No nonsense there!
  • Somebody has to say it.
  • Another memorable poem with frequent opportunities for use.
There are few things so yawnsome as a rant, but the structure and progression of a poem can get over the sharpness. By slowing us down Larkin makes us take a moment to think. We've seen that's a common theme.

Time has passed for Byron. (He only lived until 36.)
So We'll Go No More a-RovingLord Byron
  • So we'll go no more a-roving
  • So late into the night,
  • Though the heart still be as loving,
  • And the moon still be as bright.
  • For the sword outwears its sheath,
  • And the soul outwears the breast,
  • And the heart must pause to breathe,
  • And love itself have rest.
  • Though the night was made for loving,
  • And the day returns too soon,
  • Yet we'll go no more a-roving
  • By the light of the moon.
  • Wistful. A lesson to us all to gather our rosebuds while we may.
  • I'm not sure what he means by 'roving'. Outdoor adventures or bedroom gymnastics?
  • This is a very simple poem, which I've included as an example of how it's possible for anyone to write something that makes sense, fits together and carries a message. Writing poetry is easy if you've got a subject, a few words to play with and take the time to build it properly.
Byron, famously mad, bad and dangerous to know, was an early version of a pop star. When he needed money he'd release a new work. It's not all great, but worth having a quick squint at because he was a successful artist of that era, and you really ought to know a little history.

I like to sit in the pub and talk to the old boys.
Old MenOgden Nash
  • People expect old men to die,
  • They do not really mourn old men.
  • Old men are different. People look
  • At them with eyes that wonder when . . .
  • People watch with unshocked eyes;
  • But the old men know when an old man dies.
  • Generations stick together.
  • Another very simple poem, but perfectly observed.
I like this because it encapsulates a way of life for old men hugging their pints in the pub. I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up, but I've spent hundreds of hours teasing stories of previous generations, unbelievable now, from old 'bors.

Us and them. How will age treat us?
The Road To KerityCharlotte Mew
  • Do you remember the two old people we passed
  • on the road to Kerity,
  • Resting their sack on the stones, by the drenched wayside,
  • Looking at us with their lightless eyes
  • through the driving rain, and then out again
  • To the rocks, and the long white line of the tide:
  • Frozen ghosts that were children once,
  • husband and wife, father, and mother,
  • Looking at us with those frozen eyes;
  • have you ever seen anything quite so chilled
  • or so old?
  • But we - with our arms about each other,
  • We did not feel the cold!
  • Creepy and horrible. Worse for the comparison.
  • looking through the driving rain, and then out again to the rocks, and the long white line of the tide is that sort of observation we wish we hadn't seen. Is the tide going to take them? Why are they looking at it? It makes me shiver.
  • I'm not scared of ghosts... but this is disturbing.
  • Of course the moral is 'we think we're immortal'.
  • Ghosts are usually 'of another world' (all that liminal stuff) but here they're all too firmly in this one.
  • What's with that odd line or so old? which seems to have fallen off the previous one? If you read it aloud then you'll get the emphasis by pausing before it. So important it has a line all to itself.
Don't read this at a wedding! Don't read it any time — Shut it away out of sight!

Charlotte Mew has been undeservedly forgotten. Perhaps she's too grown-up for schools.

A different style entirely to finish this section with. This is a sort of parable.
The wayfarerStephen Crane
  • The wayfarer,
  • Perceiving the pathway to truth,
  • Was struck with astonishment.
  • It was thickly grown with weeds.
  • "Ha," he said,
  • "I see that none has passed here
  • In a long time."
  • Later he saw that each weed
  • Was a singular knife.
  • "Well," he mumbled at last,
  • "Doubtless there are other roads."
  • That's self explanatory and cleverly expressed.
  • pathway to the truth is not just a turn of phrase but an image of a path. Whoopsie! Messing with our minds again.
  • The 'moral' is a little complex. Good intentions, naivete, realisation, learning. Explaining the moral is more hassle and less clear than reading the poem!
We'll come across more of Stephen Crane's strange work later.

Life summary

What a variety of poetry. Songs to encourage, verses to recite, lessons for us all. From the realism of The road to Kerity to the figurative The Wayfarer there are so many styles. Perhaps the common theme is that a tough message can be dealt out at a pace that's not so fierce that we shrug it off.

Observations on life are part of the poet's stock-in-trade, however some are tempted to see a moral in a landscape or rabbit-on with opinions cloaked in vague description. For me, the worst are the trite 'my experience is a lesson for us all... How we laughed later'. In the Country is a sort of moral-in-the-landscape poem, but even though the language is very simple and verging on cliché, it isn't trite because it's not quite right... enough to make us stop, think, and fall-in.

Reflection

Poets often think about their lives rather than life in general. Let's see if they can make me, me, me! interesting. Obviously some of them can or else they wouldn't be here.
Challenge number one. Are we interested in your misery Mrs Poet?
RésuméDorothy Parker
  • Razors pain you;
  • Rivers are damp;
  • Acids stain you;
  • And drugs cause cramp.
  • Guns aren't lawful;
  • Nooses give;
  • Gas smells awful;
  • You might as well live.
  • What fun! Dorothy Parker made a number of suicide attempts so she had more than a passing interest in the subject.
  • I call this New York Granite Wit, of which Parker was the queen. Ogden Nash is another in this book who slams-in the attention-getting words while retaining the underlying feeling.
  • So does she come across as desperately miserable? No, I don't think so. She's being sardonically witty with a minute postscript of pity me in the corner.
So Dorothy Parker is a fraud then... Wait a short while.

Here's another witty reflection. Millay was contemporary with Dorothy Parker in New York, and must have shared interests and perhaps drinking companions.
CandleEdna St.Vincent Millay
  • My candle burns at both ends;
  • It will not last the night;
  • But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
  • It gives a lovely light!
  • There's a febrile attitude going on here. I may be overdoing it but I don't care. A writer's version of eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.
  • It's a figurative poem which brings the clichéd metaphor alive. Not, you notice for all of us or anyone but me and my friends and enemies.
  • It's short because it doesn't need to be any longer. If you're writing poems then please don't go on longer than absolutely necessary.
That's more like it a reflection. A robust I am what I am!

Here's Dorothy Parker again. Not so witty now.
The Small HoursDorothy Parker
  • No more my little song comes back;
  • And now of nights I lay
  • My head on down, to watch the black
  • And wait the unfailing gray.
  • Oh, sad are winter nights, and slow;
  • And sad's a song that's dumb;
  • And sad it is to lie and know
  • Another dawn will come.
  • Empty sleepless nights summed-up.
  • Note her little song tells us she was happy once.
  • Here she's exhausted by emptiness rather than determined to do something about it.
There are plenty more 'grim nights' poems around. Obviously writing them is a way for the poet to put their feelings into words, but why should we bother reading these miserable dirges? Perhaps to learn how to express 'thin' emotions.

Another sleepless night.
The Men Who Wear My ClothesVernon Scannell
  • Sleepless I lay last night and watched the slow
  • Procession of the men who wear my clothes:
  • First, the grey man with bloodshot eyes and sly
  • Gestures miming what he loves and loathes.
  • Next came the cheery knocker-back of pints,
  • The beery joker, never far from tears,
  • Whose loud and public vanity acquaints
  • The careful watcher with his private fears.
  • And then I saw the neat mouthed gentle man
  • Defer politely, listen to the lies,
  • Smile at the tedious tale and gaze upon
  • The little mirrors in the speaker's eyes.
  • The men who wear my clothes walked past my bed
  • And all of them looked tired and rather old;
  • I felt a chip of ice melt in my blood.
  • Naked I lay last night, and very cold.
  • Creepy and sad is the mood created from a number of descriptions.
  • I like this because the images are well painted ghosts — of himself. Firmly in liminal territory.
  • What they have in common is And all of them looked tired and rather old so he also is feeling tired and rather old.
If-only..., What-if?, Too-late!, and what is my life? tend not to be shared in the public bar of the pub, instead a 'poem' is called for. You'll come across many like this, but are they drawn as clearly?

Here's a 'difficult' poem. That is, there are a bunch of ideas tumbled-in which give more atmosphere than clarity.
Wild LightningSuzanne Doyle
  • You are not mine; you are my sister's child.
  • Your soft mouth blossoms as you breathe and move
  • Your lips, just souring with milk, to smile
  • In sweet maternal dream. I have known love,
  • But not like this. How can my sister dare
  • To risk such beauty in a world so dark?
  • Billowing curtains in the night storm air
  • Admit some feral bitch's lonely bark.
  • What will time leave you, Beauty, Oh my boy?
  • What love will cut your heart out in the night?
  • Already blind fear and desire's toy,
  • What will you learn to salvage of delight?
  • What knowledge, blessing, charm might I dispense?
  • Here's snake-root, wolf's-bane, holy water, Word
  • To hold against your crumbling innocence
  • And cruel attrition, of which you are assured.
  • Wild lightning scores the sky through this slant rain.
  • The plummeting barometer's a sign
  • Of these sharp times that needle at my brain,
  • And I would leave you something that was mine.
  • I have these hard won pages and no son,
  • For reasons I don't know. Remember me,
  • And do not leave what I have left undone.
  • Love and pessimism with a great description to start.
  • A background of a storm to lay it on with a trowel that there might be troubles ahead.
  • So why have I included it here after damming with faint praise? Because there's nothing wrong with melodrama if it breaks torpor or sets-off a train of thought.
  • In my view crumbling innocence and cruel attrition don't leave us any the wiser. We might guess at some process where a 'prefect' baby will soon start to decay but to my mind these are not the right words to use.
  • Is the ending a solid closure or a trite trick? You decide.
What to do about poems we don't like, can't get to the meaning of or confuse us with waffle? This is an important question as the purpose of this book is to give you the confidence to decide for yourself what's good, or at least what you like without fear of toffee-nosed snobs bearing down on you.

You now know many poems need a second look to unpick them, but sometimes the poet has wandered-off on some strange wavelength, or been in a hurry to get down the pub. Chuck them! If it doesn't mean anything then don't waste your time. There are plenty of poets who simply don't have the communications skills you've seen in this book. Some have occasional good bits while others are consistently dire. Good-luck with TS Elliot's famous The wasteland. Many people find it incomprehensible tosh. If you get into an argument, ask for line by line explanations.

You've seen there are certain techniques that make poetry interesting, and you've also seen a wide variation in styles. Good or Interesting poetry can't be defined in any other way except your impression now you know how it can be done.

Peace?
Fifty FaggotsEdward Thomas
  • There they stand, on their ends, the fifty faggots
  • That once were underwood of hazel and ash
  • In Jenny Pink's copse. Now, by the hedge
  • Close packed, they make a thicket fancy alone
  • Can creep through with the mouse and wren. Next spring
  • A blackbird or robin will nest there,
  • Accustomed to them, thinking they will remain
  • Whatever is for ever to a bird:
  • This Spring it is too late; the swift has come.
  • 'Twas a hot day for carrying them up:
  • Better they will never warm me, though they must
  • Light several Winters' fires. Before they are done
  • The war will have ended, many other things
  • Have ended, maybe, that I can no more
  • Foresee or more control than robin and wren.
  • Thomas is writing from the heart. He expects to enlist and foresees being killed in the trenches. Poignantly, that's exactly what happened.
  • The first impression is a clear description of an exact place. Kipling, from the next county, had a similar knack. (Brushwood was essential in the days before electricity and oil-fired heating. Often one faggot would be used a week to heat the brick oven and laundry / weekly-bath water.)
  • Thomas wrote a lot about rural life. (Another ruralist WH Davies rented a cottage from Thomas.)
Robert Frost spent time together with Thomas, wandering the English countryside and pondering what to do about the war. Frost's The Road Not Taken was written to Thomas about the issue. The Road Not Taken is a very famous poem you'll find in anthologies, and every school will make some reference to it. It's not often put into the context of driving Thomas to enlist when he didn't have to.

Two layers of creepy
The OwlsCharles Baudelaire
  • Under the overhanging yews,
  • The dark owls sit in solemn state,
  • Like stranger gods; by twos and twos
  • Their red eyes gleam. They meditate.
  • Motionless thus they sit and dream
  • Until that melancholy hour
  • When, with the sun's last fading gleam,
  • The nightly shades assume their power.
  • From their still attitude the wise
  • Will learn with terror to despise
  • All tumult, movement, and unrest;
  • For he who follows every shade,
  • Carries the memory in his breast,
  • Of each unhappy journey made.
  • Spooky picture then creepy thought. If he hadn't painted the picture before the pessimistic thought, we wouldn't be in much of a receptive mood. 'Why bother, it'll only end up going wrong' is not a very interesting or striking message on its own. So this is a clever scheme that poets can use to 'sit us down' first, then 'tell us something;.
  • The heart of this poem is in the ending. You don't need me to point out the importance of endings any more.
Symbols in poems are tricky things which tend to be in the realm of scholars. There are all sorts of 'clever' double meanings that are now lost as far as the ordinary reader is concerned. The same applies to some poets who like to sow classical characters through their work as if we'd all studied Greats at Oxford.

Reflection summary

We started with introverted personal problems, then moved more into a personal view of the world. The me-me-me poems can be very clichéd and wearing. Of course you'll come across hundreds of reflective poems, the thing is though... Do they make you reflect?

Mood and philosophy

We've done look-at-life and reflection. This section is more about attitudes. Poets are no different to the rest of us, they want to tell is their point of view. There's often a spiritual side to this, overt or shyly peeping out from behind.

An interesting classic
JerusalemWilliam Blake
  • And did those feet in ancient time
  • Walk upon England's mountains green:
  • And was the holy Lamb of God,
  • On England's pleasant pastures seen!
  • And did the Countenance Divine,
  • Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
  • And was Jerusalem builded here,
  • Among these dark Satanic Mills?
  • Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
  • Bring me my Arrows of desire:
  • Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
  • Bring me my Chariot of fire!
  • I will not cease from Mental Fight,
  • Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
  • Till we have built Jerusalem,
  • In England's green & pleasant Land
  • This was a poem long before it became a song.
  • Blake had religious visions but was intensely 'Christian' in his own way. He didn't have much time for the established Church. A very interesting character, well worth looking-up. He would have liked to turn England into a new Jerusalem.
  • The style, as with a lot of Blake's work, is a bit unusual. It starts with all questions. It's quite a clever trick which sows doubt in our minds. This is liminal as he suggests that there's a fairy-tale reality to the idea that Jesus was pottering around the Home Counties... ...So now he changes gear, and says OK I'll make it happen, and we will jointly make it happen.
  • Good for Blake for expressing what he believes in. Very positive and uplifting. Don't we all want to live in a new Eden?
  • Why does everyone remember dark satanic mills? Probably because it's a powerful sentiment expressed in just three words.
It's no wonder, with the uplifting optimism of togetherness that this poem was turned into a hymn.

More strange William Blake. What's going on in these two poems?
Little Boy Lost / FoundWilliam Blake

Little Boy Lost

  • 'Father, father, where are you going?
  • O do not walk so fast!
  • Speak, father, speak to your little boy,
  • Or else I shall be lost.'
  • The night was dark, no father was there,
  • The child was wet with dew;
  • The mire was deep, and the child did weep,
  • And away the vapour flew.

Little Boy Found

  • The little boy lost in the lonely fen,
  • Led by the wandering light,
  • Began to cry, but God, ever nigh,
  • Appeared like his father, in white.
  • He kissed the child, and by the hand led,
  • And to his mother brought,
  • Who in sorrow pale, through the lonely dale,
  • Her little boy weeping sought.
  • On the surface this is about the Will-o'-the-wisp phenomenon where marsh gasses would create a ghostly lantern light. Modern science hasn't got to the bottom of it. In days when there were huge areas of undrained land, which is now farmland, this would have been more common. Of course the irony is that someone crossing a bog at night was already in serious danger, so was a ghost lamp to be trusted? Perhaps the lights were something to do with the ghosts of previous unfortunate travellers. It must have been very scary. Some people have never been in a remote area without modern light pollution. When you literally can't see your hand in front of your face, then best of luck going just a few steps.
  • Of course this is a moral tale. Trust God and he'll see you home safe.
  • Just like fog with feet, so God has a hand to lead the boy. Of course it's bonkers... but it makes sense in the context of the scene. If you're still trying to take poetry literally then you probably need help.
Blake is good at giving you an emotional experience then a moral. It's what advertisers try to do all the time. He was an illustrator with a very vivid pictorial imagination.

Here's a one way trip often used at funerals.
Crossing the BarAlfred Lord Tennyson
  • Sunset and evening star,
  • And one clear call for me!
  • And may there be no moaning of the bar,
  • When I put out to sea,
  • But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
  • Too full for sound and foam,
  • When that which drew from out the boundless deep
  • Turns again home.
  • Twilight and evening bell,
  • And after that the dark!
  • And may there be no sadness of farewell,
  • When I embark;
  • For through from out our bourne of Time and Place
  • The flood may bear me far,
  • I hope to see my Pilot face to face
  • When I have crossed the bar.
  • The first thing is the smooth flow of the words which are easy to say. Superb craftsmanship. He worked hard at it.
  • But such a tide as moving seems asleep, too full for sound and foam is a perfect description of slack water at a spring high tide.
  • A great metaphor, especially for sailors and fishermen who have experienced the turmol and danger that often arises when crossing the shallow ground which tends to build up across the mouth of a river.
  • The ending is unequivocal.
Poetry at funerals is traditional, but just as you don't send Auntie Flo off in a box knocked up from a door, a shelf and that wonky kitchen cabinet, so perhaps research what the professionals have done first.
There's a reason why Tennyson is still regarded as a great poet.

A wake-up to common-sense call which is just as relevant a hundred years later.
Waiting for the BarbariansConstantine Cavafy
  • What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
  • The barbarians are due here today.
  • Why isn't anything happening in the senate?
  • Why do the senators sit there without legislating?
  • Because the barbarians are coming today.
  • What laws can the senators make now?
  • Once the barbarians are here, they'll do the legislating.
  • Why did our emperor get up so early,
  • and why is he sitting at the city's main gate
  • on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?
  • Because the barbarians are coming today
  • and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
  • He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
  • replete with titles, with imposing names.
  • Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
  • wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
  • Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
  • and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
  • Why are they carrying elegant canes
  • beautifully worked in silver and gold?
  • Because the barbarians are coming today
  • and things like that dazzle the barbarians.
  • Why don't our distinguished orators come forward as usual
  • to make their speeches, say what they have to say?
  • Because the barbarians are coming today
  • and they're bored by rhetoric and public speaking.
  • Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
  • (How serious people's faces have become.)
  • Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
  • everyone going home so lost in thought?
  • Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
  • And some who have just returned from the border say
  • there are no barbarians any longer.
  • And now, what's going to happen to us without barbarians?
  • They were, those people, a kind of solution.
  • Look at the ending. The picture may be a vivid classical town with togas and centurions where emotions are running high, but there's a real kicker in the ending. The revelation is that we, the readers, are in the town, it is our problem.
  • The problem is of course that the rich and powerful, spineless though they might be, are fighting a paper tiger. Worse, they're misleading the whole populace.
I really like this for the way it tells a nervous story, engages the reader in 'what happens next' then flips up a mirror to show us how we're surrounded by scare stories. Reds under beds and all that.

Here's a mood without a message...
Who has seen the windChristina Rossetti
  • Who has seen the wind?
  • Neither I nor you.
  • But when the leaves hang trembling,
  • The wind is passing through.
  • Who has seen the wind?
  • Neither you nor I.
  • But when the trees bow down their heads,
  • The wind is passing by.
  • A mood poem doesn't have to be complicated.
  • I've put it in this section because it's more than a poet reflecting, it makes us reflect for ourselves.
  • A reader might respond: So what? Yes I know the wind is invisible, tell me something I don't know. There's that strange fairy feeling we've seen a few times though. In this case nature passing by, continuing to pass by, having some effect. We can watch but not hold.
  • To me it's a heads-up to readers that when the trees are bending we should stop and ask what's passing by. Time as well as the wind.
This is the sort of poem that's sweet enough on the surface to be the painting. Many people will vaguely feel there's something a bit special going on in the background. A seasoned poemologist will pick out something like my analysis...
...But some poets are all muddle and pretence when it comes to the mood and meaning. Who has seen the wind is subtle. Many poems are 'difficult', perhaps because they're crap. Don't be bamboozled into thinking I can't see the meaning so I must be stupid.

Same poet, simple metaphor.
UphillChristina Rossetti
  • Does the road wind uphill all the way?
  • Yes, to the very end.
  • Will the day's journey take the whole long day?
  • From morn to night, my friend.
  • But is there for the night a resting-place?
  • A roof for when the slow, dark hours begin.
  • May not the darkness hide it from my face?
  • You cannot miss that inn.
  • Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
  • Those who have gone before.
  • Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
  • They will not keep you waiting at that door.
  • Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
  • Of labour you shall find the sum.
  • Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
  • Yea, beds for all who come.
  • Tennyson would be proud. A promise of heaven in the churchyard.
  • Note, it's even the title, it's uphill.
  • Another firm ending after an 'innocent' start.
  • Very simple dialogue. We've no idea who is talking, but then we're in the fairy-world of poetry and it doesn't matter.
I put the two Rossetti poems together so you can see a certain descriptive style. When you read more of her work you might picture her reading it, and then who she might be reading it to. I can never be sure.

Here is a religious musing. Donne (a bit of a wild man) was being coerced into taking Holy Orders at the time. It's not one I'd particularly take to a desert island, but it shows how a heap of ideas, associations and metaphors can be packed in poetry.
Goodfriday, 1613. Riding WestwardJohn Donne
  • Let mans Soule be a Spheare, and then, in this,
  • The intelligence that moves, devotion is,
  • And as the other Spheares, by being growne
  • Subject to forraigne motion, lose their owne,
  • And being by others hurried every day,
  • Scarce in a yeare their naturall forme obey:
  • Pleasure or businesse, so, our Soules admit
  • For their first mover, and are whirld by it.
  • Hence is't, that I am carryed towards the West
  • This day, whe~ my Soules forme bends toward the East.
  • There I should see a Sunne, by rising set,
  • And by that setting endlesse day beget;
  • But that Christ on this Crosse, did rise and fall,
  • Sinne had eternally benighted all.
  • Yet dare I'almost be glad, I do not see
  • That spectacle of too much weight for mee.
  • Who sees Gods face, that is selfe life, must dye;
  • What a death were it then to see God dye?
  • It made his owne Lieutenant Nature shrinke,
  • It made his footstoole crack, and the Sunne winke.
  • Could I behold those hands which span the Poles,
  • And tune all spheares at once peirc'd with those holes?
  • Could I behold that endlesse height which is
  • Zenith to us, and our Antipodes,
  • Humbled below us? or that blood which is
  • The seat of all our Soules, if not of his,
  • Made durt of dust, or that flesh which was worne
  • By God, for his apparell, rag'd, and torne?
  • If on these things I durst not looke, durst I
  • Upon his miserable mother cast mine eye,
  • Who was Gods partner here, and furnish'd thus
  • Halfe of that Sacrifice, which ransom'd us?
  • Though these things, as I ride, be from mine eye,
  • They'are present yet unto my memory,
  • For that looks towards them; & thou look'st towards mee,
  • O Saviour, as thou hang'st upon the tree;
  • I turne my backe to thee, but to receive
  • Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave.
  • O thinke mee worth thine anger, punish mee,
  • Burne off my rusts, and my deformity,
  • Restore thine Image, so much, by thy grace,
  • That thou may'st know mee, and I'll turne my face.
  • I'm not going to analyse this or we'd be here all night. It's easy enough to find on-line. Actually, for anyone interested in the ideas and symbols, those few minutes of research will be very rewarding.
  • What about the rest of us? Well, we can understand lots as we know to take it at slow pace. Bits will jump out as odd or obvious. The spheres at the start must be about inner soul and outer world. Good Friday is not just any day. He's going west, with his back to Jerusalem (Always East) and Jesus. And of course the ending, wraps it up with hope.
  • He was actually riding westwards when he wrote this.
  • Later Donne became a super-star preacher as Dean of St. Pauls. Here he is being analytical, and writing it for others to see, in a way I think shows great leadership potential. I can see why people flocked to his sermons. Have a look at his early raunchy work.
For those that have a religious or historical interest, this sort of poetry is a useful resource. Sermons can go on for hours and be thrown at an audience, whereas poems can be more succinct and personal.

Mood and philosophy summary

There's a lot of religion and spirituality here. I've only touched the surface. One key point, which we've seen before, is that without a good physical description we soon lose interest in some vague, half-expressed sentiment. With this sort of poem it's often having a look on-line for in-depth explanations of details.

When done well a poem can be highly motivational and thought provoking.

Sometimes poets have religious doubts as well as certainties. To spot what's going on you may need to do some research into their life.

Mess with my mind

We've already seen that one of the great powers a poet can use is baffle and suggest strangely connected or disconnected things. You're taken into that liminal area where what's being described isn't quite what's printed on the page. Here are some poems which have that quality in a way that surprises and traps.

Where's the reality? Is this about a what or a who?
The riverSara Teasdale
  • I came from the sunny valleys
  • And sought for the open sea,
  • For I thought in its gray expanses
  • My peace would come to me.
  • I came at last to the ocean
  • And found it wild and black,
  • And I cried to the windless valleys,
  • "Be kind and take me back!"
  • But the thirsty tide ran inland,
  • And the salt waves drank of me,
  • And I who was fresh as the rainfall
  • Am bitter as the sea.
  • 'I am a river. This is what it feels like.' Clear descriptions throughout and a bitter ending. The whole thing is simple and direct.
  • We've done this sort of thing before (Pathetic Fallacy) where nature gets a character. However this isn't 'look at it', but 'I am it.', which is a further step. It's more powerful because we're sharing the emotion rather than looking at it. You might think this is Teasdale's own story that she's trying to rationalise, for example a failed romance. It might be, but that's pure speculation. The emotions are what's clear, and those are shared by river, poet and reader.
  • Because rivers don't have emotions the rejection, or realisation of a horrible mistake, must belong to the poet herself.
The whole poem is black and white no-nonsense description... Yet we've also got pure emotion pouring out as well. She's sharing riveryness and bitterness.

Here is a song that seems to puzzle a lot of people. You might want to take a few seconds to think what the title alone suggests.
The solitary huntsmanOgden Nash
  • The solitary huntsman
  • No coat of pink doth wear,
  • But midnight black from cap to spur
  • Upon his midnight mare.
  • He drones a tuneless jingle
  • In lieu of tally-ho:
  • "I'll catch a fox
  • And put him in a box
  • And never let him go."
  • The solitary huntsman,
  • He follows silent hounds.
  • No horn proclaims his joyless sport,
  • And never a hoofbeat sounds.
  • His hundred hounds, his thousands,
  • Their master's will they know:
  • To catch a fox
  • And put him in a box
  • And never let him go.
  • For all the fox's doubling
  • They track him to his den.
  • The chase may fill a morning,
  • Or threescore years and ten.
  • The huntsman never sated
  • Screaks to his saddlebow,
  • "I'll catch another fox
  • And put him in a box
  • And never let him go."
  • That's unusual! A nursery rhyme with a mysterious huntsman, a huntsman that might take threescore years and ten to catch his fox.
  • Lots of negatives and the whole thing is a contradiction in style and context.
  • The River was clear description while this is the movement and flickering-shadow of Robert Louis Stevenson. I like it because you can't quite picture what's happening. It's unreal enough to remain a bit of nonsense without the smear of D-E-A-T-H!
Ogden Nash, as we saw with Valentine, was a master of colliding opposites. Here he's playing with the pictures in our mind.

Dr. Seuss style nonsense. Or is it anything but?
Our Bog is DoodStevie Smith
  • Our Bog is dood, our Bog is dood,
  • They lisped in accents mild,
  • But when I asked them to explain
  • They grew a little wild.
  • How do you know your Bog is dood
  • My darling little child?
  • We know because we wish it so
  • That is enough, they cried,
  • And straight within each infant eye
  • Stood up the flame of pride,
  • And if you do not think it so
  • You shall be crucified.
  • Then tell me, darling little ones,
  • What's dood, suppose Bog is?
  • Just what we think, the answer came,
  • Just what we think it is.
  • They bowed their heads. Our Bog is ours
  • And we are wholly his.
  • But when they raised them up again
  • They had forgotten me
  • Each one upon each other glared
  • In pride and misery
  • For what was dood, and what their Bog
  • They never could agree.
  • Oh sweet it was to leave them then,
  • And sweeter not to see,
  • And sweetest of all to walk alone
  • Beside the encroaching sea,
  • The sea that soon should drown them all,
  • That never yet drowned me.
If you wondered about this bit of children's nonsense, and concluded it to be just that, come in and join the club. Then somebody gave me the simple key to unlock this grim, adult poem.

  • A bit like The Solitary Huntsman we find it difficult to go beyond a picture of an adult trying to get sense out of children. One of the clevernesses is that I know children who are just like that; with their fantasy worlds, irrational determinations and willingness to take their own side even if it's meaningless words.
  • What a weird ending...
  • How about (if you can) un-picturing children and un-picturing a stuffed-toy or imaginary-creature. Now replace Bog is dood with God is dead (we mean living)(we think). Oh! She's taking a big stick to the Church.
  • Now it's a completely different poem.
  • The observations are still sharp but of different things. "How do you know your god is dead(living)(etc)?" brings a wild retort, just like asking someone to prove their God exists. Then the undeniability of their vision ends with a hardly childish You shall be crucified. They admit they don't know what their God is but we are wholly his. And they can't agree amongst themselves in the next verse.
  • Now there's more hope for the ending. Good riddance to the bloody lot of them!
  • But they are children squabbling about a nonsense, so bring back those nursery images.
We've done this sort of thing before, where there's a picture or story that keeps us going and then a reveal. Here you might need a nudge to reveal the inside, and when you do it's a perfectly wonderful piece of art and commentary woven into a confusion. While you were confused by a starter, a master poet placed the main course right in front of you.

If you're asked to give examples of great poetry then start with Fog and leave this for later. It's strong meat which is best chewed by a reader who is used to having their mind messed-with.

A simple fairy-romance. This is mostly what you see is what you get.
The Shadow PeopleFrancis Ledwidge
  • Old lame Bridget doesn't hear
  • Fairy music in the grass
  • When the gloaming's on the mere
  • And the shadow people pass:
  • Never hears their slow grey feet
  • Coming from the village street
  • Just beyond the parson's wall,
  • Where the clover globes are sweet
  • And the mushroom's parasol
  • Opens in the moonlit rain.
  • Every night I hear them call
  • From their long and merry train.
  • Old lame Bridget says to me,
  • "It is just your fancy, child."
  • She cannot believe I see
  • Laughing faces in the wild,
  • Hands that twinkle in the sedge
  • Bowing at the water's edge
  • Where the finny minnows quiver,
  • Shaping on a blue wave's ledge
  • Bubble foam to sail the river.
  • And the sunny hands to me
  • Beckon ever, beckon ever.
  • Oh! I would be wild and free,
  • And with the shadow people be.
  • By now you'll recognise the genre of rural poetry. Here everything is idyllic except for the obstinate obstacle of Bridget. He can't share his visions with her and there's some reason he doesn't run away.
  • He makes us choose between Bridget's (and our own) common-sense and his wild imaginings. Although we may not realise this conflict it makes the poem much more powerful than a simple 'there's fairies in the woods'.
  • Ending? Good enough suspense for me. What happens next?
There are plenty of poems with explicit supernatural elements. This is a simple one with charms beyond the fairies. Watch out for the twee ones though!

There's a big difference between supernatural and surreal. Mashed-up metaphors are ideal for poetic treatment.
Many Red DevilsStephen Crane
  • Many red devils ran from my heart
  • And out upon the page.
  • They were so tiny
  • The pen could mash them.
  • And many struggled in the ink.
  • It was strange
  • To write in this red muck
  • Of things from my heart.
  • An impossible picture without an explicit emotion. The nearest we get is strange.
  • But, being good imaginists, we get an impression of rage flowing from deep inside him but not being more than a hindrance even though that was the most important thing there.
  • This is a punchy little poem. Even more remarkable since it must have been written in the 19th century. I like the struggle to get at whatever this red stuff is, and either wipe it away or take it.
Stephen Crane has a knack for introducing us to chaotic power.

In a similar vein.
In the desertStephen Crane
  • In the desert
  • I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
  • Who, squatting upon the ground,
  • Held his heart in his hands,
  • And ate of it.
  • I said, "Is it good, friend?"
  • "It is bitter—bitter," he answered;
  • "But I like it
  • Because it is bitter,
  • And because it is my heart."
  • I can see this as a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. Nasty, creepy, surreal and I don't want to go there.
  • There are things you might comment on, but there's a chasm of what the hell is going on. You know the chasm is there but is it a mirror or mirage? This is a make-up your own thoughts poem, without much guidance from the poet.
There are thousands of gibberish poems around. In my view this is on the right side of incomprehensible.

This is a translation from Spanish, but still evocative of 'things'.
The GuitarFederico García Lorca
  • The weeping of the guitar
  • begins.
  • The goblets of dawn
  • are smashed.
  • The weeping of the guitar
  • begins.
  • Useless
  • to silence it.
  • Impossible
  • to silence it.
  • It weeps monotonously
  • as water weeps
  • as the wind weeps
  • over snowfields.
  • Impossible
  • to silence it.
  • It weeps for distant
  • things.
  • Hot southern sands
  • yearning for white camellias.
  • Weeps arrow without target
  • evening without morning
  • and the first dead bird
  • on the branch.
  • Oh, guitar!
  • Heart mortally wounded
  • by five swords.
  • How do you write a poem about evocative lament when the music itself does the job already? By taking romantic images and strange personal diversions where dreaming takes us.
  • The ending is curious image. Five fingers obviously, but I'd have thought they were bringing the guitar to life rather than killing it.
I've included this as an example of a load of almost descriptions. They're feint sketches of proper pictures. There's a lot of this about and unfortunately some are scribbles. I'm not sure exactly what he's trying to say, but there are close and far-away images as if to suggest the music spans vast distances, a whole nation perhaps.

Mess with my mind summary

That's what poetry is all about. Sometimes it's a tickle, at others a torrent of confusion which is there for a good reason.

Ending

It's an eye-opener

After school it took me thirty years to discover that poetry isn't all tedious. Then another five before the penny-dropped about how it works. I hope you don't have to wait so long. I'm not one of Sylvia Plath's children in Our Bog is Dood because you can see the evidence for yourself.

We're all individuals and our likes and dislikes are conditioned to a large part by our early experience. Children aren't teenagers and teenagers aren't adults! Doctor Seuss is great for kids but adults need something more bonkers still. Fox in socks (Seuss) is a great book. The Lone Huntsman is a great poem. Just like all boats float according to basic physics, so all poems float across our minds... but some are in the paddling pool, some are for teenagers on a lake in the park and others churn across the oceans. I've tried to show you that the bigger boats with clever captains will take you to strange lands.

Humbug warning

This be the verse

As I think you've guessed already, there's a lot of sub-standard poetry around. I admit I won't buy a poetry book except at a charity shop. There's a lot available on the Internet (make sure you take copies) to get you started. If you get hooked on what's there then, for 20th century poets, you'll find books probably have more. If you want a helping hand with a poem then search the internet and there will probably be a couple of analyses.

I once read my work at a poetry gathering. Mine was the ONLY rhyming poem out of 25. What? Rhyme doesn't necessarily mean good (it can indicate doggerel) but why should I stay to listen to prose? Worse, it was written by prose-minded 'poets' who shovel words onto the page like cat-litter then paw at it like astrologers pretending knowledge only they have.

You know what poetry is. It's not confusion but deliberate disruption. It's not describing words like pencil strokes but description like a cartoon. It's not rhyme but a machine for reading. It's not clutching at straws but building a nest. Remember how the heart of a poem is at the end? You'd be amazed at the contemporary writers who are oblivious to this. Doggerel writers know all the tricks.

Poets are people

What about the poets who've appeared in these pages? Look up their biography on the internet and try a few more of their poems. It's nice to 'get to know someone' from 200 years ago. For example Edward Thomas was close friends with Robert Frost and WH Davies and some of their poetry is specific to the issues they faced at the time. Why is Charlotte Mew not celebrated in British schools? Why did she kill herself? All these questions are optional, the poems should speak for themselves, but sometimes a bit of background gives a new layer of meaning to a poem. Many were pressured by poverty, depression, strange relationships and odd ways of life. Some had bursts of creativity then gave-up. There's no test at the end, this is for your satisfaction.

A note for writers

There's absolutely nothing wrong with having a go at poetry so long as you think like a poet and not a programmer, novelist or playwright. It's a frame of mind that takes practice. My advice is to start by writing shorts notes to people you know about their issues or relationships without worrying about making a finished poem. This will help draw out metaphors and cut-out waffle. You don't have to send the notes of course, but if you do then it's usually very rewarding. You can suggest things in a poem that sound corny if said aloud. For example if someone has done a very nice thing and made a difference then you could send them flowers or a poem about how nice the people who bring and arrange flowers for others are. If you're thinking like a poet you're already wondering how flowers wilt and die, perhaps you've got a picture of old widows bringing flowers to graves and how there might be a connection as strong as fog and cats between flowers and old ladies.