Sunday, 15 July 2012


 by Vida Bailey 

 This post is perhaps more for teaching the appreciation of poetry than the writing of it. Or maybe not so much the appreciation of it as the confidence to form an opinion. That might be the problem for a lot of younger readers who are put off by feeling they don’t understand anything.
So forgive me, if this comes from a secondary school teacher’s perspective rather than a creative writing teacher’s one.

I once went to a seminar where the admirably dedicated teacher running the show gave us Plath’s Black Rook in Rainy Weather to read. Appropriate, given that the muse and writer’s block are its theme. I find it a beautiful poem, its lines touch me immensely with that feeling of familiarity we get sometimes, reading another’s words.
What we did was read the poem, and do nothing more than pick a line or phrase that we particularly liked, that resonated with us. Then we shared our words, said why we liked them, and wrote them on slips of paper. Then we got into groups and had to put together a new poem, using only the words we had. The teacher-trick was to continually tell us two more minutes only! As it’s only ever in the last two panicked minutes of the task that anyone stops faffing and gets something done. I remember lots of faffing, and I’m afraid I don’t know where to lay hands on the actual poem we came up with, but, surprisingly, or unsurprisingly, it was great.  Ok, perhaps it had power because Plath’s words are so powerful, but also it seemed to me that we had managed to distil the essence of the original poem and understand it the better for that, without having read any commentary on it at all.
And another time, the teacher got us to write our own poems, using the simple cue of
‘I am the hour....
I am the day...
I am the week ... ‘ etc.
A few simple sentences, and they contained such emotion.
‘I am the nights I spent listening to my father’s shouting, the screaming of the dog as he beat her
I am all the hours I spent in labour, walking the floors, waiting for my daughter to come.’
For example.
And it’s true. We are those things, are we not? It works well with ‘I remember’, too.
Combining the two ideas, I find Simon Armitage’s poem, It Ain’t What You do, It’s What It Does To You’ another excellent vehicle for encouraging thought and expression, and for accessing the little bit of the poet in everyone. Each verse starts with a disclaimer – what the poet has not lived – and then counters that with a far more domestic achievement he considers equally meaningful.
I have not bummed across America

with only a dollar to spare, one pair

of busted Levi’s and a bowie knife.

I have lived with thieves in Manchester.

I have not padded through the Taj Mahal,

barefoot, listening to the space between

each footfall, picking up and putting down

its print against the marble floor. But I

skimmed flat stones across Black Moss on a day

so still I could hear each set of ripples

as they crossed. I felt each stone’s inertia

spend itself against the water; then sink.

I have not toyed with a parachute cord

while perched on the lip of a light aircraft;

but I held the wobbly head of a boy

at the day centre, and stroked his fat hands.

And I guess that the lightness in the throat

and the tiny cascading sensation

somewhere inside us are both part of that

sense of something else. That feeling, I mean.

I did it with a group of Intermediate language students (look, present perfect!), to mixed results (I don’t think it is a poem, it doesn’t rhyme’). But it was a good exercise one way or the other – I got them to do a verse each, and then a group conclusion. I tried it while I was waiting for them.

I have not written a novel, read by many,
Garnered fame or fortune with its success.
But I have spun tales of dragons, gold and green scaled,
Fierce and friendly
to lull my children to sleep.

Sometimes it’s good to imitate, to piggyback, and find the ideas inside you that way. 


Vida Bailey is an accomplished author and teacher who writes at the sex focussed blog:


Vida said...

Thanks Ashley! 'Accomplished' is far too kind, but I hope your readers enjoy.

Ashley R Lister said...


Thanks for joining us here on the Dead Good Blog.

I love exercises like these - that allow learners to explore their own creativity. It was also delightful to revisit Plath and Armitage this morning.