Poetry Project

How to be a world famous poet

Be born poor, but ambitious, and startlingly but unconventionally beautiful.  Have some Irish blood in you, or a parent with musical talent.  Dress the part. Learn to swear while darning your socks: “Needle in, shit.  Needle out, piss.  Needle in, fuck.  Needle out, cunt.”  Be bohemian; take lots of lovers of both sexes. Study classic poetry, but do it your way.  Be completely self-absorbed, and conscious of your image at all times.  Don’t have children. Have the kind of voice that commands attention. Write poems that say aloud what everybody thinks but no one dares say.  Be confessional. Attract patrons, use them, and drop them when they bore you. Borrow money when you’re poor and spend lavishly when you’re rich. Go to Paris and China and on horseback through Albania, but have one place that is unmistakeably home.  Make your editors fall in love with you.  Make waiters fall in love with you.  Make people ten years your junior fall in love with you.  Don’t fall in love, but do get your heart broken (work out how). Marry someone who babies you and who carries you upstairs when you’re tired (don’t weigh much).  Smoke, drink and take drugs. Do not live past the age of sixty.

As you might have guessed, I’ve been rereading a brilliant biography of Edna St Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford, called Savage Beauty. My recipe for a poet is drawn from her extraordinary life.

I thought I’d base the exercises for our second poetry project on Millay’s famous poems.  All poets should read poetry, not just hanker after publishing their own, so each exercise will require a little bit of reading.  It's only by reading widely that you'll develop a strong technique.

You can submit as many of the exercises as you like. Use your own natural speaking and writing voice (don't try to use Millay's sometimes old-fashioned phrasing) and only use rhyme if you really want to.

Submit your poems to poetryproject@slipnet.co.za by Wednesday 27 April 2011, and I will choose the best for publication here.

1.                   Read Edna St Vincent Millay’s famous quatrain, “First Fig” and then write your own quatrain, summing up yourself or your worldview in four lines only:

First Fig
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!

2.                   Read Edna St Vincent Millay’s two-stanza poem “Thursday” and then write your own two-stanza poem.  You could also name your poem after a day of the week; you could think about starting your poem with “And” too, but that’s your choice.

AND if I loved you Wednesday,
Well, what is that to you?
I do not love you Thursday–
So much is true.

And why you come complaining
Is more than I can see.
I loved you Wednesday,–yes–but what
Is that to me?

3.                    Read Edna St Vincent Millay’s sonnet “Love is not all”.  Like Shakespeare, she begins her love poem with a catalogue of negatives, saying what love is not.  Then she makes an assertion (“It may well be”) which she eventually refutes (“I do not think I would”) in a line with a surprising caesura.  Write a poem (not necessarily about love) that uses any or all of these techniques.

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution's power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.

4.                   Read Edna St Vincent Millay’s “Elegy before death”  http://www.americanpoems.com/poets/ednamillay/7283 and then write your own elegy to someone who has not yet died. You might also like to use her technique of listing all the things that will not change or disappear as a result of the death before listing some surprising things that will change or show awareness of the passing.

5.                   Read Edna St Vincent Millay’s sonnet “I shall forget you presently, my dear” http://www.americanpoems.com/poets/ednamillay/12427 and then write your own non-romantic love poem.  You might also like to use her technique of direct address (“You”).

6.                   Read Edna St Vincent Millay’s “Recuerdo” (you can also hear a rare voice recording of this poem on YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mYQkEkB_fhk) and then write your own poetic memory of a date that didn’t cost much money.

Submitted Poems

Love poem for another (ex. number 5)  Sarah Frost
This still afternoon, the fly chafing at the closed window
I close the door on thoughts of you – like a mother would –
who does not wish for her child, fleeing a dark dream,
to find her naked, bending, in the soft light of a bedside lamp
to kiss her lover’s penis, boldly grateful.

I wish it could be different.
I wish that it had been you with me on a bed somewhere, anywhere
as I killed your demons one by one
and brought you back from your self-imposed abstraction
into the heady world of the body: sweat and tenderness.

But you retreat, and come forward, and back off again
and life, unlike pleasure, does not recur.
So I take the tentative key and lock away
what you do not seem to want, the mess of my need –
keeping for one who is not you the passage that craves connection,
a mate unmistakeably placing himself in me, moving forwards.

a poetic memory of a date that did not cost much money  Dominique Botha
he lit a cigarette and ordered a steak
you will have to pay I am broke
pa had given me a hundred rand
for fuel and sundry

ash flame stitched into ivory
mottled bark of avenue planes
children shouted in a yard across the street

in the far north there is the running of the deer

counting from one to ten
over and over
while he made his rhythmic way
across me
until it was finished

Brighton Peer    Leila Bloch
Out of the rain and on to the pier
We laughed at the beach
where no one swam
rustled up rusted coins
spending none.
Our pallets dry our cheeks
we never got on,
but watched
A couple
On a slingshot-ride
plunge and skim
the surface of the

I shall, in time, forget your coral lips   Michael Rolfe
I took for granted what I did not see:
The school-runs that you ran I did not run,
Those toilet-rolls replaced, but not by me,
And how did all that washing-up get done?
The nappies that you changed, which I did not,
Those loads of laundry that I did not load,
The times you drove me home when I was vrot,
And keen, although not fit, to take the road.
That ironing’s such hard work I’d no idea.
That light-bulbs sometimes do burn out I’ve learned.
And cooking’s harder than it looks, I fear,
And so is cleaning pots that I have burned.
I shall, in time, forget your coral lips,
But not the way you cooked my fish-and-chips.

This is     Yvette Morey
No exorcism, no casting out, aside or asunder,
no ritual invocation, no dry incantation,
no church bells ringing, no angels singing.
This is crawling on your belly, shaking like jelly,
this is that ole devil called love again
that sly old sun of a gun again,
following me around, building me up, tearing me down.

This is
no letting go, opening up, peeling
back to let something out
(never mind the mess.)
This is hard-wire-blue-print.
This is spitting not swallowing,
head in the oven wallowing.
This is hound dog howling
(Big Mama not Elvis)
foaming, fouling,
gnawing, pawing at an offending limb.

This is
not your cocaine blues, your heroin blues,
your junky monkey brown sugar blues
sugar. This is I want a little sugar in my bowl
(Bessie) sweet-tooth-ache-sugar,
I feel so funny, I feel so sad,
empty bowl sugar.

This is
union, amniotic communion,
This is piss, not seed.
This is fuck you fuck you fuck you need.
This is Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine
(Patti not Jim)
and her name is, and her name is, and her name is
jee    ell    OH     ar    aye     yai     yai     yai     yai     yai     yai
G. L. O. R. I. A.

This is
bring it down, this is
bring it into the light,
this is bring it into
black and white,

(With apologies and gratitude: Tom Waits, Billie Holiday, Big Mama Thornton, Bessie Head, Patti Smith).

Elegy  Annette Snyckers
There will still be
rain in winter,
sifting softly on the roof.
The mountain will stand tall as ever,
the sea will rush to shore,
not making pause for any
on the day you die.

There will still be
early sunshine,
even when you die –
come through morning’s windows,
to make me pause alone
and watch the tiny
dust dots dance.

In summer,
The mocking chat will sing
each morning,
unconscious of your death.
Down by the midday-river,
dragon flies still will hover,
they do not care at all.

The path across the dune
might miss your footfall,
though I doubt as much.
Your loss will lie,
a throbbing numbness,
rather on my skin,
where I shall miss your touch.

Girl with no hands  Sarah Frost
‘A father wanted to have his own daughter to wife, and as she refused, cut off her hands (and breasts), made her put  on a white shirt, and drove her out into the world’ (Brothers Grimm)
I left, but grew back each hand  –
a fiery salamander able to regenerate.
I wish that, as flames renew barren land
I could transform his hate, but too late, too late.

exercise 1   Dominique Botha
amanda paradysvoël
is my naam
ek plant palms
op die sekelmaan

(First fig exercise)  Michael Rolfe
Ev’ry morning sullen waking, duty-called by shrill alarm:
Stumble out, resentful still, to face an enigmatic world,
Puzzling human nature out, like unfamiliar showers,
Where some cold taps are labelled ‘Hot’ and hot ones labelled ‘Cold’.

Tuesday  Nicolai Buis
And it was you, Tuesday,
adored above your brothers
that anchored_(his dreams)_(to mine)
with words that seemed unsinkable.

And it was you, Tuesday,
detested above your brothers
that left my hopes               shipwrecked
in the wake of your departure.

War of Words   Leila Bloch
like torn fabric, I'm rough
my stop-start forward, two steps back
I've said too much but not enough
this way retreat, this way attack


If you can’t be with the one you love, write a poem
I’d like to start off by recommending a poem that blew my clichéd socks off: “Love poem for another” by Sarah Frost.  This is a classic case of a poem succeeding because it tells a truth no one else dares to say aloud: that we sometimes sleep with one person while secretly longing for another.  It made me think how every act of intimacy is, looked at another way, an act of betrayal.  Sarah conveys that truth in a startling and unsettling pair of images in her first stanza.  I would rate this poem along with the best erotic poems of Antjie Krog and Sharon Olds.

I loved the “cheap date” poems submitted by Dominique Botha (“a poetic memory of a date that did not cost much money“) and Leila Bloch (“Brighton Pier”).  Dominique’s poem is darker; she conveys the date’s malevolence using a number of really clever techniques.  First, she knows that the best way to condemn a reprehensible person is quite simply to quote their words ("you will have to pay I am broke").  Secondly, she keeps “I” out of the poem almost entirely, so that the speaker seems to be recalling a strangely disembodied sexual contact (“counting from one to ten/over and over/while he made his rhythmic way/across me /until it was finished”).  The sense of dissociation is emphasised by the attention to details that have nothing to do with the date itself, but which suggest instead a staring out and away from the scene at hand: “ash flame stitched into ivory/mottled bark of avenue planes /children shouted in a yard across the street/in the far north there is the running of the deer”.  This is a moving and impressive poem.

Leila’s take on the same exercise left more room for the possibility of joy, though the phrase “we never got on” is wonderfully ambiguous, referring both to the fairground ride the couple cannot afford and (possibly) a dissonance between them. I loved the economy of this poem; the way it suggested a whole scene and a story in the briefest lines. I wasn't sure if the spelling of "Peer" in the title was intentional, but I liked the punning effect either way.

Michael Rolfe’s sonnet is a virtuoso combination of technique and truth, a hilarious divorcé’s lament.  I was entertained by the wit of rhyming “vrot” with “not”, and the punch of the final rhyming couplet:  “I shall, in time, forget your coral lips,/ But not the way you cooked my fish-and-chips.”

Yvette Morey’s “This is” cleverly incorporates fragments of rock, blues and jazz lyrics.  Each stanza works through a compelling catalogue of negatives “No exorcism, no casting out, aside or asunder,/no ritual invocation, no dry incantation,/no church bells ringing, no angels singing” before stating its anthem-like positive:  “This is spitting not swallowing,/head in the oven wallowing./This is hound dog howling /(Big Mama not Elvis)/ foaming, fouling, /gnawing, pawing at an offending limb”.

As an antidote to all the unromantic love poems, Annette Snyckers’ elegy was pure balm.

I was impressed by the quatrains: Sarah’s so sinister, Dominique’s quirky and whimsical, Michael’s curmudgeonly yet witty, Leila’s tense and tightly coiled with its contradictions.

Nikolai Buis provided a very tightly constructed two-stanza take on “Tuesday”, creating a really clever mirrored structure that succinctly conveys the impermanence of happiness.

Thank you all for your making this workshop such a pleasure.

If you’re interested in learning more about Finuala Dowling’s poetry workshops, buy a copy of Difficult to Explain, available from Modjaji.

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