Poetry Project

Return to the masters

We teach ourselves to write.  Sometimes this autodidact impulse is fed by warnings, advice and examples provided by the masters.

Poets have been astonishingly consistent in what they tell us about the art of poetry.  Most of their wise counsel is available on the Internet at sites like Poetry Foundation and Poets.org,  or in anthologies like Strong Words: Modern poets on modern poetry.

It always comes down to the same set of precepts. Observe.  Be concrete.  Avoid abstractions.  Avoid clichés. Take risks.  Be accurate.  Be concise. Be original. Listen.  Divine.  Feel.

But I still get poems that are too long, or about broken hearts, or something called Justice.

In this month’s poetry project, I’m urging you to return to the lessons provided by the masters.  You can dig out the lessons yourself, or follow the links I've provided above or below.

Send your poems pasted inside the body of an email headed SLiP June poetry workshop to SLiP Project Manager pieter@slipnet.co.za by no later than Monday June 4, 2012.  Please give your poem a title. I’ll respond with general comments about all the entries, and select a few of the best for publication here.

I look forward to your poems in response to any or all of the following prompts.

  1. Read Rilke’s warning to a young poet.  Then write a poem that follows his advice to ‘describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty - describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember.’
  2. Read Wislawa Szymborska’s advice to the young poets who sent her poems.Then write a poem that describes a place or setting in a way that fulfills her dictum that in a poem 'everything becomes significant, meaningful: the choice of images, their placement, the shape they take in words. The description of an ordinary room must become before our eyes the discovery of that room, and the emotion contained by that description must be shared by the readers.'
  3.  Write a poem that responds to Wislawa Szymborska’s advice that ‘you should think of your life as a remarkable adventure that’s happened to you.’
  4.  Read Ezra Pound’s description of how he came to write his famous two-line poem ‘In a station of the Metro’.  Then write your own two-line poem following the same pattern, namely (a) a title that gives a real location (b) a first line that states the thing seen or observed (c) a final line that provides an image or correlative to the thing observed.
  5.  In 1964, Joseph Brodsky went on trial for being a poet. Write a poem that takes the form of a poet, artist, musician or dancer on trial.
  6. Read some of Brodsky's poems before writing one of your own.
  7. Write any poem on any subject.

Submitted Poems

The Muse
Ross Fleming

The reason why I write? - Her elegantly inclined head,
musical ear angled to catch the  finest surge in pitch.


Ross Fleming

were i to be grateful for
anything i came by,
inherited, or gathered,
anything i found, grew
or uncovered,
it would not be my calm gene,
nor my nervously creative streak,
and neither would it be
a stable partner, a lucky education,
some true friends, a happy child or two,
nor a penchant for poetry.

no, the secret of my consciousness
is a quiet corner of oblivion;
small, dazed, warm, sunbaked, accepting,
the heritage of an oblivious childhood.

UCT: 9pm
Keith Edwards

A yellow moon drags up over the Flats. Smudged skull.
Steam clouds column skywards from the cooling towers.
Up here on UCT’s fields the air is odourless as a corporate
Traffic on the freeway below glides by in a wet swish.
The night is dry.

Sprinklers hiss and startle with sudden flung wet.
Now the grass breathes memory,
of school sports’ days from the spectators’ side,
and of father, bending shirtless to his mower
and the weekend lawn.

Wynberg Hill: Early evening (1)
Keith Edwards

Full moon.
Satellite dish for a world; tonight, we get the pictures.

Wynberg Hill: Early evening (2)
Keith Edwards

Full moon.
Your face - I was sixty when I first noticed - sad-eyed child with rosebud mouth.

Christmas Eve
Keith Edwards

On Christmas Eve I walk the suburbs
to see the picture-window displays.

Evergreen needles prick the panes,
catenaries of cards curve below pelmet bobs.

Christmas tree lights blink on and off,
revealing and revealing
the Hockney and the Tretchikoff.

Sylvia & Phil
Keith Edwards

Hermited in Hull, he held death at bay;
she reeled death in, day by day.

Yvette Morey

In the gardens of the suburban uncles and aunts of my childhood
there was trembling heat, green green green, secrets.
A refuge for unsociable children with books.

Cool concrete gazebos, ceilings swirling with geckos,
some without tails. Panting dogs with hot fur and wet noses,
a neatly coiled garden hose.

A bitter apple orchard shunned by adults.
Swimming, a few boozy breaths fastened to each arm,
and my brother, nude in the bird bath, with improbably blue eyes.

Shoe Tree, College Green.
Yvette Morey

Lumpen flock, triple stripe and swoosh, high amongst the branches:
hopes of absent soles, winged victory suspended.

At the bottom of the New York subway stairs
Gillian Rennie

Bent double, stopping sideways, man and coat brush aside the floor.
Suddenly, crab runs, shoves aside the shell, bursts into light.

Ross Fleming

huge underlurking muscular laureate
your dark Celtic brevity inspires me still

iron age incarnate
agile anticipator    jumping continents    hemispheres
the quick sharp cutting of an honest meal
from my listening viscera

your science a new art form
your art lonely lonely lonely

concise primate clipped clean
your tail flicked sadly as i watched
you make that last leap into darkness
no softening, the steel trap snapped shut.

In her bedroom
Sarah Frost

I revisit this memory, reluctantly,
as one takes out, surveys a treasured, feared photograph:
knowing that the years
cannot pale the crimson flowers of the bedroom curtain
framing a hurt blue sky, emptying into night.

Small wind chime moons, mother-of-pearl, a gift,
sound in the darkening recess of the sash window,
delicate, as she is, turned 12 that day, full of birthday cake
and tiger’s eye mints, lying on her bed –
a pretty pink lamp shade casting  its helpless light
across a longing she cannot understand.

Tears butterfly across her face
for the bears she has just locked inside her father’s travelling trunk,
standing at a remove on the other side of the room,
eschewing the comfort of their rough raw fur,
their sad sewed-on eyes.

The edge of the crewelled bedspread
stops her trembling mouth,
as white clapboard walls refuse to mirror
her rite of passing.

Waiting for the bus to stop
Sara P. Dias

We hear the passing of a loud bass pulse,
and smile in recognition of a mutual vexation.

In such proximity we can follow lines
beside the eyes to the veins below the epidermis –

not just imagine the flat of one another’s eyes
behind comments online.

Our thoughts soften as we listen more closely;
sighs and laughs carried on the southeaster aerate us and
for a moment  we quiver at the same frequency,
altered and shimmering above a long Karoo road.

From armchairs in retirement homes
Sara P. Dias

Seasoned travellers follow the settling sun:
Desiccating moths cornered with the dust.

I want to read your poem
Pierre-Henry Nortje

take notes in pencil
make a list of reasons why
to reject every line
4th draft in type
draw words with a picture
fight for your balls, uterus
use relatable imagery, or not
send a fax copy to a wrong number
remain completely heartbroken for
the rest of your brokenhearted life
use a dictionary
sing: "when I woke up this morning"
float the message to friend, enemy
be placid
let opposites smooch, smudge and smash
paint the chair
let the reader make the poem for you
touch the reader's hand
refer to other things similar
do nothing at all
save yourself and everyone
from death, life, etc.
cure your own disease
listen to good advice
loose everything
clean the house naked
sell your soul to the devil for cash
try to successfully write a poem
describe without capture
depress the neighbours
drink a beer
have great sex
keep it  too long to even start
and find a sharpener.


Ross Fleming’s poem ‘oblivion’ is one of my favourites this month.  It leads us on by rousing our curiosity:  What would cause the speaker to feel gratitude?  The poem takes us through a litany of possible causes of gratitude (a calm disposition, nervous creativity, a stable partner) but delays satisfying our curiosity until the very last line.  The catalogue of negatives technique is very cleverly used here: it creates suspense, allows room for the speaker to create a mini-biography and even raises the suspicion that he is refusing to feel grateful for anything at all.  When at last our question is answered, it is with an image of childhood that is beautifully intense and atmospheric: ‘small, dazed, warm, sunbaked, accepting’.

Editing notes:  I don’t think the lower case helps the poem, but I’m open to counter-suggestions.  Why do poets use lower case?  Is it in homage to ee cummings?  Does it come out of a sense of humility (‘I’ am not worthy of raising myself to ‘I’)?  Is it an act of rebellion (boo sucks to all you people in authority who decide on the rules of punctuation and then enforce them)?

What I do feel is that Fleming’s poem would benefit from a slight tweak in the last stanza, to avoid the repetition of ‘oblivion’.  The following small change would, I feel, prevent the poem from pre-empting its own conclusion:

no, the secret of my consciousness
is a quiet corner of oblivion;
small, dazed, warm, sunbaked, accepting,
the heritage of an oblivious childhood.

I say this because I want the word ‘oblivion’ to come as a snot-klap of a surprise in the last line.

I loved the specificity of Keith Edwards’ ‘UCT: 9pm’.  As with Fleming’s poem, the recourse to childhood comes as a shock.  The speaker takes us with such immediacy to UCT’s sports fields, looking out over the Cape Flats, that we see the skull in the moon, the vapour-like clouds and hear, just below us, the paradoxical wet swish of traffic on a dry evening.  We aren’t prepared for the Proustian moment that takes us suddenly back to:

… father, bending shirtless to his mower
and the weekend lawn.

I like the way Edwards revisits the moon in several poems, always so attentively.  Not the moon looking down on and mirroring human moods and actions, but the moon allowed its own personality and particular genius: ‘satellite dish for the world’.

Students and regular readers of these projects will know that every now and then I develop a rash over bad rhyme.  So I thought I should point out, in fairness, that the rhyme that ends Keith Edwards’ ‘Christmas Eve’ poem gave me a lot of pleasure:

Christmas tree lights blink on and off,
revealing and revealing
the Hockney and the Tretchikoff.

After reading Yvette Morey’s ‘Shoe Tree, College Green’, I had to Google ‘shoe tree’.  You can check your reading comprehension of her two-line image poem by clicking on this picture.  I love it when I learn a fact from a poem.

Morey’s childhood reminiscence, ‘Gardens’ is splendidly evocative.  There is a lyricism here, but counterweighted with interesting dark stuff.  Just where you’d expect life-saving plastic armbands, you find instead ‘a few boozy breaths fastened to each arm’.  In the second line, the word ‘green’ is repeated until it has taken on a full load of meanings.  The last line is sublime:

and my brother, nude in the bird bath, with improbably blue eyes.

Sara Frost submitted a very poignant poem of loss.  ‘In her bedroom’ conveys the delicacy of the child through the delicacy of her bedroom.  The detail is in itself moving, as is the poet’s reticence in showing it to us. I wasn’t sure, though, whether the child was in mourning for her father, or whether she herself was mortally ill. The tears seemed to be for someone else, but the curtains whose crimson will never pale suggest a young life cut short.

Sara P.Dias has written about a moment of cross-cultural and perhaps inter-generational reconciliation.  What I really liked about the poem was the close attention it pays to ears and eyes – particularly the latter, and how

In such proximity we can follow lines
beside the eyes to the veins below the epidermis –

not just imagine the flat of one another’s eyes
behind comments online.

The last lines of Dias’s poem are satisfying too: ‘altered and shimmering above a long Karoo road’ is a beautiful ending -- all our worries and prejudices transmuted into a road trip.

Her gift for compression is equally evident in her image poem:

From armchairs in retirement homes

Seasoned travellers follow the settling sun:
Desiccating moths cornered with the dust.

Finally, Pierre-Henry Nortje’s ‘I want to read your poem’ is a wonderful send-up of all advice on how to write a poem.  It bristles with impossible imperatives, satirical jibes at poetry self-help, and sheer joie-de-vivre.  

Comments are closed.