On the absence of rhyme during the reading window

Page after page I read, and then
    another page I turn
and lovely things are popping up
    but I confess I yearn
for rhymes sustained and intricate
    and not just at the end
but in between and profligate
    and bursting to transcend
the free-ish verse and couplets
    (which can be very nice
but there are such a lot of them)
    and rhyme’s a sort of spice
that’s still employed by lyricists –
    they put it in their songs
and people seem to like it
    as if it still belongs.
I don’t want rhyme in every text
    but I’d like to see it more
and when Professors, sorely vexed,
    say English is ‘rhyme poor’,
that’s why we don’t write well with it,
    that’s why it’s out of use,
I hereby say To hell with it –
    that’s merely an excuse!


[This post is in honour of George Simmers
who has now been running Snakeskin webzine
for no fewer than twenty years, and is himself
a rhymester sans pareil.]


Perhaps you do it differently. I can’t know. I only know what I do.

I’m interested in how people approach puzzles, and a poem’s a sort of puzzle. When I was a college teacher, and working on learning skills, I used sometimes to give students a thinking challenge, a question. ‘What’s 5 x 13?’ for example. They had to work out the answer and write it down without conferring. Then they had to say how they got their answer.

A lot of people (I’m in this group) did 5 x 12 (which they remembered from learned-by-heart tables) and then added 5.

Some did 5 x 10 (50), then 5 x 3 (15) and added the two results.

Some had a picture in their head that looked like this:

13 +

They would add up the 3s in the units column one by one (15), write down 5, carry 1 over to the tens column, then add all the 1s.

Somebody would reach for their phone and use the calculator.

Sometimes there would be a person who knew the answer instantly but didn’t know how they knew.

And so on. Usually there was at least one method that would never have occurred to me in a month of Sundays. But the interesting thing was the way we assumed, without saying as much, that we were all doing the same thing. Actually we were doing a whole range of different things.

So it occurs to me, in this reading window when I’m reading a lot of poems, that it may be the same with poems. Tom Duddy once said to me he didn’t read poems like a poet reads poems, he came to them as an ordinary reader with a need.

The ‘ordinary reader with a need’ makes a lot of sense. Think about funeral poems. You go to a funeral, and someone who never normally reads poems, will read one aloud, and that poem, in that situation, will answer a need for more than just that one person.

But I was immediately interested in how a poet reads poems. How does a poet read poems? I think perhaps Tom meant looking at how the poem is made and what it’s up to, like a person who builds bicycles immediately looking at the construction not just the performance.

Frankly, I don’t often think about what I do. Like most people, I just do it. But I thought it would be interesting to perform my own class exercise on myself, to see what happens, and share it.

If I were doing the 5 x 13 exercise, I would also talk to the class (after they’d done the sum) about the role fear plays in the whole problem-solving thing. If people were nervous about coming up with the wrong answer to 5 x 13, it would affect the process. So the person who reached for her phone might be scared she’d get it wrong (or too lazy to work it out). But some people would know they would get it right and that would affect not only the thinking method but their entire feeling about juggling with numbers.

When I come to a poem, I’m not scared of it. I’ve read a lot of poems, and I like doing it. So I think that probably makes me quite relaxed in my approach. I come to it as a communication and I want to know what the poem’s telling me. Simply from the fact it calls itself ‘poem’, I assume it’s telling me something un-casual, something I might want or need to know.

So here’s how I read a poem (assuming the poem fits inside one side of A4 paper, which most these days do. If it’s a long poem, the process is different).



Right! I’m working with a real poem. I haven’t read it before, ever. (I picked it at random from this month’s submissions, but I shan’t tell you who wrote it or what it’s about.)

I glance at the shape and how the text fits into the white space. Is it in stanzas and if so, are they the same size and shape. Do I like the look of it, or find it interesting? This is a sort of ‘Are-you-sitting-comfortably-then-I’ll-begin’ stage. I note, mentally, whether there’s an odd or even number of stanzas.

This poem has 5 x 4-line stanzas. Five is a good number. For me, odd is nicer than even.

Then I look at the title. And mentally process it. Is it one of those titles that could be a play on words? Or a title I don’t get? Or a first line title? Whatever. The title may be a clue. But this one seems entirely straightforward, so I relax a little, and start.

I’m reading right through the poem from start to finish. If I hit a snag, I’ll stop. A snag is a place where I’m not sure what the poet means, at the simplest level. That could be because there’s ambiguity, or the sentence doesn’t seem to make sense, or the punctuation’s confusing and I get lost.

But this poem’s easy. Immediately I see a pattern. Each of the five stanzas starts with a question. All but one has the question mark at the end of the second line.

So yes – even from the start, I am looking for patterns in poems, and if I see one right away I feel quite chipper because I’ve spotted something the poet put there for me, like the sixpence in a Christmas pudding. (NB: I don’t think poems have to have patterns.)

This poem has five questions. The second half of each stanza gives the answer. So the structure’s a bit like the story of the Three Little Pigs, except here there are five pigs (I mean stanzas), not three.

In the story of the Three Little Pigs, the first pig builds his house of straw, the second a house of wood, the third (as you know) a house of bricks. So we know a climax is imminent because bricks present the hungry wolf with a big problem. But by this time, we also know the score. We know the wolf will say, ‘Little pig, little pig, can I come in?” and we know how the pig will reply. The tension builds because we know some of what will happen, but not all of it.

This poem does that same thing. It draws me into a pattern of familiarity. Each stanza has a question and an answer. And as I go through, I see the answers are rhetorical – that is to say, not true answers. The poet simply considers a possibility in response to each question. This means that by the final stanza, the reader (me) REALLY wants to know what the ACTUAL answer might be. This poem has structured itself towards a punchline and a pay-off.

Actually, there’s a pay-off in most poems, namely the feeling of satisfaction (or at intensified interest) that takes you back to the start. Because if you really like a poem, you want to read it several times, and if it’s a good poem, each reading adds to your pleasure.

So back to this poem. My interest intensified as I went through the stanzas. But when I got to the very last line (at this point, I’ve only read it once, remember), the pay-off didn’t work for me. It didn’t match my expectation.

Why not? I need to go back now. I’m glancing back up the poem, like someone looking up a high rise building from the street.

I can easily see a rhyme thing going on. The ends of the second and fourth lines of each stanza roughly mirror each other. And there’s metre. I picked that up even on first reading. This poem has a ballad-type shape and sound, and ballads are folky poems. They don’t intimidate by being difficult, intellectual and full of complex metaphors.

I still like the feeling of this poem, despite my sense of disappointment at the end. So now I’m going back to read it again. This time, I’ll track the pattern more closely.

Right. This time I notice immediately how the first word in each line’s capitalised, even when the sentence runs over. So either this poet always writes in a slightly old-fashioned way, or she is deliberately calling in an old-style format. I’m inclined to think the latter, but I don’t know, because I don’t know the work of this writer. At this point I notice (this is a confession because it’s not a particularly honorable observation) that the poem is set in Times Roman, the default font of Microsoft Word up to 2007, so either they’re using an old version of Word, or they deliberately selected a slightly retro typeface.)

Second time through, I notice why I dived into the poem so willingly. It’s because the opening question’s really interesting. I do want to know the answer. And although very little information is given about the context, there’s enough for me to imagine myself fully into this situation. And even in the very first stanza I’ve begun to create a scenario. I’m already fearful that the answer to the question will be the one I dread, the one we all dread.

But I know a thing or two about poems because I’ve read a lot of them. One of the things I know is they set up expectations – but then they have a little wriggle and a twist. So your expectations are satisfied (if the poem works) but not in the way you thought they were going to be. Jokes work like this too; it’s part of the fun.

Now I’m up to stanza three of my second reading, and I like the way the question stays unanswered but each stanza gives a tiny bit more information about the context. Lots of poems use lots of repetition and sometimes it can get annoying and wearisome (I often find this is true in villanelles and sestinas, for example) but here I like it. And I like that none of the language is complicated, and none of the sentences either. Question. Suggested answer. Question. Suggested answer. I know precisely where I am at each stage.

And the rhyme isn’t perfect rhyme, it’s a rhyme echo. The words at the end of the first and third lines in each stanza end in ‘ing’. That’s all. But it’s enough.

In the fourth stanza, one line now strikes me as slightly clunky, and it’s because of a ‘that’ which doesn’t quite sound like natural speech here, though the poem has invoked a speaking voice from line one. Also, now I think about it, there are other ‘thats’ in the poem and one earlier in the same stanza. Probably another reason why this line struck me as clunky.

Ah, I’m into stanza five, and now I see the first two lines of the last stanza are exactly the same as the first two of the first stanza. So the poem’s come full circle – back to the question first asked. This puts huge weight on the last two lines, doesn’t it? Finally, the reader has got to what might be the answer.

So I read the last two lines again. Maybe they’ll work for me this time. Nope. I’d say the poet’s created a lovely situation here, and done it well, but hasn’t decided where the poem was going, or hasn’t let the poem have its own head. Because the end is flat.

I go back to the title. It now seems too plain and straightforward. It doesn’t add anything; it simply repeats a phrase that already occurs twice in the poem, and it seems to me now that there is much unexplored possibility here. The title could have changed the whole poem, or perhaps lifted it into an extra level of meaning.

But what possibilities are here! This could be quite something. So easy to make it into a cracking little poem. And the question doesn’t have to be answered, of course. But if it’s left open, it has to be left satisfyingly unanswered. The mystery has to deepen, like Walter de la Mare’s ‘The Listeners’, that marvellous poem of un-answeredness.

Now all I have to do, though the ordinary reader does not, is articulate my feedback. My pencil’s in my hand. But before I do this, I’ll take a sneaky look at the next poem because I do want to see whether the method in this text is unusual for the poet, or typical. Does she capitalise the first word in every line of every poem, or just this one? Do all her poems have regular stanzas? etc

Reading poems takes an age ( ‘An hundred years should go to praise / Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze’). So very much to think about in each one. A delicious way to spend a Sunday morning.

How do you do it?




I’m not talking about Calliope, Clio, Euterpe, Thalia, Melpomene, Terpsichore, Erato, Polyhymnia and Urania.

I’m thinking more on the lines of Robert Graves and one goddess under many names, though I don’t suggest his method of finding her. I think a home-made Muse may have a beneficial effect on your poetry, though you won’t know until you try.

It’s easy to try this out. All you need is a wet afternoon and a significant absence.

The absence needs to be attached to a person. Traditionally muses are female, of course, but I’ve found male muses work just as well so long as they’re unavailable to you as human beings. It’s impossible to be a good muse and a friend at the same time.

Why? You’ve written a page and a half of blank verse grappling with solitude in the bleakness of winter, and your Muse phones up to commiserate. That’s not right at all. Muses do not reply. It’s the not replying that helps.

I was going to say don’t choose your Muse lightly. But on reflection, I think lightness is important. You can change a Muse if the first one doesn’t work, though I’m inclined to think you’ll know if you’ve got it right. There’ll be a little click, and a sense that your poem (the one you’re about to write) has engaged more smoothly, like changing from fourth gear into fifth.

So here’s how.

  1. Choose your Muse. It must be someone you love or have loved. Often a Muse is (in real life) dead. But you don’t even have to have met them so long as you feel a strong sense of connection. The essential property is your feeling of need – your need for the Muse to respond – and your absolute conviction that the Muse will not, or cannot, make that response.
  2. Choose a pen or pencil that you don’t normally write with. It must be unfamiliar to you (you might even buy one specially). Today it’s a pen/pencil with magical properties, though tomorrow it will revert to its usual self.
  3. Go outside and do a bit of walking and breathing. (You can do this inside as well, but outside is better.) While walking and breathing (I know you breathe all the time, but this is conscious breathing), concentrate hard on your Muse person. Establish the mental connection. Allow yourself to miss them. Badly.
  4. Settle in a quiet corner inside. Take up the unfamiliar pen or pencil. This pen or pencil wants to write on a topic that you don’t want to write about. It wants to write about something you would never normally consider a poem subject. But you have no choice.
  5. Write on this difficult topic. Write for your Muse alone to read. Write out of solitude. Write out of need. The Muse will understand. The Muse may be the only person who will ever understand.

I can’t tell you what form to choose because it will depend on the topic and the shape of your thought. But let it flow onto the page in a speaking voice and try to let the strength of feeling guide where your lines start and stop. Don’t worry about anything except the truth of the communication, about saying what you really mean.

When you come to the end of the piece of writing, go back and remove any part of it that looks like Drama. This may include words like ‘so’ and ‘very’ and ‘really’ and most similes and adjectives. Your Muse will spot artyness or artifice immediately. But if you can enhance musicality or delight, do that. All Muses can sing and dance.

Now type the poem up, or write it up, using your usual method for producing print forms.

Put it away for three weeks before looking at it again.

During that three weeks, think about your Muse before you write. Each time you write anything, even a shopping list, think about that Muse. Think of everything as a secret communication.

But this Muse is not the hugging kind. This Muse is remote and pure. You desperately long to talk to her/him but the only medium available to you for this one-way conversation is a poem. You may now need to write another one.

p.s. The Comic Muse has an extra ‘o’. She is a Mouse. This method will work for her too


Fact: you don’t see one thing when you’re looking for another.

You’ve probably seen the famous proof before. But if you’ve missed it, here’s the link:


I vividly remember the first time I watched it. I couldn’t believe what I hadn’t seen.

But in poetry, the moon-walking bear is less likely to get away unnoticed. When reading poems, you’re not so easily distracted by the obvious, because you know there’s something else afoot, something harder to see. Or even several un-obvious things.

Sometimes this is also what drives people nuts: that poetry can be so devious. (Why can’t she just say it?) But poetry is rich text. Reading for buried treasure is part of the joy, and why you read more than once.

On the Sphinx website, which focuses on everything to do with poetry pamphlets, I’ve just launched the OPOI reviews. These are short responses to pamphlet publications, focusing on only One Point Of Interest. I hope in due course that some publications will attract several  reviews, each picking up a single aspect, in the manner of an interesting conversation. ‘But did you notice the bear?’

I can’t review HappenStance poetry myself, because I’m self-evidently involved. However, the last pamphlet of the year is just out: Helen Evans’ Only By Flying, so I thought I’d make an exception in its case, to illustrate the OPOI approach.

Helen started gliding as a hobby in 1988. I don’t mean flying those little balsa-wood planes in the park. I mean the great big ones with people inside them. For nearly a decade she was editor of Sailplane & Gliding. But rather than focus on the detail about flying in her poems, I’m interested in the way they make you aware of movement—especially the movement of the eye following the text up and down the page.

For example, there’s a tall thin one I love about a spider. The poet is tracking the creature’s minute movements, and the shape of the poem traces the action: she ‘slides down / the filament / she unspools / and scrambles up again’.

I think all poems are aware of themselves as shaping mechanisms. Sometimes it’s overt, and sometimes hardly apparent. But in a debut collection, it’s almost always clear. Up. Down. Up. Down. Up the page. Down the page. Sideways. Turn over. That little spider is the poet, and the reader. (And a spider, of course.)

In ‘Yet I will wait for the light’, though avoiding the prepositions ‘down’ and ‘up’, the poet writes about an ancient tragedy: seventeen people thrown into a well, and the act of recovering the bodies. The reader goes down the page, down into the well, and up again with the painful, but tenderly handled relics.

In ‘Boundary Tree’. the tree is growing slowly taller, up towards the sky with ‘twists of metal in its heart’. In ‘Hallway, ‘you’re walking / down the stairs / into the hallway’ when something astonishing and uplifting happens. In ‘I Realises He is a Romantic Lyricist’, ‘I’ is ‘distracted by a male sparrowhawk near the bird feeder in the back garden, which glances up at him, launches itself low across the lawn and disappears behind the yew tree’. If that’s not a moon-walking bear, I don’t know what is.

I haven’t mentioned the poems about flying. There are many of them. Their downs and ups are graceful and airy, and the closest I will ever get to being in a sailplane. This set of poems, as no other, has made me delight in the page as sky, the vapour trails moving up, down and across, the eye tracing the movement, the ear following the sound of the words, astonished by the clarity and beauty of distances.


Easy. Here’s a festival I made earlier.

Last Saturday afternoon when I was not at Aldeburgh and was waiting for a grandbaby to arrive (he showed up on Sunday morning), I went to this mini festival. It’s a mixture of reading and listening. It takes about an hour. Too long for you, reading at speed on the interweb, I know. But no matter. I had a lovely time and I recommend the experience. I’m sorry some of the participants are posthumous. Please add your own guest events in the comments boxes.

Festival Appearances

nb sometimes these sites run slow, or don’t connect for a few seconds. Think of this as a slightly delayed appearance. They’ll show up eventually.

Opening gig: raise your spirits with ten minutes of Matt Harvey from TedxTotnes. A love poem to a tea-bag, ‘What are you?’ and ‘A hymn to hands’. (9.17 mins)

Now three visits to the Poetry Archive

First a brief extract from an interview with Ruth Pitter, who speaks about ‘the noble obscurity of poetry’, and then goes on to read one of my favourite poems of all time, ‘If You Came’ (Just over 3 minutes)

And next Hilaire Belloc reading, or really singing, Tarantella. How extraordinary! (1.5 mins)

And finally Dannie Abse reading ‘In the Theatre’. He talks about the background to this extraordinary poem first. (About 3 mins). The brain and soul. Once heard never forgotten.

A short break from poetry but still in the weirdness that is poetryland. A short lecture on LIfshin by Daniel Nester (this is really an essay, I’m afraid, but it’s so beautifully conversational it is like a short talk: Rejection Slip? What Rejection Slip?

Back to the stage. The ultimate in performance from Marina Abramovitch, (3.37 mins), with music. I’m giving you the music version because it tells you the backstory. I adore this woman. Makes me cry every time. And the lyrics are lovely.

Okay, we need to come down from that intensity, so a little bit of reading, in the quiet on your own. Think of this as a walk away from the hubbub. I’m taking a bag of chopped up bread with me. ‘From troubles of the world I turn to ducks’ by F.W. Harvey – such a lovely face, he had. ‘Yes, ducks are valiant things’. (2 mins?) And while we’re out by the pond, you might like to unscroll your copy of Trees by Joyce Kilmer. You can read it in half a minute or so, but you’ll want to read it twice of course.

Back to the theatre. The other thing about the web is that poets can be in two places at once. So not just in Aldeburgh but here online is Kei Miller with Unsung (1.38 mins). Uplifting, right?

So the ultimate uplift, from Maya Angelou, And still I rise. (2.52 mins)

Not just English: This festival is not just limited to one language. It can do more. I was enchanted by this bit of Baudelaire, read slowly enough for me to get it. (2.07 mins)

And a little Tom Duddy, who recorded very little during his lifetime, but this magical poem can be heard in his own voice: ‘The Touch’. (2.21.)

More performance: so many politicians talking at us. Hannah Silva says it all, without exactly saying it. (3.21)

Discussion, with music. Aldeburgh was on my mind and winter, and this brought me to a recording of Peter pears and Benjamin Britten peforming from and talking about Die Winterreise. You could listen to all of it, or just a bit. (12.44). A marvellous piece of film.

The Final Billing: headliners Edna St Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, Stevie Smith and W H Auden.

  • Love is not all’, Edna St Vincent Millay (1.29 mins)
  • One Perfect Rose’, Dorothy Parker (c 1 min)
  • Stevie Smith, my hero, with Tenuous and Precarious (1 min)
  • And that bit of film produced by the post office and making this bit of Auden famous for all time: ‘Night Mail’. (3.53) Practically an elegy really, now that nobody writes letters any more. (Well, I do. Sometimes.)






Have we got it right? Does the poem work? Did the poem win?

Last week my multiple foibles and fixes were more in a spirit of play than anything else. Poets should get in more, and have more fun. And worry less about winning.

But I had a subtext that never made it into the blog, and it was to do with form. Form intrigues me, although of all the forms a poem could take, we’re often ruled by fashion and habit. (I’m using the word ‘form’ in the widest sense: it includes ‘free’ form.)

This isn’t always a bad thing. I’ve known poets who, for an extended time, wrote sonnets relentlessly. The result was a handful of wonderful poems (in the middle of others less remarkable). One can stick to a particular form for ages, in order to become so comfortable that the range of possibilities stretches and extends.

On the other hand, writers can stick to a familiar form because it’s the way they write, and the way most of their contemporaries write. It’s what most people do, at least at first. It’s normal.

Just now, there’s a lot of poetry in two-line stanzas. Fashion favours aeration in poems these days. And although there are a number of texts that leap about the page with gaps and jumps, far more poems follow a dutiful line down the left hand margin. If there are stanzas, they’re mainly chunked in regular numbers, and often this chunking works against the verse paragraph: you see that by the amount of cross-stanza enjambment. Prose poems are ‘in’: you see them in numerous first collections, though sometimes the shape is formed by the typesetter, not the poet because the poet, wrongly, thinks prose is just prose.

Sometimes readers mention a sense of boredom or ‘same-ishness’ when reading poetry journals or inside whole books of poems. They can’t quite put their finger on what causes it but it’s there.

I think it’s often caused by lack of variety in form. And yet – I don’t think that nails it either. Because sometimes I have the same sense of same-ishness in a journal where the poems are actually pretty varied on the page, insofar as layout is concerned.

The thing I often miss is the sense of everything coming together: that the sound, the shape and the sense have fused. That the form (whatever it is) feels like the only one possible. That the poem has led the form, rather than the form guided the poem.

You know it when you see it – or rather, I think you feel it when you read it. It’s an intuitive matter to some extent, and there’s no recipe for getting it ‘right’. But there is a mindset in poets that can allow for good form. I think it’s a playful mindset. Playful, in the best sense.

Often writers believe they must be innovative. On back covers of books, the blurbs brandish ‘risk’, ‘experiment’, ‘fearlessness’ and any possible aspect that can be described as ‘new’. We have been persuaded to value innovation to a ridiculous extent, to the extent that the word ‘innovative’ is bland and mindless.

But for poets there’s no need to be stuck on what’s new, any more than being stuck in the rut of familiarity. Every single form that has ever been done — from Old English metre through rhyme royal through Spenserian stanzas (never liked them much) through ottava rima through dada through L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry and the avant garde through iambic pentameter through ballads through salads through the chains of free verse through syllabics through Sound and out again through round through concrete and discrete and tall and short and fat and thin and out-loud poems and poems so hard to decipher you have to read them on an iceberg all by yourself — all of this stuff, and more, is available to you.

Using retro language might be inadvisable, but no form is ever redundant. All forms and shapes and approaches are options. It’s mind-boggling.

This doesn’t mean you have to run the gauntlet of clever-clever I-can-show-you-all-my tricks. It’s a mindset I’m talking about. A sort of informed instinct, even in the act of writing, for the shape/form the poetry might need, whether it’s two lines long or 5000. And sometimes an instinct for when the poem hasn’t found its true form, or is behaving sheepishly in order to fall in line.

I’ll end with a poem by W H Davies, who was often accused of repeating himself, though actually his range of form and method was pretty wide. He wrote a lot, and played with different forms a lot, and out of that play came a handful of lovely things, where everything fused. I think ‘The Villain’, first published in 1920, is one of these.

It opens in plodding ballad metre – such a heavy plod – and it summons ‘joy’ (Davies had a thing about joy) and then calls ‘where’er’ into service. Your heart sinks.

But Davies is mocking his own method. Read on. Look how he uses the indents to shape the poem, to emphasise change in tone and action, and how the rhythm of the last line isn’t like any of the rest.

The Villain

While joy gave clouds the light of stars,
    That beamed where’er they looked;
And calves and lambs had tottering knees,
    Excited, while they sucked;
While every bird enjoyed his song,
Without one thought of harm or wrong—
I turned my head and saw the wind,
    Not far from where I stood,

Dragging the corn by her golden hair
     Into a dark and lonely wood.




Warning: 1. We can get too serious about our poems. 2. Sometimes poems die under the knife.

So – choose a poem you don’t love deeply. Choose a poem you know has something but you’re not sure what. Set aside eleven copies of the original to work with, and try ten of the methods below. Then take a look at your ten versions and decide whether you want to combine or vary or mix the results on the eleventh text.

Creativity involves fun, discovery and joy. None of the following methods are magic. But they may encourage your brain to function in ways it ordinarily doesn’t. Your poem might surprise you yet.

So, if you’re on board with this, start your selection and implement fearlessly. At the very least, this will keep you harmlessly engaged for a whole wet afternoon in winter. If you suffer from that mysterious malaise known as ‘writer’s block’, you’ll forget such an affliction ever existed.

I suggest your original poem should be no longer than 20 lines in length, and it should not be sestina, villanelle, triolet or pantoum. Ghazals and sonnets will be fine to mess with.

Please don’t try these methods on a poem you strongly feel is right already. Keep faith with that poem, no matter who has rejected it.

Work with a text you were never all that sure of in the first place. This could be more about process than product anyway. Most of the methods will be easiest to do if working electronically.

  1. Choose another title, a long title, that seems not to belong to the poem. You might try the style one of those 18th century chapter titles: “In which a gentleman of uncertain age meets three ladies and has to take a decision”. Or any other lengthy title you like.
  1. Dump your title. Use the first line as title.
  1. Find two words that rhyme. They may be very small words like ‘you’ and ‘two’. Introduce more words that rhyme with these, but not at end of lines. (BUT if this is a rhyming poem, take all the rhymes out and then decide what other changes you need to make for the poem still to work; these will probably include changing the line breaks.)
  1. Change a key noun in the poem by replacing it with another word that rhymes with it. Don’t worry if the poem no longer makes sense
  1. Change the font of the poem: if you use a seriphed font like Garamond or Times Roman, change to sans serif like Calibri or Arial Narrow. The aim is for you to see the poem differently. Now cast the whole poem into two-line stanzas.
  1. Change your pargraph formatting. If you double-space your poems, single-space it (if you don’t know how to get it out of double spacing, you need a soft return at the end of each line: shift+enter instead of just enter). If you single-space, try widening the gaps between the lines to 1.2 (in Word, Select the text, then Font > Paragraph > Line Spacing and type 1.2 into the box).
  1. Remove all adverbs and adjectives if there are any. Then put one adjective back in but it must be different, and more potent, than any you took out.
  1. Change the shape of the poem. Consider indenting every second or third line. Consider making it concrete. Think hard about what the poem is about and whether there is any shape or stanza division that would connect with its central idea.
  1. Take out all the line breaks and put them back in again every seventh word.
  1. If there are stanza breaks, take them all out. If there are no stanza breaks, break the poem into either two-line or three-line stanzas.
  1. Cut the first sentence. Not the first line, the first sentence, unless the first line ends with a full stop, in which case cut the first line.
  1. Take out all the punctuation and remove capital letters at the start of sentences (you can retain capital I for the first person). Now decide what you need to do to allow the poem to make sense. You’re not allowed to put any punctuation back in again.
  1. Run your eye down the left hand margin. Which line has most energy? Which line starts in the MOST interesting way? Make this your first line.
  1. Reduce (or expand) the poem to fourteen lines. Whatever it takes. Remember you can have very long or very short lines. You can have anything: you are The Poet.
  1. Go to another poem you have written (unpublished) and extract three lines you know you like, not necessarily a group. Inject them into the rejected poem somewhere near the middle.
  1. If the poem has a clear theme, find a nice quotation that touches this theme obliquely. Insert it as epigraph.
  1. Consider assonance. Where you find an ‘ah’ sound, vary your existing word choice so as to create another and another. Where there is an ‘oh’ sound, make more of them. And so on. Do this systematically through the whole poem, but not to the extent it gets silly.
  1. Consider consonance. Reading aloud will allow you to discover naturally occurring sound repetitions: sounds like D and K and S and M. Strengthen the phenomenon in one particular section of the poem but try to avoid alliteration – sounds in the middle or end of words can be subtler.
  1. Recast the poem as a series of questions and answers. (Optional: take out the questions. Or take out the answers.)
  1. Alter your sentence lengths. Make sure not one of them is longer than eight Now ensure two of them are no more than three words long.
  1. Sing the poem to a well-known tune. (Allegedly all of Emily Dickinson can be sung to The Yellow Rose of Texas.) You might like to try You’ll Never Walk Alone or, if you’re a church goer, ‘Praise my soul the King of Heaven’. Adjust the poem so it’s possible to sing it to this tune without too much difficulty.
  1. Pantoumise the poem by creating a repeating pattern. It will end up divided into four line stanzas (quatrains). So start with your first four lines, then make a stanza break. Your second and fourth lines will now be repeated as the first and third line of the next four line stanza. And so on. It will double the length of your poem. Don’t worry: this is poetry.
  1. Reverse the opening and closing lines of the poem.
  1. Repeat the opening line or lines at the end of the poem.
  1. Cut the last line(s) of the poem.
  1. Introduce a new voice into the poem, a voice that argues with any of your assertions. eg. The morning was chilly and grey. / No, it was warm and sunny.
  1. If your poem is about an event, something that happened once, change it completely so it’s about what didn’t happen that day. This is a complete redraft though you may save some of the poem anyway.
  1. Think of your poem, whatever it is, as a sort of narrative or commentary on an event or person. Divide it into three chunks and number them 1. 2. 3. Change the title to something that contains the word ‘three’. Or if you get really excitable, do the same with the number 7.
  1. Read the poem aloud. Change any line you stumble over unless you never stumble once. If you never stumble once, make one line much more difficult to read aloud, preferably a line that connects with some idea of difficulty in the poem.
  1. Take out all the line breaks. Think about your poem as a prose poem. Does it work in prose? If not, make it work in prose. If it’s a prose poem, it had better be really good prose. Remember Mark Twain on adjectives: If in doubt, strike it out. And on adverbs, If you see an adverb, kill it. You also need to decide how you want to justify (in typesetting terms) your prose poem: left justified or fully justified. There is a choice and it’s just as significant as your choice of line breaks in a conventional poetry format. If your prose poem is fully justified, how wide should your block of text be?
  1. Put the word ‘dinosaur’ into your poem somewhere. Or make ‘Dinosaur’ the title.
  1. Decide which lines in the poem you like best. Remove them. a) Do whatever it takes to make the poem work without them. b) Make the lines you’ve removed work on their own (changing the title could be a key move). Now you have two poems: it’s like a ginger beer plant. Remember ginger beer plants? All you need is a starter.

Finally: assemble your versions in a row. Pick out any that attract you. Work with one or several of them to arrive at a revived poem you like. Don’t angst over this too long. Send it to a worthy magazine and see what happens.


Scottish poets? No problem.

English poets? Certainly – which county would you prefer? Irish poets? By all means. American poets? Yes, we have two of those.

But up to now, no poems by Welsh writers.

Hurray! This sad omission is now remedied. Two new publications, both to be launched in Wales next month, are putting things to rights.

First there’s Unleaving by Kristian Evans, the debut pamphlet from a young man I met in Wales last year when I went to launch Robert Minhinnick’s lively essay The Mythic Death of Dylan Thomas. That was the first foray into Wales, land of my childhood holidays and therefore a magical place for me.

b2ap3_thumbnail_COVERSCAN.jpgOf course, the two new publications are in English, not Welsh. However, Unleaving has a strongly Welsh flavour—not in the lobsters on the cover (though they are there for good reason) but in some of the contents. There’s a splendid translation of Dafydd ap Gwilym’s mischievous ‘Merched Llanbadarn’, for example.

Kris Evans is a poet who really knows his oats in terms of poetic tradition: his influences are many and various – from Tristan Tzara to D H Lawrence. He loves form, but he likes surreal experiment too. And there’s prose to wallow in, full of assonance and richness. Kristian Evans is a writer on his way somewhere, and well worth following.

The other new publication, Pattern Beyond Chance, is a first book from Stephen Payne, whose debut pamphlet The Probabilities of Balance was brought out by Smiths Knoll in 2010 and distributed to readers of that lovely (now extinct) magazine. Stephen’s day job is in academic psychology. No surprise when you see the way these poems are presented.

The volume is divided into sections: Design, Word, Mind and Time, with a quotation from a leading psychologist at the front of each. Payne is provocative and playful: he’s thinking about thinking even when he’s thinking about poetry. This book is a pleasure to read, I would say (although yes, I am biassed).

There’s a wonderful poem in Pattern Beyond Chance in memory of Linda Chase, the American, Manchester-based poet who was a leading influence on Stephen, and died far too soon. ‘To: Linda’ makes me cry each time I read it, and I know all friends of Linda (she influenced numerous writers) will feel the same.

Poets sometimes appear to be fiercely in competition with each other in this age of prizes and shortlists, but in fact they’re all on the home team. There’s a generosity of spirit in Pattern Beyond Chance that confirms this. Hard to pin down exactly what I’m talking about, but it’s there. Trust me. I’m a publisher . . .




That is to say, ten good reasons.

  1. Most of it’s thin
  2. Your friends will think you have taste.
  3. It gives you something else to think about.
  4. Buying it’s easier than writing it.
  5. There’s room in the margins for lists and doodling.
  6. It doesn’t answer back.
  7. Look in your kitchen cupboard. I bet there’s no poetry in there (yet).
  8. It has no best-before or sell-by date.
  9. It makes the author happy.
  10. It makes the publisher even happier.



The 5th Free Verse Poetry Book Fair at the Conway Hall last Saturday was . . .

. . . grrrreat.

Brilliantly organised, brilliantly achieved. Sorry to tell you this, if you weren’t there. I thought it was going to be quieter than usual, but at some point in the afternoon I realised the buzz was buzzier than ever before. A lot of fun, joking, chatting, and some really lovely folk around. A great atmosphere. b2ap3_thumbnail_DSC03606.jpg

Yes, there were a few poets pursuing publishers, almost certainly hopelessly, but hey — that too is part of the fun and it seems less painful than the usual postal process. The publisher (or his or her envoys) stands there wanting to sell STUFF. The poet approaches hoping the publisher may secretly want more STUFF (from her or him) to sell. Most of the poets are too shy to mention the poetry they have hidden in their vests. Most of the publishers pretend they don’t sense the indivested.

Everybody is able to feel, at least temporarily, that they LIKE poetry. It feels like a Good Thing — otherwise why would everybody be so jolly?

Meanwhile, the publisher (at least this publisher) is desperately hoping to go home carrying less than s/he came with. The bargains in the bargain book box get better and better as the day goes on (a top tip for buyers next year). There is a point at which it might even be possible to pay people to take the publications away with them.

I exaggerate. The punters were good and generous. They ate the jelly bears. They bought pamphlets. They bought books (which is even better because they’re heavier to carry home). And best of all, they let me give them the challenges I had carefully sealed inside 100 envelopes. Poetry challenges. It seemed like a nice idea. It’s much more fun giving people things than selling them.

And I did get more than twenty back again, which is pretty good going compared to your average consumer survey, especially when accepting the challenge meant significant mental processing, and a pen.

This was the challenge on the piece of paper inside the envelope handed to people as they drifted past the HappenStance table:

Think Ezra Pound. Think ‘In a Station of the Metro’.

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;    
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Your challenge? On the back of this piece of paper, write your own imagist poem. Capture one image that has stuck in your mind from today’s Free Verse Poetry Book Fair.  Not more than 14 words, one of which should rhyme with ‘bough’.

Mostly people brought them back within a couple of hours. Some broke the rules, of course. One was really hard to read. Three emailed them later that same day. One sent a photograph of hers via Twitter. Did they add up to a better account of the day than I can give you? I don’t know. But they are, because poetry is sometimes fun.


Then, the Metro reeked of Gauloises, onions, scent and sweat; but now
Nothing much. 

A poet imitates a car alarm, EEEE
To happy laughter but alas no dough.

Searching for his red T-shirt,
a buoy to cling to in this drowning sea.

A half-bitten strawberry,
sharp, neatly frilled
with absence from
a prow of teethb2ap3_thumbnail_DSC03599_2.jpg

Assembling – Poets, Poems
How did they all decide,
these little black characters,
words, now . . .

Aerial photographs of Slough
Did Nothing
Green leaves upon a crooked bough.

Friends Meeting by Happy Chance at Poetry Book Fair
– a hug, & shared grin
of mock despair: so, how many
have you bought?

Ezra Pound
was a

All this know-how,
Solid brass handles,
Serious doors.

‘Quiet seats up here’.
Quiet? How?
Silent seats don’t spill beans about bottoms.

Poets seeking words to peddle:
further through the crowds they plough.

In hedgerow ripe with fruit to browse
Glut of glut, the dormice drowse.

At the Free Verse Fair
Leaves whirling, flying in the gale of language,
leaves turning in September now.

Faces dance, letters on the page;
only now, glasses on
the words come clear.

Black bony t-shirt, how
he bends to the bookstall;
a crow stabbing for food.

slantend i w lav to the Conway Hall
sensing overheated armits’ logo

The worry of poetsb2ap3_thumbnail_DSC03597_20151001-180657_1.jpg
bends the bough of an
oak trestle

slipping tight tables
wondering how to get by
till stopped by a shimmering skirt

Melancholy human panels, brown wooden ones
Now the clock moves on with us.

she says, yes and yes.
No, he says, not now. And means it.

One little girl how high on his shoulders.


She’s talking right over our heads.

Does a slant rhyme count?
It could. It depends.
How slanted
do you allow?


Are all these poetry books?
How awful! Whose idea was this?
Where is he?


Thanks to: Anon, Oliver Comins, David Collard, A.B. Cooper, Harry Gilonis, Elizabeth Hourston, Nigel Hutchinson, T.O.Ilets (!), Marion Tracy, Julie Mclean, Sarah Miles, Diane Mulholland, D.A. Prince, Terry Quinn, Sally@trp, Helen Tookey, Webleaf, Gareth Writer-Davies.