The Syllabic Childhood of James Brown

This is the first exercise I give to my under-grad Poetry Writing class (CREW253). There’s plenty of imaginative scope, but the constraints place a big emphasis on control. Lack of control is a major problem in many of the poems submitted by course applicants. By ‘lack of control’ I mean poems that lurch tonally, are full of incoherent sentences, random rhymes and poor punctuation. Successful poems that seem out of control are usually, in fact, very carefully managed. We move on to exercises that encourage pushing language around more, but how will you ever learn to juggle if you can’t first throw and catch?

Write a poem called ‘My Childhood in ­________’. Choose a place you’ve never lived, but maybe know a little bit about. For example, ‘My Childhood in Laos’, ‘My Childhood on Bikini Atoll’, ‘My Childhood on Mars’, ‘My Childhood in 1848’.

You could talk about your family (you can use your real family or make up a new one). Do you live in the city or country, a house or apartment? What do you like doing? Do you go to school? Do you have a pet? Has something interesting ever happened to you or your family? Do you like where you’re living or would you like to move?  These possibilities assume your speaker is still a child, but you could write from the point of view of an adult recalling their childhood.

Try to write in your normal voice, as if you are talking to a friend. Do you talk in rhyme? No.

Your poem must be a syllabic poem! That means each line needs to have the same number of syllables. You can pick the number you want, but 7 or 9 often work well.

You must also incorporate one of the following lines into your poem (not as a first or last line):

‘She carved the meat and then she was crying.’ (Robert Hass)

‘Someone is dying of too much afternoon.’ (Geoff Cochrane)

‘The darkness surrounds us.’ (Robert Creeley)

‘The dog left me there, and I went on myself.’ (Robin Robertson)

‘A is for atlas, but I am not in it.’ (Edwin Morgan)

‘The droppings of last year’s horses.’ (James Wright)

‘The cowbells follow one another.’ (James Wright)

‘She didn’t know what she wanted.’ (Robert Hass)

‘Come here, Sweetie, out of the closet.’ (Sylvia Plath)

‘It is difficult even to choose the adjective.’ (Wallace Stevens)

‘And that has made all the difference.’ (Robert Frost)

‘I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.’ (Theodore Roethke)

‘Your new life passes in review.’ (John Hartley Williams and Matthew Sweeney)

‘We are kind to snails.’ (Fleur Adcock)

It’s OK to change the line’s tense and gender to fit with your poem.

Here is a syllabic poem by Thom Gunn about a snail. Every line has 7 syllables (except one has 8 – he cheated!).

Considering the Snail
The snail pushes through a green
night, for the grass is heavy
with water and meets over
the bright path he makes, where rain
has darkened the earth’s dark. He
moves in a wood of desire,

pale antlers barely stirring
as he hunts. I cannot tell
what power is at work, drenched there
with purpose, knowing nothing.
What is a snail’s fury? All
I think is that if later

I parted the blades above
the tunnel and saw the thin
trail of broken white across
litter, I would never have
imagined the slow passion
to that deliberate progress.

James Brown was born in Palmerston North, hence the title of next week’s Writers on Mondays event where he’ll discuss his work with Fergus Barrowman. His new book of poetry Warm Auditorium has just been released. You can also catch him reading tomorrow at 12.30 in Unity Books Wellington, with Bill Manhire, Geoff Cochrane, Harry Ricketts, Lynn Davidson and Helen Heath. Full WOM programme details here.

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Repetition by Lynn Davidson


Poets weren’t always writers. Like musicians, they were originally performers as well who created invisible worlds out of sound.
– Dana Gioia

When something is repeated in a poem, the repetition opens possibilities for meaning. It could be that we want an idea or feeling to escalate in importance. It could be we want to create a sense of incantation or chant. Repetition creates a certain rhythm in a poem. It intensifies meaning and creates a sort of gathering of forces – a forward momentum. Sometimes when we repeat something over and over, its original meaning seems to disappear. What is left? What could it mean now?
Look at ‘Homage to Kenneth Koch’, written as a group poem by students and originally published in Mutes and Earthquakes. The repetition of ‘I used to’ and ‘but now’ suggests stories about lives – some of them sad, some funny, some mysterious. Notice how including concrete details keeps the poem lively and visual. We can imaginatively engage with the ‘soft white room’ and singing of apple trees. In the poem, one thing or action ‘speaks’ to the other – e.g. ‘I used to stutter sound/ but now I stutter whole words’ and ‘I used to know nothing/ but now I am deceived’. The connections are not random – they make a kind of sense together.
Write a poem in the style of ‘Homage to Kenneth Koch’ using ‘I used to’ followed by ‘but now I’ all the way through the poem. The poem can be written individually or as a group. Either way, when you have finished the first draft it’s interesting to consider the arrangement of the poem. What is the best image to open the poem? Maybe go for an ending that is unexpected. Think about surprising your reader.
Don’t worry too much about getting things right in the first instance. Just write. Let your instincts take you where they want to. Then look at the poem. Is there a link between each admission of what used to be and what is now?

Homage to Kenneth Koch

I used to tear, but now I crumble.
I used to dream about clouds
but now I live inside them.
I used to care for what they say
But now I’ve resigned.
I used to do my bit for society
But Herbie refuses to go
to any more slack do’s at Plunket.
I used to stutter sound
but now I stutter whole words.
I used to climb walls and sing of apple trees
but now I sit in the middle
of a soft white room.
I used to grow my hair
but now I wear it short.
I used to be young but now I avoid time.
I used to know nothing
but now I am deceived.
I used to, to, to . . . But now?
I used to hop-scotch and skip
but now I’m inert.
I used to be brilliant, but now I’m cured.

Extract from The Exercise Book, available in all good book stores or online from VUP.

Lynn Davidson’s most recent book Common Land was launched this month. She  is the author of three previous collections of poetry, How to live by the sea, Tender and Mary Shelley’s Window, and a novel, Ghost Net. Her poetry has been included in Big Weather, poems of Wellington, The Best of Sport Magazine, The Best of Best New Zealand Poems and PN Review. In 2003 she was awarded the Louis Johnson Writer’s Bursary and in 2011 was Visiting Artist at Massey University where she is currently working towards her PhD.

You can see Lynn read this Sunday at ‘Poems on the Vine’ at the Gladstone Vineyard with Helen Heath and Michael Harlow. The MC will be local Wairarapa poet Pat White.
For tickets or further information, contact Hedleys Bookshop. 150 Queen Street, Masterton. Ph: (06) 378-2875. Email: sales@hedleysbooks.co.nz.