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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Best of the best

We were pleased to see The Best of Best New Zealand Poems getting an enthusiastic review from Terry Locke in the new issue of the Journal of New Zealand Literature.  When a review opens like this

 The title of this book is a double superlative whammy and does a good job of attracting attention. The big question, of course, is that having gained attention, does the book sustain and reward it.

you worry for a moment about what’s to come. Then you read on, and at the words

 My simple answer is yes, and I’ll explain why.

you heave a sigh of relief.

We were pleased with the review, which at seven pages in length is substantial. But we were particularly interested in Terry Locke’s comments on the poets’ own commentaries, which from the beginning have accompanied BNZP’s annual selections.

The commentaries function differently. One sort provides an insight into the composition process. An example is Andrew Johnston’s account of how he came to write ‘The Sunflower’, a poem which is one of my picks for the book as a whole. The account itself is manifestly intertextual, with references to Swinburne, Ashbery, the King James Bible and the painting of Anselm Kiefer. This sort of commentary cues the reader’s appreciation of craft. . .  Another sort of commentary is illustrated here, from Rhian Gallagher:

“My father was, as they say, a man of few words. He came out from Ireland in his twenties, worked on building the hydro dams down south and then in the freezing works, hard manual labour. The physical act of burying him was my brothers’ and my eulogy to him. The poem comes from these real events. There is a nod in the poem to something of the ritual involved in a Catholic ceremony while at the same time wanting to break through the potential veneer when ritual turns into an empty vehicle.”

This kind of commentary functions as an interpretative cue. Juxtaposed with the poem, it enters into dialogue with it and the ensuing relationship contributes to a reader’s meaning-making process. . . for me, the commentaries were irresistible, contributing enjoyment and enhancing engagement with each poem anthologised.

If you’d like to subscribe to the Journal of New Zealand Literature, you can do so through their website. The current issue is particularly lively, with reviews, learned articles, thoughtful polemic, and a piece of memoir from current NZ Poet Laureate Ian Wedde.

You can listen to most of the poets in The Best of Best New Zealand Poems reading their poems here and full information about the anthology is here.

On 23 July as a curtain raiser for National Poetry Day on 27 July, Chris Price will introduce a baker’s dozen of the 25 poets whose work was chosen by Bernadette Hall for the 2011 issue of Best New Zealand Poems. We welcome Hera Bird, Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle, Janis Freegard, Rob Hack, Dinah Hawken, Anna Jackson, Helen Lehndorf, Kate McKinstry, Bill Manhire, Harvey Molloy, Marty Smith, Ranui Taiapa and Tim Upperton.

Check out the full Writers on Mondays programme here.