Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Fun on the Tube

by Roger Stevens

It was a special day in the poet’s calendar, National Poetry Day. I was on my way to visit a school near Regent’s Park, in London. The train from Brighton to London was late and I was worried that I wouldn’t get to the school on time. Then I had a most peculiar and action-packed tube journey.
I boarded the tube at Victoria underground station. It was only a few stops to Regent’s Park and so I thought I would just about make it on time. But the tube train sat in the station for ages. Eventually, the driver announced that the delay was due to a man hitting a train further down the line.
I thought this was very odd. Usually, I thought, a train would (usually tragically) hit a person, not the other way round. I imagined a train going past and a man leaning over and slapping it. “Take that,” he’d say. “You naughty, naughty train!”
Eventually we started up and I glanced at my watch. I might still get to the school on time.
But we hadn’t gone much further when the train stopped – in a tunnel. The driver announced that as it was National Poetry Day, every passenger had to share a poem with everyone else in their carriage. I recited a haiku because, as you know, they are very short. A couple of passengers didn’t know any poems (hard to believe I know) and I thought we would soon be moving again. But then a tall guy with long dreadlocks stood up and began reciting a rap poem. He was very good. We all kept the beat by stamping on the floor and clapping. But the poem went on for ages and ages and I knew now that I would surely be late.
We finally got moving again and we were nearly there – when the train stopped once more.
“I’m really very sorry for the delay,” the driver said, “but there has been an incident. A zebra has escaped from its enclosure at London Zoo and run into the tube station. It scrambled down the escalator and is running around in the tunnel somewhere, but we don’t know exactly where.”
Well, that was it. Now I knew I would be late for sure. We waited for about five minutes until the driver announced, “I’m sorry, we’ll be here just a little longer, but we hope to have the situation under control soon. We’ve sent a lion into the underground tunnel to catch the zebra.”
I finally reached the school about half an hour late. Before I gave my poetry performance I apologised and told everyone why I was late. They all clapped. They thought I’d made it up! Especially the bit about a man hitting a train. 

·         Have you had any exciting or just strange journeys that you could turn into a poem or a story. If you have, let us know.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Nursery Rhymes

by Gerard Benson

My lifelong love of poetry began with nursery rhymes. And I still love them. I’ve read many great poems by many great poets. Also thousands of poems by more humble contenders ─ profound poems, funny poems, sad, happy, love poems, hate poems and probably a thousand or more about living creatures, from William Blake’s “Tyger” to Christopher Isherwood’s “Common Cormorant”. But I always return to those
marvellous little rhymes of childhood. Little Miss Muffet (what’s a tuffet? by the way) Little Jack Horner, Jack and Jill, that Black Sheep, and Bo Peep, and Mary Mary and Baby Bunting and that unfortunate baby whose cradle was put at the top of the tree. I love them all. There’s a Grand Old Duke, and Old King Cole the music lover, and that Queen who ate bread and honey while the Maid was having her nose pecked off. What a cast! They all seemed quite real to me ─ as real as my teacher or the nurse on a bike who used to
come round. Or my parents. Or even me!

I’ve been wondering why I so took to them. Partly it was the rhythm; they’re all highly rhythmic though mostly not metric. The simple patterns of sound. The powerful alliteration. The strong rhymes. The nonsense words. The marvellous sprinkling of capital letters. But all these elements served the strange little stories they
told.. If you sit on a wall you might fall off and shatter; or the lessons they taught ─ if you have no penny you can’t buy a pie; or the characters they introduced ─ that upper class thief the Knave of Hearts, the incorruptible Milkmaid, the vicious but no doubt put-upon Old Woman who lived in a shoe, the Piper’s Son who stole a pig.

Most of them have a deeper meaning ─historical, satirical, religious, anciently topical ─ available to the scholar. I once attended a lecture where a distinguished scholar/poet explained that Jack and Jill introduced children to “the terrible story of the Fall of Man” ─also dealt with, though at greater length by Milton in “Paradise Lost”. Ring-a-ring-of-roses is about the plague, Contrary Mary is probably Mary Tudor. But do we care? It’s for their pared down simplicity that I love them. And for their strange surrealism. Children have no problem with this, but what are we to make of a violin-playing cat and a spring-heeled cow? I think that was my absolute favourite. And I once took the liberty of rewriting it in style of of Robert Browning, one of my favourite poets:

Hey Diddle Diddle, t’employ a childish phrase
And thus begins my tale (tale of a cat),
And where else, tell me masters, to begin
This rigmarole of puss and violin
Than here at top o’ the page? Then Diddle I says
A feline fiddlist and a leaping cow,
You catch my drift? I thought not. Hold I trow,
Hold hard. A cat (hold on to that!)
A fiddle, and a cow i’ th’ sky
Over the moon! milk for the green cheese,
(A fancy but I set it down) and these
Occurrences watched by a Pekingese,
A pooch who laughs, though none knows how or why,
At plate and spoon eloping. Zooks! The moon’s adaze!

When I’d almost finished writing this article I opened my falling to pieces copy of Mother Goose Treasury and came across dreadful news. London Bridge is falling down. What should I do? I know, build it up with silver and gold. Trouble is I've got none.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Reversible Poems

by Liz Brownlee

In 2009 I was organising a family poetry exhibition for Bristol Poetry Festival. I wanted some short poems to hang from mobiles to decorate the exhibition room. Rachel Rooney sent me the first poem - and it could be read both ways - forwards and backwards. I thought what fantastic fun it would be if all the mobiles could be read both ways, from the top, and from the bottom, and asked the poets who were helping to write some for me. This Rachel’s poem:


I printed the words out on a series of clouds, a white one at the top, and getting gradually greyer as they went down, until the bottom one was black with lightning running through it. The mobiles were a great success and everyone enjoyed them. But not all the poets could write them, it’s surprisingly hard to make it make sense both ways! Sometimes they said the same thing in a different way, sometimes they said something slightly different. Here is one of mine:


Each word was written on a buddleia flower, which had butterflies perched upon it. Here is another:


The words were hung in a swarm of bees. If you would like to try writing a reversible poem, it helps if you use the words ‘like’ ‘as’ ‘for’ ‘by’ in the middle and lots of naming and describing words either side. A very simple but beautiful one by Jane Clarke:


Have a go!! If you want to make a mobile, I printed the words on card, laminated them, cut them out, and made a hole in the middle of the bottom of the top word, the top and bottom of the middle words, and the top of the last word. Then I bought some fishing swivels - each word had a tiny metal trigger hook through its holes attached to a swivel and then attached to the next word with another trigger hook. The swivel helps the letters to turn.

Send us your reversible poems! We’ll put them up.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Rhymes with a Reason

by Celia Warren

Why rhyme? (Apart from the fact that rhymes are pleasing to the ear, and it's always good to keep your ears happy!) Well, for years and years, people – not just poets, but lesser mortals, too – have used rhyme because it's memorable. It makes ditties easier to remember and repeat to others. Here are a few memory rhymes that, most likely, you already know. The first is a short-term weather forecast, by looking at the sky at sunset and sunrise; the second a long-term weather forecast, by observing which trees come into leaf first in the spring:

Red sky at night: shepherd's delight.
Red sky in the morning: shepherd's warning.

Oak before ash, in for a splash;
Ash before oak, in for a soak.

Then there are historical rhymes, that help keep significant dates in our heads:

Remember, remember the fifth November,
The gunpowder, treason and plot,
And I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

In fourteen hundred and ninety-two,
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

Sometimes people write witty ditties that comment on the politics of the day – what parliament does that affects our everyday lives or, often, our means of making a living – being able to put a roof over our heads, clothes on our back, and bread on the table (the three main things we actually need in life)! 

I was recently reminded of this ditty that summed up people's anger and frustration at no longer being able to let their livestock feed on 'common land' following a 17th century 'enclosures act'. Stealing was punishable by death or flogging (depending on whether you were a man or a woman, would you believe!), but the government could 'steal' from the poor quite legally:

They hang the man and flog the woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leave the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose.

Making up poems like this, to share the pain, may have made people feel better, even if it didn't change anything. Just as now, awake very early this morning, and looking out at a red sky, I can't change the weather. It just tells me that the TV weatherman got it right last night, when he said it would rain today.

Why not write a verse yourself to commemorate a special date in your family life, or to make a satirical point or comment on some aspect of life that annoys you? It may not change anything, but it's fun. And if it rhymes, you may remember it for the rest of your life.