NaPoReMo #16: Show and tell


The sun has burst the sky
Jenny Joseph

The sun has burst the sky
Because I love you
And the river its banks.

The sea laps the great rocks
Because I love you
And takes no heed of the moon dragging it away
And saying coldly ‘Constancy is not for you.’

The blackbird fills the air
Because I love you
With spring and lawns and shadows falling on lawns.

The people walk in the street and laugh
I love you
And far down the river ships sound their hooters
Crazy with joy because I love you.


Look: you know she’s exaggerating. I know she’s exaggerating. But that’s what it feels like, doesn’t it? And in that simple idea lies one way of writing a cracking poem. Stop telling the literal truth, and show us how your experience of love /bereavement / shellfish truly feels. Jenny Joseph wrote the famous poem Warning (‘When I am an old woman I shall wear purple…’), an anthem for women aspiring to a disgraceful old age. She pulls the same trick in that one, with great success.

In today’s poem Joseph is full of exuberance and love. Difficult word, love. Certain words in poetry should be kept in a box, with an alarm that goes off when you take them out. They aren’t forbidden, because no word is ever forbidden in writing, but they have been used and re-used to the point of caricature. Shard; gossamer; twilight; soul; heart; almost every abstract noun (grief, joy etc.) The whole vast resource of the English language is available to you, so why not reach for something a little less threadbare?

Some words demand to be let in, however. There isn’t really another word for love. Bad poets expect it to do all the work in a poem. Good poets know that you have two possible responses to such a heavyweight word. You can treat it with great care, placing it carefully in your poem as if it were a Faberge egg, or you can run naked through the lines, shouting it at the top of your voice, scattering it over your shoulder like spring flowers. Jenny Joseph does the latter. I love you, I love you, I love you she says in every stanza.

Rhyme? Not really. Structure? Regular stanzas of 3, 4, 3, 4 lines. The stanza breaks all fall in a natural break for the phrase: there is no ‘cliffhanger’ effect, just a natural speaking rhythm. The poetry comes from the repeat of ‘I love you’ and the hyperbolic idea that love itself causes the birdsong, the sun and so on. Even the sea itself resists the very tide for the sake of love. Sod the moon; Jenny Joseph is in love. It’s ridiculous and hyperbolic, comic and joyful, rather like love itself. Perhaps after all, some few phrases are above cliche. Lovers never tire of hearing ‘I love you’. In love, as in poetry, you sometimes have to show and tell.


Published by Jo Bell

Poet, boater, archaeologist and former director of the UK's National Poetry Day. One third of @OnThisDayShe. Erstwhile UK Canal Laureate.

2 thoughts on “NaPoReMo #16: Show and tell

  1. This is just lovely. And what it says to me is how our perception of the world can alter it entirely. When we’re in love, we see everything differently, and we think we cause these things, these joyous things, to happen because we are joyous. OK, maybe it is all a ridiculous delusion that we might be the cause of anything at all – but it’s also a good reminder that we can choose to always see the world this way!

  2. One of the best poetry readings I ever went to was given by Jenny Joseph, 1985 I think it was. She was mesmeric in the way only understated poets of quality can be. And this is a proper belter of a poem, too, and no mistake.

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