NaPoReMo #30: Holding hands


Oh western wind, when wilt thou blow
that the small rain down can rain?
Christ, if my love were in my arms
and I in my bed again!


I thought for a while about what to post for this last day of my NaPoReMo series. I considered my favourite poem of all time, WH Auden’s In Praise of Limestone: but it’s very long and there would have been too much to say. My relationship with that poem is partly about my own geographical hinterland, so you might not feel quite so excited about it as I do.

I wanted something that would take us back to the essence of poetry. I wanted a poem that would remind us why we write, how simple it can be at base – and how reading well helps us to write well, which has been the whole point of these blogs. So instead of Auden’s magnificent, multi-layered reflective poem (which I urge you to read anyway), I offer you this ancient gem.

It’s four lines long and one of the oldest poems we know in recognisable English, dating probably from the fifteenth century. It’s tiny and true and simple. It has survived for six hundred years. Why does it work? Surely you agree that it does work. It’s a nameless man (almost impossible that it should be a woman, given the time and the subject) saying something that we’ve all felt. And it’s memorable because it’s more than a sentence; it’s a little poem.

Oh western wind, when wilt thou blow
that the small rain down can rain?
Christ, if my love were in my arms
and I in my bed again!

Three words suffice to give it a rhyme and structure; rain, rain, again. It’s mostly written in iambs (look it up) – especially if you lose the word ‘that’ which modern translations put in to ease the meaning. If you’ve done a workshop with me you’ll have heard my mantra: concrete, concise, conviction. Concrete means use the five senses. Here we have wind, rain, the lover in his arms and the cosiness of the bed. Concise means, make it no longer than it needs to be. I don’t think we can accuse him of rambling on in this one. But the greatest of these three is conviction: mean it.  Mean it. And surely, he does mean it. The plaintive ‘oh’ that begins the poem, the rhetorical question that he knows will get no answer, and the forceful wishing ‘Christ’ in the third line make this a groan of tiredness and need. It’s the simplest wish of all; to be in bed with your lover, safe and warm with the rain beating on the roof.

The sensation I have on reading this poem is the same that I had when working as an archaeologist, on finding a piece of Roman kitchenware in the mud. I’m a human, it says. I have lived on the earth where you live. This is a piece of my life. Hello. It feels like a greeting; it feels like a moment of holding hands with a person from another time. It’s lasted for centuries. And there’s the rub: if you try and write a poem that will last for centuries, you will very likely fall on your arse. Tell your experience, with enough physical detail to make the reader feel it with you. Abandon all hopes of impressing people, and you may write something impressive.

The poem isn’t complicated or technically challenging but we share his experience in the telling, and he uses a simple form to make it memorable. Short and sweet is often more powerful than long and clever. Some people enjoy technical experimentation in poetry for its own sake, and feel that communicating experience is not the main point. But for me it is: and this is my blog, so there. The poems I’ve chosen this month all speak to me in some way. I don’t always like what they say or identify with it, but I can hear it loud and clear.

I have of course had a not-very-secret agenda in writing these articles. You have to read good poetry to write good poetry. Every single writer I know whose work is loved or respected will tell you the same thing. Every person I meet whose poetry is lazy, cliched or simply bad, honestly hasn’t taken reading seriously as a tool for learning to write; so it seemed important to show what we mean by saying ‘read’. Of course we read first for pleasure. But to read poetry as a writer of poetry, you have to do more than let your eyes pass over it and take in the gist. Examine every word; ask why the poet used this word and not another; query the bits that feel weaker and find out why. Don’t just feel the effect a poem has on you, but ask how that effect is worked on you. Lift the bonnet and have a look at the engine of the poem. Reading poetry will teach you more about writing poetry than just writing poetry ever can, because you’re reading people who (for the most part) are getting it right already. It’s not just about paying your respects to the dead giants. It’s the single best tool to make your own poetry better.

Why did you want to write well in the first place? Surely, to communicate the things which are so damn hard to articulate in daily life. We make time in poetry to talk about what matters; to make each other laugh, or think. It’s a small act of solidarity, an act of affirmation and faith in human nature. So do keep reading, keep writing and above all, keep sharing what it is to be human.

A great poem says; This is how my life is. Do you recognise this too? If the poem works, the reader will answer yes – no matter how distant you are in time or space. And for a brief moment, you’re holding hands.

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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.

13 thoughts on “NaPoReMo #30: Holding hands

  1. I’ve loved this series, it’s really helped my own critical thinking about poetry. I love reading poetry, but I often don’t have the confidence to delve deeper than ‘that gave me a very recognisable feeling’, ‘that was a nice visual image’ or ‘great alliteration there’. And I love the mantra of concrete, concise, conviction. I often fall down on the first of these, and it’s true that the more concrete and specific your poem is, the more universal it becomes.

    1. Thanks Marina, that’s exactly how I hoped the blogs would help. But for the record, I myself have found that just DOING it gave me the skills to do it; I learned, for instance, all about that Larkin poem and the Kathryn Maris sestina by putting them under a microscope and looking at them properly for the first time. So keep doing it!

  2. Thank you so much, Jo for taking time out from your busy schedule to send us a poem a day during April. It has been days of laughter, tears and a breathlessness at the breadth and depth of subject-matter, and your explanations have been interesting and informative (oh, does that sound stuffy, very non-poetic – sorry, I am not poetic until I have my morning coffee). I suppose for you it’s back to the day job, whilst for me I have a file of your past offerings to look at whenever I need inspiration or explanation of ‘what works’. All the best.

  3. Dear Jo Bell

    What a treat it’s been to have NaPoReMo popping up daily. I’ve loved your incisive take on brilliant poems and wondered how you narrowed them down!

    I took home from one of your workshops in Ledbury, your mantra – concise, concrete, conviction – to steer my own work, and it is a focus, along with your top tips, in my poetry workshops for shy beginners here in Winchcombe. Fully credited of course.

    Thank you so much – you are so generous.

    Best wishes


    Sent from my iPad


  4. Thanks very much for posting these poems this month. It has been very enjoyable and informative reading your insights on each one.

  5. Thank you for these daily poems along with your wit and insight. I’ve loved reading them and will miss the challenge of pulling them apart and really feeling them. 😊 Cheers

  6. Thanks for this very enjoyable series of posts. I’ve missed a couple, and I’m now hoarding visiting these as Treats For Later.

  7. Thank you so much for taking the time to share these poems and your thoughts about them. Over the past 18 months I’ve started writing my own poems after years of reading and thinking I could never write poetry myself. I love careful reading of poetry, but haven’t always been sure how to winkle my way in. This month has been great xx

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