#2: Left hanging

Welcome to Day 2 of a new lockdown poetry project, Try to Praise the Mutilated World. Every day of the current lockdown in England, there will be a prompt here which anyone can use as a starting point for writing a poem. Use it for free, to spark off your writing process. If you want to join our closed Facebook group to share work in progress, and to offer feedback on others’ poems, there is a £10 fee – you can sign up via PayPal at the bottom of this page. It’s a lively forum, but private so that your work remains unpublished.

By the time you read this, we should know the result of the US election. As I write, it is unresolved. Millions of people are on tenterhooks, waiting to see what the polls say and what Donald Trump says in response. In real life, as in murder mystery novels, suspense has a powerful hold on an audience. In life we want a quick resolution, but in poetry we might gain traction with a partial reveal – a slow-emerging narrative which may, in fact, never quite resolve. Have a look at Robert Graves’ splendid comic piece, Welsh Incident, which starts mid-sentence and finishes mid-story. We’re open-mouthed, eager to hear the ending that never comes. A very different poem, Elizabeth Bishop’s The Moose , uses a journey to build a solemn sense that something is about to happen.

In poetry, as in strip tease, you can reveal too much too soon. Think about subjects which lend themselves to a slow, tantalising build-up of tension. A seduction, a civil war? Any wanted or dreaded event brings that feeling of need to know: a pregnancy test, a biopsy, an exam result or a marriage proposal. A Covid-19 test. A car crash.

Perhaps, though, this trick is still more useful when worked the other way round – turning a familiar story into a surprise. Too often the poet knows how the story ends, and the reader can guess. Could you write about an important moment in your life by leading us slowly to a denouement? Think about the ways of doing this. You could save a revelation till the end of the poem, without foreshadowing it. Some of you will know this poem by Elizabeth Barrett (not the Victorian writer but the contemporary one) in which a seemingly ordinary day turns out to have great significance. In my own poem Crates I lead you off at a tangent, before heading back to the main point. In both of these poems, the final phrase sends you back to rifle through earlier lines for clues.

In the Anglo-Saxon story poem Beowulf, we’re constantly led back and forward as our hero battles the monster Grendel, so that we can’t tell what will happen next. Here’s a bit of Seamus Heaney’s translation:

So times were pleasant for the people there
until finally one, a fiend out of hell, descended from Cain’s clan,
began to work his evil in the world.

What will happen next? Come to the mead hall tomorrow night, lads, to find out. And bring a bottle for the bard. Suspense allows us to delay gratification in the poem, and keep the reader engaged.

So: think about stories in your life with an element of suspense, or stories you know so well that they need refreshing. How will you build that sense of tension – by showing it only from one point of view so that the whole picture can’t be seen until the end? By having an unreliable narrator who lies about what happened? A reluctant confession, an interrupted narrative, a slow accumulation of facts, a determined focus on something just over there until you have to confront what is really happening?

This prompt is a little slippery and subtle; but if you try to write a poem that incorporates suspense, rather than giving everything away early, then you are on the right track. As ever, take the side roads if they look more interesting, and see where you end up.

Published by Jo Bell

Poet, boater, archaeologist. Former director of the UK's National Poetry Day. One half of @OnThisDayShe. Erstwhile UK Canal Laureate, Cheshire Laureate. Host of The Poetic Licence on YouTube and Patreon (see links).

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