#3: You shouldn’t have

This is Day 3 of lockdown in England, and day 3 of our poetry writing project, Try to Praise the Mutilated World. The prompts are here on my blog every day, and free: access to our Facebook workshopping group costs £10 and lasts for the duration of this particular lockdown.

I thought twice about offering up this subject so early in our project. It is riddled with booby traps. The road to hell is paved, in this case, with saccharine and well-intentioned phrases like ‘Oh Mr Carruthers, I couldn’t have done it without you.’ What the hell; here it is anyway. Today’s mission is to express thanks. Just now, it does no harm to acknowledge the good in the world.

As writers, we are constantly learning new ways to handle the feelings that can overwhelm a poem. We want to express emotion and work on the reader’s emotions, without being mawkish or self-indulgent. That kind of tenderness without sentimentality is a hard trick to pull off. Example: many years ago, my mum was strapped for cash after a difficult divorce. Her father offered to pay for a holiday in Spain, for her and the children. She refused, seeing it as a question of dignity, until he gave her a compelling argument. “Do you not realise,” he said, “how much it would mean to me that I can help my own child in this way?” We were thankful for the holiday, and for the lesson that receiving, as well as giving, can be an act of kindness.

You see the difficulty? Already this sounds like an episode of the Waltons – and my family, I promise you, are not like the Waltons. I haven’t yet found a way to write this story without hearing the sound of tiny violins in the background. If the thanks you have in mind are likely to land in that sort of register, then tread carefully lest you fall into a pit of honey.

How to work it, then? Strip the poem of obvious statements of emotion. Frisk it for pesky abstracts like grateful, kind, generous – concentrate instead on showing us the act that earned the thanks, and the physical gestures – a glance, a handshake – that expressed it. Resist, resist the urge to make your piece too complete by adding a bow at the end – no ‘and I have never forgotten your act of kindness’ or ‘I think of you every time I eat a sausage roll.’ You don’t have to actually say THANK YOU – though this one by Ross Gay does, and this one by WS Merwin does it repeatedly (eliciting this response). You can take your thanks to a higher plane by talking with God, like Kaveh Akhbar here, or this sassy and empowering piece by Kaylin Haught.

Your thanks may be tinged with sarcasm. The instructor on my advanced driving course told us that women never reverse into parking spaces ‘because they need to leave space for the shopping trolley, am I right?’ and I still thank him as I reverse into the tightest spaces, purely to spite him. Another poet might thank the bully who taught them the value of speaking up, or the Twitter troll who drove them to discover the MUTE button. Thank just one American voter for voting Biden in; thank your greengrocer for always remembering that you like kiwi fruit. You will have someone in mind. Give it your best shot. And…. thank you.


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.

3 thoughts on “#3: You shouldn’t have

  1. Jo, I’ve sent a reply to the email this morning but am not sure if you check these at all? Christian

      1. I had a message this morning to announce today’s prompt. This is the address line to me: Try to Praise the Mutilated World (comment-reply@wordpress.com).

        I don’t really want to put my message here in public, but didn’t know how to message you privately.

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