#16: Monumental

Lockdown continues in England, and so does our citizen poetry project, Try to Praise the Mutilated World. The prompts are here every day, and free. Access to our Facebook workshopping group costs £10, and lasts for the duration of this lockdown. The group is a place for mutual feedback, and is private so that your work in progress is unpublished. We have guest readers via Facebook Live on a Sunday – the next one is Jonathan Davidson. Join us at any time through November. See the PayPal button at the bottom of this post.

Statue celebrating the enema, Zheleznovodsk

Just in case today’s theme sounds a little dry, let me start by showing you a statue. The Russian city of Zheleznovodsk is a spa resort. It is particularly proud of its pioneering role in colonic irrigation – which is why its most famous sculpture (right) shows three little cherubs bearing an enema bulb. Today’s theme can be approached, as it were, from many directions.

I ask you to use a monument as your sparking-off point. It needn’t be the whole focus of your poem, it may be just the backdrop, or a catalyst for a train of thought. It may be a statue, a building of cultural importance, like the Colosseum, a shrine or site of pilgrimage.

Monuments honour the public figures or deities of their time. The unknown soldier, Julius Caesar, the great scientist, or the founding father stands on a pedestal above the city; in other places we revere the Virgin Mary, the god of January, the gift of the gab. Monuments have local meanings too. Some are meeting places – see you at the Monument, we used to say in Newcastle before a night out. Others are outlets for anti-establishment mockery, like Glasgow’s Duke of Wellington, perpetually crowned with a traffic cone. When social values change, monuments fall. Lenin, Saddam Hussein and slave trader Edward Colston have all been knocked off their pedestals.

You can make your poem a monument in itself, for those who have no monument. In this poem Derek Walcott remembers the enslaved people for whom there is no monument but the sea in which they drowned, and in this one Seamus Heaney commemorates similarly unremembered Irish rebels. Or build a monument and make it vivid; a huge beacon on the cliffs of Dover to celebrate the Unknown Immigrant, or a sculpture to the homeless, on a bench in front of the town hall. In this one, the poet shows us the difference between a grandiose monument, and the simpler home where the hero seems much more alive.

You might want to redesign your city, replacing war heroes with domestic abuse survivors or celebrating The Optimist. Why not write a funding application for a 60-foot high statue of Uncle Martin, his racing pigeons at his feet – a museum of absent-mindedness – or for an Indian Army memorial in Leicester? Consider your point of view in the poem. It might be refreshing to write as Nelson himself; as the town planner rejecting another ‘dead white male’ statue; or the knowing spouse of a famous plinth-holder.

In his monumental poem Ozymandias, Shelley looks at a fallen sculpture. The poem is, of course, about a monument – but if that were all it was about, it would be an anecdote. Really, Ozymandias is about hubris, dictatorship and the healing passage of time. As a wise man once said, ‘Your poem must be about left-handed widgets, but also about Everything.’ If your poem is entirely about left-handed widgets/ your childhood holiday then it will be boring. If it is entirely about Everything, then it will be overblown and pompous. The lens of poetry makes you look through the widget, to see Everything. If you are writing about the time you met your partner for a snog around the back of Notre Dame, see if you can’t also glean something about human nature and its environment. Use a real or imagined monument to teach us something about a real or imagined world.

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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.

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