On goes the lockdown in England, and on goes our online poetry community, 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 The group is a place for mutual feedback, and is private so that your work in progress is unpublished.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.
I don’t normally do this sort of thing. I like to think of my prompts as three-dimensional: each one is a meditation, showing how we can use any given topic as a way in to a proper, solid poem. Knock away the scaffolding afterwards, and the reader should never guess that the poem was started by someone whispering ‘gardens‘ or ‘skin disease’ from the wings. The prompt should be completely absorbed by your poem.
This one might be a little more visible, so bear with me. In a classic starting-to-write way, today I ask you to write about the first thing you see as you look around you – and to write in praise of it. If it is unpromising, don’t cheat by trying to select something more ‘poetickal’; see what mileage you can get out of it. After all, we saw a few days ago what Pablo Neruda came up with on the subject of a pair of socks, and Neruda famously wrote odes (praise poems) to almost any object he came across. An onion, a tomato, even miscellaneous broken things; he didn’t allow the prosaic nature of the thing to stop him celebrating it.
In Neruda’s ode to tomatoes, he lays it on with a trowel – unabated, the unstoppable tomato invades the kitchen. It has benign majesty, amplitude, abundance. It offers itself. It populates the salads of Chile. Even the oil is essential child of the olive. Neruda is enjoying the exaggeration – he’s having a laugh, and why not? Most of the words here, though, are sensual, joyful and simple. ‘The street filled with tomatoes, midday, summer‘ – not twilight or winter. Light, juice, ease, butter, living flesh, sun, fragrance, salt, parsley, potatoes, aroma – it’s like a cookbook for Chilean peasant food. Neruda is pressing our most primitive buttons, the ones that say ‘sunshine’ or ‘food’ or ‘plenty’. It’s a cheap trick, and it works.
Look very carefully at your object – the dustpan and brush, the hot water bottle, the bunch of flowers, the rubber duck, the sink plunger. Hold it up to scrutiny. Get right down to loving it. In my case, with no word of a lie, the first thing I set eyes on after writing these words was a haggis. I believe that’s been done already. But there’s the challenge; here is something I would not dream of writing about normally, and must now find a response to. I can’t write a poem to a haggis without invoking Robert Burns – so my poem will have to respond to his. It may become ‘The Haggis Replies’. What else is in sight? My partner’s flat cap could be praised to the high heavens for its bountiful warmth, its comedic Yorkshire style. The IWA canal map on my wall is a passport to a lifetime of adventures. The phone charger, o blessed twine! connects me to my friends in a time of separation.
The ode is not just a poetic form. It’s an instruction to look for joy. Sometimes, in our efforts to be wise, we forget to have fun. Today, let go of ego and live a little. In this difficult month, we are engaged in the business of praise; find something to praise, and praise away.