#24: Little and Large

A few days left of lockdown in England, and also of 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 The group is a place for mutual feedback, and is private so that your work in progress is unpublished.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 Caroline Bird. Join us at any time through November. See the PayPal button at the bottom of this post.

In my working life as an archaeologist, I was once excavating on a featureless hilltop in Northumberland when my trowel flipped up a tiny piece of flint, the size of a milk tooth. I cleaned back the soil carefully and exposed a dozen or more ‘microliths’, each with a clean edge where it had been struck from the mother stone. Eventually I stood back to see a scatter of little chippings like a sunburst. Five thousand years ago someone had sat down on this spot, knapped a flint core into a useful blade, then stood and walked away, leaving behind their Neolithic litter. My initial find was so small I almost missed it, but by the end of the day it had become something very moving.

This may not seem immediately relevant to the image, above, of a Spiny Waterflea on a scientist’s finger. Let me explain. I invite you to write about something very big or very small. In the latter category are the spiders’ eggs in your shed; tadpoles like underwater punctuation marks; punctuation marks like inky tadpoles; musical notes on a score; dust motes in sunshine; the microscopic glitch in your DNA that spells ‘twins’ or ‘deafness’. Auden wrote A New Year Greeting to the many micro-organisms populating his body. You might focus on a prized marble or a life-saving stent; the lost pins that fell between historic floorboards; the earring-backs or toast crumbs swallowed by your sofa; a seed. Even the tiniest items can accumulate on a massive scale. The virus that has humanity on its knees right now is a tiny organism.

If you go big, on the other hand, go Very Big Indeed. In this category we place the blue whale, California, the moon, the Great Wall of China, Apatosaurus, Ayer’s Rock/ Uluru, the Pacific, the Amazon basin, an oak tree, a giant big enough to swallow the earth – and last but by no means least, The Universe. You might explore the contrast between the great and the small; pursue the difference between microscopic Samoa and the vastness of California, or write an American sentence about the Pacific Ocean.

As always, if you are wondering how the hell your poem about drawing pins will have anything to say about the human condition, remember that a poem is seldom about what it’s about. Poet Richard Hugo makes a useful distinction between

the initiating or triggering subject, which starts the poem or “causes” the poem to be written, and the real or generated subject, which the poem comes to say or mean, and which is generated or discovered in the poem during the writing.

Richard Hugo, The Triggering Town

That first subject (the drawing pin) jump-starts the poem, but it begins a stream of thought which might take you somewhere else entirely (the end of the world, and your part in it). Follow it, and see where you end up – little by little.

Join our Facebook workshopping group

Join our closed Facebook group at any time in November, for feedback from other poets and access to weekly readings. Pay £10 by PayPal below, then find Try to Praise the Mutilated World on Facebook and ask to join (use the link in the first paragraph above). We are already 300+ strong and there’s a lively, friendly community helping each other to write their way through the lockdown.


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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