The poems we write may be rewarding and full of craft (or exasperating and full of frustration), but they are secondary in importance to that which brings them into being: the simple act of paying attention. An open-eyed approach to the world allows the most mundane things to set off a train of enquiry. Attention is its own reward: poems are a neat by-product.
We’ve done a couple of ‘inside’ prompts – a journey around your room, an ode to the first thing you see. In this last week of lockdown, we step outside with that same quality of attention. I want you to look at something within 200 yards of your front door. There are things in your environment so familiar that you may not have registered them for years. Salute the longevity of the pillar box, revived from decline by all the parcels and cards we are sending to isolated friends. Consider the lamp post, that vital news station for neighbourhood dogs; the camper van that never leaves the driveway; the small gifts of any street. Acknowledge the street named after a tree or a long-dead councillor. You get the point.
When you write from Things, ideas creep in around the edges. We’re aiming for Emily Dickinson’s dictum – tell all the truth, but tell it slant. There may be something to explore in the private object (in my case, the glistening fish head left by a kingfisher outside my front door – in yours, maybe wind chimes or a bird feeder). Just now, you might find special worth in the things that your neighbours see too. The manhole cover; the corner shop, clogged by school children at 3.30; the crochet rainbow in a bedroom window; the sign saying NO BALL GAMES or IF I CATCH YOU SMOKING IN THESE TOILETS YOU HAD BETTER BE ON FIRE. Even a scrap of roadside verge has merit. Ours is sometimes covered with wild geraniums; the council cuts them down, but they come back.
This is a lens through which to scrutinise your neighbourhood. Behind those locked doors, what is each neighbour living through in lockdown? Who graffitied FREE TOMMY ROBINSON on the wall, and why hasn’t that kerbstone been fixed yet? In asking such questions, remember that Yeats did not finish Leda and the Swan with ‘I wonder if she put on his knowledge with his power?’ but with a direct question – ‘Did she….?’ Likewise, you don’t need to begin with, ‘I wonder who lives in that house?’ The question shows that you wonder it, so you can just get straight in with ‘Who lives there?’ for a much more engaging line.
Finally, consider your own relationship to the things around you. The tree stump that was still a towering beech when you moved in, the gatepost you scarred by backing your car into it; or just a place where you remember an encounter like this happening. Anything can serve as the signpost to a poem – including a signpost. Go and open the door you’ve been living behind so much. At least there’ll be a draught.
This project ends on Wednesday December 2nd, with the English lockdown. If you have enjoyed these prompts and want to pay it forward, please give something to the Trussell Trust who help to look after our food banks and people in the most urgent need, in these desperate times. You can make a donation here. Every little helps.