Poetry blog: Emails, texts, Tweets… We’re all on-message now

Not everyone uses Snapchat to send messages… Photograph: Settergren
8 Aug 2016 @ 9.12 pm
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The Poetry Blog is back! I have recovered from the mammoth but very enjoyable task of judging the York Literature Festival/ YorkMix Poetry Competition and thought it would be nice to restart the blog in time to give readers a few ideas and hopefully generate some poems to submit to our exciting new judge in the autumn.

The theme this month is messages which is also the theme of National Poetry Day 2016. It’s a good one because it gives you plenty of scope. Try sitting down with a sheet of paper and brainstorming every kind of message you can think of.

I came up with text messages, emails, letters, answerphone messages, voice messages, memos, notes, saying it with flowers etc.

You can send a very powerful message without words. Body language and facial expression convey a lot, as does a brick through a window. A box of chocolates on Valentines Day will do the job though a poem is nicer.

Famous apology

Perhaps the most famous poem about a message is William Carlos Williams’ This is just to say.

Often imitated and parodied, the format of this simple poem is easy to replicate with your own message of apology perhaps. It doesn’t have to be autobiographical. Try imagining what note a famous person might have left, or a literary character.

Fairytale characters are good too. What note might the wolf have left for Red Riding Hood or Cinderella to her ugly sisters? What note might David Cameron have left behind at No 10? Now there’s a thought…

David Cameron announces his resignation in Downing Street. What message do you have for him? Photograph © Tom Evans on Flickr
David Cameron announces his resignation in Downing Street. What message do you have for him? Photograph © Tom Evans on Flickr

A few years ago when text messages were still a novelty, the Guardian ran a competition for text message poems. It can be fun to limit yourself to 160 characters and just see what happens. If nothing else, your writing will become more succinct!

I did it (you’ll find my poem on the link) and found that the line breaks magically worked themselves out. I could hear them in my head. It was actually quite an exciting experiment.

Try it. I think text messages can be longer these days but write a poem anyway in the sort of language you might use to text. Alternatively, write a poem in the form of a tweet.

Text style

Carol Ann Duffy
Carol Ann Duffy

Of course, your poem doesn’t have to be in the form of a text message. It could be about text messaging, like this famous example from Carol Ann Duffy in which the process of texting is integral to the love affair itself.

And here’s another kind of message which has become all that is left of a love affair when the lovers are apart. The speaker rails against the inadequacy of pen and paper to do justice to all she wants to convey.

You might like to go down the more conventional route and write a poem which is a letter. Many poets have done this successfully, writing to their younger selves, or to an abstract quality or simply to the absent lover.

In a way all poems are messages. There is always a speaker and an assumed listener. Poets adopt voices and imagine an audience.

Some write in the voice of a historical figure or have two characters from a book talking /writing to each other. Others have written book length collections based on letters.

One interesting approach is to write a ‘found’ poem based on a real letter. There is wonderful archive material freely available online or in your local library.

Picture postcard

An old postcard of Micklegate, York
An old postcard of Micklegate, York

It’s the time of year when people send postcards home (or it used to be. I have a feeling postcards have been superseded by more advanced methods of communication than waiting three weeks for a card to arrive from Spain!)

In the late seventies, Craig Raine started the Martian school of poetry with his poem A Martian sends a postcard home. In the poem the Martian writes about life on earth from the point of view of an alien visitor.

Seeing the world afresh is an important aspect of poetry and this was a clever and effective way of doing it. You might like to try – or you might like simply to write a poem which fits on a postcard.

Giving yourself a technical challenge can generate fresh and interesting poetry. Try it. You might surprise yourself.

Most of the forms of messaging I have been talking about are immediate, or fairly immediate and resemble speech, while letters, especially in an age when a letter took a long time to arrive, while sharing some aspects of the spoken word actually involve a particular kind of language which is carefully thought about and planned.

If you are writing in the form of a letter, real or imagined, don’t forget this. It can be a good idea to immerse yourself in letters so you can catch the particular tone of them.

Pat Barker. Photograph: Penguin Books
Pat Barker. Photograph: Penguin Books

Here is Eleanor Farjeon writing about the last letter she received from her lover, the poet Edward Thomas, who died in France in 1917. Notice how she quotes from that letter and how the poet’s real words resonate and add authenticity to her poem.

It is perfectly possible to do this with letters you may have from someone who was once close to you. You can bring that person and his/her ‘voice’ into your poem in a way that is startlingly immediate.

You can either do this with letters you have kept or with letters from a different era preserved in archives or published in book form. Obviously this takes time and research but it’s well worth the effort.

Send in your poems

I will be running a poetry workshop at York Explore in the autumn using the City Archives. This is to tie in with The Big Read which this year will be Pat Barker’s Regeneration. For details call in at York Explore and ask for a leaflet.

Send your poem on the theme of messages to me and I will publish and comment on the most interesting responses here. Email them to [email protected] by August 22nd.

As this blog is really an online workshop I would much rather read your new poems, however raw, than something you’ve got out of a drawer and blown the dust off!

And if you would prefer to use my suggestions and send the resulting poem/s to the Poetry Society or to the YorkMix/ York Literature Festival competition when it opens in October, or to anywhere else for that matter, good luck.