Poetry blog: The burning question

The heat is on… Photograph: Jack Titley
9 Dec 2013 @ 2.22 pm
| News
The heat is on… Photograph: Jack Titley
The heat is on… Photograph: Jack Titley

Can a spark of inspiration turn into a blaze of glory? YorkMix Poet In Residence Carole Bromley considers an ordeal by fire

I’m sitting here surrounded by delicious poetry books asking myself why I chose fire as this month’s theme. The conclusion I have come to, after a very enjoyable browse through anthologies and collections, is that, while watery poems abound, fire is rarely the subject of poems.

However, it is mentioned and, in particular, used as an image, at some stage by most poets.

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.

That was Robert Frost in Fire And Ice using that lovely rhyme fire/ desire to good effect. And it’s not just the rhyme; there is something about the unpredictability and danger as well as the beauty of fire that lends itself to love poetry.

Here’s Carol Ann Duffy in Warming Her Pearls using “burn” both literally for its heat and as a metaphor for desire.

And I lie here awake
knowing the pearls are cooling even now
in the room where my mistress sleeps. All night
I feel their absence and I burn.

And here’s Grace Nichols in Like A Flame imagining she herself is on fire as she approaches her lover

I go to meet him
like a flame

I think it’s the multi-faceted nature of fire that makes it such a versatile metaphor for love.

It has connotations of purity, light, warmth and home in addition to its associations with all-consuming heat, a terrifying potential to get out of control, to kill and to reduce everything in its path to ash.

So, a brilliant image, if you want one to express powerful feeling. Try brainstorming all the words you can think of to do with fire, then use as many as you like in a poem about unrequited love, unspoken desire, an affair. It doesn’t have to be autobiographical. Just have fun imagining yourself in someone else’s skin.

Of course, you may be more drawn to writing about a real fire. Here’s one by WB Yeats on the Poetry Archive. In it an old woman rises early to light a fire. It will make you grateful for that central heating thermostat.

And here’s another favourite, Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden, also on the Poetry Archive.

Two poems about memories of adults rising early in the dark and cold to warm the house for the family. Note the way both poets use the sounds of fire-lighting to conjure the scene.

If you can remember your parents or grandparents lighting fires when you were younger or maybe you still do light a fire on a winter’s night, you might like to try exploring that memory or that process in a poem and see what happens.

Another favourite is this one from an early collection, A Book Of Matches, by Simon Armitage

My party piece:
I strike, then from the moment when the matchstick
conjures up its light, to when the brightness moves
beyond its means, and dies, I say the story
of my life

Try it. It can be surprisingly effective and it won’t take long!

Fire is, of course, also very much associated with death. Here are two poems, one by MS Merwin called The Burnt Child in which the poet describes with chilling clarity the temptation to play with forbidden matches and the catastrophic result.

In this second poem Tony Harrison writes about collecting his mother’s effects before she is cremated. It is a beautiful poem which achieves its moving effects entirely through objects.

Either poem might spark an idea you could work on. You may have a memory of reaching the matchbox down from the shelf. I did so myself as a little girl, struck the matches and dropped them on the hearth rug.

Fortunately my grandmother came in just in time. I have never written about it but I just might!

And, if you like, try writing about a loved one’s ashes, about collecting them or scattering them in a favourite place.

I found the ending of the film about Gray’s Court with its atmospheric scene of scattering ashes on a Northumbrian beach very moving.

Your poem could be surprisingly moving as well. Keep it simple. Just describe the scene so we can imagine it for ourselves. Use the senses. Always use the senses. Jot down what you can hear, what you can see and also any smells, tastes or textures.

Lack of space and time prevent me from quoting all the many mentions of fire in the poems I have been trawling through to write this piece which I really hope will fire you with enthusiasm to write your own.

But you might like to hunt for Billy Collins’ The Best Cigarette (from Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes – and if you haven’t read that, send off for it right now), Louis MacNeice’s House On A Cliff (from Louis MacNeice Selected Poems which should be on your Christmas list) or his very beautiful Meeting Point which contains these lines:

The waiter did not come, the clock
Forgot them and the radio waltz
Came out like water from a rock:
Time was away and somewhere else.

Her fingers flicked away the ash
That bloomed again in tropic trees:
Not caring if the markets crash
When they had forests such as these,
Her fingers flicked away the ash.

Use the theme of fire as loosely as you like. So long as your poem contains some reference, however brief, to fire in any form, I will be pleased to consider it.

Click here to email me your poem/s by Christmas Eve for possible inclusion in the January blog and, if it just gets you taking down lots of poetry books and reading them as I have had such an enjoyable time doing, that’s fine too.

Looking forward to lots of poems about matches, ashes, conflagrations, cigarettes, bushfires, firesides, campfires, fireworks, bonfires, candles, gaslights, love affairs, inspiration, smoke, crackling logs…

Carole Bromley is married with four children and lives in York. Twice a winner in The Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition, she has two pamphlets with Smith/Doorstop (Unscheduled Holt, 2005, and Skylight, 2009) and a collection A Guided Tour of the Ice House. She has won a number of first prizes, including The Bridport and Yorkshire Open, and her poems have appeared in a range of magazines and anthologies. Carole is a graduate of the MPhil in Writing at Glamorgan University and teaches creative writing for York University’s Centre for Lifelong Learning.