Morning Workshop 24th March


with Chrissy Banks, Verona Bass, Claire Dyer, Marilyn Francis, Sarah Gregory, Nikki Kenna, Ann Preston, Graeme Ryan, Linda Saunders, Tessa Strickland, Harry Thurston.

The brief for the March workshop was to provide a poem with IMMEDIATE ALLURE – the kind of poem which might open a successful collection, or which, when discovered, would make a reader want to read more poems by the same hand.  Self-evidently, all poems submitted to magazines and competitions ought to have this quality.  I did not frame this workshop requirement from caprice.

The variety of poems was quite startling and lead to an absorbing and wide-ranging debate.  Here are a few of the thoughts I brought away. Workshop participants who are also editors of the blog are extremely welcome to add their own.  If you are not an editor yet, please sign up now and add contribution to the rest.


There are very good reasons to discipline a poem to occupy a single page.  Printed poems have a visual/graphic dimension which is pleasing, expressive and reassuring, and are probably most visually pleasing when, like a well-framed picture, they occupy a single page.   A poem which spills beyond its one page is making a sacrifice of one of the great  proven pleasures of good poetry. Unless it has a clear and compelling narrative arc, when read aloud, it is also probably asking too much of a listener who cannot see the printed text.  The workshop rule of 28 lines maximum was broken by one of the March subscribers, and he was unreasonably forgiven, but in future this 28 line/double sonnet/single page/maximum words  rule will be an absolute.


The March workshop raised fascinating issues of clarity.  I personally believe that the right to difficulty must be earned and that most often difficulty and obscurity  arise not from profundity of thinking, or depth of emotion, but from failures of editing, imagination, empathy and basic courtesy. A poem ought to communicate effectively with its audience. The deeper and more subtle the meaning, the greater is the obligation to express it with clarity and care. Think the Duino Elegies.  Think the Four Quartets. I found three of yesterday’s workshop poems stubbornly resisted my questions:  what is this about?  what is this trying to say?  how do these parts cohere into a whole?  I thought this was a sign of weakness. But several people in the workshop were intrigued and attracted by precisely this kind of puzzlement. Please reply to / comment on this in the box below this post.


In a short poem, every single word must do its work.  No word should disrupt the authenticity of the speaking. No lazy/insentive selection should let the poem down.  The happy corollary of this is that when a poem has been properly written with meticulous attention to the choice of words, it can hardly fail. There were particularly good examples of this achieved excellence yesterday from several writers in the room and it was joy to spend time with so much good writing. When all the words in a poem have been chosen well, it becomes possible to rejoice in identifying the real ‘stars’.  The way Marilyn Francis used the word ‘bosky’ with such cunning  awareness of its poetic history.  Nikki Kenna’s description of the ‘bony’ earth.  Harry Thurston’s immaculate description of a wasp’s nest as a small planet – his fine poem weakened only by his choice of the word ‘cup’ to describe the beginnings of the nest building.  He meant an inverted cup, but the poem didn’t give the reader the space to imagine this .  Nor would ‘dome’ have done the work, unless he had a way of giving us a tiny dome, as in Hopkins’ ‘thrush eggs look little low heavens. ’  ( There’s no harm in such an already good writer as Harry aiming for the stars.)


The curse of the backstory.  Strictly speaking, a stand alone published poem has no context.  Everything it wants to communicate has somehow to come into existence on its printed page.  The magic of a really good short poem is to create its world partly by actual words and partly by the power of suggestion, by the inseparable marriage of what is said and what is left unsaid.  Most of yesterday’s poems were beautifully self-contained and ready –  with perhaps one or two tiny tweaks –  to go out into the world but a few still seemed stubbornly over-anchored in their writers’ heads.   A backstory should be glimpsed as a ghost in the machine – evident, important, enriching, alluring, sparking the imagination, catching at the throat, but never creating the impression that the words on the page are not doing their full work. This becomes particularly challenging when the backstory comes from undeclared areas in the writer’s private life – a hugely difficult issue, which surely needs a whole day workshop of its own.


Yesterday’s writers were forbidden to include titles with their pieces, which had the very good effect of making the poems stand, as they should do, on their own two feet.  It seemed to me that this absence of title was only damaging to the poem in one case out if the nine.  Harry Thurston’s poem about wasps and their nests was impeccably expressed, beautifully detailed, very well shaped and very well disciplined.  But not everyone recognised that the subject was wasps because not everyone has seen a wasps’ nest up close.  Having the title put this right immediately, of course. What was interesting, when we heard the other writer’s’ titles, was how little they added to our understanding and appreciation of the poems which by now we knew quite well.  How much can, or should a title add to a poem?  How can we learn to use them well?  To good advantage? Can a poem be over-titled?  Are some titles  anything more than a useful device for indexing?

Please add your comments on the March workshop in the comments box.

The morning workshop in May will concentrate on FORM.

4 comments on “Morning Workshop 24th March

  1. Claire Dyer says:

    A wonderful write-up of the session, which certainly invited me to look at the issues you cover in a different light. Thank you for a fascinating morning.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I think I spoke up for confusion in the workshop! I most enjoy poems that tend towards the kind of abstraction I associate with music: poems that open up a range of possibilities, maybe new worlds, maybe new ideas, maybe surprising connections, poems that give me space to explore both outwards and inwards. Such poems may build on history, geography, myths, cultures and use those references to enrich ideas. They often also have musical characteristics such as beat and repetition. Anyone who can write such poems is definitely not taking a short cut and leaving matters to chance.

    Thank you Sue – what an interesting workshop. Like all the best it raised a whole lot more questions.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. First off, thanks to you, Sue, for all your hard work, including getting this report up so promptly. As usual, the workshop gave me much to think about.

    It’s fascinating how something that’s apparent to me, the poet, may not be to you, the reader and vice versa, so very useful to get a perspective on what is generally known or can be guessed and what not. Where more than one or two readersare confused, then I don’t think it can be ignored by the poet. We have to decide then whether we have left out some essential piece of information, or if the reader needs to give a poem several more readings to find what is embedded in the poem, however hidden or enigmatic. And we must decide whether we are content with suggestion/ uncertainty / contradictions/ ambivalence/ even enigma, feeling that a poem often attempts to say what can’t easily be said in any other form OR if clarity of meaning is number one priority. Personally, I feel there is room for both types of poem as long as the poet is purposeful and in control. Not easy if their interest is in what comes from the unconscious soup, which necessarily carries with it elements of mystery, dream, myth, the surreal and a metaphoric language that may need unravelling.

    Similarly, in terms of length, while I can see that a line limit may be necessary for a full workshop and writing with economy is undoubtedly an important discipline, there has to be room for poems of all shapes and sizes. The newly announced list of National Poetry Competition winners would seem to bear this out. Copy and paste the link for a varied mix of powerful poems if you haven’t already seen them. The titles of these are of interest too, some simply signalling the poem’s likely content, others arresting in themselves and suggesting something more complex or enigmatic or playful is coming up.

    I hadn’t meant to write an essay! But you can see how these questions have set me thinking, so thanks once again, Sue for this and for a stimulating afternoon programme.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. artemisandbear says:

    This was a very interesting workshop for me. To read a poem with the title removed, particularly when the title is intended by the poet to be the opening signifier, is a particular challenge. To write a poem which is sufficiently coherent to lure the reader back and, preferably, to continue to unfold itself for that reader on further readings is such a delicate balancing act. Every poem was a reminder to me of how exquisitely difficult it is to get that balance right. Is what I meant to put on the page actually on the page or is it still on a migratory flight from heart to pen? I don’t think there was a single poem that didn’t go on speaking to me in new ways throughout the morning. I am delighted to be a member of this lively and talented group.


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