Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday 10 March 2018

"52: Write a Poem a Week. Start Now. Keep Going." by Jo Bell (Nine Arches Press, 2015)

A crowd-funded motivational course, with prompts and example poems from poets big and small. It can be done alone or (preferably) with a group. I'm trying it alone. I won't wait a week between poems, but I'll try to produce something (Flash or poetry) for most topics.

I think Jo Bell's a good thing for poetry, someone who can engage poets and non-poets. I like the no-nonsense opinions - "poets can be divided into those who are interested in poetry, and those who are only interested in their own poetry" (p.13); A poem is never actually about what it's about. You can write about the same thing on two different days, and get entirely different results" (p.29); "Sport: Personally I hate it. Yes all of it." (p.33); "Don't try to make it Mean Something." (p.102); "Beware sentimentality" (p.119); "nostalgia ... is a kind of poetic comfort eating" (p.133);

She knows that people might opt for easy options, so she offers extra challenges. E.g. re "High Street" - "Make this ... more than a list of shops, more than [a] lament for the days of the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker. Celebrate the cornucopian delights of Aldi, the confessional privacy of the hairdresser. Be a child, a dog, a pigeon" (p.37)

The exercises mostly require delving into one's memories or being observant. Consequently language is largely referential. Though there's encouragement use particulars, and to be individualistic regarding content, the starting points are common to all readers. Self-criticism and checking if one's work is to much like that of others is deferred. In the final section she lays her cards on the table - "You don't need a prompt: just look at the world around you. ... The value of poetry is surely to share experience, precisely and with impact, so that reader and writer can connect ... It is communication, on the level of emotion ... Your job as a poet is to be wholly human, alive to the world around you, and to share your findings" (p.164).

I think some grouchy people may find the optimism off-putting - e.g. the first section ends with "Turn over a new leaf and begin. Everything is going to be amazing" (p.15), which tempts me to reply with a Larkinesque "Bah humbug".

The success of the book partly depends on the reader responding to unanalysed poems. Beginners might not find this easy, either with poems that are centuries old, or newer ones. Why does the first line of the first poem end at "heavy"? Why is it broken into triplets? Why does the poem on p.120 use ampersands? Wouldn't "If In America" be better without the "If"s? What's Claire Crowther's poem about? There's a temptation for people to slavishly imitate poems they don't understand. Perhaps a few notes about the difficult poems might have helped. On the plus side, the sample poems vary in difficulty - readers can reject what they don't find useful.

If one didn't know beforehand which section a poem was in, it would be difficult to guess, but I suspect that also applies to the poems produced by the prompts - they're likely to wonder off-topic.

I'm hopeless at doing writing workshop exercises. With this book I was able to give myself a few days for each theme's ideas to accumulate. Even so, I couldn't do anything with the suggestion that I should write from an animal's PoV, using Ted Hughes and The Windhover as inspiration. I had trouble with Sport too. In the end I came out with more poems and more Flash than I'd otherwise have produced, so I'm glad I read it.

Other reviews

  • Goodreads (oh, big mistake. This was not my book. I expected it to be for beginners but I couldn't have been more wrong. Intimidating as hell, and I don't like most of the poems in the book. - Emma Sea)


  1. Dear Tim

    I agree that Jo Bell's a good thing for poetry and, by the way, what's wrong with using ampersands? I recently read a Sunday Times interview with Wendy Cope and her first quote was: 'There's so much nastiness in the poetry world.'

    Best wishes from Simon R Gladdish

  2. I can imagine newbies being baffled by the ampersands, wondering if they're part of the mystique of poetry that they might as well copy.