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shopping list

Good morning/afternoon/evening poets. My name is Tony Maude and it’s my pleasure to act as your host for today’s entertainment. It makes no difference whether you are from Africa, the Americas, Asia, Australia, Europe or even Antarctica … you’re all welcome here.

Today we’re going to be thinking about lists and about how we can use them in poetry. Lists are everywhere – I’ve used two already; a list of different times of day and a list of the continents of the world. Most of us resort to shopping lists and ‘To do’ lists; I have a ‘To don’t’ list of activities that I want to avoid wasting my time with. Sadly, I don’t look at it often enough.

When Victoria brought list poetry to the bar last year she reminded us that list poetry is as old as poetry itself, and she shared examples by Gerard Manley Hopkins and Robert Herrick. Here’s another, even older, example from The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon (10th Century) translated from Japanese by Ivan Morris:

Elegant Things

A white coat worn over a violet waistcoat.
Duck eggs.
Shaved ice mixed with liana syrup and put in a new silver bowl.
A rosary of rock crystal.
Wisteria blossoms. Plum blossoms covered with snow.
A pretty child eating strawberries.

But list poems are not just an ancient form; many, if not most, contemporary poets have made use of lists of objects, people, places or ideas in their work. Here’s A Boy’s Head by Miroslav Holub:


A Boy’s Head

In it there is a space-ship
and a project
for doing away with piano lessons.

And there is
Noah’s ark
which shall be first.

And there is
an entirely new bird,
an entirely new hare,
and an entirely new bumble-bee.

There is a river
that flows upwards.

There is a multiplication table.

There is anti-matter.

And it just cannot be trimmed.

I believe
that only what cannot be trimmed
is a head.

There is much promise
in the circumstance
that so many people have heads.

At first reading this appears to be just an amusing collection of the seemingly random thoughts that might be in a child’s head, but I think it is much, much more than that. Firstly, the list is not random; there is often a connection between one idea and the next. For example, the reference to Noah’s ark leads naturally to thoughts about animals, but it also connects back to the space-ship, which, for fans of Star Trek, appears again in the line about anti-matter, itself neatly connected with the multiplication table. You might want to take some time to think about the way Holub has put this poem together.

And what is the poem about? Is it really just an amusing list of the random ideas floating around in a boy’s mind? Or could it be making a serious point about the potential that there is in every person? You decide.

Here’s another contemporary list poem. This one is by the Scottish poet, Kathleen Jamie (pictured below):

kathleen jamie

The Way We Live

Pass the tambourine, let me bash out praises
to the Lord God of movement, to Absolute
non-friction, flight, and the scarey side:
death by avalanche, birth by failed contraception.
Of chicken tandoori and reggae, loud, from tenements,
commitment, driving fast and unswerving
friendship. Of tee-shirts on pulleys, giros and Bombay,
barmen, dreaming waitresses with many fake-gold
bangles. Of airports, impulse, and waking to uncertainty,
to strip lights, motorways, or that pantheon –
the mountains. To overdrafts and grafting

and the fit slow pulse of wipers as you’re
creeping over Rannoch, while the God of moorland
walks abroad with his entourage of freezing fog,
his bodyguard of snow.
Of endless gloaming in the North, of Asiatic swelter,
to launderettes, anecdotes, passions and exhaustion,
Final Demands and dead men, the skeletal grip
of government. To misery and elation; mixed,
the sod and caprice of landlords.
To the way it fits, the way it is, the way it seems
to be: let me bash out praises – pass the tambourine.

On the surface this is a celebratory list of the incongruous mix of influences, cultures and experiences that combine to make modern life what it is, and the apparent randomness of the list speaks loudly of that theme. But look or, better still, listen more closely (please do listen: you can hear Kathleen Jamie herself reading this poem here) and you’ll soon discover that not everything is what it seems; the bangles are fake-gold, there is unemployment (in the UK a giro is a social security cheque), and there is the full range of human emotions.

But Jamie hasn’t just given us a jumbled list of random thoughts and experiences. There’s a strong, underlying rhythm that ties the poem together. There is a definite sense of time and place – this is contemporary Scotland.  There is a theme of motion flowing through the lines too; the rush of airports and motorways is contrasted with the solidity of the mountains and the creep across Rannoch Moor.

Jamie has made use of all the poetic devices available too; her use of internal rhyme, alliteration, assonance and enjambment combine to make this poem so much more than a list. As with A Boy’s Head, this poem will reward any time you invest in thinking about how it was put together. The first draft may have been quickly written, but I’ll wager that what we have here is not that first draft!

It’s your turn.

You might begin by thinking of a list of items or experiences, perhaps linked to a particular place, person or past-time. Then combine them, arrange them and link them together making use of the full range of poetic techniques we have at our command to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts; no longer a list, but a work of art. The result might be funny, satirical, sentimental, or poignant; the list poem is very adaptable.

Here’s what to do:

• Write your poem and post it to your blog.
• Add a link to your poem via the ‘Mr Linky’ below.
• This opens a new screen where you’ll enter your information. This is also where you choose links to read. Once you have pasted your poem’s blog URL and entered your name, click Submit. Don’t worry if you don’t see your name right away; try refreshing the page and your link should appear in the list.
• Please do take time to read and comment on other people’s work to let them know it’s being read. It is this aspect of what we do here that builds our community and helps each of us to develop as poets.
• Share your work and that of your fellow poets via your favourite social media platforms.
• Above all – have fun!