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Expressing the inexpressible

This exercise is very simple, but it’s an exercise that touches on both the material and language of poems.

1. Think for five minutes and make notes about an experience or a place or a time or a thought or a feeling or a notion that you feel would be difficult, or even impossible, to express in words, or that you have never expressed in words.

I often set this exercise in workshops, and at this point I always give the example of the birth of my little sister, born when I was 13 years old. This was a profound experience for me – to suddenly have a little sister, to feel so protective of this little raw creature, and I remember, in the kitchen, getting very upset with everyone who was ‘coming round to see the new baby.’ I’ve never written about this experience, because I haven’t been able to find words that wouldn’t be sentimental; or I haven’t found an incongruous angle that would release the truth of this experience, even if I wasn’t writing about the exact scenes, objects, sounds and tastes of that childhood kitchen.

2. Using your notes, begin to draft a poem that recklessly uses wild and wildly exaggerated, similes and metaphors, in order to wrestle this inexpressible or unexpressed thing into language. Don’t worry too much about establishing a scene or even making immediate sense. The idea is that you are exploring what it is to forge connections between something inexpressible or unexpressed and a further realm of entirely unexpected images and ideas.

Write for about 12 to 16 minutes, and aim to write about 18 lines.

I usually use Peter Porter’s poem, ‘The King of the Cats is Dead’, as an example of a poem of wild metaphors and similes. This is probably both a good and a bad example, as it’s a dense, knowing and artfully exaggerated poem about the death of a cat. It’s Porter’s inventiveness and somehow appropriately inappropriate use of what is – in metaphor and simile – a fundamental characteristic of poetic language that I would draw attention to for this exercise, and the exercise could be framed quite simply as ‘write an imitation of Porter’s poem, using as your subject an inexpressible or so far unexpressed event from your own life.’

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