How to write poetry – Wendy Cope (The Guardian)

Wendy Cope wrote an excellent article in The Guardian about how to write poetry: Poetic License.

It seems odd to me that anyone who hates reading poetry should want to write it at all. Are there amateur painters who never go to an art gallery? Or amateur musicians who never listen to music? Sometimes non-reading poets explain that they are afraid of being influenced. They don’t understand that being influenced is part of the learning process.

Read the whole article.

This article helps us understand how to become better at writing poetry. Students of 10C read this aloud in class and were asked to summarise the main points. Wendy advises:

  • reading good poems from all ages and cultures
  • being influenced by others is part of the learning process
  • writing in an authentic voice
  • finding enjoyment in the poems
  • being genuinely motivated (by love or interest)
  • developing a knowledge of technical skills
  • asking oneself: Am I telling the truth?
  • avoiding cliched responses
  • responding from the heart

Student task: Go back to your own poem after having read more poetry (in the blog). Read all poems and then choose 3 to look at in detail. Take notes about these 3 poems in your notebooks in the following format:




Big ideas:

Structural features (eg how it’s organised; narrative viewpoint):

Language (note down words/phrases/metaphors that you think work very well; talk about repetitions, etc.; use quotations in quotation marks):


Tiananmen by James Fenton

Do you think the music in this video version of Fenton’s poem, Tiananmen, is appropriate?

by James Fenton

Is broad and clean
And you can’t tell
Where the dead have been
And you can’t tell
What happened then
And you can’t speak
Of Tianamen.

You must not speak.
You must not think.
You must not dip
Your brush in ink.
You must not say
What happened then,
What happened there.
What happened there
In Tiananmen.

The cruel men
Are old and deaf
Ready to kill
But short of breath
And they will die
Like other men
And they’ll lie in state
In Tianamen.

They lie in state.
They lie in style.
Another lie’s
Thrown on the pile,
Thrown on the pile
By the cruel men
To cleanse the blood
From Tianamen.

Truth is a secret.
Keep it dark.
Keep it dark.
In our heart of hearts.
Keep it dark
Till you know when
Truth may return
To Tiananmen.

Is broad and clean
And you can’t tell
Where the dead have been
And you can’t tell
When they’ll come again.
They’ll come again
To Tiananmen.

Hong Kong, 15 June 1989

The following is one person’s annotation of the poem Tiananmen. I recommend you read it as just that – one person’s interpretation of the poem.

James Fenton, a British poet, wrote this poem in Hong Kong in 15 June 1989, a reaction to the massacre in Tiananmen Square the previous month. He included it in his collection Out of Danger, which then won the Whitbread Poetry Prize in 1994.

In the first stanza someone is talking about Tianamen in a broad sweep of vowels: “broad”, “clean”. However the speaker adds an aside, about how one cannot realize there were deaths in Tianamen nor the incidents that occurred there. Then he tells you not to even speak about this Chinese square. With “speak”, we have here an anticipation of what you can’t talk about, later, after this stanza, where similar mute consonants are used to enforce this prohibition.

Practically all the words in this stanza – and in the rest of all the following ones – are monosyllabic, except for the words, “Tianamen” and “happened”. These have three and two syllables, but they only possess one beat, if you don’t place any stress on “men”, not even a secondary one.

Now, imagine that this is a direct translation from the Chinese. And, Chinese characters are all, as far as I know, monosyllabic. The speaker does not use stress nor non-stress, as an English speaker does, upon any word, syllable, or character, in the case of the Chinese language; he uses pitch. So, since you cannot utilise pitch in English to differetiate meanings, you can try and give a beat to every word. This way, you would make the lines sound like some Red government slogan, propaganda, edict or pronouncement.

The lines in the second stanza are just those. Some Red official is telling you what you must not do. The words at the end of the lines all have mute consonants, k and p, and they all end-stop. These consonants either close the glottis or the mouth when spoken. It is like the official putting up his hand to keep you from speaking, thinking, dipping the ink.

But, after the first enjambement at “say”, a weak one, the rest of the end-stop words following then lose such consonants. Instead these end of line words have initial S and TH sounds. The official is shushing you, and using the tip of his tongue, repeating “there”, as if he’s pointing the places to you. The last line in this stanza have M and N sounds, the tip of tongue placed behind the front teeth.

The first two lines of the third stanza hark back to the two very first lines of this poem, in syntax: subject, verb, and two complements; and in having broad vowels. But the broad vowel scheme stops at “kill”, where it signal the next line having breathy sounds in “short” and “breath”, because the line following this tells you these men “will die”. “kill” and “will” rhyme, to make this connection. The second last line is also like the second last line of the first stanza, where we saw that “speak” prefigures some prohibition. Here, “lie” prepares you for more “lies”.

In the fourth stanza “lie” has a double entendre: as a laying down and as an untruth. Everything is alie, lie, lie. “Thrown on the pile”, repeated, makes you remember “What happened there”, also repeated. “Thrown” and “there” have the similar TH sound, thus making the connection. The repeat of “pile” works like that of “lie”: there are piles and piles of bodies, there and there. All those “lies” cover the “piles” of bodies, to attempt to wash away the “blood” spilled in Tianamen.

In this penultimate stanza the S and TH sounds are utilized again, to contrast truth and the hiding of it. The next two lines use mute consonants in “Keep” and “dark”, to enforce this. In the repeated “hearts”, breathy sounds are used again, like in “short of breath”, earlier. Like in the second stanza, the mute consonants of k give way to softer sounds, of Ns, Ms and TH; because things will change when truth is known.

The last stanza repeats the scheme of the first stanza, with the first half repeated exactly. “When they’ll come again” looks different to “What happened then”, but their sounds are actually quite similar: “What” and “When”; “they’ll come” and “happened”; and the assonance in “again” and “then”. The last line changes “Of” to “To”, an apt resting place to end the poem.

Source: Blog post by Leon Wing

One of the comments following the poem in Leon’s blog post is very interesting:

I was so excited when you posted this poem as I hadn’t read it before…I am behind in all my poetic reading – it jostles a special nerve in me because I was in Tiananmen Square at the time that White Statue of liberty went up, just before the tanks went in. This poem is of course still relevant today, as the authorities constantly deny any of this happened, and some chinese students of today don’t believe it was any big deal.


The boy by Rainer Maria Rilke


A portrait of Rilke painted two years after his death by Leonid Pasternak


I’d like, above all, to be one of those

who drive with wild black horses through the night,

torches like hair uplifted in affright

when the great wind of their wild hunting blows.

I’d like to stand in front as in a boat,

tall, like a long floating flag unrolled.

And dark, but with a helmet make of gold,

restlessly flashing.  And behind to ride

ten other looming figures side by side,

with helmets matching mine for changefulness,

now clear as glass, now old and lustreless.

And one to stand by me and blow us space

with the brass trumpet that can blaze and blare,

blowing a black solitude through which we tear

like dreams that speed too fast to leave a trace.

Houses behind us fall upon their knees,

alleys cringe crookedly before our train,

squares break in flight: we summon and we seize:

we ride, and our great horses rush like rain.


(in the original German)

Der Knabe

Ich möchte einer werden so wie die,

die durch die Nacht mit wilden Pferden fahren,

mit Fackeln, die gleich aufgegangenen Haaren

in ihres Jagens großem Winde wehn.

Vorn möcht ich stehen wie in einem Kahne,

groß und wie eine Fahne aufgerollt.

Dunkel, aber mit einem Helm von Gold,

der unruhig glänzt. Und hinter mir gereiht

zehn Männer aus derselben Dunkelheit

mit Helmen, die wie meiner unstet sind,

bald klar wie Glas, bald dunkel, alt und blind.

Und einer steht bei mir und bläst uns Raum

mit der Trompete, welche blitzt und schreit,

und bläst uns eine schwarze Einsamkeit,

durch die wir rasen wie ein rascher Traum:

die Häuser fallen hinter uns ins Knie,

die Gassen biegen sich uns schief entgegen,

die Plätze weichen aus: wir fassen sie,

und unsre Rosse rauschen wie ein Regen.

Rainer Maria Rilke, Winter 1902/03, Paris



On December 4, 1875, Rainer Maria Rilke was born in Prague, the only child of an unhappy marriage. Rilke’s childhood was also unhappy; his parents placed him in military school with the desire that he become an officer—a position Rilke was not inclined to hold. With the help of his uncle, who realized that Rilke was a highly gifted child, Rilke left the military academy and entered a German preparatory school. By the time he enrolled in Charles University in Prague in 1895, he knew that he would pursue a literary career: he had already published his first volume of poetry, Leben und Lieder, the previous year. At the turn of 1895-96, Rilke published his second collection, Larenopfer (Sacrifice to the Lares). A third collection, Traumgekrönt (Dream-Crowned) followed in 1896. That same year, Rilke decided to leave the university for Munich, Germany, and later made his first trip to Italy.

In 1897, Rilke went to Russia, a trip that would prove to be a milestone in Rilke’s life, and which marked the true beginning of his early serious works. While there the young poet met Tolstoy, whose influence is seen in Das Buch vom lieben Gott und anderes(Stories of God), and Leonid Pasternak, the nine-year-old Boris’s father. At Worpswede, where Rilke lived for a time, he met and married Clara Westhoff, who had been a pupil of Rodin. In 1902 he became the friend, and for a time the secretary, of Rodin, and it was during his twelve-year Paris residence that Rilke enjoyed his greatest poetic activity. His first great work, Das Stunden Buch(The Book of Hours), appeared in 1905, followed in 1907 by Neue Gedichte (New Poems) and Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge). Rilke would continue to travel throughout his lifetime; to Italy, Spain and Egypt among many other places, but Paris would serve as the geographic center of his life, where he first began to develop a new style of lyrical poetry, influenced by the visual arts.

When World War I broke out, Rilke was obliged to leave France and during the war he lived in Munich. In 1919, he went to Switzerland where he spent the last years of his life. It was here that he wrote his last two works, the Duino Elegies (1923) and theSonnets to Orpheus (1923). He died of leukemia on December 29, 1926. At the time of his death his work was intensely admired by many leading European artists, but was almost unknown to the general reading public. His reputation has grown steadily since his death, and he has come to be universally regarded as a master of verse. (Source:

Portrait of my father as a young man by Rainer Maria Rilke



Dream in the eyes.  The brow as in relation

with something distant.  Mouth with more than the norm

Of youth, unsmilingly diffused temptation,

and, placed before the corded decoration

of the slim, gentlemanly uniform,

the sabre-hilt and those two hands, that stay

quiescent, – with no passionate intent.

And hardly to be seen now: as if they

were first to vanish, grasping the unscanned.

And all the rest in self-envelopment

and quenched as if we didn’t understand

and deeply, from its very depth, opaque.

You swiftly fading daguerreotype I take

in my more gradually fading hand.



Translations of poetry vary. It’s interesting to compare them. Here are two examples. Which one do you prefer out of the three and why?

Here’s one by Stephen Mitchell:


In the eyes: dream. The brow as if it could feel
something far off. Around the lips, a great
freshness–seductive, though there is no smile.
Under the rows of ornamental braid
on the slim Imperial officer’s uniform:
the saber’s basket-hilt. Both hands stay
folded upon it, going nowhere, calm
and now almost invisible, as if they
were the first to grasp the distance and dissolve.
And all the rest so curtained within itself,
so cloudy, that I cannot understand
this figure as it fades into the background–.

Oh quickly disappearing photograph
in my more slowly disappearing hand.

And here’s the Edward Snow version.


In the eyes dream. The brow as if in touch
with something far away. About the lips
immense youth, unsmiling seductiveness,
and across the full ornamental braids
of the slim aristocratic uniform
the saber’s basket-hilt and both the hands–
waiting, calmly, urged toward nothing.
And now scarcely visible: as if they would be
first, grasping the distant, to disappear.
And all the rest self-shrouded
and erased as if we didn’t understand
and by something deep in its own depths dimmed–.

O you swiftly fading daguerreotype
in my more slowly fading hands.

Mementos by Bruce Dawe


Bruce Dawe. Photo source.


In a box in her mother’s room she found them then:

the spaghetti-legged girl, in the drawings from infant school

with hair like water-buffalo horns, the pudding-shaped cat

with currant eyes, the lop-sided house,

the gawky pastel flowers still staring out at the world,

the clothes-peg doll, the comb,

each in its tissue-paper wrapping thus preserved

from every hazard, especially that of the dust

which rose, so it seemed, from the very land itself,

infiltrating the house, the throat, the heart,

so that no word of what mother felt could ever be said

-even I love you folded away with infinite care,

for which she would have exchanged all else that was there.

Bruce Dawe

About Bruce Dawe:

In some of his poetry, including the well-known ‘Drifters’, Bruce Dawe describes his itinerant childhood in Melbourne and country Victoria. His first poems were published under the pseudonym of Llewellyn Rhys while he was a student at Northcote High School. After leaving school at the age of sixteen, Dawe worked as a labourer, farmhand, clerk, gardener and postman. In 1954 he attended the University of Melbourne full-time, where the influence of other poets, including AD Hope, Vincent Buckley and Philip Martin (qq.v.) was significant. From 1959 to 1968 he served in the RAAF, completing his first degree and his first three volumes of poetry during this period. Dawe has recalled with gratitude the interest and advice of poet Flexmore Hudson (q.v.) in preparing his first work for publication.

Dawe taught English and History at Downlands College, Toowoomba for two and a half years and in 1972 became a lecturer in literature at the Darling Downs Institute of Advanced Education (later the University of Southern Queensland). In 1990, after completing his masters and doctoral degrees, Dawe was made an Associate Professor of the University of Southern Queensland, and appointed its first Honorary Professor in 1993.

A prolific poet, Dawe’s work is often characterised by a light approach and the use of satire to explore frequently sombre themes such as the struggle of the individual to find meaning in everyday life, the domestic sphere, the effects of war, political oppression and corruption, and the importance of conservation. The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature praises his skilful use of ‘speech cadences that combine the brashly colloquial of the spoken Australian language … with subtle and deftly placed lyricism’. Sometimes Gladness, first published in 1978, has never been out of print and is now in its sixth edition.

Teaching a literature class for the University of the Third Age (U3A), on a voluntary basis, has given Dawe a lot of satisfaction in the years since his retirement in 1993. (U3A is a learning community organized by and for people who can best be described as being in active retirement – the ‘third’ age. Its overall aim is to provide members with both the stimulus of mental activity and the satisfaction of a continuing contribution to society). He has taught classes in literature in Toowoomba and Caloundra to the present time (2007). (Source: AustLit)

Chickpea to Cook by Rumi


Photo source: Josefine Stenudd on Flickr 


A chickpea leaps almost over the rim of the pot

where it’s being boiled.

‘Why are you doing this to me?’

The cook knocks him down with the ladle.

‘Don’t you try to jump out.

You think I’m torturing you.

I’m giving you flavour,

so you can mix with spices and rice

and be the lovely vitality of a human being.

Remember when you drank rain in the garden.

That was for this.’

Grace first. Sexual pleasure,

then a boiling new life begins,

and the Friend has something good to eat.

Eventually the chickpea

will say to the cook,

‘Boil me some more.

Hit me with the skimming spoon.

I can’t do this by myself.

I’m like an elephant that dreams of gardens

back in Hindustan and doesn’t pay attention

to his driver.  You’re my cook, my driver,

my way to existence.  I love your cooking.’

The cook says,

‘I was once like you,

fresh from the ground.  Then I boiled in time,

and boiled in the body, two fierce boilings.

My animal soul grew powerful.

I controlled it with practices,

and boiled some more, and boiled

once beyond that,

  and became your teacher.’


Source: Wikipedia

Mawlānā Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Balkhī
مولانا جلال‌الدین محمد بلخی


Medieval Persian sage Rumi was trained in Sufism – a mystic tradition within Islam.  Rumi founded the Sufi order known to us as the Whirling Dervishes, who use dance and music as part of their spiritual devotion.  Rumi’s poetry combines lyrical beauty with spiritual profundity, rapture with an awareness of human suffering.

Medieval Persian sage Rumi was trained in Sufism – a mystic tradition within Islam.  Rumi founded the Sufi order known to us as the Whirling Dervishes, who use dance and music as part of their spiritual devotion.  Rumi’s poetry combines lyrical beauty with spiritual profundity, rapture with an awareness of human suffering.

(from Wikipedia):

Rumi’s influence transcends national borders and ethnic divisions:Iranians, Tajiks, Turks, Greeks, Pashtuns, other Central Asian Muslims, and the Muslims of South Asia have greatly appreciated his spiritual legacy for the past seven centuries.[10] His poems have been widely translated into many of the world’s languages and transposed into various formats. Rumi has been described as the “most popular poet”[11] and the “best selling poet” in the United States.[12][13]


Jalal ad-Din Rumi gathers Sufimystics. (Source: Wikipedia)

Municipal Gum by Oodgeroo Noonuccal


Hard Rubbish by Alex Zubryn

Municipal Gum

Gumtree in the city street,

Hard bitumen around your feet,

Rather you should be

In the cool world of leafy forest halls

And wild bird calls.

Here you seem to me

Like that poor cart-horse

Castrated, broken, a thing wronged,

Strapped and buckled, its hell prolonged,

Whose hung head and listless mien express

Its hopelessness.

Municipal gum, it is dolorous

To see you thus

Set in your black grass of bitumen–

O fellow citizen,

What have they done to us?

by Oodgeroo Noonuccal

Oodgeroo Noonuccal (/ˈʊdʒ/ /ˈnuːnəkəl/ uud-gə-roo noo-nə-kəl; born Kathleen Jean Mary Ruska, formerly Kath Walker) (3 November 1920 – 16 September 1993) was an Australian poet, political activist, artist and educator. She was also a campaigner for Aboriginal rights. Oodgeroo was best known for her poetry, and was the first Aboriginal Australian to publish a book of verse.


Artist: Alex Zubryn. Second Nature 3. 2004-2006, Oil on canvas, 240 x 100cm.

More details:

Oodgeroo (meaning ‘paperbark tree’) of the Noonuccal people of Stradbroke Island was known as Kath Walker until she returned to her language name in 1988 as a sign of protest against Australia’s Bicentenary celebrations and as a symbol of pride in an Aboriginal heritage.

Brought up on North Stradbroke Island east of Brisbane, Oodgeroo Noonuccal was educated at Dunwich State School until the age of thirteen and then became a domestic servant. She joined the army during the war and in 1942 married her childhood friend Bruce Walker, a descendant from the Logan and Albert River peoples near Brisbane. They had two sons, Denis Walker and Vivian WalkerRT) who both later took language names.

From the 1960s Oodgeroo Noonuccal became increasingly involved in civil rights and the Aboriginal activist movements and held several public positions. One of the founding members of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, she served as state secretary for ten years and in this capacity she was a leader in the campaign to grant Aboriginal people full citizenship rights in the 1967 referendum. From the 1970s Oodgeroo Noonuccal was chairperson of the National Tribal Council, the Aboriginal Arts Board, the Aboriginal Housing Committee and the Queensland Aboriginal Advancement League.

As a writer, delegate and spokesperson for her people’s cause she travelled in China, Europe, the US and Africa, representing Aboriginal Australia. Oodgeroo Noonuccal was awarded honorary doctorates by several universities and received numerous awards. She was made MBE but returned the honour in 1988, as a protest against the government’s lack of support for Aboriginal rights.

In addition to her reputation as a poet of national and international recognition, Oodgeroo Noonuccal is also known as a pioneer in Aboriginal education, having opened her home at Moongalba for educational camps for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students. She described herself as an educator, storyteller and poet. As well as writing poetry, Oodgeroo Noonuccal wrote and illustrated children’s books, performed in films, and actively supported Black Australian theatre. A film, Shadow Sister, was made about her in 1977 by Frank Heimans.

Oodgeroo Noonuccal was buried with great ceremony on Stradbroke Island.