Poetry


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Fourteen³

In October 2015, I began to think it might be fun to write fourteen sonnets every month for fourteen months, starting in the following November. I called the project Fourteen³ - (fourteen lines per sonnet) x (fourteen sonnets per month) x (fourteen months) = 2,744 lines of poetry!

Part of the project was to change the style of sonnet each month, using each style twice. Below are examples of heroic couplet, chiastic (which I invented!), terza rima and Shakespearean sonnets. I also experimented with Petrachans, Spencerians, and Onegin Stanzas, the last of which were used to create a pair of short stories at the heart of the whole sequence.

The themes and styles of the sequence also varied wildly - from the secular to the religious, and the serious to the ridiculous - but fundamentally, the series is about a year (and a bit) in my life in which I went from dabbling in doggerel to taking poetry more seriously, and during which I became a father.

The completed project currently resides here with, hopefully, some books to hit Amazon in the not too distant future. Read 'em while they're free!

Below are some examples from the Fourteen³ series.

SONNET CXXIV - ON GRASS SEED

I scatter seed upon the barren earth,
I cannot now divine which ones have worth,

I simply sow enough that some might grow,
And send some unseen root to depths below,

That some brave shoot might stretch toward the sun,
And at its head an ear of grain be spun,

So when it is by random winds withdrawn
It might take root in someone else’s lawn.

Each month I write myself in fourteen forms,
Distill my idle, sunny days, and storms,

And send them out for random winds to find,
In hope they’ll land in someone else’s mind.

I wonder if some fragment of my art,
Will chance to root in someone else’s heart.

SONNET CXXVII - ON THE ROAD TO DAMASCUS

I lived to see them bleed as they were stoned,
My zealous hate consumed me like a flame,
And by the priests my hatred was condoned:
I went to silence those who bore His name.

But on the road I saw His awesome might,
     I heard His voice and fell upon my face.
          He struck me blind so I might come to see
          The glory of the one who died for me.
     And when His servant came to show me grace,
My sight returned so I could see the light.

So now I’ll walk the road to spread His fame,
For by the great high priest I’ve been atoned.
To all the Earth, I’ll zealously proclaim,
And live to see the God who died enthroned.

SONNET CLXII - ON A MOUSE, WHO IS HAVING A BAD DAY

With apologies to Robert Burns

My best laid mousie plans gang aft agley,
The wee and tim’rous baby beastie screams,
The hopes I had are all in disarray,

For who has any time for future schemes,
When up to here with noise and infant wee?
The past and future are but distant dreams,

And now the present only toucheth me.
The life I thole’s not fit for man or mouse,
With only daimen icker for my tea.

And though I never like to moan and grouse,
As if that weren’t enough to wreck my day,
Some berk just drove his plough right through my house.

          My lovely, sleekit coat is turning grey,
          My best laid mousie plans gang aft agley.

SONNET CLXXXIV - ON THE THINGS NO ONE TELLS YOU ABOUT HAVING A BABY

A year ago, I knew I didn’t know
A thousand things which I would come to learn,
But no one said how fast I’d have to grow,
How totally my life would overturn.

I knew that there’d be times when it was tough,
And how important marriage vows would be,
But no one said, when all was not enough,
How much I’d lean on her, and she on me.

I knew that love for him would fill my heart,
That greater love than this is hard to find,
But no one said that it’s a thing apart:
It’s not just more, it’s of a different kind.

          Perhaps they did, but ‘til I lived this year,
          I did not have the state of mind to hear.


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In Other Words...

In Other Words... is an ongoing project which sprang from a series of poetry displays I created for the school library where I work.

Behind the site on which the school is built, is a little knot of about twenty streets which are all named after poets, so I wanted to create some displays which would explain who these people were, including an example of their poetry. The list of names, however, included poets like Chaucer, Milton and Spenser andI realised that I needed to find a way to enable the children access some of the more difficult language. The solution I came up with was to create 'translations' of these classic poems, not as a replacement but as a road map. My hope is that in reading my versions as 'primers', the originals might be rendered more accessible.

Incidentally, I have found in writing them that I have gained a greater understanding of these poems and how the great poets used poetic techniques, and I highly recommend creating your own 'In Other Words...' poems if you are a student of poetry.

Click here to read the archive of In Other Words... poems.


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Writing The Bible

Writing the Bible is my most recent big writing project and it's becoming increasingly clear that it is probably going to take rather a long time to complete. The aim of the project is to read the Bible one small chunk at a time and respond creatively to it. I also wanted to document the process through a series of vlogs and, hopefully, start to build a community around the project where people can bring their own creative responses to the Biblical text.

I have begun with Genesis 1-11 and the first inspiration which struck was the idea of writing a poem based on the story of Cain and Abel from the perspective of Cain. The result, I Am Cain, is a 200 line poem written in terza rima stanzas (which I had also played with for Fourteen³) as well as short sections in Rhyme Royal stanzas which are used for God's dialogue. I then turned the poem into a short animated film.

Below, you can view the film and text of I Am Cain. Further entries in the project will be uploaded as they are written.

I Am Cain

I am Cain, the firstborn son of man,
Inheritor of all my parents grew:
The seed they planted as the world began,
By what they plucked and ate and chose to do.
Cast, cursed from Eden, they had cast away
That part of heaven which had been my due;
Swapped garden’s evening rest, for toil by day,
To dig the earth and sow and tend and reap;
I raised my harvest from a lesser clay.

My little brother Abel sat by sheep:
He let them wander, gambol, bleat and graze,
Then slaughtered them to earn his bloody keep.

“Now come, my brother, let us offer praise
To Him who cast us out, and let us see
If sacrifice of labour gives us ways
To fathom His forgiveness and be free;
So give of yours, and I shall give of mine
Together we’ll reverse his curse-decree.”

I took to tending root and crop and vine,
I ground the corn to turn it into bread,
I crushed the fruit to turn it into wine,
I raised my harvest to a mighty spread
Of every plant He put for food on Earth,
A feast which would be fit to turn His head.
I raised my voice to Him who cursed my birth,
To honour all the labour on display,
To grant my work was of sufficient worth
To win his favour back, or somehow pay
For birthright that belonged to me and that
My parents had so rashly cast away.

Then Abel came before the Lord and sat.
He let a prayer of praise to heaven rise,
Then killed a lamb, and offered meat and fat.

A voice of heaven’s thunder split the skies,
To bless my brother’s offering and prayer,
But no word came in answer to my cries,
No fair exchange to match my offered fare.
I’d hoped that I would gain my reckoning,
But disregard was all that I found there.

For God said only this: “Your offering,
Is weighed, my son, and it has fallen short.
The fault lies not with what you chose to bring,
But in the way in which your gift was brought:
And in your angry heart and mind which sought
To force the hand of God, to bend my will,
To give you that which only leads to ill.
But Abel gave his gift with open hand,
Returning that to Him by whom it grew,
So I shall bless his life, his line, his land.
And if you bring your offering anew,
With humble heart, I’ll do the same for you,
Or simply do what’s right and that will be
A sacrifice acceptable to me.”

The words of God fell silent like the grain,
Which scatters lifeless onto barren ground:
As I returned to tend my fields again
My mind reverberated with one sound:
“You’ve fallen short; your gift is not enough.”
These words within me echoed round and round,
“You’ve fallen short; your gift is not enough.”
My brother stole my blessing with blood shed,
“You’ve fallen short; your gift is not enough.”
The way back into Eden’s stained with red,
“You’ve fallen short; your gift is not enough.”
For God exchanges love for precious dead,
“You’ve fallen short; your gift is not enough.”
I brought my best, but He would only say,
“You’ve fallen short; your gift is not enough.”
And so with precious Abel’s blood I’ll pay,
With Abel’s blood, with Abel’s precious blood,
I’ll make a sacrifice to stain the way,
With Abel’s blood, with Abel’s precious blood,
And make Him speak the words I long to hear:
“This is enough,” with Abel’s precious blood.

“Now come, my brother, let’s again draw near
To offer up the best of you and me:
If we might be more humble, more sincere,
He’ll give consideration to our plea,
He’ll open Eden’s gate to us again:
And from our parent’s curse grant clemency.”

The fields were heavy with the harvest grain,
Each stalk stood silent by and bowed its head,
The light and heat of day began to wane:
Long shadows stretched behind us as I led
My brother to the place of sacrifice.
And still I was consumed by what He’d said:
“Your gift is not enough to pay the price,”
So as my brother bent his head to pray,
I struck him dead to earn my paradise.

And when I close my eyes I see the way
He knelt so innocent and unaware,
And smell the bitterness of bloody spray;
I nightly hear his cry which split the air,
And still can scarcely raise my heavy hand,
For phantom rock which it won’t cease to bear.

The night drew in but I could only stand,
For I was chilled beyond the midnight cold:
The instant that I’d struck as I had planned,
The madness in my mind had loosed its hold.
The land was drained of colour by the gloom,
Which hid the red of blood on harvest-gold,
And in the dark, I made my limbs resume
Their work, despite my guilt-numbed heart and mind.
I dug a pit to be his unmarked tomb,
Where only death and worms and rot would find;
I buried crops, the rock, the dirt and all
His blood had stained, and left them far behind.
I stole away, and hoped fate would forestall
The reckoning I knew could not be fled.
But evening came before I heard His call,
The voice of heaven’s thunder overhead.
I heard him call for Abel, and again,
And thrice He called my brother’s name, then said:

“I cannot find where Abel’s resting, Cain,
It’s time his flocks were gathered for the night,
But they are scattered all across the plain,
I’ve sought him in the deep and on the height;
And somehow he has wandered from my sight.
If he’s asleep it’s time for him to rise:
But I can’t find the place your brother lies.”

I said, “I’m sure you’ll find him with his sheep.
But why am I to know where he’d be found?
My brother’s life is not for me to keep.”

But He said, “I can hear a dreadful sound:
A hollow voice which cries, ‘My brother’s hand’;
It’s Abel’s blood which calls from underground,
A curse on you and all who work the land.
I hear it still, but scarcely understand.
I cannot bear this awful truth, my son.
Oh Cain, what have you done? What have you done?
For even now your brother’s blood runs deep,
And poisons every part of Earth below:
There are no harvests, now, for you to reap,
For nothing more than strangled weeds will grow,
No matter how you toil, till and sow.
Instead, your fruit forevermore shall be
To bear your sin and wander ceaselessly.”

At this, I threw myself upon my face,
And pleaded that the curse might turn away,
Unworthily, I begged for unearned grace,
And promised ever hence that I’d obey,
And humbly work my land and livelihood,
From then until my final resting day.
For I had heard His words and understood
That just as in my madness I’d believed
By sacrifice of Abel’s blood I could
Have purged my parent’s sin and be received
To dwell in Eden as my father’s heir,
So other minds may likewise be deceived
That ending me may also end despair.

“My God, although I know my sin’s severe,
This punishment is more than I can bear.
I only sought to feel your presence near,
So do not cast me further from your side.
For if you turn your face from me, I fear
That my destruction’s close at hand,” I cried,
And fell once more to weeping on the floor,
Devoid of hope, until the Lord replied:

“The deed is done, the sin was yours alone,
The punishment shall be as I have said.
But Abel’s fate shall not become your own,
For I shall place my mark upon your head,
So all will know that if they strike you dead,
Then they shall bear my vengeance sevenfold,
And neither be forgiven, nor consoled.”

At that the skies fell silent and I knew
That never more I’d hear the voice of God;
I left my barren fields where nothing grew,
And built a city in the land of Nod.
Where I have lived beyond my years to see,
How others use religion as a rod,
To harm the ones with whom they disagree
To try to win a share of heaven’s joy,
Repeating all the evil born in me.

It lives in every heart which would destroy
Another’s life to save them from their sin;
In every king who chooses to deploy
Their holy troops in holy lands to win
By sword and fire the souls of conquered foes,
And all the other wealth which lies within;
In each who claims life’s sacred, and who shows
It burning agents and facilities,
Who do the things they think God must oppose;
In each who’d rather set civilities,
Above the needs of those who need defence
From evil’s violent hostilities;
In every judge who chooses to dispense
The justice of an eye exchanged for eye;
In each who say it’s simply commonsense
Another human being has to die;
In each who thinks theirs is God’s favoured race,
And seeks to purge and cleanse and purify;
In all who put another far from grace;
In each crusade; in every terror cell:
In every one of these I see my face.

I wear the likeness of my parents well:
The heir of both my father and my mother,
I found and paved a highway into hell.

For I am Cain and I have killed my brother:
The firstborn damned of all who kills another.


KINGDOM FOOTPRINTS

I originally wrote this piece for our Arctic Explorers holiday club. The Scripture Union notes introduced the concept of 'kingdom footprints', but we were struggling to communicate this idea to our younger children.

I came up with the first verse as something we could make into a poster to put into team bases and then the rest of the poem just flowed out of that.

 

In every place I put my feet,
With all the people that I meet,
When I show Jesus’ love and care,
I leave a kingdom footprint there.

I leave one when I feed the poor,
Or help the sick to find a cure,
To help me know where I should be,
I use my kingdom eyes to see.

And when I do, I see His face,
In every person, every place,
And when I see it, I can start,
To love them with a kingdom heart.

To love the strong, to love the weak,
Love rich and poor and bold and meek.
When I give all an equal worth,
I’ll see God’s Kingdom come to Earth.

So Jesus make me now complete,
With kingdom heart and eyes and feet,
And lead me now and every day,
Within your kingdom prints, I pray.


The Library

This is a poem I wrote while working in a school library. It is partly aspirational and partly didactic: a combination of what a library ought to be and how library users ought to behave. If you work in a school library, have it with my blessing - you're doing God's work.

 

This is a library.

This is a library where we stop and we look,
This is a library where we choose a book.

Where we can stop to take time to ourselves,
To look at the treasure that’s there on the shelves:
Books which are fat, books which are thin,
Books which can have the whole universe in.

This is a library.

This is a library where magic is true,
This is a library where the old can turn new.

Where there’s knowledge to know and feelings to feel,
And dreams and illusions and things which are real:
You can change who you are, your age or your face,
You can travel through time and explore every place.

This is a library.

This is a library where ideas can run riot,
This is a library where voices are quiet.

Where we’re quiet to think and to wander about,
And wonder about all of the things we find out:
It isn’t a place where we play or make noise,
It’s where our tongues stop, and thoughts are our toys.

This is a library.

This is a library where we help and we share,
This is a library where we’re kind and we care.

Where everyone’s looking for ways they can start
To make things work better, where each plays their part;
We all make a difference, be it big or quite small,
To this wonderful library which belongs to us all.

This is our library.


Short Children's Poetry

A Poem For Jack

I wrote this one day while working in a primary school library. A boy named Jack was writing a train poem and so I wrote one too, a) For solidarity; b) To amuse him; c) Because I obviously didn't have much else I either needed or wanted to do.

 

Click clack,
Click clack,
The train is rolling
Down the track.

Hiss hiss,
Hiss hiss,
Going so fast
It’s easy to miss.

Woo woo
Woo woo
The driver blows
The whistle at you.

“Train departing
Platform one...”
The doors are closing,
Then it’s gone.

LUNCH

This disgusting piece of nonsense came to me while I was trying to get to sleep one night and wouldn't go away until I wrote it down. I had to suffer with it; now you have to as well!

 

A thing I'd really rather not:
To drink a pint of slimy snot.

A thing I do not want to do:
To eat a sandwich packed with poo.

A thing that I'd not like to see:
My teapot filled with week-old wee.

A thing that I'd not like to lick:
A lolly made from frozen sick.

And here's the thing: I have a hunch
This poem's put me off my lunch.

Try, Try Again

The Premier League, of all institutions, has a campaign to improve literacy in schools. Part of this was a poetry competition based on the a poem called 'Try, Try Again' which challenged children to write a poem based on the titular phrase. One of the classes at school was taking part, so I decided to have a go.

 

Today, I fell:
Run down, defeated, discouraged and dismayed,
Yet unbroken, unafraid.

Tomorrow, I shall take my feet:
Rejecting all ‘You Can’t’s as lies;
Yearningly, I’ll stretch toward the skies.

And ever more, I rise and rise again:
Gaining height, I strive towards the sun.
All my setbacks give me strength:
I shall rejoice in my failures. They are
Nourishment for each success I’ve won.

Nursery Rhymes

These short verses were all things I wrote just after my son was born. They were mostly improvised little songs I made up to sing him, but I imagine that's how most of the traditional nursery rhymes were written too.

Fly Away Home

Fly away, fly away, fly away home,
No matter how far or how fast you may roam,
Carry love with you so you’re not alone.
And fly away, fly away, fly away home.

Baby, Baby, What Do You See?

Baby, baby,
What do you see?
What do you see
   when you're looking at me?

Do you see I love you so?
And that I'll never let you go?

Baby, baby,
What do you see?
What do you see
   when you're looking at me?

Standing Man

Standing man,
Standing tall,
Standing high above it all.

Standing man,
Standing strong,
See your shadow stretch out long.

Standing man,
Standing proud,
Raise your voice and shout out loud.

Standing man,
Standing tall,
Standing high above it all.

Baby's Hat

Mummy‘s got a hat, Daddy’s got a hat,
Baby's got a hat but he won't wear that!
Baby won't wear his new blue hat,
Baby's got a hat but he won't wear that!

Sun shines brightly in baby's eyes,
Baby doesn't like that so baby cries,
But Baby won't wear his new blue hat,
Baby's got a hat but he won't wear that!