One Wednesday Night, the Poem

I was talking to a friend about poetry and she’d generously let me read one of her pieces of writing.  When I did, I was reminded of advice that my old English teacher gave me.  He was the first person, offline, that I showed my writing to.  He taught me for four years and, unlike many teachers, he would talk to me like an equal.  It felt like he valued my opinions and we would debate the Shakespeare biased curriculum time and time again.  My stance being that he wasn’t the only playwright and we should get variety.  Anyway, come sixth form, when he was no longer my teacher, we shared poems we’d written and he’d ask for my thoughts on his and offered his thoughts, gently, on mine.  He played an important role in my life and in shaping who I became.

But back to the point.  One piece of advice he would give me time and time again was to use what I’d written but say it in less words.  Strip it back.  See what it becomes.  And in doing so, you learn a lot about what you’re saying, the point you’re making and the language you’re using.

Having offered this advice to my friend, I went through some of my old poetry and tried to find one to exercise brevity on.  But nothing caught my attention, none of the poems I returned to hooked me today.  And then I picked up a copy of One Wednesday Night which I’d printed to critique and that did hook me.  A poem about nosebleeds and tummies would be hard to pull off but I liked the starry sky part of it.  And so I picked out a few words and phrases and started to play with them:

A dusty sky; the stage is set.
Leading role – the crescent moon.
Venus; shining golden in the spotlight.

Before my tired eyes
Dots begin to glow

– the constellations of closed eyes?

The supporting cast step out
From hiding in the wings.
The starry queen holds court;
a dancing bear and timid cub perform.

Street lamps conceal stage hands
and then, like the curtain closing,
the cast, the stars and stage

All fall away.

The play is lost to sleep.

NB, the stars you see when your eyes are closed are called phosphenes.


A walk: 15th April

I went on a walk with a friend this weekend and we took a few pictures to try and identify some species when we got home.  I also wrote a list of some of the plants and animals we saw on our route.  This was a good exercise in helping me remember and learn names for flora and fauna but it also meant I realised how much we saw.

Using the same idea as the natural history guide exercise, I wrote an “I am” poem.  Again I used the guide to get a bit of info about the species and I used my jar of words.  I also pulled a tarot card to give a direction or theme for my words.  This turned out to be the ace of wands which is a perfect, spring energy, kind of card.  The words I associate with this card were used to create the first line.

I am spring, flame thrower, life igniter.

I am the Norway maple, buds forced open like shooting stars.

I am the drifting, pungent catch of wild garlic in the air.

I am the paintbrush who’s sure and steady hand splashed the purple speculum on the female mallard’s back.

I am the heart leaves of the lesser celandine, serenading without permission.

I am the boggy carpet under the feet of Canada geese.

I am the committed blackbird, bringing squirming specimens to my love.

I am the golden jacket outlining the small great tit.

I am the velcro crackle of cleavers scrambling unapologetically.

I am the listening, learning, crow, holding tight to my caw-caw.

I am the family squabble of coots quarrelling

& I am the woodpigeon, perched, surveying, taking in the power of spring.

I enjoyed pulling together the images and I really like the use of the natural history guide as it adds another dimension to the images – without it I’d not have known speculum feathers were even a thing!  The information from the guide adds more precision as well.

I particularly like the image of the cleavers and, along with I am the music played in the teeth of a dandelion, before time is wished away from last time, I’m hoping to spin out another piece of creative writing.

I also created the line I am the queen of death, the glossy social climber; ivy but it was entirely out of sorts with the rest of the images.  Perhaps one to put in my pocket for a walk later in the year when the cycle of life turns again…


The sexuality of the sea

I mentioned in my post about the symbology of the sea that sexuality is often associated with it.  We saw in that post that the sea is considered to be fertile, to be creative, to be the mother of all life.  And so it is only a footstep away from sexuality.

We have also seen that water is often considered to be feminine, tying in again with the maternal aspect but we also find bodies of water dedicated to women.  There are myths about water being created by women or gifted to women by deities.  And of course we have Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and pleasure, who is born from the sea.

Many writers have made use of this construct including Emily Dickinson, using the sea to express wild sensual passion, but the poem I want to consider is by Mary Oliver:

The Sea

Stroke by
stroke my
body remembers that life and cries for
the lost parts of itself—-
fins, gills
opening like flowers into
the flesh—-my legs
want to lock and become
one muscle, I swear I know
just what the blue-gray scales
the rest of me would
feel like!
paradise! Sprawled
in that motherlap,
in that dreamhouse
of salt and exercise,
what a spillage
of nostalgia pleads
from the very bones! how
they long to give up the long trek
inland, the brittle
beauty of understanding,
and dive,
and simply
become again a flaming body
of blind feeling
sleeking along
in the luminous roughage of the sea’s body,
like victory inside that
insucking genesis, that
roaring flamboyance, that
beginning and
conclusion of our own.

Having written it out in word, got the formatting just right, I lost it when it came into wordpress.  I don’t have the patience to make it look right but I do encourage you to have a look at it formatted correctly.

I really like the way she has used line length and structure here to echo the crashing of waves on the sea and the ebbing and flowing of the body.  I read the poem on a blog initially where it was typed without form then turned to my book of her poetry and found it there in this structure.  That in itself was interesting as I’ve never been so moved by the way words are set out before and I think if I’d gone straight to the printed version I would have missed that.

My reading of this poem is that the narrator is experiencing an orgasm after a bit of a drought.  It also reminds me of the selkie and mermaid stories where women who lived in the sea were tricked into living on land, for example by men who stole their seal furs.  It is the longing to return to this former life.  And perhaps also the longing of women who’ve always lived on land to return to their ancestral roots, back so far in time that they were sea creatures, or even back so far that they were the sea itself.  The narrator is becoming one with the sea, echoing a sexual union.

As well as selkies and mermaids, we also find sirens living in the oceans.  All three have been portrayed as sexual, manipulative and dangerous creatures.  Perhaps it is not surprising they have a bad reputation given that they tend to lure men into their worlds and men tell the narrative of our world.

Mermaids and sirens charmed sailors and fishermen with their melodious voices and once they succumbed, they would be dragged down into the depths.  These ‘femmes fatales’ were said to shipwreck entire vessels to fulfil their sexual desires.  To see one would be an omen of disaster but also by being seen by a mermaid or siren, you could become the object of their malevolence.

The original version of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid does not provide the reader with the same happy ending you find in the Disney version.  Jen Campbell has a good video about this, but don’t say I didn’t warn you when it turns dark…

Mermaids sometimes fare better than sirens and in some cultures are considered lucky.  Mermen, perhaps unsurprisingly, also have a better reputation – in Trinidad and Tobago, they would grant wishes, transform mediocrity into genius and give wealth and power.

Whether they are kindly, evil, or somewhere in between, mermaids and similar sea people have featured in mythology around the world for a long time.  We find them depicted in Mesopotamian artwork, on a chapel in Durham Castle dating back to about 1078, later in a 15th century compilation of quotes from Chinese literature we find a mermaid who “wept tears which became pearls” and we still find them in our literature, art and folklore today.

Further Reading

A Natural History Guide To Poetry


Using a natural history guide, pages chosen at random, and my jar of words, I have spun a series of metaphors which utilise different sensory aspects, excluding smell and taste as neither of those work especially well for me.

This was an exercise in creating metaphors but you could easily take one of the images and expand it and turn it into a larger poem.  I’ve adapted it from Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge and I highly recommend her book Poem Crazy for any creative writer.

I am…

I am a prickly cockle with a grain of sand gnarled in my foot.

I am a silky wall feather moss, collecting gossamer and rainbows.

I am a moustached warbler, and a longing, sweet ‘tu-tu-tu’.

I am the music played in the teeth of a dandelion, before time is wished away.

I am the sound of fish fins as they encounter the everchanging river.

I am a willow, weeping, leaves creeping, catkins dancing.

I am the grey-blue crown of a male chaffinch in summer.

I am the eyes of a peacock butterfly; mesmerised and mesmerising.

I am the shape of a mute swan’s neck, curving with the secrets of the self.

I am a migratory locust with a solitary path, soon I will plunge into a galaxy of my peers.

I am the perch formed by the spines of a gorse; stiff, unforgiving and deadly. 

To illustrate my take on this exercise I’ll dissect a sentence:

I am a prickly cockle with a grain of sand gnarled in my foot

I am… an animal was one of the prompts.

Prickly cockle came from the guide book.

Grain of sand, gnarled and toe were words I pulled from my jar, obviously I changed toe to foot as it made more sense with the chosen animal.

I particularly like the idea of the dandelion as a musical instrument and without Susan’s prompts I would never have considered it.  Similarly, I was using her furniture prompt when I wrote about the gorse bush.  By using a natural history guide, I have been able to include some precision in the name of the species and some detail, such as the call of the fantastically named moustached warbler.

I’m hoping I’ll return to some of these images and play with them a bit more deeply when I’m in less pain that I am at the moment (pain drains creative energy).

My birds

Invisible birds chirrup and chirp
Through the window
To where I lie in my bed.

Outside the spare room, I note
The fence pigeons are back
From their winter reprieve.

I missed the cocksure robin
Bobbing in the yard;
I was sick. I miss him.

A blackbird couple builds a nest
In a vent I can see from the kitchen,
When my eyes are good.

There is life outside.
Incongruent to my grief,
My birds sing on.


Message in a bottle

Seems I’m not alone at being alone
A hundred billion castaways

Looking for a home.
 – “Message in a Bottle”, The Police

Whilst the world’s oldest known message in a bottle is only 132 years old, we know that notes have been placed in bottles since at least ancient Greece.  Christopher Columbus put messages in bottles, Jules Verne wrote about them and romances have formed because of them.

Queen Elizabeth I was so concerned that messages may contain details from British spies and fleets that she created an official position of “Uncorker of Ocean Bottles”.  Anyone else opening the bottles could face the death penalty.

At various points in history, messages in bottles have been used to help us understand ocean dynamics which has been important to science, to the navy and to industry.  But much more interesting are the tales of distress, of being shipwrecked and ending up on a deserted island.

Often messages in bottles are sent as ships are sinking or as sailors realise the peril they are in after the boat has sunk.  In 1794, a crew were caught in a storm and shipwrecked on an island in the south pacific.  One of the crew, a Japanese seaman, carved a message in coconut wood and slipped it into a bottle.  It was found 150 years later and the sailors died on the island.

As well as SOS calls, we also send messages as part of our experience of emotional distress.  They are sent as part of the healing process, to say goodbye to loved ones, as a memorial or to take away hurts we no longer want.  We send these messages when we are hurting, when we need to feel like there is something out there which may change things, and the idea that there might be can bring us hope.

We send out our fears, our hopes, our dreams and in return we receive the joy of endless possibilities, of playful imaginings.  We dance with the unknown, we leave fate and ocean dynamics to determine the destination of our message

There is something about a message in a bottle that is akin to a diary.  It is a way of releasing secrets from inside us, making them real, writing them down and in doing so setting them free.  Beyond the confines of a diary however, the message in a bottle has the benefit of anonymity and of potentially being read, being seen and hence being validated by someone.  You can project onto this receiver, you can imagine there is someone in the world who would understand and know what to say in response.

And it is that potential receiver which drives some people to send bottles, in the hope of a connection, whether that be romantic or friendship.  They are invitations to penpals, to prospective friends, and invitations to more from hopeful lovers.  The messages can be a cry for connection, for community, for understanding.

Ryan Bort worded things beautifully when he described various reasons for sending messages:

final, poetic words of resignation left behind for (an) indifferent sea… lonely, lovelorn souls, searching for serendipity… [a search for] affirmation that comes from somewhere other than yourself… a romantic act that has such a delicious potential for magic… surrendering a part of yourself to something larger…every message in a bottle is a prayer”

There is a playfulness to some of the messages; a child reaching out into the idea of the big wide world, a bored teenager or a curious adult.

From a literary point of view, tales surrounding these messages tends towards the romantic and the poetic.  In a Japanese medieval epic, a poet is exiled and goes on to launch wooden planks, like messages in a bottle, which have his poems inscribed on.  These messages describe his plight and in doing so are both poetic and a distress call.  More recently, Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Dickens have written about messages in bottles.

Drift bottles and seabed drifters provide only a birth notice and an obituary with no biography.
– Dean F. Bumpus, Woods Hole Oceanographic Inst, 1973

It was estimated in between the mid-1900s and 2009, six million bottled messages were sent, 500,000 from oceanographers.  Whilst this is a romantic idea, a way of releasing our pain and of starting relationships, these bottles all add to the ocean litter.  At a time when we’re becoming so aware of the impact of plastic on the seas, we cannot continue, with good conscience, to send messages across the water.

And senders must also be aware that their messages may be found.  Whilst this seems like the aim of the game, some of the messages are written because we do not expect them to be read.  With the internet and the world’s connectedness, sending and receiving messages is not always a positive thing.  A woman in France sent a letter out containing her grief, this was then found by a writer in the UK who went on to write an entire book about her.  Another woman received media attention after finding a bottle and said that had she known that would happen, she’d have left it there.

My message in a bottle

What would you write if you were going to send a message in a bottle?

By fate and wind &
Tides, take the sorrows I’ve felt and the
Tears I have cried.
Let waves carry my words, let them turn and let them twist
Endlessly tossing in the dark abyss.


The Language of the Sea

The oceans are worlds which whirl with wonderful words, where we find eddies and fathoms, ebbs and flows, hawseholes, furling, reefing…


And this language of the seas washes over onto the shores and into our day to day life.  We find our speech spattered with loan sharks, old trouts, street urchins and loose cannons.  We have sayings like worse things happen at sea, give a wide berth and there are plenty more fish in the sea.

Britain’s maritime history has fundamentally affected the English language as spoken and written throughout the English speaking world.  This includes words and phrases which have long lost their nautical association but which can be traced back to days at sea:

  • Slush fund – in the eighteenth century, slush referred to the waste fat which was left after the ship’s cook had boiled salt beef for the crew to eat. Sailors had a limited diet, so there was a fair amount of this fat, which was skimmed off and stored in barrels. In the US Navy, the fat was sold and the proceeds of this sale were called a slush fund. The money was spent in buying luxuries for the crew.
  • Snug – when snug was first recorded in English in the late 16th century, it was a nautical term used to describe vessels that were shipshape, compact, and adequately prepared for bad weather.
  • Batten down the hatches– now used to mean “prepare to withstand a period of difficulty”, originally came from shutting the hatches on the ship if a storm was coming.

At loggerheads – Between the devil and the deep blue sea – Bitter end – Bail out – Clean slate – Shipshape – Cock up – Devil to pay – Jump ship – Fits the bill – Leeway – Off and on – Logbook – On the fiddle – Over a barrel – Aloof – Taken aback – Too close to the wind

The sea continues to have a (human*) language of its own today.  The official language of navigators of the sea, worldwide, is seaspeak and is short and clear, a language can save lives.  Each sentence begins with a message marker, a word that encompasses the sense or purpose of the communication.  These message markers are: Advice, Answer, Information, Instruction, Intention, Question, Request, and Warning.

And there are the evocative sounds from the iconic shipping forecast.  The meaning is unknown to most of us, but the words are familiar and comforting.  Never longer than 380 words, this fleeting trip around the UK’s seas has been broadcast for over 150 years.  There is a beautiful poeticness to the forecast and it has been made use of by poets such as Carol Ann Duffy and Seamus Heaney as well as by songwriters.

At one point in my life I heard the shipping forecast every night despite desperately wishing I could be asleep.  As frustrating as it was to be awake, I found the rhythm of the broadcast soothing:

Lundy, Fastnet, Irish sea

White horses come and carry me
From waking shore to dreamful peace

Rockall, Malin, Hebrides

There are 31 sea areas around the UK, Lundy, Fastnet and Irish sea being three of them.  When I was looking into the shipping forecast I found out how the areas got their names.  Not all are interesting but a few are:

  • Viking, Forties, Dogger, Fisher, Sole and Bailey are named after sandbanks.
  • Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Humber, Thames and Shannon are named after estuaries.
  • The German Bight is an indentation on the Northern European shoreline.
  • Rockall and Fastnet are both named after islets.
  • Malin is named after Malin Head, the northernmost point of Ireland.
  • FitzRoy is named after Robert FitzRoy, the first professional weatherman, captain of HMS Beagle and founder of the Met Office.

There are a plethora of words we use when we’re talking about the seascape:

oceanic, sea bed, tide pool, seawater, body of water, pelagic, coastal, offshore, sea shanties, foreshore, marine, seaborn, swell, briny, swash, sea squall, sea spray, whale path, abyss, midnight zone, twilight zone, seagirt, intertidal, billow, white horses, bounding main, tsunami, shoreline, sea faring, crest, spume, maritime, anchor, breakers, breakwater, drift, gulf, gyre, whirlpool, neap tides, ridges, riptides, shallows and trenches…

And then there are the multitudes of wonderful species names…

butterfly fish, amberjack, brittle star, eelgrass limpet, pearly nautilus, vampire squid, crown of thorns starfish, elkhorn coral, frilled shark, heart urchins, morning sun star, fangtooth fish, stellar sea lion, pacific viperfish bladderlocks and sea whip…

These are just a handful of evocatively named plants and animals that make the sea their home.

I am hoping that I will manage some creative writing this month and that I can entwine some of these emotive and wonderful words into a poem.  I offer them up with an invitation to create your own poetry.  Perhaps turn to the shipping forecast for a structure, or try to stick within their word limit.  Maybe try your hand at a sea shanty? I’d love to read anything that anyone writes!


*I’ll be looking at the non human language of the sea as well later in the month