How to Write Poetry

Introduction: This afternoon, I sent another of my occasional arty-farty emails to my arty-farty friend, Stense. As what I had to say was totally profound, I thought I'd better share it with a wider audience right away:

S T E N S E !

The following poem was published in the latest edition of the London Review of Books. See what you think:

The Passing of the Passenger Pigeon
by Mark Ford

This bird used to be the most numerous on earth
And to blot out the sun for hours over Wisconsin and Michigan
And to strip bare the great forests of cranberries, pine-nuts, and acorns.

Whole trees toppled under the weight of roosting birds. In flight
They made a sound like Niagara Falls. Horses trembled,
And travellers made wild guesses at their numbers and meaning.

The bird's sad demise is chronicled on many websites. Children
Visit these for homework, and learn how far and fast the passenger pigeon
Flew, and that its breast was red, and head and rump slate blue.

As the opulent sun set, raccoon-hatted hunters would gather with pots
Of sulphur, and clubs and poles and ladders; in a trice they'd transform the dung-
Heaped forest floor into a two-foot carpet of smouldering pigeon.

Being so common, they sold in the city for only a few pence a dozen.
Farmers fed them to their pigs. By the century's end they had all
But joined the Great Auk and Labrador Duck in blissful oblivion.

The last known passenger pigeon was called Martha, after Martha
Washington. She died in Cincinnati Zoo on September 1st, 1914. Her stuffed
Remains were transported to the capital, and there displayed in the Smithsonian.

You know me, Stense, I don't claim to be any sort of expert when it comes to poetry. I'm capable of appreciating certain poems (Philip Larkin and Wilfred Owen and predictable stuff like that)—especially when they're read out loud by someone who knows what they're doing—but I don't make a habit of actually reading the stuff. I guess what I'm saying is that I don't know much about poetry, but I know what I like.

Which is why it might seem strange that I feel so passionately about the above poem:


I just don't get it, Stense, I really don't. Is that poem actually a poem at all? I reckon Ford simply woke up one morning, made himself a cup of tea, and wondered, What should I write a poem about today? So he started leafing through some old books and came across an article about the fate of the passenger pigeon. I wouldn't mind betting he came across the same article that taught me everything I know about the fate of the passenger pigeon: an essay entitled Losing a Limpet, by my hero, the late Stephen Jay Gould, in his book Eight Little Piggies. If Ford didn't read Gould's essay, then he must certainly have come across the same passage quoted by Gould, in which the legendary ornithological artist, John Audubon, describes the hunting of colossal flocks of passenger pigeons (complete with sulphur pots for the boiling of said birds).

What I'm guessing Ford did next was fire up his computer, go to Google, and search for the words 'passenger pigeon' (which is how he knows the bird's sad demise is chronicled on many websites—17,300 websites at the last count). He then probably clicked the first Google hit (which, when I tried it just now, was the Chipper Woods Bird Observatory page on the passenger pigeon) and learnt (first three lines):

Passenger Pigeon
(Ectopistes migratorius)
Probably Once The Most Numerous Bird on Earth

Hey, there's my opening line! he doubtless thought. But I should probably drop the 'probably': it's a bit vague.

Do you see where I'm coming from, Stense? Do you see why I think this poem is a bag of shite? Because Ford has done his research, and boy does it show! What he's done (I think) is jotted down a few bullet points, listing the standard trivia that anyone who is even vaguely interested in the subject would want to know about passenger pigeons, like so:

  • once the most numerous bird on earth (now extinct)
  • blotted out sun (Wisconsin/Michigan)
  • stripped whole forests of fruit, nuts and berries
  • trees fell under their weight
  • loud noise when they flocked—like a hard gale at sea (Audubon)
  • plumage: red breast, blue head and rump
  • hunted with poles/clubs from ladders
  • so cheap, fed to pigs
  • last one named Martha (after Martha Washington—who she?). Died, Cincinnati Zoo (1st Sept, 1914).

…then he's fleshed out his bullet points a bit, put in some funny line-breaks, made sure there weren't any rhymes (although he seems to have overlooked the flew/blue couplet) and voila!   POETRY!

But hang on a second: assuming I have correctly reverse-engineered Ford's technique, kudos to him for having come up with a sure-fire method for churning out publishable poetry at the drop of a hat. Why, anyone could do it! All, one needs to do is call up a random entry on Wikipedia (Bolivia, say), and start summarising:

by Richard Carter

Landlocked Bolivia, erstwhile home of the Incas,
Bordered by Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, Chile and Peru,
Named after Simón Bolívar, who liberated it from Spain in 1825.

But before the Spanish and the Incas came the Tiwanakan culture, which
Developed at the southern end of Lake Titicaca, the world's highest
Commercially navigable lake, located 3821m above sea level.

During most of the Spanish colonial period, the territory was called Upper Peru
Or Charcas, and was under the auth
ority of the Viceroy of Lima.
Bolivian silver mines produced much of the Spanish empire's wealth.

After independence followed nearly 60 years of coups and short-lived constitutions.
Bolivia's weakness was demonstrated during the War of the Pacific (1879–1883),
When it lost its sea coast and the adjoining rich nitrate fields to Chile.

In the Twentieth Century, the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement emerged.
Denied victory in the 1951 elections, it lead the successful 1952 revolution.
Under President Víctor Paz Estenssoro came many reforms and human right violations.

An increasingly divisive conflict has been the Bolivian Gas War, a dispute over
The exploitation of Bolivia's large natural gas reserves in the south of the country.
Protesters forced the resignation of President Sánchez de Lozada in 2003.


Keep it in 'em, me old pigeon's fate,

Ri xx

Richard Carter

A fat, bearded chap with a Charles Darwin fixation.

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