Don’t touch!

By Andy Croft

One of my favourite poems among the winners of last year’s Foyle Young Poets of the Year Awards was Charlotte Runcie’s Ripe. The poem uses the image of apples to talk about adolescence, love and growing up. It’s a great example of how in poetry you can turn an abstract feeling (something you can feel but not touch, like hatred, envy, boredom, desire etc) into something you can almost taste.

This is an exercise in making emotional abstractions come alive, based loosely on William Blake’s The Poison Tree. Blake’s poem is about the consequences of repressing anger (‘I was angry with my foe; / I told it not, my wrath did grow’). The speaker takes pleasure in nurturing his anger in private (‘And I watered it in fears, / Night & morning with my tears’) until it grows into a terrible tree bearing poison fruit.

Stage 1

  • Make a list of all the most negative or destructive feelings you know (pride, dishonesty, arrogance, prejudice, humiliation etc).
  • Choose one which you have either experienced yourself or seen in other people close to you.
  • Make a list of adjectives and nouns which you associate with this word.
  • Add any colours, tastes, smells, textures or sounds which you associate with this word.
  • Think of any books you have read or films you have seen which try to address this feeling.
  • Think of any songs you know that express this feeling.
  • Make a map of all these words, placing the negative feeling in large letters in the middle.

Tips

  • Don’t choose a negative feeling which you have only read about or seen in films.
  • Avoid the ‘obvious’ big negative feelings (hatred, anger, cruelty etc).

Stage 2

Now imagine that you are going to plant this negative feeling and tend it like a little tree. Using your map of words, fill in the missing words in the following template, as though describing the growth of a poisonous tree :

I found the seeds [where did you find them?]
I planted them [where did you plant them?]
And I watered them with [with what did you water them?]
Until the tree grew [describe the shape of the branches]
And at night the sound of the wind in the tree was the sound
                   of [what kind of sound did it make ?]
And in its highest branches there grew [what kind of fruit
did it grow?]

And I knew then that this poisonous tree was mine.

Tips

  • Make sure each line connects as far as possible to your original word.
  • Don’t use your original word anywhere in the poem except in the title.
  • Try to avoid using other abstract words.
  • You can use more than one image per line if you want.
  • Read your poem aloud and slowly ; ask yourself how it sounds.

The result should be a little poem that looks something like this:

The Poison Tree of Gossip

I found the seeds in a letter I shouldn’t have opened,
I planted them in the lose soil of casual acquaintance,
And I watered them with tears of friendship,
Until the tree grew twisted and deformed,
And at night the sound of the wind in the tree
                   was the sound of false rumours whispering,
And in its highest branches there grew

                          the sweet fruits of deceit.
And I knew then that this poisonous tree was mine.

 

Follow-Ups

  • Show your poem to other people without the title ; see if they can guess which bad feeling you have described.
  • Choose another negative feeling and plant it without using any of the same phrases or images.
  • Choose a positive feeling, plant it and see if it grows into a poem.

Further Reading

William Blake, ‘The Poison Tree’ in Songs of Innocence and of Experience
Mike and Kate Westbrook, Bright As Fire: the Westbrook Blake (CD)

Andy Croft