Once upon a poem

Emily Mercer’s Canute’s Wife (after Carol Ann Duffy) uses the idea from Carol Ann Duffy’s book, The World’s Wife to create a vivid original poem based on the legend of King Canute. The World’s Wife is a collection of monologues revisiting familiar stories from the wife’s perspective. For example, instead of the story of King Midas focusing on the King we get Mrs Midas telling us her version.

When you rewrite a well-known story from a different perspective it’s called a ‘textual intervention’. This term will impress teachers. When you write a poem heavily influenced by another poem you always acknowledge it with the word ‘after’ and the original poet’s name. This will also impress teachers since it shows when someone’s been reading poetry!

Poets are often inspired by stories: legends, fairy tales, religious narratives, myth and other poems. This exercise aims to inspire you to create your unique poetic version of an old tale.
 

Stage 1: Preparation & Generating Ideas

 
Read the poems under the heading below, Further Reading. Hand out the 2007 winners’ anthology, The Wouldbegoods,  to each student and give them the questions in bold below (the non-bold answers are for the teacher’s reference). Divide the class into four groups and have each present one poem to the rest of the class, reading it aloud and discussing the following:
 
  • Where does the story come from?
     
  • Who is telling the story and how would you describe them?
    In Emily Mercer’s poem it’s King Canute’s wife. She is probably middle-aged (“like when we were young”) and conventional (he wears a suit to work).
     
  • How has the poet changed the original?
    This is where poets have fun by adding lots of details to create their own version of the story. E.g. Emily Mercer makes it their wedding anniversary and a picnic.
     
  • What interests you about the language they have used?
    People make the mistake in thinking poems must use flowery poetic language but contemporary poets often use down-to-earth language closer to normal speech. Most of ‘Canute’s Wife’ is standard English but it’s very accessible, like somebody addressing someone else. The odd phrases “never had/much of a memory;” and “no, / not to me, to the sea” are more colloquial.
     
  • Is there a set rhythm or rhyme scheme?
    Simon Armitage’s poem plays with the sonnet form and has a broken rhyming couplet at the end. All of the other examples are free verse, i.e. no set rhythm or rhyme scheme, but some use occasional end-rhyme to punctuate the delivery (‘The Wife of Bafa’) or internal rhyme at the climax of the narrative (wept / leapt / slept rhymes in ‘Little Red Cap’).
     
  • Is it written in stanzas or one continuous narrative? How does this affect the pace?
    Using linebreaks and stanzas differentiates poetry from prose. So when a poet is telling a story the type of stanza they use is very important. A poet can create suspense by cutting a line at a crucial point, carrying the sense on to the next line or even the next stanza. This device is called enjambement. Emily Mercer does this between stanzas two and three: “He’d forgotten // it was our anniversary, too…” This is especially effective as we have already heard that Canute never had much of a memory. In contrast, ‘The Wife of Bafa’ is virtually one continuous block of text with only the tiniest of pauses (indentations) to suggest a new line of thought, a new husband. “Those bastards in their mansions” has a very dramatic ending with a single line stanza that forms a rhyming couplet with the penultimate line.
  • How does it set the scene?
    To make the poem more vivid for the reader, poets refer to most if not all five senses at some stage during the poem. Emily Mercer does this brilliantly. There’s the sound of the sea and her husband, “He ran out into the foam, shouting”; “too hot for June” (touch); and “red wine and strawberries”’ (sight and taste with a hint of smell).

Homework

Choose your favourite poem as a stylistic base, but choose a different story to retell. Pick one of your favourite stories, one you know well. It could be a fairy tale, fable, legend, myth, religious allegory etc. and make rough NOTES (resist writing at this stage) on the following (pupils should each have a copy of all the information below):

  • Character
    Who is telling the story? The character of the narrator is as important as the story they tell. This is what makes your poem a monologue rather than a news item. If Emily Mercer’s narrator had been e.g. a young black woman the story could have been entirely different. The character will determine the other details of your story.
  • Plot
    Decide which part of the story you want to retell. You don’t have to slavishly follow the original from start to finish. You may just want to focus on a particular aspect of the story e.g. stealing fire in the Simon Armitage poem. How are you going to change the original? What details are you going to add?
  • Setting
    Where does the action take place?
  • Syntax
    How do they speak? E.g. Do they use formal standard English or slang? Do they mix foreign words with their speech? Do they speak in long or short sentences? Are they speaking out loud or sending it as an email? Etc. This is where you can have the most fun, creating a really individual voice.

Tips

  • It may help to have a picture of your narrator in your head, how old they are, what they’re wearing, whether they have an unusual feature e.g. one blue eye and one brown. You don’t have to put all these details in the poem but your character is more likely to come to life for you and the reader.
  • Keep the plot simple. Your story should not include twists and turns and too many other characters – save that for your novel! A poem is a concentrated form of language. You are telling your story using as few words as you can to make the maximum impact.
  • You may want to base the setting on somewhere you know. Introduce it with a few brief details. The most important aspects of your poem are the character and the plot.
  • When thinking about the voice it will be hard to resist starting to write. You may find it useful to come up with a few phrases, things they’d be most likely to say. Also, it can help to base their voice on someone you know.
 

Stage 2: Writing your First Draft

Make sure you have a copy of your model poem and the notes you made for homework. Try as much as possible to write in the format of your original, e.g. if the poem opens by describing the setting, your poem must do the same; if your poem has internal rhyme towards the end, your poem must do the same; if it’s a sonnet, yours should be a sonnet too. Use your original as a rough guide and try to copy some of its techniques.

Tips

  • Remember this is a first draft. It is more important to get a version of the poem on paper than for it to be the best thing you’ve ever written. It helps to write it all in one sitting.
  • When you’ve written your first draft, have a quick read to see how many of the five senses appear in your poem. Pay particular attention to smell, taste and touch. These senses are especially evocative. Don’t worry if you can’t include all five, just be aware of the device. Remember, details make the poem more vivid in people’s heads.
  • Read the poem aloud in your head. This is an essential part of the editing process. It will help you hear if the narrative voice is working, if there are any lines and/or rhymes you want to delete or add, if you want to change the pace, if the rhythm is flowing.

Follow-ups

A week later, hide your original and edit your poem. Does the narrative have dramatic impact where you want it? How consistent is the narrator’s voice? Are there any words or lines you can get rid of? Are you happy with the stanza breaks/continuous narrative?

If you find your finished version is still quite close to the original, acknowledge it with ‘after’ and the poet’s name underneath your title. If it’s very different you can acknowledge the original source of inspiration when reading it in public.

Teachers may wish to find different examples to use with e.g. lower school but still follow the same lesson plan.

Further Reading

Carol Ann Duffy – ‘Little Red Cap’
Henry Shukman – ‘Ararat’
Simon Armitage – ‘Those bastards in their mansions’
Patience Agbabi – ‘The Wife of Bafa’

Patience Agbabi