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Your favourite poem

In this activity, Michael Symmons Roberts and Helen Mort share their thoughts on one of their favourite poems.
Welcome to How to Make a Poem. My name is Michael Symmons Roberts. And my name’s Helen Mort. And we’re going to be your tutors on this course over the next three weeks. Obviously, starting any kind of new course is really nerve-wracking. And that’s especially true when it’s something as potentially personal as writing poetry. Some of you will be totally new to this. Other people might be old hands looking for a refresher. But whatever your reason for coming to the course, we welcome you. And we’re really looking forward to reading your poems. The course is called How to Make a Poem and not How to Write a Poem. We’ll talk about this a bit more as the course goes on.
The word make defines poetry writing as the use of a set of skills as a craft rather than just the expression of an inspiration or a moment of genius. This means that many aspects of poetry making can be taught. However, which skills you choose to learn and use is up to you. In the end, a poem is a long series of choices. And while we’re here to help, only you can make those decisions. The course is divided into three weeks. In the first week, we’re going to look at what poetry is made from, its raw materials.
And in the second week, we’ll ask what poems are possible, and we’ll think about the tools that you might use to craft and shape your poem. In the third and final week, we’ll look at the creative writing workshop, a place where people get together to talk about their poetry. In workshops, we’ll think about skills of editing and drafting. And we’ll also consider good practice when you’re sharing your poetry with others. So I will ask, how do we tell each other what we think of each other’s work, and how can we be both critical and respectful at the same time? At the Manchester Writing School, we believe that to be a poet, you should read a lot of poems.
Poets don’t just appear out of nowhere. And it’s safe to say that all poets have at least one or two poems that have, at key moments, inspired them to try to write. Beneath this video, we’ve written a short piece on one of our favourite poets and poems. We’d love to hear from you. What’s your favourite poem? Do you have a favourite poet? Share your experience in the discussion below.

Welcome to the course! In the video above, the course tutors Helen and Michael introduced themselves. They have also each written a short piece on one of their favourite poems. When you have read this, share your thoughts in the comments below: Do you have a favourite poem to recommend? What do you think of Michael and Helen’s choices?


I often explore ideas about landscape in my poems, and the writer I go back to when I’m looking for inspiration is Norman MacCaig (1910-1996) because I think he succeeds in making the familiar new. A great example is his poem ‘Explicit Snow’, a particular favourite of mine. I think great poems often hold a paradox at their heart and here, MacCaig explores how snowfall can seem both familiar and utterly novel at the same time – how it seems to fall ‘from a place we feel we could go to’. I admire MacCaig’s use of metaphor in ‘Explicit Snow’, comparing it to an actor who steps ‘not from the wings, / But from the play’s extension – all he does / Is move from the seen to the mysterious.’ It’s a subtle, unshowy kind of image in keeping with the quiet tone of the poem. But the phrase that always comes to mind when I think of ‘Explicit Snow’ is his description of ‘the hill we’ve looked out of existence.’ Sometimes, it’s easy to take the known world around us for granted. Poetry is there to make us look (and think) again.


I’m going to cheat a bit and choose a poem which could have been any one of 385. I first stumbled across the American poet John Berryman’s (1914-1972) ‘Dream Songs’ in my late teens, and I never thought the same way about poetry again. I still return to these poems today and find them inexhaustible in their vitality and resourcefulness. Most of the Dream Songs, like this one, are 18 lines long, set in three stanzas, but despite that constraint (and because of it) almost anything can happen. Most of the poems revolve around an imaginary mid-life American male called Henry, who has a lot in common with the poet, including having suffered ‘an irreversible loss’, but this gives Berryman sufficient distance to explore the most difficult and inaccessible territories of loss and grief, faith and despair, mortality and – yes, as in this one – even boredom. The Dream Songs are short, shocking sketches, often employing two or three voices. They are by turns, and often in the same song, playful and heart-breaking. Berryman said that the Dream Songs were meant to ‘terrify and comfort’, and they do. But for me they do more than that. They open up – as the best poems can, and as Berryman does in the out-of-the-blue mad brilliance of the end of Song 14 – new directions of thought and feeling.

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How To Make A Poem

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