[Hokusai: The Great Wave (1823)]

Creative Writing


Lectures & Workshops:

  1. Lecture - Fiction: What is It?

  2. Lecture - Fiction: Character
    • Workshop
      • Fiction Exercise 1: The Twist

  3. Lecture - Fiction: Setting
    • Workshop
      • Fiction Exercise 2: There are places I remember

  4. Lecture - Fiction: Point of View
    • Workshop
      • Fiction Exercise 3: God’s spies

  5. Lecture - Fiction: Detail
    • Workshop
      • Fiction Exercise 4: Travelling hopefully

  6. Lecture - Fiction: Meaning
    • Workshop
      • Fiction Exercise 5: Unreliable Narrators

  7. Lecture - Poetry: What is It?
    • Workshop
      • Fiction: Conclusion
      • Poetry Exercise 1: 13 Ways of Looking

  8. Lecture - Poetry: Storytelling
    • Workshop
      • Poetry Exercise 2: Writing from Elsewhere

  9. Lecture - Poetry: Imagery
    • Workshop
      • Poetry Exercise 3: Petals on a wet, black bough

  10. Lecture - Poetry: Figures of Speech
    • Workshop
      • Poetry Exercise 4: Every word is a dead metaphor

  11. Lecture - Poetry: Form
    • Workshop
      • Poetry Exercise 5: Concrete poetry

  12. Lecture - Poetry: Precision


Lecture 12

[Eugenio Montale (1896-1981)]

Week 12:

Lecture 12

Poetry: Precision


This is the last lecture in our series on poetry. It's also the last lecture in the course. It seems like a good time to think about what we've been doing for the past three months, and also to make some general reflections on the subject of creative writing in general.

I've called this last lecture "Precision”. Mark Twain once compiled a list of seven rules for writers. They dovetail interestingly with the rules by George Orwell which I mentioned in the first lecture of this course. Twain informs us that a writer should:
  1. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
  2. Use the right word, not its second cousin.
  3. Eschew surplusage.
  4. Not omit necessary details.
  5. Avoid slovenliness of form.
  6. Use good grammar.
  7. Employ a simple and straightforward style.
That all sounds simple and straightforward enough, but - as you've no doubt found out by now - clarity and precision are generally the hardest things to achieve.

One interesting way of applying these suggestions is through the test of translation. Is what you're saying clear and coherent enough to survive being turned into another language?

Let's take one of the most famous poems in world literature, Catullus's "Odi et amo" [I hate and I love] ...

Masks of Catullus

Odi et amo, quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.
Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

– Gaius Valerius Catullus (c.84-54 BC): Elegy LXXXV

Ōdī ět ămō quārē ĭd făcĭăm fŏrtăssě rěquīrĭs
[I detest and I love. Why that I may do, perhaps you ask.]
Nĕscĭō sěd fĭěrī sěntĭŏ ět ěxcrŭcĭŏr
[I do not know, but to become I sense and I am tortured.]

I hate and love; would’st thou the reason know?
I know not, but I burn, and feel it so.
– Richard Lovelace (1618-1657)

I hate and love – ask why – I can’t explain;
I feel ’tis so, and feel it racking pain.
– Charles Lamb (1775-1834)

I hate and love. Why? You may ask but
It beats me. I feel it done to me, and ache.
– Ezra Pound (1885-1972)

O th’hate I move love. Quarry it fact I am, for that’s so re queries.
Nescience, say th’ fiery scent I owe whets crookeder.
– Louis Zukofsky (1904-1978)

[Sir Laurence Alma-Tadema, "Catullus at Lesbia's"]

Montale's Sunflower

Portami il girasole ch’io lo trapianti
Bring me the sunflower so that I can transplant it
nel mio terreno bruciato dal salino,
in my soil burnt by salt air,
e mostri tutto il giorno agli azzurri specchianti
and show all day to the mirroring blues
del cielo l’ansietà del suo volto giallino.
of the sky the anxiety of its yellow face.

Tendono alla chiarità le cose oscure,
Dark things tend towards clarity,
si esauriscono i corpi in un fluire
bodies consume themselves in a flowing
di tinte: queste in musiche. Svanire
of colours: these in music. Vanishing
è dunque la ventura delle venture.
is thus the chance of chances.

Portami tu la pianta che conduce
Bring me the plant that leads
dove sorgono bionde trasparenze
where blonde transparencies arise
e vapora la vita quale essenza;
and life evaporates like spirit;
portami il girasole impazzito di luce.
bring me the sunflower crazed with the light.

- Eugenio Montale, Tutte le Poesie, ed. Giorgio Zampa, 1984 (Milano: Mondadori, 1991): 34.

Bring me the sunflower for me to transplant
to my own ground burnt by the spray of sea,
and show all day to the imaging blues
of sky that golden-faced anxiety.

Things hid in darkness lean towards the clear,
bodies consume themselves in a flowing
of shades: and they in varied music – showing
the chance of chances is to disappear.

So bring me the plant that takes you right
where the blond hazes shimmering rise
and life fumes to air as spirit does;
bring me the sunflower crazy with the light.

- Eugenio Montale, Selected Poems, trans. George Kay, 1964 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969): 25.

Bring me the sunflower, I’ll plant it here
in my patch of ground scorched by salt spume,
where all day long it will lift the craving
of its golden face to the mirroring blue.

Dark things are drawn to brighter,
bodies languish in a flowing
of colors, colors in musics. To vanish,
then, is the venture of ventures.

Bring me the flower that leads us out
where blond transparencies rise
and life evaporates as essence.
Bring me the sunflower crazed with light.

- William Arrowsmith, trans. Cuttlefish Bones (New York: Norton, 1992): 51.

Bring me the sunflower so I can plant it
in my ground burnt as may be with sea salt,
that all day it display to the blue mirror-
wise sky anxious concern of its yellow face.

Obscure things are impelled towards clarity,
bodies exhaust themselves in fluent change
of shades; these, in music. To disappear
is then the chanciest of chances.

Bring me the plant which may lead us
where the fair rise and are translucent,
where life delivers itself into finest spirit:
bring me the sunflower crazed with light.

- Kendrick Smithyman, trans. Campana to Montale: Versions from Italian, 1993 (Auckland: The Writers Group, 2004): 55.

[Vincent Van Gogh: Sunflowers (1888)]


Workshop 11

Holly Crawford:
13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

Week 12:

Workshop 11

Group 4: Peer Reviews.
Group 4: poems returned, with corrections and provisional grades.

Share examples of any poetry exercises you couldn’t find time for in previous Workshops.

Remember, as you work on your poetry portfolios, that only the completed exercise has to follow the instructions exactly. (Please remember to specify which exercise it was you did).

Your revised class poem does not have to be based on an exercise, though it can be if you wish.

The Peer Review you write should contain a short critique of the Workshop Poem, written by a classmate, assigned to you as part of the peer-editing process. Make sure that you have attached the poem in question along with your essay, so it can be readily consulted by your marker.

NB: You will need to refer to at least three poems from the Course Book of Readings to help illustrate the points you make in your critique.

Next week:

  • All Groups: Poetry Portfolios / Peer Reviews Due on Friday of the first week of study break.
Hand them in with assignment cover sheet on the course streamsite.

Please be very careful to carry out all of the assignment specifications, outlined in more detail here.


Lecture 11

[e e cummings]

Week 11:

Lecture 11

Poetry: Form


English Metres:

˘ / ΄

1) iamb / iambic metre: unstressed syllable / stressed syllable

˘ ΄ / ˘ ΄ / ˘ ΄ / ˘ ΄
Whose woods / these are / I think / I know (Frost)

΄ / ˘

2) trochee / trochaic metre: stressed syllable / unstressed syllable

΄ ˘ / ΄ ˘/ ΄ ˘ / ΄
Onward / led the / road a/gain (Housman)

˘ / ˘ / ΄

3) anapaest / anapaestic metre: 2 unstressed syllables / 1 stressed syllable

˘ ˘ ΄ / ˘ ˘ ΄ / ˘ ˘ ΄ / ˘ ˘ ΄
The Assy/rian came down / like a wolf / on the fold (Byron)

΄ / ˘ / ˘

4) dactyl / dactylic metre: 1 stressed syllable / 2 unstressed syllables

΄ ˘ ˘ / ΄ ˘ ˘ / ΄ ˘ ˘ / ΄ ˘
Softly and / tenderly / Jesus is / calling (Hymn)

a foot = one iamb, trochee, anapaest or dactyl
  • four feet = a tetrameter
  • five feet = a pentameter
  • six feet = a hexameter

Common English Verse Forms:

Alliterative Verse:

We were talking of dragons, // Tolkien and I
In a Berkshire bar. // The big workman
Who had sat silent // and sucked his pipe
All the evening, // from his empty mug
with gleaming eye // glanced towards us;
'I seen 'em myself', // he said fiercely.

- C. S. Lewis, "We were talking of dragons"
Heroic Couplet:

A little learning is a dangerous thing; - A
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring - A

- Alexander Pope, "Essay on Criticism"

Ballad Metre:

They hadna sailed a league, a league,
A league but barely three, - A
When the lift grew dark, and the wind blew loud
And gurly grew the sea. - A

- Anon, "Sir Patrick Spens"


Whose woods these are I think I know - A
His house is in the village, though; - A
He will not see me stopping here - B
To watch his woods fill up with snow - A

My little horse must think it queer - B
To stop without a farmhouse near - B
Between the woods and frozen lake - C
The darkest evening of the year. - B

– Robert Frost, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

Sonnet (14 lines)
[Petrarchan (or Italian)]

The tower’s broken, and the leafy tree - A
which shaded all the spirals of my mind - B
has withered up. How can I hope to find - B
the same again, lost on this trackless sea? - A
Death, you reached out that day so easily - A
to choke my love to dust; left life behind. - B
No earthly empire, clout of any kind - B
– gold, precious stones – will give it back to me. - A

And if Fate wants to tell me my worst fears - C
were always justified, what can I say - D
but sorry? Do, but bow to hide my tears? - C
Life can look fine from far enough away, - D
but losing in one morning seven years - C
of tenderness, is quite a price to pay! - D

– Francesco Petrarca, "Rott’è l'alta colonna"
The rhyme-scheme of the octet is invariable; the sestet, on the other hand, can take a variety of forms:


Sonnet (14 lines)
[Shakespearean (or English)]

[3 quatrains]:
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? - A
Thou art more lovely and more temperate: - B
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, - A
And summer's lease hath all too short a date: - B

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, - C
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd; - D
And every fair from fair sometime declines, - C
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd; - D

But thy eternal summer shall not fade - E
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest; - F
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade, - E
When in eternal lines to time thou growest: - F
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, - G
So long lives this and this gives life to thee. - G

– William Shakespeare, "Sonnet XVIII"
It's much harder to find plausible rhymes in English than it is in Italian (or in other Romance languages, for that matter), so the Shakespearean sonnet only commits you to finding one rhyme for each word, rather than the up-to-three required by the Petrarchan structure.

Concrete Poetry:

[George Herbert: The Altar.]

The Altar

A broken A L T A R, Lord, thy servant reares,
Made of a heart, and cemented with teares:
Whose parts are as thy hand did frame;
No workmans tool hath touch’d the same.
A H E A R T alone
Is such a stone,
As nothing but
Thy pow’r doth cut.
Wherefore each part
Of my hard heart
Meets in this frame,
To praise thy Name;
That, if I chance to hold my peace,
These stones to praise thee may not cease.
O let thy blessed S A C R I F I C E be mine,
And sanctifie this A L T A R to be thine.

- from The Temple (1633)

[Guillaume Apollinaire: Poèmes à Lou, XXII]

[Recognise yourself]
cette adorable personne c’est toi
[this adorable person is you]
sous le grand chapeau caroline
[under the big Carolina hat]
la bouche
voici l’ovale de la figure
[here is the oval of your face]
ton cou
[your neck]

et puis
[and then]
un peu plus bas
[a bit lower down]
c’est ton coeur qui bat
[there’s your beating heart]

ci confus
[should we mix with it]
[the impure]
par le mirage
[through the mirage]
de ton buste adoré
[of your loved breast]
un comma
[a comma]
à travers un nuage
[through a cloud]

- "Poème du 9 février 1915"
[Poem from 9th February, 1915]

[Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918)]


Workshop 10

Michele Leggott: Micromelismata (1994)

Week 11:

Workshop 10

Group 3: Peer Reviews.
Group 3: poems returned, with corrections and provisional grades.
Distribute Group 4 poems.

Poetry Exercise 5: Concrete poetry

In Michele Leggott’s ‘Micromelismata,’ a set of words is used to draw the outline of a pair of lips. In 'Oes & Spangs,' she's provided us with a poem which can be looked at statically on the page or kinetically on-screen.
  • Draw a picture of something from your own room at home.
  • Now copy the shape of your drawing as a collection of words or short phrases.
  • Decide what you want your poem to be about. What kinds of words are you going to use? Will they form sentences, or stand on their own?
(minimum 14 lines)

Next week:

  • Group 4: Peer Reviews.


Lecture 10

[Rainy Day in Brussels]

Week 10:

Lecture 10

Poetry: Figures of Speech


Simile [one thing compared to another]:

my Luve's like a red, red, rose
[Robert Burns]

Metaphor [one thing described as another]:

A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
– Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.

[William Wordsworth]

Metonymy [part or attribute used for whole]:

You can’t fight City Hall
The pen is mightier than the sword

Synecdoche [part used for whole]:

50 head of cattle
Mouths to feed
Hands to the pump

In one of his lectures on poetry, the great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges comments that the Chinese metaphor for "everything" is "the 10,000 things." He goes on to speculate that if one took every one of these 10,000 things, and compared to every other one in the list, one would arrive at a grand total of 99, 990, 000 possible metaphors in the world. (Jorge Luis Borges, This Craft of Verse: The Complete Norton Lectures delivered at Harvard University. 1967. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2000.)

That might seem a bit fanciful, but I think the point he's making is that the idea of comparing one thing to another thing, either through metaphor or simile, is one of the oldest poetic techniques known to man.

The other main branch on the tree of rhetorical figures up above is metonymy, which is the idea of taking one part of something to stand in for the whole: your wheels for your car, your threads for your suit, etc.

Metonymy, then, invents nothing: it simply condenses and simplifies the things we see around us. Metaphor, on the other hand, tries to set two different things (one present, one imaginary) side by side in your mind.


Workshop 9

Jorge Luis Borges: Poems of the Night (2010)

Week 10:

Workshop 9

Group 2: Peer Reviews.
Group 2: poems returned, with corrections and provisional grades.
Distribute Group 3 poems.

Poetry Exercise 4: "Every word is a dead metaphor"
(Leopoldo Lugones)

According to Jorge Luis Borges, traditional Chinese poets called the world "the ten thousand things." He goes on to speculate:
if we accept the number ten thousand, and if we think that all metaphors are made by linking two different things together, then, had we time enough, we might work out an almost unimaginable sum of possible metaphors. I have forgotten my algebra, but I think the sum should be 10,000 multiplied by 9,999, multiplied by 9,998, and so on.
- J. L. Borges, This Craft of Verse (2000): 21-22.
That's a lot of metaphors. Our exercise today is to add to their number:
  • Write down a list of things you've seen today, as a series of brief nouns or noun phrases without commentary: "the face of my phone / a plate of breakfast / my steering wheel / snarled-up traffic / the coffee cart").
  • Keep going till you have (at least) fourteen such items.
  • Write a set of brief, factual descriptions of the things of the day so far: "The sky is overcast / the rain falls vertically / my friend is frowning.”
  • Keep going till you have another fourteen (or more).
  • Match first to last: "the face of my phone is frowning / my plate of breakfast falls vertically / the steering wheel is overcast.”
  • Play with the results some more - cutting and pruning - until you have a set of lines you think convey something of the character of your morning.

Next week:

  • Group 4: Workshop Poems Due. Bring enough copies for the whole class
  • Group 3: Peer Reviews


Lecture 9

[Matsuo Bashō]

Week 9:

Lecture 9

Poetry: Imagery


... ut pictura poesis
[... as in painting, so in poetry]

– Quintus Horatius Flaccus [Horace] (65-8 BC):
"De Arte Poetica" [On the Art of Poetry]

We talked a little bit last week about the revolution in poetic thinking which can be roughly dated to the early part of the twentieth century: the rise of Modernism.

It's impossible to exaggerate the importance of the (re)discovery of Japanese and Chinese culture to the writers of this period.

Japanese prints led the way. Post-impressionist painters such as Gauguin and Van Gogh were heavily influenced by the bold yet subtle colours and clear outlines of Japanese print-makers.

The most famous example is probably Hokusai's Great Wave (1823), which I've put up on the cover page of this website. Here is one from a bit earlier:

[Hyakurin Sori: A Beach at Sunrise (late 18th century)]

And one from a bit later, after Commodore Perry's infamous "opening" of Japan to the West in the early 1850s:

[Hashimoto Sadahide: Western Traders at Yokohama (1861)]

One can see that this way of seeing Westerners has influenced (for instance) Van Gogh in the 1880s.

[Vincent Van Gogh: Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin (1888)]

Similarly, the subject-matter of many of these prints: the "Floating World", the area of gamblers, brothels and illicit drinking houses, inspired painters such as Gauguin not to be afraid of the (so-called) primitive and savage in their own work.

[Okumura Masanobu: The New Yoshiwara (1745)]

[Japanese Bathhouse]

[Paul Gauguin: Siesta (1894)]

[Paul Gauguin: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? (1897-98)]

It isn't so much whether they got it right or not - whether their interpretations of one of the most ancient and subtle cultures in the world were technically correct. From our point of view, what matters is how inspiring this new and radically simplified vision of the world was to Western artists. The japanese artist's eye seemed (at any rate) frank, objective, and non-judgemental.

And that turned out to be the case with Japanese poetry, also.

Which brings us to haiku, the standard Japanese form of verse. These are three-line poems designed to crystallise a great deal of experience in miniature:

5 syllables: The first cold shower
7 syllables: and even the monkey wants
5 syllables: a little straw coat

There's also tanka (or waka), a more ancient form, which actually gave rise to haiku in the first place:

5 syllables: Although I am sure
7 syllables: that he will not be coming
5 syllables: in the evening
7 syllables: when the locusts shrilly call
7 syllables: I go to the door and wait

Then there's renga, or linked verse, and haibun: a mixture between verse and prose.

There are two main techniques at work in traditional haiku:
  1. two objects or things should be contrasted or set side-by-side
  2. there should be a seasonal word or reference somewhere in the poem

So, to conclude, there's always been a strong connection between pictures and poetry. I began this section with a quote from the Latin poet Horace's treatise on the Art of Poetry. English poetry, too, began with a strong visual component in the form of kennings - a set of codified riddles intended to make one visualise one thing in terms of another.






Slaughter-dew worm-dance
Spear-din dancer


Workshop 8

Maxwell Armfield: Oxford Circus Underground Station (1905)

Week 9:

Workshop 8

Group 1: Peer Reviews.
Group 1: poems returned, with corrections and provisional grades.
Distribute Group 2 poems.

Poetry Exercise 3: Petals on a wet, black bough
(Ezra Pound)

Matsuo Bashō was a seventeenth-century Japanese poet, who specialised in Haiku, a verse form with very strict rules and conventions (3 lines; 5 syllables / 7 syllables / 5 syllables; a seasonal reference).

However, Bashō himself wrote to one of his disciples:
Even if you have three or four extra syllables, or even five or seven, you needn't worry as long as it sounds right. But if even one syllable is stale in your mouth, give it all of your attention.

- Matsuo Bashō, Narrow Road to the Interior and Other Writings. Trans. Sam Hamill. Boston: Shambhala, 2000): xxvi-vii.

Modern Haiku poets have therefore discarded many of these conventions, especially the syllable count.
  • Go out of the classroom for ten minutes.
  • In that time, you must find three images.
  • Come back and write them down.
  • Turn each one into a 3-line haiku, trying to portray the image itself as vividly as you can.
  • Each poem should convey a particular feeling: joy, sadness, humour – something you want to communicate through the picture.

Next week:

  • Group 3: Workshop Poems Due. Bring sufficient copies for the entire class

  • Group 2: Peer Reviews


Lecture 8

[Ezra Pound]

Week 8:

Lecture 8

Poetry: Storytelling



I love the swift leap of a good story, the excitement that often commences in the first sentence, the sense of beauty and mystery found in the best of them; and the fact – so crucially important to me back at the beginning and now still a consideration – that the story can be written and read in one sitting. (Like poems!)

– Raymond Carver

We've already looked at Raymond Carver's fiction a couple of lectures ago (the story "Cathedral"), but let's just note here how little distinction he makes between poems and short stories. He wrote both, in fact, with equal success.

He's not the only poet to concentrate on storytelling, though. The ancient epic poets, Homer and Virgil, were concerned above all with narrative. So were their successors in the Middle Ages, Dante and Chaucer.

Perhaps one way of thinking about the difference between a poem and short story is to see the first as a photograph and the second as a painting. Painters, like Wyndham Lewis below, have to understand a huge amount about their medium before they can even start to express an individual point of view. Similarly, a painting requires a great deal of labour: blocking in shapes, filling in colours, refining details. Lewis would have spent months on the portrait below, of his friend Ezra Pound.

Wyndham Lewis: Ezra Pound (1939)

A photograph, by contrast, is all about seizing the chance of the moment. There are many great photographs by amateurs, classic images snapped by chance. Nevertheless, most good photographs are taken by skilled photographers simply because they invest more time and trouble in their art. They're there, loaded and ready, when the chance presents itself - they're better at predicting where lightning will strike because they've been there before.

Of course there's a great deal more to the art of photography than chance and happenstance, and the analogies between a photographic and a painted portrait are much more striking than the divergences. Nevertheless, just as telling long stories in verse rather than prose seems a little unnecessary in the age of the novel, similarly painting completely realistically seemed a bit redundant in the age of the photograph.

Late nineteenth and twentieth century painting evolved away from realism because it didn't seem necessary to compete with the absolute precision of the photograph. Late nineteenth and twentieth century poetry, similarly, has moved from longer to shorter poems. Why duplicate, with much difficulty, what can be done with supreme ease in another medium? When modern poetry tells stories, they tend to be short, they tend to be multi-layered, and they tend to be very very condensed - that's the edge it still retains over prose.

Richard Avedon: Ezra Pound (1958)