Penfro Poets: Workshop 3




Workshop 3:   Open Field Composition


We started out in the autumn looking at one of the most traditional forms in English poetry: the sonnet. Working with the sonnet, a tension arises between adhering to our sense of its ‘rules’ of composition and desiring to express something new and vital – not hackneyed, not doggerel. So, while drawing on the traditional prosody, we also attempted, in various ways, to bring our own experience or our own voice to our compositions. So, standing back, we might see the act of composing a sonnet as involving a tension between our individual voice, arising from our experience, and a cultural formation that is ‘given’ to us. In the early 20th century, Modernist poets experimented with breaking away from traditional poetic form, trying in various ways to invent new poetic forms that arose from emotional content or that more closely reflected the condition of modernity. In 1950, Charles Olson wrote an essay called ‘Projective Verse,’ in which he states that: ‘The trouble with most work […] since breaking away from traditional lines and stanzas […] is contemporary workers go lazy RIGHT HERE WHERE THE LINE IS BORN.’ He continues:


Let me put it baldly. The two halves are:

the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE.

the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE.


In his own poetry he employs a large amount of found text, and his work is closely allied to that of the American objectivists, who were at the opposite end of the spectrum from the confessional poets, and sometimes wrote entire volumes using only found text. (E.g. Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony.)

He emphasises the importance of ‘breath,’ because it ‘allows all the speech-force of language in.’ What intrigues me, is that we find in his writing and the writing of poets who influenced him or he in turn influenced, a new combination of the objective and the subjective. Taking found texts, the poet brings to his materials the individual, unique qualities of his own voice. This could be seen as just another example of American individualism, but it’s also a result of DNA. We all have unique somatic rhythms: our heart beat, our breathing, the pace of our thoughts and speech are never uniform, but vary ꟷ even if ever so slightly ꟷ from individual to individual.



So, there’s a set of paradoxes here. The object of the workshop was to create poetic texts that involve drawing / dance of words, our individual pace of heart beat and breathe. (So highly individualised text). Yet, at the same time, to compose poems that employ objets trouvés or found texts.

For the benefit of those members who didn’t attend the workshop, a month prior to the workshop, I sent out the following instruction: ‘please could you collect words, phrases, or whole sentences about the season of spring? These can be snatches of overheard conversation, transcriptions of weather forecasts, snippets of descriptions of spring or writers’ responses to spring culled from books or online articles, etc. Anything at all, but preferably not your own words! Please bring them along to the meeting.’ Then, I gave the following instructions when we moved into the practical writing session.

  • Without pausing to consciously consider what you write, write for three minutes beginning with the following phrase: ‘That was the Spring, I/we ………’.
  • From your found texts: keep one or two, swap one with someone else, and choose one or two at random from the pile.
  • Draft a poem, using all these elements on rough paper.
  • Arrange your draft poem on large sheets of sugar paper, trying to use punctuation marks, symbols, blank spaces, line breaks, line indents, etc. to notate how it sounds in your head, in your specific voice.


I also supplied the following handout, which we discussed first. It includes a quotation from Olson’s ‘Projective Verse’ that suggests how the poet can use the precision of the typewriter to ‘notate’ his/her prosody like a musical score. Our discussions about this considered, amongst other things, how we might use the wider range of symbols available on digital media, including emotion icons. As an example, I gave a well–known poem by e. e. cummings that arguably follows these principles. I’m now adding to it the text of a poem by Geoffrey Chaucer, a poet whom Olson praises for attending to the ‘music’ of the whole poetic line and not using considerations of form as an excuse for sloppiness. Chaucer and cummings both offer models of poets who attend to the syllables as well as the line, despite their different prosodic styles.

We also looked at a haiku by Edwin Morgan that I thought we might read in the light of Olson’s comments. However, I think this probably just muddied the waters, since when we tried to read it out loud, the group concluded that it was more of a concrete poem than a projective verse. So, I’ll bring that one back next time for us to think a bit more about the difference between trying to write projective verse and concrete verse.



for Workshop on Open Field Composition


[F]rom the machine has come one gain not yet sufficiently observed or used, but which leads directly on towards projective verse and its consequences. It is the advantage of the typewriter that, due to its rigidity and its space precisions, it can, for a poet, indicate exactly the breath, the pauses, the suspensions even of syllables, the juxtapositions even of parts of phrases, which he intends. For the first time the poet has the stave and the bar a musician has had. For the first tie he can, without the convention of rime and meter, record the listening he has done to his own speech and by that one act indicate ow he would want any reader, silently or otherwise, to voice his work.

It is time we picked the fruits of the experiments of Cummings, Pound, Williams, each of whom has, after his way, already used the machine as a scoring to his composing, as a script to its vocalisation. It is now only a matter of the recognition of the conventions of composition by field for us to bring into being an open verse as formal as the closed, with all its traditional advantages.

If a contemporary poet leaves a space as long as the phrase before it, he means the space to be held, by the breath, an equal length of time. If he suspends a word or syllable at the end of a line (this was most Cummings’ addition) he means that time to pass that it takes the eye ꟷ that hair of time suspended ꟷ to pick up the next line. If he wishes a pause so light it hardly separates the words, yet does not want a comma ꟷ which is an interruption of the meaning rather than the sounding of the line ꟷ follow him when he uses a symbol the typewriter has ready to hand: [ / ].

Observe him, when he takes advantage of the machine’s multiple margins […]


Charles Olson. ‘Projective Verse.’ 1951.






in Just-

spring          when the world is mud-

luscious the little

lame balloonman


whistles          far          and wee


and eddieandbill come

running from marbles and

piracies and it’s



when the world is puddle-wonderful


the queer

old balloonman whistles

far          and             wee

and bettyandisbel come dancing


from hop-scotch and jump-rope and










balloonMan          whistles






e.e. cummings. from Tulips & Chimneys. 1923.



from Parliament of Fowles

Now welcome, somer, with thy sonne softe,

That hast this wintres wedres overshake,

And driven away the longe nyghtes blake!


Saynt Valentyn, that art ful hy on-lofte,

Thus syngen smale foules for thy sake:

Now welcome, somer, with thy sonne softe,

That hast this wintres wedres overshake.


Wel han they cause for to gladen ofte,

Sith ech of hem recovered hath hys make;

Ful blissful mowe they synge when they wake:

Now welcome, somer, with thy sonne softe

That hast this wintres wedres overshake

And driven away the longe nyghtes blake!

                                                                                Geoffrey Chaucer




from a 1920’s postcard: F. Ongania Editore, Venezia


Basilica di S. Marco, Venezia, General View of the Interior,  Italy, Antique c.1920 Unused Color Postcard


Basilica di San Marco in Venezia. (Postcard image). F. Ongania Editore, Venezia, circa 1920.


their sounds soared

from stone ground

up the rope pendulum

ricocheted round

your pulpit crafted from rose-gold promises

scaled your sainted dome

circled St Peter’s sacred crown


their smoke rose

troubled the gold-glass tesserae

tortured the spraddled mosaic

your glazed eternal life tree

interrogated your sculptured stones

embedded on restless salt sea


angels clogged the incense-heavy air

and silence reigned: God gone absentee


your rank of apostles watched

as Famine pinched their prayer-worn knees


your four evangelists gazed down

on the rear of the addled cross

stared through her imploring eyes

through her furrowed frown


choirs raise their Kyries, candles praise eternity,

yet knees bent, eyes lowered, all she sees

is his racked contorted bones:

your strangely-crafted sanctity.


This poem is the result of a collaborative workshop, run by Ros Watson and held by Penfro Poets at Rhosygilwen Manor on Saturday 23rd April, 2016.

Empty Saturday

Apparently, in the Christian Calendar, the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday is sometimes called ‘Empty Saturday.’ So here is a haiku for this day that sits between despair and hope in Christian mythology:


empty Saturday

a Muslim stabs a Muslim —

over religion


In memoriam much loved Glasgow shopkeeper Asad Shah.


Whatever our faiths  – or in my case Christian atheism – freedom of speech and a gesture of inter-faith good will should not be met with murder.


on March 22nd Bruxelles terror attack


there are no words left

we used them all up too soon —

not knowing worse was to come.


I should have hoarded some

for this next catastrophe.

shall I say je suis Bruxelles


say we are all victims now,

innocent casualties and

suicide bombers both?


say: yesterday I

walked by the old port & saw

still-silver dead fish

dumped on clear seabed

dulled blank eyes questioning why?


Published on I am Not a Silent Poet 24/02/16

Poem by Valerie June Hepburn, circa 1942-43



To M. Bridge

Cold mountain air sweeping thro’ the valley

Bringing life into my body

making me want to climb those fearful peaks

to stand above content to see the sight they give

Endless wealth of cloud & sky

What lies below —forgotten at my feet.


— Like this your coming to me

Making me yearn for what might be

Leaving me desolate longing for your glowing touch

Your cold eyes survey my feeble frame

And I despairing of your inner warmth

knew that the glow you bring to me

Is only warmth to me — you are

a mountain wind which heeds

not where you go.


Circa 1942-43.

Today would have been my mother’s birthday. A year after her death, I discovered a hand-written diary she kept during World War 2. The majority of entries were made during her time working in Hut 6 at Bletchley Park. However, she began the diary while still studying at the University of Glasgow. The entries from her time at university include two draft poems, of which I’m posting the more accomplished one here. Very much of her time and place, and not at all modernist in style, I find it poignant to have these traces of my mother as a young woman, still setting out on life, long before I was born. Her diary entries from the Bletchley Park years also bear witness to how young and inexperienced people like my mother were; enrolled straight from university to work there, yet thrown into the centre of the most strategically significant intelligence operation of the entire war.

In Memory of: Valerie June Dennis (née Hepburn) 5th March 1922 – 9th February 2014

When you come to stay


we’ll clamber down to Telpyn

tiny pebbled cove

find driftwood flotsam


we’ll gather bleached logs

brittle kindling sticks

start a fire in sheltered rocks


we’ll hold sizzling sausages

(butchers and veggie)

above searing flames


we’ll build jetsam towers from

plastic floats and buoys

on shifting shingles


we’ll take your wetsuits

paddle in waves’ foam

search for cockle shells in sand


If I hadn’t been facilitating the SA Stanza meeting yesterday, I might well have taken this along for workshopping. I think writing for and to children is really tricky. One tends to revert to obvious rhythms and rhymes for some reason. In the attempt to avoid doing that, I found it difficult to achieve a consistent metre. The poem is written in syllabics. Any feedback gratefully accepted with this one!

leaving Anywhere

Jo Bell’s second 52 prompt is around the theme of journeys, which led me to revise a series of haiku daily I wrote daily while travelling across Europe to Kraków last August. Here is the result.


learning Polish from

USSR magenta text book

that tries to deny

existence of Polish speech

states it’s a young language

a fly by night eruption

soon to be quelled


learning Polish from

USSR magenta text book —

the only one I can find

anywhere in Poland

twenty-seven years gone

repeating stock phrases

to get me through customs


learning to order tea & coffee

while I thump the iron

passing and repassing my sons’

shirt-cuffs, shirt-collars, shirt-fronts

and leave the sleeves to last

while I pack their lunches

tidy Lego from hearth rugs . . .




twenty-seven years gone &

entry to Poland bumpy

road so degraded

it’s not called a motorway —

for kilometres we creep

over cracks, pot-holes & past

collapsed carriageway


at least I’m not stopped

led to an airless room

questioned by weary police —

slouched over a rough-hewn desk

watched warily as my

stock of phrases fails me

as my tears creep down my cheeks


joined by his colleague

(she has rudimentary English)

pointing to my visa:

Where are your children? At home

my children wait at home

I misunderstood visa

listed their names in error —

on the minuscule baffling form


now who needs a visa?

not us crossing an

unmanned border

in forty degrees of august heat

wondering where we’ll find

the next cup of coffee or tea

to keep us alert & pert


none of the above

starts to touch terror

fear of unfamiliar —

not even unheimlich —

for first few alien days

leaving Anywhere

with no route back / no life-jacket


Before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, I visited Poland in two successive years, sponsored by the British Council. Somehow, the second time, I managed to fill out the visa application form erroneously, thinking they wanted me to included my children’s names, even though they wouldn’t be travelling with me. Returning by car to Poland last August, I remembered that moment when it seemed highly probably I would be detained at Warsaw airport until I could produce my three children, who were safely at home in the UK. We drove from south of Berlin, where we had got lost the previous night, entering Poland on the poorly maintained E36 / A18, which has been stripped of its Autostrada status for several kilometres after the border crossing. As we set off for Kraków Poland, the latest news about immigrants drowning was that search teams in the Mediterranean did not expect to find any more survivors from a boat carrying around 600 migrants which sank off Libya, and that more than 2,000 migrants had already died in 2015 trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe.