Poem of the North

Fifty years of the Northern Poetry Library


The  Poem of the North blog is a discussion point for poetry and all things poetical, the North and Northern-ness – and anything library-related.

Photo by Melanie Ashby

On (not) charting the song of North

As Poem of the North approaches its final stretch I have been reflecting on the ideas we developed when planning its trajectory. It was always in the mix that I, in my role as Northern Poetry Library lead poet, would write the final 8-2-1, and I imagined riffing off the opening instalment, even though we didn’t know back then what it would be. When John Challis delivered his part, ‘North’, and Poem of the North got underway I remember thinking: well, that’ll be OK – I’ll revisit the compass iteration of north and tie the whole thing up while somehow transforming his directional and geographical imagery into a closing coda for Canto 5. Sounds good, job done.

As so many of us know, however, writing a good poem is never easy and it is nearly always a mistake to explicitly chart a course before setting off. It’s good to have a sketchy idea, but so often planning can be restrictive: setting up your stall too soon can block thematic strands and strangle the life out of the thing you are imagining into being. Such is the nature of poetry.

While I may have dreamed up the original concept of the 8-2-1, I have found writing one, especially this final one, to be extremely challenging. But isn’t poetic form a plan of sorts – a blueprint, a set of way markers or road signs that show you the path in a two-dimensional, unpopulated version, without colour, sound or fury? For me, form is chart and placeholder, but it is not a set of simple instructions. You can’t flatpack a poem with some form rules and expect great things to follow automatically. Poetry is an elusive mix of the utterly known and totally mysterious, and what the 8-2-1 allowed was a mapped-out space that helped in the exploration of such a vast subject (“North”).

As I came to write this last poem, I couldn’t help but remember the place where I was born and raised. That place runs through me like a watermark through paper, and the image of the banjo and the pie man are huge signifiers of the personal history of my North. I was also hugely inspired by the forty-nine poems that preceded mine – each voice held within Poem of the North helped me see my version more clearly. The idea of song and chorus came from the sheer pleasure and feelings that arose as I edited the whole artwork with my friend, colleague and fellow poet Jo Colley. A real honour.

To close the whole project we are holding a digital celebration that will include all the poets and every reader supporter who wants to take part, and brings together all ‘four corners’ of our North.

Watch this space, we will be telling you more very soon….

Lisa Matthews – one third of the Poem of the North team – is a poet, writing scholar and collaborative artist. Inspired by her previous career in libraries and information services she devised the 8-2-1 form. Her fourth collection of poetry Callisto (Red Squirrel Press, June 2018) is her first made entirely of prose poems.


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