Pie Corbett: Poems with Constraint

Those who do not write might expect that creativity starts with the blank page. However, writing with constraint, under specific instruction, pattern or imposition, often liberates creativity. The trick is to make sure that the constraint does not limit the possibilities but acts as a way of opening up, providing a scaffold rather like a coat-hanger for ideas.

Whilst I love the ballads of Charles Causley, as a model for writing they provide too sophisticated a challenge for almost every primary child. However, writing a number poem from 1 to 10 which uses alliteration is enough of a challenge to generate writing that demands thought:

One white walrus waggles a weary wand at a wonderful washerwoman.

Two testy trains tried to tackle a tremendous, tantalising tin of tomatoes.

 A moment ago, neither the walrus nor the washerwoman existed but the constraint forced me to sift ideas, dredge my mind for alliterative possibilities and use the underlying sentence pattern to bring something new into being.

Alphabets offer a structure that releases ideas as the pattern is sufficiently simple for everyone to use. This list is based on advice for a hobbit on an adventure:

Avoid alleyways which may appear useful as an avenue of escape but almost invariably are dark, poorly lit and have robbers waiting.

Bridges are usually manned by bridge elves and may have aggressive trolls underneath.

Caverns and caves offer shelter. However, goblins and dragons live underground…

The 1960’s OuLiPo movement used mathematical formula to produce strange and rather dull writing. However, adopting a writing form such as a recipe can liberate. This extract is from a recipe for the desire for beauty by Beth, year 6.

Pick an eyelash from Aphrodite’s lemon hair.

Grab a pair of emerald frog’s legs so you can leap Mount Olympus,

Rip a page out of Tom Riddle’s diary full of blankness and mystery,

Grind the lime tangled vines that reach out from the corners of your room…

Alongside the constraint of a recipe format, another challenge in this poetry workshop was to ‘name it’. This shifts from the general to the particular so that ‘an eyelash from your hair’ becomes ‘an eyelash from Aphrodite’s hair’. It is the difference between, ‘the man got in the car’ and ‘Boris Johnson got into the Skoda’. ‘Naming it’ helps to strengthen an image.

Another popular constraint requires the writer to write a passage and then swap all the nouns or verbs for fruit or vegetables. So that, ‘I woke up this morning, climbed out of my bed and brushed my teeth before running down the stairs’ becomes ‘I appled up this morning, lemoned out of my bed and pineappled my teeth before bananaing down the stairs’ or ‘I woke up this marrow, climbed out of my potato and brushed my runner beans before running down the cucumber’. What fun!

A recent and more challenging idea that I have been playing with involves exploring how one thing leads to another – poetic inevitability.

As a result of dark clouds – snowmen gather at dusk.

As a result of snowmen – no carrots for lunch.

As a result of lunch – empty fridge.

As a result of empty fridge – trip to supermarket.

As a result of supermarket – plastic wrappings in bin.

As a result of plastic – dead dolphin.

As a result of dolphin – sewn sea.

As a result of sea – dark clouds above.

The success of a poetry writing session is not just about an interesting idea, model or constraint – it also hinges around 3 key conditions: a class brainstorm; share write a class poem; and children writing in silence with a time-limit to create a sense of meditative concentration.

Pie Corbett

Pie Corbett’s latest collection ‘Catalysts’ has over 130 catalyst poems that act as models, offering patterns and constraints for writing. Ideal for primary schools and anyone interested in writing. Available from: https://shop.talk4writing.com/products/catalysts-poems-for-writing