Read and respond: a poetry exercise

During Room To Write, a recent weekend writing workshop at the Ceridwen Centre, our tutor Sara-Jane Arbury set an interesting poetic exercise.

Her exercise involved reading a famous poem, and then writing a response to it. The response could take the form of a letter, a poem, a monologue – whatever form you liked.

Sara-Jane said the exercise was inspired by Answering Back, by Carol Ann Duffy. This is an anthology of poetry written by living poets who were asked to respond to poetry from the past.

Here is the poem I chose, and my response:

What Happens

It has happened
and it goes on happening
and will happen again
if nothing happens to stop it.

The innocent know nothing
because they are too innocent.
The guilty know nothing
Because they are too guilty.

The poor do not notice
because they are too poor.
And the rich do not notice
because they are too rich.

The stupid shrug their shoulders
because they are too stupid.
And the clever shrug their shoulders
because they are too clever.

The young do not care
because they are too young.
And the old do not care
because they are too old.

That is why nothing happens to stop it.
And that is why it has happened
And goes on happening
And will happen again.

(Erich Fried, translated)

A response to “What Happens” by Erich Fried

It will happen
And is happening now
And has always happened,
If you happened to notice.

The innocent know nothing
Because there is nothing to know,
The guilty know nothing
Because there is nothing to know.

The poor might not notice
If they’re busy being poor,
The rich might not notice
If they’re busy being rich.

The stupid and the clever shrug their shoulders –
That’s okay.
The young and the old do not care,
And that’s okay too.

If you say nothing happens
To change things
Then you yourself
Have noticed nothing.

It is happening.

It is happening.

Whether you care,
Or you know,
Or you notice,
It is happening.

Slowly.

(Lyndi Smith, May 2011)

This was an excellent exercise to do. I really enjoyed the technical challenge of emulating the structure while putting across an entirely different opinion.

My favourite example that Sara-Jane gave us was Benzamin Zephaniah’s response to If by Rudyard Kipling.

Zephaniah’s is called What If and begins “If you can keep your money when governments about you Are losing theirs and blaming it on you…”

It’s brilliant. A very clever, modern take on Kipling’s classic. Check it out.

And why not have a go yourself at reading and responding to a poem?

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