Jo Shapcott: Advice for Young Poets

Jo Shapcott gives her tip on writing longer poems, and answers your questions.

‘I Tell The Bees’ is the first in a series of six poems written by Jo Shapcott as part of the City of London Festival 2010. Bees were a theme, with bee music and bee art…There are a lot of brilliant books and pictures about bees, and Jo found the use of small talismans like a bee pencil could help to inspire her when writing the poems. One of the things she learned is the tradition that whenever a beekeeper dies, the family must go down to the beehive and tell the bees, otherwise the bees will fly away. The poems have been published in the current edition of Poetry Review (Volume 101:1 Spring 2011).

Jo talks about reading John Keats as a teenager. Keats is one of the best-known Romantic poets. His former home near Hampstead Heath in London is now a museum and a young writers’ group  meets there monthly. You can find out more about the Keats House Group on our Poetry Opportunities Page.

Drawing of Keats
by David Sparshott

When answering Ameerah Anjanee’s question about finding the “wonderous detail” Jo talks about Elizabth’s Bishop’s metaphor of gas turned low. This is from a poem called ‘The Bight’ where the sea’s interaction with the shore is described:

“Absorbing, rather than being absorbed,
the water in the bight doesn’t wet anything,
the color of the gas flame turned as low as possible.”

Born in Massachusetts, Elizabeth Bishop has been hailed as one of the greatest 20th century poets. She was a close friend of another famous poet Marianne Moore. Bishop travelled widely in the US and Europe, and spent 15 years in Brazil. Unlike other women poets at that time, she rarely wrote about her personal life. There is a selection of Bishop’s work freely available on the Poetry Foundation’s website.

Jo Shapcott says the favourite of her own poems is ‘Rosa Gallica’, one of her versions of Rilke’s poems which were published in Tender Taxes. Rilke (1875-1926) is one of the most important lyric poets in the German language and has been widely translated. You can listen to Shapcott reading her poem ‘Rosa Gallica’ on the Writers at Warwick Audio Archive.
The Rattle Bag, which was amongst Jo’s suggested reading, is an anthology of poems chosen by Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney. It was a tremendous success when first published in 1982 and is still very popular. It was designed to be a great introduction and selection of favourites, giving a very broad range of poems from different times and places including translations. Also the poems are arranged by alphabetical order of title! This not only means that it is easy to find your favourites, but that poems which are not usually read together are thrown next to each other.
For her favourite poem Jo chose John Donne’s ‘The Good-Morrow’. Donne was an English poet who lived from 1572 to 1631, crossing over between the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I. He is part of a group called the metaphysical poets who wrote lyrical poems, with inventive and surprising metaphors. Donne is famous for being bit of a Jack-the-lad early in his life, when he also produced much of his love poetry. He even went as far as eloping with his employer’s ward and was sent to prison for it. Later in life he became a reformed character, was appointed the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral and wrote some astonishing religious poetry.

Jo Shapcott

Jo Shapcott is a poet, editor, and lecturer. Her work has been awarded the Forward Prize, a Cholmondeley Award and her latest book of poems, Of Mutability, was overall winner of the 2010 Costa Prize.

Published April, 2011

6 thoughts on “Jo Shapcott: Advice for Young Poets

  1. I love Pissflower too, Sherrie! =D It wavers so much between beauty and comedy that you can’t decide on either! 🙂

    I admit I have difficulty writing long poems -_-‘. I’m scared they’ll be clunky if they get too long. I’ll try this tip out! 🙂 *gathers courage*

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