Waterlines: Canal Poetry


Image: ‘Gas Basin Birmingham’ by Eric Gaskell. (www.canalprints.co.uk)

Poet, Jo Bell has been appointed by the Canal & River Trust and the Poetry Society as Canal Laureate for 2013. She lives on 67ft narrowboat ‘Tinker’, travelling around the UK and currently moored on the Kennet & Avon canal in Wiltshire. Her collection Navigation includes poems about boat life and canal wildlife, and you can read more of her poems on www.waterlines.org.uk. Jo was formerly an industrial archaeologist specialising in industrial remains like mines, railways… and canals.

Jo Bell’s half term challenge invites you to get outside and observe your local stretch of waterway.

jo on canal boat 003

The canals of the UK run through our landscape like the veins that carry blood around your body. For 150 years, they brought life and vitality to every town and village in the country. Now, they bring peace and a flash of green nature to every city, and they make a corridor of birdsong through the nation. We’d love you to write about your local canal – find the nearest one on here, and read on for some ideas on the subject.

Why Canals?

When they were built in the years around 1790, the canals were ultra-modern highways. They brought cargoes inland from the great ports like Liverpool and Bristol. Moving slowly but carrying great loads, thousands of boats travelled on them. They brought coal to every factory, to power steam engines and furnaces. The canals fed fuel to the steel crucibles of Sheffield and the pottery kilns of Stoke on Trent, and then took finished goods away to new markets and back to the sea ports – so Sheffield’s cutlery and Stoke’s china cups could appear on dinner tables all over the world.

The days of industry on the canals are over. Instead they offer a glimpse of the natural world in our most built-up spaces. Somewhere near you there is probably a canal; how can you write about it well?

Seeing the Canal

CL badgeGood poetry is about noticing, I want people who already know the canals to notice how lucky we are to have them. For people who haven’t really noticed them yet, I want to show them the still green space on their doorstep, full of wildlife and histories.

The most important thing is to look at it with your own eyes, not those of previous poets. Sit or walk by the canal and really pay attention. Use the five senses – what can you hear, smell, see, touch and even taste? What are the nearby buildings or trees like? Be specific – if you can see a bird, tell us what sort of bird it is. If you can see a building, is it concrete, brick or stone? Details help your reader to share in what you are seeing.

Think about the canal as it has been in the past and as it might be in the future. What was this place like before the canal came? What was it like when dozens of men arrived with picks and shovels, to cut a line through the landscape? What was it like at the height of its industrial past, with noisy boat engines and families of boat people moving on the water? And what is it like now, with joggers and dog walkers enjoying the peace, with graffiti artists or lovers meeting under the bridges?

Writing your poem

As you write, try to avoid clichés and old phrases. Use really fresh language that reflects your own experience. Is the swan ‘white as snow’, for instance? That’s a bit of a cliché. In fact it might be white like ice-cream, white like a wall whose graffiti has been painted over, white like a meringue…. don’t be afraid to say something that might sound silly at first. If your poem doesn’t sound like anything you’ve read before – then it’s all your own.

Submitting your poems

This challenge is now closed – but why not write something in response to Jo’s challenge and send it off to one of the magazines or competitions listed in our Poetry Opportunities Page? For inspiration, read these canal poems from YPNers:

‘Untitled’ by Mariam Taha

‘Forward and Aft’ by Ailsa McDougall

‘Above the stink of green’ by Anna Thomas

‘The Old Ways’ by Martha Baldwin

‘Untitled’ by Madelaine Hanson

Published May, 2013

4 thoughts on “Waterlines: Canal Poetry

  1. I’m really new here and I don’t know how anything works, so sorry if this is a stupid question! I sent in a poem for this challenge about a month ago, before the deadline, and was just wondering when/how I’ll know if I’ve been successful.

    1. Hi Ailsa, there are no stupid questions! If your poem gets chosen, we’ll send you an email. This should be in the next couple of weeks.

    1. Hi Mike, you can still send your poems about canals to [email protected]; this is separate to the YPN challenge but still part of Waterlines, a collaboration between the Poetry Society and the Canal & River Trust.

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