August Challenge #3: Inanimate Objects, Do You Have A Soul?

In our third August challenge this year, Foyle Young Poet Euan Sinclair asks you to imagine the inner lives of inanimate objects.

Shelves with lots of small trinkets including a ceramic cat wearing a hat, a glass geodesic cat, a thimble, a naked metal baby, an old-style gun on wheels etc
Trinkets by Andrew Malone via flickr

The challenge: write a poem(s) about, or from the perspective of, an inanimate object

As a child, inanimate objects fascinated me, especially those that were old or obsolete and spoke to me of the past. I aspired to create a museum of all the objects I’d salvaged –  fragments of china, rusty horseshoes found in the fields around my house, and tarnished spoons that no one wanted anymore. Nowadays I do less collecting and more writing, but I’m still intrigued by objects and their stories.

Perhaps this obsession with objects belongs to a part of me that’s incorrigibly materialistic and ought to be ignored – but I don’t think so. Instead, I think that inanimate objects lead mysterious lives beyond our comprehension, and that this is partly why they are so intriguing for poets. In most other forms of literature, objects are upstaged by characters or landscapes, but in poetry, they can command centre stage and sometimes even speak.

For example, in ‘Mirror’, Sylvia Plath writes from a mirror’s viewpoint, describing its surroundings and the woman who owns it. 

Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is a part of my heart. 

Plath inverts our usual way of seeing a mirror as passively reflecting the world around it: instead, the mirror here possesses both personality and agency, and is conscious of its power. 

Mirror facing away from us, casting a shadow onto the wall as it obstrcuts a narrow slit of golden light
The mirror by Cat Fung via flickr

Wislawa Szymborska also gives voice to an inanimate object in her poem ‘Conversation with a Stone’, in which the speaker stands ‘at the stone’s front door’ and implores the stone to let her in. But the stone reminds the speaker that it is impossible for her to enter:

“You may get to know me, but you’ll never know me through.
My whole surface is turned toward you,
All my insides turned away.”

Despite the poem’s droll tone, Szymborska strikes a melancholy note. Not only is the world of inanimate objects elusive, it is also difficult to write about convincingly:

“…let me come in.
…I’ll enter and exit empty-handed
And my proof I was there
Will be only words
Which no one will believe.”

The Challenge

Write a poem about an inanimate object. Write in any way you like – the most important thing is to embody the object in your poem(s) in a way that interests you. Also, don’t feel that you have to pick one object and stick with it – inspiration can come from anywhere, so it’s best to remain open to possibilities. Every object has a story to tell, especially those that seem most mundane.

Knives, spoons and forks reflecting light in a psychadelic way,lined up to meet one another on a black background

Some Ideas

Of course, you can approach this challenge in any way you like, but if I had to give one piece of advice, I’d suggest you think about detail. What details can you pick out that are specific to the object’s character? This doesn’t necessarily mean that you should inundate your reader with a stream of detail – sometimes, two or three carefully-chosen images are enough.

Another thing to consider is your choice of object. You might like to choose an object that you have a strong emotional connection with, as Anne Carson does in “Father’s Old Blue Cardigan”. However, sometimes choosing an object that you’ve never really looked at properly before can be equally rewarding –  you might be surprised by what you come up with!

Finally, here are some examples of object poems to help you with your writing.

Mirror’ by Sylvia Plath

As we’ve already seen, harnessing the voice of an inanimate object can be a great way to challenge our usual ways of seeing and experiencing everyday objects. Perhaps you’d like to choose an object and write a dramatic monologue from its perspective. Or, like Szymborska, you could imagine a dialogue between a person and an object.

‘Fork’ by Charles Simic

In this poem, Charles Simic invites us to take another look at an everyday object, the fork, and consider how peculiar it is. The poem introduces an image – that of a “bird’s foot” – and then develops it for greater effect. You could write about an ordinary object that seems bizarre to you and find an appropriate image or comparison to convey its strangeness.

‘The Tyre’ by Simon Armitage

This is a brilliantly evocative poem that moves seamlessly from description to narrative. You could do something similar and write about a memory of an object: a time you found or lost something, for example. Just because you’re writing about an object, there’s no reason why you can’t tell a story too.

‘A Carafe, that is a Blind Glass’ by Gertrude Stein

Take a look at the Gertrude Stein Challenge, which introduces Stein’s work and prompts you to write a poem about an inanimate object using Stein’s “Literary Cubism”. Stein’s work is fertile ground for inspiration and new perspectives. 

I hope you enjoy exploring the world of inanimate objects! I’m excited to read all your submissions.

Carafe au soleil by Daniel Hennemand via flickr

Prizes

This challenge will be judged by Foyle Young Poet Euan Sinclair. Selected poets will be published on Young Poets Network and sent an exclusive Young Poets Network notebook as well as poetry goodies including books and posters.

How to enter

This challenge is for writers aged up to 25 based anywhere in the world. The deadline is midnight BST, Sunday 12 September 2021. You can send a poem written down, or a recording as a video or as an audio file. If you are sending a written version of your poem, please type it into the body of your email. If you are sending a video or audio file, please attach it to the email (making sure it’s no bigger than 4MB or it won’t come through) or send us a link to where we can see/hear it.

Send your poem(s) to [email protected] with your name, date of birth/age, gender, the county (or, if you’re not from the UK, the country) you live in, and where you found out about this challenge (e.g. Twitter, YPN email etc.). In the email subject line please write ‘August challenge #3 2021’. If you are aged 12 or younger on Sunday 12 September 2021, you will need to ask a parent/guardian to complete this permission form; otherwise, unfortunately we cannot consider your entry due to data protection laws.

We welcome entries from schools and youth groups. Use this entry form to enter students from your class or group.

If you would like us to add you to the Young Poets Network mailing list, include ‘add me to the mailing list’ in the subject line of the email. If you would like us to confirm that we’ve received your entry, include ‘confirm receipt’ in the subject line. You may refuse to provide information about yourself.

By entering, you give permission for Young Poets Network and The Poetry Society to reproduce your poem in print and online in perpetuity if you are among the winning poets of this challenge, though copyright remains with you. Please do be sure to check through the general Terms and Conditions for YPN challenges as well.

If you require this information in an alternative format (such as Easy Read, Braille, Large Print or screenreader friendly formats), or need any assistance with your entry, please contact us at [email protected].

Euan Sinclair was a Foyle Young Poet in 2020. His favourite poets include W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, and Derek Walcott. As well as poetry, he enjoys writing short stories and monologues. In his spare time, he can be found wandering the Welsh countryside, singing and reciting poems to cows.”

Published August 2021

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