Could you be one of the Bletchley set? Poet So Mayer takes us into the Bletchley Park archives and invites young poets everywhere to try a number of cleverly coded writing exercises. Write in response to one or more of these, or simply write a poem inspired by the work at Bletchley Park and email us with your work for the chance to be published in an anthology!
Bletchley Park is no ordinary place – and this is no ordinary poetry challenge! During World War II, around 10,000 people worked at the park, and yet the secret remained intact for almost thirty fifty years after the end of the War. Many people now know the story of Bletchley, from films and history books that revealed the role of the codebreakers who worked around the clock to discover the secrets of intercepted German, Italian and Japanese military messages. Most German messages were encoded with the ferociously complex Enigma machine – a cipher that the Germans believed to be unbreakable.
The machines and the mathematics have been endlessly examined and marvelled over – but what would it have been like to work at the park? How did they manage such intense, high-pressure work in difficult conditions without cracking up? That question was of great concern to the senior staff at Bletchley, particularly conscious of the number of young people who had been called up.
The ingenious solutions – from UV treatment for night-shift workers to CEMA concert tours and the dozens of Park arts and social groups and societies – are on display in the current exhibition Off Duty: High Spirits in Low Times. But the Bletchley Park museum staff had to find an equally ingenious solution to telling the story, because there are few photographs, letters, diaries or papers remaining – after, all life at the Park was Top Secret!
Which is where you come in. Like the codebreakers who worked day and night in the huts, you have a mission: to bring to life their experiences. Like them, you have some messages to decode or encode (which I’ve called Sources) and some potential solutions for decoding, or encoding, them (which I’ve called Strategies). It’s up to you to choose a source and a strategy to pair up. As the codebreakers did, you might find yourself playing around before something matches up…
‘There was always someone here who was absolutely champion at whatever it was,’ recalls Kathleen Parker of the many sports teams and cultural events at Bletchley, in one of the oral histories excerpted in the exhibition. And it’s the same with this challenge… Whether you are mathematically-minded, a language lover, a history buff, a drama (or dancing) queen, artsy and crafty, sports-mad, or a musical prodigy, this poetry challenge needs you!
“We are breaking machines, have you got a pencil?”
Mavis Batey, codebreaker, quoting Dilly Knox. Hear more about Batey.
All of these strategies relate to the work, and working conditions, at Bletchley. You might want to echo conditions at Bletchley by using a paper and pencil rather than a computer – or pay tribute to the developments resulting from Bletchley technological breakthroughs by using a computer or phone. Any of the exercises can also be done using sound editing software, and/or turned into spoken word pieces.
Letters were often censored to stop sensitive information being leaked – so you might get a letter that had words blacked out. Missing or mangled words were also a challenge facing the codebreakers as they decoded messages.
But this could also be a creative strategy: once you’ve chosen your Source, cross out words to produce a new text with a different meaning. You might decide to cross out all the verbs, or every tenth word, or any word that includes the letter B or P: come up with your own rule and apply it strictly.
That might produce a poignant letter home full of unspoken words, or you might find – by chance – hidden messages that relate to Bletchley’s history.
Once you have your censored text, you could leave it as it stands. You could repeat your process with another source, and combine the two. You could record the text, playing with repetitions and effects. You could take the remaining words and, using only those words, write a new poem that speaks about the feeling of keeping secrets.
Sample: in The ms of m y kin, Janet Holmes erased words from the poems of Emily Dickinson, and uncovered Dickinson’s secret thoughts about the American Civil War. Read three of the erased poems here.
A set of rotors and a plugboard on the Enigma machine meant that every time an operator pressed a letter key, a different letter on the lampboard lit up. The Bletchley codebreakers, using a combination of inspired guess work, mathematical calculations and technological innovations, used specially adapted British Typex machines to reverse the encryption process.
A poem can work similarly! You could use a procedure called n+7, first used by poet Jean Lescure who was part of Oulipo, a group of post-war writers committed to “potential literature” generated using exercises, puzzles and equations.
n+7 works by replacing each noun in a text with the seventh one following it in the dictionary. You can use any dictionary, or experiment with mixing up different ones: a children’s dictionary, for example. Choose your Source, identify the nouns, and look them up.
To add to the Bletchley element, you might look up the nouns in your Source text in a dictionary in another language (one you know or one you don’t), count on seven nouns, and then either use the German/Italian/Japanese (or French, Arabic, Polish, etc) word – or translate it back into English.
Once you have your coded text, you might decide to keep it as it is. You could record the poem, using different languages. You might take the new nouns you’ve generated and write a new poem using them that addresses the feeling of living through a war: you might think about issues such as ‘fake news’ and propaganda.
Sample: American poet Susan Schultz has been applying n+7 to the (often confusing) pronouncements of Donald J. Trump: do they make more or less sense after the procedure? You can read them on her blog.
(Mens Sana in) Corpore (Sano)!
Sports clubs were popular at Bletchley based on the idea of “mens sana in corpore sano”: a healthy mind in a healthy body. Dance classes and dance parties were particularly popular for the Bletchley-ites: Pamela McRoberts remembers dancing to the world-famous musician Glenn Miller at the American airforce base at Morley. Ballet Rambert became the first ever ballet company to perform in Bletchley town, drawing capacity crowds on VE Day (12 May 1945). But most of the dance at Bletchley wasn’t about expertise – it was about enthusiasm!
Choose one of the Sources and select 5-10 key words as ‘filters’, which you’ll keep in mind while you’re moving. Then choose a dance form – you might go to a class, go to a club, or dance in your room alone or with a friend. Seated dancing is totally included!
While you’re dancing, think about what it would be like to dance in uniform? Close your eyes (when it’s safe to do so) and think about moving in a black-out. What would it be like to dance during an air-raid siren? How would the sound feel in your body? Does it change your breathing? Does it feel like you could crack a code with your feet or wheels? Are your dance moves like the tapping of keys? What would it be like to dance with someone if you couldn’t tell them what you did at work?
After you’ve done your corpore practice, make some notes. You might write the 5-10 key words in circles on a big sheet of paper, and then mind-map ideas, phrases and images in relation to them. You might use the key words to compose acrostics, or as titles for short stanzas, sections or prose poems.
You could write your poem as a dramatic monologue in the voice of a Bletchley Park worker, or you could imagine yourself transported there. Or you might use terms from a dance form (such as this ballet dictionary) to think about the order and discipline, both military and intellectual, that was part of Bletchley life.
Sample: This exercise is based on CAConrad’s (Soma)tic Poetry, where your body is a channel for the poem. You can see examples here.
A problem shared is a problem halved, as they say: the work at Bletchley was very collaborative, with teams working closely together within each hut, and each part of the operation depending on other parts.
You might decide that your strategy will be to team up with one or more friends and collaborate on any of these strategies: for example, you could each experiment with ‘filling in’ the missing/deleted words from the each other’s censored texts; the second person could run an n+7 procedure on the first person’s coded text; or you could share your corpore mindmaps and create a ‘partner dance’ from the words and ideas.
On the online Roll of Honour, there are 164 Bletchley Park veterans with transcripts available, so you can read the oral histories they gave of their time at the park.
Some veterans, such as Moira Beaty, provided in-depth memoirs that include accounts of their off-duty, as well as on-duty, life.
Below you can listen to some of the oral histories excerpted in the exhibition, including some poems written and read by Bletchley Park workers:
Kathleen Parker: “from that point of view, from the government point of view, it was run more or less like an Army unit.”
Jane Fawcett: “I was a very keen member of the Scottish Reel club, and people really took that seriously.”
Betty Lawrie: “I think that I shall never see / A site so curious as BP.”
Rolf Noskwith: “My object all sublime, I shall achieve in time / To make civilians toe the line, civilians toe the line.”
Shirley Wheeldon: “I loved to go to the American dances because at the American dances we used to have ice cream.”
Books and plays
There was a well-stocked library of fiction and non-fiction at Bletchley Park, but there are certain texts that stand out – and those are the plays chosen by the Bletchley Park Drama Group. There are programmes in the exhibition for many plays, including William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night, and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. All three of them are about groups of young people falling in and out of love. Much Ado is especially poignant, as it’s about young men returning from war.
You might already know some or all of these plays, or not, but they should be easy to find in a library. Here’s a sample scene from Much Ado that might have resonated with the performers at the Park – but you could draw on any of the material in each play, or mix them together.
Much Ado About Nothing Act 2, Scene 1: Beatrice talks in enigmas at the masked ball.
Why, he is the prince’s jester: a very dull fool;
only his gift is in devising impossible slanders:
none but libertines delight in him; and the
commendation is not in his wit, but in his villany;
for he both pleases men and angers them, and then
they laugh at him and beat him. I am sure he is in
the fleet: I would he had boarded me.
When I know the gentleman, I’ll tell him what you say.
Do, do: he’ll but break a comparison or two on me;
which, peradventure not marked or not laughed at,
strikes him into melancholy; and then there’s a
partridge wing saved, for the fool will eat no
supper that night.
Bletchley-ites loved to write parodies and pastiches of popular songs from the era (as well as dancing to them), with lyrics that referred to the life of the Park – full of slang words, in-jokes and acronyms.
If you have Spotify, you can listen to a playlist of iconic songs from across Europe that were popular during the war. Or you can listen to Elinor Florence’s Top Ten Wartime Tunes (all English language).
You can often find the lyrics for songs online, or you might decide to transcribe them yourself. If you don’t speak the language of the song, you might decide to transliterate them: write down the English words that sound closest to what you’re hearing, even if the lines appear nonsensical. This was a poetic technique used by Modernist writers such as Louis Zukofsky!
‘Human error is really a key part of the story’: that’s what one of the exhibition curators told me. So feel free to mix it up, make mistakes, change your mind and do several takes – that’s how the Enigma code was cracked.
Keep calm and carry on!
Selected poets from each age category will be published on Young Poets Network and sent an exclusive Young Poets Network notebook as well as poetry and Bletchley Park goodies. Selected winning poems will also be distributed in Bletchley Park and published in an anthology. Poems will be judged by So Mayer, who set the challenge.
How to enter
This challenge is for writers aged up to 25 based anywhere in the world. The deadline is midnight, Sunday 11 November 2018. You can send a poem written down, or a recording as a video or as an audio file. You can send as many poems as you like. Your poem must be written entirely or mostly in English.
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 poems to email@example.com with your name, date of birth/age, gender, and the county (or, if you’re not from the UK, the country) you live in and the subject line ‘Bletchley Park challenge’. If you are aged 12 or younger on 11 November 2018, you will need to ask a parent/guardian to complete this permission form; otherwise, unfortunately we cannot consider your entry. This is due to new data protection laws.
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; any information you do/don’t give will not affect your chances of winning.
By entering, you give permission for Young Poets Network, The Poetry Society and Bletchley Park to reproduce your poem in print and online in perpetuity, though copyright remains with you. Please do be sure to check through the general Terms and Conditions for YPN challenges as well.
For teachers submitting students’ work:
We welcome entries from whole classes of young people submitted by their teacher. We hope teachers will use and adapt the stimulus above to enable young people to create some really fantastic poems. Please use this class entry form when entering your students’ poems.
So Mayer is a writer and activist. <jacked a kaddish>, a chapbook of poems concerned with technology, gender and mourning in the interwar years, is forthcoming form Litmus Publishing in November 2018. So’s previous collections include (O) (Arc, 2015), kaolin, or How Does a Girl Like You Get To Be a Girl Like You? (Lark Books, US, 2015) and signs of the sistership (with Sarah Crewe, Knives, Forks and Spoons, 2013). They review regularly for The Poetry Review, and co-edited the anthologies Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot (English PEN, 2012), Binders Full of Women (2012) and Glitter is a Gender (Contraband, 2014).