Knock, knock, who’s there? Poems go visiting…


Image by zolakoma

What would happen if La Belle Dame Sans Merci met the Jabberwock? Or if the Owl and the Pussycat met Macavity the Mystery Cat? For this workshop, which gets you thinking hard about point of view, we want you to imagine a meeting between two colourful characters from poetry!

First choose your two poems. It will work best if they are poems with a powerful theme or vivid setting and characters. You might like to choose two of the following poems, or of course you can find your own.

Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll
La Belle Dame Sans Merci by John Keats
Sea Fever by John Masefield
A Subaltern’s Love Song by John Betjeman
The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear
The Lake Isle of Innisfree by W.B. Yeats
Macavity: the Mystery Cat by TS Eliot
The Listeners by Walter De La Mare

Now apply each of the following steps to each of your two poems.

Step 1

Identify the different possible points of view in your poem. For some poems, this might just be the speaker (e.g. ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’). Other poems might have:

• the speaker
• the person/people that the poem is addressed to
• other characters appearing in the poet
• other characters described in the poem

For example, in ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, you could include:

• the knight
• the Belle Dame
• one of the “pale kings and princes” who have also been ensnared

In ‘Jabberwocky’, you might list:

• the Jabberwock himself
• the man who kills the Jabberwock
• the man who is so pleased that the Jabberwock is dead
• you could also have the Jubjub bird and the Bandersnatch, who could be watching from their trees!

Step 2

Choose the point of view which interests you most. Now think about how your character feels. If you have chosen the poem’s speaker, then you will probably have some ideas already. Choose one or two and build on these.

For instance, in ‘Sea Fever’, why is the speaker so drawn to the sea? Did he or she go sailing as a child, perhaps with a beloved relative? Is he or she running away from something on land?

In ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, we know that the knight wanders “alone”, “in thrall” to the beautiful, mysterious lady. But what is he thinking now she’s gone? Is he angry with her, or just desperate to see her again? Does he sleep or eat? Or you might have chosen the point of view of the Belle Dame herself – why does she capture these men? Does she feel guilty?

In ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song’, what does Miss Joan Hunter Dunn really think of her eager suitor? Why does she agree to marry him, when she doesn’t really seem that interested in him?

Step 3

Now think about where you are. The poet will probably have described the setting to some extent – now it’s up to you to expand on that description. Bring the location to life with vivid details – small as well as large. Think about who your character is, and how they are feeling. What kind of things will they notice?

For example, in ‘The Listeners’, you might have chosen to be one of the “phantom listeners”. Where are you in the house? Perhaps you’re a child in the nursery – what can you see? Tall things like grandfather clocks will look huge. Is there anyone else with you? Perhaps your nanny and brothers and sisters used to play with you – are they still there? Can you see any of your old dolls, or the table where you used to have tea? If you are shadowy yourself, do the Traveller and his horse look really solid and warm?

In ‘Macavity: the Mystery Cat’, you might choose one of the locations in the poem, or you might invent some other place for Macavity to cause havoc in. Think about how he would see things – what valuables are in the room? What are the escape routes? Are there high surfaces to jump on to, or any dogs to avoid?

In some poems, such as ‘Sea Fever’ and ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’, the speaker is in one place and imagining another. You can choose which place you describe – in ‘The Lake Isle’, you might describe more of the beautiful island, or you might describe the place of “gray pavements” where the speaker currently lives.


Image by Dennis Yang

Step 4

Now choose which of your characters will be the visitor, and who will be receiving their ‘guest’. Perhaps Macavity will be visiting the Lake Isle of Innisfree; or Miss Joan Hunter Dunn will find herself on a ship at sea with the speaker from ‘Sea Fever’; or maybe the mysterious listeners will be transplanted to “the land where the Bong-tree grows”, to dance with the Owl and the Pussycat!

Step 5

You know your characters and their surroundings really well now, so think about how both characters will react. You might want to consider some of the following:

How do they react to the other character? Are they welcome or unwelcome? Macavity would be very unwelcome on the tranquil Lake Isle, and he would probably be very bored at first, with nothing to steal. But La Belle Dame might have been dying for some female company, and she and Miss Joan Hunter Dunn might get along like a house on fire!

Do they feel differently now they have new company? Perhaps the lonely listeners will remember how they used to dance, and show their old-fashioned steps to the Owl and the Pussycat. Perhaps the Jabberwock will find a fiendish friend in Macavity and therefore stop trying to kill people.

What kind of things will the visitor notice in this new place? The listeners would be very surprised at the modern world of tennis courts and cars in ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song’, whereas the speaker from ‘Sea Fever’ might be more upset by the absence of water and ships.

What will the host character notice about his new guest? Most of these characters would be very surprised to find a talking, dancing Owl and Pussycat in their house!

What will they talk about – do they have any shared interests, or will they talk at cross purposes? Macavity and the Pussycat might discuss their very different experiences of being a cat. The speakers of ‘Sea Fever’ and ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ might discuss their love of water and escaping the city.

What will they do together? Talk, fight, dance, drink tea, try to escape? Macavity might find Miss Joan Hunter Dunn is the wrong person to steal from, and the Jabberwock and the Belle Dame might try to destroy each other!

Step 6

Now write your poem! Have fun with all the strange things that could happen. You’ll have a fantastic list of notes to choose from – is there another poem in there?

Once you’ve done this workshop, you might like to try and write a poem where you invent two radically different characters and imagine them meeting. Think about the different points of view you have explored in this workshop, and how these affect the language you choose and the descriptions you write.

Submitting your poems

This challenge is now closed for submissions, though you could always write a poem in response to the workshop and send it off to one of the opportunities on our Poetry Opportunities Page. Read through these poems for inspiration!

The Widow’s Bed by Christie Suyanto

may meets the jabberwocky by Anna Leader

Blind Date by Stephi Stacey

Published December, 2012

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