Writing poetry on location

Painters-Palette-at-the-Ready-by-cobalt123Painter’s Palette at the Ready by cobalt123

Phoebe Thomson, a former Foyle Winner, introduces the first of our four August challenges – a month of vivid and varied reading and writing tasks from Foyle Young Poets to get you inspired! This challenge asks you to write a poem on location.

“If we trust our eyes and not our preconceived ideas of what things ought to look like… we shall make the most exciting discoveries” – E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art

In the 1800s, French artists began to work ‘en plein air’ – in the open air– whereas artists had traditionally worked in the studio. This shift required a whole new set of technical skills, and led to a whole new style of work.

Painters had to paint far more quickly than the ‘Old Masters’ who had preceded them, with little time to mix the perfect colour or to refine their original lines. The resulting paintings are lively and instant, creating the ‘impression’ of a moment.

Claude Monet, one of these artists, actually required that “all painting of nature must actually be finished on the spot”.

Poetry can speak as eloquently as paintings can, and can capture a place and an instant as beautifully. Poetry of place is an ancient tradition, and a landscape is often used as a physical metaphor, representing anything from state of mind to state of politics.

Read through these beautiful poems which describe places and scenes, whether fictional or real:

the afternoon sun warms
the linseed field. The flowers are quiet

from ‘The Emerald Mosque on the Hill’ by Raza Ali Hasan

They have watered the street,
It shines in the glare of lamps,
Cold, white lamps,
And lies
Like a slow-moving river

from ‘A London Thoroughfare. 2A.M.‘ by Amy Lowell

The grey sky, lighter & darker
lights between & delicate
lavenders also
blue-greys in smaller strokes,
& swashes
of mauve-grey on the Hudson —

from ‘That Bright Grey Eye‘ by Hilda Morley

synoptic wind
surges across this hillside
honeycombed with mineshafts

from ‘In the North‘ by Devin Johnston

prados flourishing in prickle-weed, esplanades
no longer level enough to collect rainwater

from ‘Port Royal‘ by C. Dale Young

These poems conjure up completely different atmospheres. But very few poems are insistently written ‘on the spot’. I know that I, like many poets, usually write from memory. This often creates a more studied, less instant poem. At art college I was taught to draw from life, and on location. But recently, I have decided to transfer my location drawing to poetry.

The challenge!

I challenge you to write a poem on location. Sit on the bus, in a wood, in a museum, in a field, at the make-up counter, on the street, in a market, in a butcher’s shop. Anywhere you like (or even where you don’t, that can make an even more interesting poem). And write down everything you see, as you observe it.

I like to start with a couple of exercises, and sometimes you get a really good poem out of them. Why not try one or more of the following:

1. First of all, to ‘warm up’, try writing a poem in a single minute. Prepare by looking around you, remembering that “If we trust our eyes and not our preconceived ideas of what things ought to look like… we shall make the most exciting discoveries.”

Time yourself and try not to do anything to change it once it is written.

Here’s my example, written in the garden:

Washed white clothes
Fly tizzying
Breeze bopping poppies
Apple tree sway
Hot paving

2. Another exercise is to work with the sounds that you hear. Draw your surroundings with sound. You don’t have to list them, as I did, you can use sounds in any way you like.

I wrote this one on the tube:

Gloomy cough, abrupt
train wail
Stand clear of the closing doors,
suitcase grind on floor,
police address a man,
what’s going on?
train arrives,
clatter-in din
a break-cry,

3. Do the same with each sense, list the smells, sounds, sights, tastes, and feelings of a place.

4. If there are people where you are, sketch them in. They might be loose, peripheral figures in the background of your poem, or they might be the most striking thing in an environment.

5. Work from the foreground to the background in a list. Describe the scene from the very closest thing to you, it might be touching you, and then work away from you.

So, for me in my garden it was:

Bench beneath me,
Sunlight shadows, stark,
cast by drying washing,
looming pots of blooms,
a garden chair,
a compost bin,
brick wall,
another garden.

Now you’ve warmed up, do as you wish. Write on location however you like. You might like to use extracts from the warm-up exercises. You can still set rules for yourself (timed poems, poems of only one sense). The only thing you must be sure of is that your poem is written on location. Enjoy yourself, you can always edit later!


The winners will be published on Young Poets Network and receive one of our exclusive notebooks!

How to enter

The challenge is now closed – but you can read the amazing winners and be inspired to write your own poem to submit to one of our Poetry Opportunities!

‘National Park’ by Alex Greenberg

‘Sunless Beach’ by Jake Reynolds

‘Northern Place’ by Freya Metcalfe

‘Summer Storm in a Village’ by Damayanti Chatterjee

‘Plateau’ by Lindsay Emi

‘to solitude! waving! carrying flowers! Down to the river!’ by Eliana Benaim



Phoebe Thomas

Phoebe Thomson is 18 and has just finished an art foundation course, where she specialised in graphic design. She is hoping to study English at Cambridge this autumn. Phoebe was a Foyle Young Poet of the Year in 2013. 


Published August, 2014

2 thoughts on “Writing poetry on location

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *