Top Poet

Kei Miller - 15 February 2010

I have these little guilty pleasures – shows that I occasionally watch obsessively. My latest phase is the American reality TV show, Top Chef where some rather accomplished chefs compete week by week, creating dishes, all in the hopes to walk away with the Top Chef title in the end. It’s fascinating stuff, but perhaps most worryingly is how it changes my cooking habits – and the number of pretensions and affectations it produces in me – like donating all my round plates to charity, because I suddenly found them clichéd, and spending an inordinate time plating my dinner before eating it, trying to get that perfect swoosh of the sauce on the side of the plate.

But pretensions aside, I appreciate how one art often helps us to appreciate another. I listen to the chefs talk about cultivating a good palette and to me this is exactly how poets might work hard to cultivate a good ear. I am intrigued by how chefs try to balance a plate and how they work to bring different components together, and how in ambitious cooking we try combinations that the regular person might not expect but that work – that surprise us but are still that comforting balance of salt and sweet, spicy but not overpowering. I think TS Eliot would approve of this kind of cooking that takes us to unfamiliar places.

I wonder though if a Top Poet show would ever work. Probably not. Probably it wouldn’t make for particularly good viewing. Still it would be interesting the weekly challenges that would test the contestants poetic mettle. I can imagine what some of the tasks would be:

Week 1: the simplest but hardest task – write a poem that expresses your point of view, and does the kinds of things you like poetry to do.

Week 2: write a sonnet, 14 lines, strong iambic rhythm, but be inventive with the rhyme scheme

Week 3: write a prose-poem, no line breaks. And it shouldn’t feel like drab prose. It should be a poem whose perfect shape is as prose.

Week 4: take any great poem of the 20th century, and respond to it.

Week 5: write a poem that tries to say something very complex, but that only use monosyllabic words.

And so on and so on....

Though I wonder if I’d survive past week 2. I think I’m going to try to do these challenges.


Wha gwan Kei,
Kingston was great and no I can't speak Jamaican yet.
I think I'll join you on this challenge. Post week 1. by Sunday.Have a great weekend. Jacqueline GUMLitt.Yr.1
Have a good weekend

Having a weekend off as of posting this.
Kei’s Poetry Archive Challenge-Week One

Point of View on The Art of Doing

The Art in doing any task
Is in the ‘way’, not the ‘what’.

The Art takes engagement, takes
knowledge and experience;
(like nurturing a child);
wrought from imagination,
(like cradling a dream);
sourced from inspiration,
(like seeing the stars rise).

The Art takes patience; requires
attention to detail, to
be willing to fail, not bail
out after every mistake.
(like living without regrets)

The Art takes effort, takes skill,
takes motivation; needing
intuition and above all,
much experimentation.
(like cooking or making love)

The Art in doing anything
Is in the ‘way’, not the ‘what’.

All the exercises you list are interesting and good fun, and they are similar to ones that usually occur on Arvon Foundation poetry courses and the like. Sometimes an exercise can develop into the creation of a good poem - I think Sylvia Plath's 'The Moon and the Yew Tree' resulted from an exercise set for her by her then husband, Ted Hughes. I'd be inclined though to forget about the 'Top Poet' business. Robert Bridges was a 'top poet' in his time, while his friend and contemporary, Gerard Manley Hopkins, was almost unknown. Nowadays Hopkins is read but Bridges generally isn't. Also a lot of poetry competitions seem to be won by poems which are on a spectrum from mediocre to dreadful - yet their writers win an excessive amount of money (contributed by all the other entrants) and become 'acclaimed' and 'award-winning' when their boring slim volumes are published soon afterwards.

Jacqueline, I'm glad your time in Jamaica went well. And best of luck with these exercises. Even though I've set them, I've been struggling through myself. Really stretching...


I haven't been on any of the Avron courses yet - not even as a tutor, but I hear there quite good and your posts seems to confirm that. I think there might indeed be a great discipline to go to these workshops, not armed with our own poems, but to get activities that will stretch us. I think even having written a couple collections myself, sometimes this kind of thing is helpful, because after a while there is a kind of poem that you know how to write well, but then you have to teach yourself how to write another kind of poem, and perhaps how not to imitate yourself. Thanks for coming to this as always.
And I think your warnings are spot on about the dangers of jumping fully into the 'market' of poetry.

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