Karen McCarthy Woolf on ‘Poetry & Disobedience’ for Aldeburgh Poetry Festival 2014

The 2014 Aldeburgh Poetry Festival runs for the 7th-9th November and this weekend Ink Sweat & Tears is featuring poems on the theme of ‘Poetry & Disobedience’ which is the subject of the IS&T-supported Short Takes this year.



Mort Dieu

Our son
dear God
is dead
and gone.
His tomb
was red
with blood
and warm
as tears.
He was
born still.
Was this
dear God
your will?


When I first started writing poetry many moons ago, one of things that attracted me was the idea that poetry offered more freedom than other mediums. I saw it as a way of letting go of traditional ‘beginning, middle, end’ narrative structures. I used to say it was like philosophy without all the footnotes. That still holds true in many ways: one of the driving forces behind my book An Aviary of Small Birds is thinking about how metaphor, motif and an emotional arc that manifests in the lyric can combine to narrate a single event, in this case the death of a baby son in childbirth. Ironically, of course, poetry also offers even less ”freedom’ than other writing genres. Well, it does in that we have to break the line. How and when we choose to do that is a compositional pressure that ideally results in a fruitful tension on the page. At this stage of writing I was very alert to sound and I wanted this poem to have a metronomic effect. I was also using the letter as a creative process and inspiration in my work. I started drafting short syllabic lines, pushing it from four, to three to two syllables per line. I then noticed that the poem had a lot of assonance and, coincidentally 14 lines. Rearranging those line endings into a Petrarchan rhyme scheme was a natural next step. I think the urge to push at received forms is both an act of disobedience as we strive to mutate them, and, oddly acquiescent at the same time: after all I am still working within the formal constraints of the sonnet. Actually, I think in terms of contemporary British poetry, perhaps the poem’s true disobedience lies in its simple vocabulary and diction. And of course in its address, to God, capital G, which hardly seems feminist or experimental, but feels true to the heart of the poem.


Karen McCarthy Woolf was born in 1966 and grew up in London. In 2005 her play Dido was broadcast on Radio 4. She has been writer in residence at the Museum of Garden History and has taught creative writing for City Lit, English PEN and The Arvon Foundation. Her chapbook The Worshipful Company of Pomegranate Slicers was a New Statesman Book of the Year in 2006. She was one of ten Black and Asian poets featured in the anthology Ten (2010) and she is editor of the sequel, Ten: The New Wave (2014). Her first full collection An Aviary of Small Birds (Carcanet), from which the above poem is taken, is launched at the Festival.

Her Short Take takes place from 1.45-2.00pm today. For more on the festival see here.

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