A thing about lists

(Thomas Edison’s list of  Things to Do).

Edison's list

Which just goes to show that if you make lists, you’re in good company. I think it was probably in the late 70’s that Myra Barrs (who was then the English Advisor for a London LEA) wrote an article in the NATE journal, English in Education. It was called ‘In praise of lists’. It was an oddly quirky article; even though it was based on action research,it sat well to the side of the usual articles about literature-based learning. It stood out, and it stuck in my mind. It still does.

Just to put it in a contemporary context, here’s where the making of lists stands in the pecking order of writing ‘skills’ which teachers are required to hammer into their children and then test them on.

Year 1–  (that’s 5 year olds, to you and me)
write to communicate meaning – simple recounts, stories that can be re-read, with basic beginning, middle and ending

Attempt writing for various purposes, using features of different forms such as lists, stories and instructions

Write a recount or narrative. Begin to break up the series of events with connectives other than and

Two things to notice: yes, children should write lists BUT as soon as possible they need to be shifting away from the reliance on that pesky connective and.

Of course, that’s quite commendable. Complex sentences do things that compound sentences can’t, and lists won’t get you everywhere you want to go. But I want to share Myra barrs’ enthusiasm for the things they can do. Just think…alphabetic lists (phone directories, dictionaries, indexes); ingredients..things you will need to do something; birthday and christmas lists, shopping lists, books of baby names, war memorials, to-do lists, bucket lists, league tables and best-seller charts. Just think. No dependent clauses, no verbs, no plot, nothing to hold you up. No explanation, no ‘why’, no rhetoric. Heading and bullet points. Or commas, or and…and…and. They speak for themselves and…and…and..they’re theoretically limitless. You could put everything in the universe in a list. They’ve got a seductive appeal, lists. No wonder they’re one of the earliest writing structures that children grasp after the idea of a label, why their early stories are and/then lists of events that can be as mundane or fantastic as you like.

(Nick Cave’s list of words that intrigued him. Aneurism and auto-eroticism, amongst others)

list 2

What’s all this to do with us….isn’t this supposed to be a poetry blog? Bear with me. This all comes about because, while I don’t know much about contemporary poetry, I seem to come across more and more of what folk will refer to, sometimes dismissively, or condescendingly, as ‘list poems’. And, to be fair, I seem to write a fair number of them myself. It could be that this cobweb post is little more than a bit of self-justification. Or not. Let’s see how it goes.

If you go to lots of poetry workshops, as I do, you may start to notice that a lot of starters for quick writing tasks are invitations to write lists. Like these..

things you bring back from holidays

things you never got round to throwing away

things you meant to do

things that stopped you doing the things you meant to do

things you can’t do without

(but never, for some reason…or maybe because Ian Dury got there first)

reasons to be cheerful

Now, there’s a couple of things that strike me. First of all, a list like this is full of things that resonate. They’re all memory joggers. Second: a list will build up a rhythm. It has musical and rhetorical possiblities. Like I say. Lists are seductive. The performers of early oral poetry liked a list. It kept up the rhythm, and it gave you a breather while you tried to remember the next bit of the narrative. It was always nice, I imagine, to arrive at a new character who needed introducing. Say, a king in ‘Beowulf’

Often Scyld, Scefi’s son from enemy hosts
from many places seized mead-benches,
and terrorised the Heruli after first he was
found helpless and destitute he then knew recompense for that
he waxed under the clouds throve in honours
until to him each of the border tribes
beyond the whale- road he made submit
and to yield tribute that was a good king!

There you go, a list of attributes. That’s the sort of thing you expected – a catalogue of battles: who he killed, the largesse he handed out in the meadhall. Killers and givers of rings. That’s what you wanted in a king.

What about slightly different workshop exercises? You may be asked to think of places where: you said goodbye to someone, where things changed for the better or worse, where you might meet someone from your past. You might be prompted to think of bus stations, train stations, airports, places you worked, inbetween places like transport cafes. And, more often than not, you’ll be asked to think of three things you can hear, three you can see, three you can touch….and guess what. You’ve started a list. Sometimes you might listen to a poem or an extract before the exercise starts…poems like this.

Let us sit by a hissing steam radiator a winter’s day, gray wind pattering frozen raindrops on the window,
And let us talk about milk wagon drivers and grocery delivery boys.

Let us keep our feet in wool slippers and mix hot punches–and talk about mail carriers and
messenger boys slipping along the icy sidewalks.
Let us write of olden, golden days and hunters of the
Holy Grail and men called “knights” riding horses in the rain, in the cold frozen rain for ladies they loved.      (Carl Sandburg)

or this:

‘Song of myself’
The smoke of my own breath,
Echoes, ripples, buzz’d whispers, love-root, silk-thread, crotch and vine,
My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the passing of blood and air through my lungs,
The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and dark-color’d sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn,
The sound of the belch’d words of my voice loos’d to the eddies of the wind,
A few light kisses, a few embraces, a reaching around of arms,
The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs wag,
The delight alone or in the rush of the streets, or along the fields and hill-sides,
The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun.     (Walt Whitman)

I just love the exuberance, the expansive limitlessness of it all. I love the rhythm. It’s American, I sometimes think, like country music and blues. And it’s ‘modern’…or maybe what I mean is that it seems to speak to young contemporay poets who I like. Or maybe I like them because of the lists. Because of their energy, no question. The one who, for me, is probably responsible for the way lists have found their way, more and more, into my own writing is Kim Moore. She’s not unique, but she is the one I know best, and whose poems I love to read (aloud) and re-read(aloud). And they are invitations to perform. It’s no accident that a trumpet player wrote these poems you have to breathe through. Both extracts are from The Art of Falling….probably my favourite collection in years.

My People
I come from people who swear without realising they’re swearing.
I come from scaffolders and plasterers and shoemakers and carers,
the type of carers paid pence per minute to visit an old lady’s house.
Some of my people have been inside a prison. Sometimes I tilt
towards them and see myself reflected back. If they were from
Yorkshire, which they’re not, but if they were, they would have been
the ones on the pickets shouting scab and throwing bricks at policemen.
I come from a line of women who get married twice. I come from
a line of women who bring up children and men who go to work.

I like the way repeated phrases create a scaffolding for the variations played on the underlying rhythm, and the way that lets the writer spring surprises, like  ‘which they’re not, but if they were,’ . It sounds artless, but it isn’t. It’s like jazz, that little shift of tempo.

Lists can be heartbreaking, too. If I only had one poem I was allowed to keep from the collection it would be this one.

In that year

And in that year my body was a pillar of smoke
and even his hands could not hold me.

And in that year my mind was an empty table
and he laid his thoughts down like dishes of plenty.

And in that year my heart was the old monument,
the folly, and no use could be found for it.

And in that year my tongue spoke the language
of insects and not even my father knew me.

This isn’t the whole of the poem, but it’s more than enough to show what that undervalued ‘And’ can do. Ever one of the them is a hammered nail. I remember having a conversation..no an argument.. with a teacher in one of the Primary Schools on my patch. She was religiously convinced that you couldn’t, shouldn’t, mustn’t ever start a sentence with ‘And’. I’m not sure what she thought would happen if you did. The end of the world as we knew it perhaps. I pointed out that it was good enough for the Authorised Version. ‘And in those days Caesar Augustus sent out a decree that all men should be taxed’. Apparently that didn’t count, beause it was the Bible.  But poets know how to tap into the resonance of that 17th C verse, don’t they?  God bless them, I say. Here’s a thankyou for lists, for workshops, for Whitman and Sandburg and Kim Moore and everyone else who taught me that lists are great. And sometimes self-indulgent.

for lists of things on fridges -Ryvita, milk and matches, anchovies and mozarella
for lists of things to do to the damp patch, the bike chain, bread dough, christmas angels
for lists in pockets – names of debtors, and parking tickets
for the necessary lists of day to day, for provisioning expeditions to the Pole, for holidays,
for bills of lading, tonnages of whale-oil and baleen, bales of plumage
for the lists of yesterdays
for The Fallen and the fathers of The Fallen, for the Glorious Dead
for the bones of trawlermen, and those who fall from rigs, and those who choke in mines
for lists of the goodness of kings, of deeds in battle, of valiant defeats
for lists of the attributes of scornful lovers, of nether lips and lustrous hair and unclasped pearls
for the makers of mnemonics which is the daily bread of here and now
and the pulse and heart of poems
and also of psalms


It occurs to me that I’ve not just been self-indulgent, but also (and it may be the same thing) schoolteacherly. I’ll put that down to the ‘Back-to-school’ feel of early September. On the other hand, next week we’re having a guest. So, collars buttoned, ties straight, and no inapproriate hair-dos. Off you go. No running.

(Woody Guthrie’s list…New year resolutions. Write a song every day.Dance better. Beat fascism)

woody guthrie list

If you haven’t already bought it, then go and buy The art of falling [Seren.2015] £9.99. Why not head on over to  https://kimmoorepoet.wordpress.com/

I’m pretty sure there’s a link there that will let you buy it without leaving your chair. Put it on your ‘Things to do’ list.

5 thoughts on “A thing about lists

  1. Brilliant. I never been conscious of the fact that Beowulf was full of lists! And Whitman! And someone once told me not to start a poem with ‘And’, and I did, and now I feel OK about it. And If you are delivering lessons like this, I’ll be early to class, although my collar is unlikely to be buttoned, my tie loose, and I’ll certainly be running in the corridor.


  2. Dear Foggs, I don’t expect to read anything better today or this week or even this month. Thank you so much – an amazingly beautiful, useful, funny, erudite, useful, surprising, inspirational (useful). Thank you. I am going to send a link to all my poetry friends. For one thing it will justify my well known and mocked need to make lists. Brilliant Foggs. xx


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