How I wrote this poem wrong


(Latest monthly round-up of Realtime Notes on Instagram.)

I thought I'd start this month by talking about the process of writing one poem, and what typically goes right and wrong. 

So I normally get up at 7.23am and if it's my turn (we have a genius alternating system), I'll go down, stick his Go Jetters on, make two cups of tea, bring one up, go back down and get about 20 minutes to surface. I check my phone, see Peter Stringfellow has died and the mind inevitably starts ticking over. I tend to skim-read articles and let the mind alight on key words, and the second paragraph of the Guardian article included the sentence: "Stringfellow, who had cancer but wanted to keep his illness private, died early on Thursday after spending time in hospital." 

If you're in the mindset of writing a poem, it's not a huge mental leap to see a rhyme in cancer/dancer, but when I saw the word 'private' it felt like an idea – from the curtained booth of the nightclub to the curtained booth of a hospital ward. So I wrote the first line and then the word 'seedily' came to mind and line 3 happened before line 2. Then I wanted to mention the curtained booth, which led me to the rhyme with 'truth', which is a better word than I would have found if I hadn't needed it to rhyme. 

The 'needily/seedily' also set up a structure for 'shyly, slyly' and, having written the first stanza, I knew the second would have to follow the same structure, with lines 2 and 4 rhyming. By about 8am, I had the first stanza done and a rough version of the second. Then the morning routine kicks in – breakfast, getting ready for school etc. And this is where the writing isn't exactly 'real time' – there's still an internal editing process as your subconscious ticks over, and then you return to it fresh after a break. 

So by about 8.40am, I'm looking at it fresh again and making improvements in the second stanza, and feeling a certain urgency to get it done because I had other work to get on with.

But to be honest, I messed it up. I wanted to end with 'that's all you get dear', and I set up the rhyme with 'titillatingly tilting to cup your ear'. But for some reason I messed up the penultimate line – introducing 'young' is a whole different vowel sound, and the metre generally goes a bit clunky. Coming back to it now, even at a glance, I don't know why I didn't write 'her hot breath so young and near'. That would be an immediate improvement. 

So the question is – why don't I just slow down and write better poems? Sometimes I think I should, but I also think it's part of the bigger spirit of the project to keep the rough edges and embrace the highs and lows. When it goes right, it makes those moments better. And what you lose in craft, you gain in urgency – it's a different experience reading a poem in that 'breaking news' moment when the event takes place, rather than weeks later. And even reading it afterwards, it changes your perception to know it was written 'in the moment' – it alters what the poem is. (To some extent, I'm not sure how much I care about people reading it afterwards – even if 500 people see it fleetingly on Instagram, it's more people than read most poems.)

Anyway, apologies if all of this is more interesting to me than it is to you. The newsletter will now speed up.


If likes and shares are a good measure, I had some big hits this month. This one owes a debt to Shooting Stars. (Great to see how Bob Mortimer is now at national treasure status with Gone Fishing – his Athletico Mince stuff is operating at the highest possible level of humour.)


My biggest hit was this in-the-moment tribute to Christopher Chope – an example of a poem that I think is better because it was written quickly. Just not the same if you do it three weeks later. 


I do get sweary sometimes, so it's nice to balance it out with some gentle pastoral stuff. Some people think 'prose poem' is a contradiction, but I think it's a genuine 'thing' – doing away with the linebreaks, but retaining the heightened attention to musicality and rhyme that you get in a poem. 


This was another one with a domestic setting – you don't always need someone to die or a war to start for things to be realtime news. 


But, as ever, people did die, including Peter Stringfellow, Anthony Bourdain, Gena Turgel (the 'bride of Belsen') Jerry Maren (Wizard of Oz), Leslie Grantham and Kate Spade. Something touching and meaningful about the way a brand can outlive its founder.


Half-rhyme of the month was 'Stormy Daniels' and 'Attorney General's'. 


And it was the month the World Cup started – it's enjoyable trying to keep track of the mood in poems.


As our entire government is holed up in Chequers for 'crunch day', I'll finish with Brexit and a tribute to Mr Rees-Mogg (below).

Thanks for reading – July already looks pretty interesting and the moron is heading this way...


Slogan World Cup 2018


It's nearly World Cup time again and Fifa/Hyundai have announced the winners of their Be There With Hyundai competition to come up with national slogans to appear on each team bus. 

Four years ago, I ranked all the slogans, with a clear winner emerging. Ivory Coast's Elephants Charging Towards Brazil! set a new benchmark for slogans generally – only four words, but somehow combining the national animal (elephants) with the host country (Brazil), linked by an exciting verb (charging), and all adding up to one epic visual image. It's an outstanding slogan.

Let's see how this year's match up. (The names in brackets are the members of the public who contributed each slogan.)


This isn't pitched right for Argentina. For most teams, winning the World Cup is a dream. But Argentina have won it twice before and reached the final last time. Germany would never talk about winning as a 'dream'. Not terrible, but not great. 3/10


This is a step backwards from 2014's 'Socceroos: Hopping Our Way Into History'. That was nice. This one feels like it needs an editor – 'brave' and 'bold' are almost exact synonyms, and the rhythm is compromised in order to accommodate 'Socceroos', which in any case is a slightly shit nickname for a team. That said, I can hear this being chanted aloud. 5/10


Belgium have learned from 2014's disastrous 'Expect the impossible'. This is stronger – yes, 'red devils' is a bit Man Utd. But it ties in with the team crest and sounds exciting. I'd like to see it paired with something more vivid and visual than the abstract 'on a mission'. But this is decent sloganeering. 7/10


Let's take a moment to laugh one last time at Brazil's 2014 slogan 'Brace Yourselves! The 6th is coming!' – which was briefly and gloriously appropriate when they went 5-0 down to Germany and ended up losing 7-1. This one has unfortunately slipped into the default numerology approach that blights so many slogans. 4/10


More sloganeering-by-numbers. There's a widespread belief that slogans are some kind of auditing system to count every object in the world. 2/10


The denial of impossibility is another recurring slogan trope. (See also Senegal.) This is long and generic. 3/10


Decent, workmanlike slogan. But it doesn't really zero in on Croatia's main point of difference – there are much smaller nations in the World Cup. Croatia's national flag contains a chessboard – I think this would be a fertile area for sloganeering. 6/10


I should point out that I am the mug in this whole slogan-reviewing scenario. All the winning entrants got free tickets to the World Cup, so good for them. That said, this is a massively boring slogan. 2/10


I'm going to assume this sounds better in the original Egyptian. It's pretty strong even in translation – I agree that Pharaohs is a cool word. 8/10


What do you reckon? It definitely has strengths – three words, a strong imperative voice, rooted in the national anthem, positive sporting sentiment. I just can't shake the feeling that it's a bit school-swot-handing-in-his-homework-two-days-early. I want slogans to be more fun. 8/10


I know I'm the only person in the world who will notice this, but this is the same as France's Euro 2016 slogan (also from a Hyundai-sponsored competition). And it was rubbish then too. 0/10


No dreaming for Germany, just a confident plan to go out and win it again. I assume the full stop after 'Zusammen' gives it more impact. But it doesn't disguise the fact that this is a generic, off-the-shelf slogan. 2/10


The thing is, the dream has already come true – Iceland are in the World Cup for the first time! If you're going to talk about dreams, it should be about living the dream. But also, you're Iceland – home of ancient gods, elves, trolls and sea monsters! You've got to get those into your slogan. You had a massive shot at beating Elephants Charging Towards Brazil. 1/10




2014 was 'Samurai, the time has come to fight!' This adds an extra dimension of colour, but that's about it. Exciting, but could push it further. 7/10.


2014 was the heartbreaking 'Enjoy it Reds!'. This is stronger and wisely brings in the national animal. I'm going to assume it sounds good in the original Korean and go with a generous 8/10


I bet lots of people entered 'We're not paying for the wall!' and Fifa/Hyundai filtered them out. This is the problem with this competition – there are probably lots of exciting entries and the organisers go for the safe ones. Like this. 3/10


This is good – Atlas Lions sounds exciting. Is 'pride' a pun in the original language, or just a nice coincidence? Either way, I think this needs a verb. You really need a verb in a good sports slogan. 8/10


Or do you? This one has no verb, but it's pretty poetic and epic in scale. I assume it's a reference to the eagle, national bird of Nigeria. Good effort. 7.5/10


And another verbless one – but then you get a lot of energy and suggestion of motion in the word 'force'. Rooted in a national point of difference, the two oceans. Strong. 8.5/10


Slogans generally shouldn't have two full sentences. This is like a Medium post. 2/10


You've got to hand it to whoever entered this and got two free tickets to the World Cup. Well played. 0/10


What is it with Portugal? In 2014, they had 'The past is history, the future is victory'. It's like a Twitter thread of slogans, or some kind of continual work in progress. Well done on making it rhyme, but it needs to make sense as well. 4/10


If you read this as an official, Putin-endorsed slogan, then it's a laughable piece of misdirection. But if you read it as the players and fans subtly getting the idea of openness into their slogan, then it's worth supporting. I'll go with the latter. 7/10


Yes, go on... go on... Desert Knights... doing... something? Could they be charging? Could they be charging in a particular direction? Come on Saudi Arabia, finish your slogan!!!! 7/10


Here we go, the denial-of-impossibility approach. For the record, France's 2014 slogan was 'Impossible N’est Pas Francais' – so again, well done to wahab94 for getting away with this. Also, 'impossible' is definitely a French / Senegalese word. 1/10


I'm never buying a Hyundai car. 1/10


In the word cloud of all sporting slogans, the word 'together' probably looms largest. 2/10


See what I mean? 2/10


I assume this will appear on the bus in all four of those languages (which don't include English). It's tricky for Switzerland as you have to cram four versions of your slogan onto a bus. Maybe they should go with an emoji next time. 3/10


Hard to judge without knowing the original language, but this feels like two slogans joined together. I'd strip it back to 'Russia, here come the eagles!' – I like the implied threat in addressing Russia directly. That would get an 8.5/10, but unfortunately they've overwritten it. 7/10


There's a nice thought in here – the idea of turning grey old Russia (national stereotype trigger alert) into the sunny blue of Uruguay (a nod to the national colour and sun symbol on the flag). Just feels a bit baggy at the moment. 8/10

All in all, this is a decent tournament and a step in the right direction – we have devils, pharaohs, samurai, tigers, lions, eagles, oceans and desert knights. Nothing quite scales the heights of Elephants Charging Towards Brazil, but that is a big ask. I'd say Panama just about edge it with the force of their two oceans, but Egypt had a good crack, and England were in the latter stages.

If someone at Fifa/Hyundai is reading this, I know you have to keep things non-controversial, but can we keep cranking up the excitement and epic animal battles, and definitely scale back the numerology and togetherness next time? Also, do you have any more tickets? And is there time to add a few more words onto Saudi Arabia's bus?

World Cup 2014 slogans review

Euro 2016 slogans review

Yip, Witchell and stand-up

Further updates from Realtime Notes – Instagram poetry written in rapid response to current events. This month's newsletter is reproduced below.


I bought a new book this month (well done Nick) – a collection of verse by Yip Harburg, better known as the lyricist behind 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow', 'Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?' and 'It's Only a Paper Moon' (inspiration for the poem above). 

I've always liked those great American lyricists – brilliant players with language and writers of some of the most romantic words ever written, but who always treated it essentially as a trade.


It turns out Yip Harburg was also a politically engaged writer with a lifelong commitment to social justice (you can tell from the Paper Moon lyrics quoted above, which is what got me Googling him). He channelled this into light verse, which was eventually collected into a book illustrated by the great Seymour Chwast.

It includes stuff like this:


And this:


That's nice, isn't it? Feels like it would slot straight into Instagram and Twitter if they had been around.

It's not a great revelation to find people have written light verse about topical subjects before. But it's good to know there were poets responding to Watergate in real time – and there is plenty to enjoy in the poems, long after they were written. In fact, they're better because you know he was writing in the thick of it (like many, his career was blighted by McCarthyist blacklisting – anti-truth, America-first hysteria has a long history). 


I like to think poems like the one above come from a similar spirit of verbal playfulness in response to serious times. The language of active shooter situations has become ritualistically familiar, but it's the 'active' that always gets me – in contrast to the political paralysis.


So, deaths. This month's roll call includes Tessa Jowell, Philip Roth, Tom Wolfe and Margot Kidder – the picture of her with Christopher Reeve is a poem in itself when you consider what life brought them afterwards.


On a happier note, this month brought a royal wedding!

I feel like Nicholas Witchell didn't get enough airtime in the coverage, but this is the eternal Witchellian reality – his duty is to cover the royals until the big occasions when Huw Edwards steps in. Or Dermot O'Leary.

Anyway, I love writing poems about Nicholas Witchell. 


The moron continues to do what he does, and I continue to search for language in response. These fragments I have shored against my ruins.


I quite liked this Harvey Weinstein poem – sometimes the form clicks into place when you're pondering the subject matter, and a handy New York / Perp Walk rhyme supplies itself. 


To finish on an indulgently self-analytical note (my favourite note), I've semi-consciously tried to stake out a territory with Realtime Notes that takes in Yip Harburg-style playful/formal versifying but extends to more surreal/dark experiments and sometimes loosens up into confessional, artfully casual semi-prose.

When the poems come out in a conversational style like the one above, I like the effect it creates – similar to a stand-up's delivery. I have a not-entirely-unserious plan to take up stand-up comedy when I get to the age of 70. I think everyone should try something new at that age, and my advancing senility will give me a good PR hook.

For now, it's on with the poems. 628 poems and 290 days into this now.

I'll leave the last word to Yip – this could easily be a Realtime Note about the renationalisation of the East Coast line.


Realtime Notes continues on Instagram