alien clay

Years 5 + 6 at Newtown School in Carlisle and Old Hutton Primary School in Kendal joined me on a zig-zagging route through language to dig strange new poems out of stone.

Year 6 students at Old Hutton Primary School in Kendal

First, we used magnifying glasses and water to examine each rock, trying to get closer to a detail of its smell, texture or colour by taking our similes further away. The rocks became ‘bright as a bulldozer’ or ‘soft as burger bun’ or ‘grey as a knife’.

Next we gathered together this array of things we had seen in the rock – the clay, the bumpy mountain, the silky dress, the smooth glass – and drew them together into a narrative. We wrote the stories at high speed, timed to just three minutes.

In the case of the list above, the rock disappears under the landscape of a story in which an army of well-dressed aliens in a glass ship crashes into the earth, getting covered in smelly clay. Other students made other combinations:

bright as a bulldozer + hard as a diamond + green as moss
a crystal cavern underneath a building site


pink as a crab’s shell + cold as ice + shaped like a space ship
a space crab sailing across the universe on a lump of interstellar ice

The high-speed scribbled stories were then exchanged with another student who circled the words they enjoyed the most. These circled words were then written out in sequence, rearranging the students’ language into something unlike anything they would ordinarily write. For the student with the aliens in the glass ship, the circled words were ‘alien’, ‘clay’ and ‘was made in may’ which made a strange little rhyme.

For me, these tiny aleatory arrivals at ‘alien clay’ and ‘black grey straight single movement’ or ‘orange life’ often returned the student’s writing back to original subject, setting up miniature portraits or sideways glances at the rock. These fragments, while often dense and tricky and looking a lot like nonsense, approach something of the rock’s unimaginable longevity, heat, taste and possible consciousness which seemed to fascinate the group.

I congratulated the students on their poems. The students weren’t so sure – the poems didn’t make sense and they didn’t rhyme – but I hope the students might continue to take sideways glances at both rocks and language, zigzagging their own way to poetry.

black grey straight / single movement

shining mist diamond fresh as a mint / as cold as moonlight / as clean as car wash

black life battered / white life dead / green life good / orange life

Bright Caverns

In Book 3 of The Prelude, Wordsworth describes a private, portable space located ‘within my mind’. He describes this interior space like a cave that he might ‘enter in at will’, finding there a bright store of thought. In the 2015 Jonathan Wordsworth Memorial Lecture given by Professor Frederick Burwick, this ‘dazzling cavern’ is identified as the site of Wordsworth’s imagination. You can watch the whole lecture online or read a shortened version over on the Wordsworth Trust’s blog.

Years 1 and 2 at St. Catherine’s School in Penrith explored their own ‘bright caverns’ of imagination today, learning to carefully confuse and compound their senses in order to ‘draw’ sound. Students listened to field recordings made in the local landscape at the same time as drawing and they produced some dazzling examples of how we might imagine sound of using colour and pattern as well as language.

Here, a student from Year 2 represents the cave’s echo:

v v v
Helo Helo Helo

And here the wind is a string tangling around a mountain that is full of words that — to me, at least — sound like foot steps. Every splashy and echoing sound is followed by a question mark which, having explored Cathedral Caverns yesterday, seems exactly right.

Holly in Cathedral Cavern above Little Langdale

Helo? Helo? Helo? I shouted into the cave.
—-?—- said the cave in reply.

Claude glass

In my first week in residence, I’ve been making these Claude glasses, small curved black mirrors which 18th-century poets would have bound like a pocket-book and take up into the fells.

In a sonnet written in response to William Westall’s book of engavings, Views of the Caves near Ingleton, Gordale Scar, and Malham Cove, in Yorkshire, Wordsworth describes the view into a cave as being just like a Claude glass, or ‘Truth’s mystic glass’. In later editions he changes this to ‘thought’s optic glass’.

Night Pieces

Night is a continuous shadow or a moon-lit cloud in these erasure poems drawn from Wordsworth’s ‘A Night-Study’ by students at Energy Coast University Technical College in Workington. Sixty students wrote sixty variations and these are only a couple of the many bright nights imagined today. Other students had Wordsworth’s traveller ‘tread / o / n / the moon’ and one opened with what sounds like a warning: ‘piece / is / over’.


As part of the CAVES workshop, the students also wore ear defenders to write in response to sound (and soundlessness), exploring how to manage both the flow and fidget, the start and the stop of new ideas.