Ian McMillan: Writing sonnets for Barnsley Museums has pulled me out of lockdown torpor

Like a lot of people, in the first few weeks of lockdown I felt my ability to concentrate slipping away; I would look at a book for a few seconds and then put it down. I’d sit down to watch a film that I’d recorded months before and after a while I’d find myself drifting away and looking at a magazine. I’d tell myself that I needed to write some poems about the whole shuddering that the world was going through but I’d just sit at the keyboard staring at the three or four words I’d managed to dribble onto the screen. Thank goodness for the Yorkshire Post Magazine, because writing this column each week forced me (in a good way) to do the thing I do best, to write and rewrite, to think and rethink.

Poet Ian McMillan initially struggled to find inspiration during lockdown.
Poet Ian McMillan initially struggled to find inspiration during lockdown.

Then Barnsley Museums got in touch and, out of the blue, asked me if I’d like to be their Poet In Lockdown; it was an interesting phrase and it tickled me. They said that they’d like me to chronicle the times we were going through in verse, maybe writing a couple a week and posting on the museum twitter feed as well as the Twitter feed of Hear My Voice, Barnsley’s inspiring festival of community writing.

So of course, not quite knowing how I’d manage it, I agreed, because I knew that these poetic deadlines, like The Yorkshire Post’s deadlines, would haul me out of my torpor. Then I decided to add an extra layer of, if not jeopardy, then complexity: I said that I’d make each poem a sonnet, and write a series (a crown, as the collective noun has it) of sonnets. My reasoning was that writing sonnets would give a framework to the enterprise: sonnets are usually, though not exclusively, 14 lines long, and they can rhyme in different ways but they’re always unmistakably sonnets. My other idea was, as always, to encourage people to write their own work in response to mine and in response to the crisis and the thing about a sonnet is that, in certain ways it can be technical exercise because the rhymes have to go in a certain pattern and so, even if you’ve not written a poem before, you can use the template to kickstart your creativity.

The project kicked off, I wrote my first sonnets and they seemed to go down well; people started sending in their own and I found that my concentration was starting to return. I’ve been mostly writing Shakespearean sonnets, which rhyme ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, with a little GG couplet at the end. When I’d written the poem I’d record it and then I’d make a little film explaining how I’d done it. And I’ll tell you what: these poems have done wonders for my brain.

The trouble is, I can’t stop thinking in sonnets. Rhymes pop up from anywhere and subjects for sonnets keep presenting themselves to me when I’m going about my daily business. Still, it’s better than staring out of the window. Now, I wonder what rhymes with window? Not much: I’ll change it to glass.

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James Mitchinson