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Avalanche training

by DJC 

Posted: 10 January 2006
Word Count: 183
Summary: In the UK, teachers' INSET at the beginning of term usually consists of looking at league tables and value added, or maybe moaning about Ruth Kelly. In the Alps, we roll around in snow and find bits of plastic which emit a beep. This poem is about a talk we had on avalanches, in case we ever end up with a buried child on our hands (or under our feet).

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Avalanche training, 2nd draft

In the drab safety of a hall
we met, knowing what
it was we came for – that
too much of a good thing
can be bad for your health.

Avalanche. Even the word falls
over itself, races from sliding v
to a hiss of snow-slabs, piano-
sized, as big as a car, capable of
rearranging parts.

We listened. Some took notes. You’d
think that snow on snow was no more
than a child’s winter dream,
the thing that turns clocks back
and is hard to stay mad with for long.

Not so, our instructor warned:
snow is no easy customer, prone to
sudden bouts of indecision, easily
tricked by the vagueries of wind-toss,
liable to end up in all the wrong places.

And then there is the cold, or
lack of it. Or the excess of it.
Snow seems never to be happy
being the sort of thing
that at home

lasts a breath. Here it’s different.
Here it can kill.
So we listened, took notes,
hoped we wouldn’t be the ones
not found till spring.

January 2006

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Comments by other Members

joanie at 10:01 on 10 January 2006  Report this post
Hi Darren.

I like the subject matter of this - a good idea for a poem! I love the descriptions, such as
Even the word falls
over itself, races from sliding v
to a hiss of snow-slabs, piano-
sized, as big as a car, capable of
rearranging limbs.

I like the opening and closing lines too, with the reference to 'drab safety' (compared to the excitement!) at the start and the feeling that the last thought hangs in the air to be mulled over later.

I wasn't comfortable with some of the line breaks, though, and I wondered about 'Avalanche' in the second verse having its own line. I like enjambement but I wasn't too keen on the break coming in the middle of a hyphenated word; perhaps it's a personal but it spoilt some of it for me. For example, I would try
We listened. Some took notes. You’d think
that snow on snow was simple,
an accumulation of flakes,
the chilled equivalent
of a rain-blessed lake.

.....or is that too predictable?

I wasn't sure about the meanig of 'simply being the sort of
thing that at home

lasts a breath.'
I'm sure it's just me missing the point!

I enjoyed the images very much. An enjoyable read.


DJC at 10:18 on 10 January 2006  Report this post
Thanks, Joanie - maybe you're right about the enjambement in the third stanza. I'll have a play. I'm not sure about the obvious rhyme of flake and lake at the moment, but am struggling with thinking of alternatives. Also the beginning of stanza 4, as there are too many 'o' sounds. As far as lasting a breath is concerned, in the UK snow is gone before you have the chance to enjoy it. In the alps it hangs around for ages - there was a real story, a few years back, of a group of boys who went off piste without telling anyone, got caught in an avalanche, and ended up being found the following spring when the snow thawed.

joanie at 10:29 on 10 January 2006  Report this post
Aah, right! I understand fully now; thanks!


paul53 [for I am he] at 11:13 on 10 January 2006  Report this post
Your previous upload was well-constructed but remained fairly anonymous as to its author. This has your stamp on it, and I hope you can see the difference. It is more than the knowledge of the subject or the observations, it is the take on the subject that is uniquely yours.
I have a lot more to say, but have spent so long playing catch-up that I now have to nip out. Maybe more later.

DJC at 12:11 on 10 January 2006  Report this post
Thanks, Paul - I know exactly what you mean. I really tried to keep any cleverness out of it, whilst maintaining the mood I wanted to achieve. As I was writing it, I thought 'this is me writing', so you've hit the nail right on the head! I look forward to any other suggestions.

Terry Edge at 15:46 on 10 January 2006  Report this post

You asked me to look at this. Again, I'll give my usual caveat, that I don't read much poetry so am pretty ignorant of what passes as good stuff these days.

However, I know you've been struggling to get beneath the comfortable zone, so to speak, that is always within easy reach for a writer, to something deeper and more connected beneath.

For me, this poem still feels like it's written more from the outside. Part of the problem here may be that your subjects are considering avalanches from the outside too: being trained about them, rather than directly experiencing them.

But I really feel the need to stress here that this is just my view. What's important is what you feel and know about how you wrote this poem. If you know that you were able to get hold of a truth beyond the easy-to-reach, and really struggled to find the right words to do it justice, then it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks.

In the more general picture of this kind of personal development journey, I'd be a little surprised if you'd managed to make this break-through so soon after taking it on! In many ways, it's a case of re-training one's brain - convincing it that from now on you only want real images and similies and sensations, not just the obvious stuff. Which will take time, mainly because you've been telling your brain you want something else for years.

All the best,


paul53 [for I am he] at 17:18 on 10 January 2006  Report this post
Without reducing it too far, I'd offer the analogy of two poets.
First is the person who for some reason tries poetry and either finds they like it or else has someone tell them their attempt is good, or different. This person is virtually unqualified and writes poems before learning anything much about poetry. They then have to learn technique and the different types; they have a lot of reading to catch up on; and [let's be honest here] some have to learn correct spelling, grammar and punctuation. This they do, slowly but surely, mostly because someone noticed their exterior roughness might contain a jewel within.
Second is the educated person who knows all about the subject, but has yet to try it seriously themselves. Poetry is surrounded by such folk; the women wear chiffon scarves and the men cravats as a sign of recognition to one another [okay, that last bit was me being flippant]. Unfortunately, being able to play the piano doesn't make one a composer - it doesn't even make one a great piano player unless you possess - or find - that spark.
Personally, I think it is harder for the second person.
The first person either has that spark to keep them on the steep learning curve, or else they soon fall away. The amount of folk who just one day disappear from this site shows that.
The second person has to find that spark, that stamp of individuality, that turn of phrase that makes a reader stop browsing and start reading, that hook that catches our attention, that closing that leaves us remembering and wanting more.
I would rather have a dream of being a concert pianist and work towards it than be an accomplished player but never a "great" one.
Finding that individuality can end up being a lifetime search, or it could come soon.
Perseverance is the only tool, but I would say to those who are learned or well-educated that many great poets weren't great masters of English. I cannot recall the name of that American poet who died last year [Robert Creed?] but he might not have even passed the equivalent of his English O Level, but he wrote shit-hot poetry.
Some of what is learned may have to be unlearned, for how else can you take words and reshape them or give them a fresh nuance.
Aim for the spark. Aim for grabbing the reader, holding them there, then leaving them the better for it. I've been penning serious poetry nearly forty years and haven't reached my goal yet, but occasionally a poem shows me a glimpse of my true potential.


Robert Creeley

DJC at 17:50 on 10 January 2006  Report this post
Terry - you're right, I'm only one step on the journey. In the words of Zen; 'a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step' or something like that. I do think, with your help, I've made that first step, and it would be insane of me to think that that was it, I was there. I'd be bored, for a start.

There are so many words in the English language, and I've only just started rearranging them!!

Paul - thanks for the two poet analogy. Not sure which I am - I do have a pretty good education, and I'm an English teacher so spend a lot of the time talking about and analysing poems, and I often wonder whether this has put me at a bit of a disadvantage. I only have to think of someone like Andrew Motion (big brain, bad poems imho) to realise that a literary background doesn't make a poet. I like the analogy of the concert pianist, and think the same way. Always best to have a dream.

DJC at 09:18 on 11 January 2006  Report this post
I've done a second draft and taken out the overly poety-bits (which didn't fit the rest of the poem). I've tried to concentrate more on our childish perceptions of snow versus the reality, of having your parts rearranged, or being buried for a few months until the thaw uncovers your body. Almost there, but there's still something missing...

Terry Edge at 09:19 on 11 January 2006  Report this post
Darren, Paul,

This is such an important conversation to be having. And it strikes me that it's the kind of talk that should go on more on the forums here. So much talk about how to submit work, how to impress agents, etc, is very much assuming the first stage has been achieved: that real work has been produced. Partly, the fault is with our product-obsessed culture, backed up the race for instant fame. By contrast, I heard a woman philosopher on the radio the other day (can't remember her name – Margaret something) who said she didn't write anything until she was in her mid-50s, because she didn't feel she had anything to say until then. Apparently, her first book is a classic.

Paul, that's a very succinct analogy. I used to play table football at a high level (English champion; played regularly in Europe), and noticed that there were two types of player which I used to call participators and non-participators. The first kind would be at the venue early, testing the pitches, practising, sussing out the opposition, centring themselves, etc. The second kind would be chatting with their friends, reading the paper and so on. The first kind always won and the second kind would put it down to luck. And this isn't mentioning the practice the first lot did between events that they simply didn't talk about – and practice that stretched one's abilities, not just maintained them. And the gut drive to keep doing that day after day came from the desire to do something exceptionally well, not to just get by.

Darren, good for you, for deciding to take the long road. When Paul says he's been writing poetry for nearly 40 years and hasn't yet reached his goal – that kind of statement tends to induce a resounding silence in the non-participator. But for someone who wants to produce work that means something, it's a liberating message.

Just between you and me, I loathe poetry that dribbles out of people like chat – you know the kind of thing: obvious rhymes about sentimental crap. A pox on Pam Ayres, the champion of the average man/woman, if ever there was one.


paul53 [for I am he] at 12:41 on 11 January 2006  Report this post
I did take some mighty long breaks.

DJC at 14:27 on 11 January 2006  Report this post
Could we begin a poetry group which didn't allow anyone to say 'this is a really nice poem, well done' in reply to it? That only those who were serious about learning the craft should think about joining? That only had 'go on, I can take it!' as its level of crit? I'm really not knocking any of the other groups, as I think that much of what is being written is interesting, but there is a lot of crap, and I wonder how much of a service we are doing by not saying so. I have read some poems on these forums that have made me want to say 'no, this doesn't mean a thing, this is just you trying to sound poetic, throw it away now and start again, and only start writing if you can write from a place of honesty!' Then I look at tinyclanger's work and it stands out as crafted, beautifully honed writing, which is, at times, heartbreakingly honest, and I think 'that is how it should be done'.

I guess what I'm getting at is this - what Terry said to me about the first poem has had a huge effect, and I'm glad he said it. If he'd just said 'nice poem, well done' I wouldn't have started the poem above, which, although isn't anywhere near where I'd like it to be (thus offering me a sense of glorious frustration, if this makes sense), is much closer already to my own voice. We need to be honest more often, but only to those people who can take it.

A quote from Peter Sansom's 'Writing Poems' sums it up for me:

'...bad poems...are not true. They do not genuinely say what they genuinely need to say.'

We need to be more genuine.


And do you know what, Terry, I think Margaret someone-or-other is right, but only up to a point. I think we all have lots of things to say, but no clue how to say them. We all have our stories, our ways of seeing - but not many people are able to put that across in a way that really makes people stop and think, to say to themselves, 'yes, that's how it is'.

Terry Edge at 15:45 on 11 January 2006  Report this post

The issue of a more serious approach to critiquing has come up in the past on WW. In fact, I raised it a few months ago on a forum and, to be frank, found the experience very draining. Although there were some very sincere people who told me they would be up for a more committed approach, there was also plenty of flak from others who, despite what they said, obviously weren't.

The problem is, you can't enforce such an approach. A writer is either ready for it or they aren't. If they aren't, they will tend to see it as being too deep, or will claim that it isn't needed – that the site already provides excellent feed-back. Unfortunately, those who don't actually want honest, no-holds barred, critiques aren't likely to say so: everyone likes to believe they're up to being told the truth. And WW is an open-to-all site and therefore can't be too prescriptive about what level of commitment writers have to make.

For anything more serious, the terms of engagement have to be clear and agreed to at the outset. And such situations do exist – 'Critters' springs to mind: an intensive on-line critiquing workshop for sci-fi/fantasy writers. And there is a similar writers group that meets in London called The T-Party. However, it may be that the goals in sci-fi/fantasy, as well as the criteria for critiques, may be more straightforward than for poetry.

Another consideration must be, is a critique the best forum for my development as a writer, or would I be better off paying a professional to look at my work? I do both, according to need. For instance, I recently paid a TV writer friend to write a report on a couple of sitcoms I'd written. I'd not tried writing for TV before and thought the best input I could get was from a professional. Her report was terrific: incisive, honest, full of suggestions, etc. By contrast, I'm planning to apply for an intensive sci-fi/fantasy workshop later this year because in that field – stories, novels – I believe I don't need so much expert editorial advice (I'm a freelance fiction editor myself) but would benefit from some incisive feed-back from other writers.

I'm not trying to put you off doing something in this area, but just want to say that it may be you'll need to find a more individual solution.

All the best,


DJC at 15:52 on 11 January 2006  Report this post
Thanks, Terry. I'm considering the MA/MPhil route, which should give me the sort of crit I need. We'll see how far the budget stretches...

gard at 17:14 on 11 January 2006  Report this post

all of the above I guess! It is nice to see a new person in this group who is quite active.

Well my two pence...the form of this piece is well presented and that I think is very important in poetry it can (help) make or break a poem.

The second stanza is my favourite.


DJC at 18:00 on 11 January 2006  Report this post
Thanks, Gard

I'm trying to stick at the moment to tighter forms, to train myself up. Next upload will be a villanelle, so wish me luck!

paul53 [for I am he] at 18:38 on 11 January 2006  Report this post
A villanelle? That really is leaping into the deep end.
Tell you what though, mate, you've made this group lively.

DJC at 19:03 on 11 January 2006  Report this post
Cheers! It's on me blog now if ya wanna see it.
Oh dear, I seem to have become infected by forum-speak...

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