Writing the poem Ripening by guest author Sheila Templeton
Thank you Val, for inviting me to write for your blog. In our discussion about what might be interesting for your readers, we came up with the idea that I might go through the steps of working on a poem. I’ve chosen my poem Ripening, because it won first prize in the McLellan Poetry Competition a few years back. The judge was Janet Paisley.
I started this poem in 2002, five years before sending it to the McLellan Poetry Competition and, for most of that time, the original poem had been left…to mature, moulder? I don’t know! I felt very stuck with it and had given up…temporarily, as it turned out. Sometimes, I think it’s very good to put a poem away for a while. And in this case, I had no option, as it was going nowhere.
It had begun life as an exercise in a poetry workshop run by Alison Chisholm at a residential writers’ workshop down in Derbyshire, England. I cannot now remember the original prompt, but I know that I had this phrase ‘green rodden time’ in my head and I wanted to write about that as a metaphor for childhood/maybe teenage-hood. ‘Rodden’ is the Scots word for a rowan tree and I had this image in my mind as ‘green rodden’ meaning the unripe berries of the tree…hence youth or childhood.
The first version of the poem was in English. I discarded ‘rodden’ for ‘rowan’.
In green rowan time I wanted to be you,
skinned my knee on scraping bark
following you, stuffed my pockets
with hard berries, praying
You made aeroplanes of balsa wood
and jewelled tissue, flicked a lethal propeller
making contact with the wind.
I held the end of the string.
Now rowan berries hang heavy,
dark crimson clusters, ready
for picking, soft creamy flesh
no use for our old games
I am too busy to help fly your plane
busy rubbing rowan fruit between my fingers
skinning ripe berries, crushing juice
to stain my lips
In the mirror I see you
This felt a bit clunky, stilted. The ending was not right, nor the title. I liked the idea of the contrast between them as children / then adolescents, how girls often mature emotionally, before boys do…but I felt the poem just wasn’t working. I put it away.
Then, when I got it out to see if it had any life…5 years later…the first obvious solution was…to re-write it in Scots. I don’t know why I had not thought of doing this in the first place! After all, my first thought had been ‘green rodden time’. And writing it in Scots changed the tone of the poem. The content stayed much the same…but re-writing it gave it both a new focus and richness…made it more muscular, I felt…the verbs got stronger…always a crucial thing in poetry. And it gave me the title Ripening...which of course is what the poem is about. I usually find that once I know what a poem is about…that’s when the magic happens, the stuck bit frees up. Also, the Scots tightened it up…and an ending line was then easy…because, again, this was what the poem was about…friendships in childhood become something different in adolescence. I am not saying that in my work, every poem would benefit from being rendered in Scots…but in this case, the poem was improved by it. Every poem needs its own language and for this poem, the clue was in my original idea ‘green rodden time”… my childhood was spent in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, speaking Scots, so to write about that vividly, it needed my native tongue.
The final poem became:
In green rodden time
I wanted tae be you.
Scarted my knee
on reuch scabbit bark,
stappit my pockets
wi hard berries prayin
you’d run oot o supplies
an need mine.
You made planes wi balsa
an gaudy coloured tissue,
wheeched a sharp propeller
makkin contact wi the wind,
file I held the hint o the twine.
Seely tae chitter, ice-tangled
fyle you ignored me.
Aenoo, rodden branches
hing hunnerwechted, dairk
ripened, riddy for pickin.
Saft crame flesh, nae use
for the games we played
An I’m ower thrang
tae help flee your plane.
Thrang rubbin bricht berries
atween my finger-eyns,
slowly staining my lips
tae silk in the munelicht
waitin for you tae land.
Won 1st prize in the McLellan Poetry Competition 2007.
Published in Digging for Light by New Voices Press 2011.
Anthologies of Sheila’s poetry, Tender is the North and Slow Road Home are reviewed on this site:,