Explore childhood’s many landmarks and emotions through the lens of African and Western Praise Poems.
When Chris Beckett’s first Carcanet collection, Ethiopia Boy, was published, The Daily Telegraph wrote that he was ‘reliving his exotic 60’s childhood in Ethiopia’. But, in experiencing the world for the first time, isn’t everywhere ‘exotic’ to a child? So, when writing about childhood, one must look for ways to make The Daily Telegraph say precisely this same thing, no matter the setting!
As a boy, Chris experienced intense joy and longing, specifically relating to his childhood friends, and has explored these moments in later life through Praise Poems, based on Ethiopian forms, as a means to get closer to the objects of this love. Kei Miller writes amazing Praise Poems, too, mixing biblical with everyday language and syntax to paint moving portraits of bible-loving relatives – such as ‘A hymn for Aunt Grace’ – where the form seems perfectly fitted to his subjects.
In this course, we will explore childhood’s many landmarks and emotions (both joyful and fearful) through the lens of the Praise Poem, both African and Western models: first, the ‘Praise Portrait’ like Kei Miller’s poem mentioned above and secondly, its opposite, the ‘Unpraise’ or even insult poem which can be outright hostile and angry – for example, Pascale Petit’s ‘My Octopus Mother’, Malika Booker’s ‘Pepper Sauce’, or even Joe Carrick-Varty’s ‘Dear Postie’; or much more softly critical poems like Mary Jean Chan’s ‘Always’. Then, through exuberant Self-Praise poems – such as Walt Whitman’s ‘There Was a Child Went Forth’ – and Self-Unpraise/Shame poems like Richard Scott’s ‘[have rubbed myself against bark]’, Andrew Mcmillan’s ‘Things Said in the Changing Room’, or Kei Miller’s ‘The Broken II’:
If I were to write honestly
I would write about fat…
The beauty of a praise, or reverse-praise, poem, is that it encourages you to write the positive/negative feelings attached to your memories. It allows you to take on a childish wonder, a lack of irony or knowingness. Everything is fresh, surprising, even brutal. You cannot just describe what happened in a praise poem. You have to say out loud what it means. And that can take a lot of digging.
5 fortnightly sessions over 10 weeks. No live chats. Suitable for UK & International students.
If you have any questions or wish to be added to the waiting list of a sold-out course, please email [email protected]
More information about how all our online courses work can be found on the Online Courses page.
Image credit: Ethiopian Education Foundation
About Chris Beckett View Profile
Chris Beckett is a poet and translator who was born in London but grew up in Ethiopia in the 1960s. He won the Poetry London prize in 2001 and his first Carcanet collection, Ethiopia Boy (Carcanet/Oxford Poets, 2013), was described by Julian Stannard in Poetry Review as a series of dazzling vignettes…a love letter to the country and his childhood friend, Abebe. His new Carcanet collection, Tenderfoot, came out last year and explores his memories of hunger and inequality in an Ethiopian setting. With Alemu Tebeje, he translated and edited Songs We Learn from Trees, the first ever anthology of Ethiopian Amharic poetry in English, published by Carcanet in May 2020. Sketches from The Poem Road (after Matsuo Bashō’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North), a collaboration with his partner, the Japanese painter and sculptor Isao Miura, was published by Hagi Press in 2015 and shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award.
‘It has completely changed and enhanced my life. The poetry school is wonderful, the staff and all the tutors. I wished I had joined it sooner but I have never looked back since doing so. It is brilliant. It has improved my writing a thousandfold. I feel I would have just remained stuck, wanting to improve but not knowing where to get it. I have met loads of lovely people, the staff are fantastic, very helpful and very patient, and the tutors are beyond wonderful. I think you could say I like it.’