Lifesaving Poems: ‘Underneath the mathematics of time’


Phil Bowen gave me this poem, written by a ten-year-old girl, in 1998 to illustrate a writing game he submitted for The Poetry Book for Primary SchoolsWe called his exercise ‘Under the Heart of the Sun’.

Phil’s idea was based on the concluding poem of Simon Armitage’s Cloudcuckooland, the one beginning ‘under the bullet hole of the moon’. Taking suggestions from children, he draws up lists of words in three columns on the board.

First he collects images from the classroom environment: desks, waste paper baskets, computer screens, Viking posters etc.  Next he takes ‘big picture’ words and phrases: images from nature and the world: the solar system, planets, oceans, names of rivers, mountain ranges and so on. Finally he makes a list of prepositions, formal ones to start with (next to, underneath, alongside, below, inside etc.), then more idiomatic ones such as next door to, around the corner from etc.

The fun starts when you start blending these together to make new and extraordinary metaphors which may (or may not) make sense:

Behind the Viking ship of the clouds

Next to the dustbin of the sky

Inside the ripped poster of the rain

Behind the stop sign of the night


The resulting poems do not need to make narrative or linear sense. The purpose of the exercise is to see where the language takes you. It hasn’t got to tell a story.

To illustrate his idea Phil sent me the poem below. Whenever I read it to teachers and children, they always look puzzled. But they also say how much they love its final line. We would love to scribble with delight as well, they say.

And I tell them that they can.


Underneath the mathematics of time

was a theatre

around the corner from the ballerina statues

where the gradients covered India

next door to the flowers

who danced with the drill

where the Impressionists used spiky yellow art

where the language of education sat scribbling with delight


By Anonymous


Artwork: Kate Hingston


  1. Lovely. I remember using a similar exercise on a counselling course many years ago given to us by the late Peter Redgrove. It produced so much fertile “stuff” and was hugely enjoyable too.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.