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Page last updated at 10:42 GMT, Wednesday, 8 April 2009 11:42 UK

How to change a plug... in verse


Important: Wires in the mains lead are coloured in accordance with the following code:
Green/Yellow - Earth
Blue - Neutral
Brown- Live
If you change the plug, the colour of wires in the mains lead may not correspond with the colour of the markings identifying terminals in the plug

Remember, earth's green-yellow
Remember, blue don't care
Remember brown is live, good fellow
And then you're almost there!
Remember green, yellow, brown and blue
And you really won't go awry
But if the colours in the wires don't correspond
Then wave your hair goodbye!

By Ian McMillan
By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Sales of poetry books are down, but one way to reinvigorate this traditional art form could be to make it functional. We invited four poets to reinterpret the familiar, humdrum procedures of daily life, in verse form.

In Alan Bennett's The History Boys, one of the schoolboys complains that he can't relate to poetry because it's about emotions that he has yet to experience.

Teacher Hector replies he will, "and then you will have the antidote ready. Grief. Happiness. Even when you're dying. We're making your deathbeds here, boys. Poetry is the trailer! Forthcoming attractions!"

It's a humorous exchange that neatly captures both the lofty ideals of poetry and what some think its major pitfall, namely its perceived disconnect to the everyday.

When the Poetry Society was formed in the UK, 100 years ago this month, poetry played a central part in British life and schoolchildren were learning dozens of poems by heart.

In recent years, there has been a sharp fall in sales - from £12m spent in 2005 to £8.6m in 2008, according to Book Marketing Ltd.

Part of its image problem is the profile of its best exponents can't match the titans of prose.

McEwan, Rushdie, Amis... The names of leading British novelists are well known but it's a struggle to name their equivalents in the world of verse. Even the departure of Britain's Poet Laureate Andrew Motion hardly merited a murmur in the media when announced recently.

Write a short poem based on some everyday instructions
Use the three poems in this article as inspiration
Send them to and entitle them "poetry" or use the form at the foot of the page
We'll publish the best

But it's not all gloomy news. Although books may not be flying off the shelves, people are flocking to hear poetry. Live readings often sell out and major festivals like Glastonbury and Latitude now include "spoken word" tents.

George Palmer of poetry performance group Apples and Snakes says the scene is heavily influenced by hip-hop and part of its appeal is that it addresses real experiences like knife crime and immigration. It is also used to educate children in schools.

"There's a real interest in the down-to-earth, day-to-day subject matter in contrast to the page poetry which is more dealing with mythology and bigger subjects. This is more about everyday experiences."

Many poets perform more like stand-up comedians, he says, cracking jokes, and they have no interested in getting published. And he says the audience is generally younger than those buying poetry books.


Please enter your card

If you notice anything suspicious about this ATM, please call this number…

Please enter your pin

Please wait whilst your details are confirmed

Please select a service

Your balance is £58.26

Do you require another service?

Select an amount

Remove your card

Please wait while you cash is being counted

Please take your cash

Thank you for using this ATM

after checking for spies
and hidden eyes
you pass me your card
and tell me four numbers
that you silently harbour
alongside secrets and shames
I do not need to know
you ask me to tell you
that place within the world
you keep forgetting -
among the trillions
that flock the economy's
electronic ether
£58.26 is yours
coyly, I ask if you require
another service - you choose £50
because coins are too sharp
and clangourous
for my sensitive insides
when I ask you to take your cash
you do so without feeling patronised
in parting I offer thanks
not a goodbye

By Niall O'Sullivan

But Judith Palmer, director of the Poetry Society, believes it would be wrong to try and make poetry more "practical" than it already is.

"A lot of people like 'airy-fairyness' and where people don't like contemporary poetry, it's that it is not airy-fairy enough. I think there's room in poetry for heightened language and language that does bring the everyday very closely into focus.

"If there is an image problem, it's that people are not able to realise what a range of voices and subject matter that poetry encompasses.

Chris Holifield is director of the Poetry Book Society, which was founded by TS Eliot in 1953 to encourage more people to read modern poetry
'There's a lot of activity and in particular the live scene where readings and performance poetry are very active'
'Things aren't going quite so well on the book front. I think that's affected by what's going on in bookshops and the tendency of bookshops to stock bestsellers'

"And people are too ready to write it off whatever the reason, either that it's too highfalutin or too prosaic, but I'm sure there are poets writing that can make a difference."

Poetry's origins were very practical, as a means to record events, battles, kings and other stories before such things were written down, she says. Even today, there are many mnemonic rhymes to educate us and nursery rhymes that tell us about history.

Yet everyday life is littered with texts that are so dull and familiar, and devoid of flair or fun, that we hardly even read them:

  • The on-screen steps for taking money out of a cash machine
  • The instructions for setting up your new mobile phone
  • The council's rules for what you can and can't recycle

Functional verse about these everyday non-events could enrich our lives, says Judith Palmer, because an image or memorable line will pop into our heads the next time we encounter them and make them less banal.

But it's wrong to try too hard to make poetry "relevant" by insisting it only refer to the landscape we are familiar with.

"Literature can take you to other places as well and it doesn't have to be a poem about a house that looks just like yours. It can be a window on to a new world of possibilities."

Or, as Hector would add, experiences that could be just around life's corner.


Learn and follow the wiring colours when fitting a plug.

They are:

Earth - green and yellow (previously green)
Neutral - blue (previously black)
Live - brown (previously red)

Live Brown
Lights up the town.
Neutral Blue
Has no strong view.
And what about the stripy fellow?
Earth's the berth for Green-and -Yellow.

By Wendy Cope

Send us your examples of practical poetry - everyday texts such as instructions, rules, official guidance, re-interpreted as verse. You can use the form below or e-mail your poem to . Use the subject line "practical poetry" and don't forget to include your name and where you are from. Poems should be all your own work.

Card in
Then your PIN
Check that no-one else is watchin'

Choose your pleasure
Here's your treasure
To take some now please give your measure

Take card out
Hang about
While I count your coppers out

So goodbye
But don't be shy
It's fun! Let's go again sometime
Bethan, Reading, UK

Police Caution

You do not have to say anything, but it might harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something you later rely on in Court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence

Be quiet?
Omissions may haunt you
Admissions may damn you
Bill Campbell

The Green Cross Code
Stop at the edge
Don't fall off the ledge
Look to the right
Nothing in sight?
Look to the left
The warp and the weft
Look to the right
Still nothing in sight?
Listen for sound
The emptiest ground
Walk straight across
As quickly as poss
You've cracked the code!
Off your mind that's a load
David, Ely, UK

Stop, Look and Listen when you cross the road; It's a fundemental part of the Green Cross Code.
When you cross the road if you don't look round
Or you don't listen out for the engine sound
When you leave the safety of the path
You'd better be prepared for the aftermath.
If a car is doing over forty
(even though they're probably being naughty)
You'll need attention from a nurse;
They'll injure you or even worse
You'll die. So watch out on the road.
Rob (Wordsworth) Carter, Bromsgrove, UK

To make your egg go hard inside
Just take heed of the following guide
Make your water hot and frothy
then drop your egg in very softly
Add some salt into your pan
just in case some cracks happen
If you want your egg all hard inside
10 minutes boil should be just fine.
If you like your yolk all soft and runny
3 minutes time is on the money.
Dave Cassar, London

A useful ode to upload?
A villanelle as well?

E-mail the stanza
We might even answer.
See the form?
Write on it.
Send us a sonnet
Don't forget your name.
That would be amnesia.
Or where you're from -
America or from Asia.
Donal, Madrid

My Father (who's an electrician) taught my brother and I this simple rhyme to remind us how to wire a plug:

Red is Hot
Blue is not
Green and Yellow earth the lot

As long as you remember that hot is live and not is neutral, you'll never forget how to change a plug.
Kathryn Easthope, Uxbridge, United Kingdom

One for encountering snakes:

Red next to black, venom it lack
Red next to yellow, beware this fellow
Although the chances of this having any applicable use in
deepest, darkest Hertfordshire is somewhat unlikely.
Richard Jones, Hemel Hempstead

An old engineering trick for remembering which way to turn a screw (small but practical):

Lefty loosey,
Righty tighty.
Alan Smewing, Stafford, UK

If centigrade confuses you, as very well it might, nine fifths of c plus 32, will give you Farenheit.
Mike, Bolton

Your e-mail address
Town/city and country
Your practical poem

The BBC may edit your comments and not all emails will be published. Your comments may be published on any BBC media worldwide.

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