The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Writing Formal Verse (with apologies to Douglas Adams)

We didn’t mean to hitchhike.

We’d planned to take the bus. But our Italian was so bad we didn’t find the bus stop until the bus had been and gone. We thought we’d take the train but by the time we got to the train station, we’d missed that too.

By now it was about 11.30. We really needed to get from one small town to another slightly bigger one, where we could rent a car. The office was due to close at 2pm and would not reopen for two days, by which time we would have left Italy, having spent our five-day adventure in one small marina.

The guidebook advised us not to hitchhike. There was no tradition of hitchhiking in that part of Italy (Abruzzo) and our thumbing a lift might be misunderstood. But we were both in our thirties, my girlfriend and I. I was, in fact, 30 weeks pregnant. What could go wrong?

So we stood at the side of the road in the boiling heat with our thumbs out and were ignored for a long time. Our spirits began to fail.

All of a sudden a tiny, dented, bright yellow Fiat puttered into view. ‘Hooray,’ we shouted, convinced that the friendly curves of its vintage design meant the driver would stop.

The Fiat drove on past. Looks had deceived us and we felt fools.

We looked at our watches, 12.30. We stuck our thumbs out and smiled at the cars. No one stopped.

Imagine our excitement when the Fiat hove back into view. We had been right all along.

Smiling, the driver pulled in and wound down the passenger window.

I knew exactly what to do. In the event that we did decide to hitchhike, against its advice, the guidebook suggested we ask the driver where he was going so that we could work out if our destination was on his route. This, the book said, would be a bit safer than just getting in and asking to be taken wherever it was we wanted to go. The writer even kindly supplied the phrase we could use in this situation.

I leaned into the open window. ‘Dove diretto?’

The flaw in the plan became obvious immediately. I couldn’t understand a word the driver said back to me. But he was still smiling and so was I as we batted the question backwards and forwards between us. ‘Dove diretto?’ I kept saying, trying to discern the name of a town from the map in his torrents of rapid Italian.

After about 90 seconds of this, I was ready to cross my fingers and just get in. I opened the car door. The driver made an odd gesture with both of his hands in the direction of his lap.

It was then that I noticed he was naked from the waist down.

I have been trying to write sonnets recently. It’s not dissimilar to standing in the baking sun hoping to be taken somewhere useful.

On the advice of the poet  Andrew Philip I am reading Writing Poetry by W N Herbert (Routledge, 2010). On sonnets, Herbert writes:

A poem is not a vessel into which we pour a previously prepared substance. On the contrary, by working within the particular restraints of a poem, we find that its laws alter our expression. An unexpected image or a surprising rhyme create new associations, and so too the demands of a stanza form reshape our thought. This is particularly true of the sonnet: we don’t write to express ourselves, we write to discover what the sonnet is saying, how it expresses us.’

So far I have found no unlooked-for penises in my verse. But it is striking how difficult it is to alter something that’s gone just a little bit wrong. I begin to see that there is no such thing as ‘a little bit wrong’. Things either work or they don’t.

What’s more, the line that’s not working may not be the problem. The problem is often much earlier than seems to be the case, usually towards the beginning and often growing out of a sound that works in the earlier line but simply doesn’t later on.

Last week our teacher Jenny Lewis (you can read some of her work here but her new collection Taking Mesopotamia is out with Carcanet) set us all the task of writing a sonnet from a line in someone else’s verse. She gave me a line from Shakespeare’s sonnet 18: ‘Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines’.

I wrote:

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines
A line time bends into a timely curse
or worse, the sentence of a judge who finds
the holes in our defence are fatal flaws.
Defending counsel tries to mitigate


‘Mitigate’ is a bugger to rhyme. I came up with ‘marmalade’ which actually is quite a nice idea (proving Herbert’s point) but not quite right. Now I’m looking again the sonnet and thinking that perhaps the rot sets in with ‘sentence’. I’m then stuck with the rather tired courtroom metaphor which again, sprang fully formed onto the page, out of the constraints of the metre and form of a traditional sonnet.

Whose idea was that, I ask myself? Who is writing this poem?

Just as the need for us to hire a car led us to the hot roadside and the laughing, half-naked man.

In case you are wondering, I slammed the door shut and hooted with laughter myself. Had I been younger, I might have been alarmed but as it was, my friend and I laughed until we cried, mainly at my idiotic attempt to converse with a flasher in a language I don’t speak or understand.

Dove diretto?’ Each time we said it we howled.

Until we noticed the time. We had 45 minutes.

‘That’s it,’ one of us said, ‘we’re only going with a family.’

Just then a black Alpha Romeo drew up. The driver, a young man, wearing a matching black T-shirt and black shades, asked us in English if we wanted a lift.

We could feel the air conditioning from where we stood. We were in the back seat before we’d finished telling him our destination.

He was a lovely man.

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Posted in Writing
4 comments on “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Writing Formal Verse (with apologies to Douglas Adams)
  1. I;ve only once hitchhiked. The lorry driver who stopped was covered in blood. It seemed rude to refuse, but I was grateful later to learn that he was conveying a cargo of carcasses. Your sonnet is impressive. I think, given the above, you should pair mitigate with titillate!

  2. Cathy Dreyer says:

    LOL Anna, I like your style. Cathy x

  3. I love that story! Poor Italian flasher having to point to his own cock to get you to notice. I bet his flashing days were never the same again.

    Looking forward to reading the sonnet. Dove diretto la suo poema, mi chiedo?

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