What is a Golden Shovel?

An examination of the history, form and use of the Golden Shovel; a style of poetry honouring other great works.

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The Golden Shovel is a recent form of poetry, originally inspired by the work of Gwendolyn Brooks.

History

In 2017, poets around the world celebrated the 100th birthday of Gwendolyn Brooks. Brooks was one of the most influential poets of the 20th century, so it seemed like an obvious moment to pay homage to one of her most famous works, We Real Cool.

Drawing upon this work, fellow poet Terrence Hayes created the Golden Shovel as a unique form of Acrostic poetry. In his poem, the entire short verse of We Real Cool is codified within each stanza by reading the final word of each line.

In 2017, an anthology, The Golden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks, was published, which collected a number of Golden Shovel poems from prestigious writers from around the world, as a collective tribute to the memory and work of Brooks.

Hayes’ poem inspired and named the form, though it can also be considered a form of Cento. The Cento is a form composed of other lines of poetry, re-contextualised and ordered into a new poem. The earliest known example of such is Medea by Hosidius Geta, composed out of Virgilian lines.

Form

The Golden Shovel uses a favoured line of poetry as a starting point, ending each line on a word from that line in such a manner that the final worlds of each line read as the original quote.

The new poem does not need to be related to the original work, although more advanced poets will find challenge in reaffirming, recontextualising, or subverting the original meaning of their chosen quote.

The length of the final poem is directly based on the chosen quote, for example if there are 26 words in the quote you have chosen, your piece will have 26 lines.

This form could even be combined with other forms, especially forms based on syllable counts rather than fixed metre.

Use

Poetry is rife with plagiarism, but many poets find new poems springing forth inspired by the work of others. Copyright should therefore be considered, as arguably creating a Golden Shovel could be considered infringement upon the rights of the original writer. If in doubt, use a line from a poem which itself is now in the public domain due to sufficient time passing from the original writer’s death. Alternatively fair use can be claimed, in which case the original extract should be cited and the new piece presenting a commentary or critique of the original line. Within this context it is considered good form to attribute these works as ‘After X,’ and writers of Golden Shovels should make use of this, crediting the initial influence with the title, an epigram or author’s note.

This form works great as a way of responding to another piece, or exploring a line that has stayed with you, or even to get the cogs moving during slow writing periods. It can also be a good excuse to dive into the work of another writer.

In particular, I would encourage new writers who wish to make use of this form to explore the work of Gwendolyn Brooks as a starting point, as after all it is from her work that all other Golden Shovels ultimately owe influence.

Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.

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