James Joyce’s ‘Chamber Music’ was published in 1907, a tightly organised collection of very singable little love songs published three years after he met his future wife, Nora Barnacle. She was a chambermaid from Galway, and their first outing together–a walk through the Dublin suburb of Ringsend–was sufficently memorable (she masturbated him) that the date of 16 June 1904 was made the day of the events of Joyce’s novel ‘Ulysses’, and is now celebrated in various fashions around the world as Bloomsday.
The first poem of ‘Chamber Music’ sets the tone, not necessarily what you would expect from Joyce, but definitely related to his very fine singing voice:
Strings in the earth and air Make music sweet; Strings by the river where The willows meet.
There’s music along the river For Love wanders there, Pale flowers on his mantle, Dark leaves on his hair.
All softly playing, With head to music bent, And fingers straying Upon an instrument.
Yes, well… Anyway, apart from the Joycean suggestiveness the lyrics provide a simple narrative over the 36 poems, short poems of eight to 18 lines. He sings of a girl, a maiden, shy, beautiful; she is a dove, a sweetheart, his true love, and only becomes a lady in Number 28. Then in the last three we have the “unquiet heart”, then “the grey winds”, and finally the last dream poem begins “I hear an army charging upon the land” and ends “My love, my love, my love, why have you left me alone?”
The narrative of the lyrics does not reflect Joyce’s life with Nora. She had moved with him to Austria-Hungary in 1904, and they stayed together until his death in 1941.
I just came from The Seagull, and it’s still the tour de force it was when it was written. The jaded past, a tragic Russian vaudeville, ushers in the star-struck and the smitten, the ingénue, the predator, hard-bitten, artists in a trance-like state and sordid, bewitched by when and how they’ll be rewarded.
Success too young is said to be a curse for writers—yours was neither smug nor rude. By twenty-one, your stories filled a purse to pay your famished family’s rent and food. Your father’s violence had finally been subdued. Doctor, writer, you could dress a wound or stage a scene of pettiness lampooned.
Though philistines have claimed your plays lack action there are secret histrionics of the mind where characters break through the stupefaction and character unfolds when it’s confined. Whether tight, oblivious or blind, the diva crippled by her little fame reveals herself in fear of change, or shame.
Your plays still plumb the interplay between words and silence, plotlessness and plot in which you show an uneventful scene composed entirely of what was not to be—the spent emotion scattershot around the stage in wraiths of lost pretension, and meaning haunted by the fourth dimension.
How women loved Antosha! You could be flippant, daring, timid, or a charmer. Biographers today are on a spree: computers link to lovers and their armor, unsigned stories, letters to a farmer, notes on pets. But did your gentle crane mean more to you than Masha or demesne?
And Lydia Avilova! Tantamount to love affair or game of cat-and-mouse, no one could say by reading her account of unrequited love, the empty house once lent by friends, your hunch her child and spouse (Karenina, or Lady with a Dog?) would haunt her like a countermarch, a fog.
Or worse. Perhaps it was her child for whom you stopped. Could she have let him go? It might have meant despondency and doom, and why should history have the need to know? Eventually Avilova’s book would show the years you spent inventing cryptic ruses, the stifled passion, the letters bearing bruises.
Four years before you died, you took a wife, the theater’s Olga Knipper—Like a colt, you said—who thrived on acting, laughter, life, and you. Your own Teutonic thunderbolt. Masha would be the sister in revolt. She’d broken her engagement years before at your insistence. Masha was keeping score.
Juggling marriage, jealousy, TB, and writing plays, in Yalta you missed Moscow, Olga, the theater—in Moscow you craved the sea, the ease, the heat. You dreaded every flow of springtime melt, the break of ice and snow. With spring came spitting blood, and you were weak. Writing was a trial. You couldn’t speak.
In youth, you wrote: Of all the doctors in town, I am the sorriest case. My carriage is broken, my horses mangy, I don’t know the roads, I frown at night and still can’t see, and I’m awoken by pleas for cash, of which I’ve none. Unspoken disease is rampant. I tire very quickly, practice medicine gratis, and am sickly.
My paraphrase, and fraught with emendations. The tragedy is clear. The truth is that you struggled with the people’s deprivations and gave yourself away sans caveat. En route to France’s kinder habitat, you died a “doctor’s death”—TB, champagne, the German spa, and morphine for the pain.
Terese Coe writes: “The letter-poem speaks for me.”
Terese Coe’s poems and translations have appeared in Agenda, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Cincinnati Review, The Moth, New American Writing, New Writing Scotland, Ploughshares, Poetry, Poetry Review, Potcake Chapbooks, The Stinging Fly, Threepenny Review, and the TLS, among many other journals. Her collection Shot Silk was listed for the 2017 Poets Prize. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terese_Coe
Through the honeyed halls of Autumn
Hums the angry ageing bee;
As its work faces fruition,
And its life, redundancy.
This little poem was originally published in Candelabrum, a 1970 formalist hold-out that ran for forty years in the UK under Leonard McCarthy. More recently, it was just republished in Jerome Betts’ latest Lighten-Up Online.
Epigrammatic couplets and quatrains, being rhyme- and stress-based, are common throughout Indo-European languages. They hold the same natural place that haiku, senryu and tanka have in syllable-counting Japanese. It is easier to learn by heart a poem whose form uses the natural strengths of the language, rather than something written in a language-inappropriate form.
Similarly, when reading a poem in translation, you get the ideas and the imagery but you normally lose the enhancement of mood caused by the metre, the rhythm of the verse, as well as by the rhyme. So ideas and imagery alone give you prose, not poetry.
Consider the differences in tone of gravity or levity set by rhythm in these opening lines (and you need to read them aloud–in your head if you can do that, otherwise really aloud, in order to hear the rhythm, the beat of the lines):
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky...
I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he;
I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three...
On the top of the Crumpetty Tree
The Quangle Wangle sat...
The first is meditative, the second full of action, the third is casual, informal… and those moods are set by the rhythm alone.
Metre is an essential component of English poetry. Make the metre-rule your yardstick. Don’t leave home without it.
Well-known British poet Robin Houghton has a blog that is also connected to her list of British and Irish poetry magazines, with information about their submission opportunities and requirements. This is similar to Trish Hopkinson’s blog and lists of predominantly American poetry magazines, with this major difference: Trish Hopkinson produces individually themed lists for the enormous US poetry scene, whereas Robin Houghton provides a single list of (currently) 107 magazines. (Subscribe to Robin Houghton’s free email list to get quarterly updates.)
But that’s not bad for formal poets, as British and Irish poetry magazines are far more likely than American ones to publish traditional (especially innovatively traditional) verse. I put the cultural difference down to the educational systems, at least as they were in my school days, decades ago. For those not familiar with the matter, the British system started with subject-specific teachers at the beginning of primary (= elementary) school, the American system not for another five or six years. So in those formative educational years, the Brits were learning English from an English teacher… while the Americans were learning from a generalist who was teaching English, history, mathematics, science, Spanish, etc etc, and doing it from an approved book because they didn’t necessarily have any particular knowledge or love of any of those subjects.
English teacher: let’s learn this poem by heart. Read it so you can hear the rhythm, catch the rhymes, that’s how you learn songs. Now try writing one.
American teacher: anyone can write poetry, it’s your feelings. Write down three words that describe how you feel today. That’s a poem! See? It’s easy.
The result is that the UK and Ireland have the rhythms and rhyme and background culture of verse more firmly embedded in their population than Americans do.
Robin Houghton’s list of poetry magazines is very rewarding for anyone who wants to work their way through the listings, look up a couple of sample poems and get a feel for a magazine, and find a new place to submit their own work–generally speaking, formal poetry is more likely to be accepted in the UK and Ireland than it is in North America.
The sun comes out. Street-closing hills that climb Below the scoops of cumulus from Wales Are woodland backdrops lit for pantomime, Bright as the ribbons round the horses’ tails.
Where steam-frilled dung and strawy puddles mix In iron pens, the mud-scaled cattle groan; The auctioneers outbawl the rapping sticks And rattling bars and hobnails scraped on stone.
Lost in the din, the gaiters, boots and wheels, The lambs cry, unregarded. Overhead, The clock, white marble up in front, conceals That all behind is brickwork’s weathered red.
A stray dog pauses, sniffs, then, deaf to shouts, Swings up its leg against a net of sprouts.
Jerome Betts writes: “I’m attached to this piece, first printed in Pennine Platform, as it began as wispy free verse in university days and gradually metamorphosed over many years. The bellowing from the market punctuated lessons in a West Midlands cathedral city and other elements were attracted, like the ribbons in the horses’ tails and then a reminder of the street-ending hills in a small town in Castilla y León, and the closing couplet from another in the East Midlands.But, aided by the grappling-hook of rhyme, something unexpected emerged from the depths and took over with the lambs and the clock, often an intriguing result of struggling with formal constraints.”
Jerome Betts was born and brought up on the Welsh border, but now lives in South Devon, where he edits the quarterly Lighten Up Online. In addition to articles and verse in consumer and specialist magazines his work has appeared in Pennine Platform, Staple and The Guardian, as well as anthologies like The Iron Book of New Humorous Verse, Limerick Nation, Love Affairs At The Villa Nelle, and The Potcake Chapbooks 1 & 2, and online at Amsterdam Quarterly, Angle, The Asses of Parnassus, Autumn Sky Poetry Daily, Better Than Starbucks, The Hypertexts, Light, The New Verse News, Parody, The Rotary Dial, Snakeskin, and other sites.
On those days when, because you felt attacked, you just won’t speak, it’s like a dress rehearsal for one of us being dead. (So, a prehearsal?) Can’t speak for you, how you’d react, but for myself, if you die, I know only: I’d be lonely.
After the slow dispersal of the acquisitions of the years from yard sales, impulses, unfinished plans– after the children’s and grandchildren’s tears, (their own mortality foretold in Gran’s) there’d be an emptiness.
Routine unravels: I’d need an act of will to even shave– the dogs don’t care how I behave. All I need’s here in cupboards, shelves, on line. I’d be just fine… apart from growing restlessness.
I guess I’d restart travels. Meanwhile I’ve learned how it will be to live without you, just your memory, a silent apparition in this room and that, the ghost of one who used to laugh and chat.
Think of this as a melancholy love poem, written in a temporary (thank goodness) state of being that can occur in any relationship.
This poem was published this month in Snakeskin No. (or #) 276. I feel proud to be in the issue, as I rate it as one of the best ever in the 20+ years that George Simmers has been putting the magazine out. Though much of the poetry is formless (but still worth reading!), there is some truly impressive work by Tom Vaughan and Scott Woodland, with well-structured work by Robert West, Nick Browne and Jerome Betts, and with interesting innovations in form by Marjorie Sadin, Claudia Gary and George himself–in this last, the character of the verse becomes more lively as the character in the verse becomes more alive.
Technically the form of the poem–uneven lengths of iambics, all lines rhyming but not in a structured way–is one that allows the line breaks to echo your intact chunks of thought as well as the rhythms of speech. It is the form of Eliot’s Prufrock and, earlier, of Arnold’s A Summer Night:
And the rest, a few, Escape their prison and depart On the wide ocean of life anew. There the freed prisoner, where’er his heart Listeth will sail;
It is a casual form, but it retains enough of the hooks of more formal verse to make it easy to memorise and recite.
When so many poetry magazines are one-or two-person operations, it is hard to know of all of them, harder still to sort through and find the ones that you would enjoy reading and, as a poet, would like to submit work to. How wonderful, then, when someone like Trish Hopkinson comes long to inform us of magazine openings and closings, of different editorial requests and requirements, and of calls for submission!
As a formal poet living in our current wasteland of unstructured material, I am especially grateful that she has put together a list of Where to Submit Formal Verse. Her list of 53 magazines is extremely useful, but it does have some drawbacks:
First, it (understandably) focuses on the Anglo-Canadian-American market. In today’s online world, such restrictions should not necessarily apply. I have had English-language verse published in Australia, India, Netherlands, Nigeria and Turkey. English is very much a global language, and not just in the areas of business and Hollywood.
Second, some of the more difficult prospects, but the most desirable, are not mentioned–for example Poetry Magazine and the New Yorker. Yet they publish just as large a proportion of formal verse as some of the others in her list. (For example, Marilyn Taylor is sometimes the only formal one of over 50 poets published in an issue of Verse-Virtual.)
And lastly, the list is unfortunately four years old. In the world of poetry magazines, this means many will have disappeared, many others will have arisen. The Rotary Dial, Sliptongue, Unsplendid… each unique, excellent in its way, but disappeared along with several others in her list.
But as, obviously, you start by looking at a magazine and its website and its samples and requirements before you submit, little time is lost in identifying the defunct. The list remains invaluable for finding well-established magazines that will publish formal verse.
That was my first job, he said, as we gazed at the insignificant window. Down the slate steps, and looking from the raised salt-pitted pavement, where this end of town gets hammered by the sea, it looked so small. But sturdy, strongly-made enough to prove that here his father fitted him with all the craftsmanship he’d need. It wouldn’t move or crumble. Each year he’d return, to see his work enduring. Then brought me, to know a detail of our family history and let this shabby mullioned window show something inherited – that stone and wood, well-built, can last a lifetime and go on drawing the clean light in and doing good. I think about it often now he’s gone.
D A Prince writes: “Sometimes a poem travels far further than expected. When I wrote ‘The Window’ I felt it was a quiet and, for me, unusually personal poem which would have a limited readership. It was published in South, and the editors subsequently submitted it to the Forward 2020 Anthology. I was pleased they had chosen it but given the cutting-edge nature of the Forward anthologies I never thought it would be selected. After all, it’s formal; that’s not how twenty-first century poetry is. To my astonishment it was selected and included — perhaps a reminder that rhyme and metre are still part of our landscape.”
D A Prince lives in Leicestershire and London. Her first appearances in print were in the weekly competitions in The Spectator and New Statesman (which ceased its competitions in 2016) along with other outlets that hosted light verse. Something closer to ‘proper’ poetry followed, with three pamphlets, followed by a full-length collection, Nearly the Happy Hour, from HappenStance Press in 2008. A second collection, Common Ground, (from the same publisher) followed in 2014 and this won the East Midlands Book Award in 2015. HappenStance published her pamphlet Bookmarks in 2018. Light verse continues to be an essential part of her writing as a way of honing technical skills while having fun.
The hurricane of 1929– That massive killer storm of ’29– Came when boats sailed, thinking the weather fine.
The storm came violent as a warrior– Crept up in silence, struck like a warrior The Ethel, Myrtle and Pretoria.
The three were bound for Andros, two escaped– The Ethel and the Myrtle, they escaped– But 35 drowned when the sea’s mouth gaped.
The storm sat over Nassau for three days– It killed a hundred, sitting for three days– Three quarters of all houses just erased.
Bahamians now don’t know what happened then… They just sing ‘Run Come See Jerusalem’.
The September 1929 hurricane is memorialised in the old Blind Blake calypso ‘Run Come See Jerusalem‘. Poorly-built structures and ships were destroyed throughout the Bahamas. 142 people were killed, out of a population of less than 50,000. Andros Island was within the envelope of the storm’s hurricane-force winds and storm surge for two days. Parts of the island were inundated by a 12 ft (3.7 m) surge that advanced 20 mi (32 km) inland, wiping out all crops and most fruit trees and livestock.
A wind gust of 164 mph (264 km/h) was measured in Nassau, which also experienced the calm of the hurricane’s eye for two hours. An estimated 73% of the city’s homes and businesses sustained damage, leaving more than 5,000 people without homes. The hurricane was a heavy blow to the declining sponge industry on the islands. Following the storm, wild birds and crops were brought from the Caribbean to replenish their losses in the Bahamas. New building codes were enacted after the 1929 storm to prevent similarly extensive destruction. (Wikipedia)
For the most part, hurricanes in this part of the world come west from Africa, turn northwest before or after reaching the Caribbean, and somewhere around Florida turn northeast, ending up as gales in Ireland and the UK. That’s their natural track, anyway. It seems that the storms that do the most damage in the Bahamas are those that get off track in the Atlantic, turn southwest into the Bahamas, and then pause for a couple of days while the surrounding weather systems slowly force them north again. That was true of Joaquin in 2015, Betsy in 1965, and the unnamed 1929 hurricane.
This week is the anniversary of Hurricane Dorian, the storm that devastated Abaco and Grand Bahama last year. Dorian turned from north-northwest to west, then stalled over Grand Bahama for a couple of days before turning north again. If the hurricane just keeps moving it may be powerful and destructive like Andrew in 1992 and Floyd in 1999, but no location will have strong winds for more than a couple of hours. Buildings can withstand this. But when a hurricane stalls, and the strong winds continue for a couple of days and nights, with storm surges on top of several high tides… that’s when the most damage can happen. But we’re into September. Hurricanes happen at this time of year.
As for the poem, it’s a Blues Sonnet, an established mashup of European sonnet and Afro-American blues. It contains less information than a regular sonnet because of the amount of repetition, but it works well to express a mood of lamentation. The Poet’s Garret has Hillary Clinton singing the blues as an example.
Lucy Vickery runs a competition in the British weekly The Spectator–a truly venerable publication which recently reached its 10,000th weekly issue. Its politics are a bit too conservative for my taste, but the competition is in a class of its own (The New Statesman having dropped its similar competition a few years ago).
The most recent challenge was this: “In Competition No. 3163 you were invited to submit well-known poems encapsulated in four lines.” The gorgeous responses prompted Lucy Vickery to call the results “Paradise Lost in four lines”, after this entry by Jane Blanchard:
Satan found himself in hell — Eve and Adam also fell — Good gone bad got even worse — Milton wrote too much blank verse —
(which exactly reflects my feelings, having had to waste too much of my A Level studies on Paradise Lost at the expense of more interesting poets such as John Donne and Matthew Arnold.)
My personal delight in The Spectator’s competitions is in seeing so many Potcake Poets there (in this case not just Jane Blanchard, but also Chris O’Carroll, Martin Parker, Jerome Betts, George Simmers and Brian Allgar), and in identifying more poets to keep an eye on for possible future chapbooks.
Anyway, if you want to see nice condensations of famous poems, have a look at that specific competition’s results. My favourite is Martin Parker’s take on e.e. cummings’ ‘may i feel said he‘: