Category Archives: Poems

Poem: “Bee”

“July Honey Bee” by MattX27 
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.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Jerome Betts, “View of the Old Market”

Jerome Betts

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.

https://www.lightenup-online.co.uk/

Poem: “The Silence”

“Pareja (Couple)” by Daquella manera 

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.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: D.A. Prince, “The Window”

D.A. Prince

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.

http://www.happenstancepress.com

Poem: “Blues Sonnet for the Bahamas, 1929”

Storm track of the 1929 hurricane, stalling over Nassau and Andros

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.

The Spectator Competition: “Paradise Lost in four lines”

Milton Dictating to his Daughter, 1793, Henry Fuseli

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‘:

foreplay
(more play)
errings, ummings
(and cummings)

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Edmund Conti, “My Son the Critic”

Edmund Conti

Edmund Conti

Read me a bedtime poem, said my son.
So I read him this:

We say hippopotami
But not rhinoceri
A strange dichotomy
In nature’s glossary.

But we do say rhinoceri, he said.  Look it up.
So I read him this:

Life is unfair
For most of us, therefore
Let’s have a fanfare
For those that it’s fair for.

I smell a slant rhyme, he said, sniffing.
So I read him this:

While trying to grapple
With gravity, Newton
Was helped by an apple
He didn’t compute on.

My teacher says that’s not poetry, he said.
So I read him this:

René Descartes, he thought
And therefore knew he was.
And since he was, he sought
To make us think.  He does.

That made me think, he said.  But not feel.
So I read him this:

My hair has a wonderful sheen.
My toenails, clipped, have regality.
It’s just all those things in between
That give me a sense of mortality.

Did the earth move?  I asked.  Anything?
Nothing moved.  He was asleep.

Ed Conti writes: “I sent the following quatrain to John Mella at Light and he accepted it (those were the good old days).

We say hippopotami
But not rhinoceri
A strange dichotomy
In nature’s glossary.

I don’t remember what the title was but I’m sure it didn’t hurt the poem.  A few weeks later dis-accepted the poem.  He had consulted with a fellow editor (I didn’t know they did that!) and found out you do say ‘rhinoceri.’  Now what?  I didn’t want to trash the quatrain, not with ‘t those felicitous rhymes.  So how to keep the verse and note the error. That was it, link a whole bunch of poems with their shortcomings (and I have a lot of those) and do a learned dissertation on what their problems were.  And who better to do that than one of my two sons.  Which one? It wouldn’t matter, I wouldn’t name him.  That way if one of them said he didn’t remember that happening, I would say it was the other son. Besides they were too young to worry about personas (personae?) And I wasn’t sure if I actually knew what they were.

So what does the reader get out of this poem?  Probably nothing. I write for myself because it’s fun.  If the reader chooses to enjoy this poem, that’s his problem.”

Edmund Conti has recent poems published in Light, Lighten-Up Online, The Lyric, The Asses of Parnassus, newversenews, Verse-Virtual and Open Arts Forum. His book of poems, Just So You Know has been recently released by Kelsay Books.
https://www.amazon.com/Just-You-Know-Edmund-Conti/dp/1947465899/

http://www.short-humour.org.uk/10writersshowcase/10writersshowcase.htm#EDCO

https://www.facebook.com/edmund.conti/

Limerick: On a Hopeless Romantic


Like Jesus, she felt God-forsaken,
like Joan of Arc, wanted a stake in
     a life full of meaning,
     a life undemeaning—
like Jung, she was simply myth-taken.

This limerick was originally published in Light. As far as I remember, I didn’t have anyone in mind when writing it, it was done for the pure wordplay of the rhythm and rhyme, the repetition of the J-names in the long lines and the near-identical nature of the short lines, and of course the final pun.

Formal verse covers a lot of territory from limericks at one extreme to Paradise Lost at the other. Personally, I’ll take Lear over Milton any day.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Claudia Gary, “Blues Manqué”

Claudia Gary

Claudia Gary

I’ve suffered, but I can’t quite sing the blues.
My troubles are occasional, not chronic.
My angst is true, but not the kind you’d use

against the everyday, to find or lose
your heart. My chords are major and harmonic.
I’ve suffered, but I don’t dare sing the blues.

Any attempt would probably amuse,
but not in ways your songs have made iconic.
Your angst is true, while mine’s nothing to use

in threatening to blow a major fuse
or skip to Paris on the supersonic.
I’ve not suffered enough to sing the blues.

Saying I have is asking for a bruise.
You’ll throw tomatoes. They’ll be hydroponic.
This angst is true, but nothing I can use

to make you say mine is the pain you’d choose.
The plates I spin are porcelain, not tectonic.
I suffer from a need to sing the blues
with insufficient angst, too kind to use.

Claudia Gary writes: “I chose this poem because people have seemed to enjoy it at various readings, as did the wonderful editors who chose to include it in “Love Affairs at the Villa Nelle.” Also, villanelle is one of the forms I love to teach at writer.org—currently online, so people can “Zoom” from anywhere in the world and wear their pajamas to class.”

Claudia Gary teaches villanelle, sonnet, and meter “crash courses” at The Writer’s Center (writer.org). A three-time finalist for the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award and semifinalist for the Anthony Hecht prize (Waywiser books), she is author of Humor Me (David Robert Books, 2006), chapbooks including Genetic Revisionism (2019), and poems appearing in journals and anthologies internationally. She also writes chamber music, art songs, and health/science articles. See also pw.org/content/claudia_gary, @claudiagary (twitter), and claudiagarypoet (instagram).

Review: “Modern Verse in English, 1900-1950”

Modern Verse in English

I’m reading ‘Modern Verse in English, 1900-1950‘, ed. David Cecil and Allen Tate, published in 1958. It provides a good look at a large number of poets from that time period–some have lasted, some haven’t. It is an extensive and useful volume, but it raises some concerns:

1. Lord David Cecil‘s introduction (to the English poems) includes “though during the twenties there was a fashion for free and rhymeless verse, it has passed. Most young poets today write in strictly regular forms.” This was published in 1958, remember. Not really prescient, unfortunately, so you question his insight. He regrets omitting “the work of writers who have made their reputation since 1950, for example, Miss Audrey Beecham, Mr. Philip Larkin and Mr. Thom Gunn.” Well, two out of three’s not bad.

2. The ‘1900-1950′ seems a bit misleading, given that the poets include Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins who both died in the 1880s. True, Hopkins’ poetry wasn’t published until the 1930s–but would we consider an unknown Shakespeare poem 21st century if it was only discovered and published today? And as for Dickinson, three Series of her poems were published in the 1890s.

3. Although a couple of poets born in Ireland and South Africa, and Kipling, are included, the volume contains nothing by Canadians (Bliss Carman, Robert Service and F.R. Scott would fit the time line), Australians, West Indians, etc; and nothing by any people of colour such as Langston Hughes or Gwendolyn Brooks (one of my absolute favourites). Any of these would be far more worthy of inclusion than, for example, Donald Davidson whose chief merit for the editor of the American poems, Allen Tate, must have been their shared support for racial segregation. The volume would be better titled ‘Modern White English and American Verse, from Emily Dickinson to Richard Wilbur‘. Still not perfectly accurate, but so it goes.

It is a useful book. But it is less complete than its title suggests, and it is tainted.