Category Archives: nonce forms

Poem: ‘Homage From British Expats’

Thou noble, purest British race!
Thy children we,
Inheriting thy every trace;
From thy straight back, unmoving face,
We learn the truest social grace,
Pomposity.

To thee the new is never good,
’Tis duty shirked.
Thou’dst never think, and much less brood;
Thou duty-bound eatst wooden food;
Thou ever ramrod-straight hast stood,
And never worked.

Britain! Served on a silver tray
Thine Empire’s tea –
Respectfully we beg to say
We praise thee, but we cannot stay,
We have our duty far away,
Escaping thee.

*****

This is the third of the poems recently published by Pulsebeat Poetry Journal, and I’m pleased at how different the three of them are. ‘Ultimate Control’ is a Science Fiction sonnet, ‘Ticking Away’ is a meditation on time, life and death, and this one was written almost 50 years ago in reaction against (some aspects of) being sent to boarding school in England.

A little personal context: I was raised as an expat in the Bahamas by my Danish father and English mother. After five years of Church of England primary boarding school in Jamaica (when at least I came home three times a year) I went to England for five more years of boarding school, and came home rarely. The countryside setting of Stowe was delightful, and I got a good education with a lot of poetry, and I learned sarcasm. It all uprooted me from being fully Bahamian, but failed to make me fully English. In the 1970s the Bahamas didn’t want me and I didn’t want England. So… Denmark, then Canada, then the US, and finally the Bahamas again as a foreign resident. I have been an expat all my life – and frequently sarcastic about it.

The poem is a nonce form – I used to produce them easily in my 20s, I wish I still did. It’s in iambics rhyming ABAAAB, with four feet to the A lines and only two to the B lines – the last line of each verse being a punch line and the shortness of the line helping strengthen that effect.

Image” by spock-ola is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Poem: ‘Ticking Away’

You have hopes. You don’t expect
that they’ll ever come to pass
but you drink, think and reflect
as you look into the glass…
And you wonder what will happen
while your life just ticks away:
Tick, tick, tick, tick… end of play.

Science’s prognostications,
things you’d pick up in a flash:
soon they’ll start rejuvenations
if you only had the cash…
Cash cuts those who’d live forever
from the rest as with a knife:
Tick, tick, tick, tick… end of life.

But you don’t like thoughts of dying
so you hope you’ve got a soul;
and though preachers are caught lying
Heaven seems attainable…
But there’s got to be a Heaven
or prayer’s just a waste of breath:
Tick, tick, tick, tick… towards death.

Though you think that you’re so clever,
you’ve got goals but not the How.
Play the lottery for ever
it must pay off – why not now?
But you never do the homework
so at question time you’re stuck:
Tick, tick, tick, tick… out of luck.

That affair you never had
with the person down the street
for you’re really not that bad
and besides, you rarely meet…
But it sits there like a present
that’s unopened on a shelf:
Tick, tick, tick, tick… end of self.

So there’s all the other options
for the things you’d like to do:
travel, study, home, adoptions,
building family anew,
but you’re aging while you’re thinking
and the chances go on by:
Tick, tick, tick, tick… till you die.

*****

On this funereal day I take happy morbid pleasure in remembering that we are all mortal. Let’s keep on ticking as long as we can! ‘Ticking Away’ was published in the most recent edition of David Stephenson’s ‘Pulsebeat Poetry Journal‘, a recent and welcome addition to the growing cadre of formal-friendly magazines. It’s a nonce form, shaped in the writing of it; the lines rhyming ABABCDD, and the metre being a rapid patter broken by the ticking in the last line of the stanza.

You could say it’s mostly written in incomplete trochaic tetrameter, the form of Longfellow’s ‘Hiawatha’

By the shore of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
At the doorway of his wigwam,

But I prefer to read it with the rapid beat of W.S. Gilbert’s

I am the very model of a modern Major-General
I’ve information vegetable, animal, and mineral

which, technically, you could read as iambic octosyllable

I am the very model of a modern Major-General
I’ve information vegetable, animal, and mineral

but not all of those stressed syllables have equal weight. Gilbert’s lyrics are patter, built on highly stressed, semi-stressed and unstressed syllables. English poetry is flexible and chaotic, and its analysis can be contradictory, because the poetry is a fusion of casual Anglo-Saxon verse which counts stresses but not syllables, and formal French verse which counts syllables but not stresses. This mirrors the creation of English itself which is a fusion of various Germanic and Romance languages… with a dash of Celtic grammar thrown in. (Where do you think the pointless auxiliary verb “do” comes from in the phrase “Where do you think”, rather than a more straightforward “Whence think you”? Answer: Celtic.) But the educated literati of the past few hundred years learned all their analysis of grammar and poetry from the French who in turn were drawing on the Greeks and Romans. And some of that thinking is irrelevant to Germanic and Celtic structures.

TLDR: Write what feels natural, enjoyable and memorable. Personally, I’m always glad to remember I don’t have to write everything in iambic pentameter…

Photo: “Self portrait – Ticking away” by MattysFlicks is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Poem: ‘Leadership Transition’

Julius Caesar, Antony, King Lear,
Hamlet, Macbeth – corrupted, vain, impure,
Irrational, bombastic, insecure –
He’s no more clarity or veritas
Than the deceptions of a covert war,
All morals blurred.

That tyrant rant, Tyrannosaurus roar,
Forecasts he’ll suffer a dictator’s fate:
His proud obsessed confusion first seems great,
Then grates, unravels at the seams, slips gear,
Loses its moral metaphors, grows crass;
He dies absurd.

Octavius, Malcolm, Edgar, Fortinbras,
Comes from the wings and strides to centre stage –
Competent, measured, reasonable, sane –
To rule the wreckage of the tragic reign;
Restores some structure, closes out the age,
Speaks the last word.

This archetypal character’s strong thump
Will get his nation out of the morass;
The raucous self-styled hero being dead,
A truer leader takes the throne instead.
(How Shakespeare’d end the Tragedy of Trump
Can be inferred.)

The common fate of Shakespeare’s flawed protagonists–death, and replacement by a more worthy ruler–is a story that humans enjoy and wish applied in their own times and countries… although they may naturally disagree on which ruler is disgraceful and which would be more worthy. Speaking for myself, I don’t need to see a death–I’d be happy for Putin and Trump to avoid assassination or jail by going into comfortable exile at a golf hotel in southern Russia. (You read it first here.) But Shakespeare would deal with them more definitively.

This poem is the third of the five poems published this month in The Brazen Head. Its four stanzas are in iambic pentameter with a short 6th line. The rhymes largely carry over between stanzas–the 6th lines only rhyme with each other. The rhymes and the stanza structure are designed to create a sense of satisfactory achievement–exactly what I feel with Biden taking over from Trump. (Similarly I would love to see Navalny take over from Putin, and almost anyone replace Boris Johnson.)

York Minster – June 2013 – Emperor Constantine – One Cool Dude” by Gareth1953 All Right Now is marked with CC BY 2.0.

Experimental Poem: ‘Pointillist’

(Note: this poem is so named because if you look at it closely you may not find as much meaning as if you step back, let it flow past you, and see an outline of a story.)

Awake
Anew
Awhile
Askew;
Afoot
Among
Amass
Along;
Abet
Aback
Ado
Alack;
Alas!

Abroad
Again
Astride
Amain;
Atop
Alight
Aglow
Afright;
Afar
Ahead
Aloft
Abed;
Alone!

Aware
Amused
Affair
Accused;
Away
Aboard
Affray
Abhorred;
Aground
Alive
Abound
Arrive;
Ahoy!

Array
Await
Assay
Abate;
Appraise
Accord
Amaze
Adored;
Apprise
Appoint
Arise
Anoint;
Adieu!

This poem started (if I remember correctly) as four or five of the early words coming into my head with a sense of rhyme and rhythm when I was on the point of falling asleep. I roused myself enough to write the words down, doing what I consider an essential part of the communication I long for with my unconscious, my Muse–acknowledge the Muse by writing whatever is offered to you, whether or not it is complete or makes sense.

The next day I wrote more, keeping to iambic monometer and words of Anglo-Saxon derivation beginning with A. As a hint of a story took shape, I kept writing. After the first two stanzas I moved over into words of Latin derivation and went for more intense rhyme. Long lists of words were involved. After four days I had the whole poem.

As for the story itself… I see a hero setting out, failing, trying again, under threat, escaping by boat, shipwrecked, and finally rewarded. Are they male or female, and of what age? Did they have a love affair? Did they end up at home or in foreign lands? If you look at the poem sideways you may find an answer that suits you. Or (of course) not.

‘Pointillist’ was the second of five poems recently published in the Poetry section of The Brazen Head.

Pointillistically abstracted” by readerwalker is marked with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Poem: ‘His Mad Skull’s Like’

His mad skull’s like
a motorcycle cage of death,
the engines roaring over and beneath:
conflicting paths, crashless machinery –
the crowd roars, hoping for catastrophe.

an alchemist’s laboratory,
he strives through Universal symmetry
alone to conquer nature, friendlessly,
transmuting hopeless to hope endlessly.

a planet with its atmosphere,
blossoming gaudy after starting drear;
from grand extinctions and tectonic faults
life reaches out to loot galactic vaults.

a plant with taproot down the spine
side-nerve extractors reaching out to mine
the Universe’s minerals of sense,
make sense, and raise to Mind the mind’s pretense.

This poem along with four others of mine has just been published in The Brazen Head in the UK. I came across the magazine through Marcus Bales who published three sonnets in it in October 2021. The magazine is an idiosyncratic quarterly blog with a diversified structure and a wealth of unexpected ideas in poetry and prose. My poem felt quite at home. I will post the other poems in the next little while–a couple of them have even more unusual forms; the five make a nice set.

Poem: ‘Advances in Personal Care’

1700 BCE
A length of fibre to extract a tooth –
a flint to decorate yourself with scars –
a large, strong thorn to make holes for tattoos –
an oyster shell to scrape off excess hair…
so health’s improved and beauty is accented.

1700 CE
High heels and wig show stature, vigour, youth;
a monocle improves both look and looking.
How we’ve advanced, compared to ancient times!
Some say there’ll be advances still to come,
but how, when all’s already been invented?

This poem is a riff on a 19th century joke. Charles H. Duell, the Commissioner of US Patent Office in the late 1890s, is widely quoted as having stated that the patent office would soon shrink in size, and eventually close, because “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” (In fact Duell said in 1902: “In my opinion, all previous advances in the various lines of invention will appear totally insignificant when compared with those which the present century will witness. I almost wish that I might live my life over again to see the wonders which are at the threshold.”) But the joke appears to have had earlier incarnations in the 19th century in Punch magazine and elsewhere, presumably as the world was adapting to the reality of life changing more and more rapidly.

The poem is in iambic pentameter, but the only rhymes are between the two verses: the first lines of each and the last lines of each. But I feel that produces enough echo to make it sound adequate. My thanks to Bill Thompson for including it in the Alabama Literary Review – ALR 2021.

Photo: “France-001560 – Louis XIV” by archer10 (Dennis) is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

My own favourites: ‘To Myself In 50 Years Time’

Old fool! You really think yourself the same
As I who write to you, aged 22?
Ha! All we’ve got in common is my name:
I’ll wear it out, throw it away,
You’ll pick it up some other day….
But who are you?

My life’s before me; can you say the same?
I choose its how and why and when and who.
I’ll choose the rules by which we play the game;
I may choose wrong, it’s not denied,
But by my choice you must abide….
What choice have you?

If, bored, I think one day to see the world
I pack that day and fly out on the next.
My choice to wander, or to sit home-curled;
Each place has friends, good fun, good food,
But you sit toothless, silent, rude….
And undersexed!

Cares and regrets of loss can go to hell:
You sort them out with Reason’s time-worn tool.
Today’s superb; tomorrow looks as well:
The word “tomorrow” is a thrill,
I’ll make of mine just what I will….
What’s yours, old fool?

This poem, first published in Snakeskin No. 147, September 2008 and recently reprinted in the Extreme Formal Poems Contemporary Poets anthology edited by Beth Houston, is symptomatic of my constant concern with mortality. It was also a way to be provocative: under the guise of insulting myself, I got to insult all older generations. And it was also an exercise in poetic structure: each stanza presents an aspect of the superiority of present youth over future age. (Premise and conclusion aren’t necessarily made as statements, many times rhetorical questions are used instead.) The structure of each stanza is to begin with pentameters for a sense of reasonableness in the first three lines, pick up the pace for the next two lines, and end with a short punchline. Aggressive and effective.

Yes, I wrote it when I was 22. I don’t know if I will be able to concoct a suitably terse and dismissive answer when I’m 72. But it’s a favourite poem of mine, and I owe it a response.

Photo: “Day 005: The child is father to the man.” by JesseMenn is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Poem: ‘Barefoot’

After your city feet in socks and shoes,
After your crowded evening with its booze,
Your air is tainted with your body’s sweat,
Unclean and laden with a vague regret.
But we are free
Who live beside the sea,
Can choose what our life spurns or craves.
Surely we reach
Purity on a beach,
Daily dallying barefoot in the waves.

I grew up barefoot. The only downside came when I was sent away to school, and shoes were always too tight even if they were EEE width. That in turn meant that in England I suffered from chilblains all winter. As an adult I still go barefoot, wear sandals in town, have shoes for rare stuations. But let’s face it – shoes make your feet sweat, and also make it hard to climb trees and to swim.

The form of the poem reflects the argument: the first four lines about shoe-wearing are regimented: iambic pentameters, rhyming AABB. The barefoot lines are less constrained, more playful, rhyming CCDEED – the short lines could be written together as iambic pentameters, but the rhymes work against seeing and hearing them that way. And the seventh line is the most unorthodox, having only four feet, while the last line is the most whimsical with its ‘daily dallying’.

The poem was originally published in The Orchards Poetry Journal.

Photo: “25/02/2009 (Day 3.56) – Definitions” by Kaptain Kobold is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Nonce Poem: “Roughing It In Europe”

One two three four
Is OK, but you need more:

Un deux trois quat’
If you want a welcome mat

En to tre fire
With the krone getting dearer,

Bir iki uç dirt
Selling off your jeans or shirt

Wahid zoozh teleta arba
In a cafe by the harbour

Üks kaks kolm neli
For some food to fill your belly;

Jeden dwa trzy cztery
Language may be shaky, very,

Uno dos tres cuatro
But they’ll love you if you’re up to

Eins zwei drei vier
Trying freely, laughing freer.

This poem, more fully titled “(On the value of learning languages, when) Roughing It In Europe”, was originally published in Unsplendid, actually a splendid magazine that unfortunately has been quiet for the past couple of years. Now the poem is just being reprinted in The Orchards Poetry Journal whose Summer edition is due out today. The poem dates back to my early hitchhiking days, when I was based in Copenhagen but wandering around Europe, North Africa and North America. My experience was that you could wander into any country without any plans, prior contacts or knowledge of the language, and survive so long as you quickly learned to say Yes, No, Please, Thank you, Hello, Goodbye and to count from one to ten – and so long as you smiled, and were comfortable being laughed at for all kinds of mistakes. Case in point: the word “zoozh” that I learned for “two” in Morocco won’t get you very far in most Arabic-speaking countries… So it goes.

Technically, this poem was written in a simple form, nine rhymed couplets, four feet to a line. The second line of each couplet has mostly trochaic feet (i.e. with two syllables, a stressed or accented one followed by an unstressed one). But the first line of each couplet is simply counting out 1-2-3-4 in different languages, and therefore the feet vary with the words of the language. But as we are used to counting to four in a steady rhythm, everything sounds rhythmic regardless of the number of syllables.

So this shows another type of “form”: each couplet is structured the same with the first line counting 1-2-3-4, always in a new language, and the second line having four feet and rhyming with its first line’s “four”. And therefore the poem has a “nonce” form – I created this form for this specific poem; it was created “for the nonce”. You’d be unlikely to find another poem structured quite like this.

Photo: “Hitchhiking in Amsterdam” by Teppo is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0