“The trouble with this growing old,” he said, “You lose so much . . . and you get what instead? If you can hang a bath towel on your tool it’s wasted when you’re in an all-boys school. Time was, I’d come — as you’d expect — with just a look, a touch. Now, not so much. The only thing that gets me full erect is feeling flesh firming from kiss and grasp; so all my work is trying to make her gasp! I need her climax if I’m to get sated.” He looked at her. She looked at him. He waited.
This semi-formal poem was published in the Lighthearted Verse subsection of Formal Poetry in that wonderfully rich and varied magazine, Better Than Starbucks. Where else could you find such a variety of areas of expression as BTS’ Regular Feature Pages? Free Verse Haiku Formal Poetry Poetry Translations Poetry for Children International Poetry African Poetry Experimental, Form, & Prose Poetry Poetry Unplugged Fiction Flash Fiction & Micro Fiction Better Than Fiction (creative nonfiction) The Interview Interviewee Poems … and From The Mind of Alfred Corn
And tolerant enough to put up with my verse on occasion! Unfortunately they have announced they are going on hiatus… hopefully they will be back in 2023, as they have been a truly excellent outlet for all manner of poetry and prose.
I went round to Sarah’s flat one night: “Hi man,” she said, “Yeah, you can come in, sure,” apologising as she shut the door – “but not for too long, you know how it is – I’ve got two essays still to write and then exams start – I’m in quite a tizz.” She yawned and laughed, said “I’ve just changed Sam’s nappy, and now he’s fast asleep – at last!” she smiled – “Wow, but he keeps me busy!” “Also happy,” I put in. “Yes, but not all the while – he’s got a weak chest, coughs, cries with the pain, I get so uptight we both end in tears… his dad got sentenced, over drugs, eight years… that’s long: I guess we won’t get back again; I’ve got my Finals coming up, and then, after, who knows? I’ve hardly time for dreams: with Sam and studying, sometimes, it seems my life’s nappies and essays, nothing more.” She changed the record, sat to roll a joint, and said “First thing I do, even before I take Sam to that Nursery up the road – he’s bigger every day! He’s quite a load! But anyway, that’s not the point – first of all, I get stoned, and stay that way, or else I’d never make it through the day.”
A new cloud added to her soft rich room a further depth of blue, a silent pause.
She spoke again, her thoughts already gone back to her work: “And then, they seem such fools, dividing all Philosophy in schools. You know my option is the Indian course; I know so much of what the old books mean: things of which lecturers can’t conceive, think guff, I understand, they’re places where I’ve been… I’m always trying to turn the lecturers on: if they’d drop acid, or just smoke some stuff, they’d see so much… but they’re not brave enough. So Transcendental just remains a trendy course which their students can take if other courses can’t keep them awake. But still they try their worst,” she said, nonplussed, and read “The Bhaghavad Gita retains relevance for our century. Discuss. Christ, aren’t they boring!” she said, biro poised. I let myself out, while she found her page, and Briggs, her hamster, woken by the noise, went streaming up the rat-race in his cage.
This poem dates to the time after I had dropped out of the University of Dundee, but still came back to it in the years that saw most of my 25,000 miles of hitchhiking. I feel I learned more by wandering in and out of jobs, countries, languages and religions than I would have if I’d stayed on Sarah’s path. But then, I have no idea how life worked out for her, so who knows.
The poem is semi-formal – rhymed but without a rhyme scheme, in iambic pentameter with some occasional liberties taken with metre… but those liberties are comparatively acceptable, even beneficial, in a longish poem as they break up the metrical monotony. That’s my excuse anyway, and I’m sticking with it. The poem was published decades later in Snakeskin – thanks, George Simmers!
O it is a wide winter, windy with gales, Hard, harsh and horizonless, cold, And I can do nothing more this year But sharpen the swords, mend the gear, Mend cloth, patch sails, Listen to tales told by the old, Listen to horses stamp in stalls. Feel the blood in my veins going nowhere, Feel the river halt, the bay iced in, The sun brief and thin The food dried, smoked, salt And no fresh fruit, fresh meat, No fresh lands, fresh goods, No fresh deeds, fresh girls, No seas running and blood running And people running and tales running… For what is the good of inaction Save to prepare for fresh action; And what is the good of fresh action Save for fresh tales; And what is the good of fresh tales Save for the glory and the name And the fame that lives past the death rattle For the sword singer, Word winger, The Bard of Battle?
I feel the same fascinated connection to my Viking ancestors that I feel to my even earlier chimp-like forbears and modern chimp and bonobo cousins. All have social networks, hierarchies, politics, violence and ways of overcoming violence, cherished families, a sense of fairness and ways of cheating. I suspect the Viking gods would be far easier for chimps and bonobos to accept than modern scientific understanding could ever be. I greatly enjoy Vikings, chimps and bonobos, recognise that a lot in me comes from them, and am thankful to have outgrown much of their limitations. (And to neo-Nazis who think they are Vikings, I say this: “You’re not; don’t be so stupid.”)
This rambling semi-formal poem was first published in Snakeskin; thanks, George Simmers!
Life on the earth is thin as dust on an apple. 25,000 miles round the planet, and if we go 2 miles high we struggle to breathe, claw at the air, fight it, grapple. 25,000 miles round the planet, mostly sea and if sea levels rise a foot, whole communities are lost and if a storm gives 10 foot waves, houses and lives are lost. We live on the thin thin skin of the earth. Is the soil three inches deep, or a foot, or five? Can we grow enough to survive? We live on that thin thin skin of dirt. And people too are fragile, their bones, organs, held in by their thin thin skin. A knife, a bullet, even too much sun, will break the thin thin skin and drain the life. And society too is fragile, with too many knives and guns, too little respect for sun, ocean, climate change; too many people with a thin thin skin leading their ignorant people into the razorwire of unpredicted change.
This poem was originally published in Lighten-Up Online (or LUPO) last year – thanks, Jerome Betts! It’s not really a formal poem, though there are some rhymes. As for the subject matter, all I can say is: If you haven’t run across the delightful XKCD graphic of the past 12,000 years of temperature change, please click here!
Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages: A middle school science teacher explains a lesson on climate change using a SMART board. Copyright CC BY-NC 4.0
Which is the worst – Is it the loss, or memory of loss, Or loss of memory? Who gives a toss When the brain’s banks have burst And all we valued yesterday Is washed away?
The above is a short poem, semi-formal (i.e. it’s in iambics, it rhymes, but it lacks formal structure) published in this month’s Snakeskin No. 298. I like semi-formal because it allows natural expression in a way that formal structure often prevents. Contrast these examples from Matthew Arnold of the formal (from The Scholar-Gipsy) and semi-formal (from A Summer Night):
Thee at the ferry Oxford riders blithe, Returning home on summer-nights, have met Crossing the stripling Thames at Bab-lock-hithe, Trailing in the cool stream thy fingers wet…
The inversions of adjectives and phrases were used to fit rhyme and metre to line length. Drop the line length requirements and, even retaining the “thee”s and “thou”s, the expression is more naturally conversational:
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…
Poor Matthew Arnold! With his father a famous Headmaster and himself an Inspector of Schools, there is a sad irony in so much of his poetry being about escaping the tedium of regimented Victorian life.
The poem enters your head as a litter of kittens brought in by a cat from somewhere hidden, place of birth unknown. A word, image, rhyme, an idea, a tone, they are brought one at a time In no order, no preference, no ruling or schooling, they just need to come in, like refugees at the border. And they have no order, they crawl over each other, blind and mewling, and here comes another, and then here comes another. So the thoughts enter your head like kittens. Give thanks to the Mother.
Where do ideas come from? No idea. (An oxymoronic observation that is not so different from saying that all the Universe comes from nothing, or that there was no time before the beginning of time.) But simply having ideas is nothing in itself – you can have ideas and ignore them (and generally irritate the Muse that is offering you ideas), and so you will have nothing to show for them. Canadian poet Pino Coluccio recently pointed me at an old piece by British poetPhilip Larkin, which begins:
“It is sometimes useful to remind ourselves of the simpler aspects or things normally regarded as complicated. Take, for instance, the writing of a poem. It consists of three stages: the first is when a man becomes obsessed with an emotional concept to such a degree that he is compelled to do something about it. What he does is the second stage, namely, construct a verbal device that will reproduce this emotional concept in anyone who cares to read it, anywhere, any time. The third stage is the recurrent situation of people in different times and places setting off the device and re-creating in themselves what the poet felt when he wrote it. The stages are interdependent and all necessary. If there has been no preliminary feeling, the device has nothing to reproduce and the reader will experience nothing. If the second stage has not been well done, the device will not deliver the goods, or will deliver only a few goods to a few people, or will stop delivering them after an absurdly short while. And if there is no third stage, no successful reading, the poem can hardly be said to exist in a practical sense at all.”
So, 1) become obsessed; 2) construct a verbal device that captures the obsessiveness; 3) have it read by people who thereby experience your obsession.
This series of poems in the ‘Calling the Poem’ chapbook focuses on how to be open to the internal wellspring of ideas, obsessions, emotions, words and images to reach Larkin’s first stage (these first 11 poems); and some thoughts about the construction of the “verbal device” of his second stage (the remaining four poems that are coming up). As for the third stage… well, if the poem is strong enough, it will resonate appropriately with those who read it; but how to get it read–that is a different problem entirely.
Do you see the tigerish poem, or is it seeing you? Sensing you, sizing up your form… (You know that lovely feeling, warm, When you’re stared at by somebody you like… How creepy though, if someone you dislike…) Perhaps it will ring true, Perhaps the lines Will just ring hollow… But having offered yourself up like some bonbon, Prayed at the shrines Of lares and penates, Mercury, Apollo, Ganesh and Odin, Legbas Atibon, Liminal gods of paths and gates, And stories, lies, poetry and fates, You have no right, nor no ability, To choose between rough trade or some civility; Stared at by god or demon, grand or scum, You’ve whored yourself to gods. Take what may come.
This is the ninth in the 15-poem series of the ‘Calling the Poem’ e-chapbook that Snakeskin published a couple of years ago. (Unfortunately the Snakeskin Archives are currently down.) It reflects my sense that you can evoke artistry by invoking those unconscious inner forces that can only communicate with your conscious self through dreams and images, hints and melodies, words that well up but are not quite random…
The invocation requires two things to be successful: alertness to your changing moods, and showing respect for whatever “inspiration” you receive by writing it down, sketching it out, formalising it as appropriate – and thereby encouraging further communication.
I’m aware that all this sounds pretentious. But I think that the unconscious mind knows different things, in some ways truer things, than the conscious mind, especially about physical health, mental balance and the process of changes in life. Finding a way to tap into this – through prayer, meditation or the arts – is life-affirming for most people… but perhaps dangerous for a few.
The next poems in this series deal with things going right, going wrong, needing work…
Homeless and eyes cast down, young Danae found the credit card just lying on the ground. ‘Zeus Credit’… with her name on it… and it said it had no limit. So she thought ‘Why not just try it?’ and she bought sandals, silk underwear, a dress; it worked… so then, why not, a light lunch in the choicest, chicest spot. It worked again. Its back was odd: no legalese, just logos, ads… ‘Insert in slot for all dreams to come true.’ Tearful, she checked into Hotel Princess, went up and had the best bath in some years, Reading again with happy tears ‘Insert in slot for all dreams to come true’ and thought again ‘Why not?’ and put it in her slot… in sudden stir Zeus filled the room and her.
This poem, semi-formal at best, was published in this month’s Snakeskin (thanks, George Simmers!) with the accompanying Gustav Klimt ‘Danae’. I wrote the poem earlier this year but I have very little memory of doing so, and no sense of what triggered it. I put it down to the mysterious workings of the subconscious or whatever else the Muse may be.
This is an appropriate poem to post before I head into the next set of poems from the e-chapbook ‘Calling the Muse’. Is it always correct to offer up art (of any kind) that is edgy? What if the expression is sexist, even obscene? What if the work is irreligious, even blasphemous in the eyes of a believer? Is it enough to say “If you don’t like it, don’t look at it”? Is it enough to post a warning, “NSFW”?
And the Greek gods often tend toward the sexist and the licentious. Zeus is not a clean-living figure. But no one seems to object to his being depicted and popularised, even if he is a rapist. Because “that was then, this is now”? And if the Muse offers you a fresh take on an ancient rape legend, just use it because after all, the Muse must be listened to?
The men in suits, the men in African robes, The men in jeans and sports shirts, The local men in headdresses and thobes, None look out of place. The women in abayas, saris, or long skirts, The women in slacks and blouses (Some with, some without headscarves, depends on race) None look out of place. But the anonymous silent women faceless in veils, And the noisy drunk in-your-face blatant females In shorts that barely cover their barelys, They look alien even in a Gulf airport. The extremes have to be more extreme here to stand out– Either private as houses, Or provocative past any “careless”– But it can be done, with thought.
I wish I had been able to find a photo showing the wonderful range of clothing styles that you encounter in the truly global airports of the Middle East, where travellers on the long-haul carriers change planes en route to Sydney, Tokyo, Mumbai, Johannesburg, Paris, Houston… Your clothing and behaviour has to be extremely extreme if it is to stand out.
This poem was written in Bahrain’s Manama Airport in 2015, published in Snakeskin a year later. It’s not really “formal” verse, is it? 😦
Like tiny midges, poems in the air were unseen all my life, presence unclear, occasionally one would land, bite, sting… I’d be aware a poem had come, was singing by my ear. Now everything, literally every thing,
is a poem: a car, a dog, a glass, a chair, a seagull, every blade of grass, all people and each thing they pass. Now I see swarms, millions of flies, or like light’s dots of darkness thickening as day dies,
the poems are visible in the air around, a pointillist canvas, every dot a poem in itself, an image, word, rhyme, thought, or like neutrinos streaming from the sun, billions a second passing with no sound unseen, unfelt, through everyone, the poetry of existence, raw, untaught.
The Universe: a cloud of dust that hangs and floats, dust like a drive of cattle on the range, or when you fill a barn with dusty motes by sudden action, and a sunbeam’s slice; or as Sumerian gods convene, converse, swarming like flies around burnt sacrifice,
summoned by smell of sacrificial meal… was it my sacrifices made this change, made poems visible like motes of dust? Is this the Universe’s thrust? Hide them, and then reveal? For all the poems make one UniVerse.
This is the fourth of a series of five poems recently published in The Brazen Head. It is semi-formal: written in iambics with lines of uneven length, fully rhymed but not to any pattern. My model for this style of verse is Matthew Arnold’s ‘A Summer Night‘, a poem that I have loved and recited since high school. (We can leave for another time the debate about whether his poem should have stopped as originally at the final question mark, or whether the years-later addition of the subsequent lines is an improvement.)