Category Archives: short poems

Poem: ‘Sandcastles’

We’re only children, making castles in the sand.
Enjoy the day.
Night comes, and tides wash all away.

The northern summer is over. Snowy places have snow. Even in the Bahamas and Florida the water temperature is dropping below what locals will swim in (though it doesn’t bother tourists). The day ages towards dark. The year ages towards winter. And we age too. But we know this when we sign up for morning, for spring, for life–and we sign up for everything because there is so much joy, beauty, discovery and love to be experienced.

In Kipling’s ‘Just So Stories‘ one of my favourite passages is the beginning of the story, ‘The Crab That Played With The Sea’:

Before the High and Far-Off Times, O my Best Beloved, came the Time of the Very Beginnings; and that was in the days when the Eldest Magician was getting Things ready. First he got the Earth ready; then he got the Sea ready; and then he told all the Animals that they could come out and play. And the Animals said, ‘O Eldest Magician, what shall we play at?’ and he said, ‘I will show you.’ He took the Elephant—All-the-Elephant-there-was—and said, ‘Play at being an Elephant,’ and All-the-Elephant-there-was played. He took the Beaver—All-the-Beaver-there-was and said, ‘Play at being a Beaver,’ and All-the Beaver-there-was played. He took the Cow—All-the Cow-there-was—and said, ‘Play at being a Cow,’ and All-the-Cow-there-was played. He took the Turtle—All-the-Turtle there-was and said, ‘Play at being a Turtle,’ and All-the-Turtle-there-was played. One by one he took all the beasts and birds and fishes and told them what to play at.

To me this is one of the great secrets of happiness: Play! Play at being who you are, what you are. That includes all your dreams and aspirations, because they are part of who you are. So play at them, as part of playing at what is to be done today. Just play. Play at being yourself.

‘Sandcastles’ was originally published in The Asses of Parnassus, a Tumblr site of “short, witty, formal poems”. This poem isn’t particularly formal, but it has iambics and a rhyme… and it’s short.

Photo: “Sandcastles” by RobW_ is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Poem: ‘Poetic Themes’

You wake and see dew on the grass in spring
But I see futures present changes bring:
Global warming replacing dew with drought,
Nanotech replacing grass with grout,
A.I. replacing people’s minds and thought,
Genetic mods replacing us—with what?
In other words, our world’s about to pass.
Poetry must be more than dew on grass.

I was honestly a little surprised when Light Poetry Magazine told me they would publish this poem. I mostly associate them with their snippy, jokey little poems that appear weekly on topical subjects, Poems Of The Week. Maybe this is unfair, as their full twice-yearly magazine profiles individual poets and has useful book reviews as well as poetry from a couple of dozen formal poets. Be that as it may, I felt this poem might be a little more Dark than Light.

Not that I’m pessimistic about the future. I’m intrigued, and resigned. Just as in William Golding’s ‘The Inheritors’ in which a tribe of early humans finds modern humans moving in and displacing them, so modern humans look like being displaced by something we can’t yet identify. We are like Native Americans when the Europeans started arriving, like White America as the demographic shifts to a more globally representative population, or like every generation that finds the children and grandchildren listening to unrecognisable music and using incomprehensible technology. Is any of this bad? It can be handled well or badly, but it is a natural and unending process.

And now we’re facing a variety of technologies that together can completely remake the human: genetic engineering, A.I., robotics, infinite data-crunching, nanotechnology… Will we casually and irresponsibly start remaking humans? Of course. It’s inevitable. If one country clamps down on it, it will simply happen elsewhere. And what is the likely outcome? I haven’t a clue, but I’m intrigued.

Photo: “morning dew” by haglundc is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Poem: ‘Chrysalis’

After a billion years of larval hit-and-miss
humans emerged, stood up, and fed, and grew,
started to build their city chrysalis
from which, 3,000 years entombed, now formed anew,
they burst in wild bright flight with wings deployed
out to the stars. The egg case of this final birth,
the Earth,
was, naturally, destroyed.

We have good news and bad news. The bad news is that the rate of change is ever-increasing in all aspects of human life–from our bodies to our planet–and we will never return to the old normal. The good news is that this is the process by which life advantages to higher levels of organisation and intelligence.

This poem was originally published in Star*Line, one of the two magazines of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association (SFPA). The other magazine is Eye to the Telescope (ETTT).

The poem rhymes and is written in iambics; but the rhymes are not structured to a pattern, and the lines are of uneven length. This casual form is used by Matthew Arnold and T.S. Eliot among others, in some of my favourite poems such as A Summer Night (I have always loved the three paragraphs beginning with:

For most men in a brazen prison live,
Where, in the sun’s hot eye,
With heads bent o’er their toil, they languidly
Their lives to some unmeaning taskwork give,
Dreaming of naught beyond their prison wall.
)

and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. The form doesn’t have the musicality of more regular forms like the sonnet or limerick, but it provides all the memorising strength of rhythm and rhyme within a more conversational flow, and facilitates different lengths of thought including, if wanted, a punchline.

We live in difficult times, what with the unprecedented challenges of climate change, mass migration, infectious diseases, unpredictable technological advances in weaponry, and more. And the problems will continue to multiply and get larger, even as we develop solutions to the smaller, simpler ones. And from the inevitable destruction of our form of life will emerge… what? We cannot know, we probably cannot even imagine.

Photo credit: “Cicada emerging from old exoskeleton” by Shek Graham is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Poem: ‘Lizard an Mosquito’

Mosquito bite yuman,
Now e full a blood.
Lizard eat mosquito
Say, man dis is good.

Lizard help hatch mosquito,
Raise dem up good.
Send dem out like good daddy
Fe go find yuman blood.

Mosquito so happy
Dem eat plenty blood.
Lizard so happy
Dem mosquito taste good.

Politician same like dis:
Yu clap an yu sing,
Yu eleck im an den
E tax yu ting an ting.

I don’t normally write dialect verse, but it seemed appropriate for this idea. It was originally published in Snakeskin, republished in both The Hypertexts and Better Than Starbucks. The Bahamian accent can sound impenetrable to foreigners, but the words and grammar are not so different from standard English. By the way, “ting an ting” is just the non-specific plural of “tingum”–unspecified “stuff” rather than a specific “thing”.

Photo: “Brutality against mosquitoes.” by Bobinson K B is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Odd Poem: ‘The Skipping Rope’, by Tennyson

Sure never yet was antelope
Could skip so lightly by.
Stand off, or else my skipping-rope
Will hit you in the eye.

How lightly whirls the skipping-rope !
How fairy-like you fly !
Go, get you gone, you muse and mope —
I hate that silly sigh.

Nay, dearest, teach me how to hope,
Or tell me how to die.
There, take it, take my skipping-rope,
And hang yourself thereby.

This odd little poem appeared in the 1842 ‘Poems by Alfred Tennyson’, and was reprinted in every edition until 1851 when it was suppressed. I’ve italicised one of the two speakers in order to make the poem easier to understand on first reading. There is no visual indication, otherwise, that this is a conversation between an admirer and the irritated rope-skipper.

The very simple structure, very regular iambics, and very repetitive rhyme scheme are perfectly in keeping with the monotonous activity of skipping. I’ve always found the poem charming and amusing in its bizarre way.

(The photograph is “Girl with skipping rope, Albert Lomer studio, Sydney” by Blue Mountains Library, Local Studies.)

Review: ‘Chamber Music’ by James Joyce

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.

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.

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)

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.

Launch: Potcake Chapbook 7, ‘Murder ! – poems of killings past and present’

07 Murder!

Potcake Chapbook 7: ‘Murder!’

Murder needs no formality of gats,
violin cases or fedora hats
or any other long-outdated memes.
Murder is merely social discord that’s
taken to interpersonal extremes.

Murder. Here we present victims ranging from the unidentifiably unknown to the rich and powerful, and from the time of the Emperor Constantine to the present day. It appears to be something with which we humans are permanently infected. 

The poems–all formal, of course!–are as usual in a variety of forms. This chapbook contains sonnets, a double dactyl, quatrains, rubaiyat, parody and nonce forms. They were authored by Potcake newcomers A.M. Juster, Marilyn L. Taylor, LindaAnn LoSchiavo and Frank Hubeny, and old-timers Chris O’Carroll, Marcus Bales, Vera Ignatowitsch, Noam D. Plum, Michael R. Burch and myself. And powerfully illustrated, as always, by Alban Low.

For the price of a fancy greeting card you can, through the wonders of PayPal, get this 16-page chapbook online for £2.60 + £1.20 P&P to a UK or European address, or £2.60 + £2.20 P&P to a Worldwide address.

Or you might prefer to browse themes and poets here, and photos and bios here, and choose between poems on travel, or love affairs, or the working life… or relatives, or modern life, or poems to amuse and amaze. Life, after all, is more than just Murder!