Category Archives: sonnets

Poem: “Careless Youths”

Carefree Youths

Like fishing boats sailing a landless sea,
an edgeless game-board for an endless game,
hauling their random catch from wide-spread nets,
hunting without the hunter’s hunt and aim,
but sailing, drifting, without cares or frets,
so carefree youths under the bowl of sky
will chance their drifting lives on random lips.
And then the Kraken rises, sinking ships.

“Carefree Youths” was published a couple of days ago in Bewildering Stories. It is in iambic pentameter with irregular rhyme. After the meandering start to the poem (about the youths’ meandering lifestyle), the last line is a hard punchline (reflecting the brutal ending of that lifestyle). There are no sequential rhymes until the last two lines, which thereby become the clear ending of the poem. The form of the poem accentuates the poem’s meaning. That is what form should do.

Final rhyming couplets were used extensively by Shakespeare in various ways. In his sonnets they provide a very strong ending after four quatrains, and is a reason for preferring the Shakespearean sonnet’s ABAB CDCD EFEF GG over the Petrarchan sonnet’s more mannered but less forceful ABBA ABBA CDE CDE. Many of his final couplets are well known – such as:

If this be error and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.

Shakespeare did the same sort of thing throughout his plays, in which a scene or a soliloquy will be in blank verse but often terminate in a rhyme. Some of the best-known examples being:

the play ‘s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king. (Hamlet)

Fair is foul and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air. (Macbeth)

Good night! Good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow
That I shall say goodnight till it be morrow. (Romeo and Juliet)

The rhymed sentence helps sum up the scene, and signals that the scene is ending and that a new scene is about to begin – particularly useful since in Shakespeare’s time there were no stage curtains and no real sets to speak of.

Ah, formal verse! So many uses!

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Poem: Sonnet: “From Cavemen to Post-Human”

This sonnet looks at the way humans have deliberately explored into challenging new

Girl on Log.jpg

“Mary, river daredevil” by magnetbox

environments, and suggests we will keep doing this until we’re human no longer. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, any more than our past changes appear bad to us now.

The poem was published last week in Bewildering Stories, the online science fiction (or speculative fiction) magazine which has been running for some 18 years. And with poetry, of course!

The link that I have given to the poem takes you to a further link where the editor solicits opinions about the meaning of some of the poem’s statements. The Challenge questions are an interesting addition.

 

From Cavemen to Post-Human

From the first cavemen clinging to some logs,
escaping with their lives from flood or slaughter,
to mega-palaces that cruise the water,
humans became amphibious as frogs.
Then into space: hostile environment,
no barrier to ways to stay alive,
no worse in Mars domes, modules at L5
than in an igloo or a desert tent.
Next, thought balloons by tech cut free of place,
drifting connecting through ethereal skies,
where we upload ourselves as thought and rise
into the cloud as a post-human race
in new non-human landscapes without land,
pure energy as a new tribal band.

Poem: Sonnet?: The Antikythera Mechanism

In 1900, sponge divers found a shipwreck in 150 feet (45 m) of sea off the Greek island of Antikythera. It proved to be a Roman cargo ship from the first century BC. Among the objects subsequently retrieved was a mechanism for calculating astronomical positions and eclipses decades in advance, generally considered to be the world’s earliest known analogue computer.

This poem was originally published in Snakeskin in June 2017

ANTIKYTHERA MECHANISM

The Antikythera Mechanism fits
Comfortably in no category I know;
A thing of Metal, from the Earth below,
For studying the heavens (Fire or Air)
While trapped in Water for two thousand years.
This ancient artefact from cultures past,
Designed to calculate future events,
Has a contemporary feel at last –
Making allowance for its steampunk look.
Not a computer, less whole than distressed,
It sits anomalously, missing bits,
But speaks loud of that loss much more intense
When the religious dogmas of The Book
Destroyed the nascent scientific quest.

This is a Sunday blog post, so I put a bit of religion in it. I recognise pros and cons to religion. (“All religions united with government are more or less inimical to liberty. All, separated from government, are compatible with liberty.”) It’s nice for people to use religions to explore their relationship with the universe, but I hold the inherent intolerance of monotheism responsible for setting civilisation back a thousand years.

On the use of form: well, the poem has aspects of form – it’s in iambic pentameter, like a regular sonnet; it has 14 lines, ditto; it rhymes… but there’s no structure to the rhyme. The combination of structure and chaos suits the mood of the poem, the odd position in history of this mechanism, and its odd state of semi-survival. Reconstructions of the Antikythera Mechanism have been made confidently, and put on display next to its fragments in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens

Poem: Sonnet: “The Unconscious Gets No Respect”

Today’s poem is about the unconscious, again. It was paired with the “Thunder-Galloping” one when published in Snakeskin, November 2016.

THE UNCONSCIOUS GETS NO RESPECT

The unconscious is a melancholy drunk
It prattles on in dreams with brutal truth.
“I’m getting ugly and I’ve lost my youth.”
“In useless youth I was a stupid punk.”
It evilly summons loved ghosts from the past –
Bobs this one’s hair and dyes it a rich red –
Conflating one who’d never shred their head
With unrelated one who lives life fast.
It sings its nonsense songs like Lear’s poor fool,
Nonsense that turns out sane in retrospect;
Is treated with contempt, or else neglect;
Unrecognized for what it is: a tool,
A genius program for decoding life,
A mental multi-blade Swiss Army knife.

This poem was written four weeks after “My Thunder-Galloping Unconscious Mind”. It repeats my attitude towards the unconscious: that it is powerful, deserves respect, and when respected provides health, direction and inspiration. I go through periods of writing about the same subject, just as an artist may do several versions of the same landscape either to try to capture the ineffable or simply to experiment with different weathers and lights and moods.

The structure of the poem – well, it is in reasonable iambic pentameter, but I’d say it’s a technically weaker sonnet than its twin, with a regular but less admirable rhyme scheme. The octet breaks satisfactorily into two quatrains and the volta is acceptable; but though the sestet has a concluding couplet, it’s actually a bit scrappy.

Be all that as it may, I like the poem; and publication in Snakeskin is always a good seal of approval.

Poem: Sonnet: “My Thunder-Galloping Unconscious Mind”

A sonnet from a couple of years ago, published in Snakeskin, November 2016 :

Fire Horse

“fire horse” by sk8rboi90 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

 

MY THUNDER-GALLOPING UNCONSCIOUS MIND

My thunder-galloping unconscious mind –
On which I, jolly joking jockey, perch
And whose divine intentions I besmirch
With claims its selfishnesses I’ve divined –
This powerhouse, this generator blind,
With pattern-seeking data-crunch research,
Unschooled, ungoverned, then will trip and lurch
Drunk as a soul must be in a mad mind.
But loved and honoured it’s a thundering horse
That powers all the body’s work and health
And flushes poisons in its daily course
And monitors all dangers in its stealth
And feeds uplifting feelings, love and right…
And gifts these images to me at night.

This encapsulates a lot of my thoughts about the way the world works: a lot goes on under the surface of the mind, and we are not as much in charge as we think. In that sense I agree with those who say there is no free will – we think we are consciously deciding to act, but when the brain is monitored we find that we begin to act before the conscious decision – the conscious mind merely rubber-stamps the decision already taken by the unconscious and then, like any figurehead, takes credit for the action.

Also, I am of the opinion that acknowledging the power and healthfulness of the subconscious is key to a happy, balanced and creative life.

The structure of the poem – well, it’s a sonnet, but not pure in form. The first lines rhyming ABBA ABBA are Petrarchan, but after the (weak) volta the CDCD EE is Shakespearean. The effect to a purist is messy, muddy. But honestly, the awareness of four-line chunks is driven by either of those types of fundamental rhyme, just as it is by a rubaiyat’s AABA. When the final couplet comes, the sonnet feels complete – and this couplet is the strength of the Shakespearean sonnet. (The Petrarchan would have ended CDE CDE.)

I am only aware of one sonnet where switching between Petrarchan and Shakespearean was done deliberately and appropriately: a sonnet by Keats in which he was discussing form, and clarifying his new-found preference for the Shakespearean over the Petrarchan.

In anyone else, switching is not ideal, but it’s also not a major obstacle. It is a sign of slight imperfection. But I think this poem still holds. 

New Poem: “Buried in the Garden”

I have a poem published in May’s Snakeskin which (shock, horror!) is not formal.

Snakeskin logo

Buried in the Garden

Now I lie dead, buried in the garden,
And the plants take over.
Two hibiscus bushes grow from my eyes,
Oleander from my nose,
A sapodilla will fruit from my mouth,
Casuarinas grow to sigh from my ears.
From my chest a love vine straggles out
And black crabs live in the cavities of my lungs.
A chicken boa curls around and hunts up and down
And from my private parts grows
That least private of plants, a coconut palm.
From my feet termites are building tunnels out around the world.
So is my body divided, reused, and the birds take hair for their nests
And the calcium of bones and teeth for their eggs
And the body, the body is gone.
And what am I, but a body? What would remain in your sieve if you sift my remains?
Only some thoughts, others’ memories of some thoughts,
Blown away on the wind when the rememberers themselves are gone.

At a stretch, you could claim it has elements of formality. It has a structured sequence of appropriate tropical plants and other creatures growing from body parts – the most visually arresting from the eyes, the most highly scented from the nose, and so on. It has a volta, a turn in the argument from the description of transformation as positive, to the dismissal of that process as being mere erasure.

But are those things enough to make the whole piece word-for-word memorable? Because that is my test of poetry. And I think the answer is no. So no, it is not real poetry. There may be one or two memorable phrases, but that’s not enough. The underlying concept may be memorable, the images may be memorable; still not enough. Only if the entire piece is easy to recite because of the actual expression of the words, I argue, can it be called poetry.

Should you then put your time into transforming the images into formal verse, creating perhaps a Shakespearean sonnet, iambic pentameter and all?

Buried in the Garden (Take 2)

In garden buried, I sprout from my eyes
Hibiscus; oleander from my nose;
From mouth, a sapodilla; a pine sighs
From out my ear; from chest a love vine grows;
Black crabs in lungs, small boa in my guts;
From feet, ants tunnel out around the world;
My privates sprout a palm with coconuts.
Birds peck my bones, my teeth, hair that once curled,
For calcium for eggs and for a nest…
Sift my remains: what remains in your sieve?
Of my whole body I’ve been dispossessed,
Only the memory of some thoughts still live
Within the thoughts of others’ memories;
When those rememberers go, all traces cease.

So we come back to the old questions of poetry: is the expression itself richer or poorer for having been put into verse? And is the formal verse expression (whether richer or poorer) more memorable than the non-formal expression? What do you think?

I wonder if Snakeskin editor George Simmers has an opinion.

Poem: “Viking Sails South”

This poem was originally published in Snakeskin in March 2019. I wrote it for a variety Viking, Snakeskin 259reasons. I’ve often thought that when the Norse settlement of Greenland ended around 1450, not all of the settlers would have either died or sailed back toward Scandinavia… why not explore further in North America and look for somewhere pleasant?

VIKING SAILS SOUTH

Tired of ‘Greenland’ and its icy coast,
a band of us sailed south to Leif’s old place,
discussed old legends (drinking many a toast)
of Norman settlements in Spain and Thrace.
So why not us as well? Let the old stay
in frost-filled farms, friendly, familiar.
Go south! Long nights to lengthening days give way
until it seems like Equinox all year.
Bring our old gods, have garlands round them hung –
wind in soft pines like loneliness of girls –
where just to taste the water makes you young –
pink conch shells on pink sand yield up pink pearls –
we saw Njord, sea god, sleeping from our railings.
Brown women smile. Our children will be skraelings.

My own family history supports this possibility of Vikings being attracted to the Caribbean: my great-great-uncle was a (very reactionary) Governor of the Danish West Indies; my grandfather was a (very liberal) Lutheran minister there; so my father was raised on St. Croix for ten years until it was sold to the US in 1917 – he was sent “home” to Denmark but returned to settle in the Bahamas for the last 22 years of his life; and though I have kept my connection to Denmark, and lived there for five years, the Bahamas is my home. Some Scandinavians are perfectly happy in the islands!

About the use of form in this poem: it is a standard Shakespearean sonnet: 14 lines (sonnet) of iambic pentameter (standard), rhyming abab cdcd efef gg (Shakespearean). However, it doesn’t have a strong volta, or turn in the argument, which is normally considered a requirement for a sonnet – you set the argument up first, and after the volta you demolish and replace it, or give it a good twist. The best that can be said for this sonnet is that the last two lines provide a resolution to the argument. Regardless, the sonnet length and structure allows a full exposition of an idea, while requiring brevity and compression. It can be very satisfying to produce.