Category Archives: sonnets

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Susan McLean, ‘A Woman of a Certain Age’

I read more slowly now, because I read
between the lines.  The heroes of my youth,
who gave their lives for justice, art, or truth
(consumed with purpose, driven to succeed),
now seem like puppets pulled by strings of need,
while those who died unknown (except by those
they fed, taught, nursed through illness, mended clothes
and cared for) doled out grace unmixed with greed.

A quilt, a tablecloth she hand-crocheted,
some tips for making piecrust, kneading dough,
the memory of a gumdrop tree she made—
small things of use, of beauty, of delight
are what they leave when they have left our sight.
Don’t tell me what such gifts are worth.   I know.

Susan McLean writes: “This poem was inspired by reading that people read more slowly as they get older, because everything they read reminds them of something else. As I thought about that, I also thought about the people I would have called the ones I admired the most, and about the people I actually loved most and why I loved them. The former were mainly men, which made me realize that the lives of women (until recently) have often been invisible in the world and have left no written record. What they leave instead is the impact they have had on those around them, and little things they have said and done and made. My maternal grandmother and my mother are both unseen presences in this poem. My life has been very different from theirs, with opportunities they never had. But that does not mean that I value less what they did.”

Susan McLean grew up in Oxon Hill, Maryland, attended Harvard University and Rutgers University, and taught English for thirty years at Southwest Minnesota State University. She has published two books of poetry, The Best Disguise and The Whetstone Misses the Knife, and one book of translations of the Latin poet Martial, Selected Epigrams. She lives in Iowa City, Iowa.

https://www.pw.org/directory/writers/susan_mclean

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Daniel Galef, ‘Proverbs for Engraving onto Imperial Monuments’

War is the price of freedom. Depths bewilder.
The blow aimed at the beast hits him who shields it.
The sword of Justice best serves him who wields it.
The gibbet’s final victim is its builder.
A round coin rolls to him who most deserves it.
A tree outlives its leaves; an age, its fashions.
A carthorse needs its blinders; man, his passions.
The word of Justice best shields him who serves it.
The ardent spirit breaks the firm retort.
Power bears scrutiny like the sun the gaze.
God speaks His queer commands one thousand ways.
The worm awaits. The butterfly is dreaming.
The price of peace is bondage. Chains support.
Persuasion is a proof. Seeing is seeming.

Daniel Galef writes: “I majored in philosophy in college, and it’s very rare that I get a chance to use my degree in any way! (Even everyday critical thinking I engage in not without a little self-conscious embarrassment to be reliving those madcap cogitating days of my youth.) This sonnet began as an un-metrical list of aphorisms, vaguely inspired by Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, but with an eye less to individual ideas and more to “ideology.” I’m very interested in how philosophy is appropriated by the state, in the form of slogans or anthems or little red books—it’s all fine and dandy to debate competing theories of morality until it’s time to order the transplant waiting list, or convene the board of censors.

“I don’t always do a lot of surgical revision on a poem, but it was after about two years of lying in a drawer [a digital drawer] that I took the loose collection of prose sentences and started pruning, finding and inserting rhymes, and arranging them into pentameter. I’m a poor free verse poet, and verses that start off free end up in metrical shackles much more often than the reverse, even though logically it ought to be tougher to turn prose into verse than vice-verse-a.

“I could write a page on every line in this sonnet, which says much more about my own pretentiousness than about the poem, but will limit myself to saying I chucked in snips and snatches from Plato, Maimonides, Zhuangzi, Lucullus, David Hume, Thomas Jefferson, Aesop, W. H. Auden, Slavoj Žižek, Wernher von Braun, George Orwell, and Groucho Marx. Just about every maxim in the poem has certain levels, interpretations, or applications that I agree with and others which lead to perverse, abhorrent, or outright dangerous positions—which is of course what makes them so useful.

“The poem was published in Philosophy Now, a glossy magazine with a specialized readership but a glossy magazine nonetheless, and one of the highlights of the first summer after I graduated was driving to the Barnes and Noble in Clifton Commons and finding myself there on the shelf along with the movie tie-in reprints and tote bags with snarky quotations on them. It’s probably normal for most poems published, even in larger or well-respected publications, to go essentially unnoticed. I don’t hear back from strangers about the majority of poems I send out into the world and my meager stream of fanfiction is archived in an email folder I dip into when depths start to bewilder. Yet this is the poem that keeps coming back—and the comments I receive on it indicate that different readers draw very different conclusions from it. The year after it was published it was awarded second place in the “Best Poems of 2020” list at the Society of Classical Poets Journal. Someone sent me a Chinese blog where it had been translated into Mandarin, with (Google Translate revealed) a spirited discussion in the comments section as to whether the “blinders” were the same device whether the line was translated as “horse” or as “donkey” (the verdict: they are distinct: the blindfold put on a donkey driving a wheel totally blocks its vision, whereas the blinders put on a horse drawing a vehicle do so only selectively).”

Daniel Galef is a graduate instructor of English at Florida State University and Associate Poetry Editor of Able Muse. His poetry has appeared in Atlanta Review, Able Muse, Measure, The Lyric, Light, First Things, The Christian Century, and Philosophy Now. He is listed in Webster’s dictionary under the entry for “interfaculty (adj.),” which means “brilliant and handsome.” Besides poems he also writes short fiction, humor, and plays, with a story published last year in Juked just awarded a spot in the 2020 Best Small Fictions anthology. He is currently searching for a publisher for a debut poetry collection, Imaginary Sonnets.

More of his work is listed at http://goo.gl/mpRUrs

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Marilyn L. Taylor, ‘Reading the Obituaries’

Now the Barbaras have begun to die,
trailing their older sisters to the grave,
the Helens, Margies, Nans—who said goodbye
just days ago, it seems, taking their leave
a step or two behind the hooded girls
who bloomed and withered with the century—
the Dorotheas, Eleanors and Pearls
now swaying on the edge of memory.
Soon, soon, the scythe will sweep for Jeanne
and Angela, Patricia and Diane—
pause, and return for Karen and Christine
while Nancy spends a sleepless night again.
Ah, Debra, how can you be growing old?
Jennifer, Michelle, your hands are cold.

Marilyn Taylor writes: “The older I get, the more my poems seem to turn to thoughts of mortality, especially when I find myself reading the obituary pages in the Sunday paper. After having indulged this habit for several years (it’s something old people do, kids), I discovered that a reader-of-obits can often tell approximately how old the deceased was—especially in the case of a woman—at the end of her life, simply by noting her name. Women’s names have a strong tendency to go in and out of fashion over the course of several decades, albeit with a few exceptions—think “Catherine,” and the ever-popular “Elizabeth” and its many offshoots (although, oddly, “Betty,” now seems dated). I mulled over it for a few months and came up with the sonnet below. Sorry if your name is included; I have no dark motives.”

Marilyn Taylor, former Poet Laureate of the state of Wisconsin and the city of Milwaukee, is the author of six poetry collections. Her work has appeared in many anthologies and journals, including Poetry, Light, American Scholar, and Measure. She was recently awarded the Margaret Reid Prize for verse in forms. http://www.mltpoet.com/

Sonnet: ‘Irritated Muse’

My muse is angered by my Covid cares –
“You worry if the shops have food and beer,
and what a Zoom attendee rightly wears!
You’re just as mortal as you were last year,
and wrote of life and death, sickness and health.
Well, now’s an actual existential crisis!
Think family and friends, the world, your self…
forget the shopping and the product prices!
You’ll die; the question’s When. The only tool
for immortality is me, that clear?
You should be writing poetry, you fool!
This is your chance. Focus on me.” (Yes, dear.)
“Respect me as your muse: I’m not your shill.
If you can’t write a poem, write your will.”

This sonnet has just been published in Allegro in the UK, edited by Sally Long. The magazine comes out twice a year, one issue themed and the other open. It focuses on formal verse, but on a long continuum between fully formal and free.

Photo: “Thalia, Muse of comedy.” by Egisto Sani is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

(Loosely) Anapestic Sonnet: ‘A Run’

Over the island from beaches this side where it’s blowing,
it’s only a mile to the side where today it’s flat calm;
so over the hill’s potholed tarmac, to tracks of sand going
along under southern pine, seagrape, gum elemi, palm;
and then between sea-oats and cocoplums over the dunes
and down to the beach where the sand is as dusty as powder,
then lower across the high tide mark that seaweed festoons,
to harder packed sand under sun hot as bird-pepper chowder —
the sand at the ocean low tide, flat and hard as a ledge,
so flat you don’t feel that you’re running the side of a slope
where the ocean runs up inches deep and you splash through its edge,
one more mile to the end, where the sand is as pink as fresh hope,
is as pink as a conch shell, as pink as the still morning skies —
and you rest on the rocks in the shade while the southern pine sighs.

Eleuthera, the island where I was raised and where I live, is long and skinny like many of the Bahama Islands. A hundred and ten miles long, mostly a mile or two wide. I live on the south side (local name), the west side (tourist name), the sea side, the Sound side, the Caribbean side. It’s a great run of a mile over a 60 foot hill to the north side (or east side, ocean side, Atlantic side). On the south side the sand is white, and all the way out to the horizon the water is only 20 feet deep or so. On the north side the sand varies from powdery white to coarse pink, and long before you got to the horizon you would be in 8,000 feet of water. You can tell immediately from a photo which side you’re looking at: vegetation, beach, colour of the water, they’re all different.

This poem was published this month in Snakeskin, edited for 25 years by George Simmers. He is receptive to both traditional and free verse, everything depending on what appeals to him at the time. This is good for me, because I am inconsistent with what I produce. With this one, I went for the rhythm, the da-da-dum, da-da-dum which may not be the sound one person makes when running, but for me captures the mood of running. I can’t define it more than that. And so long as that rhythm is in the heart of each line, I don’t have a problem with being a syllable short at the beginning, or having an extra one at the end, so long as it all flows from one line to the next without a big hiccup.

Sonnets: ‘Confronting Churches and the Void’

A man-like god creates the universe?
Two hundred billion galaxies? Each holding
a hundred billion stars? And each star moulding
its planets into life, teeming, diverse!
All this from some bearded old angry face
who says “Build me a temple, pray, and pay
the priests who’ll guide you onto Heaven’s way,
erase your sins . . . or you’ll go in disgrace
to torment underground — eternally.”
No way your life gains from such small belief,
passed on by some royal or holy thief
who says “God wants your money, send it me —
my palace honours Him . . .” The human lurches
fearful, confused, through wastes of wasteful churches.

As social animals, we find our place
by walling others out, putting them down:
these walls, my family; those walls, my town.
Even more walls: tribe, country, faith or race.
This atavism’s bad for mental health,
supports no sense of personal strengths or meaning,
allows no purpose, individual leaning,
denies achievement to your inner self.
Identity’s reduced to football fan,
or something uniformed, or some group prayer;
without those — alcohol, drugs or despair,
not knowing how to move past Nowhere Man.
Know yourself, human, to confront the Void:
your proper study’s all that’s anthropoid.

You can think of these two sonnets as the result of ten years of Church of England boarding school–five years in Jamaica, five in England–where Scripture lessons and daily church services were complemented by solid science and rigourous literature. And of course the Church of England recognises no Pope except the man who wrote “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; the proper study of Mankind is Man.” So here you see the fruits of a well-rounded education.

This poem has just been published in Better Than Starbucks, a remarkably extensive poetry journal (and with some fiction too). The bulk of my BTS-published poems are in the Formal Poetry section, but there are many other sections–it’s a 100-page magazine. The online version is free, and well worth exploring.

“stepping across the bridge” by Max Nathan is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Sonnet: “The Word”

“In the beginning was the Word.” What word?
Said by what tongue? Indeed, said in what tongue?
And by what consciousness was the Word flung
Out into Nothing, as from Ark a bird?
Nothing will come of nothing, we’ve concurred.
A billion galaxies, from Nothing sprung?
How “the beginning,” if a lowest rung
Requires both ground and ladder? It’s absurd.
Religions, sects, philosophies and schools,
Simple or complex, always come to grief
Because our grasp of Nothingness is flawed.
The atheist rightly shows all gods are fools;
The agnostic claims that any held belief —
Including one in Nothing — is a fraud.

I’ve written poems for and against various religions, depending on my mood and on whatever idea I was exploring. But in the end I come back to disbelief. I’m a militant agnostic: “I don’t know, and neither do you!” And this acknowledgement of ignorance of where the Universe comes from is emphatically NOT an endorsement of any religion. It is an endorsement of the (probably hopeless) search by science for all the answers.

This sonnet, with Petrarchan rhyme scheme ABBA ABBA CDE CDE, was originally published in Bewildering Stories, issue 789. I’ve tinkered with the penultimate line since then, trying to improve the metre.

Photo: “WORDS” by Pierre Metivier is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Sonnet: ‘The Poem’

Poems are merely words you can remember
word for word. Question: What makes them so?
Think of the earliest nursery rhymes you know,
held from child’s January to old December:
rhymes, rhythms, imagery—rich as meringues.
Then complicate discussion, don’t reduce
odd imagery, words foolish, strange, diffuse—
aim for rijsttafel with tongue-tingling tangs.
Use richness to engage the memory:
conflicting quotes from Bible, Shakespeare, Yeats,
with Bach-like sense of heaven’s opening gates
or hall of mirrors, or sun-scattering sea…
Mesmerized readers have to puzzle out
in memory mazes what it’s all about.

My firm belief is that poetic structures originate as nothing more than memory aids, so that a work can be recited word for word. This was invaluable in preliterate societies and was used for tribal histories and spiritual revelations (Muhammad was illiterate, and the most powerful passages of the Quran are in strongly rhythmical rhyme) as well as for lullabyes and love songs. But the use of our human love of rhythmic beat, and our enjoyment of rhyme and wordplay, have helped verse develop into elaborate, engaging, memorable forms, varying by culture because of the different opportunities of the different languages. Enjoy the diversity, and the complexity!

This sonnet, like ‘The Four Duties‘, has just been published in the Winter 2020 edition of The Orchards magazine of formal poetry.

Photo: “Indonesisch Rijstafel” by johl is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Sonnet: ‘The Four Duties’

First, to your family, the spouse you chose,
children you gained who themselves had no choice;
to give a space wherein to find their voice
with safety, happiness, as each one grows.

To self: to keep yourself happy and whole,
free of both physical and mental pain
through yoga, exercise, good stress, good strain,
a moderate diet, peaceful self-control.

To all humanity: using some gift,
some insight, skill set, asset, useful tool
to better people’s lives through work or school,
some mast and sail or oar for those adrift.

And to the Muse that underlies the world:
express yourself—banners are useless furled.

This sonnet feels a little uncomfortably preachy, pretentious, self-righteous, and generally out of touch with the flippant persona I prefer. But it’s what I actually believe deep down. To me, it’s self-evident in terms not just of personal morality, but also as regards what makes a person feel fulfilled and happy. And the last bit is important: everyone has a creative aspect, and everyone has a Muse. The Muse is just part of how the world works, perhaps how your creative subconscious communicates with your conscious mind, perhaps how God or gods or angels communicate with you… it’s a little mysterious, but it’s part of your reality. And the correct thing to do is to express yourself creatively when you have an idea for it: that turns on the tap for further creativity. Not doing anything with the creative idea you get turns the tap off, and reduces future creativity. You need to honour the Muse when he/she/it appears.

‘The Four Duties’ has just been published in the Winter 2020 edition of The Orchards magazine of formal poetry. A few days late for that year, perhaps, but I just saw a weather forecast for “six more weeks of 2020”. Indeed, a sense of calm and responsibility is what the world needs, now and always.

Photo: “Her duty” by Go-tea 郭天 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Political poem: Shelley’s ‘England in 1819’

An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king,–
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn, mud from a muddy spring,–
Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,
But leech-like to their fainting country cling,
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow,–
A people starved and stabbed in the untilled field,–
An army which liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield,–
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless, a book sealed,–
A Senate—Time’s worst statute unrepealed,–
Are graves from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst to illumine our tempestuous day.

Shelley wrote this sonnet in 1819 in response to the Peterloo Massacre: a peaceful crowd of 60,000 had gathered in Manchester to call electoral reform, but were charged into by a local Yeomanry regiment, and then by a cavalry regiment of the King’s Hussars with sabres drawn. Official numbers show 18 people killed, including several women, and 400 to 700 injured: bayoneted, sabred, knocked down, trampled.

Shelley blames the mad King George III and his sons (including of course the Regent, the future George IV), and the ruling class in a time of unemployment and economic recession, and further blames the illiberal army, and harsh laws, and morality-free religion, and a Parliament that was refusing all civil rights to Catholics. They might all be graves of corruption, but Shelley hopes that from their decay will come a glorious new spirit to brighten the world.

Not all of the poem resonates with any particular political situation in the world today; but “an old, mad, blind, despised and dying king”… well, that’s certainly the impression given by the White House in early 2021.

Technically: the sonnet is in iambic pentameter as you would expect, but the rhyme scheme is unconventional: ababab cdcdccdd. The illustration is an engraving of George III in later life, by Henry Meyer.