Category Archives: Poetry

Calling the Poem: 4. ‘Of Gods’

What are the gods? Are they true? Fake? Wild? Tame?
They are in you, and/or you are in them.
They are the joy that apes feel in the storm –
They are the hearth that keeps the caveman warm –
Societies the shaman’s dreams create –
They are Fertility, Love, Hunting, War,
And tools, pots, crops that clutch the god-robe hem,
And Trickster’s tales and lies, the Path, the Door…
Conflicting aspects flesh the human frame,
Demand obedience to some inner Law
To which no individual can conform.
Changing and arguing, they made Rome great
Before the MonoFossilizers came.

*****

It’s difficult for me to express the comfortable balance I have between belief and disbelief. On the one hand, something is the Creator and Sustainer of All the Worlds – in rough numbers, a billion galaxies of a billion stars each, and who knows how many planets with billions of life forms. On the other hand, all the stories of Heaven and Hell, of Odin and Hel, are such simplistic preliterate nonsense that I have to be an atheist. On the third hand, that preliterate sensibility is who we are, how we evolved, and is the key to a holistic understanding of oneself. Therefore I try to pay respectful attention to the simplistic preliterate nonsense that wanders into my consciousness. “Primitive” religion is more useful than “advanced” religion because it is inchoate, formless, shifting, full of alternatives, ambiguous – and that appears closer to the forces that underlie Material Reality than rigid “advanced” religion can manage… and it is also closer to the unconscious that communicates with you through dream and intuition.

But as for exactly what the gods are, and what their relationship to the underlying Creator of the Universe… who knows!

This semi-formal poem is the 4th of 15 in the ‘Calling the Poem’ chapbook from Snakeskin.

Photo: “Greek Gods, take your pick” by dullhunk is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Calling the Poem: 3. ‘Self-Belief’

Can you handle the wild poem? Can you tame the thing, or kill?
The certainty, uncertainty, of writing as a skill,
The being told to “find your voice”, the crawling like an ant
Across the skin of Literature, that giant, to implant
Some token of your individuality, some pin
To jab into the giant’s vast and ant-infested skin,
To make your mark by scrawling words, tattoos, to claim a win…
You can’t succeed alone against such odds!
But there are gods…

*****

This is the third poem in the ‘Calling the Poem’ chapbook sequence in Snakeskin. The question of self-belief can be difficult for any artist – given the thousands of years of recorded paintings, sculptures, poems, music, etc, how can you know that your tiny ant-like efforts will be enough to make a mark in the world? Can you hope to succeed? The choice might seem to be between the hubris of Yes and the defeatism of No – but you have a secret ally, if you pay attention: the Muse. If you are self-aware and mindful, if you stay alert for scraps from the unconscious, the dream-world including daydreams, if you are respectful enough to try to capture the little hints you are given, then the Muse (She, or He, or Them, Yourself, your unconscious, God or Gods or Angels, however you visualise this force and process) will provide you with insights and material you never knew you could access.

Your Muse is available to you… if you stop and listen, remain open and respectful of the unexpected. Again, the learning and the workloads imposed by others tend to act against this attitude. Take heart from T.S. Eliot: “a poet ought to know as much as will not encroach upon his necessary receptivity and necessary laziness.” That was not a flippant comment of his: it goes to the heart of learning to work with your Muse.

Photo: 8/17/09 Houston – Fire Ant Bite by stefan.klocek used under OpenVerse license

Calling the Poem: 2. ‘Awareness of the Mood’

The possibility before the poem, the mood,
Is premonition more than vision: loath
To admit, like the repressed and skewed
Response on seeing god-like demon, or young witch…
Not even genitals’ light twitch,
But mere awareness of that energy, potential thrust,
That tightness in the chest,
A heart-tight feeling of both loss and lust.
Then don’t ignore that feeling, for you’re blessed:
A poem is lurking in your undergrowth.

*****

This series of poems, ‘Calling the Poem’, is about the process of writing poetry – an art for which some people appear to have an affinity, an intangible ability. My sense is that such creativity is available to all humans, but requires a certain mindset, an openness to the unconscious, an interest in unplanned internal upwellings and dreams and fortuitous images; in other words, it is not available to those who plan and schedule their lives rigorously, who meticulously follow the teachings imposed from the outside by others.

The process starts before the poem begins to appear. I find it starts with a mood that feels like… like a mixture of curiosity (whether filled with hope or despair), and of awareness of the vastness of the world (whether manifested in a sunset or an ant), and of some small but significant personal power even in the presence of the forces of the universe, and of that formless twitch of yearning desire when glimpsing an unconnected but desirable object for the first time.

My sense is that when you find yourself in this mood – and I trust you’re aware of having experienced it – you are entering a state of receptivity to the messages that your unconscious wishes to share with the conscious you; and those messages will come as creative images, or dreams, or ideas, or words and phrases. But they will only come if you are receptive to them. So honour the mood: relax, listen, observe, and be prepared to express in rough draft whatever occurs to you. The mood is not the creativity; but if you accept the mood, the creative communication of the unconscious can occur.

Photo: “14. Premonition of Concusia 2009” by Anne Marie Grgich is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Calling the Poem: 1. ‘Invocation’

O Odin,
Living outside me or within,
Share your mead of poetry you earned in night’s delight,
Spare me from the mead you shitted out in flight and fright.
By Thought and Memory, I swear
A poem needs your care,
For poems… magic poems… are nothing,
and come from your nowhere…

A poem comes in flurries:
A phrase that catches, sticks,
A rhyme that matches
With some thought that dog-worries,
And a verse that clicks.

*****

Just to be clear, I’m no more a believer in the Norse gods than I am in Yoruba, Hindu or Christian deities. Also, I’m not a white nationalist. But mythology has a couple of uses for me: pure enjoyment of the tangled tales; a way of looking at historical mindsets; and a tool for trying to communicate with the unconscious, i.e. to let the creative unconscious funnel ideas and images to the conscious mind.

What I do believe is that invoking the Muse, or a god, is a way of telling your unconscious that you are receptive to its comments… it is a fishing expedition, and you never know what you’re going to get. But I believe it is a system that works (sometimes), and I don’t practise another. (Various drugs are alleged to get results, too.)

So a few years ago I set out to describe the process that I follow to try to bring poetry to me. The result was a series of 15 poems, published by Snakeskin as an e-chapbook in January 2017. It was available as a free download from Snakeskin No. 236, and it should be again, when the Snakeskin archives are again operational. I named it ‘Calling the Poem’.

‘Calling the Poem’ starts by invoking the Muse – male, female, human, animal, I think the Muse can be however you choose to imagine it. But the Muse should be a dream-image, for the Muse, the unconscious, is as likely to communicate through dream as anywhere. Odin is a good figure, with his ravens of Thought and Memory who give him the news of the world, his eight-legged horse Sleipnir who can carry him through all the worlds, his ability to shapeshift and prophesy, the sacrifices he made to obtain wisdom such as gouging out an eye to put in Mimir’s well, and of course the mead of poetry that he stole and disburses as he feels.

And so the first poem – somewhat rough-hewn, semi-formal – is the invocation addressed to Odin.

Photo: “Odin on Sleipnir” by Hornbeam Arts is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Short poem: ‘First Contact’

And when we leave this planet, even leave
corporeal necessity behind,
launch in new realms of space, new states of matter,
encapsuled and encoded, searching blind,
who will we find, as we have always found,
those others there before us, unconfined?
How will we meet them, how will we relate,
them settled formlessly, we coming late?

*****

Perhaps I owe an explanation to non-readers of science fiction. The premise of the poem is that we humans will continue to tinker with not just our bodies but our DNA, as we have always experimented with everything. We will produce ever more bizarre manifestations as posthumans, especially useful in off-planet environments (I recommend the short stories of John Varley), ultimately finding ways to exist with intelligence and control without being tied to physical bodies. (Try Vernor Vinge.) But as always, wherever and however we voyage in exploration, we will always find someone (some thing) is there before us. And then there will be all the usual situations that occur with first contact… confusion, lack of communication, miscommunication, trust and distrust, treachery, violence, accommodation, mutual benefit, all the things that social species engage in.

Appropriately this short poem was first published in Bewildering Stories (thanks, Don Webb!), an excellent weekly magazine of speculative stories both short and serialized, and speculative poetry and art. This eight-line poem is structurally pretty basic: it’s in iambic pentameter with the second, fourth and sixth lines rhyming and with a final couplet.

Jupiter – PJ16-13” by Kevin M. Gill is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Resources: Salt Publishing returns!

Begun in 1999 as a wide-ranging British literary publisher, Salt ran into difficulties with a declining market for poetry. In 2013 they posted in their blog that “after thirteen years and over 400 poetry collections, many by debut authors,” they were going to stop publishing poetry by individual poets and instead limit themselves to anthologies. For those who want to see how depressingly small the poetry market could be, here is a Guardian article on it and Salt from 2013.

By 2018 it looked as though Salt might be dissolving entirely, despite the wide praise and support they had from the literary community; and then came Covid and the halt to library and bookstore gatherings. Life got miserable for everyone (except, of course, Boris Johnson).

Happily, Salt hung on, focusing on fiction, and has now strengthened enough to once again be accepting submissions of poetry manuscripts. They may be very much a contemporary publisher, but can’t be completely averse to formal verse if their author list includes Christina Rossetti and Emily Brontë. From their Submissions page:

We are happy to consider full-length poetry collections by Welsh, Scottish, Irish or English poets of circa 64 pages. It will help if poets live in the British Isles to participate in publicity and promotion.
Please send your complete collection along with your magazine publication history and a biographical note.

Their blog even has a useful Guide to Poetry Submissions. Salt, distributed by Penguin Random House and with e-book distribution by Faber Factory, is a top-class independent publisher in the UK. It’s good to see them looking fully active again.

Review: ‘By Heart – 101 poems to remember’, ed. Ted Hughes

This book’s theme is the memorisation of poems, and there are things I like and things I don’t like about both Ted Hughes’ introduction to the subject and the 101 poems that he has chosen.

First, the introduction. I like that it encourages people to learn poems by heart. But although the book’s title is ‘By Heart‘, Hughes instead teaches ‘by head’. His method is extremely cerebral, using the kind of image-association-chain taught by neuro-linguisitic program consultants to help you remember the names of business associates and clients. Hughes would have you construct a Cumberbatch-Sherlock Holmes ‘mind palace’. Taking Hopkins’ poem ‘Inversnaid’ as an example, Hughes explains that the opening lines
This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
can be dealt with as follows:
For ‘peaty burn’ it might be enough simply to imagine, like a frame in a colour film, a dark torrential mountain stream coming down among boulders. But to make sure it is ‘burn’ and not ‘stream’ that you remember, it might be better to imagine the stream actually burning, sending up flames and smoke: a cascade of dark fire, scorching the banks. The next item, ‘brown horse’, now has to be connected to the burning stream. The most obvious short-cut is to put the horse in the torrent of fire, trying to scramble out – possibly with its mane in flames.
He then goes on to connect it to the horse causing an avalanche (rollrock highroad) which comes down on a lion (roaring down), and so on.

My difficulty with all this is that the images he is creating are simply not what the poem is about. When Hopkins writes ‘burn’ meaning stream, it’s not appropriate to set it on fire. Of course the poem summons up images, and they are useful for memorizing… but for godssake, why not think of it as a Scottish stream rather than setting it on fire? The burn is brown and in spate, and rocks are rolling down it and it makes a roaring noise – and that is the picture you can hold in your head as you recite Hopkins’ lovely rich words, without having to involve fires, animals and avalanches.

It seems to me that Hughes is in danger of losing the beauty of the actual poem by going through his ‘mind palace’ activities. He appears to be reducing the memorisation of poetry to a party trick, performed at the expense of the poem itself. If he didn’t love the poem for its actual imagery, what did he love it for? When he memorised a poem, did he check it off and then forget it? Wouldn’t all the peripheral imagery have gotten in the way when he tried to recite the poem a few decades later? Better and safer to my mind to stay with the essential images and the richness of the language, rather than setting fire to a stream because the poet uses the word ‘burn’.

And this leads in to my thoughts about the selection of the 101 poems to be learnt by heart. Auden, Blake, Dickinson, Eliot, Frost, Wordsworth and Yeats each get at least five poems, and Shakespeare over a dozen. The less-represented poets are a wider mix, from John Betjeman to Elizabeth Bishop, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Lewis Carroll… The poems themselves are interesting, and many of them are perfect for memorising, so it is a worthwhile read.

But I don’t think it appropriate to waste five or six pages on the 130 or 170 lines of Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’ or Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’. Perhaps Ted Hughes learnt those two along with Blake’s ‘The Tyger’ and Wordsworth’s ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’, but the latter two are far more suitable than the former for a book that is meant to encourage others to achieve memorisation.

Again, most of the poems are good for learning by heart, but too many of them have none of the qualities that make it easy to learn poetry in English: rhyme, metre, alliteration, wordplay. William Empson’s translation of the Japanese poem ‘From the Small Bird to the Big’ is interesting, but inappropriate for this book. The same goes for Pound’s ‘The Return’ and Eliot’s ‘Marina’ – inappropriate because they are missing the music, the song-like qualities, that make memorisation easy. Easy, that is, if you are learning by heart, as the book’s title requires.

Review: A.E. Stallings, ‘Like’

‘Like’ is the fourth volume of poetry from A.E. Stallings, the best poet that I know of who is writing in English today. The themes in ‘Like’ are the same as in her earlier collections: American childhood, Greek adulthood, children, memory, local wildlife, Greek mythology… and concern for the abused, whether women in the patriarchy or refugees in the Mediterranean. There is a difference of organization, though: instead of four or five different sections, ‘Like’ lumps all the poems together and arranges them alphabetically by title; the result is a smooth, wide-ranging read.

Stallings has a superb mastery of form, and plays endless tricks with it. Start on ‘Battle of Plataea: Aftermath’ and the apparent prose in 11 lines when read alertly turns out to be a rhymed sonnet in iambic pentameter. Or take the eponymous ‘Like, the Sestina’ which uses the word “like” as the rhyme for every one of the requisite 39 lines plus 3 mid-line rhymes (with such variations as “unlike”, “dislike”, “look-alike”). See how the most substantial poem, ‘Lost and Found’, carries its rambling dream-and-memory dissertation on for 36 stanzas of ottava rima in iambic pentameter, whereas the shorter and more time-sensitive ‘Swallows’ uses 6 stanzas in iambic tetrameter. Her ‘Refugee Fugue’ attacks the unmanageable and unimaginable horrors of the desperate and drowned through a blues poem, a host of epigrams, a found poem – an appropriately confused assemblage of forms for a situation not amenable to coherent resolution.

But forget the technicalities! The beauty is in the easy music of her verse, the casual wordplay as with the doorbell that
Portended importunity from Porlock,
the throwaway etymological observations as of nighttime thoughts:
To consider means to contemplate the stars,
the poem on a ‘Pencil’ that ends
And Time the other implement
That sharpens and grows shorter,
the playfulness of ‘Night Thoughts’ that begins
Night thoughts are not like bats
and then goes on to describe the flight of bats in extended lyrical detail, before finally ending with how night thoughts are different…
And always the underlying awareness of thousands of years of history, showing through in the description of sky, contemporary but ancient, as
the contrailed palimpsest of blue.

And that leads me to my only regrets about Stallings’ verse: too much Greek literature with which I’m barely familiar. I’m not saying it’s a failing on her part, it’s merely a regret on my part that I can’t keep up. Although I would love to come across work by her with Norse themes…

But I will settle for what she offers: a very wide range. She can be very succinct as with ‘Paradox’:
Of the ones that happened to die, the little ones and the old,
Of hypothermia, or drowning, all died of cold.

Equally, she can be extensive and thorough in her exploration of a theme as with ‘Lost and Found’, where she is wandering through a dream of mountainous moonscapes, landfill landscapes, of things lost – toys, gloves, loves, baby teeth, time, opportunities, keys, coins – led by Mnemosyne, Memory herself, the mother of all the muses. The smooth formal stanzas of ottava rima, maintained steadily for 288 lines, provide the same meditative state as the 250 lines of Matthew Arnold’s ‘Scholar Gypsy’ or Edward FitzGerald’s even longer ‘Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam’.

My personal favorite in ‘Like‘ is her semi-formal ‘Crow, Gentleman’ (whose title I am guessing was changed from the original ‘Gentleman Crow’ to prevent it from coming between two poems in ‘Like’ addressed to her daughter). It begins:
Pacing to and fro
Along the autumn shore
Among the wrack and reek

With your arms clasped behind your back
And sporting your grey frock coat
Trimmed in black

And your black hat and your lean long-legged stride,
Up and down the strand perusing
The headlines of the tide:

and ends:
Life is a joke you crack,
Wry and amusing,
And death a dainty snack.

I find Stallings’ work altogether delightful: by turns sardonic, detached, passionate, compassionate, always observing carefully, always expressing wittily, always in masterful control of rhythm and rhyme. I repeat: I don’t know of a better poet writing in English today.

Resources: Light poetry magazine

Light‘ has just published its winter/spring 2022 issue… perhaps a little late, but it still has snow on the cover. Originally founded in 1992 by John Mella as the print magazine Light Quarterly with the mission to “restore humor, clarity, and pleasure to the reading of poems”, it is now biannual. It moved online in 2013, and all issues since then can be read for free on its website, along with excerpts from print issues dating back to 1999. Under current editor Melissa Balmain and her staff of fellow volunteers, it remains the oldest and best-known journal of light verse in the U.S.

I used to think of magazines as purely ephemeral, things to be skimmed and discarded unless a page or photo was worth retaining by tearing out physically or saving online. Light, however, has made me pay attention to how many resources are made available through a well-managed publication. In this case you get the following:
1. The magazine – some 50 poets with one or several pieces each – a great way to be exposed to, and kept up to date on, the range of light formal verse being produced in the English-speaking world today;
2. and more extensive work by, and coverage of, a featured poet – someone with a strong track record, worth learning about their work and career;
3. and (sometimes) an additional light-verse-related feature or essay;
4. and (always) reviews of light-verse books, and/or books that at least have a large helping of comic poetry – and I’m happy to say that the Potcake Chapbooks are again mentioned this issue!
5. and general news: the News page carries info on: 1- events of interest to Light poets (i.e., readings, workshops, and so forth involving light verse and/or Light poets); 2- contests and submission calls friendly to comic poets; 3- awards and honors received by Light contributors and volunteers; 4- books and, occasionally, music by Light poets. **NOTE: Poets and editors are encouraged to email editor Melissa Balmain with info appropriate for the News page: lightpoetrymagazine@gmail.com
6. and the magazine even runs light-verse events! Recordings of its “Light Verse in Dark Times” Zoom series are on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC-tR4v4H23BUg5ZDUJlU7fA. In pre-Covid days, Light hosted live readings in Washington, DC, and at the AWP conference in San Antonio, TX. Its first live event in two years will be a reading in honor of Light’s 30th anniversary, May 26 (next week!) at the Poetry by the Sea conference in Madison, CT;
7. and the current-events Poems of the Week (POTW), a mailing list you can join (or find on the Light website’s Home Page) for a weekly blast of 10-12 snappy, snippy comments on the absurdities and iniquities of the world.

So, more than just being a skimmable and disposable magazine, Light provides a doorway to an extensive community, with each issue providing the work of dozens of current poets, and opportunities to go deeper into the world of formal light verse either online or in person, and to be engaged with it actively or passively, weekly, twice-yearly, or as you feel like.

Of course Light also provides an opportunity for a poet to submit their own work: just read an issue or two, and go to https://lightpoetrymagazine.submittable.com/submit to get the details on how (and what) to submit to either the magazine or the POTW.

And for those who think this is the most worthy (free) enterprise they have run across in a long while, their donation page is here: https://lightpoetrymagazine.com/donate/)

Epigram: ‘Bit with Bite’

I think I’ve blinked
At what you write:
Edgy, succinct–
A bit with bite.

This is in the spirit of a homage to The Asses of Parnassus, in which the poem found a home. Editor Brooke Clark has created a tumblr account that for the past few years has been posting “Short, witty, formal poems” on an occasional (i.e. erratic) basis, much in the spirit of Latin and Greek epigrams (and often translations of them, or modern retellings).

This poem itself is not particularly noteworthy – but I enjoyed rhyming ‘blinked’ with ‘succinct’, as well as the ‘think/blink’ and ‘bit/bite’ pairings. Wordplay is at the heart of poetry, from Anglo-Saxon alliteration to modern rap, from nursery rhymes to Shakespearean sonnets. Wordplay is memorable, and sharpens the pain of an epigrammatic jab. Use it, if you want your barbs to be effective.