Category Archives: Poetry

Review: ‘That Shakespeherian Rag’ by Edmund Conti

The problem of being
a 17-year
locust
is trying to stay
for 16 years
focused.

That poem is ‘Short Attention Span’ from Edmund Conti’s latest collection of verse. Originally the title was to be ‘O O O O’ in reference to T.S. Eliot’s lines from The Waste Land where the poet is being criticised by his wife:

“Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?”
But
O O O O that Shakespeherian rag—
It’s so elegant
So intelligent

It seems that the publishers sensibly preferred a title that would be more comprehensible, without the confusions of O and 0. So the next part of the quote was chosen–still idiosyncratic, but more useful. And, yes, Conti seems to have poetry singing rhythms in his head all the time, and he produces beautiful jazz-like drawings as in the book’s cover.

Both titles for the collection are pure Conti–he has a playful, Zen-like approach to life, highly literate, constantly referencing other writers (and other writers referencing other writers), expecting a level of knowledge and engagement from the reader, and often reducing his expositions to the shortest possible. So this latest volume is full of memories and meditations, jokes and puns, and threaded through with the words of others. Conti divides the book into 11 Shakespearean sections, starting with memories of childhood and youth, and then weaving through reading and writing, books and poetry, his neighbors and family (and their views of his verse), into a closer and closer look at mortality: the last four pieces having respectively four lines, two lines, one line, and nothing.

Conti writes both formal and free verse, depending what kind of playfulness he’s up to. When he parodies Emily Dickinson, of course it’s in her standard ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’ meter and rhymes ABAB. But he’s a lot more free when he just wants some snide commens and a punchline. Here’s ‘Losing Battle’:

In a final desperate attempt
at survival, the sun sets
fire to the western sky.
Overblown, say my poet friends.
Cute, say my non-poet friends.
What does it mean? asks my neighbor.
How much will you get paid for it?
That’s from my wife.

My father’s an astronaut,
my son lies.

Engaging, amusing, thought-provoking, with many short passages that stay in the memory. A fun book for all poets. Just published this month by Kelsay Books.

Short poem: ‘Every Little Mammal’

Every little mammal
Likes a little cuddle.
Man or mouse or camel,
Life becomes a muddle
If there is no cuddle
For the simple mammal.

There’s nothing much to this little poem. Sometimes an awareness of a rhyme or near-rhyme sparks a thought, sometimes a random thought contains words that rhyme, or nearly… and if it’s not a large thought, it’s not a large poem. But it’s there all the same. And if you’re really lucky, you can find an appropriate illustration…

This short poem was originally published, like a hundred others of mine, in Snakeskin. Thanks for all of them, editor George Simmers!

“Illuminated Manuscript, Collection of poems (masnavi), A mouse, clutching the reins of a camel, at a stream of water, Walters Art Museum Ms. W.626, fol. 94b” by Walters Art Museum Illuminated Manuscripts is marked with CC0 1.0

Sonnet: ‘One True Religions’

No vision brings the whole world to its knees.
Jains, Hindus, Buddhists, Mithraists, Parsees,
Moses, Muhammad, Jesus or St. Paul,
One True Religions never conquer all.
Humans are simply too cantankerous
for any one belief to anchor us.

Success at once leads into sects and schisms:
the One Pure Ray of Light hits human prisms,
and egos, power grabs, love of dispute,
traditions, curiosity, all loot
the intellectual wealth of strong belief.
This year’s great guru’s merely last year’s thief.

Control’s maintained by sword and flame, not thought.
In failure, drink the Kool Aid or get shot.

Well, maybe 14 lines rhymed in pairs isn’t really a sonnet, even if it’s in iambic pentameter. But when you’ve got a structure that works for a poem, I don’t think it’s worth trying to hammer it into a different shape just to try to reach a “higher” standard. Anyway, sonnet or not this poem was published in Rat’s Ass Review – as you could guess from the journal’s name, editor Roderick Bates publishes whatever appeals to him, with no apologies for treading on other people’s sensibilities, religious, poetic or anything else. It’s a good place to submit a poem that other journals might be squeamish about, and a good place to read a wide range of outspoken poetry.

“Jonestown massacre” by johndavison883 is marked with CC PDM 1.0

Resources: Goodreads

Goodreads’ stated mission is to help people find and share books they love, and to improve the process of reading and learning throughout the world. (That was crafted before they were bought by Amazon, so their mission may have a somewhat more mercenary aspect these days.) Founder Otis Chandler got the idea when looking at a friend’s bookshelf, and wishing there was a way to share discoveries and opinions of books online. Launched in January of 2007, by December it had 650,000 members–clearly it was on to something! And by the end of 2019 (i.e. pre-Covid) it had 90 million members, a number that can only have grown since then.

It’s a place where you can spend your time in a variety of ways: making shelves of the books you’ve read, sorting them by topic, giving them 1 to 5 stars, writing reviews of them… Developing a list of friends to follow or to share reviews with, joining a group with topics that you like, using the site to find books you are likely to enjoy… Setting a goal of how many books to read in the coming year, and having Goodreads track your progress, praising you or nagging you depending on whether you’re ahead of schedule or behind.

More completely, “Goodreads,” says Wikipedia, “is an American social cataloging website that allows individuals to search its database of books, annotations, quotes, and reviews. Users can sign up and register books to generate library catalogs and reading lists. They can also create their own groups of book suggestions, surveys, polls, blogs, and discussions.”

Because my main reading these days is formal poetry (of course–though leavened with Simenon, Le Guin and thick works of history) I have been looking to see what kind of poetry groups operate in Goodreads. I only found one of formal verse, with half a dozen members, and dormant for over a year. So I have started a new one called ‘Formal Verse – Mostly’. If you, reading this, are interested in reading, writing or discussing formal poetry, old or new, your own or that of others, then consider joining us.

But even if you don’t want to be that active, don’t want to join a group, Goodreads still offers a range of benefits for all readers. I’ve been reading more each year for the last few years, largely thanks to the Reading Challenge and being nagged when (as now) I’m behind schedule.

Photo: “My Books” by Jennerally is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Evocative Fragments: from Arnold’s ‘A Summer Night’ (1)

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 as, year after year,
Fresh products of their barren labor fall
From their tired hands, and rest
Never yet comes more near,
Gloom settles slowly down over their breast.
And while they try to stem
The waves of mournful thought by which they are prest,
Death in their prison reaches them,
Unfreed, having seen nothing, still unblest.

I’m very grateful to my schooling for putting Matthew Arnold on the curriculum – this subversive little passage seems designed to undermine the office and factory culture which has flourished since his time, to undermine even the student writing endless essays. Arnold was an inspector of schools as well as a poet and social critic, so we can assume he knew what he was doing. But isn’t it suggesting that a dissatisfied person should just drop out? More on that in the next fragment.

The other thing I like about the piece is its easy, flowing style. Every line rhymes, but without pattern. The lines are iambic, mostly pentameter, but a scattering of them are shorter. It feels very conversational, and it is certainly very easy to learn by heart (which is one of the reasons that poetry evolved in the first place). The only hiccup to natural speech are the displacement of ‘live’ and ‘give’ to the ends of their lines for the sake of the rhyme and even that, though artificial, is done conventionally enough to read smoothly. The rest of it is in normal speech. When T.S. Eliot came out with ‘Prufrock’ some decades later, though it had a different, Imagist sensibility, the only real difference in style was in dropping the thou’s and thee’s that Arnold still clung to.

Photo: “Office workers in Executive Building Room No. 123 prior to alterations, Brisbane” by Queensland State Archives is marked with CC PDM 1.0

Short poem: ‘Golden Childhood’

Golden girl on a sunset beach
With a dog and a horse,
Golden boy spears a silver shark
Under the sea;

Is such a dream forever in reach
Or forever false?
We stumble, emotional, through the warm dark
Back to the sea.

I wrote this in my 20s when I was saying goodbye to the Bahamas – my father had died, my mother had sold the house and moved back to Europe. For the next few decades I lived in Denmark, Canada, the US… but eventually came back to the sea.

The poem was originally published in Candelabrum. I always had difficulty with that seventh line. Originally it had “emotionally”, and I sort of justified it with the line itself being a stumble… but it’s a bad line, too many syllables, too many consonants. Sometimes when I submit a poem to a magazine, the editor points out a flaw, and more rarely, offers a useful alternative. Poems can always be tinkered with.

Photo cropped from “Girl riding a horse at sunset on Bali” by Jimmy McIntyre – Editor HDR One Magazine is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Poem: ‘Here Come the Old Gods’

Here come the old gods,
laughing in their sleeves
At all the foolishness
humankind believes.
Vishnu and Odin say
Prayers are in vain.
Loki and Shiva say
All goes down the drain.
Jesus and Buddha say
All will rise again.
Dig into the molecule,
the atom you disclose–
Search into the atom and
its particles expose–
Then to string and quantum,
to things that no one knows,
But downward still and downward
the endless staircase goes.
What yet smaller pieces
make up the smallest part?
What is outside everything?
What’s before the start?
The answer’s in the searching
through human gods and sin,
The answer’s in the clicking
of the wheel’s endless spin,
The answer’s in the angels
dancing on a pin,
The answer is the journey
you begin, begin, begin.

This poem was published this month in Snakeskin. It is rhythmic without being precise in its metre: this, together with the rhymes, means it is easy to chant (if you like chanting poetry). Philosophically it is a good expression of my personal beliefs (or lack thereof). I’m a Militant Agnostic: “I don’t know, and neither do you.” Which creates a lot of space for us all to enjoy life.

Photo: “universe” by tolworthy is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Poem: ‘Nymph’

A mayfly nymph, in water for a year,
transforms into a beauty of the air
for just one day – one day to mate, breed, die.
The essence then’s the nymph, and not the fly
which we see only thronging in death throes,
death throes of riotous sex. Everyone knows,
though, that the fly’s the cycle’s pinnacle
to artists, if not to the clinical.
Though humans for long eons lived on land,
at Science’s Nietzschean precipice we stand,
transform to things that freely live in space,
or formless Cloud-based online lives embrace…
and may survive but briefly in that state,
but, dying, will seed new worlds as we mate.

Nature poem? Piece of science fiction? The observation of how nature works and a hypothetical extrapolation of human nature into the future are not really two different things – it’s all part of life, the universe and everything… though that future will be is anyone’s guess. The only thing for sure is that tomorrow is not going to be like today.

Is a 14-line poem in iambic pentameter a sonnet, if it just rhymes as couplets? I think not. This poem has a volta after the eighth line, but it still doesn’t feel like a sonnet to me. The feel comes from a couplet closing the poem out after a series of three quatrains, or from the shift from ABBAABBA to CDCDCD. That finalising shift, that sense of completion, is integral to the feel of the sonnet. This poem fails to meet that criterion.

‘Nymph’ was first published in the Orchards Poetry Journal, whose latest issue has just come out – free online, or available in print.

Photo: “mayfly” by ian boyd is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Poem: ‘Ex-Rover’

I was a rover, footloose treasure-trover,
Bahamian, Brit, Dane, Aussie, Canadian,
Easily settling, never for very long,
Followed the sun and the moon with a song.

Now roving is over, Death’s raving and raging,
The threatening madman, waving a knife.
Even my babies have babies, are ageing –
Aren’t there any more decades left in my life?

I was a rover – no grass
Grew under my feet as I’d pass.
Now grass grows and I cut it.
And it grows, and I cut it.
I was wired, now I’m tired;
Fired up, now I’m mired.
And the grass grows again… I give up.

Let me sleep in the sun, and sleep slow.
Let me sleep deep.
When was that rover me?
Let the grass grow.
Let the moon be the stone over me.

This poem has just been published in The Orchards Poetry Journal, where it immediately follows the poem I posted here a couple of days ago, ‘Roughing It In Europe‘. It makes a nice, somewhat sardonic, pairing. Appropriately, this one was written several years after the more enthusiastic earlier one. (From the Orchards link above you can download the Journal as a pdf for free, or buy the very lovely finished product.)

‘Ex-Rover’ is one of those poems that stretches the meaning of the word “formal”. But it has enough rhythm and rhyme to make it relatively easy to learn word for word, and that is a lot of the point of poetry in any language. I feel barely any shame in putting it into the world in this ragged form. The ragged form suits the mood of the piece, after all.

“wanderer” by Cornelia Kopp is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Kathryn Jacobs, ‘The Innocent’

They trust us, and they shouldn’t: butterflies
and earnestly pursuing preschoolers
careen among us, prone to accidents,
disasters in the making. Both of them

incapable of short-cuts, see-sawing
oblivious among the negligent,
convinced that we know best, who disregard
how short their legs and lives are.

Some of them
(the lucky and unswatted) mobilize
their stubby forces to stay out of reach,

But most of them launch headlong, more afraid
of being left behind or swallowed, than

of damaged wings and feelings, wedged against
rude curb-stops or cupped hands –

Kathryn Jacobs writes: “I am choosing The Innocent because it reminds me of what I’ve lost: of my son Raymond in particular (though he is not in the poem overtly). Ray died at 18. I am sending a photo of Ray with his twin: it’s a photo that reminds me of more Innocent days.”

Kathryn Jacobs is a professor at Texas A&M-C and editor of The Road Not Taken. Her fifth book of poetry (Wedged Elephant) appeared in Kelsay Books. Her poems have appeared in Measure, The New Formalist, Southern Poetry Anthology, Mezzo Cammin, etc. Currently she is working on a book of Dan.
http://journalformalpoetry.com/