Category Archives: Poetics

Calling the Poem: 13. ‘Crafting the Verse’

We stand on two banks of the river that’s flowing between us.
I’ll bridge my new thoughts out to you with a verse.
First I form key ideas – they need clarity, cleanness –
The bridge forms an outline, takes shape in my head.
Now that bridge must be built,
Built regardless of canyons, or mud flats and silt.

The pillars are images placed first for more of the bridge to traverse,
With my strongest words buttressing them so they’re not washed away.
Their positions are set by the distance and shores,
While the force of the water, the shape of the bed,
And the landscape and soil on my side and yours,
The allowance for possible earthquake or storm,
The demands of the load that the bridge will convey…
These determine the structure, materials, form:
For the best bridge will meet site demands
With both strength and matched style.
So the poet needs meter and rhyme, every trick he commands,
Or the verses won’t carry their burden, will fail to beguile.

Though you see stone or steel in the bridge, for the most part it’s air,
Rhythmic arches of unspoken airy allusion, illusion,
Outlined in hard words and designed to be elegant, spare.
So this poem’s a book, that’s reduced to an essay, reduced more compactly
To two hundred lines, sacrificing precision
To memory’s need for concision, elision.
Two hundred exactly?
No, not exactly. (Exactly!)

From the sweep, pattern, length,
To its delicate strength,
Whether old Roman aqueduct, young Golden Gate,
Whether flowing with water or people and freight,
Its clean shape was constrained by the structural needs and efficiencies,
Driving its strength and position and duty.
All unstructured words in the river are wasted deficiencies.
Poems will last quite as long as an old Roman aqueduct,
Bridging the banks, bearing brightly in rhythms of beauty,
If all ostentation and ornamentation
Support the key functions in what you construct.
Raise your sights to the Space Elevator, that cable,
That modern-day Tower of Babel,
To not just bridge over
A strait or the Severn
But up! to bridge up! at the same time, to heaven.

Cloaked gods were invoked,
And the tiger broke cover,
Your poem connects river banks.
Now give thanks.

*****

When I moved to Denmark in my early 20s I was intrigued to hear that engineering students at a local university began their studies, not with lectures on a variety of key subjects, but by being placed in teams and told to design a bridge that would meet the demands for specific use at a specified site. Materials, geology, weather, load, cost, elegance and everything else that goes into bridge design all had to be researched and included in the project. When students had completed a whole series of projects, they had earned their degree. It was a very different approach from the lecture-based university courses that I had dropped out of in the UK.

How does this relate to writing poetry? Well, it brings to mind Heinlein’s ‘first law of writing’: “You must write.” Also the old story of the would-be concert-goer lost in New York City, asking a man with a violin case how to get to Carnegie Hall and being told “Practice, practice, practice.” There are a lot of factors involved in writing verse – some are common across all cultures and languages while others are language-specific. They all involve ideas (and their mysterious origin), images and their expression in words; but making those words so effective that they evoke an appropriate response in the reader or listener, so effective that they can be remembered and recited, requires the use of a whole range of language-specific factors that are mastered by doing.

By the way, the “two hundred lines” mentioned above refers to the length of the entire ‘Calling the Poem’ e-chapbook that this is part of. This chapbook is a single work, though constructed of various formal and semi-formal pieces.

Photo: “Roman Bridge, Merida” by Jocelyn777 Love Europe is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Calling the Poem: 12. ‘Memorableness’

That* for an idea, for an idea’s transmission.
But that isn’t poetry. Poetry’s mission
is memory – every quick trick of the tongue
to give ear-to-mouth memory,
words sung and strung
from an ear to an ear,
bearing clear repetition,
not just the idea,
but the idea’s expression,
silk wrapping the emery –
rhythm and rhyme,
form, pattern, compression,
feet, movements, beat, time,
iter-, reiter- and alliteration,
sense, nonsense and assonance, insinuation,
barbs and allusions,
hooks, jokes and confusions,
directions, inflections, creating connections…
So memory favours your chanting, reciting,
enchanting beyond all mere reading and writing –
and magicking into the mind of forever.
You’ve taken control of poetic endeavour.

*****

*The first word, “That”, is referring back to the previous poem in the e-chapbook’s sequence, dealing with the process of obtaining the thoughts and ideas for a poem. This poem shifts the focus to the wordsmithing that makes a poem word-for-word memorable, memorisable, repeatable, recitable.

Consider the pieces of verse that are easiest for you, personally, to recite… nursery rhymes, passages of Shakespeare, bits of Tennyson’s ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’, quatrains from FitzGerald’s ‘Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam’, an Emily Dickinson or Edward Lear poem?

Then consider how many prose passages of similar length you can recite – perhaps a Bible passage or part of Lincoln’s ‘Gettysburg Address‘? There will be some, prose passages you have heard many, many times. But poetry is going to win out over prose by number of pieces, length of pieces, and accuracy, because poetry is deliberately uses a variety of tricks that make memorisation as easy as possible.

Poetry is not just the idea but also, essentially, the idea’s expression.

Photo: “Maori Chant” by pietroizzo is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Marcus Bales, ‘Cleveland Krater’

This column krater once held watered wine,
Its figures, red on black, an illustration
Of how it served the daily and divine.
On one side Hera offers a libation
With Artemis, Apollo, and their mother,
While three nude athletes and a bearded man
Are drunk with more than liquor on the other.
I stare through all four panes of glass that ban
All but my eyes from learning every curve,
And I can only dream that luck and nerve
And my own art may earn a chance to feel,
As one of few who cares to understand
That ancient try to make one ideal real,
To feel it push through time with my own hand.

*****

Marcus Bales writes: “A poem is language in meter that evokes emotion in the reader. Those who write to express themselves are doing something other than writing poetry. No reader accomplished enough to be engaged in reading poems is in it for the writer’s blurt. It may be that the writer is trying to evoke the same emotion in the reader that the writer felt in the poem’s circumstances, but the goal remains to evoke that emotion in the reader, not merely recount the writer’s emotion.

Poems that fail to evoke emotion in the reader are failed poems and, alas, every poet has several. They wait patiently like the mythic swordsman in fairytales to keep the protagonist from going through the door behind them. Our hero or heroine arrives in the room, the swordsman puts down Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ – in the original German – and smiles, drawing a sword. The writer, however already wounded or tired from the effort of getting there, engages and soon enough, after an elaborate exploration of the waiting swordsman’s skills, is disarmed. The swordsman bows, kicks the writer’s sword back to him, sheathes his own, picks up his book, and sits down again, angles it to the light from the only window, nods goodbye, and resumes his perusal. The writer picks up the disgraced weapon, and trudges back out the way they came in. That poem still does not do what the writer intended to do: evoke emotion in the reader; all it remains as is an account of his or her own emotion.

It is the strength of that felt emotion that keeps the writer coming back to the failed poem, ever hopeful that it is an exception to the unyielding rule that the poem is for the reader, not the poet. Some poets make careers out of performing such things, their agents guaranteeing that the poet will cry during the performance, sure that the promoters are only interested in the performance, not in its effects on the audience. And there are audiences for whom watching the performer fail in their presentation is the point. No one involved in that scenario is there for poetry.

Unfortunately, this poem, ‘Cleveland Krater’ is one of those failed poems. Absent the actual krater, I have finally come to realize, the reader is not going to experience the emotion I did. I have come back and back to this piece, always after having visited the krater again, examining it closely through its Plexiglas box, looking for the clues that moved me and still move me, to try to shove them into words that will bring that impact I felt to the reader. Maybe if I just admit my failure I will get free of the draw of its blade when I arrive at it, again, hoping that this time I’ll do better than the dismissive kick of my sword clattering across the stone floor.”

Not much is known about Marcus Bales except that he lives and works in Cleveland, Ohio, and that his work has not been published in Poetry or The New Yorker. However his ’51 Poems’ is available from Amazon. He has been published in several of the Potcake Chapbooks (‘form in formless times’).

An extensive review of the Cleveland Krater and its creator can be found at https://www.academia.edu/12708103/The_Cleveland_Painter. You don’t need to log in or register, you can simply scroll down to read the entire pdf.

Photo: provided by the Cleveland Museum of Art https://www.clevelandart.org/art/1930.104#

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.

Kyrielle: ‘Desire is the Last Domino to Fall’

Religion starts as trying to explain,
Progresses to high priests’ financial gain.
I’ve tried religions, and seen through them all;
Desire is the last domino to fall.

Explore the world – well, fifty lands’ enough;
Novelty fades; folks are just folks; stuff’s stuff.
I’ve seen both rich and poor round this blue ball;
Desire is the last domino to fall.

And I’ve gone barefoot, and I’ve gone first class:
The trinkets pall beside bare feet on grass.
Markets go up and down and they too pall;
Desire is the last domino to fall.

The fearful right, the overtrusting left:
Politics, history, both of sense bereft.
Reagan’s road leads to Trump and hits a wall;
Desire is the last domino to fall.

My arts expression’s been in writing verse–
The arse end, clearly, of the universe.
There’s rarely silver in the nets I haul;
Desire is the last domino to fall.

I’ve had my fill of sex – but when I see
A vibrant youth, my thoughts are freshly free.
I want, though why I want I mayn’t recall…
Desire is the last domino to fall.

This poem, published by George Simmers in April’s Snakeskin, flowed straight out of a comment by Jackson Browne in a Guardian article on his latest album, ‘Downhill From Everywhere’. My thanks go to Mindy Watson, creator of poems in every form she hears of, for identifying this one as a kyrielle. I hadn’t set out to write within a specific form, I merely wrote a poem that used a repeating last line of the stanza. And this highlights one of the things about form: form follows function, in poetry as in architecture. Metre, rhyme scheme, line length, all these are chosen for their appropriateness for the mood and content of the poem. Ballads, sonnets, couplets, villanelles, each type finds its best use in a different situation, each evolved to provide a good expression of a different mood, each became popular as its expressive strength was demonstrated.

A kyrielle seems to me a natural poetic construct for an expression of prayer or despair or wherever all avenues of thought lead back obsessively to the same essential fact or wish. It was formalised in the time of the troubadours, and its name derives from the Late Latin phrase “kyrie eleison“, “Lord, have mercy”. Very appropriate.

Photo: “Where It All Began” by mckinney75402 is marked with CC BY 2.0.

Epigram: ‘The Gods Compete’

The gods compete; some harvest verse, some tears,
Some deaths in battle, some vague hopes and fears.

This epigram is nondenominational–in the sense that I don’t have any preference for how people view, or are attracted to, some particular god.

More challenging is the punctuation. Good punctuation definitely helps guide the reader through the meanings of the passage, but what is ‘good’ varies by culture. Many Americans loathe the semicolon beloved by writers of convoluted passages. Many people argue for or against comma placements. In this piece, a 17-word sentence, the first line seems clearer than the second. “Some deaths in battle” might in this case be better written as “Some, deaths in battle” but that would suggest following it with “some, vague hopes and fears.” Then it might be preferable to separate those two parts of the line with a semicolon… but then perhaps the previous line should end in a semicolon too… but then what about the semicolon after “The gods compete”? Replace it with a colon.

I can’t help thinking of the remark often attributed to Oscar Wilde, or, as David Galef pointed out in the New York Times, Gustave Flaubert: “I spent the morning putting in a comma. In the afternoon I removed it.”

The poem was originally published in The Asses of Parnassus–thanks, Brooke Clark!

Photo: “Pergamon Museum _DSC17798” by youngrobv is marked with CC BY-NC 2.0.

Review: ‘A Child’s Introduction to Poetry’ by Michael Driscoll

This book, “A Child’s Introduction to Poetry” by Michael Driscoll, illustrated by Meredith Hamilton, is the single best introduction to poetry that I have ever seen. It is part of a series of books aimed at 8 to 10-year-olds, and is divided into two parts: ‘The Rhymes and Their Reasons’, with two to four large pages on topics as diverse as Nonsense Rhymes, The Villanelle, Free Verse and Poems Peculiar; and ‘Poetry’s Greats’ with a couple of pages each on 21 poets such as Homer, Wordsworth, Dickinson, Belloc, Auden, Paz and Angelou. The book is richly illustrated on every page, and is packed with bits of biography, commentary, prosody, explanation and definition. Purely as a book, it is superb.

But wait! There’s more! The original edition came with a CD of all the poems, and the Revised and Updated edition comes with downloadable audio and a poster. These audio aspects are not as brilliant as the book, for two reasons: first, the poems are read “professionally” which unfortunately means without the joy, excitement, teasing, energy or naturalness that I listened for. They are clear, flat and boring, with unnecessarily exaggerated pauses between lines. I listened to the first three poems, and quit. Secondly, the CD version (which is what I have) may have been obsoleted, but the major item of comment in the Amazon reviews is that there are no explanations for downloading the audio, and that it was difficult for reviewers to figure out how to do it.

Ignore the audio, then. If you already have an interest in poetry you will probably do a better job than the unfortunate “professionals” in reading aloud from the book, and your child will have a richer experience anyway from your personal involvement and introduction. The book will soon enough be one for the child to dip into and skip back and forth in, moving from biographies to poems to illustrations to factoids as the mood takes them.

In terms of the variety of poetry–forms, moods, eras, nationalities–I have never seen anything so rich and satisfying for a good young reader as this Introduction. I wish all English-speaking children everywhere could have a copy.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Max Gutmann, ‘Raindroppings’

Can anyone make out
The quality inherent
In being with an umbrella, that makes people without
Completely transparent?

On the rainiest days,
In the hardest of showers,
People with umbrellas courteously step out of other umbrella’d people’s ways
Right into ours.

Or, if as it starts
To really pour, ya
Dash for the shelter of a little awning, sure as rain’s wet someone with an umbrella darts
Under it before ya.

And you look at the fella
As you stand in the steady
Downpour, but he ain’t gonna budge, ’cause, as any one-eyed idiot could plainly see, his umbrella
Is wet enough already.

Beyond disputation,
We already hear a lot
About the many forms of indiscriminate discrimination
Our world has got.

Still, I wish some teller’d
Deign to tell us
The reasons for the way the umbrellered
Treat the umbrell’less.

Max Gutmann writes: “In ‘Raindroppings,’ a line of OgdenNashian length is part of each otherwise regularly metered quatrain. These lines get longer and longer, and then shorter and shorter. I hope this helps the poem feel both sillily loose, and formally structured: the topic, though it may sound invented, is an actual aspect of human nature, trivial in itself but reflective of more serious attitudes.”

Max Gutmann has worked as, among other things, a stage manager, a journalist, a teacher, an editor, a clerk, a factory worker, a community service officer, the business manager of an improv troupe, and a performer in a Daffy Duck costume. Occasionally, he has even earned money writing plays and poems.

linkmaxgutmann.com

‘Raindroppings’ was first published in Light Quarterly

Photo: “Downpour” by roeyahram is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Odd poem: Edward Lear, ‘Imitation of the Olden Poets’

Time is a taper waning fast!
Use it, man, well whilst it doth last:
Lest burning downwards it consume away,
Before thou hast commenced the labour of the day.

Time is a pardon of a goodly soil!
Plenty shall crown thine honest toil:
But if uncultivated, rankest weeds
Shall choke the efforts of the rising seeds.

Time is a leasehold of uncertain date!
Granted to thee by everlasting fate.
Neglect not thou, ere thy short term expire,
To save thy soul from ever-burning fire.

This poem is a gorgeous piece of deliberately bad verse. Edward Lear had a wonderful ear for rhythm, and this appalling piece is a great jab at poets who, even to a Victorian like Lear, were long out of date: meaning, syntax and prosody are all garbled, wrapping around bland but unclear moralising exhortations.

The first line of each stanza ends with an exclamation mark even if, as in verse three, it is in the middle of a sentence.

The very first line has four simple feet in iambic tetrameter, eight syllables.
The second line also has eight syllables but manages to make the rhythm stumble through poor phrasing.
The third line has ten syllables; it can be read as iambic pentameter, but the previous lines encourage an attempt to keep to four slightly crowded feet.
The fourth line goes to twelve syllables, at which point the prosody is collapsing towards Lear’s younger contemporary, William McGonagall–you either cram everything into four feet, or let the stanza dribble out in too many iambics.

The second stanza begins “Time is a pardon of a goodly soil!” Very affirmative, but what does it mean? And are we back to pentameters now? It’s not clear–the second line is definitely tetrameter… so how to read the third and fourth lines?

The last stanza is pure iambic pentameter. The chaos is in the confused understanding of time, “a leasehold of uncertain date”, but is somehow part of “everlasting fate”. Similarly “thy short term” is shadowed by “ever-burning fire”. On balance, time appears to be represented as infinite–events are portrayed as everlasting–but time is also called “a leasehold of uncertain date”; that phrase is merely a poor expression that confuses Time with the time of a human’s life.

The poem has been set to music by Bertram Wooster with a Betty Boop video. They credit Lear, and the poem shows up in PoemHunter and a couple of other places… and I want to believe it is Lear… but I’d be happier if I could find more about the origin of the piece.

Candle” by kkalyan is marked with CC BY-SA 2.0.

Sonnet: ‘We Know We Will Be Dead’

We know we will be dead, who are alive.
But should some element of us survive –
fragment of consciousness or memory –
what value could it have? What should it be
that the whole universe might benefit?
The atom matters – what’s not made of it?
And we’re not large – not like a conscious star
(if time will let us all evolve that far).
You’re not much different in real magnitude
from an ant crushed for going for your food,
a gnat rubbed out, its tiny consciousness
a dot… but does it build the universe?
If that gnat can’t, I don’t see how you can:
there’s not much difference between gnat and man.

Does a poem of 14 lines, rhymed in pairs, count as a sonnet? Perhaps, but it doesn’t feel quite right. Petrarchan and Shakespearian sonnet structures, with more complex structures of rhyme, produce a much greater impact with the final line–a sense of revelation, inevitability, an impression of absolute truth–purely by the successful rounding out of the pattern. I like this poem’s ending couplet… but it would be stronger if the previous 12 lines were better structured.

‘We Know We Will Be Dead’ was published in the most recent Allegro, edited by British poet Sally Long.

Hubble’s colourful view of the Universe” by Hubble Space Telescope / ESA is marked with CC BY 2.0.