Category Archives: Poetics

Using form to convince: “Conviction”

Verse has magical powers to engage the minds of its audience and, through that engagement, sway opinions and change attitudes. This is more than the tricks that make it easy to learn verse. It is more than Coleridge’s “Prose: words in their best order; poetry: the best words in the best order.” It is that poets and singers chant, and enchant. The musician chants, the magician chants, if it is well done it creates enchantment. It changes moods, it changes minds. It is used by all religions, all football teams, all angry mobs, and all gentle singers of lullabyes. The fact of the idea being expressed in verse is used as unspoken proof of the idea’s appropriateness.


Poetry in motion

In my last post I said that “rhyme can be used to create a sense of inevitability”. Let me explain:


True verse has a rhythmic twitch
that needs ongoing action.
Rhyme’s an open pattern which
asks for satisfaction.
Give the right words, strong and bright,
and the listener knows “That’s right!”

Conviction carries over, bought
with the words expressed.
The listener believes the thought
because it came well dressed.
Give the right words, strong and bright,
and the listener knows “That’s right!”

In other words, because the words sound right (in meter and in rhyme), our minds are prepared to accept that their meaning is right, their argument is valid. As O’Shaughnessy wrote,

“With wonderful deathless ditties
We build up the world’s great cities
And three with a new song’s measure
Can trample a kingdom down.”

And that is why Shelley was able to claim that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. Poets everywhere agree!


Using form for argument: “To Myself in 50 Years Time”

Arguing a point has a structure, which tricks of rhetoric can enhance. Additional tricks of reinforcement are possible in verse, where meter can set a tone, rhyme scheme can create a sense of inevitability, and line length can be used to differentiate between premises and conclusion.

Ageing Man in Mirror


Old fool! You really think yourself the same
As I who write to you, aged 22?
Ha! All we’ve got in common is my name:
I’ll wear it out, throw it away,
You’ll pick it up some other day….
But who are you?

My life’s before me; can you say the same?
I choose its how and why and when and who.
I’ll choose the rules by which we play the game;
I may choose wrong, it’s not denied,
But by my choice you must abide….
What choice have you?

If, bored, I think one day to see the world
I pack that day and fly out on the next.
My choice to wander, or to sit home-curled;
Each place has friends, good fun, good food,
But you sit toothless, silent, rude….
And undersexed!

Cares and regrets of loss can go to hell:
You sort them out with Reason’s time-worn tool.
Today’s superb; tomorrow looks as well:
The word “tomorrow” is a thrill,
I’ll make of mine just what I will….
What’s yours, old fool?

(First published in Snakeskin No. 147, September 2008)

Each stanza presents an aspect of the superiority of present youth over future age. (Premise and conclusion aren’t necessarily made as statements, many times rhetorical questions are used instead.) The structure of each stanza is to begin with pentameters for a sense of reasonableness in the first three lines, pick up the pace for the next two lines, and end with a short punchline. I find it aggressive and effective.

I admire the chutzpah, the audacity, of the 22-year-old I was. I still have some years–not many–to think of a suitable answer.

Poetry Resources: Measure for Measure anthology

xkcd iambic pentameter

xkcd – another engaging commentator

The ‘Measure for Measure’ anthology clarifies and extols the delights of the variety of metres available to the poet, from the accentual verse of our Anglo-Saxon roots, through the familiar and natural iambs, dactyls and trochees, to the more obscure sapphics and so on based on Greek and Latin forms.

The book is edited by Annie Finch and Alexandra Oliver, two of the most accomplished formal poets of North America writing today. The preface by Annie Finch and the introductions to the various sections include encouraging exercises for developing skills in both reading and writing poetry, and the tone of the anthology is more expository than a mere collection of poems would be.

The selections for each metre are enjoyable in themselves, and by being grouped in that way they drive a fresh awareness and insight into their nature. The only negative for me came towards the very end, where the section on Sapphics and Alcaics confirmed for me that they are not really relevant for English verse.

Overall, an extremely interesting and informative anthology.

Using form for fun: “Auntie’s Model Niece”

Image result for art school model

Posing bare



Auntie got her
Maid to knit a
Set of under-

For my frozen
Sister Flo’s end
That was posing

Flo then wore ’em
With decorum
And she swore ’em

Undismayed by
Undies made by
Auntie’s maid by

First published in Snakeskin, republished in The HyperTexts, this poem has been a family favourite. It shows some of the strengths of form: a playful form suits a playful idea, and simple structure and heavy rhyme make the poem easy to learn by heart.

Using Form: Sonnet: “The Squirrel in the Attic of his Brain”

Sometimes when you get the first idea for a poem with a line or so, such as “The squirrel in the attic of his brain / Shreds photographs and memories”, and the very nature of the idea leads to a long straggly exposition.

Image result for papers in a mess

Papers in the attic

If a squirrel is in his brain destroying his memories… and if he is an old house, of which his brain is the attic… then what other creatures might there be in the house? What other parts of the body might be represented by creatures? Can we get all the way from the hair to the toenails?

Here is how the rest of the squirrel poem worked out–it took a few months, the last image to make it into a sonnet coming while I was in the dentist’s chair having a root canal. You can guess which line that was.


The squirrel in the attic of his brain
Shreds photographs, pulls memories apart;
The old dog in the basement of his heart
Howls, lonely, soft, monotonous as rain;
And somewhere further underneath, a snake
In hibernation stirs, irked by its skin.
Up where the world’s news and supplies come in
Through the five senses of his face, to make
The room in which a garrulous parrot squawks
And sometimes songbirds sing – it’s his belief
Mice gnaw behind the wainscots of his teeth.
The cat of consciousness, impassive, walks
Towards the door to go out for the night:
Is everything (oh dog, shut up!) all right?

The sonnet is useful for imposing order. Initial long thoughts get compressed into quatrains or couplets, long lines get compressed into pentameters. And then the search for a rhyme triggers an additional related thought or image, and it has to get squeezed in, which means unnecessary words get squeezed out. And hopefully you end up with something that feels both rich and compact.

The two most traditional forms of the sonnet are the Italian or Petrarchan, and the Shakespearean. The former lays out a position, argument or question in the first eight lines, the octave, rhyming ABBA ABBA; and then makes a turn or volta to provide a resolution in the last six lines, the sestet, rhyming CDE CDE. Shakespeare popularised a sonnet structure of three quatrains (ABAB CDCD EFEF) to lay out a position, with the volta coming for the final couplet, GG.

There is a lot to be said for following those formal sonnet structures, because their rhyme schemes support a clarity of exposition of thought. But people frequently allow themselves unconventional rhyme schemes in order to achieve the meaning they want in the poem. And from more varied rhyme schemes, you can easily move to more varied line lengths, or shifting metre, or a different number of lines–yet still call it a sonnet. Merrill Moore, an American psychiatrist and poet, used loose sonnet-like structures to write down his observations several times during the day. He wrote thousands of poems a year, which, though rarely meeting strict definitions of formal verse, all have a sonnet feel to them.

So you can feel comfortable with sonnets which adhere to the sonnet concept, but use a non-iambic metre, or maintain four feet to the line, or six feet, or use a different rhyme scheme, and so on. I think the metre should still be regular, and there should be solid rhyme, for the poem to be labeled a sonnet. The sonnet above doesn’t adhere strictly to either the Petrarchan or Shakespearean format, but uses a mixture of them. Although I like it, it fails to achieve their true elegance.


Using form for fun: “Old Sailors”

This poem was written purely for fun–and the use of form was essential.

Lantern Slide - Two Sailors Having a Cigarette

Two old tars


Two tars talked of sealing and sailing; one said with a sigh
“Remember gulls wheeling and wailing, we wondering why,
“And noting bells pealing, sun paling — it vanished like pie!
“And then the boat heeling, sky hailing, the wind getting high,
“And that drunken Yank reeling to railing and retching his rye,
“John missing his Darjeeling jailing, and calling for chai?
“While we battened, all kneeling and nailing, the hurricane nigh,
“And me longing for Ealing, and ailing?” His mate said “Aye-aye;
“I could stand the odd stealing, food staling, not fit for a sty,
“And forget any feeling of failing, too vast to defy –
“Home-leaving your peeling-paint paling too far to espy –
“All because of the healing friend-hailing, the hello! and hi!
“And, with the gulls squealing, quick-scaling the mast to the sky.”

The poem started as an exploration of rhymes for both sealing and sailing, which seemed like interestingly paired words. Many of the rhymes (and the third one, “sigh”) fell easily into a nautical mood. The metre flowed on from “sealing and sailing”. Add in alliteration wherever possible, and look for a coherent story and resolution… and there is the poem.

It was originally published in George Simmers’ online poetry journal, Snakeskin–a highly eclectic journal–and it made for what one reader called a “good nautical rhythm”, and another comment was “finely composed wordy-whirlwind of images”. Both those strengths of the poem come from the use of form: the nautical rhythm from the choice of metre, the whirlwind of images from the requirement to compress everything into the rhyme scheme.

It isn’t a deep, meaningful poem; but form can be used purely for enjoyment.

Uses of Poetic Structure

One of the great things about writing formal poetry is that, if you approach it the right way, it can force you to reduce unnecessary words to meet the structural requirements, and simultaneously add more ideas to meet the rhyme scheme. Here is an example:

Jam Jar

In the night’s jam jar of my memory
My long-dead parents live as fireflies.
My thoughts of them worn by time’s emery,
Their faint light still suggests where my path lies.

(This from the Amsterdam Quarterly, which produces three themed issues a year, the current one being related to “Genealogy”.) The original expression of the image behind the first two lines was longer than the end result; tightening it up and finding “emery” as a rhyme for “memory” extended it again, but this time as a regular quatrain.

If you write an outline of a poem that comes out to 15-20 lines, in free verse but with a couple of rhymes showing up, consider condensing it into a sonnet. All the unnecessary words get squeezed out, and the search for additional rhymes will only make the thoughts richer.

Structure and rhyme can be used to compress, condense, and hopefully intensify the ideas and their expression. But, amusingly, it is also possible to search for rhyme by increasing words, rambling until the rhyme can be tracked down. Scotland’s 19th century William McGonagall comes to mind, his most famous work being “The Tay Bridge Disaster”.

Contemporary illustration of the search after the disaster

The Tay Bridge Disaster

It tells of the collapse of the railway bridge during a storm, while a passenger train was on it:

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

The structural requirements of formal verse are only justified when they are at the service of the poem’s aesthetics (or esthetics, depending on your residence). Rhyme, metre/meter and so on should be thought-provoking or relaxing sources of enjoyment, beauty, humo(u)r, memorableness. There is no merit in rhyme that destroys those things.