Category Archives: Poetics

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

Sonnet: ‘Drifting’

Drifting and drifting in an eddying stream
The leaf cannot recall the maple tree;
Pieces fall off; it has nor plan nor scheme;
How could a leaf have sense of destiny?
Its work is done; tree-feeding fades like dream,
Tree-making’s not a possibility.
It drifts and rots, nibbled by perch and bream
Or reaches finally the endless sea.

The sea itself moves, rhythmical and blind:
Is calm, or sprays salt as the waves make foam.
Seas have no will, no parliament of mind,
To make directives like hives make bees roam
To pollinate the world, defend their kind,
And with their mind create their honeycomb.

This sonnet drifts in several ways. The rhythm of iambic pentameter is meditative, rambling. The rhyme scheme is slow, repetitive, changing between the octave and sestet: ABABABABCDCDCD. And the ideas drift: the leaf is left behind when it reaches the sea, and the sea is abandoned for bees. The form seems suitable for the content.

‘Drifting’ has just been published in this month’s Snakeskin, whose editor commented “I like the way it moves from one idea to another that you don’t expect.” Thanks, George Simmers!

Photo: “Like a Leaf in a Stream” by Referenceace – Working! is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Poem: ‘Body Surfing’

Standing hip deep in the sea
Is nice in itself, but the reason for being there
Is the wait for a big wave.

A wave rising, a sudden tower
Smooth with devouring power
But one you can launch yourself forward in tune with – and
Hurtle ecstatic, unseeing and breathless
For as long as breath can hold
Through the water and up along over and onto the sand,
Sand thick in your hair, jammed in every fold,
Scraped, battered and rolled,
Triumphant, beached, deathless.

For this the saint prays,
For this the artist stares open-eyed,
For this the poet lets wounds bleed unstanched,
For this: this hope of being launched,
Controlled and uncontrolled
By what can’t be withstood or denied.

(Or else you could duck under the wall,
Let it pass over while you count three,
Hear the boom of its crested fall,
Yourself unbroken, inactive, safe, free.)

The sea is always there
Whether or not you are in it
Standing hip deep in it
Waiting for the next big wave.

Another of my “Is it formal?” poems. How much rhyme, rhythm and consistent structure do you need in order to consider it formal? Where is the cut-off between form and free? I don’t know. But I felt the alternation – between quiet waiting sections and the breathless rush of a good wave – was an appropriate expression in itself.

The poem was originally published in Snakeskin. Thanks, George Simmers!

“Superman body position while body surfing” by benaston is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Poem: ‘Warfare’

The mother’s nightmare
The child’s terror
The rapist’s freedom
The girl’s death.
The killer’s ecstasy
The band’s brotherhood
The youth’s excitement
The dying breath.

The glory of the lucky
The scream of the unlucky
The lost limbs, blindness, madness
The lifelong PTSD, homeless in the streets.
The poet’s puzzle
The politician’s porn
The aphrodisiac
The power-soaked sheets.

The demagogue’s cause
The demagogue’s solution
The warmonger’s profits
The fearmonger’s skill.
The blacksmith’s trade
The scientist’s incentive
The human fascination
The tribe’s need to kill.

The acceptance by the boys
The eagerness of teens
The avoidance by the men
The manipulation by the old.
The girl’s adoration
The woman’s greed
The widow’s grief
The body cold.

The king’s invocation
The priest’s sanctification
The scared population
The desolation.

The peasant’s loss
The trader’s loss
The teacher’s loss
The city’s loss.

The mortician’s gain
The tombstone maker’s gain
The coffin maker’s gain
The graveyard’s gain.

The medal maker’s gain.

And over it all God sits in His rocking chair
On His front porch in the sky
Saying, A crop, a very fine crop, an excellent crop this year.

Sits in His deck chair to look at the warfare waves
In the shade of a cloud in the sky
Watching the sandcastles washing away.

Sits in the night coming down on the battlefield
Watching crows, ravens, hyenas, stray dogs
Men and women pulling gold teeth from the dead.

Sits in His laboratory, looking at His guinea pigs
Sits in His concert hall, listening to the music
Thinking, All this is so interesting
All this is so tragic
All so inspiring
How far will they get till they blow themselves up?
Will these ones escape? Will they figure it out?
Can they conquer themselves and discover the universe?

Maybe it’s out of line to put this poem into a ‘formal verse’ blog… But there are two points to consider. First, there is a lot of form in the outraged chant of the beginning half–rhyme, rhythm, balance, some alliteration. Second, transitioning from that form to a less structured meditation in itself a use of form; it transitions the entire poem from one viewpoint to another by making the two halves so different. That’s my argument, anyway. Is it reasonable?

The poem originally appeared in Bewildering Stories. Thanks Don Webb and John Stocks!

Photo: “Battlefield Dead After the Battle of Gettysburg” by elycefeliz is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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

Poem: ‘Hail Deth’

Hail Deth, that from alle Natur’s birth
Hast kept each living thing thy thrall!
Teech me to love thy quiet call,
To rest
Among the blest,
To be at peace with every thing on earth.

Come soft, without impediment;
Let mee slide sleeping to thy armes,
Discover alle thy soothing charmes;
And kill
My every ill,
Leave mee uninterrupted sediment.

This is one of my very earliest poems, with the form, theme and erratic spelling all obviously influenced by studying the Metaphysical Poets in school. I’ve always been fascinated by death–at least since the time I gave up Christianity, thanks to my excellent Church of England schooling. The poem was written tongue-in-cheek, of course: I’m in no hurry to die.

‘Hail Deth’ has just been published in the Shot Glass Journal which, in accordance with Shakespeare’s “brevity is the soul of wit”, publishes both formal and free verse so long as a poem doesn’t exceed 16 lines. It also divides contributions into American and International groups and lists them separately, which is interesting if not necessarily useful in any functional sense.

Photo: “NS-01023 – Death Head” by archer10 (Dennis) is licensed under CC BY-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.