Category Archives: Poetics

Poem: “Diatribe Against Unversed Poets”

Heartbeat

Heartbeat – “June 1, 2014” by osseous

Ignoring clockwork towns and fertile farms
Tied to the sun-swing as the seas to moon,
They searched for verse in deserts without rhyme,
Lifted erratic rocks nonrhythmically
In search of poetry, then through the slough
Of their emotions hunted for a trail:

“The scent is cold. Its Spirit must have fled;
The body of its work, though dead,
Has been translated to some higher plane.
Look how the world’s translated verse
Comes to us plain—why can’t we emulate?
Then if the words themselves are unimportant,
If poetry in essence is idea,
And song is wrong,
Rhyme a superfluous flamboyance
(Like colour in Van Gogh),
Rhythm a distraction to the memoring mind,
Then we determine poetry’s true form is mime!”

While in the air the deafening blare
Confounds their silence everywhere:
Before our hearts began to beat
We were conceived in rhythmic heat;
So, billions strong, we sing along
For all the time, in time, our time, the song
Goes rocking on in rhythmic rhyme. Rock on!

This was originally published in Snakeskin, the monthly online poetry magazine that George Simmers has been putting out since the 1990s. He is receptive to a range of poetry, but as his original credo states: “Nor shall we sit to lunch with those / Who moralise in semi-prose. / A poem should be rich as cake.”

This poem is a rant against the vast amounts of blather that have been published as “poetry”, while anything showing formal verse skills was automatically rejected by most magazines over the past several decades. The rant is against poets who are “unversed”: “not experienced, skilled, or knowledgeable.” Why should they be given automatic acceptance, when the skilled were automatically rejected? It has been a bizarre half-century. It has a zeitgeist worth considering.

To focus on the United States as the cultural driver of the 20th century: it has always had an anarchic aspect, from the founding tenet of the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” – though this mostly applied to adult white males who had a certain level of property. (By contrast, Canada’s constitutional requirement for the federal parliament to provide “peace, order and good government” has a social rather than individual orientation.) The US high water mark for good government came domestically with the FDR-and-Eleanor Roosevelt presidency, and internationally with the founding of the United Nations. But “big government” acquired such nasty connotations thanks to Stalin, Hitler and Mao that those who wanted the freedom to exploit others without legal restriction were able to make a case for “small government” and chip away at government structures.

In poetry, what started with Walt Whitman in the 19th century burst open a century later with Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, and classrooms where every child was “encouraged in self-expression” without penalties for illiteracy. What was expressed became everything; the how became irrelevant. As in government, freedom from others’ rules became desirable in the literary and artistic community, and in the hippie movement, and the innovative business start-ups of Silicon Valley. There were undoubted benefits… but in literature, the suppression of poetic form was one of the less fortunate results.

Poetry takes different forms in different languages, but the forms all have the same desirable outcome: to make it easier to memorise and recite word-for-word. Alliteration, assonance, rhyme, metre – these are all useful tools for achieving this, along with less tangible tools such as fresh or startling imagery. Metre is viscerally important to us, because the mother’s heartbeat is the background to sensory development in the womb, and our own heartbeat and breathing rhythms continue throughout life. As humans we drum, we dance, we sing, just as we walk and run rhythmically, tap our fingers rhythmically when we are bored, teach small children to clap and sing, teach older children clapping and skipping games. Rhythm is built into us from before birth.

But rhythmic poetry didn’t die when it stopped being publishable. It just went into folk songs, blues, rock, country-and-western, musicals, rap, hip hop… Popular music let teenagers and adults continue to thrive with what they were not given by schools: rhythm and rhyme. This drive to make words memorable and recitable is part of who we humans are. So schools do best when they leaven “creative self-expression” with getting kids to learn things by heart, and to pay attention to the qualities that make it easy to memorise and recite.

Poem: “Carefree Youths”

Carefree Youths

Like fishing boats sailing a landless sea,
an edgeless game-board for an endless game,
hauling their random catch from wide-spread nets,
hunting without the hunter’s hunt and aim,
but sailing, drifting, without cares or frets,
so carefree youths under the bowl of sky
will chance their drifting lives on random lips.
And then the Kraken rises, sinking ships.

“Carefree Youths” was published a couple of days ago in Bewildering Stories. It is in iambic pentameter with irregular rhyme. After the meandering start to the poem (about the youths’ meandering lifestyle), the last line is a hard punchline (reflecting the brutal ending of that lifestyle). There are no sequential rhymes until the last two lines, which thereby become the clear ending of the poem. The form of the poem accentuates the poem’s meaning. That is what form should do.

Final rhyming couplets were used extensively by Shakespeare in various ways. In his sonnets they provide a very strong ending after four quatrains, and is a reason for preferring the Shakespearean sonnet’s ABAB CDCD EFEF GG over the Petrarchan sonnet’s more mannered but less forceful ABBA ABBA CDE CDE. Many of his final couplets are well known – such as:

If this be error and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.

Shakespeare did the same sort of thing throughout his plays, in which a scene or a soliloquy will be in blank verse but often terminate in a rhyme. Some of the best-known examples being:

the play ‘s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king. (Hamlet)

Fair is foul and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air. (Macbeth)

Good night! Good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow
That I shall say goodnight till it be morrow. (Romeo and Juliet)

The rhymed sentence helps sum up the scene, and signals that the scene is ending and that a new scene is about to begin – particularly useful since in Shakespeare’s time there were no stage curtains and no real sets to speak of.

Ah, formal verse! So many uses!

Poem: Haiku: “Haiku on Haiku”

Despite my complaints yesterday about Haiku not being poetry, I can see a solution to the problem:

HAIKU ON HAIKU

Syllables are prime,
But words do more than count time;
Haiku should still rhyme.

This was originally published in Asses of Parnassus, 14 March 2018

Poem: Haiku: “Haiku on Verse”

Japanese haiku qualify as formal verse in Japanese, and in some ways in English. Traditionally they have three standard aspects as explained in Wikipedia:

The essence of haiku is “cutting” (kiru). This is often represented by the juxtaposition of two images or ideas and a kireji (“cutting word”) between them. This is the equivalent of the volta in a sonnet, the turn from the initial argument or exposition to its extension or contradiction.
Traditional haiku often consist of 17 “syllables” in three phrases of 5, 7, and 5. This is not standard in English verse, where the number of stressed syllables (i.e. the number of feet) has always been more important than the total number of syllables. Even where there are a fixed number of syllables in the foot of the particular meter being used, the feet overrule the syllables.
A kigo (seasonal reference), usually drawn from an extensive but defined list of such terms. English verse is by no means hostile to seasonal references, but is considered superior when it uses fresh words rather than drawing on a predefined list.

In addition, there is no value placed on rhyme, on the meter of the lines, or on the inclusion of either alliteration or assonance. It may be verse in Japanese, but in English the haiku (as defined above) will normally be a sentence of prose that has been artificially broken into three lines.

HAIKU ON VERSE

Haiku challenge my
Fundamental sense of verse:
(Insert last line here).

The above was published in Snakeskin in April 2017. And it doesn’t even have a kigo.

Poem: Sonnet: “My Thunder-Galloping Unconscious Mind”

A sonnet from a couple of years ago, published in Snakeskin, November 2016 :

Fire Horse

“fire horse” by sk8rboi90 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

 

MY THUNDER-GALLOPING UNCONSCIOUS MIND

My thunder-galloping unconscious mind –
On which I, jolly joking jockey, perch
And whose divine intentions I besmirch
With claims its selfishnesses I’ve divined –
This powerhouse, this generator blind,
With pattern-seeking data-crunch research,
Unschooled, ungoverned, then will trip and lurch
Drunk as a soul must be in a mad mind.
But loved and honoured it’s a thundering horse
That powers all the body’s work and health
And flushes poisons in its daily course
And monitors all dangers in its stealth
And feeds uplifting feelings, love and right…
And gifts these images to me at night.

This encapsulates a lot of my thoughts about the way the world works: a lot goes on under the surface of the mind, and we are not as much in charge as we think. In that sense I agree with those who say there is no free will – we think we are consciously deciding to act, but when the brain is monitored we find that we begin to act before the conscious decision – the conscious mind merely rubber-stamps the decision already taken by the unconscious and then, like any figurehead, takes credit for the action.

Also, I am of the opinion that acknowledging the power and healthfulness of the subconscious is key to a happy, balanced and creative life.

The structure of the poem – well, it’s a sonnet, but not pure in form. The first lines rhyming ABBA ABBA are Petrarchan, but after the (weak) volta the CDCD EE is Shakespearean. The effect to a purist is messy, muddy. But honestly, the awareness of four-line chunks is driven by either of those types of fundamental rhyme, just as it is by a rubaiyat’s AABA. When the final couplet comes, the sonnet feels complete – and this couplet is the strength of the Shakespearean sonnet. (The Petrarchan would have ended CDE CDE.)

I am only aware of one sonnet where switching between Petrarchan and Shakespearean was done deliberately and appropriately: a sonnet by Keats in which he was discussing form, and clarifying his new-found preference for the Shakespearean over the Petrarchan.

In anyone else, switching is not ideal, but it’s also not a major obstacle. It is a sign of slight imperfection. But I think this poem still holds. 

New Poem: “Buried in the Garden”

I have a poem published in May’s Snakeskin which (shock, horror!) is not formal.

Snakeskin logo

Buried in the Garden

Now I lie dead, buried in the garden,
And the plants take over.
Two hibiscus bushes grow from my eyes,
Oleander from my nose,
A sapodilla will fruit from my mouth,
Casuarinas grow to sigh from my ears.
From my chest a love vine straggles out
And black crabs live in the cavities of my lungs.
A chicken boa curls around and hunts up and down
And from my private parts grows
That least private of plants, a coconut palm.
From my feet termites are building tunnels out around the world.
So is my body divided, reused, and the birds take hair for their nests
And the calcium of bones and teeth for their eggs
And the body, the body is gone.
And what am I, but a body? What would remain in your sieve if you sift my remains?
Only some thoughts, others’ memories of some thoughts,
Blown away on the wind when the rememberers themselves are gone.

At a stretch, you could claim it has elements of formality. It has a structured sequence of appropriate tropical plants and other creatures growing from body parts – the most visually arresting from the eyes, the most highly scented from the nose, and so on. It has a volta, a turn in the argument from the description of transformation as positive, to the dismissal of that process as being mere erasure.

But are those things enough to make the whole piece word-for-word memorable? Because that is my test of poetry. And I think the answer is no. So no, it is not real poetry. There may be one or two memorable phrases, but that’s not enough. The underlying concept may be memorable, the images may be memorable; still not enough. Only if the entire piece is easy to recite because of the actual expression of the words, I argue, can it be called poetry.

Should you then put your time into transforming the images into formal verse, creating perhaps a Shakespearean sonnet, iambic pentameter and all?

Buried in the Garden (Take 2)

In garden buried, I sprout from my eyes
Hibiscus; oleander from my nose;
From mouth, a sapodilla; a pine sighs
From out my ear; from chest a love vine grows;
Black crabs in lungs, small boa in my guts;
From feet, ants tunnel out around the world;
My privates sprout a palm with coconuts.
Birds peck my bones, my teeth, hair that once curled,
For calcium for eggs and for a nest…
Sift my remains: what remains in your sieve?
Of my whole body I’ve been dispossessed,
Only the memory of some thoughts still live
Within the thoughts of others’ memories;
When those rememberers go, all traces cease.

So we come back to the old questions of poetry: is the expression itself richer or poorer for having been put into verse? And is the formal verse expression (whether richer or poorer) more memorable than the non-formal expression? What do you think?

I wonder if Snakeskin editor George Simmers has an opinion.

Using form to convince: Poem: “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.

Chanting

Poetry in motion

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

CONVICTION

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!