Category Archives: poets

Clerihew: ‘Robert Bridges’

Robert Bridges
was way too religious.
He rhymed like mad for his God,
but his knowledge of Science was flawed.

*****

This clerihew was recently published in The Asses of Parnassus. Regarding the form, Wikipedia says it best: “A clerihew is a whimsical, four-line biographical poem of a type invented by Edmund Clerihew Bentley. The first line is the name of the poem’s subject, usually a famous person, and the remainder puts the subject in an absurd light or reveals something unknown or spurious about the subject. The rhyme scheme is AABB, and the rhymes are often forced. The line length and metre are irregular. Bentley invented the clerihew in school and then popularized it in books.”

As for the subject, Bridges had a lifelong drive for nature, religion and poetry; he produced hymns like “When morning fills the skies”, launched Gerard Manley Hopkins by bringing out a posthumous collection of his poems, and became Poet Laureate. But his poetic style was, like the phonetic alphabet he developed, idiosyncratic and anachronistic; definitely interesting, but not that successful.

It’s not surprising that he is little known. He’s an acquired taste, and even then you have to be in the right mood.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Richard Fleming, ‘His Room’

It took five minutes, more or less,
to fill, with what he left behind,
a cardboard box and to compress
into its space, his life, unsigned
in much the way some paintings are,
then stash it in the waiting car.

In those five minutes, I remained
there in the small, vacated room,
while the red-faced landlord explained
a small arrears. Would I assume
responsibility and pay?
My conscience made me easy prey.

*****

Richard Fleming writes: “Growing old, I find myself preoccupied with life’s endings: a balancing of accounts, so to speak, and the inevitable feelings of regret and remorse for things done badly or left undone. Deliberations of that sort inspired this piece of verse, as did the lonely, final years of renowned Guernsey-born novelist, G B Edwards, the demise of an old friend in similar straitened circumstances and, of course, Larkin’s famous poem, Mr Bleaney. I think ‘His Room’ manages, despite its brevity, to encapsulate the ‘whimper’ with which some lives end. A simple rhyme scheme seems best suited to the poem’s mundane subject matter.”

Richard Fleming is an Irish-born poet currently living in Guernsey, a small island midway between Britain and France. His work has appeared in various magazines, most recently Snakeskin, Bewildering Stories, Lighten Up Online, the Taj Mahal Review and the latest Potcake Chapbook ‘Lost Love’, and has been broadcast on BBC radio. He has performed at several literary festivals and his latest collection of verse, Stone Witness, features the titular poem commissioned by the BBC for National Poetry Day. He writes in various genres and can be found at www.redhandwriter.blogspot.com or Facebook https://www.facebook.com/richard.fleming.92102564/

Photo: “Emptied cardboard box” by Creativity103 is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Brooke Clark, ‘At a Child’s Funeral’

Today we give to the earth the body of our little girl,
our little darling; we’ll never watch her twirl
around the house again in her impenetrable games
or listen as she wheedles and whines our names
in that annoying tone we tried to break her of before;
now we’d give anything to hear it once more.
She’ll find whatever waits for all of us when this life ends–
eternal silence or the souls of friends–
while, left behind, we bow our heads to see what prayers can do.
Lie lightly, earth–she stepped so lightly on you.

*****

Brooke Clark writes: “‘At A Child’s Funeral‘ is loosely adapted from one of Martial’s epigrams. This poem interested me because it’s quite a departure from Martial’s usual satirical style. In it, he attempts to convey a genuinely tender emotion, which is well outside his usual register of scorn verging on disgust. That made it a departure for me too, and I struggled to get the tone right — emotional without being mawkish. I hope I succeeded! In terms of form, it’s in rhyme, and uses alternating 7-stress and 5-stress lines in imitation of Martial’s elegiac couplets.”

Brooke Clark is the author of the poetry collection Urbanities, the editor of the epigrams website The Asses of Parnassus and the book reviews editor at Able Muse. Twitter: @thatbrookeclark

Photo: “Filipino child funeral” by Ted Abbott is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Michael R. Burch, ‘Styx’

Black waters,
deep and dark and still…
all men have passed this way,
or will.

*****

Michael R. Burch writes: “This original epigram, written in my teens, returns more than 6,000 results. I started writing poetry around age 13 and decided that I wanted to challenge the immortals around age 15. I was always very ambitious about my writing. When I couldn’t out-write Keats and Shelley at age 15, I destroyed everything I had written in a fit of pique. I was able to reconstruct some of the poems from memory, but not all. I still miss a few of the poems that seemed promising which have not cooperated with being resurrected.”

Michael R. Burch is an American poet who lives in Nashville, Tennessee with his wife Beth and two outrageously spoiled puppies. Burch’s poems, translations, essays, articles, reviews, short stories, epigrams, quotes, puns, jokes and letters have appeared more than 7,000 times in publications which include TIME, USA Today, The Hindu, BBC Radio 3, CNN.com, Daily Kos, The Washington Post and hundreds of literary journals, websites and blogs. Burch is also the founder and editor-in-chief of The HyperTexts, a former columnist for the Nashville City Paper, and, according to Google’s rankings, a relevant online publisher of poems about the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the Trail of Tears, Darfur, Gaza and the Palestinian Nakba. Burch’s poetry has been taught in high schools and universities, translated into fifteen languages, incorporated into three plays and two operas, set to music by twenty composers, recited or otherwise employed in more than forty YouTube videos, and used to provide book titles to two other authors. To read the best poems of Mike Burch in his own opinion, with his comments, please click here: Michael R. Burch Best Poems.

Photo: “Styx” by wilding.andrew is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Review: A.E. Stallings, ‘Like’

‘Like’ is the fourth volume of poetry from A.E. Stallings, the best poet that I know of who is writing in English today. The themes in ‘Like’ are the same as in her earlier collections: American childhood, Greek adulthood, children, memory, local wildlife, Greek mythology… and concern for the abused, whether women in the patriarchy or refugees in the Mediterranean. There is a difference of organization, though: instead of four or five different sections, ‘Like’ lumps all the poems together and arranges them alphabetically by title; the result is a smooth, wide-ranging read.

Stallings has a superb mastery of form, and plays endless tricks with it. Start on ‘Battle of Plataea: Aftermath’ and the apparent prose in 11 lines when read alertly turns out to be a rhymed sonnet in iambic pentameter. Or take the eponymous ‘Like, the Sestina’ which uses the word “like” as the rhyme for every one of the requisite 39 lines plus 3 mid-line rhymes (with such variations as “unlike”, “dislike”, “look-alike”). See how the most substantial poem, ‘Lost and Found’, carries its rambling dream-and-memory dissertation on for 36 stanzas of ottava rima in iambic pentameter, whereas the shorter and more time-sensitive ‘Swallows’ uses 6 stanzas in iambic tetrameter. Her ‘Refugee Fugue’ attacks the unmanageable and unimaginable horrors of the desperate and drowned through a blues poem, a host of epigrams, a found poem – an appropriately confused assemblage of forms for a situation not amenable to coherent resolution.

But forget the technicalities! The beauty is in the easy music of her verse, the casual wordplay as with the doorbell that
Portended importunity from Porlock,
the throwaway etymological observations as of nighttime thoughts:
To consider means to contemplate the stars,
the poem on a ‘Pencil’ that ends
And Time the other implement
That sharpens and grows shorter,
the playfulness of ‘Night Thoughts’ that begins
Night thoughts are not like bats
and then goes on to describe the flight of bats in extended lyrical detail, before finally ending with how night thoughts are different…
And always the underlying awareness of thousands of years of history, showing through in the description of sky, contemporary but ancient, as
the contrailed palimpsest of blue.

And that leads me to my only regrets about Stallings’ verse: too much Greek literature with which I’m barely familiar. I’m not saying it’s a failing on her part, it’s merely a regret on my part that I can’t keep up. Although I would love to come across work by her with Norse themes…

But I will settle for what she offers: a very wide range. She can be very succinct as with ‘Paradox’:
Of the ones that happened to die, the little ones and the old,
Of hypothermia, or drowning, all died of cold.

Equally, she can be extensive and thorough in her exploration of a theme as with ‘Lost and Found’, where she is wandering through a dream of mountainous moonscapes, landfill landscapes, of things lost – toys, gloves, loves, baby teeth, time, opportunities, keys, coins – led by Mnemosyne, Memory herself, the mother of all the muses. The smooth formal stanzas of ottava rima, maintained steadily for 288 lines, provide the same meditative state as the 250 lines of Matthew Arnold’s ‘Scholar Gypsy’ or Edward FitzGerald’s even longer ‘Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam’.

My personal favorite in ‘Like‘ is her semi-formal ‘Crow, Gentleman’ (whose title I am guessing was changed from the original ‘Gentleman Crow’ to prevent it from coming between two poems in ‘Like’ addressed to her daughter). It begins:
Pacing to and fro
Along the autumn shore
Among the wrack and reek

With your arms clasped behind your back
And sporting your grey frock coat
Trimmed in black

And your black hat and your lean long-legged stride,
Up and down the strand perusing
The headlines of the tide:

and ends:
Life is a joke you crack,
Wry and amusing,
And death a dainty snack.

I find Stallings’ work altogether delightful: by turns sardonic, detached, passionate, compassionate, always observing carefully, always expressing wittily, always in masterful control of rhythm and rhyme. I repeat: I don’t know of a better poet writing in English today.

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.

Review: ‘Rhythm and Blues’ by David Stephenson

David Stephenson’s ‘Rhythm and Blues’ was the 2007 Richard Wilbur Award winner, and contains some excellent poems. Its back-cover blurbs are accurate–as Kim Bridgford states, the collection has “wisdom, a plain-spoken, convincing style, and a sense of irony… all the time with impressive technical skill.”

Several of the sonnets are excellent: ‘Pilate’ meditates on the harshness of the law,
But why waste breath? In six months, who will mourn
This insect, or recall that he was born?

The ‘Geologist’ speaks of his passion for the history of rocks, ending:
The present is a world of dirt and sand
And people–they of the immortal soul–
Whom I do not pretend to understand,
Though I admire them in their long-term role
As precursors to limestone, chalk, and coal.

And beyond the sonnets are villanelles, and longer blank verse monologues in the voices of a toll collector, a housebreaker, a corporate hatchet man, and so on; and poems with various structures of stanza.

But there is a problem: the ruthless, relentless, metronomic use of iambics. The entire collection is in either iambic pentameter or iambic tetrameter. In general, the shorter pieces are good; the longer pieces are thematically interesting, but I find pages of blank verse unappealing. Stephenson can obviously think easily in iambic pentameter; but that skill tends towards blather. As the book title suggests, there is rhythm; but with insufficient variety for the claim of music.

But maybe this is expecting too much. Stephenson is a committed formalist, to the extent of having started his own Pulsebeat Poetry Journal for formal verse. His sonnets in particular are very good. And the book is highly readable and rereadable–though in small doses, not straight through in one go.

And there is actually one break in the unremitting use of iambics, in the shortest and most whimsical poem in the book–and for all those reasons perhaps my favourite. It is ‘To a Garbage Truck’:

Stop for me, romantic sloop,
When all your cargo is on board
And your ride low upon the waves,
For I would cast my lot with yours

And put forth on the open street
En route to some strange orient
Full of exotic ports of call
Beyond the gray horizon.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Mindy Watson, ‘The Three’

Young Clotho spins new Thread of Life,
She holds Fate’s spindle taut. Precise
Lachesis measures life’s strand’s length,
Thus governs lifetime’s span and lot.
And Atropos, death’s agent, cuts
The mortal thread that Clotho wrought.

When I first burst from mother’s womb,
Three Fates were watching o’er my room.
Lachesis doled me ample thread,
And so, in time, I grew to be
The mother of my own young Three.

Upon my bosom all three drank;
They slept and flourished there. Across
Ten years, four jobs, three homes – I nursed
Away their sorrows, hurts, and scares.

And now I know our nursing age
(Which one year past, met poignant end)
Was in itself a life, a thread,
Spun, drawn, and sheared by three small Fates.

My eldest son precisely spun
That nursing thread with infant’s cord.
His warm-breathed suckling sutured closed
The wound my late son’s loss exposed.

My younger boy, for four years straight,
Was nursing life’s allotting Fate.
He lengthened thread, bridged start and end –
Became his sister’s nursing mate.

My Three’s sole girl, at three years old,
Adroitly sheared our tender twine
When, blonde crown bowed, she deftly swore,
“I don’t need boo-boo anymore.”

And from these Fates I deem my Three,
I’ve learned the joys of genesis –
I’ve learned there’s silent eloquence
In birth, in growth – in severance.
From newborn’s threaded cry all Three
Ascend—beginning, middle, end.

Mindy Watson writes: “The Three is an internally/intermittently rhymed poem in (mostly) iambic tetrameter, equating my three children to three Greek Fates who taught me, via our respective breastfeeding “threads,” to cherish all beginnings, middles, and ends.  I’m enduringly sentimental about this one, which represents not only my first published poem (originally appearing in the Quarterday Review’s October 2016 Samhaim issue) and my first creative post-grad school venture (although I’d majored in nonfiction/science writing rather than poetry)—but also my first attempt at articulating (and externalizing) my children’s and my seemingly endless nursing journey… a year after its bittersweet conclusion.”

Mindy Watson is a formal verse poet and federal writer who holds an MA in Nonfiction Writing from Johns Hopkins University. Her poetry has appeared in venues including Snakeskin, Think Journal, the Poetry Porch, Orchards Poetry Journal, Better Than Starbucks, Eastern Structures, the Quarterday Review, and Star*Line. She’s also appeared in Sampson Low’s Potcake Poets: Form in Formless Times chapbook series and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Association’s 2019 Dwarf Stars Anthology. You may read her work at: 
https://mindywatson.wixsite.com/poetryprosesite.

“THE THREE FATES MEMORIAL FOUNTAIN [A GIFT FROM THE GERMAN FEDRAL REPUBLIC]-136831” by infomatique is licensed under Openverse from WordPress.org

Odd poem: D.H. Lawrence dialect verse, ‘The Collier’s Wife’

Somebody’s knockin’ at th’ door
Mother, come down an’ see!
–I’s think it’s nobbut a beggar;
Say I’m busy.


It’s not a beggar, mother; hark
How ‘ard ‘e knocks!
–Eh, tha’rt a mard-arsed kid,
‘E’ll gie thee socks!

Shout an’ ax what ‘e wants,
I canna come down..

–‘E says, is it Arthur Holliday’s?
–Say Yes, tha clown.

‘E says: Tell your mother as ‘er mester’s
Got hurt i’ th’ pit–
What? Oh my Sirs, ‘e never says that.
That’s not it!

Come out o’ th’ way an’ let me see!
Eh, there’s no peace!
An’ stop thy scraightin’, childt,
Do shut thy face!


‘Your mester’s ‘ad a accident
An’ they ta’ein’ ‘im ‘i th’ ambulance
Ter Nottingham.’–Eh dear o’ me,
If ‘e’s not a man for mischance!

Wheer’s ‘e hurt this time, lad?

–I dunna know,
They on’y towd me it wor bad–
It would be so!

Out o’ my way, childt! dear o’ me, wheer
‘Ave I put ‘is clean stockin’s an’ shirt?
Goodness knows if they’ll be able
To take off ‘is pit-dirt!

An’ what a moan ‘e’ll make! there niver
Was such a man for fuss
If anything ailed ‘im; at any rate
I shan’t ‘ave ‘im to nuss.

I do ‘ope as it’s not very bad!
Eh, what a shame it seems
As some would ha’e hardly a smite o’ trouble
An’ others ‘as reams!

It’s a shame as ‘e should be knocked about
Like this, I’m sure it is!
‘E’s ‘ad twenty accidents, if ‘e’s ‘ad one;
Owt bad, an’ it’s his!

There’s one thing, we s’ll ‘ave a peaceful ‘ouse f’r a bit,
Thank heaven for a peaceful house!
An’ there’s compensation, sin’ it’s accident,
An’ club-money–I won’t growse.

An’ a fork an’ a spoon ‘e’ll want–an’ what else?
I s’ll never catch that train!
What a traipse it is, if a man gets hurt!
I sh’d think ‘e’ll get right again.

D.H. Larence was the son a a barely literate coal-miner at Brinsley Colliery in Nottinghamshire. This poem is from the environment of his childhood, in the dialect he grew up in. To make the three-way conversation a little easier to navigate, I’ve italicised the wife’s words.

As for the dialect, it’s not difficult, more of an accent than anything. “Scraighting” isn’t a word I know, but it’s obvious from the context. Other words: “nuss” is “nurse”. “Owt bad” doesn’t mean “knocked out badly”, it means “aught bad”, “anything bad”.

Review: ‘Archaic Smile’ by A.E. Stallings

‘Archaic Smile’ was the debut poetry collection by A.E. Stallings, an American who moved to Athens, Greece, a couple of decades ago. Published in 1999, it won that year’s Richard Wilbur Award and its opening poem, ‘A Postcard from Greece’, is perhaps my favourite of all her work. It is a sonnet with slant rhymes describing a car accident:
Hatched from sleep, as we slipped out of orbit
Round a clothespin curve new-watered with the rain,
I saw the sea, the sky, as bright as pain
That outer space through which we were to plummet.
Stallings lives in the modern world of cars and planes and thinks in terms of orbits and outer space; the Greece of this poem is not there yet – there is no guardrail on the cliff-sided road, the only warnings are the memorials to those who have died there, who
sliced the tedious sea once, like a knife.
Luckily, her car hits an olive tree on the edge of the cliff and they don’t go over.
We clung together, shade to pagan shade,
Surprised by sunlight, air, this afterlife.
And so the ancient world steps in to save her from rash modernity, and in this first poem she weaves the present and the past together, living as a pagan shade in a refreshed existence. And the rest of the book, and indeed all her work, carries on this integration of past and present.

The first section of the book is titled ‘Underworld’, appropriate for that near-death event, but mostly being poems such as ‘Hades Welcomes his Bride’ and ‘Persephone Writes a Letter to her Mother’ – there is a lot of Greek mythology in Stallings’ work, but filtered through a modern sensibility:
Death, the deportation officer,
Has seen your papers and has found them wanting.

In the second section, ‘A Bestiary’, she writes of her American experiences of animals and birds, in life and death and freedom and captivity, with her customary detached amusement. Take ‘Watching the Vulture at the Road Kill’:
We stopped the car to watch. Too close.
He bounced his moon-walk bounce and rose
With a shrug up to the kudzu sleeve
Of a pine, to wait for us to leave.
She observes that most other birds have to get in and out in a hurry, whether raptors or prey, and draws a lesson from it:
There is no peace but scavengers.

The third section, ‘Tour of the Labyrinth’, returns to Greek themes, but again weaving past and present, as in the reaction to an antique pot being broken. The final section is ‘For the Losers of Things’, echoing the sense of loss or near-loss in the rest of the book, but staying in the present – ‘Watching the News After the Tornados’ – or even the far future, with another of my personal favourites, ‘The Machines Mourn the Passing of People’:
The air now is silent of curses or praise.
Jilted, abandoned to hells of what weather,
Left to our own devices forever,
We watch the sun rust at the end of its days.

As can be seen from the excerpts quoted, Stallings is a formalist, and very comfortable with whatever form and metre is appropriate for the particular piece she is producing. ‘Archaic Smile’ is a superb collection, readable and rereadable, memorable, quotable. Her subsequent collections have been equally impressive. If there is a better poet currently writing in English, I haven’t run across them.

Photo of A.E. Stallings by Milos Bicanski