Category Archives: poets

Poem: “Careless 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!

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Review: “A Joy Proposed” by T.H. White

‘A Joy Proposed’ is a nice, somewhat strange, assembly of 57 often derivative poems from across the life of T.H. White. Many of the pieces were written in Ireland where White lived as a Conscientious Objector throughout the Second World War. His love of the countryside and his previous experiences as a schoolmaster (including at Stowe, a boarding school in rural Buckinghamshire with 600 acres of grounds) shine through in the constant juxtaposition of poems about game birds, dogs and landscapes alongside anger and bitterness about innocent lives lost to war.

The style varies from extreme simplicity, as in ‘A Choirboy Singing’:

Know not, but sigh.
Think not, but die.
Hope not, but high
Ache against ill.

to outpourings evocative of Whitman or Hopkins, as in ‘A Dray Horse’:

Meek Hercules – passion of arched power bowed in titanic affection,
Docile though vanquishing, stout-limber in vastness, plunging and spurning thy road –
Tauten thy traces, triumph past me, take thy shattering direction
Through misty Glasgow, dragging in a tremendous beer-waggon thy cobble-thundering load.

His pessimism, or perhaps mere sadness, at the human condition comes through again and again in the sense of the young lives he has been educating that will now be thrown away:

When I look at your comely head
And the long fingers delicately live
And the bright life born to be dead
And the happy blood to be shed
(…)
I die within me. And I curse
The witless fate of man without all cure.
Music I curse, and verse,
And beauty worse,
And every thing that helps us to endure.

… but mitigated always by his love of Nature, both hunting (as in kestrels and dogs he owned) and hunted (as in game birds he shot).

White is primarily known for his ‘Once and Future King‘ retelling of the Arthurian legends, and those novels soon went to stage and screen as the musical ‘Camelot’ and the Disney animation ‘The Sword in the Stone’. If it wasn’t for those novels, his other novels would probably be forgotten today and his poetry would be unknown. It isn’t great poetry, and yet I have read it and reread it. He was a writer and with it he was lonely, alcoholic, bitter, witty, learned, compassionate, and alive to the natural world. All of that comes through in these verses, with his self-awareness of who he was and what he was achieving. As he wrote in ‘Lines Cut on the Cottage Window’:

A bitter heart lay here and yet
It was not bitter to the bone.
It made what Time does not unmake
All hopeful, and alone.

Review: “Strange Victory” by Sara Teasdale

“Strange Victory” is a thin, competent but uninteresting collection of short poems by Sara Teasdale, produced shortly before her suicide.

Moon, worn thin to the width of a quill,
In the dawn clouds flying,
How good to go, light into light, and still
Giving light, dying.

However, as this is neither her best selling “Rivers to the Sea” nor her Pulitzer Prizewinning “Love Songs”, perhaps one of those volumes would provide a better assessment of her worth as a poet.

Not recommended.

Poetry Resources: Lighten Up Online

Lighten Up Online appears four times a year, in the third month of each quarter. Lighten Up balloonFounded over ten years ago by Martin Parker, it is now edited by Jerome Betts – both of them being accomplished formal poets, of course. They and the magazine are very English (reflected, to the bemusement of Americans, in some of the spelling, rhymes, slang and references) but contributors come from around the globe. Their front page states:

“We believe that light verse is very far from being the poor relation of ‘proper’ poetry. On this site you will find work by light verse specialists as well as by some of the many ‘proper’ poets who enjoy it and write it and agree that light verse deserves a wider audience than it is normally given.” 

The technical standards are very high, and wordplay including puns is always welcome. Here is just such a piece by the editor himself in the current issue:

Stiff Upper Lip

When uncle slipped, near roadside tippings,
As light snow hid the ice beneath,
And fell face down in sharp-edged chippings,
Did foul words further blast the heath?
Ah no, despite the pain’s cruel nippings
He just said ‘Ouch!’, through gritted teeth.

Lighten Up Online is always open to submissions, but of course anyone sending work to it should read a couple of issues first to get a sense of what the magazine is all about. A lot of very short pieces are published, and every issue ends with the results of the previous issue’s competition and the announcement of the new one.

An extremely enjoyable read, and a good way to find new poets you might like.

Poetry Resources: “Best Remembered Poems”

578776Perfectly competent, and with interesting trivia and useful background notes by Martin Gardner, this selection of “Best Remembered Poems” is pedestrian almost by definition: these are the ones that are best remembered by Americans, so there will be very little that is new and exciting–and honestly, a lot of the poems best remembered from high school English lessons on the 19th and early 20th century… are downright boring.

But if you’re looking for a book that contains most poems that most non-poets vaguely remember… that contains both ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ and ‘Casey at the Bat’… then this is the one for you!

New Poems in Snakeskin

This month’s edition of Snakeskin has two of my poems in it – and neither is formal. How Linda Ronstadtembarrassing! All the more so as the issue also contains two very nice sonnets by D.A. Prince and Diane Elayne Dees, and a truly excellent transforming poem by Daniel Galef which can be read as either a loose-rhythm 14-line sonnet or, with identical words broken into shorter lines and different rhymes, as five quatrains in the style of Robert Service.

But having given you the links to those, I return to my own poor contributions:

Beach and Mountain

Oh! I said, Look at that Beach!
What! said the Mountain, So go live down there.
See if I care.
Oh Mountain, I said, don’t be so silly,
I choose to live here,
complex and craggy, rich in forests and streams,
here where you rise up, taller than the clouds,
up where the air itself is rarefied
with views over all the world below.
But still… look at that pretty little beach
with its soft white sand,
its smooth clear water…

Now I Know Death

I know how I will die – sadly, slowly,
Regretting all I leave behind
In the spirit of taking a train to school,
Of seeing the holidays pass without a girl,
Of moving out of a good house, leaving the keys
On the table, carefully locking myself out.
Watching the first leaves fall, warning that
The summer comes to an end.
Going to bed only because I am so tired.
Hearing the wind in the pines, hinting at loss.
Feeling without my children, grown,
Transcontinental, unreachable.
The sadness that comes from depths of happiness
And knowing I’m too frail to hold it.

Sonnets: John Keats’ 64 Sonnets

The 64 extant sonnets of John Keats make for a very interesting read for anyone interested in formal verse. Not only do we have the poet developing his skills and The 64 Sonnets by John Keatsexpression in the last five years of his short life (he was 18 when he wrote his first sonnet, and died at 23), but he consciously experimented with the form, outlining in his letters the shortcomings that he saw in the Petrarchan and Shakespearean versions while he looked for a better structure.

This collection has a useful but insufficient introduction by Edward Hirsch and incompetent notes by Gary Hawkins. Hirsch writes of the development of Keats’ themes, but fails to tie the poems into the details of his life. I suggest reading at least the Wikipedia entry on Keats to get a fuller sense of what was going on in his mind, his life, his environment.

The notes by Hawkins appear to have been thrown together without either care or insight. There is a facing page of three or four comments for each poem, and there is a further note on the rhyme scheme in an appendix at the back. The appendix catches four of the lengthened lines (6 or even 7 feet in a line) but misses three of them; and notes one of the shortened lines but misses another. Worse, the analysis of the rhyme scheme for the technically most interesting sonnet (“If by dull rhymes our English must be chain’d”) fails to understand the structure Keats was creating, despite quoting his comments in the letter containing the poem.

Hawkins gives the structure as
abc ad (d) c abc dede (tercets, quatrain)

This is wrong on so many levels… First, the fifth line’s rhyme is b, not d. Second, there is no quatrain at all. Third, Keats has shown how to analyze the sonnet – which is a single sentence – by breaking it into tercets with the use of semicolons to clarify the structure of his thought. Its structure is
abc; abd; cab; cde; de.

That this doesn’t fit into Hawkins’ categories of Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets is precisely the point Keats makes in his letter (“I have been endeavouring to discover a better sonnet stanza than we have”) as well as in the sonnet itself (“Let us find out, if we must be constrain’d, / Sandals more interwoven and complete / To fit the naked foot of Poesy;”)

Hawkins also makes errors of fact and interpretation in the notes facing the sonnets themselves. The very first sonnet, written in 1814, references “the triple kingdom” which Hawkins explains as “Great Britain, composed of England, Scotland and Wales.” Wrong. With the Act of Union of 1801 the three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland were united, as represented by the simultaneous creation of the Union Jack with its combination of the crosses of the three flags. Wales was not a kingdom but a principality, and its flag never figured in the larger national flags.

In the sonnet “How many bards gild the lapses of time!”, Keats writes “A few of them have ever been the food / Of my delighted fancy.” Hawkins annotates this as “namely, the epic poets Milton and Spenser.” Oh really? How about Shakespeare, whom Keats addresses directly as “Chief Poet!” in another sonnet. And this is quite apart from sonnets addressed to Byron, Chatterton, Hunt, and Burns.

I have to smile at Hawkins’ interpretation of “artless daughters”:

Happy is England, sweet her artless daughters;
Enough their simple loveliness for me,
Enough their whitest arms in silence clinging:
Yet do I often warmly burn to see
Beauties of deeper glance, and hear their singing,
And float with them about the summer waters.

Hawkins interprets the “artless daughters” as “Scotland and Wales”. Oh come on! Keats could fall in love at a girl’s glance, at a stranger pulling off a glove. I don’t think he meant Scotland and Wales – he meant girls, classic “English rose” girls, and contrasted them with what he might find in the Mediterranean. Where he went, and died.

Few of the sonnets are near as memorable as “On first looking into Chapman’s Homer” or “When I have fears that I may cease to be”, but they are all readable and rereadable, and to have them as this collection is a treat.