Category Archives: poets

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.

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Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins

Hopkins being difficult to read, this edition with very insightful introduction and notes by 20th century English poet James Reeves is about as good as it gets.

That said, most of Hopkins’ poetry is uninteresting in content except to a religious person, or to a person interested in poetic technique and the elasticity of the English language. His ‘sprung rhythm’ work and his use of alliteration and assonance draw on Anglo-Saxon rather than Norman French roots, though he frequently uses the sonnet and other rigid structures. His phrasing of his thoughts, however, is idiosyncratic and often dense to the point of unreadability.

His best-known poems date mostly to 1877, when he suddenly felt free to express an ecstatic joy in nature – God’s Grandeur, Pied Beauty, and The Windhover. Spring and Fall (“Margaret, are you grieving / Over Goldengrove unleaving?”) dates from 1880, As Kingfishers Catch Fire a year or two later. Living an isolated and unappreciated and religiously constrained life, his health and emotional balance became ever weaker and his poetry ever bleaker. His last two completed poems, Thou art indeed just, Lord, and To R. B. (Robert Bridges), were written in despair shortly before his death in 1889 at age 44.

His output was not extensive, but half a dozen of his poems posthumously charged and changed English verse forever.

Poetry Resources: Light Verse Magazine

Light, the “journal of light verse since 1992”, has just published its Winter/Spring 2019 edition (online), with poems from over 40 light formal verse poets, and insightful book reviews of new books of formal verse (not all of it light verse). It is worth getting on Light’s email list, not only for the semiannual issues, but also for the half dozen poems on current topics that they publish every week – get a quick chuckle from a rhyme-rich twist on the week’s headlines.

This specific issue is of interest because of the book reviews: of the five reviews, two are of books by authors already published in our Potcake Chapbooks (Ed Conti and Alicia Stallings), and a third is a review of the chapbook series itself:

Potcake Chapbooks, edited by Robin Helweg-Larsen. Sampson Low Ltd.

A new source for pocket-sized light-verse collections just rode into town as well. The Potcake Chapbook series is a collection (three, so far) of pocket-sized anthologies smaller than many cell phones. These books appear to be made specifically for Light readers in that the series “subscribe[s] to the use of form, no matter how formless the times in which we live,” the poems are selected to achieve that lovely balance between wit and sweetness—and sometimes outright belly laughing—that is the hallmark of so much good light verse, and the poets in the first two volumes are nearly all road tested and approved by Light‘s editors. Rogues and Roses covers love and sex in a surprising number of variations for thirteen short pages, and Tourists and Cannibals ranges from local holiday spots (Terese Coe) to escaping the heat others come specifically to find (A. E. Stallings) to learning languages (Robin Helweg-Larsen) to a hat-tip to one’s homebound god when in a temple on the other side of the world (Gail White). Careers and Other Catastrophes just came out. I haven’t seen it yet, but if it matches its sisters, it’s worth getting the whole trio.

The Potcake books include lovely little three-color illustrations, and for less than the cost of a latte (plus postage from England) you can amuse yourself or give a truly unexpected gift. Either way, the mix of poems and the quality of the work will delight and surprise. This series should continue and thrive.”

Light is a non-profit organization, and signing up is free. Personally, I think it should be a mandatory part of English lessons in middle and high schools – we need more people reaching adulthood with the ability to enjoy the strengths of verse in the English language, and its integral part of our culture.

 

Formal Launch: Potcake Chapbook 3 – Careers and Other Catastrophes

The launch of the third Potcake Chapbook brings us a passel of fresh Potcake Poets into the Sampson Low list, a couple of returning friends, and a slew of new art from Alban Low. Good news all round!

Careers! We’ve all had one or several of them, for better or worse. Marcus Bales and Daniel Galef review the frustrations of shopfloor sales and professions, while Annie Drysdale gives an exhilarating view of farmwork. From the newcomers (Gerry Cambridge, Martin Elster, Brian Gavin, Susan McLean, Rob Stuart, Tom Vaughan and Mindy Watson) we have everything from office workers and cafe proprietors to a madame ageing out of her profession and a hangman lamenting his obsolescence.

But really, there are no “newcomers” here. As always, the chapbook features poets who are very well-known as well as extremely skillful and experienced with formal verse.

And whether the writing of verse should be considered a career, or merely another catastrophe… well, that’s for future discussion.

Meanwhile, enjoy this for a couple of quid or have a copy mailed to someone who needs a fresh perspective on life.

Poetry Resources: The Norton Book of Light Verse

The single best anthology of light verse that I know. Over 500 poems selected by Pulitzer Prize winning commentator Russell Baker (and with an excellent introduction by him). Everything from ‘Summer is y-comen in’ and its modern parodies, to Shakespeare and Marlowe, Noel Coward and Cole Porter, Don Marquis and Phyllis McGinley, Allen Ginsberg and John Lennon.

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Light verse lends itself to the use of form, and most of the poems are formal. Rhyme and meter make it easier to remember verse word for word, but there are bits that I remember, have known since my school days, that don’t share those attributes. For example, Cummings’ ‘Nobody loses all the time’

(and down went
my Uncle
Sol

and started a worm farm).

But such pieces are the exception. By the far the majority of light verse is going to rhyme and scan, and that is part of its charm.

As most poets only get one or two poems in this anthology, there are a couple of hundred poets represented. The book is therefore an excellent way to broaden your awareness of English-language poets – though if there are any outside the British-Irish-American area, I’m not aware of it. This limitation, and the fact that the compilation dates from 1986, are the only negative things to say about a superb and memorable collection.

 

Formal launch! Potcake Chapbooks 1 & 2

The first two chapbooks in Sampson Low’s Potcake series are up and running! Not only that, but they have already made it into the Official UK Chapbook Chart, with one of them at No.1 for two weeks in a row. And I was going to try to make it as easy as possible for you to buy a copy… they’re not expensive, about the cost of a fancy greeting card, and easily mailed as they weigh less than an ounce.

Hey Potcake, wanna buy a chapbook...

Hey Potcake! Wanna buy a chapbook?

However, the problem is that they are too inexpensive! It simply isn’t worth this blog paying all the fees to upgrade to business class in order to have a Paypal button, or to pay Amazon’s monthly fees or initiation fees or fulfilment fees or sales commissions or whatever else, in order to make them easily available in North America.

So we will treat this a formal launch… and you’ll just have to go to that Sampson Low website and put your order in there. Don’t worry, it’ll be mailed right away. Just be glad you’re not trying to do things through the Bahamas post office, where domestic mail takes 1-3 months, and international takes up to a year…

And with “Tourists and Cannibals” and “Rogues and Roses” up and running, the next two in the series are now in preparation. Expect “Careers and Other Catastrophes” and “Families and Other Fiascoes” in the beginning of the year, with many of the earlier poets reappearing but supplemented by many others joining us for the first time. And, of course, with Alban Low’s illustrations.

The series is joyful, lighthearted, and already popular!

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.

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!