Tag Archives: Formal poetry

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Terese Coe, “Letter to Anton Chekhov”

Terese Coe

My Dear Anton,

I just came from The Seagull, and it’s still
the tour de force it was when it was written.
The jaded past, a tragic Russian vaudeville,
ushers in the star-struck and the smitten,
the ingénue, the predator, hard-bitten,
artists in a trance-like state and sordid,
bewitched by when and how they’ll be rewarded.

Success too young is said to be a curse
for writers—yours was neither smug nor rude.
By twenty-one, your stories filled a purse
to pay your famished family’s rent and food.
Your father’s violence had finally been subdued.
Doctor, writer, you could dress a wound
or stage a scene of pettiness lampooned.

Though philistines have claimed your plays lack action
there are secret histrionics of the mind
where characters break through the stupefaction
and character unfolds when it’s confined.
Whether tight, oblivious or blind,
the diva crippled by her little fame
reveals herself in fear of change, or shame.

Your plays still plumb the interplay between
words and silence, plotlessness and plot
in which you show an uneventful scene
composed entirely of what was not
to be—the spent emotion scattershot
around the stage in wraiths of lost pretension,
and meaning haunted by the fourth dimension.

How women loved Antosha! You could be
flippant, daring, timid, or a charmer.
Biographers today are on a spree:
computers link to lovers and their armor,
unsigned stories, letters to a farmer,
notes on pets. But did your gentle crane
mean more to you than Masha or demesne?

And Lydia Avilova! Tantamount
to love affair or game of cat-and-mouse,
no one could say by reading her account
of unrequited love, the empty house
once lent by friends, your hunch her child and spouse
(Karenina, or Lady with a Dog?)
would haunt her like a countermarch, a fog.

Or worse. Perhaps it was her child for whom
you stopped. Could she have let him go?
It might have meant despondency and doom,
and why should history have the need to know?
Eventually Avilova’s book would show
the years you spent inventing cryptic ruses,
the stifled passion, the letters bearing bruises.

Four years before you died, you took a wife,
the theater’s Olga Knipper—Like a colt,
you said—who thrived on acting, laughter, life,
and you. Your own Teutonic thunderbolt.
Masha would be the sister in revolt.
She’d broken her engagement years before
at your insistence. Masha was keeping score.

Juggling marriage, jealousy, TB,
and writing plays, in Yalta you missed Moscow,
Olga, the theater—in Moscow you craved the sea,
the ease, the heat. You dreaded every flow
of springtime melt, the break of ice and snow.
With spring came spitting blood, and you were weak.
Writing was a trial. You couldn’t speak.

In youth, you wrote: Of all the doctors in town,
I am the sorriest case. My carriage is broken,
my horses mangy, I don’t know the roads, I frown
at night and still can’t see, and I’m awoken
by pleas for cash, of which I’ve none. Unspoken
disease is rampant. I tire very quickly,
practice medicine gratis, and am sickly.

My paraphrase, and fraught with emendations.
The tragedy is clear. The truth is that
you struggled with the people’s deprivations
and gave yourself away sans caveat.
En route to France’s kinder habitat,
you died a “doctor’s death”—TB, champagne,
the German spa, and morphine for the pain.

Terese Coe writes: “The letter-poem speaks for me.”

Terese Coe’s poems and translations have appeared in Agenda, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Cincinnati Review, The Moth, New American Writing, New Writing Scotland, Ploughshares, Poetry, Poetry Review, Potcake Chapbooks, The Stinging Fly, Threepenny Review, and the TLS, among many other journals. Her collection Shot Silk was listed for the 2017 Poets Prize.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terese_Coe

Resources: Trish Hopkinson’s blog about poetry

When so many poetry magazines are one-or two-person operations, it is hard to know of all of them, harder still to sort through and find the ones that you would enjoy reading and, as a poet, would like to submit work to. How wonderful, then, when someone like Trish Hopkinson comes long to inform us of magazine openings and closings, of different editorial requests and requirements, and of calls for submission!

For a general introduction to her blog, go to https://trishhopkinson.com/blog-tour/. She is also active on Facebook, and can be found at https://www.facebook.com/trishhopkinsonpoet.

As a formal poet living in our current wasteland of unstructured material, I am especially grateful that she has put together a list of Where to Submit Formal Verse. Her list of 53 magazines is extremely useful, but it does have some drawbacks:

First, it (understandably) focuses on the Anglo-Canadian-American market. In today’s online world, such restrictions should not necessarily apply. I have had English-language verse published in Australia, India, Netherlands, Nigeria and Turkey. English is very much a global language, and not just in the areas of business and Hollywood.

Second, some of the more difficult prospects, but the most desirable, are not mentioned–for example Poetry Magazine and the New Yorker. Yet they publish just as large a proportion of formal verse as some of the others in her list. (For example, Marilyn Taylor is sometimes the only formal one of over 50 poets published in an issue of Verse-Virtual.)

And lastly, the list is unfortunately four years old. In the world of poetry magazines, this means many will have disappeared, many others will have arisen. The Rotary Dial, Sliptongue, Unsplendid… each unique, excellent in its way, but disappeared along with several others in her list.

But as, obviously, you start by looking at a magazine and its website and its samples and requirements before you submit, little time is lost in identifying the defunct. The list remains invaluable for finding well-established magazines that will publish formal verse.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: D.A. Prince, “The Window”

D.A. Prince

That was my first job, he said, as we gazed
at the insignificant window. Down
the slate steps, and looking from the raised
salt-pitted pavement, where this end of town
gets hammered by the sea, it looked so small.
But sturdy, strongly-made enough to prove
that here his father fitted him with all
the craftsmanship he’d need. It wouldn’t move
or crumble. Each year he’d return, to see
his work enduring. Then brought me, to know
a detail of our family history
and let this shabby mullioned window show
something inherited – that stone and wood,
well-built, can last a lifetime and go on
drawing the clean light in and doing good.
I think about it often now he’s gone.

D A Prince writes: “Sometimes a poem travels far further than expected. When I wrote ‘The Window’ I felt it was a quiet and, for me, unusually personal poem which would have a limited readership. It was published in South, and the editors subsequently submitted it to the Forward 2020 Anthology. I was pleased they had chosen it but given the cutting-edge nature of the Forward anthologies I never thought it would be selected. After all, it’s formal; that’s not how twenty-first century poetry is. To my astonishment it was selected and included — perhaps a reminder that rhyme and metre are still part of our landscape.”

D A Prince lives in Leicestershire and London. Her first appearances in print were in the weekly competitions in The Spectator and New Statesman (which ceased its competitions in 2016) along with other outlets that hosted light verse. Something closer to ‘proper’ poetry followed, with three pamphlets, followed by a full-length collection, Nearly the Happy Hour, from HappenStance Press in 2008. A second collection, Common Ground, (from the same publisher) followed in 2014 and this won the East Midlands Book Award in 2015. HappenStance published her pamphlet Bookmarks in 2018.
Light verse continues to be an essential part of her writing as a way of honing technical skills while having fun.

http://www.happenstancepress.com

Poem: “Post-literacy”

Yes, I know it seems unlikely
but I simply can’t help feeling
there’s an urgency to writing:
and in verse, and fluently.

We’ve our cultural traditions
that have coevolved with language
and each language has its verse forms
that are aids to memory.

It’s all fine that we are moving
to post-literate existence
where the things all talk and tell you
everything you need, you must

when the neon signs and fridges
can discuss with you their content,
you don’t need to read or count, if
their integrity you trust.

But embedded in our braincells
are the patterns of our language
and our need to think in patterns
drives our songs, makes us a folk,

it gives dub and rap and hip hop,
it drives rhetoric in speeches,
and the false anticipation
of the punchline of a joke.

With our cultures integrating
with AI and with each other,
we risk losing all our history,
all our culture and, what’s worse,

Our minds! So sing to babies,
have kids memorise long poems,
learn the maths of songs and music –
learn and read and write in verse!

This poem, recently published in Bewildering Stories, speaks to the heart of the matters that this blog deals with. Songs and music, rhyme and rhythm, dance, melodies, alliteration and assonance, structures and patterns and verses and choruses, are all part of something that is deeply human. It starts for us with the heartbeat in the womb, is nurtured with lullabyes and rocking, carries on through the songs and music and dance that are important to every generation of teenagers. It is such a fundamental part of our humanity that educational systems that ignore it are ignoring a powerful natural teaching tool.

The issue is larger than the fact that learning verse by heart is easier than learning prose by heart. Larger than the benefits of developing the ability to remember and memorise accurately. It is about recognising and nurturing those inner forces that make us human. It is about not letting our humanity be eroded by a culture that doesn’t acknowledge the rhythms that permeate our lives.

This blog is about the value of formal verse. Part of that value is poetry’s contribution to the sanity that comes from being a complete human being.

Technically this poem’s lines could be described as iambic tetrameter, which each fourth line being truncated and rhymed. But I prefer to read it almost as a patter song with each line composed of two tertius paeons, Short-foot-meter.svg Short-foot-meter.svg Long-foot-meter.svg Short-foot-meter.svg (each fourth line still being truncated and rhymed). In other words, it is designed to have the third and seventh syllables in each line be the ones with the greatest stress or emphasis. And that includes the rhymes, naturally.

Updated: Formal Launch: Potcake Chapbook 5 – “Strip Down”

05 Strip Down

“Strip down” the cashier ordered…

Potcake Chapbook 5, “Strip Down – poems of modern life” is now up and out, the post office is delivering the first copies in some countries, and others like myself will have to wait a couple of months before the post office gets its act together. So it goes.

With a mixture of lighthearted and flippant poems and others that are more meditative and bittersweet, all illustrated by the amazing Alban Low, “Strip Down” follows the formula of the earlier chapbooks. Returning Potcake Poets are Brian Allgar, Marcus Bales, Susan De Sola, Robin Helweg-Larsen, Vera Ignatowitsch, George Simmers, A.E. Stallings, Tom Vaughan and Gail White; newcomers to the series are Antonia Clark, David Galef, Claudia Gary, Paula Mahon and D.A. Prince.

Why does the potcake on the back cover wear a bow tie? Because he, like the poems, is in favour of the formal.

Why does the man on the front cover wear neither a bow tie nor anything else? Well, you’ll just have to read Marcus Bales’ little gem inside.

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.

Poems: “Beach and Mountain”, “Now I Know Death”

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.

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: The Lyric

As its website says, “Founded in 1921, The Lyric is the oldest magazine in North America in continuous publication devoted to traditional poetry.” It provided one of the only outlets for serious formal verse on the continent throughout the decades in which formal verse seemed otherwise limited to pop songs, advertising jingles and Burma-Shave roadside signs.

The Lyric poetry magazine

The Lyric Foundation, established in the early 1950s, provides financial support for the magazine as well as for the university education of young poets and care for older ones. The magazine is currently edited by the daughters of formalist poet Leslie Mellichamp – he edited it himself until his death in 2000.

The magazine suffers from being somewhat behind the times. It is hard to imagine that it gets the same richness of submissions as other outlets, when it is resolutely old-fashioned in management as well as themes. “Email submissions are only accepted from out of country.”  The tone of the printed work is consequently less varied and dynamic than other formalist and formal-friendly magazines. Even the Foundation that supports it is hard to learn about and, as far as I can tell, has no website.

However The Lyric remains a good resource for new poets, as well as more established ones, to place their work in if it falls within the lyric tradition. And with almost a century of publication behind it, there is hope that it will survive and thrive indefinitely.