Tag Archives: Formal poetry

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.

Call for Submissions: Careers, Families

The next titles in the Potcake Chapbooks series are tentatively named “Careers and Other Catastrophes” and “Families and Other Fiascoes”. This is a call for submissions to them.

Potcake Chapbooks

Poems should be in formal verse, from 2 to 24 lines in length preferred but up to 50 lines possible, witty, vivid, elegant, and previously published.  Contributors receive five copies, and a discounted rate on additional purchases.

By submitting you acknowledge you are the sole author and give us the right to publish your poem; you retain copyright. Please identify the place of prior publication so that we can acknowledge it. Simultaneous submissions are fine. The chapbooks are scheduled for publication in January/February 2019.

Email in a doc file to robinhelweglarsen -at- gmail.com