Tag Archives: formal verse

Poem: “I Started Out Alone”

I started out alone
with no numbers and no words.
The people gave me food and clothes.
I loved the sun and birds.

And when I reach the end,
numbers and words all done,
have to be fed and dressed again,
I’ll love the birds and sun.

This little poem was published recently in Bewildering Stories, and I like it for a couple of reasons: its simplicity (echoing the simplicity of the states of beginning and end of life, the simplicity of the basics of being human); and its completeness – it covers an entire life, and I can’t think of more words that could be added; and the formality, not only of the simple rhythm and simple rhymes, but of the structure, the line-by-line echoing of the beginning of life in the end of life.

For all these reasons it is an easy little poem to remember and recite, and that is satisfying in itself.

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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!

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.

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: Bewildering Stories

Bewildering Stories is a weekly magazine of sf and speculative fiction (mostly) and poetry (some), created and managed by Don Webb and half a dozen others. Because it does a Quarterly Review and an Annual Review of the editor’s choice, it produces about 47 issues a year of original material (or predominantly original – it allows previously published material). It is now coming up on issue number 800. I’ll leave it to you to figure out how long it has been in existence… for an online magazine, it is truly venerable.

I often have a poem in Bewildering Stories, and this week is no exception: “When at the End – Wishful Thinking“:

“When at the end of life we who by swords, axes, cleavers
go as heroes to Valhalla, the rest go to Hel.”

“When at the end of life we the true believers
go as saints to Heaven, the rest go to Hell.”

“Our memory is all that we are.
When at the end of life we are remembered,
we still exist for as long as our memory lasts.
Remember us! We are no more than memories of our pasts.”

When, at the end, the helmet of this life is lifted away,
the Virtual Reality of “human” fades to grey,
will you find yourself in a world fresh, rich and deep,
an environment more meaningful, truer, greater?
(And is it somewhere you go even now, in sleep?)
Surely behind the simulation must be a Simulator.

It accepts formal and informal verse, being more concerned with the speculative nature of the ideas than with an aesthetic preference. The poem above is pretty much a sonnet, though the scansion is uneven, the rhyme scheme unorthodox and the rhymes themselves iffy (beginning with rhyming Hel with Hell). So not a very aesthetic product, but full of speculation – which is the priority.

The editorial board is diverse, Don being based in Canada but drawing on others in the UK and US. Submissions of course can come from anywhere. And another nice thing that Don does is to include “Challenge questions” about a number of the pieces in each issue. The answers from readers are not typically shared, but it is a nice way of provoking more thought.

Altogether a worthwhile magazine for poets as well as fiction writers.

 

Poetry Resources: The Asses of Parnassus

The shortest, wittiest, most formal poetry publication that I know of is Brooke Clark’s Tumblr-based Asses of Parnassus. This is the place for pieces as short as a couplet or perhaps a couple of quatrains, whether you are submitting for publication or you simply like reading them.

The irreverence is illustrated with the Tumblr heading: a detail of a Goya etching from his series of caprichos, morbid, satirical and anti-establishment in outlook.

The Asses of Parnassus used to contain a lot of translations (in rhyme) from Greek and Latin authors – lots of rude, snide, scurrilous comments from Martial and Catullus – but is now dominated by more current material. The most recent item as this post is being written is a 24-line screed from Daniel Galef on being denied a Wikipedia entry. The one before is my own couplet, Success:

“Success!” he toasted. Though I wished him dead
I smiled and raised my glass: “Suck cess!” I said.

 

But though rude and snide are allowed, you are unlikely to find any bigotry or hatred. Brooke Clark retains tolerance and even compassion in The Asses of Parnassus. He is Canadian, after all.