Tag Archives: formal verse

Poem: “Optimism”

Do you have a clear detection
Of an unexpired affection?
Are you reckoned to come second in her life?
Was there someone there before you?
Let it be, don’t let it bore you;
It’ll maintain her somewhat saner as your wife.

This little throwaway poem was recently published in Lighten Up Online. In my mind its value is not so much as a commentary on modern marriage, as an enjoyable way to string some rhymes together. I no longer have any idea what was on my mind when I wrote it.

Many poets would analyse this as written in trochees with lines of either four or six feet, the third line being

ARE you RECKoned TO come SECond IN her LIFE?

but to my mind the lines have only either two or three strongly accented syllables, with the third line being

Are you RECKoned to come SECond in her LIFE?

It is a short piece of patter, which is emphasised by the internally stressed rhymes of reckoned/second and maintain-her/saner. But that leads to a problem: there is a difficulty with the beginning of the last line, and it is hard to find a smooth flow.

Originally it read

‘Twill maintain her —

Archaic, said LUPO editor Jerome Betts, and requested a change for publication as

It’ll keep her —

I accepted this, not noticing that I was losing the rhyme with saner. So why not

It’ll maintain her —

Now the problem is that there is one syllable too many, and we don’t have a smooth flow from the previous line.

You’ll maintain her —, perhaps?

That gives a brand new problem, a subtle shift of meaning from the abstract “it” to the personal “you”, with a much more active sense of “maintain her” and even a suggestion of financial concern.

If it was just an oral presentation, you could probably slide by with

‘t’ll maintain her —

but is that acceptable, comprehensible, in print?

My operating principle with poetry is that there is always a solution. But in this case I haven’t yet found it. 

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Poem: “Diatribe Against Unversed Poets”

Heartbeat

Heartbeat – “June 1, 2014” by osseous

Ignoring clockwork towns and fertile farms
Tied to the sun-swing as the seas to moon,
They searched for verse in deserts without rhyme,
Lifted erratic rocks nonrhythmically
In search of poetry, then through the slough
Of their emotions hunted for a trail:

“The scent is cold. Its Spirit must have fled;
The body of its work, though dead,
Has been translated to some higher plane.
Look how the world’s translated verse
Comes to us plain—why can’t we emulate?
Then if the words themselves are unimportant,
If poetry in essence is idea,
And song is wrong,
Rhyme a superfluous flamboyance
(Like colour in Van Gogh),
Rhythm a distraction to the memoring mind,
Then we determine poetry’s true form is mime!”

While in the air the deafening blare
Confounds their silence everywhere:
Before our hearts began to beat
We were conceived in rhythmic heat;
So, billions strong, we sing along
For all the time, in time, our time, the song
Goes rocking on in rhythmic rhyme. Rock on!

This was originally published in Snakeskin, the monthly online poetry magazine that George Simmers has been putting out since the 1990s. He is receptive to a range of poetry, but as his original credo states: “Nor shall we sit to lunch with those / Who moralise in semi-prose. / A poem should be rich as cake.”

This poem is a rant against the vast amounts of blather that have been published as “poetry”, while anything showing formal verse skills was automatically rejected by most magazines over the past several decades. The rant is against poets who are “unversed”: “not experienced, skilled, or knowledgeable.” Why should they be given automatic acceptance, when the skilled were automatically rejected? It has been a bizarre half-century. It has a zeitgeist worth considering.

To focus on the United States as the cultural driver of the 20th century: it has always had an anarchic aspect, from the founding tenet of the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” – though this mostly applied to adult white males who had a certain level of property. (By contrast, Canada’s constitutional requirement for the federal parliament to provide “peace, order and good government” has a social rather than individual orientation.) The US high water mark for good government came domestically with the FDR-and-Eleanor Roosevelt presidency, and internationally with the founding of the United Nations. But “big government” acquired such nasty connotations thanks to Stalin, Hitler and Mao that those who wanted the freedom to exploit others without legal restriction were able to make a case for “small government” and chip away at government structures.

In poetry, what started with Walt Whitman in the 19th century burst open a century later with Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, and classrooms where every child was “encouraged in self-expression” without penalties for illiteracy. What was expressed became everything; the how became irrelevant. As in government, freedom from others’ rules became desirable in the literary and artistic community, and in the hippie movement, and the innovative business start-ups of Silicon Valley. There were undoubted benefits… but in literature, the suppression of poetic form was one of the less fortunate results.

Poetry takes different forms in different languages, but the forms all have the same desirable outcome: to make it easier to memorise and recite word-for-word. Alliteration, assonance, rhyme, metre – these are all useful tools for achieving this, along with less tangible tools such as fresh or startling imagery. Metre is viscerally important to us, because the mother’s heartbeat is the background to sensory development in the womb, and our own heartbeat and breathing rhythms continue throughout life. As humans we drum, we dance, we sing, just as we walk and run rhythmically, tap our fingers rhythmically when we are bored, teach small children to clap and sing, teach older children clapping and skipping games. Rhythm is built into us from before birth.

But rhythmic poetry didn’t die when it stopped being publishable. It just went into folk songs, blues, rock, country-and-western, musicals, rap, hip hop… Popular music let teenagers and adults continue to thrive with what they were not given by schools: rhythm and rhyme. This drive to make words memorable and recitable is part of who we humans are. So schools do best when they leaven “creative self-expression” with getting kids to learn things by heart, and to pay attention to the qualities that make it easy to memorise and recite.

Review: “Selected Poems” by Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks

“Selected Poems” covers the best of Gwendolyn Brooks‘ poetry from her first book in 1944 up to 1963. It is vibrant, amusing, angry, always insightful – sometimes formal, sometimes experimental, always rich, always quotable. To me (with British sensibilities) this is some of the greatest American poetry of the 20th century, on a par with Frost and cummings.

Born in 1917, Brooks’ poetry dealt with the real world – the black experience in Chicago and throughout the US, with a strong feminine sensibility. The opening poem “kitchenette building” of her first book (A Street in Bronzeville, published 1945) sets the tone:

We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,
Grayed in, and gray. “Dream” makes a giddy sound, not strong
Like “rent,” “feeding a wife,” “satisfying a man.”

But could a dream send up through onion fumes
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms

Even if we were willing to let it in,
Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,
Anticipate a message, let it begin?

We wonder. But not well! not for a minute!
Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now,
We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.

Dreams and reality were both important in her upbringing. Her father had given up on medical school and become a janitor in order to get married and raise a family. Her mother was a school teacher and concert pianist. Reading and recitation were high priorities in the family, and Brooks started writing poetry very early. Four of her poems were published in a local paper when she was 11, and her mother encouraged her, saying ”You are going to be the lady Paul Laurence Dunbar.” Material was all around her, and she dealt with it unflinchingly. The second poem in the book was called, with deliberate irony, “the mother”. It begins:

Abortions will not let you forget.
You remember the children you got that you did not get,
The damp small pulps with a little or with no hair,
The singers and workers that never handled the air.

Children in several poems are trying to find their place in the world. “a song in the front yard” begins:

I’ve stayed in the front yard all my life.
I want a peek at the back
Where it’s rough and untended and hungry weed grows.
A girl gets sick of a rose.

Brooks uses form very fluently, choosing form for the mood of the poem: from near nursery rhyme:

Maud went to college.
Sadie stayed at home.
Sadie scraped life
With a fine-toothed comb.

to pages of iambic pentameter with frequent rhyme for “The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith”:

Inamoratas, with an approbation,
Bestowed his title. Blessed his inclination.

And this first volume ends with a dozen sonnets, all with slant (or near) rhyme. It was wartime, but the issues of race were in the military as elsewhere. One of the sonnet titles barely needs its poem: “the white troops had their orders but the Negroes looked like men”.

“A Street in Bronzeville” brought her two years of Guggenheim Fellowships and other awards. Her second book, “Annie Allen” made her the first black writer to win a Pulitzer Prize in any category. Next came a novel, then a volume of poetry for children, and then in 1960 her third book of adult poetry, “The Bean Eaters”:

They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair.
Dinner is a casual affair.
Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood,
Tin flatware.

Two who are Mostly Good.
Two who have lived their day,
But keep on putting on their clothes
And putting things away.

And remembering…
Remembering, with twinklings and twinges,
As they lean over the beans in their rented back room that is full
of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths, tobacco
crumbs, vases and fringes.

Civil rights. Mississippi. Arkansas. That all became part of her poetry, moving on from Chicago. The lynching of Emmett Till. The integration of a high school by the Little Rock Nine. All in her poems:

And true, they are hurling spittle, rock,
Garbage and fruit in Little Rock.
And I saw coiling storm a-writhe
On bright madonnas. And a scythe
Of men harassing brownish girls.
(The bows and barrettes in the curls
And braids declined away from joy.)

I saw a bleeding brownish boy…

The lariat lynch-wish I deplored.

The loveliest lynchee was our Lord.

This review can’t even mention all the truly memorable poems in the book, but it covers enough to show Brooks’ range of styles and interests. She became increasingly active in black issues, and she continued to write and to rack up awards and prizes, up until her death in 2000. But this “Selected Poems” only goes up to 1963 because she left her original publisher, Harper & Row, in order to work with a black start-up publisher in Detroit. Not a problem. This “Selected Poems” alone places Gwendolyn Brooks in the very forefront of American poetry.

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.

Poem: “Carefree 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!

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.