Tag Archives: formal verse

Poetry Resources: Measure for Measure anthology

xkcd iambic pentameter

xkcd – another engaging commentator

The ‘Measure for Measure’ anthology clarifies and extols the delights of the variety of metres available to the poet, from the accentual verse of our Anglo-Saxon roots, through the familiar and natural iambs, dactyls and trochees, to the more obscure sapphics and so on based on Greek and Latin forms.

The book is edited by Annie Finch and Alexandra Oliver, two of the most accomplished formal poets of North America writing today. The preface by Annie Finch and the introductions to the various sections include encouraging exercises for developing skills in both reading and writing poetry, and the tone of the anthology is more expository than a mere collection of poems would be.

The selections for each metre are enjoyable in themselves, and by being grouped in that way they drive a fresh awareness and insight into their nature. The only negative for me came towards the very end, where the section on Sapphics and Alcaics confirmed for me that they are not really relevant for English verse.

Overall, an extremely interesting and informative anthology.

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Using Form: Sonnet: The Squirrel in the Attic of his Brain

Sometimes when you get the first idea for a poem with a line or so, such as “The squirrel in the attic of his brain / Shreds photographs and memories”, and the very nature of the idea leads to a long straggly exposition.

Image result for papers in a mess

Papers in the attic

If a squirrel is in his brain destroying his memories… and if he is an old house, of which his brain is the attic… then what other creatures might there be in the house? What other parts of the body might be represented by creatures? Can we get all the way from the hair to the toenails?

Here is how the rest of the squirrel poem worked out–it took a few months, the last image to make it into a sonnet coming while I was in the dentist’s chair having a root canal. You can guess which line that was.

THE SQUIRREL IN THE ATTIC OF HIS BRAIN

The squirrel in the attic of his brain
Shreds photographs, pulls memories apart;
The old dog in the basement of his heart
Howls, lonely, soft, monotonous as rain;
And somewhere further underneath, a snake
In hibernation stirs, irked by its skin.
Up where the world’s news and supplies come in
Through the five senses of his face, to make
The room in which a garrulous parrot squawks
And sometimes songbirds sing – it’s his belief
Mice gnaw behind the wainscots of his teeth.
The cat of consciousness, impassive, walks
Towards the door to go out for the night:
Is everything (oh dog, shut up!) all right?

The sonnet is useful for imposing order. Initial long thoughts get compressed into quatrains or couplets, long lines get compressed into pentameters. And then the search for a rhyme triggers an additional related thought or image, and it has to get squeezed in, which means unnecessary words get squeezed out. And hopefully you end up with something that feels both rich and compact.

The two most traditional forms of the sonnet are the Italian or Petrarchan, and the Shakespearean. The former lays out a position, argument or question in the first eight lines, the octave, rhyming ABBA ABBA; and then makes a turn or volta to provide a resolution in the last six lines, the sestet, rhyming CDE CDE. Shakespeare popularised a sonnet structure of three quatrains (ABAB CDCD EFEF) to lay out a position, with the volta coming for the final couplet, GG.

There is a lot to be said for following those formal sonnet structures, because their rhyme schemes support a clarity of exposition of thought. But people frequently allow themselves unconventional rhyme schemes in order to achieve the meaning they want in the poem. And from more varied rhyme schemes, you can easily move to more varied line lengths, or shifting metre, or a different number of lines–yet still call it a sonnet. Merrill Moore, an American psychiatrist and poet, used loose sonnet-like structures to write down his observations several times during the day. He wrote thousands of poems a year, which, though rarely meeting strict definitions of formal verse, all have a sonnet feel to them.

So you can feel comfortable with sonnets which adhere to the sonnet concept, but use a non-iambic metre, or maintain four feet to the line, or six feet, or use a different rhyme scheme, and so on. I think the metre should still be regular, and there should be solid rhyme, for the poem to be labeled a sonnet. The sonnet above doesn’t adhere strictly to either the Petrarchan or Shakespearean format, but uses a mixture of them. Although I like it, it fails to achieve their true elegance.

 

Using form for fun: “Old Sailors”

This poem was written purely for fun–and the use of form was essential.

Lantern Slide - Two Sailors Having a Cigarette

Two old tars

OLD SAILORS

Two tars talked of sealing and sailing; one said with a sigh
“Remember gulls wheeling and wailing, we wondering why,
“And noting bells pealing, sun paling — it vanished like pie!
“And then the boat heeling, sky hailing, the wind getting high,
“And that drunken Yank reeling to railing and retching his rye,
“John missing his Darjeeling jailing, and calling for chai?
“While we battened, all kneeling and nailing, the hurricane nigh,
“And me longing for Ealing, and ailing?” His mate said “Aye-aye;
“I could stand the odd stealing, food staling, not fit for a sty,
“And forget any feeling of failing, too vast to defy –
“Home-leaving your peeling-paint paling too far to espy –
“All because of the healing friend-hailing, the hello! and hi!
“And, with the gulls squealing, quick-scaling the mast to the sky.”

The poem started as an exploration of rhymes for both sealing and sailing, which seemed like interestingly paired words. Many of the rhymes (and the third one, “sigh”) fell easily into a nautical mood. The metre flowed on from “sealing and sailing”. Add in alliteration wherever possible, and look for a coherent story and resolution… and there is the poem.

It was originally published in George Simmers’ online poetry journal, Snakeskin–a highly eclectic journal–and it made for what one reader called a “good nautical rhythm”, and another comment was “finely composed wordy-whirlwind of images”. Both those strengths of the poem come from the use of form: the nautical rhythm from the choice of metre, the whirlwind of images from the requirement to compress everything into the rhyme scheme.

It isn’t a deep, meaningful poem; but form can be used purely for enjoyment.

Uses of Poetic Structure

One of the great things about writing formal poetry is that, if you approach it the right way, it can force you to reduce unnecessary words to meet the structural requirements, and simultaneously add more ideas to meet the rhyme scheme. Here is an example:

Jam Jar

In the night’s jam jar of my memory
My long-dead parents live as fireflies.
My thoughts of them worn by time’s emery,
Their faint light still suggests where my path lies.

(This from the Amsterdam Quarterly, which produces three themed issues a year, the current one being related to “Genealogy”.) The original expression of the image behind the first two lines was longer than the end result; tightening it up and finding “emery” as a rhyme for “memory” extended it again, but this time as a regular quatrain.

If you write an outline of a poem that comes out to 15-20 lines, in free verse but with a couple of rhymes showing up, consider condensing it into a sonnet. All the unnecessary words get squeezed out, and the search for additional rhymes will only make the thoughts richer.

Structure and rhyme can be used to compress, condense, and hopefully intensify the ideas and their expression. But, amusingly, it is also possible to search for rhyme by increasing words, rambling until the rhyme can be tracked down. Scotland’s 19th century William McGonagall comes to mind, his most famous work being “The Tay Bridge Disaster”.

Contemporary illustration of the search after the disaster

The Tay Bridge Disaster

It tells of the collapse of the railway bridge during a storm, while a passenger train was on it:

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.
(…)
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

The structural requirements of formal verse are only justified when they are at the service of the poem’s aesthetics (or esthetics, depending on your residence). Rhyme, metre/meter and so on should be thought-provoking or relaxing sources of enjoyment, beauty, humo(u)r, memorableness. There is no merit in rhyme that destroys those things.

Poetry Resources: The HyperTexts

One of the most fascinating – as well as ENORMOUS – repositories of poetry on the Internet is a vast, rambling, straggling site called The Hypertexts. The link here will take you to a listing of hundreds and hundreds of good poets, ancient and modern, well-known and obscure, formal and free, with and without expositions by the site’s creator, poet Michael R. Burch.

William Blake Ancient of Days

William Blake’s “The Ancient of Days”

Want to read William Blake? Or Ronald Reagan’s (surprisingly competent) verse? They’re both here.

Want to read poems on the Holocaust next to poems on the Nakba, the Palestinian Catastrophe? There’s a whole section on it.

Ancient Greek Epitaphs and Epigrams? Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings? Walt Whitman? Wit and Fluff? Everything you could hope for, with more being added all the time.

Truly one of the greatest resources in the world for lovers of poetry!

Our First Chapbook: “Tourists and Cannibals”

The first chapbook in the Potcake Chapbooks series–“Tourists and Cannibals – poems on travel”–is now out, and available through Sampson Low’s page. It features 11 well-known formal poets (“formal” in the sense of structured rhyme and metre/meter). Spellings wander between British and American, as the poets are writing from half a dozen countries. The variety of voices is part of the charm of the series, from the flippant to the wistful to the analytic, writing in a wide variety of forms.

01 Tourists and Cannibals cover

Alban Low’s drawings capture the right tone!

These chapbooks are made from a single large sheet of high quality bond paper printed both sides in colour, folded four times, cut and stapled. This gives a 16-page booklet, with enough space for a dozen poems and some illustrations by Alban Low. As you can see by the title and the front cover above, the chapbooks are lighthearted.

The poems can’t be too long in a format like this, and lightheartedness is well served by rhythm and rhyme. The chapbooks are designed to be the sort of enjoyable, witty, interruptable collection that serves well on a journey or as a little gift at the price of a fancy greeting card.

But of course their true, insidious intent is to help with the reinvigoration of traditional verse within popular culture. Will this work? We’ll just have to see.

 

Why “formal” verse?

This blog is dedicated to the proposition that not all poetry is equal – indeed, that not all of it is even poetry. “Poetry” went off the rails in the 20th century for a variety of reasons – accidentally? suicidally? – but it is slowly getting back on track.

Chatterton

“The Death of Chatterton” – the poet died at 17 (it is uncertain whether he committed suicide or took an accidental overdose, trying to cure himself of venereal disease).

“Poetry – the best words in their best order,” said Coleridge. Aristotle says “rhythm, language and harmony,” and that it is the use of harmony that distinguishes poetry from the other language-based forms. “Harmony” again from Thomas Campion, talking of poetry as the “ioyning of words to harmony”. Ezra Pound rewrites Aristotle’s definition as “Poetry is a composition of words set to music”.

This requirement for “rhythm”, “harmony”, “music” is what has been missing from most of what people styled “poetry” through the last 50 years. But it never goes away from popular culture, because it lives in musicals, rock, c&w, rap, the chants of street protests, and the nursery rhymes and lullabyes sung to babies. It never goes away from popular culture, because it is deeply ingrained in all of us, beginning with the heartbeat that surrounds us before we are born.

And rhyme, rhythm, alliteration and other tricks of formal poetry are not just some meaningless style: they are the hooks on which we hang our memory of the exact words. Ask anyone to recite a poem, and it will be a song, a nursery rhyme, or something else with strong formal elements to it. If you want something to be memorable – not in the sense of remembering the experience, but of remembering a text word for word – if it is anything more than a dozen words, it is far, far more easily remembered if it has rhythm and rhyme.

This blog argues that formal elements are essential to poetry. “Free verse” may be insightful, emotional, witty, descriptive (or, often, none of those), but it isn’t poetry. It’s prose.