Tag Archives: formal verse

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Gail White, ‘Julian of Norwich in Seclusion’

Because an anchoress could have a cat,
We may assume she had one. That it sat
Beside her while the pilgrims came and went,
Giving, like her, a lesson in content.
That it was quiet when her visions came
And when they passed it slumbered just the same,
But any mice who trespassed in the cell
Were given reason to believe in hell.
That with a feline love of body heat
It nestled in her lap or on her feet.
That it died peacefully, grown old and fat.
Love was my meaning, purred St. Julian’s cat.

Gail White writes: “The Ancrene Wisse or Ancrene Riwle (Rule for Anchoresses), written in Middle English in the 13th century, states that an anchoress might have a cat, although other animals were forbidden. I have therefore taken the liberty of sketching the life of a cat belonging to Julian of Norwich. Her book, A Revelation of Divine Love in Sixteen Showings, ends by asking if the reader wishes to know God’s meaning in her visions, and replies ‘Love was His meaning’. I have transferred this sentiment to her cat.”

Gail White is the resident poet and cat lady of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. Her books ASPERITY STREET and CATECHISM are available on Amazon. She is a contributing editor to Light Poetry Magazine. ‘Tourist in India’ won the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award for 2013.

Her poems appear in several of the Potcake Chapbooks:
Tourists and Cannibals
Rogues and Roses
Families and Other Fiascoes
“Strip down,” she ordered
… all available at https://sampsonlow.co/potcake-chapbooks/ for the price of a coffee.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: John Beaton, ‘Shadow-casting’

Cast your line toward the sun
and let your shadow fall behind you.
Face the glare, absorb its stun,
and cast your line toward the sun
for casting shade makes wild things run;
so face the brightness though it blind you—
cast your line toward the sun
and let your darkness fall behind you.

John Beaton writes: “It’s often said that fly-fishing is about more than fish—that it has mystical, or at least meditative, aspects. I feel that way. This little poem illustrates how my fly-fishing thoughts one day wandered from the river-bank to philosophy.

The title echoes a term from the book and subsequent movie, A River Runs Through It. Away from the river Brad Pitt may have become a hellion but, on the water, he’s a magician. Supposedly, by casting repeatedly in the air he can make the trout think a hatch of flies is taking place. It’s a dubious concept, but the term suits the way light and fly-casting in the poem take on metaphorical significance.

The poem has been previously published in Gray’s Sporting Journal. Its form, which comes from medieval French poetry, is the “triolet”. The triolet has only eight lines and some repeat. The first, fourth and seventh lines are almost identical, as are the second and eighth. The rhyme pattern is ABaAabAB, with capital letters denoting repeats. My version has four-beat lines (“tetrameter”) and the beats in the first line are: CAST your LINE toWARD the SUN.”

John Beaton’s metrical poetry has been widely published and has won numerous awards. He recites from memory as a poetry performer. This poem appears in his book “Leaving Camustianavaig” published by Word Galaxy Press. Raised in the Scottish Highlands, John lives in Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island.

https://www.john-beaton.com/

Photo: ‘Deschutes shadow-casting’ from John Beaton

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Max Gutmann, ‘Old Growth’

So rooted
seem couples to a child! Firm-trunked and tall.
Some scrawny: sparsely leaved or badly fruited,
but fixed and solid, works of nature all.
It challenges imagination
that choice was part of the creation.

That they,
these halves, weren’t mingled always, childhood fails
to comprehend. The stories of the way
one’s parents met are magic, fairy tales.
To know the seed becomes the tree
does not dispel the mystery.

Divorce,
unless it strikes our parents, flashes where
it cannot burst our faith. A sudden force
that leaves the broken trunks deformed but there,
disaster-stricken, strangely ill,
but giving partial shelter still.

We feel
this all collapse as childhood’s shed. The trees
we thought so firm and fixed were never real.
To navigate by them can only tease.
Whatever fantasies persist,
unmoving couples don’t exist.

To find
one’s half and gather height and leaves are less
like acts of nature than like hiking blind.
Soil shifts and landmarks vanish. We must guess,
our one-time orchard morphing to
a wood no map can guide us through.

Max Gutmann writes: “It took me a long time to make a poem I liked of this thought/experience. The form supports emphasis where it’s helpful, and that it varies from the iambic pentameter some readers expect mirrors the sense. I rarely feel my verse quotable, but I feel that about ‘To know the seed becomes the tree/does not dispel the mystery’.”

Max Gutmann has worked as, among other things, a stage manager, a journalist, a teacher, an editor, a clerk, a factory worker, a community service officer, the business manager of an improv troupe, and a performer in a Daffy Duck costume. Occasionally, he has even earned money writing plays and poems.

‘Old Growth’ was first published in Able Muse. Some of his ‘Travels with Alice’ limericks appear in the Potcake Chapbook ‘Travels and Travails‘. You can find more of his work at maxgutmann.com

Various updates

I am shifting the focus of this blog to give more coverage to the wide range of formal poets currently writing (especially those who have contributed to the Potcake Chapbooks) and to songwriters who, at their best, are superb poets with tricks up their sleeves not accessible to regular versifiers.

The Potcake Chapbooks continue to be produced on an occasional basis: the tenth in the series, ‘Travels and Travails’, came out recently and the 11th, ‘Lost Love’, has been assembled to be illustrated by Alban Low. Future titles may (or may not) include chapbooks on cities, on teachers, on the seasons, on pets… it all depends on my finding or being sent enough strong and diverse poems on an interesting theme.

I had hoped to have a Christmas-season-themed chapbook out this year, but I am having difficulty finding the diversity I want. Not only diversity of style, but also of content: I would like to acknowledge not just Christmas and Christmas trees and Christmas parties, but also Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Festivus… everything around the solstice that has given birth to celebrations of the change in the year. (And with some recognition that this looks very different in the southern hemisphere.) Perhaps I will find enough to pull this chapbook together for the end of 2022.

In the meantime I welcome submissions of formal poems on any theme to robinhelweglarsen@gmail.com, but I prefer poems previously published: I don’t have an “accept or reject” procedure, I simply hang onto poems I like until, one of these years, I may have a use for some of them. So, as I don’t want anyone getting antsy about a poem not being available for use elsewhere, the Potcake Chapbooks should not normally be your first place publishing any given poem.

“Temple of British Worthies” by foshie is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Marcus Bales, ‘Shore’

They grind across the continental shelf,
enormous in their long, well-muscled swells;
I know their sweaty smells of staling spray
and fishy sand; and oh, all by myself
I’ve heard the tide tell what it always tells:
some things wash up and others wash away.

They rise out there a long way from the beach,
and curl and pitch up face down on the sands
from roaming just too far to make it home,
and try to hold with fingers scrabbling, reach
for us, and fail and, failing, trail their hands
under water backwards in the foam.

Finally, though, the greyest weather clears:
small lapping waves replace exploding spume,
and one deep-breathing moment seems sublime;
sweet breezes sway embroidered window sheers
while pleasant sunlight fills the hospice room,
now empty, clean, and ready for the next time.

Marcus Bales writes: ‘The problem with me choosing or talking about one of my poems is that the impetus behind most of them is the same: a phrase or circumstance became a donnee because it resonated in some instant way, and I used it — and sometimes the actual donnee doesn’t survive the process of writing — to write something. It’s the resonance that interests me to turn the phrase over and look at it, clean it up, smear it with something, make it start, make it finish, bury it in the middle, whatever. The question that strikes me about a phrase with resonance is why does it resonate? The poem is the answer. In my view poetry is what a poet does to make a reader feel that resonance by putting it in a context that moves the reader to a feeling. I reject the notion that poetry is the poet expressing their feelings — at least, I don’t say poets cannot express their feelings, but that that expression must be in the service of making the reader feel the reader’s feelings in a directed way. Poetry is a method to make the reader resonate emotionally in response to the words.. If the best you can do is blurt out your pain or joy or whatever, then you’re doing it wrong. Yes, wrong. Write it in your diary, because poetry has never been about the poet. It’s always been about how the poet can make the reader feel in a directed way by using words, not a therapy-substitute for the poet. If you need therapy, get it, but don’t scatter the resulting words across ragged-margined pages and call it poetry.’

Not much is known about Marcus Bales except that he lives and works in Cleveland, Ohio, and that his work has not been published in Poetry or The New Yorker. However his “51 Poems” is available from Amazon.

Marcus Bales has appeared in several of the Potcake Chapbooks:

Tourists and Cannibals
Rogues and Roses
Careers and other Catastrophes
“Strip down,” she ordered
Wordplayful
Murder!
Houses and Homes Forever
Robots and Rockets

all available at https://sampsonlow.co/potcake-chapbooks/ for the price of a coffee.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Amit Majmudar, ‘Eyespots’

Caterpillars build their bunkers out
of terror. Transformation hunts them, haunts them
as oak leaf peepholes open underfoot
to bare the air, the emptiness that wants them.
I have a measure of infinity
inside me. A is no and mit is measure
in an ancestral tongue that haunts me, hunts me.
I’m half in love with what I have to be.
The other half is looking for a razor
to make of me the Amit who was once me,

my yogi’s beard a clump of Spanish moss
limp at my feet, a piece of furry roadkill.
I’m no ascetic. Half in love with loss,
I’ll seek out beauty, or at least my ode will,
night-blooming jasmines dooming my samadhi,
scenting, resenting my hermetic dark
because they know a yogi, breathing in
his first girlfriend’s perfume, unarchives her body,
and drives her, after dusk, to the vanished park
where memory of sin cocoons the sin.

Caterpillars ravel bunkers into
bodybags—no way for them to know
the moment that they poke themselves a window,
the rebirth they were hiding from will show:
Two stained-glass windows mounted on my back,
two earshaped eyespot petals I can flex
and fold, a flailing that transforms to flight
while all the darkling jasmines that I lack,
past loves that called me onward to the next,
unpetal in the bodybag of night.

In love, or half in love, with mere aesthetics,
I’ve daydreamed Himalayan caves, a hive
that hums with “Aum” from ninety-nine ascetics,
their senses hibernating, half alive.
No one has ever scaled Kailash, the peak
where Shiva sits in bud, in shut-flytrap samadhi
with ashes smeared across his chest and arms.
But that’s just not the changelessness I seek.
I want my language, shapely as a body,
to weave and rive cocoons, enchantments, forms

with giant wings inside their ashgray berries.
I want my transience to live in speech,
if only as a resonance that carries,
like jasmine scent, beyond my voice’s reach.
I tell myself: Old soul, don’t be afraid
of changing. You are old enough to know,
whenever something changes, something dies,
but the dark you flowered in won’t let you fade.
A crack in this cocoon admits a glow.
The blue moon butterfly will wear your eyes.

Amit Majmudar writes: “This poem, ‘Eyespots’, is what I think of as a Keatsian ode, borrowing its stanzaic form and (I hope) something of its musicality. Yet the poem incorporates Hindu religious imagery throughout and sings of self-transformation in a way that isn’t to be found in Keats. This hybridization of Eastern and Western traditions in the poem feels idiosyncratic. There remain elements still opaque to me about it; so I never really delved into the metaphysical significance of the title’s false eyes, these seeming sense organs that are not actually sensing anything, but, given the focus on ascetic imagery, there seems to be something in that. Maybe in another essay? Or another poem….

I feel as though there are poems I have written that someone else could conceivably have written. But not this one; even ignoring that my name hides caterpillar-like inside the cocoon of the poem, I feel that the range of influences and ideas is simply too idiosyncratically “me” for this to have come from any other poet’s hand. Will everyone like it? Probably not, for precisely that reason. But I know that no one else could have produced this sequence of words, so I confess a certain fondness for it. It’s the one of my literary children who most resembles me. And it’s as good a way as any to get to know me as a writer.”

Amit Majmudar is a diagnostic nuclear radiologist who lives in Westerville, Ohio, with his wife and three children. The former first Poet Laureate of Ohio, he is the author of the poetry collections What He Did in Solitary and Dothead among other novels and poetry collections. Awarded the Donald Justice Prize and the Pushcart Prize, Majmudar’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Best of the Best American Poetry, and the eleventh edition of The Norton Introduction to Literature. Two novels are forthcoming in India in 2022: an historical novel about the 1947 Partition entitled The Map and the Scissors, and a novel for young readers, Heroes the Color of Dust. Visit www.amitmajmudar.com for more details.

‘Eyespots’ was first published in Measure Review.

Sonnet: ‘The Fall of Rome’

Jesus, a preacher with fake miracles,
his “Sea” of Galilee just eight miles wide–
rebelling against Rome and crucified–
his failure clear (though words were lyrical)…
you’d think “Messiah” was satirical!
But epileptic Paul a chance descried
to shut out other gods and thoughts worldwide,
thus sealing up Rome’s vital spiracles.
So, building on apocalyptic fears,
the Jewish Jesus ends where Paul begins.
Scientists, artists, poets, engineers,
are suffocated as the new faith wins.
All progress is set back a thousand years.
The Roman Empire died for Jesus’ sins.

Belief is strange. Take Covid vaccination: two thirds of us believe it’s an effective way to save lives, one third of us believe it’s a dangerous and unscrupulous way to make money and control people. Virtually no one has actually done any research and analysis of the issue, we just listen to our preferred sources of information and the community we’re a part of.

Or take religion: for the most part, children raised in Christian families remain Christian believers all their lives, Muslims remain Muslim, Buddhists remain Buddhist, and so on. Which makes it all the more impressive when someone can radically change the belief structure that surrounds them. Kudos then to the epileptic Paul of Tarsus, who created a Jewish-Mithraist-polytheist mishmash that has lasted almost 2,000 years. Pity about the Roman Empire, though.

This happily Petrarchan sonnet (iambic pentameter, and rhyming ABBAABBA CDCDCD) was originally published in Rat’s Ass Review, where respectfulness and respectability are not required. Thanks, Roderick Bates!

“Darkness Falls in Rome” by Storm Crypt is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Review: ‘That Shakespeherian Rag’ by Edmund Conti

The problem of being
a 17-year
locust
is trying to stay
for 16 years
focused.

That poem is ‘Short Attention Span’ from Edmund Conti’s latest collection of verse. Originally the title was to be ‘O O O O’ in reference to T.S. Eliot’s lines from The Waste Land where the poet is being criticised by his wife:

“Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?”
But
O O O O that Shakespeherian rag—
It’s so elegant
So intelligent

It seems that the publishers sensibly preferred a title that would be more comprehensible, without the confusions of O and 0. So the next part of the quote was chosen–still idiosyncratic, but more useful. And, yes, Conti seems to have poetry singing rhythms in his head all the time, and he produces beautiful jazz-like drawings as in the book’s cover.

Both titles for the collection are pure Conti–he has a playful, Zen-like approach to life, highly literate, constantly referencing other writers (and other writers referencing other writers), expecting a level of knowledge and engagement from the reader, and often reducing his expositions to the shortest possible. So this latest volume is full of memories and meditations, jokes and puns, and threaded through with the words of others. Conti divides the book into 11 Shakespearean sections, starting with memories of childhood and youth, and then weaving through reading and writing, books and poetry, his neighbors and family (and their views of his verse), into a closer and closer look at mortality: the last four pieces having respectively four lines, two lines, one line, and nothing.

Conti writes both formal and free verse, depending what kind of playfulness he’s up to. When he parodies Emily Dickinson, of course it’s in her standard ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’ meter and rhymes ABAB. But he’s a lot more free when he just wants some snide commens and a punchline. Here’s ‘Losing Battle’:

In a final desperate attempt
at survival, the sun sets
fire to the western sky.
Overblown, say my poet friends.
Cute, say my non-poet friends.
What does it mean? asks my neighbor.
How much will you get paid for it?
That’s from my wife.

My father’s an astronaut,
my son lies.

Engaging, amusing, thought-provoking, with many short passages that stay in the memory. A fun book for all poets. Just published this month by Kelsay Books.

Review: ‘Ruth Pitter, Selected Poems’

An excellent selection of some of the better-known and some of the previously uncollected poems of one of the 20th century’s least known but most accomplished poets. Ruth Pitter‘s first book of poems was published with the help of Hilaire Belloc in 1920; her work was admired and praised by Yeats, Larkin, Skelton and Gunn; she was the first woman to win the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1955, and was awarded a CBE in 1979. She died in 1992.

My personal favourite in this large chapbook from HappenStance is “Smoky Kettle, Stinging Nettle”, for its magical incantation of life and afterlife, of love and loss, of the countryside and all things human:

Smoky kettle,
Stinging nettle,
Lily my darling,
Toad and starling,
Fox in wood,
Solitude,
O be there, be there again,
When my end I shall attain,
When the knot is all unravelled,
And the tangled path is travelled.

But the poem is not typical of her work, and was not previously collected in a book. More commonly her style is like the beginning of ‘Spectrum’:

A little window, eastward, low, obscure,
A flask of water on the vestry press,
A ray of sunshine through a fretted door,
And myself kneeling in live quietness:

Heaven’s brightness was then gathered in the glass,

Her usual style is quiet, understated, with simple metre and rhyme scheme. Often there is a religious element–she was a friend of, and was influenced by, C.S. Lewis–and even an element of Anglican hymns. But none of that was enough to stop the militantly atheist Philip Larkin from including four of her poems in The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse. And I found enough of interest in this 44-page chapbook to warrant ordering a copy of her ‘Collected Poems’, to explore further.

Short Poem: ‘Cultural Field Trip’

Properly stroppily,
Off to Thermopylae
Busloads of schoolchildren
Grudgingly go;
Hoovered, manoeuvred
Off into the Louvre’d
Be better for profs who are
Trudgingly slow.

No, I agree, that’s not a true Double Dactyl because it doesn’t have a single-word double dactyl line. It’s just one of those poems I’ve written for no other purpose than to play with rhymes. The poem was published in this month’s Snakeskin, editor George Simmers privately commenting: “As an ex-teacher I empathise with the trudging profs.”

“Mona Lisa Madness” by Joe Parks is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0