Tag Archives: formal verse

Max Gutmann, ‘A Letter Home’

One flat fall evening, as an undergrad,
I left the library to mail a letter
and at the mailbox had
a stirring–-I don’t know what else to call it,
but I felt certain, drifting back
on brittle leaves, surrounded by the gray,
this was my life–-a feeling new,
whole, deeply and vibratingly unstrange.

Back at the carrel, where my books still lay,
I sat some time immersed there in that moment:
me, having walked away
from books for some slight, distant human contact,
returning through the coming winter
to my small space. It struck me as both sad
and right; young as I was, I knew
it wasn’t something I would ever change.

*****

Max Gutmann writes: “Though it takes the perspective of an older man looking back, ‘A Letter Home‘ was written shortly after the experience it shares, years before I wrote any other verse (aside from some limericks); the drive to record the experience as a poem had nothing to do with habit. I couldn’t have anticipated that the “distant human contact” in my life would come to include a community of writers with whom I’ve only ever exchanged words on a screen (a community you do a lot to nourish, Robin. Thank you.)”

A Letter Home‘ was first published in the Pulsebeat Poetry Journal.

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.

Photo: “McAllen mailbox” by Drpoulette is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Using form: Refrain; Nina Parmenter, ‘Sense’

I am a bag of chemicals
with charge for eighty years,
I am a gassy mirage
that winks as oblivion nears.
Around me swill the stars,
my thoughts, the gods and insanity,
and nothing makes sense but this leaf
as it dances, drunk on gravity.

I am a pointless voice track
on a puff piece of DNA,
I am the ooze that awoke
and decided to live anyway.
Around me swings the void,
nirvana and calamity,
and nothing makes sense but the sea
as it dances, drunk on gravity.

*****

Nina Parmenter writes: “In 2021, in my strenuous efforts not to write pandemic poems, I probably wrote a lot of pandemic poems. This one, about focusing on tiny moments in nature to avoid thinking about the big scary things is a great example! I made it a foreword to my collection ‘Split, Twist, Apocalypse‘ because its slightly jolly air of existential dread sets the tone for the book nicely, I think.”

Editor’s comment: As with popular songs as well as verse forms such as the ballade, villanelle, triolet and rondeau, the use of a refrain (whether exact or varied) strengthens the poem by bringing the conclusion of each stanza back to a core image or message.

Nina Parmenter has no time to write poetry, but does it anyway. Her work has appeared in Lighten Up Online, Snakeskin, Light, The New Verse News, Ink, Sweat & Tears, and the Potcake Chapbook ‘Houses and Homes Forever’. Her home, work and family are in Wiltshire.
https://ninaparmenter.com/

Time Lapse of Stars During Earth’s Rotation” by Image Catalog is marked with CC0 1.0.

Pino Coluccio, ‘Class Clown’

They’d all be like, never say never
in classes we had, but whatever.
I turned to the windows and hallways
that always said always say always.

*****

Editor’s comments: From Pino Coluccio you should expect light and dark combined, light but deep, usually short, always well-phrased… and always existential. This, the eponymous piece of his 2017 collection, is tucked away in the middle of the book. The book won a Trillium Award, putting Coluccio in the company of Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje and Alice Munro. He has given me permission to republish more of his pieces from Class Clown periodically.

Pino Coluccio lives in Toronto.

Using form: Roundel: Susan McLean, ‘No Thanks’

No one wants to be the damsel in
distress, the one in need of chivalry,
chained to a rock in nothing but her skin.
No!  One wants to be

the one who skirts the trap and steals the key,
testing the rope bridge with a shaky grin.
Whoever longs for victims he can free

is not a hero, but the villain’s twin.
So save yourself.  Don’t go expecting me
to play the clingy wimp, the might-have-been
no one wants to be.

*****

Susan McLean writes: “This poem got its start when I heard that Kirsten Dunst said, about playing Mary Jane in Spider-Man (2002), “I just don’t want to be the damsel in distress. I’ll scream on the balcony, but you’ve got to let me do a little action here.” It struck a chord with me. I was so tired of watching action movies in which the male hero does all of the derring-do and the female lead exists only to be saved, over and over again. Men still write, direct, and produce most films, so I guess it is not surprising that most movies reflect male fantasies. But women have fantasies, too, and screaming while I wait to be saved is not one of mine.
“The poem is a roundel, a poetic form invented by Algernon Swinburne. As in a rondeau, the poem has only two rhymes, and the first part of the first line appears twice more. Part of the fun of writing it lies in finding ways to vary the repeating line, and part lies in the challenge of finding five rhyme words for each rhyme. English averages fewer rhymes per word than French, the language in which the rondeau originally appeared. Swinburne chose to make the roundel shorter than the rondeau (which is fifteen lines long) in order to make it easier to write in English.
” ‘No Thanks‘ originally appeared in Mezzo Cammin, an online journal that features female formalist poets. It was also included in my second poetry book, The Whetstone Misses the Knife.”

Susan McLean has two books of poetry, The Best Disguise and The Whetstone Misses the Knife, and one book of translations of Martial, Selected Epigrams. Her poems have appeared in Light, Lighten Up Online, Measure, Able Muse, and elsewhere. She lives in Iowa City, Iowa.
https://www.pw.org/content/susan_mclean

Painting: ‘Andromeda Chained to the Rocks‘ by Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, ca. 1630

J.D. Smith, ‘Seven Ages of Man’

I puked and cried–that’s what Mom said.

School sucks. Why can’t I stay in bed?

I want that girl. What is her name?

I’ll kick some ass and stake my claim.

I’m fat. So what? I’ve won the game.

I limp these days, and feel the gout.

Say, now, what was all that about?

*****

J.D. Smith writes: “I hesitate to say very much about this poem, as it plays so blatantly off of Shakespeare, but a short explanation seems in order. The third-person eloquence and loftiness of the original stands in contrast to how we experience the stages of life, and it occurred to me to bring the discussion down to earth with a series of plain first-person statements.”

J.D. Smith has published six books of poetry, most recently the light verse collection Catalogs for Food Loversand he has received a Fellowship in Poetry from the United States National Endowment for the Arts. This poem is from The Killing Tree (Finishing Line Press, 2016).Smith’s first fiction collection, Transit, will be published in December 2022. His other books include the essay collection Dowsing and Science. Smith works in Washington, DC, where he lives with his wife Paula Van Lare and their rescue animals. Twitter: @Smitroverse

Photo: “File:Baynard House Seven Ages of Man.jpg” by Photo: Andreas Praefcke is licensed under CC BY 3.0.

Ekphrastic poem: Jenna Le, ‘Patti Smith, 1976’

This photo, black-and-white, where Mapplethorpe
portrays his dark-mopped ex in profile, seated
nude on wooden floorboards, knees drawn up
against her breasts to hide her nipples, heated
by the sideways radiator pipes
on which she rests her palms, her bulging ribs
a set of parallel oblique gray stripes
rippling her bare white skin, unsmiling lips
a short flat line–
these were my first parameters,
my inspirations, when I learned to write.
On Patti’s ribs, the wooden flooring’s planks,
the stacked pale pipes, I modeled my pentameters.
The aim: amid such sharp lines, to be frank
and raw, yet still control what sees the light.

*****

Jenna Le writes: “I first became intrigued by the friendship and creative partnership of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe some years ago. I confess the personas of these two artists and the touted relationship between them interests me even more than either artists’ actual creative output. Based on what I have read in biographies and so forth, their friendship seems to me to represent an ideal: a dyadic connection characterized by remarkable intensity, an intimacy transcending sex and conventional relationship definitions, facilitating both parties’ creative flourishing. As one gets older and it becomes ever harder to form new meaningful adult friendships, such bonds seem to me ever more mythic and miraculous. I think this awe, this wistfulness, is the principal emotion that makes me keep returning to the photograph this ekphrastic poem is about.”

Jenna Le (jennalewriting.com) is the author of three full-length poetry collections, Six Rivers (NYQ Books, 2011), A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora (Indolent Books, 2017), and Manatee Lagoon (Acre Books, 2022). She won Poetry By The Sea’s inaugural sonnet competition. Her poems appear in AGNI, Pleiades, Verse Daily, West Branch, and elsewhere. She works as a physician in New York City.

Photo: Robert Mapplethorpe’s sole full nude portrait of Patti Smith, taken at his Bond Street Studio, 1978 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Courtesy Sean Kelly Gallery

Using form: sonnet variation: Amit Majmudar, ‘A Pedestrian’

He window shops. He yawns. He checks his watch.
He sips his Starbucks through a spillproof lid.
No one knows who he is or what he did
except a black van loitering down the block.
He buys a pack of gum. Briefly he stops
to crouch and read the headlines of the Times
before continuing up 12th and Vine.
His neck prickles. He slows. The coffee drops

and before it has landed he’s off like a hound at the races
he is hurdling strollers and ducking a chilidog raised
to the mouth checkered taxis grow fists as he cuts
into oncoming traffic our cellular phones snap shut
in amazement look billowing trenchcoats give chase
fleshcolored earpieces dangling a flush to their faces

*****

Amit Majmudar writes: “The actor Alfred Molina recorded ‘A Pedestrian‘ for the Poetry Foundation many years ago: https://www.wnyc.org/story/52133-poetry-off-the-shelf-amit-majmudar/ . It’s an excellent rendition. I remember feeling, when I heard that recording back in 2006 (at the tender age of 27), that I had finally “arrived” as a poet—after all, the guy from the opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark had spoken my words! I don’t often write sonnets, but ‘A Pedestrian‘, with its metrical shift from walking to running at the volta (dovetailing with the idea of metrical “feet”), was a fun poem to write.”

Amit Majmudar is a poet, novelist, essayist, translator, and the former first Poet Laureate of Ohio. He works as a diagnostic and nuclear radiologist and lives in Westerville, Ohio, with his wife and three children. 
      Majmudar’s poetry collections include 0’, 0’ (Northwestern, 2009), shortlisted for the Norma Faber First Book Award, and Heaven and Earth (2011, Storyline Press), which won the Donald Justice Prize, selected by A. E. Stallings. These volumes were followed by Dothead (Knopf, 2016) and What He Did in Solitary (Knopf, 2020). His poems have won the Pushcart Prize and have appeared in the Norton Introduction to Literature, The New Yorker, and numerous Best American Poetry anthologies as well as journals and magazines across the United States, UK, India, and Australia. Majmudar also edited, at Knopf’s invitation, a political poetry anthology entitled Resistance, Rebellion, Life: 50 Poems Now. 
      Majmudar’s essays have appeared in The Best American Essays 2018, the New York Times, and the Times of India, among several other publications. His forthcoming collection of essays, focusing on Indian religious philosophy, history, and mythology, is Black Avatar and Other Essays (Acre Books, 2023). Twin A: A Life (Slant Books, 2023) is the title of a forthcoming memoir, in prose and verse, about his son’s struggle with congenital heart disease. 
      Majmudar’s work as a novelist includes two works of historical fiction centered around the 1947 Partition of India, Partitions (Holt/Metropolitan, 2011) and The Map and the Scissors (HarperCollins India, 2022). His first children’s book also focuses on Indian history and is entitled Heroes the Colour of Dust (Puffin India, 2022). Majmudar has also penned a tragicomic, magical realist fable of Indian soldiers during World War I, Soar (Penguin India, 2020). The Abundance (Holt/Metropolitan, 2013), by contrast, is a work of contemporary realism exploring Indian-American life. Majmudar’s long-form fiction has garnered rave reviews from NPR’s All Things Considered, the Wall Street Journal, Good Housekeeping, and The Economist, as well as starred reviews from Kirkus and Booklist; his short fiction won a 2017 O. Henry Prize.   
      Majmudar’s work in Hindu mythology includes a polyphonic Ramayana retelling, Sitayana (Penguin India, 2019), and The Mahabharata Trilogy (Penguin India, 2023). His work as a translator includes Godsong: A Verse Translation of the Bhagavad-Gita, with Commentary (Knopf, 2018).

Photo: “a hot drink” by [ embr ] is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Using form: Couplets: Maryann Corbett, ‘Fugue in October’

Baroque chamber ensemble and homeless encampment, Saint Paul

Perfect: the singers, strings, and keyboards. Perfect
Bruised sky above the tents of the squatters’ district
the little jewel-box church, its bright acoustic
calm in the year’s last mildness, the only music
softened a little in the candles’ lighting,
the mumbling underpass. The wind. No fighting
for this is God’s mind, woven of harmonies
for once. Tonight, for once, no one ODs—
and our souls thread through the flame of the vigil lamp
someone got lucky at the entrance ramp
as we hold, hold to Monteverdi’s line
(panhandling, on this warm day, with a sign)
and stop our breath until the last string dies
and parcels out his manna of salty fries
in the last great chord of his Beatus vir
while sirens wail some sorrow, far from here.

*****

Editor’s comments: “In case it isn’t clear from whatever device you are reading this on, each couplet here is comprised of a line about a musical ensemble in a church followed by a line about a homeless encampment under a highway. You can read it straight through as a soft-voiced line followed by a harsher one; or you can read every other line in one voice and the remaining lines in a different voice; either way, you are blending two very different aspects of city life into a larger, richer picture of community sharing, whether in glamour or squalor. This is an unusual and remarkably effective use of rhymed couplets of iambic pentameter.
The contrast built into the poem, and the skill with which it was done, made it a natural poem for inclusion in the ‘City! Oh City!‘ Potcake chapbook. It first appeared in Measure Review; and is included in the collection In Code.

Maryann Corbett writes: “Events that trigger a poem need not be as simultaneous as the poem makes them seem. The choral concert in this poem took place on a subzero night during the Christmas season; the rise of homeless encampments occurred at a warmer time of year–but both could be happening in my city at any time, and they probably still are.”

Maryann Corbett earned a doctorate in English from the University of Minnesota in 1981 and expected to be teaching Beowulf and Chaucer and the history of the English language. Instead, she spent almost thirty-five years working for the Office of the Revisor of Statutes of the Minnesota Legislature, helping attorneys to write in plain English and coordinating the creating of finding aids for the law. She returned to writing poetry after thirty years away from the craft in 2005 and is now the author of two chapbooks, five full-length collections already published, and a forthcoming book. Her fifth book, In Code, contains the poems about her years with the Revisor’s Office. Her work has won the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize, has appeared in many journals on both sides of the Atlantic, and is included in anthologies like Measure for Measure: An Anthology of Poetic Meters and The Best American Poetry 2018.

Her web page: http://maryanncorbett.com

Photo: “sleeping on the rock of ages” by waferboard is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Using form: alliterative verse: A.M. Juster, ‘Three Visitors’

Mist on moonspill as midnight nears.
Adrift but not dreaming our drowsy son
is covered and kissed. At the kitchen door
our old basset is barking; coyotes out back
are standing like statues down by the dogwoods.
Across the crystal of crusted snow,
they search for stragglers to startle and chase.
Their vigil reveals no victims this night.

Trash would be trouble; they trot away
unbothered by bloodthroated growling and baying.
No star distracts their stealthy march.
As the highway hums they howl through the calm,
then savor new scents that spice their path
in this world awash in wonder and wrath.

*****

Editor’s comments: “Alliterative verse is a form found across the old Germanic language family including Old English, Middle English, Old Norse, Old High German and Old Saxon. It relies on a chant-like use of stressed syllables and does not count all syllables in the way that Romance poetry tends to; and it relies on alliteration rather than rhyme as its key memory-aid for recitation. Although there are many regional variations in the structure, most include these key points:
each line is divided into two halves by a heavy caesura;
each half has two heavily stressed syllables (“lifts”) as well as some unstressed ones (“dips”);
the two lifts of the first half alliterate with the first lift of the second half, but not with the second.
There is a good article on alliterative verse in Wikipedia which goes into more detail and also quotes or references a range of modern poets who have experimented with the form: Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Auden, Richard Wilbur, Ezra Pound, Heaney… and Alaric Watts for his alliterative abecedarian ‘Siege of Belgrade‘. Alliterative verse can work smoothly and powerfully in English.”

A.M. Juster writes: “After translating the anonymous long Old English poem ‘The Phoenix‘ for a stalled book, I became interested in the possibilities for original alliterative verse—this poem is the first of those poems. A reader should also be able to detect the ghost of a sonnet in it due to the length of the stanzas, the turn, and the closing rhymed couplet.
“The poem started in my mind with the real invasion of coyotes in our suburban Boston neighborhood, but as I struggled with the poem it seemed to be situated in a beautiful place I have never seen—a fusion of our house and the house my bride’s parents used to have in Vermont (where I set an experimental sonnet in my first book).
“Although I think the religious undercurrents are fairly subtle, Micah Mattix & Sally Thomas did include the poem in their recent Paraclete Press anthology of Christian Poetry in America since 1940.”

A.M. Juster’s poems and translations have appeared in Poetry, The Paris Review, The Hudson Review and other journals. His tenth book is Wonder and Wrath (Paul Dry Books 2020) and his next book will be a translation of Petrarch’s Canzoniere, which W.W. Norton will release in early 2024. He also overtweets about formal poetry @amjuster.

Photo: “LZGC coyote” by animaltourism.com is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Ed Shacklee, ‘I Think Continually Of Men Dressed As Catherine The Great’

I think continually of men dressed as Catherine the Great,
Betty Boop or Greta Garbo, queens of film and state
who hitched their wagons to a star and switched the sex of Fate.

I think of fervid men in furs, the Humphries and the Dannies,
those lads who walked the walk in highest heels and padded fannies
and promenaded on the stage with debutantes and grannies –

the young, the old, the gayly bold who sashayed with panache
through droll burlesque or discotheques and made a spangled splash
in rainbow-hued ensembles that, while loud, would never clash.

They shaved and plucked, then nipped and tucked, ignoring boring foes
whose morals lagged while knuckles dragged around their unclipped toes.
These Joans – both Crawford and of Arc – and Marilyn Monroes

were kicked for kicks and picked upon, but got back up again;
and whether they were women inside men, or simply men
who liked to paint their nails and put on lipstick now and then,

I think continually of those whose vampy, cutting wit
and campy fame enflamed, then tamed, the bigot and the twit,
who were hammered till they stammered by their glamour and their grit
until a world a size too small became the perfect fit.

*****

This poem by Ed Shacklee, with its reference to Stephen Spender’s ‘I think continually of those who were truly great‘, was published in the current issue of Lighten Up Online.

Ed Shacklee lives on a boat in the Potomac River. His first collection, “The Blind Loon: A Bestiary,” was published by Able Muse Press.

And for those who like odd information and representations of animals, The Blind Loon: A Bestiary Facebook group is worth joining.

Photo: “Men in Drag” by jacki-dee is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.