Tag Archives: memorable

Review: ‘101 Sonnets’ edited by Don Paterson

This has to rank as one of the all-time great poetry anthologies. Yes, it contains only sonnets. Yes, several of them are dense in structure or in language (several are in Scots, with words and phrases translated in footnotes). Yes, there is only one sonnet per poet. It is very rich material, and took me a couple of weeks for a first read because there is a lot of absorb. And it has a fabulous Introduction by the British editor Don Paterson – a well-respected poet who avoided including any sonnet of his own.

The sonnets are not put into any formal grouping, but rather flow conversationally from one to the next, the themes often shifting through unexpected juxtaposition. So the first nine run through an amazing sequence of idealised love, woman as muse, kissing, sensual religiosity, obscenity, and charm. It starts with Robert Frost’s
She is as in a field a silken tent
and progresses to Robert Graves’ woman/muse
This they know well: the Goddess yet abides.
Though each new lovely woman whom She rides

to Jo Shapcott’s ‘Muse’
When I kiss you in all the folding places
to Alexander Montgomerie’s
So swete a kis yistrene fra thee I reft
to Wilfred Owen’s
Between the brown hands of a server-lad
The silver cross was offered to be kissed

John Donne’s
Batter my heart, three-personed God
William Alabaster’s ‘Upon the Crucifix’
Feed greedy eyes and from hence never rove,
Suck hungry soul of this eternal store,
Issue my heart from thy two-leaved door,
And let my lips from kissing not remove.

Craig Raine’s ‘Arsehole’
I dreamed your body was an instrument
and this was the worn mouthpiece
to which my breathing lips were bent.

to Robert Herrick
A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness

The 101 Sonnets provide a wild ride. The next in the book are Poe’s ‘An Enigma’, Wordsworth’s
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers

(incidentally the first sonnet I learnt by heart, one that helped shape my life) and J.K. Stephens’ parody critique of Wordsworth
Two voices are there: one is of the deep (…)
And one is of the old half-witted sheep (…)
And, Wordsworth, both are thine
.

And so on through all aspects of life and death, English landscapes, Irish history, real parents, imaginary children, mythology, poetry, the seasons, the close observation of small everyday items… Wendy Cope paired with Edmund Spenser, Gwendolyn Brooks with John Milton… A very rich and rewarding collection.

And the 17-page Introduction is the single best essay on poetry that I’ve ever read. Naturally it is focused on the sonnet, covering its definition, its history, its structure; but in so doing it talks about wider issues such as the nature of iambic pentameter, and in a couple of places it goes into the nature of poetry itself: it mentions one of the advantages of the sonnet being that it is small enough
to be easily memorised, which is the whole point of the poem–that it should lodge itself permanently in our brains. We should never forget that of all the art forms, only the poem can be carried around in the brain perfectly intact. The poem is no more or less than a little machine for remembering itself: every device or trope, whether rhyme or metre, metaphor or anaphora, or any one of the thousand others, can be said to have a mnemonic function in addtion to its structural or musical one. Poetry is therefore primarily a commemorative act–one of committing worthwhile events and thoughts and stories to memory.

Later Paterson states
Poetic arguments appear to cohere simply because they rhyme. Rhyme always unifies sense, and can make sense out of nonsense; it can trick a logic from the shadows where one would not have otherwise existed. This is one of the great poetic mysteries.

All in all a brilliant book, and highly rereadable.

Sonnet: ‘The Poem’

Poems are merely words you can remember
word for word. Question: What makes them so?
Think of the earliest nursery rhymes you know,
held from child’s January to old December:
rhymes, rhythms, imagery—rich as meringues.
Then complicate discussion, don’t reduce
odd imagery, words foolish, strange, diffuse—
aim for rijsttafel with tongue-tingling tangs.
Use richness to engage the memory:
conflicting quotes from Bible, Shakespeare, Yeats,
with Bach-like sense of heaven’s opening gates
or hall of mirrors, or sun-scattering sea…
Mesmerized readers have to puzzle out
in memory mazes what it’s all about.

My firm belief is that poetic structures originate as nothing more than memory aids, so that a work can be recited word for word. This was invaluable in preliterate societies and was used for tribal histories and spiritual revelations (Muhammad was illiterate, and the most powerful passages of the Quran are in strongly rhythmical rhyme) as well as for lullabyes and love songs. But the use of our human love of rhythmic beat, and our enjoyment of rhyme and wordplay, have helped verse develop into elaborate, engaging, memorable forms, varying by culture because of the different opportunities of the different languages. Enjoy the diversity, and the complexity!

This sonnet, like ‘The Four Duties‘, has just been published in the Winter 2020 edition of The Orchards magazine of formal poetry.

Photo: “Indonesisch Rijstafel” by johl is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Political poem: Hilaire Belloc’s epitaph on a politician

Here richly, with ridiculous display,
The Politician’s corpse was laid away.
While all of his acquaintance sneered and slanged
I wept: for I had longed to see him hanged.

The US and UK have been so polarised for the past several years that it seems everyone has a politician they would like to see executed–or jailed at the very least. But this is neither a recent phenomenon nor a merely Anglo-American one. All round the world notorious pillagers of their countries go to the grave with great pomp, while most of their countrymen and -women are simply glad that they are finally going.

This sarcastic little poem by Anglo-French writer Hilaire Belloc suggests two things: that all successful political leaders are loathed by a large percentage of the population; and that to make your sarcastic comment truly memorable if it is more than five or six words long, you do well to put it in verse. The rhyme and meter not only make the words easier to remember, they also lend a magical impression of inevitability and authenticity to the idea expressed. Well-constructed verse provides a fraudulent but powerful proof that the idea expressed is valid. Rhetoric and oratory inhabit this area also. Well-expressed ideas have more credibility than badly expressed ones, regardless of the relative merits of the ideas themselves.

Perhaps we should count ourselves lucky that few politicians exhibit much interest in poetry…

Photo: “President Cyril Ramaphosa attends former President Robert Mugabé’s State Funeral in Harare” by GovernmentZA is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Poetry Resources: “Best Remembered Poems”

578776Perfectly competent, and with interesting trivia and useful background notes by Martin Gardner, this selection of “Best Remembered Poems” is pedestrian almost by definition: these are the ones that are best remembered by Americans, so there will be very little that is new and exciting–and honestly, a lot of the poems best remembered from high school English lessons on the 19th and early 20th century… are downright boring.

But if you’re looking for a book that contains most poems that most non-poets vaguely remember… that contains both ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ and ‘Casey at the Bat’… then this is the one for you!

Poetry Resources: The Norton Book of Light Verse

The single best anthology of light verse that I know. Over 500 poems selected by Pulitzer Prize winning commentator Russell Baker (and with an excellent introduction by him). Everything from ‘Summer is y-comen in’ and its modern parodies, to Shakespeare and Marlowe, Noel Coward and Cole Porter, Don Marquis and Phyllis McGinley, Allen Ginsberg and John Lennon.

126147

Light verse lends itself to the use of form, and most of the poems are formal. Rhyme and meter make it easier to remember verse word for word, but there are bits that I remember, have known since my school days, that don’t share those attributes. For example, Cummings’ ‘Nobody loses all the time’

(and down went
my Uncle
Sol

and started a worm farm).

But such pieces are the exception. By the far the majority of light verse is going to rhyme and scan, and that is part of its charm.

As most poets only get one or two poems in this anthology, there are a couple of hundred poets represented. The book is therefore an excellent way to broaden your awareness of English-language poets – though if there are any outside the British-Irish-American area, I’m not aware of it. This limitation, and the fact that the compilation dates from 1986, are the only negative things to say about a superb and memorable collection.

 

Poetry of Louis MacNeice

Louis MacNeice wrote one perfect poem, “The Sunlight on the Garden”. Insightful, wistful, tightly rhymed in a pattern maintained for four stanzas, easy to memorise, it is frequently anthologised and rightly so:

Louis MacNeice, Selected Poems

The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold,
When all is told
We cannot ask for pardon.

Others of his poems are easy to find, “Bagpipe Music”, “The Truisms”, and so on. They and a lot more, including good excerpts from his longer works, are in this excellent selection.

The similarity of much of his work to Auden is clear (for example in “Postscript to Iceland” after their shared journey there), but the thing that intrigued me unexpectedly was the similarity to the poems of T.H. White. The Irish background, English education, writing of cities and countrysides and cultures of both places, the being in Ireland at the outbreak of World War II… the rhyming, the frequently loose structures, the general tone of many of the character sketches… all those aspects of White’s “A Joy Proposed” echoed as I read MacNeice.

MacNeice, however, is without question the superior poet. After all, he wrote one of the most elegant poems in the English language.

Using form for fun: “Auntie’s Model Niece”

Image result for art school model

Posing bare

AUNTIE’S MODEL NIECE

 

Auntie got her
Maid to knit a
Set of under-
Wear,

For my frozen
Sister Flo’s end
That was posing
Bare;

Flo then wore ’em
With decorum
And she swore ’em
Grand,

Undismayed by
Undies made by
Auntie’s maid by
Hand!

First published in Snakeskin, republished in The HyperTexts, this poem has been a family favourite. It shows some of the strengths of form: a playful form suits a playful idea, and simple structure and heavy rhyme make the poem easy to learn by heart.

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.

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.