Tag Archives: nonce form

Nonce Poem: “Roughing It In Europe”

One two three four
Is OK, but you need more:

Un deux trois quat’
If you want a welcome mat

En to tre fire
With the krone getting dearer,

Bir iki uç dirt
Selling off your jeans or shirt

Wahid zoozh teleta arba
In a cafe by the harbour

Üks kaks kolm neli
For some food to fill your belly;

Jeden dwa trzy cztery
Language may be shaky, very,

Uno dos tres cuatro
But they’ll love you if you’re up to

Eins zwei drei vier
Trying freely, laughing freer.

This poem, more fully titled “(On the value of learning languages, when) Roughing It In Europe”, was originally published in Unsplendid, actually a splendid magazine that unfortunately has been quiet for the past couple of years. Now the poem is just being reprinted in The Orchards Poetry Journal whose Summer edition is due out today. The poem dates back to my early hitchhiking days, when I was based in Copenhagen but wandering around Europe, North Africa and North America. My experience was that you could wander into any country without any plans, prior contacts or knowledge of the language, and survive so long as you quickly learned to say Yes, No, Please, Thank you, Hello, Goodbye and to count from one to ten – and so long as you smiled, and were comfortable being laughed at for all kinds of mistakes. Case in point: the word “zoozh” that I learned for “two” in Morocco won’t get you very far in most Arabic-speaking countries… So it goes.

Technically, this poem was written in a simple form, nine rhymed couplets, four feet to a line. The second line of each couplet has mostly trochaic feet (i.e. with two syllables, a stressed or accented one followed by an unstressed one). But the first line of each couplet is simply counting out 1-2-3-4 in different languages, and therefore the feet vary with the words of the language. But as we are used to counting to four in a steady rhythm, everything sounds rhythmic regardless of the number of syllables.

So this shows another type of “form”: each couplet is structured the same with the first line counting 1-2-3-4, always in a new language, and the second line having four feet and rhyming with its first line’s “four”. And therefore the poem has a “nonce” form – I created this form for this specific poem; it was created “for the nonce”. You’d be unlikely to find another poem structured quite like this.

Photo: “Hitchhiking in Amsterdam” by Teppo is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Poem: ‘Earth Competition’

The Earth
Gives birth
To insects, animals and birds;

Each names,
Marks, claims
Its stake without our tools of words.

The seas
Like bees
Create fresh lands like hives of honey;

Our bands
Seize lands
And value them in human money.

We make
Our stake
Without considering others’ use;

And when
Beasts then
Eat crops or homes, we grunt ‘Abuse’.

They fight,
Scratch, bite,
To chase the competition off;

We too
Will sue,
Or wave knife or Kalashnikov.

We each
Just reach
For good resources to control;

In fact
Impact
Each other in true Darwin role.

I’m always glad when I find I’m writing something with a new structure, and not yet another sonnet. I love the sonnet form more than any other, but it’s nice to try out something more idiosyncratic occasionally.

This poem was first published in Bewildering Stories #794. Thanks, Don Webb and John Stocks!

“Predator and Prey” by EricMagnuson is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Poem: ‘So Listen Now’

      So listen now to what the prophet saith, 
          He teaches anything, he gladly learns, 
             He follows scientists and what they say, 
             And now, Philosophy of DNA. 
           Regard the spiral of it as it turns, 
      And listen now to what the prophet saith: 
  The two as one, entwining intercourse, 
Then separate from toes to very head, 
And, separated, seek another bed, 
  Their separation procreation’s cause. 
      So listen now to what the prophet saith— 
           And this the canniballed male spider learns, 
                Eaten by her, as her he’d try to lay, 
                Who procreates in separation’s day— 
           No spark of love or life or hate there burns, 
      But, listen now to what the prophet saith, 
      Only a life of procreating death. 

Another of my early poems: I wrote this when I was 17, in my last year at school. DNA was still a newish concept to the general public, and it appealed to my nihilistic teenage state of mind. My opinions decades later are still pretty similar, though my attitudes are much more relaxed and happy.

I had been thoroughly immersed in iambic pentameter by then, studying several of the Canterbury Tales, several of Shakespeare’s plays, and a whole slew (or slough) of poets from Donne and Milton to Cummings and Frost–learn enough poetry by heart, and you become very comfortable writing in the forms you know. I developed the rhyme scheme to allow the indentation-by-rhyme to reflect as best I could the spiral of the subject: ABCCBADEEDABCCBAA, the rhymes winding back and forth across the much-repeated central line, ending with a couplet to round it out at 17 lines.

The poem was originally published in Metverse Muse, an Indian periodical that champions traditional verse.

Photo: “DNA rendering” by ynse is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Poem: ‘Humankind at Dusk’

It’s in your newsfeed update every day:
The AI obsolescence on its way,
Replacing all tasks, everything we do.
There’ll be no need for people. That means you.
How much is merely existential dread
And how much knowledge of a road ahead:
Unlit, black ice, and your tires have no tread?

With the world stage held by strutters
While the UN talks and mutters.
They’re all out of date tut-tutters.
People in the street
Stand there angry, with lips pursed,
Feeling they’ve been conned, coerced,
Life has gone from best to worst.
Blame the rich elite.

Man, man, think fast:
With the AI racing
And our genes debasing,
Basic humans’ place in
Life won’t last.

Warnings now the TV utters:
Hurricane! But we’ve no shutters,
Power is out, the candle gutters,
Roofs are blown away.
Thrown into the storm head-first
No response can be rehearsed,
Save yourself though you be cursed:
Everything’s in play.

Man, man, think fast:
With the Hive replacing
Every human trace in
Life, be self-effacing
Or be past.

The rest ride the AI-bombs down the sky,
Waving their Stetsons: “We’re all going to die!”
Life always moves on from the old to new.
There’ll be no need for people. That means you.

‘Humankind at Dusk’ was originally published in the Speculative Fiction & Verse zine Bewildering Stories. It reflects my serious concern that we have no idea where we’re going as a species, with everything from genetic modification to brain implants now becoming a reality. Not that I object to it, any more than I object to hurricanes or earthquakes; they’re all part of the nature of things. As humans, we tinker, experiment, explore, run into problems, seek solutions, create all kinds of new problems, and so on. That’s just the way it is.

Technically, I was trying to replicate the nonce structure of a much earlier poem I wrote, ‘Camelot at Dusk‘, to see if this was a form that I could use when trying to create a sense of urgency and disaster bracketed within more reflective and dispassionate statements. So the opening and closing stanzas are in that nice and boring, meditative iambic pentameter; while the middle pieces switch back and forth between two other forms, with shorter, choppier lines and more repetitive rhyme. I created the form to meet the needs of the earlier poem, where I think it worked very well. I’m still (years later) pondering whether it was appropriate to try to reuse the form for this piece. I think I like it, but I’m not entirely sure.

Photo: “silence” by Cornelia Kopp is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Poem: “Camelot at Dusk”

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(Photo: Castle by epredator)

From under low clouds spreading from the south
The red sun drops slow to night’s waiting mouth.
Rush lamps are lit; the guards changed on the walls;
Supper will not be served in the Great Halls
With Arthur still away. Each in their room,
The members of the Court leave books or loom
To say their Vespers in the encroaching gloom.

Lancelot, up in his tower,
Sees the sunset storm clouds glower,
Feels his blood’s full tidal power,
Knows he has to go.
In her bower, Gwenivere
Puts a ruby to her ear,
Brushes firelight through her hair,
Feels her heartbeat grow.

Guard, guard, watch well:
For the daylight thickens
And the low cloud blackens
And the hot heart quickens
To rebel.

From his tower, caring not
For consequences, Lancelot
Crosses courts of Camelot,
Pitying his King.
In her bower, Gwenivere
Feels his presence coming near,
Waits for footfalls on the stair,
Lets her will take wing.

Guard, guard, watch well:
If attention slackens
When the deep bond beckons,
Evil knows Pendragon’s
In its spell.

And as the storm clouds, rubbing out the stars,
Deafened the castle and carved lightning scars,
Drenched Arthur rode for flash-lit Camelot
Where he, by Queen and Knight, was all forgot.

“Camelot at Dusk” was originally published by Candelabrum, a now-defunct poetry magazine in the UK which appeared twice-yearly from April 1970 to October 2010. Candelabrum provided what, in the 1970s, was a very rare platform for British poets working in metrical and rhymed verse.

Technically, the poem uses a variety of forms. The opening and closing passages use iambic pentameter with simple sequential rhyme for a level of detachment (and the only times Arthur is mentioned by name). The passages with Lancelot and Gwenivere use shorter trochaic lines with denser rhymes for more intensity. The passages of warnings to the guards… well, they have a shifting but repeating structure all their own.

Because of the bracketing of the more emotional passages by the more detached opening and closing, the piece feels very complete. As a whole, it is a nonce form. Whether I can ever repeat it successfully, I don’t know. I have tried, but not been as satisfied with the result.

“Camelot at Dusk” can also now be found in The Hypertexts, which thereby gives it a very respectable Seal of Approval.