Tag Archives: poetic structure

Calling the Poem: 13. ‘Crafting the Verse’

We stand on two banks of the river that’s flowing between us.
I’ll bridge my new thoughts out to you with a verse.
First I form key ideas – they need clarity, cleanness –
The bridge forms an outline, takes shape in my head.
Now that bridge must be built,
Built regardless of canyons, or mud flats and silt.

The pillars are images placed first for more of the bridge to traverse,
With my strongest words buttressing them so they’re not washed away.
Their positions are set by the distance and shores,
While the force of the water, the shape of the bed,
And the landscape and soil on my side and yours,
The allowance for possible earthquake or storm,
The demands of the load that the bridge will convey…
These determine the structure, materials, form:
For the best bridge will meet site demands
With both strength and matched style.
So the poet needs meter and rhyme, every trick he commands,
Or the verses won’t carry their burden, will fail to beguile.

Though you see stone or steel in the bridge, for the most part it’s air,
Rhythmic arches of unspoken airy allusion, illusion,
Outlined in hard words and designed to be elegant, spare.
So this poem’s a book, that’s reduced to an essay, reduced more compactly
To two hundred lines, sacrificing precision
To memory’s need for concision, elision.
Two hundred exactly?
No, not exactly. (Exactly!)

From the sweep, pattern, length,
To its delicate strength,
Whether old Roman aqueduct, young Golden Gate,
Whether flowing with water or people and freight,
Its clean shape was constrained by the structural needs and efficiencies,
Driving its strength and position and duty.
All unstructured words in the river are wasted deficiencies.
Poems will last quite as long as an old Roman aqueduct,
Bridging the banks, bearing brightly in rhythms of beauty,
If all ostentation and ornamentation
Support the key functions in what you construct.
Raise your sights to the Space Elevator, that cable,
That modern-day Tower of Babel,
To not just bridge over
A strait or the Severn
But up! to bridge up! at the same time, to heaven.

Cloaked gods were invoked,
And the tiger broke cover,
Your poem connects river banks.
Now give thanks.

*****

When I moved to Denmark in my early 20s I was intrigued to hear that engineering students at a local university began their studies, not with lectures on a variety of key subjects, but by being placed in teams and told to design a bridge that would meet the demands for specific use at a specified site. Materials, geology, weather, load, cost, elegance and everything else that goes into bridge design all had to be researched and included in the project. When students had completed a whole series of projects, they had earned their degree. It was a very different approach from the lecture-based university courses that I had dropped out of in the UK.

How does this relate to writing poetry? Well, it brings to mind Heinlein’s ‘first law of writing’: “You must write.” Also the old story of the would-be concert-goer lost in New York City, asking a man with a violin case how to get to Carnegie Hall and being told “Practice, practice, practice.” There are a lot of factors involved in writing verse – some are common across all cultures and languages while others are language-specific. They all involve ideas (and their mysterious origin), images and their expression in words; but making those words so effective that they evoke an appropriate response in the reader or listener, so effective that they can be remembered and recited, requires the use of a whole range of language-specific factors that are mastered by doing.

By the way, the “two hundred lines” mentioned above refers to the length of the entire ‘Calling the Poem’ e-chapbook that this is part of. This chapbook is a single work, though constructed of various formal and semi-formal pieces.

Photo: “Roman Bridge, Merida” by Jocelyn777 Love Europe is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

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.

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: “Bee”

“July Honey Bee” by MattX27 
Through the honeyed halls of Autumn
Hums the angry ageing bee;
As its work faces fruition,
And its life, redundancy.

This little poem was originally published in Candelabrum, a 1970 formalist hold-out that ran for forty years in the UK under Leonard McCarthy. More recently, it was just republished in Jerome Betts’ latest Lighten-Up Online.

Epigrammatic couplets and quatrains, being rhyme- and stress-based, are common throughout Indo-European languages. They hold the same natural place that haiku, senryu and tanka have in syllable-counting Japanese. It is easier to learn by heart a poem whose form uses the natural strengths of the language, rather than something written in a language-inappropriate form.

Similarly, when reading a poem in translation, you get the ideas and the imagery but you normally lose the enhancement of mood caused by the metre, the rhythm of the verse, as well as by the rhyme. So ideas and imagery alone give you prose, not poetry.

Consider the differences in tone of gravity or levity set by rhythm in these opening lines (and you need to read them aloud–in your head if you can do that, otherwise really aloud, in order to hear the rhythm, the beat of the lines):

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky...

I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he;
I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three...

On the top of the Crumpetty Tree
The Quangle Wangle sat...

The first is meditative, the second full of action, the third is casual, informal… and those moods are set by the rhythm alone.

Metre is an essential component of English poetry. Make the metre-rule your yardstick. Don’t leave home without it.

Poem: “Post-Adult”

Adults — earthworn, careweary,
grave, gravid and gravity-constrained —
take it all so seriously, furiously, fearsome and wearisome,
spuriously furious over the small stuff,
incessantly never having enough,
insensibly insatiable, insensate,
irrational, irascible,
driven by status, riven by expense,
dismissive of all greater age and experience.

How fortunate to age into osteoporosis,
bones lightening like a bird’s as you get older,
the wearying weights lifting off the shoulder,
and you drift up into the sky with your levity,
leaving behind adult cares and gravity,
unattached, detached,
careful but careless, unlatched.

This poem was recently published in Bewildering Stories. But what is it, technically? Does it have any form? It has elements of form–alliteration, assonance, scattered rhyme, the kind of rhythm (in parts) that you find in rap with emphasis on stresses, not on syllables–but none of it is organized, structured, codified, repeated…

I think it could be improved. If I come up with a significant improvement, I’ll switch it out. But there’s always the danger that the later “improvement” loses primal energy for the sake of trying to achieve an intellectual outcome. As with Auden’s poetic progress. But a little more formal structure would be good, I think.

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: “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: Poem: “Jam Jar”

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.