Tag Archives: poetic structure

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


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

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.