The possibility before the poem, the mood, Is premonition more than vision: loath To admit, like the repressed and skewed Response on seeing god-like demon, or young witch… Not even genitals’ light twitch, But mere awareness of that energy, potential thrust, That tightness in the chest, A heart-tight feeling of both loss and lust. Then don’t ignore that feeling, for you’re blessed: A poem is lurking in your undergrowth.
This series of poems, ‘Calling the Poem’, is about the process of writing poetry – an art for which some people appear to have an affinity, an intangible ability. My sense is that such creativity is available to all humans, but requires a certain mindset, an openness to the unconscious, an interest in unplanned internal upwellings and dreams and fortuitous images; in other words, it is not available to those who plan and schedule their lives rigorously, who meticulously follow the teachings imposed from the outside by others.
The process starts before the poem begins to appear. I find it starts with a mood that feels like… like a mixture of curiosity (whether filled with hope or despair), and of awareness of the vastness of the world (whether manifested in a sunset or an ant), and of some small but significant personal power even in the presence of the forces of the universe, and of that formless twitch of yearning desire when glimpsing an unconnected but desirable object for the first time.
My sense is that when you find yourself in this mood – and I trust you’re aware of having experienced it – you are entering a state of receptivity to the messages that your unconscious wishes to share with the conscious you; and those messages will come as creative images, or dreams, or ideas, or words and phrases. But they will only come if you are receptive to them. So honour the mood: relax, listen, observe, and be prepared to express in rough draft whatever occurs to you. The mood is not the creativity; but if you accept the mood, the creative communication of the unconscious can occur.
This book, “A Child’s Introduction to Poetry” by Michael Driscoll, illustrated by Meredith Hamilton, is the single best introduction to poetry that I have ever seen. It is part of a series of books aimed at 8 to 10-year-olds, and is divided into two parts: ‘The Rhymes and Their Reasons’, with two to four large pages on topics as diverse as Nonsense Rhymes, The Villanelle, Free Verse and Poems Peculiar; and ‘Poetry’s Greats’ with a couple of pages each on 21 poets such as Homer, Wordsworth, Dickinson, Belloc, Auden, Paz and Angelou. The book is richly illustrated on every page, and is packed with bits of biography, commentary, prosody, explanation and definition. Purely as a book, it is superb.
But wait! There’s more! The original edition came with a CD of all the poems, and the Revised and Updated edition comes with downloadable audio and a poster. These audio aspects are not as brilliant as the book, for two reasons: first, the poems are read “professionally” which unfortunately means without the joy, excitement, teasing, energy or naturalness that I listened for. They are clear, flat and boring, with unnecessarily exaggerated pauses between lines. I listened to the first three poems, and quit. Secondly, the CD version (which is what I have) may have been obsoleted, but the major item of comment in the Amazon reviews is that there are no explanations for downloading the audio, and that it was difficult for reviewers to figure out how to do it.
Ignore the audio, then. If you already have an interest in poetry you will probably do a better job than the unfortunate “professionals” in reading aloud from the book, and your child will have a richer experience anyway from your personal involvement and introduction. The book will soon enough be one for the child to dip into and skip back and forth in, moving from biographies to poems to illustrations to factoids as the mood takes them.
In terms of the variety of poetry–forms, moods, eras, nationalities–I have never seen anything so rich and satisfying for a good young reader as this Introduction. I wish all English-speaking children everywhere could have a copy.
Ignoring clockwork towns and fertile farms Tied to the sun-swing as the seas to moon, They searched for verse in deserts without rhyme, Lifted erratic rocks nonrhythmically In search of poetry, then through the slough Of their emotions hunted for a trail:
“The scent is cold. Its Spirit must have fled; The body of its work, though dead, Has been translated to some higher plane. Look how the world’s translated verse Comes to us plain—why can’t we emulate? Then if the words themselves are unimportant, If poetry in essence is idea, And song is wrong, Rhyme a superfluous flamboyance (Like colour in Van Gogh), Rhythm a distraction to the memoring mind, Then we determine poetry’s true form is mime!”
While in the air the deafening blare Confounds their silence everywhere: Before our hearts began to beat We were conceived in rhythmic heat; So, billions strong, we sing along For all the time, in time, our time, the song Goes rocking on in rhythmic rhyme. Rock on!
“Unversed” means “not experienced, skilled, or knowledgeable”. Poetry takes different forms in different languages, but the forms all have the same desirable outcome: to make it easier to memorise and recite word-for-word. Alliteration, assonance, rhyme, metre – these are all useful tools for achieving this, along with less tangible tools such as fresh or startling imagery. Metre/beat/rhythm is viscerally important to us, because the mother’s heartbeat is the background to sensory development in the womb, and our own heartbeat and breathing rhythms continue throughout life. As humans we drum, we dance, we sing, just as we walk and run rhythmically, tap our fingers rhythmically when we are bored, teach small children to clap and sing, teach older children clapping and skipping games. Rhythm is built into us from before birth.
Rhythmic poetry didn’t die when it almost stopped being publishable. It just went into folk songs, blues, rock, country-and-western, musicals, rap, hip hop… Popular music let teenagers and adults continue to thrive with what they were not given by schools: rhythm and rhyme. This drive to make words memorable and recitable is part of who we humans are. So schools do best when they leaven “creative self-expression” with getting kids to learn things by heart, and getting them to pay attention to the qualities that make it easy to memorise and recite.
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.
Goodreads’ stated mission is to help people find and share books they love, and to improve the process of reading and learning throughout the world. (That was crafted before they were bought by Amazon, so their mission may have a somewhat more mercenary aspect these days.) Founder Otis Chandler got the idea when looking at a friend’s bookshelf, and wishing there was a way to share discoveries and opinions of books online. Launched in January of 2007, by December it had 650,000 members–clearly it was on to something! And by the end of 2019 (i.e. pre-Covid) it had 90 million members, a number that can only have grown since then.
It’s a place where you can spend your time in a variety of ways: making shelves of the books you’ve read, sorting them by topic, giving them 1 to 5 stars, writing reviews of them… Developing a list of friends to follow or to share reviews with, joining a group with topics that you like, using the site to find books you are likely to enjoy… Setting a goal of how many books to read in the coming year, and having Goodreads track your progress, praising you or nagging you depending on whether you’re ahead of schedule or behind.
More completely, “Goodreads,” says Wikipedia, “is an American social cataloging website that allows individuals to search its database of books, annotations, quotes, and reviews. Users can sign up and register books to generate library catalogs and reading lists. They can also create their own groups of book suggestions, surveys, polls, blogs, and discussions.”
Because my main reading these days is formal poetry (of course–though leavened with Simenon, Le Guin and thick works of history) I have been looking to see what kind of poetry groups operate in Goodreads. I only found one of formal verse, with half a dozen members, and dormant for over a year. So I have started a new one called ‘Formal Verse – Mostly’. If you, reading this, are interested in reading, writing or discussing formal poetry, old or new, your own or that of others, then consider joining us.
But even if you don’t want to be that active, don’t want to join a group, Goodreads still offers a range of benefits for all readers. I’ve been reading more each year for the last few years, largely thanks to the Reading Challenge and being nagged when (as now) I’m behind schedule.
We are the natterers, We are the masters of arts polyglot; We are the patterners, We are the marks on the paths that you plot; We are the batterers, We are the iron-headed rams that you fear; We are the chatterers, We are the sons of the sins that you bear; We are the flatterers, Down on our knees to those who stand tall; We are the smatterers, Giving out dangerous knowledge and small; We are the shatterers, We are the haters of forces above; But, most, we are the clatterers, We are the hooves of the horses we love.
This was first published (I think) in Rubies in the Darkness (UK) and then in Metverse Muse (India). As for the word “clatter”, when I wrote the poem it only referred to sound, the verb “making a continuous rattling sound as of hard objects falling or striking each other.” The word is evolving though, as words do, with the meaning in football of a hard physical tackle that knocks your opponent over. I only meant the noise, of course…
Munch’s Scream fades, and the Taliban blow up the grandest statues that they can. Safer are spoken treasures of the mind: poems and songs outlast objects that rust, or bust, or slowly crumble into dust. Until from cave or dig comes some strange find… but when Lascaux and Willendorf were young, what was recited, or what songs were sung?
As regards “immortal” works of art… anything that is still respected in a hundred years is pretty good, anything still talked about after a couple of thousand years is doing very well… Songs and poems can manage that length of time, especially if connected a religion or other social ritual; but there is very little oral survival beyond that, and the survival of physical artifacts from tens of thousands of years ago is of the luckiest, perhaps of the lost or the most overlooked, not necessarily the best.
How wonderful if in the future we can recapture sounds from the Stone Age! At present there is no way to see how it could ever be done. But at least we have a few cave paintings and small carvings…
Standing hip deep in the sea Is nice in itself, but the reason for being there Is the wait for a big wave.
A wave rising, a sudden tower Smooth with devouring power But one you can launch yourself forward in tune with – and Hurtle ecstatic, unseeing and breathless For as long as breath can hold Through the water and up along over and onto the sand, Sand thick in your hair, jammed in every fold, Scraped, battered and rolled, Triumphant, beached, deathless.
For this the saint prays, For this the artist stares open-eyed, For this the poet lets wounds bleed unstanched, For this: this hope of being launched, Controlled and uncontrolled By what can’t be withstood or denied.
(Or else you could duck under the wall, Let it pass over while you count three, Hear the boom of its crested fall, Yourself unbroken, inactive, safe, free.)
The sea is always there Whether or not you are in it Standing hip deep in it Waiting for the next big wave.
Another of my “Is it formal?” poems. How much rhyme, rhythm and consistent structure do you need in order to consider it formal? Where is the cut-off between form and free? I don’t know. But I felt the alternation – between quiet waiting sections and the breathless rush of a good wave – was an appropriate expression in itself.
The poem was originally published in Snakeskin. Thanks, George Simmers!
Poems should be concise: quick, small, like mice. Then one day you find they’ve made a nest in your mind.
I seem to be writing shorter, more epigrammatic verse recently. Probably influenced by reading too much FitzGerald/Khayyam.
This little poem was published in the December 2020 issue of Snakeskin–which celebrates 25 years as a monthly online poetry magazine, presumably the oldest (or rather “the most venerable”) such magazine in the world. Congratulations to its creator and sustainer, George Simmers!
FitzGerald’s version of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat is one of the glories of English poetry. It has contributed more phrases and common quotations to the language, relative to its size, than any other piece of literature – including the Bible and Shakespeare. “A flask of wine, a book of verse, and thou”… “The Moving Finger writes; and having writ // Moves on”… and so on.
FitzGerald came out with five editions of the Rubaiyat (the fifth being posthumous), with 75 four-line stanzas in the first edition, then tinkering with it for the rest of his life: adding another 30 stanzas, subtracting again, and constantly modifying words, phrases and punctuation. The first edition has several things in its favour: succinctness, and the fire and integrity of the original effort.
Edward FitzGerald was a strange character. His personal life was a long search for friendship of two types: intellectuals with a passion for literature (Tennyson, Thackeray, Carlyle), and unintellectual men much younger than himself who were noted for their “manly” looks. His life and search were difficult, as Victorian England didn’t make life easy for homosexuals.
On the creative side, this search for friendship showed up as a need to be a co-creator: showed up in art, where he had a lifelong habit of buying paintings and cutting them down to a better composition and touching up the work to improve it; in music, where he arranged the works of others for his friends to sing; and in literature, where he found his genius in the works of others, translating Aeschylus, Calderon and Khayyam from the original Greek, Spanish and Persian, striving to identify with the original author and replicate in English not their exact words but the thrust of their thought and emotion. And with the Rubaiyat he appears to have been successful in every way. The five versions published between 1859 and 1889 constitute the single best-selling book of poetry in English.
Of the hundreds of editions that have been published since FitzGerald’s death, my two favourites are: for the lushness, the one illustrated by Edmund Dulac; and, for the background and insights, the one with an introduction by Dick Davis and published by Penguin in 1989.
In this particular Penguin edition (there have been several others), FitzGerald’s first edition and fifth edition are given in full, together with a complete listing of all the other variations found in the intervening versions. But – FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat only being 300 or 400 lines, depending on the version – all of that barely takes up 50 pages. Dick Davis’ introduction, almost as long, was presumably commissioned to make this a saleable book. And it is his introduction that gives it its full value.
Davis covers the life and what can be known of the personality of Omar Khayyam and – in conjunction with a review of FitzGerald’s life, personality, agnosticism and guarded homosexuality – the attraction, almost identity, that FitzGerald felt for him. He also investigates and approves the depth of FitzGerald’s translation skills, and analyses his use of rhyme scheme and meter. FitzGerald originally started translating Khayyam into paired couplets (aabb) before seeing the benefit of Khayyam’s rubaiyat (aaba) – given the epigrammatic nature of the verses, each quatrain is a stand-alone philosophic proposition and the return in the fourth line to the rhyme of the first two lines tends to heighten the sense of inevitability in each stanza.
Perhaps the most intriguing thought to come from Davis’ Introduction is that the sensual illustrations of half-naked women, so common in our collection of Rubaiyats, are all wrong. From linguistic and cultural clues in both the Persian and the English, it appears that the Saki, the young cup-bearer, the Thou of the flask of wine and book of verse, should be an attractive young male with his first moustache starting to grow in. In other words, and despite my preference for Dulac, FitzGerald’s version of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam would perfectly support lush, ornate, gay illustrations; and that is likely what FitzGerald – and Khayyam himself – would have preferred.