Tag Archives: Poetry

Review: “The Chatto Book of Modern Poetry, 1915-1955”

Chatto Modern Poetry

1915 to 1955 provides quite a range of poetry! From Hardy, Housman, Kipling, Yeats, through two world wars, to Dylan Thomas and twenty poets younger than him. Editors C. Day Lewis and John Lehmann confined themselves to (loosely defined) British poets, and to those aged at least 30 by their final selection. Among the 260 poems are many standards–Hardy’s ‘Afterwards’, Yeats’ ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, Eliot’s ‘East Coker’, Auden’s ‘Lay Your Sleeping Head’, Dylan Thomas’ ‘Fern Hill’–but the real joy is in discovering good work by less well known poets. I give a few excerpts as examples: pastoral, autobiographical, of mortality, a war poem, wistfulness:

Andrew Young, ‘Wiltshire Downs’

The cuckoo’s double note
Loosened like bubbles from a drowning throat
Floats through the air
In mockery of pipit, land and stare.

And one tree-crowned long barrow
Stretched like a sow that has brought forth her farrow
Hides a king’s bones
Lying like broken sticks among the stones.

Laurie Lee, ‘First Love’

Then it was she put up her hair,
inscribed her eyes with a look of grief,
while her limbs grew as curious as coral branches,
her breast full of secrets.

But the boy, confused in his day’s desire,
was searching for herons, his fingers bathed
in the green of walnuts, or watching at night
the Great Bear spin from the maypole star.

Alun Lewis, ‘Water Music’

Cold is the lake water
And dark as history.
Hurry not and fear not
This oldest mystery.

This strange voice singing,
This slow deep drag of the lake,
The yearning, yearning, this ending
Of the heart and its ache.

Keith Douglas, ‘How to Kill’

Now in my dial of glass appears
the soldier who is going to die.
He smiles, and moves about in ways
his mother knows, habits of his.
The wires touch his face: I cry
NOW. Death, like a familiar, hears

and look, has made a man of dust
of a man of flesh. This sorcery
I do. Being damned, I am amused
to see the centre of love diffused
and the waves of love travel into vacancy.
How easy it is to make a ghost.

Sidney Keyes, ‘The Gardener’

Do you resemble the silent pale-eyed angels
That follow children? Is your face a flower?
The lovers and the beggars leave the park–
And still you will not come. The gates are closing.
O it is terrible to dream of angels.

As a collection the poetry is overwhelmingly formal, rural and male. It is titled ‘The Chatto Book of Modern Poetry’, but it predates the formless chaos of what we now call “modern poetry”, the unstructured confessional outpourings of the past half century. The anthology isn’t perfect, but very rewarding for lovers of traditional poetry. (Not hard to find. Used hardcovers are available from $0.99 on Amazon.)

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Michael R. Burch, “Poetry”

Michael Burch

Michael R. Burch

Michael R. Burch’s chosen poem Poetry, and the story behind his choice, and are so interwoven that his entire essay Making of a Poet is reproduced here with the poem at the very end:

While I don’t consider “Poetry” to be my best poem—I wrote the first version in my teens—it’s a poem that holds special meaning for me. I call it my ars poetica. Here’s how it came about …

When I was eleven years old, my father, a staff sergeant in the US Air Force, was stationed in Wiesbaden, Germany. We were forced to live off-base for two years, in a tiny German village where there were no other American children to play with, and no English radio or TV stations. To avoid complete boredom, I began going to the base library, checking out eight books at a time (the limit), reading them in a few days, then continually repeating the process. I quickly exhausted the library’s children’s fare and began devouring its adult novels along with a plethora of books about history, science and nature.

In the fifth grade, I tested at the reading level of a college sophomore and was put in a reading group of one. I was an incredibly fast reader: I flew through books like crazy. I was reading Austen, Dickens, Hardy, et al, while my classmates were reading whatever one normally reads in grade school. My grades shot through the roof and from that day forward I was always the top scholar in my age group, wherever I went.

But being bright and ultra-self-educated does not invariably lead to happiness. I was tall, scrawny, introverted and socially awkward. I had trouble making friends. I began to dabble in poetry around age thirteen, but then we finally were granted base housing and for two years I was able to focus on things like marbles, quarters, comic books, baseball, basketball and football. And, from an incomprehensible distance, girls.

When I was fifteen my father retired from the Air Force and we moved back to his hometown of Nashville. While my parents were looking for a house, we lived with my grandfather and his third wife. They didn’t have air-conditioning and didn’t seem to believe in hot food—even the peas and beans were served cold!—so I was sweaty, hungry, lonely, friendless and miserable. It was at this point that I began to write poetry seriously. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because my options were so limited and the world seemed so impossibly grim and unfair.

Writing poetry helped me cope with my loneliness and depression. I had feelings of deep alienation and inadequacy, but suddenly I had found something I could do better than anyone around me. (Perhaps because no one else was doing it at all?)

However, I was a perfectionist and poetry can be very tough on perfectionists. I remember becoming incredibly frustrated and angry with myself. Why wasn’t I writing poetry like Shelley and Keats at age fifteen? I destroyed all my poems in a fit of pique. Fortunately, I was able to reproduce most of the better poems from memory, but two in particular were lost forever and still haunt me.

In the tenth grade, at age sixteen, I had a major breakthrough. My English teacher gave us a poetry assignment. We were instructed to create a poetry booklet with five chapters of our choosing. I still have my booklet, a treasured memento, banged out on a Corona typewriter with cursive script, which gave it a sort of elegance, a cachet. My chosen chapters were: Rock Songs, English Poems, Animal Poems, Biblical Poems, and ta-da, My Poems! Audaciously, alongside the poems of Shakespeare, Burns and Tennyson, I would self-publish my fledgling work! My teacher wrote “This poem is beautiful” beside one my earliest compositions, “Playmates.” Her comment was like rocket fuel to my stellar aspirations. Surely I was next Keats, the next Shelley! Surely immediate and incontrovertible success was now fait accompli, guaranteed!

Of course I had no idea what I was getting into. How many fifteen-year-old poets can compete with the immortal bards? I was in for some very tough sledding because I had good taste in poetry and could tell the difference between merely adequate verse and the real thing. I continued to find poetry vexing. Why the hell wouldn’t it cooperate and anoint me its next Shakespeare, pronto?

Then I had another breakthrough. I remember it vividly. I working at a McDonald’s at age seventeen, salting away money for college because my parents had informed me they didn’t have enough money to pay my tuition. Fortunately, I was able to earn a full academic scholarship, but I still needed to make money for clothes, dating (hah!), etc. I was sitting in the McDonald’s break room when I wrote a poem, “Reckoning” (later re-titled “Observance”), that sorta made me catch my breath. Did I really write that? For the first time, I felt like a “real poet.”

Observance

Here the hills are old, and rolling
casually in their old age;
on the horizon youthful mountains
bathe themselves in windblown fountains . . .

By dying leaves and falling raindrops,
I have traced time’s starts and stops,
and I have known the years to pass
almost unnoticed, whispering through treetops . . .

For here the valleys fill with sunlight
to the brim, then empty again,
and it seems that only I notice
how the years flood out, and in . . .

Another poem, “Infinity,” written around age eighteen, again made me feel like a real poet.

Infinity

Have you tasted the bitterness of tears of despair?
Have you watched the sun sink through such pale, balmless air
that your soul sought its shell like a crab on a beach,
then scuttled inside to be safe, out of reach?

Might I lift you tonight from earth’s wreckage and damage
on these waves gently rising to pay the moon homage?
Or better, perhaps, let me say that I, too,
have dreamed of infinity . . . windswept and blue.

Now, two “real poems” in two years may not seem like a big deal to non-poets. But they were very big deals to me. I would go off to college feeling that I was, really, a real poet, with two real poems under my belt. I felt like someone, at last. I had, at least, potential.

But I was in for another rude shock. Being a good reader of poetry—good enough to know when my own poems were falling far short of the mark—I was absolutely floored when I learned that imposters were controlling Poetry’s fate! These imposters were claiming that meter and rhyme were passé, that honest human sentiment was something to be ridiculed and dismissed, that poetry should be nothing more than concrete imagery, etc.

At first I was devastated, but then I quickly became enraged. I knew the difference between good poetry and bad. I could feel it in my flesh, in my bones. Who were these imposters to say that bad poetry was good, and good was bad? How dare they? I was incensed! I loved Poetry. I saw her as my savior because she had rescued me from depression and feelings of inadequacy. So I made a poetic pledge to save my Savior from the imposters:

Poetry

Poetry, I found you where at last they chained and bound you;
with devices all around you to torture and confound you,
I found you—shivering, bare.

They had shorn your raven hair and taken both your eyes
which, once cerulean as Gogh’s skies, had leapt with dawn to wild surmise
of what was waiting there.

Your back was bent with untold care; there savage brands had left cruel scars
as though the wounds of countless wars; your bones were broken with the force
with which they’d lashed your flesh so fair.

You once were loveliest of all. So many nights you held in thrall
a scrawny lad who heard your call from where dawn’s milling showers fall—
pale meteors through sapphire air.

I learned the eagerness of youth to temper for a lover’s touch;
I felt you, tremulant, reprove each time I fumbled over-much.
Your merest word became my prayer.

You took me gently by the hand and led my steps from boy to man;
now I look back, remember when—you shone, and cannot understand
why here, tonight, you bear their brand.

I will take and cradle you in my arms, remindful of the gentle charms
you showed me once, of yore;
and I will lead you from your cell tonight—back into that incandescent light
which flows out of the core of a sun whose robes you wore.
And I will wash your feet with tears for all those blissful years . . .
my love, whom I adore.

Originally published by The Lyric

Michael R. Burch has been published more than 3,500 times, including in the Potcake Chapbook Families and Other Fiascoes. His poems have been translated into eleven languages and set to music by three composers. He also edits TheHyperTexts–a massive and always-growing anthology of poetry past and present. Whether you want John Donne, or Pablo Neruda, or Ronald Reagan, or poems of the Palestinian resistance, or any of the best current poets, this is a good place to start.
http://www.thehypertexts.com/Michael_R_Burch_Poet_Poetry_Picture_Bio.html

Review: “Aniara” by Harry Martinson

Aniara has fascinated me for a long time because it combines three of my favourite literary interests: science fiction, poetry, and the works of Nobel Prizewinners.

Harry Martinson wrote the book in the 1950s, a decade after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki but before Sputnik launched the Space Age. It is the story of mass migration to Mars from the destroyed Earth, centred on a miles-long spaceship with thousands of emigrants that is knocked off course and is headed out of the solar system on a hopeless journey.

The existentialism of the situation – living lives of no destination in an inescapable vessel – is in practical terms no different from our own endless circling of the Sun… The issues of whether this feels different, and whether it should feel different, are never addressed but resonated with me nevertheless.

The characters are diverse and interesting. With the book having been written by a male, and with the narrator having a variety of sexual relationships with women, I was surprised to find that the recent film version has a female protagonist. Well, why not make it into a lesbian sf movie, though?

The book is divided into 103 ‘songs’ of half a page to seven pages in length – only 102 in the English translation by Hugh MacDiarmid and Elspeth Harley Schubert, as they and the author agreed that Song 42 is untranslatable.

This raises the question of what the verse is like in the original Swedish. A mixture of formal and free verse, apparently, but with much more rhyme and structure than in the translation. (That the translation is weaker is natural enough, but unfortunate). While I wait to find a full copy in Swedish (which I will be able to work my through, with the English translation in my other hand), I am glad to have found a Swede’s Goodreads review in English which gives samples of the poetry in both languages. (Thank you, Lisa!) For example:

“Försök till räddning genom tankeflykt
och överglidningar från dröm till dröm
blev ofta vår metod.
Med ena benet dränkt i känslosvall
det andra med sitt stöd i känslodöd
vi ofta stod.
Jag frågade mig själv men glömde svara.
Jag drömde mig ett liv men glömde vara.
Jag reste alltet runt men glömde fara. –
Ty jag satt fånge här i Aniara.”

In the MacDiarmid/Schubert translation:

“Attempts at respite through the flight of thought
and constant transference from dream to dream
was often our method of seeking relief.
With one leg steeped in a flood of feeling
and one supported by a lack of feeling
we often stood.
I questioned myself but quite forgot to answer.
I dreamt of life but quite forgot to live.
I ranged the universe–but could not travel farther
for I was imprisoned here, in Aniara.”

The MacDiarmid/Schubert translation is not great, as shown in this excerpt. Not only is there a general lack of rhyme, but the second-to-last line would translate correctly as “I traveled all around but forgot about danger”. The only justification for changing the meaning is to make the (very weak) rhyme of “farther” with “Aniara”.

But then again, translating poetry into a different language’s poetry is at least as difficult as translating a written story into a film… so, as for this translation: I’ll give it five (out of ten, for the try). But the original? From what I can see and guess, ten out of ten!

Poem: “Post-literacy”

Yes, I know it seems unlikely
but I simply can’t help feeling
there’s an urgency to writing:
and in verse, and fluently.

We’ve our cultural traditions
that have coevolved with language
and each language has its verse forms
that are aids to memory.

It’s all fine that we are moving
to post-literate existence
where the things all talk and tell you
everything you need, you must

when the neon signs and fridges
can discuss with you their content,
you don’t need to read or count, if
their integrity you trust.

But embedded in our braincells
are the patterns of our language
and our need to think in patterns
drives our songs, makes us a folk,

it gives dub and rap and hip hop,
it drives rhetoric in speeches,
and the false anticipation
of the punchline of a joke.

With our cultures integrating
with AI and with each other,
we risk losing all our history,
all our culture and, what’s worse,

Our minds! So sing to babies,
have kids memorise long poems,
learn the maths of songs and music –
learn and read and write in verse!

This poem, recently published in Bewildering Stories, speaks to the heart of the matters that this blog deals with. Songs and music, rhyme and rhythm, dance, melodies, alliteration and assonance, structures and patterns and verses and choruses, are all part of something that is deeply human. It starts for us with the heartbeat in the womb, is nurtured with lullabyes and rocking, carries on through the songs and music and dance that are important to every generation of teenagers. It is such a fundamental part of our humanity that educational systems that ignore it are ignoring a powerful natural teaching tool.

The issue is larger than the fact that learning verse by heart is easier than learning prose by heart. Larger than the benefits of developing the ability to remember and memorise accurately. It is about recognising and nurturing those inner forces that make us human. It is about not letting our humanity be eroded by a culture that doesn’t acknowledge the rhythms that permeate our lives.

This blog is about the value of formal verse. Part of that value is poetry’s contribution to the sanity that comes from being a complete human being.

Technically this poem’s lines could be described as iambic tetrameter, which each fourth line being truncated and rhymed. But I prefer to read it almost as a patter song with each line composed of two tertius paeons, Short-foot-meter.svg Short-foot-meter.svg Long-foot-meter.svg Short-foot-meter.svg (each fourth line still being truncated and rhymed). In other words, it is designed to have the third and seventh syllables in each line be the ones with the greatest stress or emphasis. And that includes the rhymes, naturally.

Review: “Selected Poems” by W.H. Auden

Auden

The best of Auden’s poems are so many, so varied, so technically accomplished and so witty that he stands with the greatest poets of the 20th century. My list of favourites includes:

“O where are you going?” said reader to rider
O what is that sound that so thrills the ear
A shilling life will give you all the facts
Look, stranger, at this island now
Miss Gee
As I walked out one evening
In Time of War
Musee des Beaux Arts
In Memory of W.B. Yeats
Law, say the gardeners, is the sun

and what many consider the greatest love-poem of the last 100 years:
“Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm”.
There is a universality about Auden’s depiction of relationships, an indeterminate quality that allows his thoughts to be applied to all people. This is in keeping with the fact that he was gay, and writing in a time when homosexuality was illegal. It provides an unexpected strength for his verse.

And yet, and yet… all of those poems listed above were written before he turned 33. He lived to age 66, writing longer and longer works, moving further and further away from traditional verse, and with less of the memorable genius of his youth.

It is therefore somewhat depressing to read these “Selected Poems” because they are set out chronologically, and the writing gets less interesting the further you read. Halfway through the book you run into the poem sequence “The Sea and the Mirror – a commentary on Shakespeare’s The Tempest”, which includes 25 pages of prose crammed with dense imagery and argument. Apparently Auden preferred this prose section, “Caliban to the Audience”, over all his other work. This preference was expressed at the time that he was rewriting the excellent poems of his youth to reflect his newer American, Christian, self-important academic personality. I found it unreadable.

The first edition of “Selected Poems” (selected and edited by Edward Mendelson) contains 100 poems. A more recent edition adds another 20 poems, “broadening its focus to better reflect the enormous wealth of form, rhetoric, tone, and content in Auden’s work. Newly included are such favorites as “Funeral Blues” and other works that represent Auden’s lighter, comic side”.

Unfortunately I only have the 100-poem version. If you buy a copy of this book, make sure it has the 120 poems!

Review: “Frozen Charlotte” by Susan de Sola

Frozen Charlotte

Susan de Sola’s ‘Frozen Charlotte’ is a book of strong poetry, both formal and free verse, collected after prior publication in 30 publications as diverse as Able Muse, Ambit, American Arts Quarterly, Amsterdam Quarterly… and The Dark Horse, and Light, and Measure. One of the pieces in this collection, ‘Twins’, has already been reprinted in the Potcake Chapbook ‘Families and Other Fiascoes’.

Her casual comfort with verse forms is shown in the last poem of the book, ‘Bounty’:

The fruit flies find our fruit, they slip
beneath the lid, a silver dome.
The dark fruit scent has drawn them in,
no other lures them out again.
They settle on apples, puckered figs,
they gorge in perpetuity,
may never fly back to their home,
(if they have ever had a home).
An allegory of choice? Well, yes–
in that we have no choice.
The fruit is fine, the day is long.
Let us feed, buzz, rejoice.

The poem divides into two pieces: the first eight lines describe the scene, and are in iambic tetrameter with mere hints of rhyme. The last four lines step back and philosophise, and alternate tetrameter and trimeter, the trimeters rhyming.

Personally, though I like the whole poem, I find the last four lines far more satisfying. The change of rhythm is good, but I don’t see any reason not to embed more formal rhyme in the first part. She is capable of sustained rhyme, as in another of my favourites, ‘Holistic Practice’. Here a middle-aged holistic therapist who has failed to create a whole life for herself – living in a one-room flat and with no family – is depicted in ten 5-line stanzas as she comes for a visit and shares pictures of her cat. The last stanza is:

But no, her Boop, he was her treasure;
her angel and her source of pleasure.
“Oh , look, how cute!”–a cat bow tie!
I grin and nod, divided by
a deep, holistic urge to cry.

I will admit that her free verse can be very engaging as well, as in her ‘ATM’:

Somehow, it’s sexual,
the rim crotch-high,
the shuffling buttocks,
the hands fumbling in secret.

Gone the dainty dialogue,
the date stamp in a little leathery
book of records, at set times. Now,
an onanism of cash, walls with mouths.

This is an example of a poem that I would hesitate to modify into a formal structure for fear of losing the way that each short line is a punchline in itself. But for the most part the less formal poems, though they often have rich ideas, are not as memorable as the well-structured ones. Blank verse in itself has no merit for me – Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ rambles tediously, without the need for concision imposed by rhyme. Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ may be long but it is packed with many more stories. It rhymes, and that leaves no room for waffle. No surprise then that with Susan de Sola’s work the longest poems are unrhymed and the least tight.

As for ‘Frozen Charlotte’, the title of the book and of one of its poems, I can only say I am grateful that a page of notes at the end gives the explanation that this was a common, naked, 19th century German doll that acquired its nickname in the US in relation to some ballads. I was unfamiliar with Frozen Charlottes. As a book title it seems memorable but disconnected, as Susan de Sola’s poems are, above all, full of warmth and life.

Review: “Send Bygraves”, by Martha Grimes

Send Bygraves

Martha Grimes is best known as an American author of mysteries set in England, each with the unlikely name of a pub for its title. Here she provides a thrilling piece of well-versified pseudo-murder-mystery nonsense: the enigmatic Bygraves appears in the distance of the characters’ views and of the book’s illustrations. Is he the most brilliant detective, or possibly the murderer, or perhaps the undefined victim… is it conceivable he is all three?

Mystery. It’s all the same:
Questions without end or aim.
What will lead us to the dead?
Footprints in the flower bed.
What appeals were made too late?
Sift the ashes in the grate.
What was fatal in the mug?
Pick the fragments from the rug.

The story, told in a range of voices and in styles from sonnet and pantoum to free verse, never clarifies quite what is going on.

We’re a decent lot. We cause no trouble.
(That spot of bother with the poisoned dogs
At Smythe-Montcrieff’s? We’d nothing to do with that!)
You standing, Sergeant? Ah, thank you, I’ll have a Double
Diamond. Jameson on the side. That fog’s
Thick as pea soup innit? I’ll tell you flat:
We don’t much like the Yard nosing about
In Little Puddley.

I would have given it five stars on first reading because it is so original and well-crafted. Rereading it some years later (with my expectations higher), I find the verse less inspired, the characters excessive to the point of being undifferentiated… but this is not a novel, this is a piece of art work (and the illustrations by Devis Grebu are a solid component of it). It gives the tone, the impression of an Agatha Christie or Peter Dickinson novel, but it is a smaller, more delicate and decidely more enigmatic work.

Constable Feathers, I see
Nothing unusual here:
The tradespeople, the gentry,
The servants, the village lout–
All of the villagers out
To murder one another
In typical English fashion.
I wander through the fog,
Pondering the red herrings:
The bloodstained glove, the dogs,
The marmalade, the locket–

It deserves a place on the bookshelf, not with the regular mysteries, but maybe between Edward Gorey and Jorge Luis Borges.

Sonnet Contest: Cash prizes, no entry fee!

poetry magazine, Better than Starbucks logo

Better Than Starbucks has just opened its annual sonnet contest, an opportunity for all lovers of formal poetry to practice their skills and show off their best work.

Open through October and November (closes December 1), the contest has no entry fee but awards prizes of $100, $50 and $25 for the top three sonnets, which will be published in the magazine along with seven runners-up.

Expect the competition to be fierce! Better Than Starbucks already has a solid following among formal poets. Last year’s competition drew 560 sonnets, this year’s will undoubtedly see more. And you can only send two sonnets. Make sure they are good!

What “good” means can be gleaned from looking at last year’s results in the January 2019 issue, and more sonnets on the Formal Poetry page in March 2019. There are explanatory notes on the contest page, showing some leniency in the definition, and clarifying that previously-published work is acceptable:

This contest is for a metrical sonnet.
Your sonnet can be shakespearean, petrarchan, spenserian, rhymed, or slant-rhymed.
Blank verse is fine, as long as the sonnet form is clearly identifiable.
We’ll consider tetrameter, hexameter, etc. as well as pentameter.
Some metrical variation is fine, but don’t forget the volta!
As always, we do accept previously published work.

Good luck!

Poem: “My Outside”

My outside stroking your inside
Your inside gloving my outside
My outside stroking your
Inside gloving my
Stroking your
Gloving my
Stroking
Gloving
Stroking
Gloving
My your my your my your
Our

This poem was originally published in “The Fifth International Anthology on Paradoxism“, edited by Florentin Smarandache – who appears to live as a mathematician in a universe of paradox. It was republished in the Experimental section of Better Than Starbucks.

This blog advocates for the use of form, to the extent of questioning whether a piece that doesn’t rhyme and scan can even be considered poetry. Is this poetry, then? I think it hovers paradoxically on the edge. It may not rhyme or scan, but it has certain qualities of form:

It is word-for-word memorable through its expression. After all, it only uses seven different words, and they are clearly structured.

The lines are paired all the way, the second of each pair mirroring (or even fusing) the first.

There is a rhythm – a very human rhythm – to the piece, even if it doesn’t fall within poetic norms.

There is even, if you care to consider it, an aspect of concrete poetry about it.

And, if read in my English accent, the last word is a pun, being pronounced “Ahh!”

The simplicity of words, the structure of the lines, the rhythm of the piece, the aspect of concreteness and the pun all contribute to what the poem is trying to communicate.

If it is a poem.

Poem: “Diatribe Against Unversed Poets”

Heartbeat

Heartbeat – “June 1, 2014” by osseous

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!

This was originally published in Snakeskin, the monthly online poetry magazine that George Simmers has been putting out since the 1990s. He is receptive to a range of poetry, but as his original credo states: “Nor shall we sit to lunch with those / Who moralise in semi-prose. / A poem should be rich as cake.”

This poem is a rant against the vast amounts of blather that have been published as “poetry”, while anything showing formal verse skills was automatically rejected by most magazines over the past several decades. The rant is against poets who are “unversed”: “not experienced, skilled, or knowledgeable.” Why should they be given automatic acceptance, when the skilled were automatically rejected? It has been a bizarre half-century. It has a zeitgeist worth considering.

To focus on the United States as the cultural driver of the 20th century: it has always had an anarchic aspect, from the founding tenet of the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” – though this mostly applied to adult white males who had a certain level of property. (By contrast, Canada’s constitutional requirement for the federal parliament to provide “peace, order and good government” has a social rather than individual orientation.) The US high water mark for good government came domestically with the FDR-and-Eleanor Roosevelt presidency, and internationally with the founding of the United Nations. But “big government” acquired such nasty connotations thanks to Stalin, Hitler and Mao that those who wanted the freedom to exploit others without legal restriction were able to make a case for “small government” and chip away at government structures.

In poetry, what started with Walt Whitman in the 19th century burst open a century later with Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, and classrooms where every child was “encouraged in self-expression” without penalties for illiteracy. What was expressed became everything; the how became irrelevant. As in government, freedom from others’ rules became desirable in the literary and artistic community, and in the hippie movement, and the innovative business start-ups of Silicon Valley. There were undoubted benefits… but in literature, the suppression of poetic form was one of the less fortunate results.

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 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.

But rhythmic poetry didn’t die when it 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 to pay attention to the qualities that make it easy to memorise and recite.