Tag Archives: rhyme

Wired Magazine: Poetry, Doctors, Patients and the Pandemic

Dr. Rafael Campo

Dr. Rafael Campo

Here is an excerpt from a recent Wired interview with Dr. Rafael Campo, Poetry Editor at the Journal of the American Medical Association! (The full thing is here.)

WIRED: Why do you think poetry has become so important to so many doctors during the pandemic?

Rafael Campo: I think doctors in particular are really searching for ways to give voice to their experiences of this terrible disease and what we’re all going through in confronting it.

It’s particularly poignant, I think, because we’re so isolated by this virus. We’re all practicing physical distancing and social distancing, so I think poetry becomes a way of connecting with other people and having our story heard. So I find it actually really energizing. It helps me feel less isolated, less disconnected, as I read through these poems.

WIRED: Is there something unique about poetry that makes that kind of connection possible?

RC: We’re hardwired to hear the kinds of rhythms that are present in poetry and the ways in which the rhythms of our bodies are expressed in meter, in the music of poetry. I think especially now, when we’re feeling in some ways estranged from our own bodies and disconnected, having that visceral experience of hearing the music and language is just compelling.

I think other reasons have to do with the brevity of poetry. In a way, poetry fits into the fragmented spaces that we have as doctors, as we’re running around trying to deal with this crisis.

Then one other thing is that I always associate poetry with activism. When we think of some of the protests that are going on in the streets now—people are out there chanting—they’re actually using a spoken-word form of poetry.

Poetry has that ability to grab us and to speak in the most urgent terms. It’s a very physical language. It calls us to action. I always think back to my time when I was really early in my training as a physician, during the height of the AIDS crisis. Similarly, then people were out in the streets shouting: “Silence equals death! Silence equals death!” That still resonates in my mind today. Those poems, that urgent language, really changed the course of that pandemic.


And he’s a poet in his own right.

And then there’s Dr. Campo’s Ted Talk

Poem: “The Train Will Stop”

“The train will stop for ten minutes at the next station.
If you wish to make this your annual vacation,
please reboard in nine minutes.” The travellers gaze
at the countryside slowing past, consider ways
to take more than nine minutes for a break
but, looking down a slight curve in the track,
see no way to get out and back
nor a real reason they should take
the risk. The train will go…
and what else do they know?
They’ll stay till dropped
at some end stop.
Descend.
The end.

This little piece of existential angst appears in the current Bewildering Stories. It was written, submitted and accepted long before the current Covid-19 crisis came along, which it in no way relates to. In fact, in the awareness that we are all mortal and that everyone’s journey will have an end stop regardless, you might even say this suggests that in the Grand Scheme of Things the Covid-19 situation is trivial. The bigger issue is: eventually we all die. A solution to that would be far more dramatic than a successful Coronavirus vaccine.

Technically? Not a tightly formed poem – the initial lines are straggly, but as they shorten they tighten into iambics. The rhymes too are erratic, mostly in couplets but not quite. Not a perfect poem. Flippantly you could ask, In the Grand Scheme of Things and in the present circumstances, why should this matter? And the answer is, The level of artistic quality always matters; ultimately, it’s the most you can hope to achieve and be remembered by.

Poem: “This Ape I Am”

Under our armoured mirrors of the mind
where eyes watch eyes, trying to pierce disguise,
an ape, incapable of doubt, looks out,
insists this world he sees is trees, and tries
to find the scenes his genes have predefined.

This ape I am
who counts “One, two, more, more”
has lived three million years in empty lands
where all the members of the roving bands
he’s ever met have totaled some ten score;
so all these hundred thousands in the street
with voided eyes and quick avoiding feet
must be the mere two hundred known before.

This ape I am
believes they know me too.
I’m free to stare, smile, challenge, talk to you.

This ape I am
thinks every female mine,
at least as much as any other male’s;
if she’s with someone else, she can defect –
her choice, and she becomes mine to protect;
just as each child must be kept safe and hale
for no one knows but that it could be mine.

This ape I am
feels drugged, ecstatic, doped,
hallucination-torn, kaleidoscoped,
that Earth’s two hundred people includes swirls
of limitless and ever-varied girls.

This ape I am
does not look at myself
doesn’t know about mirrors, lack of health,
doesn’t know fear of death, only of cold;
mirrorless, can’t be ugly, can’t be old.

This is one of my favourite poems. Originally published in Ambit ten years ago, it has been reprinted in magazines as diverse as Better Than Starbucks, Verse-Virtual and, last month, Bewildering Stories. It speaks to what I believe is a largely overlooked truth, that we are genetically predisposed to function best in social groups or households of 20 to 30 people, within a larger network of six to ten such groups. These provide the numbers of people that we can know well (the social group) and people that we can also recognise and interact with comfortably (the larger network). This is the world of chimpanzees and bonobos, and of the hunter-gatherer existence of early humans.

In practical terms, I am in favour of recreating the sense of community of the village, even within the context of cities. Develop housing complexes that become neighbourhoods – keep schools small – reintegrate nursing homes into the community, let the children and the old people interact – and (a further step in acknowledging our hunter-gatherer humanity) keep everyone in touch with parks, with gardens of fruit, flowers and vegetables, with trees and birds, and with a variety of animals.

Technically the poem is written in iambic pentameters, loosely structured in stanzas of varying length, with lines mostly rhymed but with no set rhyme scheme. (And note: a stanza’s initial “This ape I am” needs to be counted with the next line to produce the pentameter.) Iambic pentameters provide a natural mode for meditative or expository verse. The rhythm is comfortable for quiet reflection or narration. The rhyme in this case is a secondary enhancement.

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.

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.

Poem: Haiku: “Haiku on Haiku”

Despite my complaints yesterday about Haiku not being poetry, I can see a solution to the problem:

HAIKU ON HAIKU

Syllables are prime,
But words do more than count time;
Haiku should still rhyme.

This was originally published in Asses of Parnassus, 14 March 2018

Poem: Haiku: “Haiku on Verse”

Japanese haiku qualify as formal verse in Japanese, and in some ways in English. Traditionally they have three standard aspects as explained in Wikipedia:

The essence of haiku is “cutting” (kiru). This is often represented by the juxtaposition of two images or ideas and a kireji (“cutting word”) between them. This is the equivalent of the volta in a sonnet, the turn from the initial argument or exposition to its extension or contradiction.
Traditional haiku often consist of 17 “syllables” in three phrases of 5, 7, and 5. This is not standard in English verse, where the number of stressed syllables (i.e. the number of feet) has always been more important than the total number of syllables. Even where there are a fixed number of syllables in the foot of the particular meter being used, the feet overrule the syllables.
A kigo (seasonal reference), usually drawn from an extensive but defined list of such terms. English verse is by no means hostile to seasonal references, but is considered superior when it uses fresh words rather than drawing on a predefined list.

In addition, there is no value placed on rhyme, on the meter of the lines, or on the inclusion of either alliteration or assonance. It may be verse in Japanese, but in English the haiku (as defined above) will normally be a sentence of prose that has been artificially broken into three lines.

HAIKU ON VERSE

Haiku challenge my
Fundamental sense of verse:
(Insert last line here).

The above was published in Snakeskin in April 2017. And it doesn’t even have a kigo.

Poetry Resources: Snakeskin

Probably the oldest continuously published poetry zine on the web – possibly the oldest literary zine of any type – is Snakeskin, published monthly by George Simmers since December 1995.

George Simmers

George Simmers, editor of Snakeskin

There are many unique aspects to Snakeskin, including in the archives:

  • the pervasive wit and humour, tolerantly secular, expressed in the zine’s name from the first issue with Wayne Carvosso’s poem “Credo” – “we are the kindred of the snake.”
  • a long interview of George conducted by Helena Nelson, entirely in iambic pentameter (for George is a skilled and fluent poet, though he rarely publishes in Snakeskin these days)
  • projects and experiments, including various hypertexts
  • and a standard feature for the past several years, Bruce Bentzman’s blog-like soliloquies, or essays – a very sensitive and deeply emotional journey.

But what is particularly nice for poets is that George has no interest in names, reputations or bios – he just reads the poems, and chooses what takes his fancy. Very few of the issues are themed in advance, but they may reflect his mood or the time of year or whatever, and end up with a mood of their own.

And, despite what the Credo states —

“Nor shall we sit to lunch with those
Who moralise in semi-prose.
A poem should be rich as cake,
Say the kindred of the snake” —

George takes any form or lack of form, so long as the piece works for him. This may reflect the tolerance of someone who had a career as a teacher; or it may reflect the Yorkshireman’s well-known preference for the practical over mere theory. In either case, it presents a wonderful opportunity for a new poet to break into publication in an internationally recognised magazine.

Read an issue or two – there’s something for everyone!

Using form to convince: Poem: “Conviction”

Verse has magical powers to engage the minds of its audience and, through that engagement, sway opinions and change attitudes. This is more than the tricks that make it easy to learn verse. It is more than Coleridge’s “Prose: words in their best order; poetry: the best words in the best order.” It is that poets and singers chant, and enchant. The musician chants, the magician chants, if it is well done it creates enchantment. It changes moods, it changes minds. It is used by all religions, all football teams, all angry mobs, and all gentle singers of lullabyes. The fact of the idea being expressed in verse is used as unspoken proof of the idea’s appropriateness.

Chanting

Poetry in motion

In my last post I said that “rhyme can be used to create a sense of inevitability”. Let me explain:

CONVICTION

True verse has a rhythmic twitch
that needs ongoing action.
Rhyme’s an open pattern which
asks for satisfaction.
Give the right words, strong and bright,
and the listener knows “That’s right!”

Conviction carries over, bought
with the words expressed.
The listener believes the thought
because it came well dressed.
Give the right words, strong and bright,
and the listener knows “That’s right!”

In other words, because the words sound right (in meter and in rhyme), our minds are prepared to accept that their meaning is right, their argument is valid. As O’Shaughnessy wrote,

“With wonderful deathless ditties
We build up the world’s great cities
(…)
And three with a new song’s measure
Can trample a kingdom down.”

And that is why Shelley was able to claim that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. Poets everywhere agree!

Using form for argument: Poem: “To Myself in 50 Years Time”

Arguing a point has a structure, which tricks of rhetoric can enhance. Additional tricks of reinforcement are possible in verse, where meter can set a tone, rhyme scheme can create a sense of inevitability, and line length can be used to differentiate between premises and conclusion.

Ageing Man in Mirror

TO MYSELF IN 50 YEARS TIME

Old fool! You really think yourself the same
As I who write to you, aged 22?
Ha! All we’ve got in common is my name:
I’ll wear it out, throw it away,
You’ll pick it up some other day….
But who are you?

My life’s before me; can you say the same?
I choose its how and why and when and who.
I’ll choose the rules by which we play the game;
I may choose wrong, it’s not denied,
But by my choice you must abide….
What choice have you?

If, bored, I think one day to see the world
I pack that day and fly out on the next.
My choice to wander, or to sit home-curled;
Each place has friends, good fun, good food,
But you sit toothless, silent, rude….
And undersexed!

Cares and regrets of loss can go to hell:
You sort them out with Reason’s time-worn tool.
Today’s superb; tomorrow looks as well:
The word “tomorrow” is a thrill,
I’ll make of mine just what I will….
What’s yours, old fool?

(First published in Snakeskin No. 147, September 2008)

Each stanza presents an aspect of the superiority of present youth over future age. (Premise and conclusion aren’t necessarily made as statements, many times rhetorical questions are used instead.) The structure of each stanza is to begin with pentameters for a sense of reasonableness in the first three lines, pick up the pace for the next two lines, and end with a short punchline. I find it aggressive and effective.

I admire the chutzpah, the audacity, of the 22-year-old I was. I still have some years–not many–to think of a suitable answer.