Tag Archives: rhyme

Review: ‘By Heart – 101 poems to remember’, ed. Ted Hughes

This book’s theme is the memorisation of poems, and there are things I like and things I don’t like about both Ted Hughes’ introduction to the subject and the 101 poems that he has chosen.

First, the introduction. I like that it encourages people to learn poems by heart. But although the book’s title is ‘By Heart‘, Hughes instead teaches ‘by head’. His method is extremely cerebral, using the kind of image-association-chain taught by neuro-linguisitic program consultants to help you remember the names of business associates and clients. Hughes would have you construct a Cumberbatch-Sherlock Holmes ‘mind palace’. Taking Hopkins’ poem ‘Inversnaid’ as an example, Hughes explains that the opening lines
This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
can be dealt with as follows:
For ‘peaty burn’ it might be enough simply to imagine, like a frame in a colour film, a dark torrential mountain stream coming down among boulders. But to make sure it is ‘burn’ and not ‘stream’ that you remember, it might be better to imagine the stream actually burning, sending up flames and smoke: a cascade of dark fire, scorching the banks. The next item, ‘brown horse’, now has to be connected to the burning stream. The most obvious short-cut is to put the horse in the torrent of fire, trying to scramble out – possibly with its mane in flames.
He then goes on to connect it to the horse causing an avalanche (rollrock highroad) which comes down on a lion (roaring down), and so on.

My difficulty with all this is that the images he is creating are simply not what the poem is about. When Hopkins writes ‘burn’ meaning stream, it’s not appropriate to set it on fire. Of course the poem summons up images, and they are useful for memorizing… but for godssake, why not think of it as a Scottish stream rather than setting it on fire? The burn is brown and in spate, and rocks are rolling down it and it makes a roaring noise – and that is the picture you can hold in your head as you recite Hopkins’ lovely rich words, without having to involve fires, animals and avalanches.

It seems to me that Hughes is in danger of losing the beauty of the actual poem by going through his ‘mind palace’ activities. He appears to be reducing the memorisation of poetry to a party trick, performed at the expense of the poem itself. If he didn’t love the poem for its actual imagery, what did he love it for? When he memorised a poem, did he check it off and then forget it? Wouldn’t all the peripheral imagery have gotten in the way when he tried to recite the poem a few decades later? Better and safer to my mind to stay with the essential images and the richness of the language, rather than setting fire to a stream because the poet uses the word ‘burn’.

And this leads in to my thoughts about the selection of the 101 poems to be learnt by heart. Auden, Blake, Dickinson, Eliot, Frost, Wordsworth and Yeats each get at least five poems, and Shakespeare over a dozen. The less-represented poets are a wider mix, from John Betjeman to Elizabeth Bishop, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Lewis Carroll… The poems themselves are interesting, and many of them are perfect for memorising, so it is a worthwhile read.

But I don’t think it appropriate to waste five or six pages on the 130 or 170 lines of Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’ or Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’. Perhaps Ted Hughes learnt those two along with Blake’s ‘The Tyger’ and Wordsworth’s ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’, but the latter two are far more suitable than the former for a book that is meant to encourage others to achieve memorisation.

Again, most of the poems are good for learning by heart, but too many of them have none of the qualities that make it easy to learn poetry in English: rhyme, metre, alliteration, wordplay. William Empson’s translation of the Japanese poem ‘From the Small Bird to the Big’ is interesting, but inappropriate for this book. The same goes for Pound’s ‘The Return’ and Eliot’s ‘Marina’ – inappropriate because they are missing the music, the song-like qualities, that make memorisation easy. Easy, that is, if you are learning by heart, as the book’s title requires.

Updated Call for Submissions: Potcake Chapbooks

I am always keen to read and consider rhymed and metered verse that has already been published. There are several chapbooks that are jostling in the queue for completion and publication:

City! Oh City! (urban life)
Just a Little Naughty
Portraits Unpleasant
Various Heresies (religion)
The Horror of Spring! (seasons)
a Christmas season chapbook, needs Hanukkah, Divali, Festivus, etc

and there are more; but a recent one, ‘Robots and Rockets’, wasn’t part of my original plans: I just ran across a bunch of Science Fiction poems that I liked, and they filled a chapbook nicely. So I’m an unashamed opportunist. I’ll modify my plans if I think something better is available. All the chapbooks listed above are nearly full already but, as with all of them, if I run across another poem I really like, I’ll include it. And if I receive enough good poems on an unplanned theme, that theme will get slotted in.

And if I receive more good poems than I can fit in a chapbook, there is a good chance of a second chapbook on the same theme. The most recent, ‘Travels and Travails’, is similar to the very first, ‘Tourists and Cannibals’; and the upcoming ‘Lost Love’ (which has gone to Alban Low for illustrating) is similar to the second chapbook, ‘Rogues and Roses’.

When there is enough good material on a single theme to fill 13 pages of a chapbook (still leaving room for Alban’s artwork, of course), then it may become the next project. But until a chapbook actually goes to print everything is subject to change. An even better poem may show up and displace one tentatively placed. A slew (or slough) of poems on a new theme may cause a reprioritisation of planned chapbooks.

This is one of the reasons that I prefer to consider only poems that have already been published–so that I don’t feel guilty about having a bunch of poems that will sit with me for months, years, and may or may not be included in the Potcake series. I have flagged a thousand poems that interest me; but I can only publish a dozen in a chapbook, and only a few chapbooks will get produced in a year.

Poems in the chapbooks run from two or three lines to some 40 lines in length–obviously, with space at a premium, poems over 20 lines and running over one page are less likely to be included… but it does happen. Other criteria: I’m looking for wit, elegance, a variety of traditional and nonce forms, a variety of voices and moods: happy, sad, angry, sardonic, meditative… anything interesting I can scrounge. If you have something you think I might like, on any topic, please send it along to robinhelweglarsen@gmail.com. Submit:

  • Formal, or traditional verse: rhymed and metrical
  • Previously published
  • Must be your own work, you must have the rights to it
  • Send 3 to 10 poems in a single attachment, or in the body of the email
  • In a covering note, include a link to where I can read more of your work

I can’t promise to use your work, but I will read it and reply!

Sonnet: ‘We Know We Will Be Dead’

We know we will be dead, who are alive.
But should some element of us survive –
fragment of consciousness or memory –
what value could it have? What should it be
that the whole universe might benefit?
The atom matters – what’s not made of it?
And we’re not large – not like a conscious star
(if time will let us all evolve that far).
You’re not much different in real magnitude
from an ant crushed for going for your food,
a gnat rubbed out, its tiny consciousness
a dot… but does it build the universe?
If that gnat can’t, I don’t see how you can:
there’s not much difference between gnat and man.

Does a poem of 14 lines, rhymed in pairs, count as a sonnet? Perhaps, but it doesn’t feel quite right. Petrarchan and Shakespearian sonnet structures, with more complex structures of rhyme, produce a much greater impact with the final line–a sense of revelation, inevitability, an impression of absolute truth–purely by the successful rounding out of the pattern. I like this poem’s ending couplet… but it would be stronger if the previous 12 lines were better structured.

‘We Know We Will Be Dead’ was published in the most recent Allegro, edited by British poet Sally Long.

Hubble’s colourful view of the Universe” by Hubble Space Telescope / ESA is marked with CC BY 2.0.

Poem on poetry: ‘Diatribe Against Unversed Poets’

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.

Photo: “Lost in desert” by Rojs Rozentāls is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

New magazine’s Call For Submissions – Pulsebeat Poetry Journal

Poet (and engineer) David Stephenson contacted me recently with the message “I am starting a new journal, Pulsebeat Poetry Journal, for poems with a strong musical element, especially poems in meter and rhyme. I don’t think there are enough venues for rhyming poetry.” He is putting out a general Call for Submissions on his web page https://pulsebeatpoetry.com/guidelines/

“Poems full of music, using meter and rhyme or other means, previously unpublished… Theme should be the human condition… Submissions by December 31, 2021, for the first issue to be posted in January, 2022.” More submission details are at that link above.

David Stephenson has published in The Formalist, The Lyric, etc. His ‘Rhythm and Blues‘ won the Richard Wilbur Award in 2007, which puts him in excellent company. On the Masthead page of his web site you can find links to more recent poems of his, published in Autumn Sky Poetry and Avatar Review.

I look forward to reading the Pulsebeat Poetry Journal, and wish David Stephenson good luck with the venture.

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.

Short Poem: ‘Cultural Field Trip’

Properly stroppily,
Off to Thermopylae
Busloads of schoolchildren
Grudgingly go;
Hoovered, manoeuvred
Off into the Louvre’d
Be better for profs who are
Trudgingly slow.

No, I agree, that’s not a true Double Dactyl because it doesn’t have a single-word double dactyl line. It’s just one of those poems I’ve written for no other purpose than to play with rhymes. The poem was published in this month’s Snakeskin, editor George Simmers privately commenting: “As an ex-teacher I empathise with the trudging profs.”

“Mona Lisa Madness” by Joe Parks is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Evocative Fragments: from Macaulay’s ‘Horatius at the Bridge’

But the Consul’s brow was sad,
And the Consul’s speech was low,
And darkly looked he at the wall,
And darkly at the foe;
“Their van will be upon us
Before the bridge goes down;
And if they once may win the bridge,
What hope to save the town?”

Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods!”

An alliance of neighbouring city-states is attacking the young Roman republic with 10,000 cavalry and 80,000 foot soldiers. The River Tiber provides a natural defence, but the broad wooden bridge is a weak spot. Horatius with two friends will try to hold off the enemy while the bridge is being destroyed underneath them. Enemy champions attack them in single combat and are defeated, until the huge Astur strides up with his “four-fold shield”, shaking the sword “which none but he can wield”. He attacks Horatius and gashes his thigh. Horatius

… reeled, and on Herminius
He leaned one breathing-space,
Then, like a wild-cat mad with wounds,
Sprang right at Astur’s face.
Through teeth and skull and helmet
So fierce a thrust he sped,
The good sword stood a handbreadth out
Behind the Tuscan’s head.

(…)

On Astur’s throat Horatius
Right firmly pressed his heel,
And thrice and four times tugged amain,
Ere he wrenched out the steel.
And “See,” he cried, “the welcome,
Fair guests, that waits you here!
What noble Lucumo comes next
To taste our Roman cheer?”

I was probably 11 when our English classes in my Jamaican boarding school were enlivened by Macaulay’s nearly 600-line poem (though, truthfully, our textbook cut out a lot of the slow introductory verses). As someone who otherwise lived on works like Tarzan of the Apes and Bomba the Jungle Boy (and of course banned comics of Superman and Batman when I was home for the holidays), it was wonderful to discover that verse could deliver just as dramatic, violent and heroic a story as novels and comics. Further, verse can do so in passages of enormous emotional power, heightened by the drama of their rhythm and rhyme, with short passages sticking in the mind forever even if you aren’t trying to learn them by heart.

The other qualities that appealed to me were undoubtedly the feelings of patriotism and religious approval that I suspect are natural in children – the sense of community, of tribe, of duty, of being morally in the right, of overcoming difficulties, of excelling, of supporting and saving people, of being praised for it. And what I value in that today is that it was done without any reference to an actual modern-day country or an actual modern-day religion. In other words the emotions could be stirred up and the child could be (at least temporarily) ennobled, without the poisons of nationalism or religious fundamentalism finding a place. Indeed, by placing the heroic emotions outside the here and now, I think the poem helped inoculate me against such diseases.

I was already very comfortable with poetry when I was introduced to ‘Horatius’ – A.A. Mine, Edward Lear, Robert Service and the Anglican hymn book come to mind – but this poem took poetry into another dimension entirely!

Evocative Fragments: from Arnold’s ‘A Summer Night’ (1)

For most men in a brazen prison live,
Where, in the sun’s hot eye,
With heads bent o’er their toil, they languidly
Their lives to some unmeaning taskwork give,
Dreaming of naught beyond their prison wall.
And as, year after year,
Fresh products of their barren labor fall
From their tired hands, and rest
Never yet comes more near,
Gloom settles slowly down over their breast.
And while they try to stem
The waves of mournful thought by which they are prest,
Death in their prison reaches them,
Unfreed, having seen nothing, still unblest.

I’m very grateful to my schooling for putting Matthew Arnold on the curriculum – this subversive little passage seems designed to undermine the office and factory culture which has flourished since his time, to undermine even the student writing endless essays. Arnold was an inspector of schools as well as a poet and social critic, so we can assume he knew what he was doing. But isn’t it suggesting that a dissatisfied person should just drop out? More on that in the next fragment.

The other thing I like about the piece is its easy, flowing style. Every line rhymes, but without pattern. The lines are iambic, mostly pentameter, but a scattering of them are shorter. It feels very conversational, and it is certainly very easy to learn by heart (which is one of the reasons that poetry evolved in the first place). The only hiccup to natural speech are the displacement of ‘live’ and ‘give’ to the ends of their lines for the sake of the rhyme and even that, though artificial, is done conventionally enough to read smoothly. The rest of it is in normal speech. When T.S. Eliot came out with ‘Prufrock’ some decades later, though it had a different, Imagist sensibility, the only real difference in style was in dropping the thou’s and thee’s that Arnold still clung to.

Photo: “Office workers in Executive Building Room No. 123 prior to alterations, Brisbane” by Queensland State Archives is marked with CC PDM 1.0

Potcake Poet’s Choice: John Beaton, ‘Bedtime Story’

The sun has smouldered low. Its flaxen light
drizzles through the birches to the snow
where sheep stand still as hay-bales, beige on white.
A shepherd with a shoulderful of straw,
brindled by the shadows, softly walks.
The sheep flock round; he swings his load to strew
the strands on pillowed drifts like yellow locks,
then hastens homewards bearing sustenance
against the ghostly dark. He holds small hands
and spins his children tales of happenstance
and golden fleeces in enchanted lands.
Their minds woolgather. Snuggled down in bed,
they drift on snowy pillows; yellow strands
of hair glow like the hay their father spread.

John Beaton writes: “My wife and I have five children and one of my great delights was reading to them in bed when they were little. We covered a lot of ground, from Shel Silverstein’s poems and Roald Dahl’s stories to whole books like “Watership Down” and “The Old Man and the Sea.” This poem came to me when I was looking at the painting “Shortening Winter’s Day” by Joseph Farquarson (shown above). It was reminiscent of the place where I grew up in Scotland. The image of the shepherd feeding sheep in the gloaming light evoked the feeling of security and contentment that imbued those evenings of reading. I recite my poetry and tend to write for sound almost as much as for sense. I like the sounds of this one. Also, when picking subjects for poems, I’m more drawn to happiness and beauty than to sadness and misery. All in all, this poem fits my preferences quite nicely.”

John Beaton’s metrical poetry has been widely published and has won numerous awards. He recites from memory as a spoken word performer and is author of Leaving Camustianavaig published by Word Galaxy Press. Raised in the Scottish Highlands, John lives in Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island.

https://www.john-beaton.com/