Tag Archives: rhythm

Poetry Resources: Measure for Measure anthology

xkcd iambic pentameter

xkcd – another engaging commentator

The ‘Measure for Measure’ anthology clarifies and extols the delights of the variety of metres available to the poet, from the accentual verse of our Anglo-Saxon roots, through the familiar and natural iambs, dactyls and trochees, to the more obscure sapphics and so on based on Greek and Latin forms.

The book is edited by Annie Finch and Alexandra Oliver, two of the most accomplished formal poets of North America writing today. The preface by Annie Finch and the introductions to the various sections include encouraging exercises for developing skills in both reading and writing poetry, and the tone of the anthology is more expository than a mere collection of poems would be.

The selections for each metre are enjoyable in themselves, and by being grouped in that way they drive a fresh awareness and insight into their nature. The only negative for me came towards the very end, where the section on Sapphics and Alcaics confirmed for me that they are not really relevant for English verse.

Overall, an extremely interesting and informative anthology.

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Using form for fun: “Auntie’s Model Niece”

Image result for art school model

Posing bare

AUNTIE’S MODEL NIECE

 

Auntie got her
Maid to knit a
Set of under-
Wear,

For my frozen
Sister Flo’s end
That was posing
Bare;

Flo then wore ’em
With decorum
And she swore ’em
Grand,

Undismayed by
Undies made by
Auntie’s maid by
Hand!

First published in Snakeskin, republished in The HyperTexts, this poem has been a family favourite. It shows some of the strengths of form: a playful form suits a playful idea, and simple structure and heavy rhyme make the poem easy to learn by heart.

Using form for fun: “Old Sailors”

This poem was written purely for fun–and the use of form was essential.

Lantern Slide - Two Sailors Having a Cigarette

Two old tars

OLD SAILORS

Two tars talked of sealing and sailing; one said with a sigh
“Remember gulls wheeling and wailing, we wondering why,
“And noting bells pealing, sun paling — it vanished like pie!
“And then the boat heeling, sky hailing, the wind getting high,
“And that drunken Yank reeling to railing and retching his rye,
“John missing his Darjeeling jailing, and calling for chai?
“While we battened, all kneeling and nailing, the hurricane nigh,
“And me longing for Ealing, and ailing?” His mate said “Aye-aye;
“I could stand the odd stealing, food staling, not fit for a sty,
“And forget any feeling of failing, too vast to defy –
“Home-leaving your peeling-paint paling too far to espy –
“All because of the healing friend-hailing, the hello! and hi!
“And, with the gulls squealing, quick-scaling the mast to the sky.”

The poem started as an exploration of rhymes for both sealing and sailing, which seemed like interestingly paired words. Many of the rhymes (and the third one, “sigh”) fell easily into a nautical mood. The metre flowed on from “sealing and sailing”. Add in alliteration wherever possible, and look for a coherent story and resolution… and there is the poem.

It was originally published in George Simmers’ online poetry journal, Snakeskin–a highly eclectic journal–and it made for what one reader called a “good nautical rhythm”, and another comment was “finely composed wordy-whirlwind of images”. Both those strengths of the poem come from the use of form: the nautical rhythm from the choice of metre, the whirlwind of images from the requirement to compress everything into the rhyme scheme.

It isn’t a deep, meaningful poem; but form can be used purely for enjoyment.

Encouraging the Muse to visit

You may not be able to decide to write a poem, but there are a variety of things that you can do to increase the chance of being in a poem-writing state of mind.

Erato, Muse of Poetry, by Edward Poynter Toile

Erato, Muse of Poetry, by Sir Edward John Poynter 1870

The first, of course, is to read poetry. We are all influenced by what we are seeing and hearing. Our voices and accents shift towards those we’re talking with, the tunes we hum or whistle are influenced by what we’ve been listening to, and how we write is influenced by what we’ve been reading. Read poetry, especially rhymed and metered, and you’ll be more likely to find your unstructured thoughts expressing themselves in verse.

And that word “unstructured” is also one of the keys. Poetry can come from a chance phrase in your head, from a random rhyme opportunity that you run across that intrigues you for whatever reason, or from an unexpected image or similarity that carries an idea or a metaphor into your thoughts.

So the second thing you can do is, whenever some tiny fragment like this occurs to you, write it down! It is a gift to your conscious poetry-writing mind from your unconscious poetry-dreaming mind.

If it happens in a restaurant, write it down on anything you can take out. If it happens just when you’re going to sleep, sit up, get up, write it down. If it is only a phrase or an idea, write it down. If anything else occurs to you while writing, write it down too. If what you have seems structured, but some other unstructured thoughts are hovering around, write them down too. It doesn’t have to be perfect. You can always come back to it later. But if you don’t grab it when it appears, you are unlikely ever to find it again, or even to remember that there was ever anything there.

The third is to worship the Muse. Really? No, not really, but there’s no other simple way to describe it. There are forces in your subconscious of which you are unaware. They speak to you in dreams when something is really important. You have probably experienced the difference between what can be called “big dreams” and “little dreams”–messages from the unconscious mind, vs tidy-up-and-defrag dreams.

Somewhere inside your mind a creative engine is at work. You can ignore it, and then not only will you never write poetry, but you are likely to screw up your life. Or you can listen to it, let it sing to you, let it give you little gifts of wordplay or insight, and it will help you stay grounded in what is important. So writing down everything interesting that occurs to you out of the blue is a way of honouring that creative engine, that we can call your Muse. Be grateful to it. Accept that your unconscious may know things about you that you have no clue about, everything from how to keep your heart beating, to how to remember the name of someone from 20 years ago, to how to count time and wake you up at a certain time without an alarm clock. Poetry is the tiniest tip of the iceberg of all the unconscious mind can do. Honour it! And it will reward you.

You can find a guide to “Calling the Poem”–how to identify the poetic mood, how to encourage it, how to deal with it–in a chapbook of mine published by Snakeskin, and downloadable for free at http://www.snakeskinpoetry.co.uk/snake236.html

How to write the poem, when you’re in the right mood… More thoughts on that in the next post.

Our First Chapbook: “Tourists and Cannibals”

The first chapbook in the Potcake Chapbooks series–“Tourists and Cannibals – poems on travel”–is now out, and available through Sampson Low’s page. It features 11 well-known formal poets (“formal” in the sense of structured rhyme and metre/meter). Spellings wander between British and American, as the poets are writing from half a dozen countries. The variety of voices is part of the charm of the series, from the flippant to the wistful to the analytic, writing in a wide variety of forms.

01 Tourists and Cannibals cover

Alban Low’s drawings capture the right tone!

These chapbooks are made from a single large sheet of high quality bond paper printed both sides in colour, folded four times, cut and stapled. This gives a 16-page booklet, with enough space for a dozen poems and some illustrations by Alban Low. As you can see by the title and the front cover above, the chapbooks are lighthearted.

The poems can’t be too long in a format like this, and lightheartedness is well served by rhythm and rhyme. The chapbooks are designed to be the sort of enjoyable, witty, interruptable collection that serves well on a journey or as a little gift at the price of a fancy greeting card.

But of course their true, insidious intent is to help with the reinvigoration of traditional verse within popular culture. Will this work? We’ll just have to see.

 

Why “formal” verse?

This blog is dedicated to the proposition that not all poetry is equal – indeed, that not all of it is even poetry. “Poetry” went off the rails in the 20th century for a variety of reasons – accidentally? suicidally? – but it is slowly getting back on track.

Chatterton

“The Death of Chatterton” – the poet died at 17 (it is uncertain whether he committed suicide or took an accidental overdose, trying to cure himself of venereal disease).

“Poetry – the best words in their best order,” said Coleridge. Aristotle says “rhythm, language and harmony,” and that it is the use of harmony that distinguishes poetry from the other language-based forms. “Harmony” again from Thomas Campion, talking of poetry as the “ioyning of words to harmony”. Ezra Pound rewrites Aristotle’s definition as “Poetry is a composition of words set to music”.

This requirement for “rhythm”, “harmony”, “music” is what has been missing from most of what people styled “poetry” through the last 50 years. But it never goes away from popular culture, because it lives in musicals, rock, c&w, rap, the chants of street protests, and the nursery rhymes and lullabyes sung to babies. It never goes away from popular culture, because it is deeply ingrained in all of us, beginning with the heartbeat that surrounds us before we are born.

And rhyme, rhythm, alliteration and other tricks of formal poetry are not just some meaningless style: they are the hooks on which we hang our memory of the exact words. Ask anyone to recite a poem, and it will be a song, a nursery rhyme, or something else with strong formal elements to it. If you want something to be memorable – not in the sense of remembering the experience, but of remembering a text word for word – if it is anything more than a dozen words, it is far, far more easily remembered if it has rhythm and rhyme.

This blog argues that formal elements are essential to poetry. “Free verse” may be insightful, emotional, witty, descriptive (or, often, none of those), but it isn’t poetry. It’s prose.