Tag Archives: rhythm

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 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: Better Than Starbucks

BTS logoBetter Than Starbucks (BTS) is a literary magazine that all poets should be aware of because of its enormous and well-structured diversity. Apart from several types of poetry, it also has some short fiction and creative non-fiction.

It has (currently) eight separate poetry sections with a variety of editors, covering such areas as Free Verse, Haiku, African Poetry and, of most interest to me, Formal & Rhyming Poetry edited by Vera Ignatowitsch.

The poets who show up in the formal section vary from issue to issue, but the range of poetry is always impressive: you can expect to find a couple of lighthearted limericks, a couple of serious sonnets, and a few lyrical poems in nonce forms.

Of particular interest to active poets is that BTS will take previously published as well as fresh work. This allows the poet to republish their strongest individual pieces and gain a wider audience for them; and the magazine gets to publish the best of the poet’s work, not necessarily their most recent (or hardest to place). For the reader, too, it means that the standard of work is higher than usual.

My own work has been published or republished in BTS several times, and I was lucky enough with the current (November 2018) edition to have two poems in the Formal & Rhyming section, and one in Free Verse, and two in International Poetry. (I haven’t achieved such a trifecta before, and don’t expect to again. So now is obviously the right time for this blog post… even if I am confessing to writing Free Verse. Sort of.)

Better Than Starbucks is a very good-looking magazine. It now comes out every two months in both hard and soft copy. Strongly recommended.

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.

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.