Tag Archives: Shakespearean

Poem: “Careless Youths”

Carefree Youths

Like fishing boats sailing a landless sea,
an edgeless game-board for an endless game,
hauling their random catch from wide-spread nets,
hunting without the hunter’s hunt and aim,
but sailing, drifting, without cares or frets,
so carefree youths under the bowl of sky
will chance their drifting lives on random lips.
And then the Kraken rises, sinking ships.

“Carefree Youths” was published a couple of days ago in Bewildering Stories. It is in iambic pentameter with irregular rhyme. After the meandering start to the poem (about the youths’ meandering lifestyle), the last line is a hard punchline (reflecting the brutal ending of that lifestyle). There are no sequential rhymes until the last two lines, which thereby become the clear ending of the poem. The form of the poem accentuates the poem’s meaning. That is what form should do.

Final rhyming couplets were used extensively by Shakespeare in various ways. In his sonnets they provide a very strong ending after four quatrains, and is a reason for preferring the Shakespearean sonnet’s ABAB CDCD EFEF GG over the Petrarchan sonnet’s more mannered but less forceful ABBA ABBA CDE CDE. Many of his final couplets are well known – such as:

If this be error and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.

Shakespeare did the same sort of thing throughout his plays, in which a scene or a soliloquy will be in blank verse but often terminate in a rhyme. Some of the best-known examples being:

the play ‘s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king. (Hamlet)

Fair is foul and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air. (Macbeth)

Good night! Good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow
That I shall say goodnight till it be morrow. (Romeo and Juliet)

The rhymed sentence helps sum up the scene, and signals that the scene is ending and that a new scene is about to begin – particularly useful since in Shakespeare’s time there were no stage curtains and no real sets to speak of.

Ah, formal verse! So many uses!


Poem: “Viking Sails South”

This poem was originally published in Snakeskin in March 2019. I wrote it for a variety Viking, Snakeskin 259reasons. I’ve often thought that when the Norse settlement of Greenland ended around 1450, not all of the settlers would have either died or sailed back toward Scandinavia… why not explore further in North America and look for somewhere pleasant?


Tired of ‘Greenland’ and its icy coast,
a band of us sailed south to Leif’s old place,
discussed old legends (drinking many a toast)
of Norman settlements in Spain and Thrace.
So why not us as well? Let the old stay
in frost-filled farms, friendly, familiar.
Go south! Long nights to lengthening days give way
until it seems like Equinox all year.
Bring our old gods, have garlands round them hung –
wind in soft pines like loneliness of girls –
where just to taste the water makes you young –
pink conch shells on pink sand yield up pink pearls –
we saw Njord, sea god, sleeping from our railings.
Brown women smile. Our children will be skraelings.

My own family history supports this possibility of Vikings being attracted to the Caribbean: my great-great-uncle was a (very reactionary) Governor of the Danish West Indies; my grandfather was a (very liberal) Lutheran minister there; so my father was raised on St. Croix for ten years until it was sold to the US in 1917 – he was sent “home” to Denmark but returned to settle in the Bahamas for the last 22 years of his life; and though I have kept my connection to Denmark, and lived there for five years, the Bahamas is my home. Some Scandinavians are perfectly happy in the islands!

About the use of form in this poem: it is a standard Shakespearean sonnet: 14 lines (sonnet) of iambic pentameter (standard), rhyming abab cdcd efef gg (Shakespearean). However, it doesn’t have a strong volta, or turn in the argument, which is normally considered a requirement for a sonnet – you set the argument up first, and after the volta you demolish and replace it, or give it a good twist. The best that can be said for this sonnet is that the last two lines provide a resolution to the argument. Regardless, the sonnet length and structure allows a full exposition of an idea, while requiring brevity and compression. It can be very satisfying to produce.

Using Form: Sonnet: “The Squirrel in the Attic of his Brain”

Sometimes when you get the first idea for a poem with a line or so, such as “The squirrel in the attic of his brain / Shreds photographs and memories”, and the very nature of the idea leads to a long straggly exposition.

Image result for papers in a mess

Papers in the attic

If a squirrel is in his brain destroying his memories… and if he is an old house, of which his brain is the attic… then what other creatures might there be in the house? What other parts of the body might be represented by creatures? Can we get all the way from the hair to the toenails?

Here is how the rest of the squirrel poem worked out–it took a few months, the last image to make it into a sonnet coming while I was in the dentist’s chair having a root canal. You can guess which line that was.


The squirrel in the attic of his brain
Shreds photographs, pulls memories apart;
The old dog in the basement of his heart
Howls, lonely, soft, monotonous as rain;
And somewhere further underneath, a snake
In hibernation stirs, irked by its skin.
Up where the world’s news and supplies come in
Through the five senses of his face, to make
The room in which a garrulous parrot squawks
And sometimes songbirds sing – it’s his belief
Mice gnaw behind the wainscots of his teeth.
The cat of consciousness, impassive, walks
Towards the door to go out for the night:
Is everything (oh dog, shut up!) all right?

The sonnet is useful for imposing order. Initial long thoughts get compressed into quatrains or couplets, long lines get compressed into pentameters. And then the search for a rhyme triggers an additional related thought or image, and it has to get squeezed in, which means unnecessary words get squeezed out. And hopefully you end up with something that feels both rich and compact.

The two most traditional forms of the sonnet are the Italian or Petrarchan, and the Shakespearean. The former lays out a position, argument or question in the first eight lines, the octave, rhyming ABBA ABBA; and then makes a turn or volta to provide a resolution in the last six lines, the sestet, rhyming CDE CDE. Shakespeare popularised a sonnet structure of three quatrains (ABAB CDCD EFEF) to lay out a position, with the volta coming for the final couplet, GG.

There is a lot to be said for following those formal sonnet structures, because their rhyme schemes support a clarity of exposition of thought. But people frequently allow themselves unconventional rhyme schemes in order to achieve the meaning they want in the poem. And from more varied rhyme schemes, you can easily move to more varied line lengths, or shifting metre, or a different number of lines–yet still call it a sonnet. Merrill Moore, an American psychiatrist and poet, used loose sonnet-like structures to write down his observations several times during the day. He wrote thousands of poems a year, which, though rarely meeting strict definitions of formal verse, all have a sonnet feel to them.

So you can feel comfortable with sonnets which adhere to the sonnet concept, but use a non-iambic metre, or maintain four feet to the line, or six feet, or use a different rhyme scheme, and so on. I think the metre should still be regular, and there should be solid rhyme, for the poem to be labeled a sonnet. The sonnet above doesn’t adhere strictly to either the Petrarchan or Shakespearean format, but uses a mixture of them. Although I like it, it fails to achieve their true elegance.