Tag Archives: sonnet

Poem: Sonnet: “The Unconscious Gets No Respect”

Today’s poem is about the unconscious, again. It was paired with the “Thunder-Galloping” one when published in Snakeskin, November 2016.

THE UNCONSCIOUS GETS NO RESPECT

The unconscious is a melancholy drunk
It prattles on in dreams with brutal truth.
“I’m getting ugly and I’ve lost my youth.”
“In useless youth I was a stupid punk.”
It evilly summons loved ghosts from the past –
Bobs this one’s hair and dyes it a rich red –
Conflating one who’d never shred their head
With unrelated one who lives life fast.
It sings its nonsense songs like Lear’s poor fool,
Nonsense that turns out sane in retrospect;
Is treated with contempt, or else neglect;
Unrecognized for what it is: a tool,
A genius program for decoding life,
A mental multi-blade Swiss Army knife.

This poem was written four weeks after “My Thunder-Galloping Unconscious Mind”. It repeats my attitude towards the unconscious: that it is powerful, deserves respect, and when respected provides health, direction and inspiration. I go through periods of writing about the same subject, just as an artist may do several versions of the same landscape either to try to capture the ineffable or simply to experiment with different weathers and lights and moods.

The structure of the poem – well, it is in reasonable iambic pentameter, but I’d say it’s a technically weaker sonnet than its twin, with a regular but less admirable rhyme scheme. The octet breaks satisfactorily into two quatrains and the volta is acceptable; but though the sestet has a concluding couplet, it’s actually a bit scrappy.

Be all that as it may, I like the poem; and publication in Snakeskin is always a good seal of approval.

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New Poem: “Buried in the Garden”

I have a poem published in May’s Snakeskin which (shock, horror!) is not formal.

Snakeskin logo

Buried in the Garden

Now I lie dead, buried in the garden,
And the plants take over.
Two hibiscus bushes grow from my eyes,
Oleander from my nose,
A sapodilla will fruit from my mouth,
Casuarinas grow to sigh from my ears.
From my chest a love vine straggles out
And black crabs live in the cavities of my lungs.
A chicken boa curls around and hunts up and down
And from my private parts grows
That least private of plants, a coconut palm.
From my feet termites are building tunnels out around the world.
So is my body divided, reused, and the birds take hair for their nests
And the calcium of bones and teeth for their eggs
And the body, the body is gone.
And what am I, but a body? What would remain in your sieve if you sift my remains?
Only some thoughts, others’ memories of some thoughts,
Blown away on the wind when the rememberers themselves are gone.

At a stretch, you could claim it has elements of formality. It has a structured sequence of appropriate tropical plants and other creatures growing from body parts – the most visually arresting from the eyes, the most highly scented from the nose, and so on. It has a volta, a turn in the argument from the description of transformation as positive, to the dismissal of that process as being mere erasure.

But are those things enough to make the whole piece word-for-word memorable? Because that is my test of poetry. And I think the answer is no. So no, it is not real poetry. There may be one or two memorable phrases, but that’s not enough. The underlying concept may be memorable, the images may be memorable; still not enough. Only if the entire piece is easy to recite because of the actual expression of the words, I argue, can it be called poetry.

Should you then put your time into transforming the images into formal verse, creating perhaps a Shakespearean sonnet, iambic pentameter and all?

Buried in the Garden (Take 2)

In garden buried, I sprout from my eyes
Hibiscus; oleander from my nose;
From mouth, a sapodilla; a pine sighs
From out my ear; from chest a love vine grows;
Black crabs in lungs, small boa in my guts;
From feet, ants tunnel out around the world;
My privates sprout a palm with coconuts.
Birds peck my bones, my teeth, hair that once curled,
For calcium for eggs and for a nest…
Sift my remains: what remains in your sieve?
Of my whole body I’ve been dispossessed,
Only the memory of some thoughts still live
Within the thoughts of others’ memories;
When those rememberers go, all traces cease.

So we come back to the old questions of poetry: is the expression itself richer or poorer for having been put into verse? And is the formal verse expression (whether richer or poorer) more memorable than the non-formal expression? What do you think?

I wonder if Snakeskin editor George Simmers has an opinion.

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?

VIKING SAILS SOUTH

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.

Poetry Resources: Bewildering Stories

Bewildering Stories is a weekly magazine of sf and speculative fiction (mostly) and poetry (some), created and managed by Don Webb and half a dozen others. Because it does a Quarterly Review and an Annual Review of the editor’s choice, it produces about 47 issues a year of original material (or predominantly original – it allows previously published material). It is now coming up on issue number 800. I’ll leave it to you to figure out how long it has been in existence… for an online magazine, it is truly venerable.

I often have a poem in Bewildering Stories, and this week is no exception: “When at the End – Wishful Thinking“:

“When at the end of life we who by swords, axes, cleavers
go as heroes to Valhalla, the rest go to Hel.”

“When at the end of life we the true believers
go as saints to Heaven, the rest go to Hell.”

“Our memory is all that we are.
When at the end of life we are remembered,
we still exist for as long as our memory lasts.
Remember us! We are no more than memories of our pasts.”

When, at the end, the helmet of this life is lifted away,
the Virtual Reality of “human” fades to grey,
will you find yourself in a world fresh, rich and deep,
an environment more meaningful, truer, greater?
(And is it somewhere you go even now, in sleep?)
Surely behind the simulation must be a Simulator.

It accepts formal and informal verse, being more concerned with the speculative nature of the ideas than with an aesthetic preference. The poem above is pretty much a sonnet, though the scansion is uneven, the rhyme scheme unorthodox and the rhymes themselves iffy (beginning with rhyming Hel with Hell). So not a very aesthetic product, but full of speculation – which is the priority.

The editorial board is diverse, Don being based in Canada but drawing on others in the UK and US. Submissions of course can come from anywhere. And another nice thing that Don does is to include “Challenge questions” about a number of the pieces in each issue. The answers from readers are not typically shared, but it is a nice way of provoking more thought.

Altogether a worthwhile magazine for poets as well as fiction writers.

 

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

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.