Tag Archives: sonnets

Sonnets: ‘Confronting Churches and the Void’

A man-like god creates the universe?
Two hundred billion galaxies? Each holding
a hundred billion stars? And each star moulding
its planets into life, teeming, diverse!
All this from some bearded old angry face
who says “Build me a temple, pray, and pay
the priests who’ll guide you onto Heaven’s way,
erase your sins . . . or you’ll go in disgrace
to torment underground — eternally.”
No way your life gains from such small belief,
passed on by some royal or holy thief
who says “God wants your money, send it me —
my palace honours Him . . .” The human lurches
fearful, confused, through wastes of wasteful churches.

As social animals, we find our place
by walling others out, putting them down:
these walls, my family; those walls, my town.
Even more walls: tribe, country, faith or race.
This atavism’s bad for mental health,
supports no sense of personal strengths or meaning,
allows no purpose, individual leaning,
denies achievement to your inner self.
Identity’s reduced to football fan,
or something uniformed, or some group prayer;
without those — alcohol, drugs or despair,
not knowing how to move past Nowhere Man.
Know yourself, human, to confront the Void:
your proper study’s all that’s anthropoid.

You can think of these two sonnets as the result of ten years of Church of England boarding school–five years in Jamaica, five in England–where Scripture lessons and daily church services were complemented by solid science and rigourous literature. And of course the Church of England recognises no Pope except the man who wrote “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; the proper study of Mankind is Man.” So here you see the fruits of a well-rounded education.

This poem has just been published in Better Than Starbucks, a remarkably extensive poetry journal (and with some fiction too). The bulk of my BTS-published poems are in the Formal Poetry section, but there are many other sections–it’s a 100-page magazine. The online version is free, and well worth exploring.

“stepping across the bridge” by Max Nathan is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

August 3: Annual Surreptitious Sonnet Day

Wallace_Stevens,_1948

Wallac Stevens

“Engaged at the office all day on a sonnet – Surreptitiously.” This charming journal entry by Wallace Stevens for August 3, 1906, triggered a fine sonnet by Frank Osen some years ago:

Cover Memo

To Distribution:
Stevens was aware
That many poets must go leopard-like
Among the striped, yet not be spotted there.
This isn’t easy, when desire may strike
At work, although it called in sick last night,
And, stricken, one must chase in search of tea
Or oils or oranges, to some distant height—
Or only to the nearest OED.
Yet, when protective coloration’s risked,
A job transcends that mental game preserve
Where fauna don’t go frolic, but get frisked.
For all who bear an office to observe,
We ought to mark each August third this way:
As Annual Surreptitious Sonnet Day.

This in turn caused a rueful villanelle by Marcus Bales:

August Third

On August Third I have to write a sonnet
As Wallace Stevens did in Nineteen Six —
And here I’ve got a villanelle, doggone it.

And ever since Frank Osen got right on it
By writing his he’s put us in a fix:
On August Third I have to write a sonnet.

I hope you’ll Vladimir-and-Estragon it,
While I arrange my sonnet’s final mix
Cause here I’ve got a villanelle, doggone it.

It may be that allusion’s over-drawn – it
May not be your cliques that I transfix
When August Third I have to write a sonnet.

I haven’t got a shocking denouement – it
Isn’t how a villanelle does tricks,
And here I’ve got a villanelle, doggone it,

So as you don your writing hat, or bonnet,
Don’t mix your forms as I did, dicks and chicks —
Cause here I’ve got a villanelle. Doggone it,
On August Third I have to write a sonnet.

Well! What will today bring, I wonder?

Sonnet: “From the Sudden Sun”

Life bioengineers its seamless rounds
with green leaves scarleting in fierce blue skies,
falling from sudden sun or winds that rise
with violin-sad sighing, dying, sounds.
Toddlers in pointlessly expensive clothes
with pregnant women breadily approach
some non-migrating geese which with reproach
lift in unfrantic flight to lake’s repose.
Despite such fertile life, the living leaves
blaze with the imminence of winter’s touch
and dead leaves blow beyond the groundsman’s clutch
in a wind chilled for one who disbelieves
that life entails the sudden cutting short
of your expression flowering in mid

Another of my existential sonnets, first published by Bewildering Stories (thanks, Don Webb). And, again, Don gave it a crisper title than my original “The Interplay of Life and Death in Fall”. I wrote this in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, watching the Canada geese at a small lake behind an upscale not-really-rural office building. Fall is, like every season, intensely evocative of human life.

I admit the ending involves a cheap trick–but leaving off the last word is designed to drive home the thought of mortality, and the missing rhyme is a perfect one… at least with an English accent, if not an American one…

 

The Greatest Early 21st c. Poet? M.A. Griffiths

M.A. Griffiths

Margaret Ann Griffiths–scanned photo provided by David Adkins

Ruthless, witty, iconoclastic poetry–much of it formal, much of it free–by a lighthearted woman with much to be serious about. Just coming into international prominence as an internet-oriented poet as she turned 60, Margaret Ann Griffiths was dying of an incurable stomach ailment. She posted poems online under her own name and as “Maz” and “Grasshopper” from 2001 until her death in 2009. Her only book, Grasshopper, was assembled posthumously from her writings in print and on line around the globe; it has 352 pages of poems, plus an extensive preface by Alan Wickes.

Probably her best-known poem is the Eratosphere prize-winning Opening a Jar of Dead Sea Mud:

The smell of mud and brine. I’m six, awash
with grey and beached by winter scenery,
pinched by the Peckham girl who calls me posh,
and boys who pull live crabs apart to see
me cry. And I am lost in that grim place
again, coat buttoned up as tight as grief.
Sea scours my nostrils, strict winds sand my face,
the clouds pile steel on steel with no relief.

Sent there to convalesce – my turnkeys, Sisters
of Rome, stone-faced as Colosseum arches –
I served a month in Stalag Kent, nursed blisters
in beetle shoes on two-by-two mute marches.
I close the jar, but nose and throat retain
an after-tang, the salt of swallowed pain.

She was a brilliant sonneteer (which seems to be a less exalted compliment in the US than in the UK), but also irreverent in light verse as in Clogs which begins:

The Queen Mum’s gorn and popped her clogs;
the telly’s stuffed with Royal progs.
I’ve heard a thousand epilogues
now the old Queen Mum has popped her clogs…

skillful with dialect verse, as in Fer Blossom:

Tha’s not allowed ta bury pigs, tha knows.
I blinks et Blossom’s bulk stratched awt on
a bad of bettercups end pink-tinged deisies,
aye closed es ef ha nipped off en a nep…

skillful with unstructured verse, as in Falling:

In the library,
you fell over me.
You said, So sorry.
I said, Ouch.
Later you fell over me
on the couch…

parody, as in Cutlet, Mince of Denmark, whose Act 1 is:

What fowl noisette’s abroad this night? I walk
the battlements. Porked lightning! Next appears
my father’s goose. O Veni, son, he says. We talk
of offal oxtails – poussin in his ears!

And the rolling, sonorous Sholey, beginning

Sholey brings the summer in a shiny old tin bucket
every year. He walks head high across the mountains
carrying the flowers. In the brim of his wide hat
nestle songbird eggs in pastel clutches…

I find it impossible to quote a full range of her poetry, there is too much, too diverse. But my favourites are her sonnets, circling around her themes of pets and poets, nature and history, war, women and sex… and illness and death.

Born and raised in London, an archaeology student at Cardiff, she lived in Poole on England’s south coast for the last decades of her life. Online she worked with poets around the world; offline she lived alone and unknown, her death not discovered for a month.

Google her, read whatever shows up, and then buy Grasshopper. I would recommend it to anyone who reads or writes poetry, anyone. I dip into it periodically, and read it right through every two or three years.

M.A. Griffiths–Maz–with her technical skill, insight, imagery, empathy and vast range… might just be the early 21st century’s greatest poet.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Gail White, “Anecdotal Evidence”

Gail White

Gail White

ANECDOTAL EVIDENCE

My aunt who brought her kidney function back
By eating grapefruit seeds for fifty days
Makes no impression on our local quack.
It’s anecdotal evidence, he says.
There are no reproducible results.
Another person might eat grapefruit seeds
For fifty days and cease to have a pulse.
Cause and effect’s the evidence he needs.
The evidence is all in favor of
The proposition that the dead are dead,
Despite our bitter hope and wistful love.
Yet when my mother died, my father said
That just before the chill that would not thaw,
Her face lit up with joy at what she saw.

Gail White writes: “One poem out of a lifetime’s work is hard to choose, but I find that when I think back over many years of sonnets, my mind keeps settling on this one (first published in Measure). The opening is light (and fictional), but the final sentence on my mother’s death is serious (and true). Perhaps for that reason it has stayed near my heart.”

Gail White is the resident poet and cat lady of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. Her poems appear in several of the Potcake Chapbooks, available from Sampson Low Publishers; her books ASPERITY STREET and CATECHISM are available on Amazon. She is a contributing editor to Light Poetry Magazine. “Tourist in India” won the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award for 2013.

Sonnet: “Viking Slave”

Viking funeral

Why did they make me swallow this mead muck?
My lord, alive, would barely let me drink.
They wouldn’t treat his wife this way, I think.
Now all I am is something they can fuck.
They say this way they’re sharing in their lord,
Behaving as he did with me, his slave.
And now they launch his boat upon the wave,
The dragon boat with him and me aboard.
Just me, his horse, his sword… the boat’s been fired;
An honour, just for me, not for his wife;
So with him I will end this stage of life
And go with him to Asgard… I’m so tired,
Couldn’t move even if I wasn’t tied.
They told his wife he loved her too. They lied.

This sonnet was published in the Rat’s Ass Review, Summer 2020 issue. The image of the burning longship funeral, complete with much-used female slave, goes back to the writings of Ahmad ibn Fadlan. In 922 he was sent as part of an embassy from the Caliph of Baghdad to the king of the Volga Bulgars, and ibn Fadlan wrote several pages on the Vikings who had settled along the Russian river Volga. (The very word Russia comes from “Rus”, Vikings from southern Sweden.)

Unfortunately for the burning ship image we love, the Viking chief’s boat was burnt on the shore of the river–at least in ibn Fadlan’s account. That allowed ship, chief and slave to be entombed. But it’s still a great image. Perhaps in other times and places…

 

Review: “Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Abridged Beyond the Point of Usefulness” by Zach Weinersmith

Shakespeare's sonnets

Zach Weinersmith is best known as the creator of Saturday Morning Breakfast Comics, a daily comic of random existentialism, religion, robots, sex, etc. As a gift to people self-isolating or otherwise inconvenienced in a time of Covid-19, he is making eight of his books available free as PDFs. I chose one for its intriguing title, and discovered the most amazing piece of literature, more offbeat-creative than anything I’ve read recently: “Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Abridged Beyond the Point of Usefulness“.

What he has done is abridge each of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets from its rhymed pentameters into a rhymed couplet, abridging the pentameters into tetrameters. (And sonnet 145 being uniquely written in tetrameter, he naturally reduces to trimeter.) For a taste of this, consider Sonnet 18:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Under Weinersmith’s treatment, it becomes

Summer’s bad, then dies. You won’t.
(OK, you will, but poems don’t.)

But cutting through to the simple essence of the poem without any of that unnecessary flowery stuff is only part of what he has achieved: the greater gift is that in radically abridging the poems, Weinersmith allows the entire series to be seen as a connected series of comments, almost diary entries, in Shakespeare’s relationship first with the so-called “Fair Youth” (the first 126 sonnets) and then the “Dark Lady” (the last 28).

As Weinersmith points out in his brief but enormously enlightening introduction,

‘the term “Fair Youth” is not present in the sonnets, but is something of a euphemism designed to, as poet Don Paterson writes in Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets , “[keep] everything just on the right side of sodomy”.

After the initial 126 poems, we encounter the 28 “Dark Lady” sonnets. These contend with an unattractive, bad-smelling, yet surprisingly popular married woman whom Shakespeare negs until she sleeps with him. Most of the poems that follow this consummation concern how Shakespeare hates himself for having sex with her. Remember this next time you receive these as a Valentine’s gift.’

Weinersmith lays out the whole flow of Shakespeare’s relationship with the Fair Youth, and the relationship of both of them with the Dark Lady… You will never think of Shakespeare the same again. Read Weinersmith’s introduction, then blast through his couplets. You may, like me, find yourself needing to work your way through the damn sonnets themselves, and see them for the first time as they truly are.

Sonnet: “Unanswered”

The Afterlife – some Happy Hunting Ground?
Or Jesus, virgins, merging flesh and breath?
Or god of your own world, white-robed and crowned?
Or ghost? Rebirth? Just, please, no final death!

The sparrow through the Saxon hall at night –
Brief light and warmth, then cold obscurity.
Is this our life? But yet the bird in flight
lived in the dark, both pre and post. Do we?

Frogs, living in a buried water tank,
spend all their time in darkness. Then the lid
is lifted and sun shines into the dank –
lid down, light gone… but they live on, though hid.

We work and play throughout our brief day’s sun –
Day raises many questions – night, just one.

This sonnet was published in Snakeskin No. 265, edited by George Simmers. I write both religious and irreligious poetry as the muse suggests, but my own personal views are Fundamentalist Agnostic: “Nescio et tu quoque”, “I don’t know and neither do you.” The sparrow reference is to a passage in the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People which usually seems to resonate well.

Technically the sonnet is Shakespearean: iambic pentameter rhyming ABAB CECD EFEF GG. The three quatrains are each self-contained, but leading to the resolution (or lack of resolution) in the couplet. The last line is the strongest, which is always satisfying.

Sonnet Contest: Cash prizes, no entry fee!

poetry magazine, Better than Starbucks logo

Better Than Starbucks has just opened its annual sonnet contest, an opportunity for all lovers of formal poetry to practice their skills and show off their best work.

Open through October and November (closes December 1), the contest has no entry fee but awards prizes of $100, $50 and $25 for the top three sonnets, which will be published in the magazine along with seven runners-up.

Expect the competition to be fierce! Better Than Starbucks already has a solid following among formal poets. Last year’s competition drew 560 sonnets, this year’s will undoubtedly see more. And you can only send two sonnets. Make sure they are good!

What “good” means can be gleaned from looking at last year’s results in the January 2019 issue, and more sonnets on the Formal Poetry page in March 2019. There are explanatory notes on the contest page, showing some leniency in the definition, and clarifying that previously-published work is acceptable:

This contest is for a metrical sonnet.
Your sonnet can be shakespearean, petrarchan, spenserian, rhymed, or slant-rhymed.
Blank verse is fine, as long as the sonnet form is clearly identifiable.
We’ll consider tetrameter, hexameter, etc. as well as pentameter.
Some metrical variation is fine, but don’t forget the volta!
As always, we do accept previously published work.

Good luck!

Poem: “Carefree 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!