Tag Archives: sonnets

Irregular Sonnet: ‘Where Do They Go?’

Where do they go, those children asleep?
Do they roost, or do angels put them on shelves?
Or do they go home, to some place they keep
locked far away from us and themselves,
Or an alternate universe? In, out, up, down?
Into a not-place, past care and past fear?
Past love and past tired, past smile, yawn and frown
into subtracted space, full of not here?

And where do they go, the dead?
We say we can’t know where they go,
just that they’re gone. But the crow
says, There is more to know that you don’t know –
says, Better ask instead
where do we go, when dead?

*****

This almost-regular sonnet was originally published in Bewildering Stories (thanks Don Webb). I thought it might be nice to emphasise (after some of irreligious poems) that I am not an atheist (except in the eyes of the organisedly religious). I am a Militant Agnostic: “I don’t know, and neither do you.”

Photo: “Good sleeping children in the morning” by michibanban is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Sonnet: “What Will You Be When You Grow Up?”

Historically, this never was a thing.
You did what you were born to do, were told,
Fitting yourself into your parent’s mold,
A farmer’s son a farmer, king’s son a king,
A girl to be a mother and a wife.
But then came education, travel, choice,
Awareness of the wishes you could voice,
Countries, careers, sex partners — it’s your life!
And though just who you are you cannot know,
Nor what you want, yet all is your decision.
You’ll make mistakes, find failures and derision,
But life is long: so have another go . . .
Retry, and then try something else; take; give.
Do what you love. You die, regardless. Live!

This sonnet is a mirror of the short poem I posted most recently – and I’m happy to see that my outlook has a certain consistency, even over a 50 year period.

The sonnet has just been published in the formal verse section of the current Better Than Starbucks – thanks, Vera Ignatowitsch!

Photo: “career choices” by Jerome T is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Review: ‘Rhythm and Blues’ by David Stephenson

David Stephenson’s ‘Rhythm and Blues’ was the 2007 Richard Wilbur Award winner, and contains some excellent poems. Its back-cover blurbs are accurate–as Kim Bridgford states, the collection has “wisdom, a plain-spoken, convincing style, and a sense of irony… all the time with impressive technical skill.”

Several of the sonnets are excellent: ‘Pilate’ meditates on the harshness of the law,
But why waste breath? In six months, who will mourn
This insect, or recall that he was born?

The ‘Geologist’ speaks of his passion for the history of rocks, ending:
The present is a world of dirt and sand
And people–they of the immortal soul–
Whom I do not pretend to understand,
Though I admire them in their long-term role
As precursors to limestone, chalk, and coal.

And beyond the sonnets are villanelles, and longer blank verse monologues in the voices of a toll collector, a housebreaker, a corporate hatchet man, and so on; and poems with various structures of stanza.

But there is a problem: the ruthless, relentless, metronomic use of iambics. The entire collection is in either iambic pentameter or iambic tetrameter. In general, the shorter pieces are good; the longer pieces are thematically interesting, but I find pages of blank verse unappealing. Stephenson can obviously think easily in iambic pentameter; but that skill tends towards blather. As the book title suggests, there is rhythm; but with insufficient variety for the claim of music.

But maybe this is expecting too much. Stephenson is a committed formalist, to the extent of having started his own Pulsebeat Poetry Journal for formal verse. His sonnets in particular are very good. And the book is highly readable and rereadable–though in small doses, not straight through in one go.

And there is actually one break in the unremitting use of iambics, in the shortest and most whimsical poem in the book–and for all those reasons perhaps my favourite. It is ‘To a Garbage Truck’:

Stop for me, romantic sloop,
When all your cargo is on board
And your ride low upon the waves,
For I would cast my lot with yours

And put forth on the open street
En route to some strange orient
Full of exotic ports of call
Beyond the gray horizon.

Sonnet: ‘Portraits’

Easy enough, the people in the park,
A subway addict, or some screaming child:
Knock off five lines from some chance-heard remark,
A tic observed, or mood or clothes gone wild.

A longer piece for loves, coworkers, friends,
People you’ve bonded with, played some life game;
Can’t be so flip – unless the portrait bends,
Fictionalizing thoughts in formal frame.

And closer to you than your own bed mate
Is, tougher yet, perspective and full view
Of parents, more than threaded through your fate,
They’re warp and weft, the loom, the weavers too.

So, last of all, the golden trophy shelf:
That great and grand grotesquery, yourself.

… which is merely to say that writing about people has difficulties that increase as the subjects are closer to you. Technically, a Shakespearean sonnet (iambic pentameter, rhyming ABAB CDCD EFEF GG), though without a volta, that delightful twist that reverses the mood or imagery or argument. Oh well.

Originally published in The Poetry Porch, edited by Joyce Wilson.

Photo: “National Portrait Gallery” by Joe Shlabotnik is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Poem: ‘The Divine Moon’

Do you remember when we used the Moon
To measure menses, measure time by month?
We’d found the Moon determined tides and blood,
So planted crops and children by its tides.

From tribal gods of weather, waves and war
We groped, pre-Science, through theology,
Trying to grasp the world and life and death,
Leaving the worship of the moon behind.

The atheist Gagarin, first to heaven,
Noted he didn’t see a God up there.
American believers, first to the Moon,
Quietly said nothing, and moved on.

Now city kids may never have seen stars…
Soon satellites will blanket the night sky…
With skyless nights, why should we still use months?
And when in space, why months? Or days? Why years?

Not knowing where we’re headed, all we know:
That god or goddess Moon’s left far behind.

This poem was published in the latest issue of Sally Long’s biannual Allegro Poetry Magazine. The issue has a theme of ‘Geography’, so the subjects range from the gardens at Stowe to the aftermath of Hiroshima. Perhaps the moon is in itself a little outside the Earth-bound definition of geography, but as it has always been such a big part of our lives on this planet I think it’s fair to include it. And people have been there, and will go again. And our attitudes to the Moon and Heaven and Earth will keep on evolving as humans themselves will change, moving forward in unknowable time and space.

The poem is in iambic pentameter, but lacks the rhyme and wordplay that I advocate for poetry. I thought of trying to shrink it down from 18 lines to a sonnet’s 14, which is a trick I’ve used before to make myself find rhymes and generally tighten up a poem; but in this case I couldn’t see which blocks of four lines I could combine, eliminate or otherwise reduce – they all seemed necessary, and hard to shrink. I hadn’t thought of going for four blocks of three lines each, with a concluding couplet… but that might provide a solution, if I feel up to attempting it for a couple of hours.

Meanwhile, if you’ve never seen Georges Melies’ 12-minute 1902 movie ‘Le Voyage dans la Lune’, here it is with an electronic soundtrack by Andreas Brink. Yes, our ideas about the moon keep changing…

Sonnet: ‘One True Religions’

No vision brings the whole world to its knees.
Jains, Hindus, Buddhists, Mithraists, Parsees,
Moses, Muhammad, Jesus or St. Paul,
One True Religions never conquer all.
Humans are simply too cantankerous
for any one belief to anchor us.

Success at once leads into sects and schisms:
the One Pure Ray of Light hits human prisms,
and egos, power grabs, love of dispute,
traditions, curiosity, all loot
the intellectual wealth of strong belief.
This year’s great guru’s merely last year’s thief.

Control’s maintained by sword and flame, not thought.
In failure, drink the Kool Aid or get shot.

Well, maybe 14 lines rhymed in pairs isn’t really a sonnet, even if it’s in iambic pentameter. But when you’ve got a structure that works for a poem, I don’t think it’s worth trying to hammer it into a different shape just to try to reach a “higher” standard. Anyway, sonnet or not this poem was published in Rat’s Ass Review – as you could guess from the journal’s name, editor Roderick Bates publishes whatever appeals to him, with no apologies for treading on other people’s sensibilities, religious, poetic or anything else. It’s a good place to submit a poem that other journals might be squeamish about, and a good place to read a wide range of outspoken poetry.

“Jonestown massacre” by johndavison883 is marked with CC PDM 1.0

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.