Monday, April 21, 2008

Oh Who is That Young Sinner - a National Poetry Month post

You may remember past mentions on my blog of Oscar Wilde and his poems. Wilde's writing continues to resonate more than a century later. Wilde spent time in prison for "gross indecency" (a phrase used to indicate his homosexuality), and emerged a somewhat broken man. A.E. Housman wrote the following poem about Wilde's incarceration, but withheld publication of the poem until after his death. I'm not certain what Housman's precise views on homosexuality were (he certainly had fallen in love with his heterosexual roommate at school and been rebuffed), I like to think that Housman was ahead of his times in realizing that homosexuality is innate, and not a choice. Certainly his comparison to something as God-given as the color of one's hair seems to indicate that that may have been the case.

Oh Who Is That Young Sinner
by A.E. Housman

Oh who is that young sinner with the handcuffs on his wrists?
And what has he been after that they groan and shake their fists?
And wherefore is he wearing such a conscience-stricken air?
Oh they're taking him to prison for the colour of his hair.

'Tis a shame to human nature, such a head of hair as his;
In the good old time 'twas hanging for the colour that it is;
Though hanging isn't bad enough and flaying would be fair
For the nameless and abominable colour of his hair.

Oh a deal of pains he's taken and a pretty price he's paid
To hide his poll or dye it of a mentionable shade;
But they've pulled the beggar's hat off for the world to see and stare,
And they're haling him to justice for the colour of his hair.

Now 'tis oakum for his fingers and the treadmill for his feet
And the quarry-gang on Portland in the cold and in the heat,
And between his spells of labour in the time he has to spare
He can curse the God that made him for the colour of his hair.

This poem is written in couplets using lines known as "fourteeners," (a line with seven iambic feet in them, also called heptameter). A quick bit of counting on your part will show that more of the lines in this poem have 15 syllables than 14, but all possess 7 iambic feet, and the first beat in the fifteen-beat lines is usually a pick-up of sorts, mostly of words that could be dropped without damaging the meaning of the lines (e.g., "and", "now", "oh," etc.).

Sunday, April 20, 2008


It's late, and this will be extremely short, but here it is nevertheless:

On crown sonnets

As you probably know, I recently had the pleasure of writing one sonnet for inclusion in a crown of sonnets. There is another type of crown called a royal crown, which consists of 15 sonnets. As in a regular corona or crown, the first line of one is the last line of the one before it. That pattern holds for the first fourteen sonnets. The kicker comes in the fifteenth sonnet, which must be composed of the first lines of the prior fourteen. Marilyn Nelson wrote one, which became a book called A Wreath for Emmett Till. It is a masterpiece, if you ask me.

Jane Austen referenced such a thing within the text of Northanger Abbey, when, at the end of an evening, Catherine Morland finds herself the subject of admiration by two young men. Austen remarks "[s]he felt more obliged to the two young men for this simple praise than a true quality heroine would have been for fifteen sonnets in celebration of her charms."

On poets

"A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language."
W. H. Auden

"The poet doesn't invent. He listens."
Jean Cocteau

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Matzoh - a National Poetry Month post

In Eddie Izzard's act, Dressed to Kill, he famously asks "Cake or death?" Today, the answer to that question is a difficult one for many Jews. You see, as of sundown, Passover started, and with it came the obligation to eat matzoh. Now, I should note that you only have to eat it as part of the seder, and you're under no obligation to continue to eat it during the week of Passover: you just can't eat real bread. Or cake. If you want a wheat-related product, it's matzoh or nothing.

Also for those of you who haven't subsisted on matzoh for a week, you should know that it's not just called the "bread of affliction" because it's related to the flight of the Jews from Egypt all those centuries ago. Being a rather dry bread (oh, who am I kidding? It's an exceptionally dry bread, and is, for all intents and purposes, a cracker. A bone-dry cracker. But I digress), it can cause some rather unfortunate side effects. The kind that prunes were invented to cure. Cakes are made from matzoh meal (matzoh ground to a powder - it looks like flour, but acts like, um, lead) and from potato starch (the stuff that leaches into the water when you cook potatoes, or coats the bowl after you grate them, only without the moisture).

Today, I'm posting a bit of a poem by Marge Piercy entitled "Matzoh", with a link to the whole deal.

by Marge Piercy

Flat you are as a door mat
and as homely.
No crust, no glaze, you lack
a cosmetic glow.
You break with a snap.
You are dry as a twig
split from an oak
in midwinter.

Read the rest here.

The poem is from Piercy's collection entitled The Art of Blessing the Day: Poems with a Jewish Theme, which I believe I'll have to be on the lookout for. In the meantime, for those of you celebrating, Chag Sameach!*

*Happy holiday!

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Lion and Albert - a Poetry Friday post for National Poetry Month

My grandfather on my mother's side was a great one for songs and stories and performance pieces. Years ago, I found a copy of this monologue by Marriott Edgar amongst his papers. I forgot about it until yesterday when Angela was reciting "My Friend Jim," which includes the line "tomatoes are soft and don't bruise the skin, but this one did - it was wrapped in a tin." Not that The Lion and Albert has anything to do with tomatoes, but there is a death played to comical effect.

Marriott Edgar came from Scotland. He wrote quite a number of monologues for performance by Stanley Holloway. In fact, he wrote more of Holloway's monologues than Holloway did. (Holloway was renowned for his recordings of dramatic and comic monologues, and had a lengthy career as an actor as well - his most memorable role was as Alfred Dolittle in My Fair Lady.) The name of the lion (Wallace) is a reference to his illegitimate half-brother, Edgar Wallace, and has nothing to do with Wallis Simpson (a common misconception).

Although written as a performance piece, it counts as a poem as it's written in rhyme (and, more specifically, using a Northern English accent).

The Lion and Albert
by Marriott Edgar

There's a famous seaside place called Blackpool,
That's noted for fresh-air and fun,
And Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom
Went there with young Albert, their son.

A grand little lad was their Albert
All dressed in his best; quite a swell
'E'd a stick with an 'orse's 'ead 'andle
The finest that Woolworth's could sell.

They didn't think much to the ocean
The waves, they was fiddlin' and small
There was no wrecks... nobody drownded
'Fact, nothing to laugh at, at all.

So, seeking for further amusement
They paid and went into the zoo
Where they'd lions and tigers and cam-els
And old ale and sandwiches too.

There were one great big lion called Wallace
His nose were all covered with scars
He lay in a som-no-lent posture
With the side of his face to the bars.

Now Albert had heard about lions
How they were ferocious and wild
And to see Wallace lying so peaceful
Well... it didn't seem right to the child.

So straight 'way the brave little feller
Not showing a morsel of fear
Took 'is stick with the'orse's 'ead 'andle
And pushed it in Wallace's ear!

You could see that the lion didn't like it
For giving a kind of a roll
He pulled Albert inside the cage with 'im
And swallowed the little lad... whole!

Then Pa, who had seen the occurrence
And didn't know what to do next
Said, "Mother! Yon lions 'et Albert"
And Mother said "Eeh, I am vexed!"

So Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom
Quite rightly, when all's said and done
Complained to the Animal Keeper
That the lion had eaten their son.

The keeper was quite nice about it
He said, "What a nasty mishap
Are you sure that it's your lad he's eaten?"
Pa said, "Am I sure? There's his cap!"

So the manager had to be sent for
He came and he said, "What's to do?"
Pa said, "Yon lion's 'eaten our Albert
And 'im in his Sunday clothes, too."

Then Mother said, "Right's right, young feller
I think it's a shame and a sin
For a lion to go and eat Albert
And after we've paid to come in!"

The manager wanted no trouble
He took out his purse right away
And said, "How much to settle the matter?"
And Pa said "What do you usually pay?"

But Mother had turned a bit awkward
When she thought where her Albert had gone
She said, "No! someone's got to be summonsed"
So that were decided upon.

Round they went to the Police Station
In front of a Magistrate chap
They told 'im what happened to Albert
And proved it by showing his cap.

The Magistrate gave his o-pinion
That no-one was really to blame
He said that he hoped the Ramsbottoms
Would have further sons to their name.

At that Mother got proper blazing
"And thank you, sir, kindly," said she
"What waste all our lives raising children
To feed ruddy lions? Not me!"

You can watch a fine gentleman performing the piece at YouTube (where you can also find a recording of Stanley Holloway's recitation accompanied by a few photographic stills). Here is Eric Storm with a bang-up performance of this monologue/poem (written, appropriately, in ballad form):

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Inside the Fairy Ring - a National Poetry Month post

Today, an original poem written in response to a challenge issued by the talented poet, Elaine Magliaro, over at her solo blog, Wild Rose Reader last Friday. The challenge: write a poem using three seemingly unrelated words: ring, blanket and drum. Elaine posted my poem today, with the bonus surprise of comments from the uber-talented poet, Janet Wong (squee!). I didn't send her a title with it, but have added one here.

Inside the Fairy Ring
by Kelly R. Fineman

Inside the fairy ring,
awash with silver light,
sprightly dancers caper
on a blanket of dew-dappled flowers.
When grassy pipes and acorn drums fall silent,
all will fade away
to dawn.

In addition to this small poem, I've also written eight (count 'em, eight!) poems for my Jane project since arriving in the mountains on Monday. Must be the sun and the snowmelt and the songbirds, and having all day to do nothing but create. If that sounds like I'm recommending writing retreats to all of y'all, then you read it correctly.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Dover Beach - a National Poetry Month post

Today's poem has been on my mind off and on for several weeks now. It came to the fore again last Friday, when the corona of sonnets in which I had a hand, Cutting a Swath, hit the interweb. Tanita over at Finding Wonderland wrote my favorite sonnet of the lot (and that is saying something). Included in her sonnet (#5, incidentally) is the phrase "a darkling plain," which hearkens to today's selection:

Dover Beach
by Matthew Arnold

The sea is calm to-night,
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; -- on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch'd land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The sea of faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Most of the poem is written using iambic feet (ta-DUM), but the precise number of feet in the lines vary. His rhyme scheme is screwy, too, but interesting. For stanza 1, it's ABACDBDCEFCGFH (I think). It's fourteen lines, so it could've been a sonnet, but it's not. Not really. Starting over with stanza 2, it opens with the same rhyme scheme for the first four lines: ABAC, then diverges: BCDEFGEHGI. It closes with a 9-line stanza with a much more conventional, or at least regulated, rhyme scheme (ABBACDDCC).

It is likely that the ebbing and flowing line lengths are intended to reflect the lapping waves on Dover Beach. The first stanza is elegiac in tone, evoking the cadence of the sea and using dolorous words to invoke a melancholy ambiance, heightened by the references to sorrow, and to the repetitious movement of the pebbles to and fro in the water's currents. In the second stanza, he moves from the description of the physical sea to a more psychic sort of sea - "the sea of faith". He sees a decline in spiritual faith, leaving the world a lonelier place. The final stanza, from which Tanita drew her "darkling plain", is reassuring in its regular rhyme scheme, even if the metre continues its ebb and flow. For him, the answer is in keeping faith with one another, despite the vagaries of the world.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

For Once, Then, Something - a National Poetry Month post

Being in New England - and particularly in New Hampshire - puts me in mind of one of my favorite poets, Robert Frost. He worked not far from here, about an hour north near Franconia Notch, close to the shadow of the Old Man of the Mountain before he slid to his doom. I visited there a few summers back, and posted about his house and the property surrounding it, as well as providing the text of one of my favorites of his poems, "The Pasture.

Frost is sometimes seen as a nature poet: someone who writes about what he sees in the natural world. Simple poems that describe in simple terms what was visible to Frost's eye at some point in his life. While nature and its imagery form an integral part of his work, to write him off as simple would be a mistake. Conscious imagery and metaphor exists. In the poem The Oven Bird, for instance, Frost asks "what to make of a dimished thing?" (or, how to view life and its living in the aftermath of the horrors of the first World War).

I first read today's poem as a college student, and somewhere the sheet of paper printed in purple ink is tucked inside my Norton Anthology of American Literature, still smelling faintly of mimeograph fluid. Today's selection was published in Harper's Weekly in 1920, later appearing in Frost's collection, New Hampshire: A Poem with Notes and Grace Notes. In the poem that follows, Frost directly takes on his critics. "I do not merely skim the surface," he says in his way, "but perhaps you do not know how to see what is really there."

For Once, Then, Something
by Robert Frost

Others taunt me with having knelt at well-curbs
Always wrong to the light, so never seeing
Deeper down in the well than where the water
Gives me back in a shining surface picture
Me myself in the summer heaven godlike
Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs.
Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb,
I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,
Through the picture, a something white, uncertain,
Something more of the depths—and then I lost it.
Water came to rebuke the too clear water.
One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple
Shook whatever it was lay there at bottom,
Blurred it, blotted it out. What was that whiteness?
Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.

A quick scan of the end words will show that this poem is not written in a particular rhyme scheme. A counting of the syllables in each line, however, will yield the knowledge that each line contains eleven syllables. This is not a typical English form, my friends. I have it on good authority that it is a Latin form, as Frost (who studied Latin) would have known. It is, rather, a Latin form known by the ponderous name of phalaecean hendecasyllabics. The use of this particular form was common to a Roman poet named Catullus, who earned himself a reputation for scathing put-downs of his critics. The most notable of them was written in (say it with me:) phalaecean hendecasyllabics. Frost is not the first poet writing in the English language to send missiles towards his critics using this form; Tennyson shot back at his critics using the form in a poem entitled "Hendecasyllabics".

Monday, April 14, 2008

Sailing to Byzantium — a National Poetry Month post

I'm in the mountains of New Hampshire at a writing retreat. The mountains appear to be snow-dusted from a distance, but having bent to feel the snow on the ground, I can assure you that it has the texture of ice pellets. It is sunny here, and warm enough (above 40) that the runoff continues at a rapid pace. This morning, I put in nearly 4 hours of solid work, with infrequent breaks to score a beverage or take a potty break.

At present, I am on a tea break. After a walking break. After a lunch break. But I digress.

There are some iconic poems that spawn references across genres and for years to come. Such is today's selection, "Sailing to Byzantium". The first line was borrowed for the title of Cormac McCarthy's novel and the 2007 Oscar winner for Best Picture: No Country for Old Men. Mark Knopfler invokes the poem (consciously or unconsciously, but I suspect the former)in his song "Sailing to Philadelphia", which is in turn based on his reading of Thomas Pynchon's book about Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon's travels and the drawing of the Mason-Dixon line.

Sailing to Byzantium
by William Butler Yeats

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees -
Those dying generations - at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne* in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

*perne: an alternate spelling of "pirn", an Irish word taken from the Scots meaning "spool". Yeats may be using it as a verb here in conjunction with one of his favorite words/concepts, "gyre" to mean the unwinding of a spool in an expanding and outward circular fashion.

About the Form: This poem is in ottava rima, a form consisting of eight-line stanzas written in iambic pentameter, and with a rhyme scheme of ABABABCC. Ottava rima was favored by Yeats in his later years, but hearkens back to Italian epic poems such as Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, when it entered the English language in translation. Byron wrote his epic satire, Don Juan, using this form. Yeats used it in another poem I've already featured, "Among School Children". Also repeated in this poem (from "Among School Children") is the image of the poet as an old man, and, more specifically, the image of the old man as a scarecrow.

About the Poem: Yeats, with his interesting ideologies about God's interaction with man and references in other poems, including another of his widely-referenced works, "The Second Coming" ("Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold"), again makes reference to a gyre (part of his cyclical theory of history). Byzantium represented an ideal state. The country that the speaker leaves is most likely Ireland, with its complicated politics (of which, you may remember, Yeats was well-aware, being enamored as he was with an Irish revolutionary named Maud Gonne). Although his body is old, he seeks to remain vital by making noise with his soul (rather a bit of a "the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak" sort of take on things, in a slant way).

The speaker sails to the shores of Byzantium, and asks the priests there to commune with him in a way that strengthens his soul. How I love the lines "Consume my heart away; sick with desire/And fastened to a dying animal/It knows not what it is". But that is not the end point of the poem. Rather, Yeats asks that his soul be fortified so that he may be rendered immortal, and may never again have to take a mortal shape or form.

I would argue that through his soul's noisy poems, Yeats accomplished his goal: immortality in the form of continued relevance and reference both in intellectual circles and popular culture. But I could be wrong.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

A word on Shakespearian sonnets - a National Poetry Month post

Shakespeare wrote a particular form of sonnet using three cross-rhymed quatrains (ABAB CDCD EFEF) plus a rhymed couplet (GG). He used iambic pentameter (taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM). He was not the first or only poet to employ this particular sonnet form, which was all the rage during the Elizabethan era, but because he wrote so many, and wrote them well, and (perhaps more importantly), because they have survived, the sonnets in the form he used are known as "Shakespearian sonnets."

You can still write them today. You don't need to use Elizabethan English in order to do it (no "hasts" and "doths" and whatnot), but it is a fine way to rock a rhyme. In fact, I've written several for my Jane project, along with some other sonnet forms.

But Will's excellent skills can't be denied. I posted his Sonnet 18 two days ago, in fact, and I've posted others before, as a quick click on the "Shakespeare" tag below will quickly pull up for you.

Today, here's his Sonnet 98, which seems seasonally appropriate to me:

From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud-pied April dress'd in all his trim
Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing
That heavy Saturn laugh'd and leap'd with him.
Yet nor the lays of birds nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odour and in hue
Could make me any summer's story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them while they grew;
Nor did I wonder at the lily's white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
These were but sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
  Yet seem'd it winter still, and, you away,
  As with your shadow I with these did play.

Let's break it down for a moment, shall we? In the first quatrain (4 lines), the poet says "It's April, and spring is busting out all over, and I've been away from you." In the next two quatrains, he says "Neither the birds nor flowers put me in mind of summer, and I haven't been swept up in wild admiration of them, because while they were pretty, they were to me just weak imitations of you." The third quatrain is a bit of a turn from the first and second in that it discusses how he was too occupied missing the absent beloved to celebrate the beauty of nature. And the final couplet brings it all home, and gives us the poet's bottom line: "Even though I can see spring around me, it's still winter for me because you are away."

How swoonily romantic is that? Oh so very, in my opinion. Would that we all had someone writing us love poems like this.

Friday, April 11, 2008

A Corona of Sonnets - a Poetry Friday post for National Poetry Month

What could be better than a sonnet? A corona of sonnets, of course. A corona (or crown) of sonnets is a cycle of seven sonnets that are interlocked by theme. The last line of the first sonnet becomes the first line of the second, the last line of the second becomes the first line of the third, and so on, with one caveat: the last line of the seventh and final sonnet must be the same as the first line of the first sonnet. In that way, it circles back to the beginning and in some instances, results in the ability to begin with any one sonnet in the crown and work your way back around.

Creating a crown of sonnets is an ambitious task for a poet. Creating a crown with six other poets is more daunting still, for you have no control over what comes before you, and you have to try to keep to the theme. Also, you have to take the last line of the sonnet before yours and adapt it to work with whatever it is you set out to write. And since we’re talking about sonnets here, which rely on specific patterns of endrhyme, the line you take from the sonnet before you necessarily dictates a portion of your rhyme. You’ll need at least one more line ending in that same sound, and maybe three more (if using the Petrarchan form that starts ABBAABBA instead of ABBACDDC).

Late last fall, the lovely and talented Liz Scanlon asked me and a handful of other blogger-poets if we’d like to participate in a group writing project, creating a crown of sonnets for teens. Some of the other poets had written sonnets before; others specialize in free verse and haiku. This made for a fairly daunting task for everyone involved. Liz took the seven names and conducted an allegedly random drawing for position within the crown, and I was the last to be chosen. Under the rules of a crown of sonnets, therefore, I was bound to use the last line from sonnet 6 as my first line, and the first line of the first sonnet as my last line. It also meant that at least one other line had to rhyme with both of those lines (at least one after the first line to rhyme with it, and at least one before the last to rhyme with it).

As luck would have it, I inherited a first line in first person, and a last line in second person. What was a girl to do? I decided to take my speaker and have them address someone later on (in thought, if not in deed). Without further ado, here is the sonnet I wrote as the final one in the crown:

Through open window, past a well-scarred sill,
on gritty shingles sheltered under eaves,
I take in cool night air; my anger leaves
with every ragged breath that I exhale.
Your words, a thousand stinging papercuts,
lose power underneath the watching stars.
I see your reigning planet, red-light Mars,
horizon-bound and fixed. Your self-made ruts
preclude adventure or a change of course.
Is this the future that you want for me?
A mediocre life filled with travail,
a boxed-in life of sameness and remorse?
I choose to free myself of your debris:
I’m not afraid to leave you in my trail.

cloudscome, one of my fellow sonneteers is hosting Poetry Friday doings today. She wrote sonnet #6, immediately prior to mine, and set me up marvelously with an angry teen and a window sill. To start at the very beginning (it's a very fine place to start), check out Sara Lewis Holmes's sonnet, the one that started the ball rolling. Better still, to get the full flavor of the corona and how it all looks in one place, pop over to see Liz Garton, the woman who started it all. cloudscome has links to the other poetry princesses with whom I was privileged to collaborate.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? — a National Poetry Month post

Today, a sonnet of the Shakespearian sort from Shakespeare himself. I will be talking about sonnets quite a bit in the next two days. They (and many other forms) are part of what I'll be discussing at the SCBWI conference in Nashua, New Hampshire. But you can expect to hear a bit about sonnets of a different kind here tomorrow, when a special event will be revealed in honor of Poetry Friday. I'll say not much more except that it's a multi-blog event that's the culmination of months of work on the part of several bloggers. But I hope you'll come back to read all about it.

Here, without further ado (intimation intended), is the text of one of William Shakespeare's best-known sonnets, Sonnet 18*.

Sonnet 18
by William Shakespeare

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 wanderest 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.

*The sonnet was actually untitled. It is given a number from a collection of his works, the sonnets he wrote (and which were preserved) numbering over 100. It is often referred to as well by its first line, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"

As all Shakespearian sonnets do, this follows the rhyme scheme ABABCDCDEFEFGG. The poet opens with the idea that seasons come and go and sometimes fall into decline. The "turn" in this sonnet comes in the 9th line, with the word "But", which contrasts the usual (fading away) with the difference on the part of the person to whom the poem is addressed. You, he says, will not fade or be forgotten. The final couplet (inset a wee bit) explains why: I've written a poem about you to remind them. Funny thing is, folks remember Shakespeare for this sonnet, but nobody knows for whom it was written (at least with any certainty). So much for sentiment.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

On writing free verse - a National Poetry Month post

Yesterday, I posted about the time it takes to write poetry. And then digressed mightily into the writing and editing of free verse.

Here is the sentence that was to be the genesis of the free verse poem:
"Today I walked through the woods as the light faded, heedless of nature until a rustling noise drew my attention to a litter of raccoons near the stream."

As I noted in yesterday's post, simply breaking the sentence into bite-sized morsels and stringing it onto separate lines does not convert it into free verse. There are too many unnecessary words in my sentence (including articles like "a" and "the" and prepositions), and not all the words in the sentence are the best possible choices to really let the reader into the experience.

Also, I had not decided whether to tell you a story ("Guess what I saw today?") or to take you with me ("Look at that!")

Here is my first effort at turning the sentence into something like an actual poem. Please know that this is not the best possible attempt, as I've been busily (er, make that frantically) preparing to leave for New Hampshire tomorrow morning, including shopping for the family, packing for myself and, oh yeah - that's right, getting my act together for the workshop I'll be leading on Saturday at the New England SCBWI Conference. (Saturday is unfortunately sold out already, which is an amazing turn of events.) But I digress.

Again, only a rough draft.

I turned my back on the lingering sun,
wandering into twilight woods.
My mind wandered farther than I;
I blundered along beside a brook,
lulled by its tune,
insensible of trees or forest when,
rounding a bend,
a shock of raccoon cubs
cavorting stream-side
awoke me to fully-present life.

Other poets engaged with the sentence-revision challenge include Sara Lewis Holmes and Kristy Dempsey. If you'd like to play too, just leave your link in the comments to today's or yesterday's posts.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Time for poetry — a National Poetry Month post

"Tick tock tick . . . Time keeps on tickin', tickin', tickin' into the future . . ." Boy did the Steve Miller Band get that right.


From time to time, I've bemoaned how long a poem can take to write. Writing in a form or using rhyme can take ages. A draft of even a short rhyming poem can take hours, and can span days.

Writing in free verse isn't always a piece of cake, either, although any delays there are based in finding the right image or just the right color of word, not finding the right image and then screwing with it until you can make it fit the form. More on the color of words later (and no, I'm not planning on discussing synesthesia).

I've talked this over from time to time with other poets. And I've eavesdropped on poets talking amongst themselves. And I can assure you that if it takes a long time to write a poem, you are not alone.

For every poet that claims to write a poem a day, there is a poet that writes only one poem in a month. And I'm not comparing one haiku to an epic poem, either. These are poems of roughly the same length. I have heard poets express amazement at the notion that someone has completed, on average, two poems a week — and why not be amazed? After all, that is over 100 poems in one year's time.


All poems benefit from some time "in the drawer"; that is, time away from the poet. Even the rare poem that is picked up, read over, and left alone benefits from having its maker approach it with clear eyes and a fresh attitude. And most poems require tweaking. One wants to follow Strunk & White's advice and "omit needless words," particularly when it comes to a poem. Not just prepositional phrases that could be reduced down, but also articles and conjunctions that should simply go. Perhaps the order needs to be reconsidered, whether for clarity or for flow. And then there's the issue of finding not just a word to indicate what you meant, but the quest for that best word for the particular line.* This is where the issue of finding a word that is just the right color comes in.

Perhaps you've written a poem about a walk in the woods. Here's a possible first draft idea, expressed as a sentence:

Today I walked through the woods as the light faded, heedless of nature until a rustling noise drew my attention to a litter of raccoons near the stream.

There are those who would simply break the line here and there and call it free verse:

I walked through the woods
as the light faded,
heedless of nature until
a rustling noise
drew my attention
to a litter
of racoons
near the stream.

That, my friends, is not free verse. It is a sentence that has been split into bits to resemble free verse. Let us spend a bit of time and tweak it. In this instance, "today" adds nothing to the poem; if the writer were comparing today to yesterday or tomorrow, it would be different, but such is not the case. Lose the "today."

Is walking the best word here? Maybe; maybe not. If you have a strong desire to convey how you were walking through the woods - what it looked or felt or sounded like, you'd want to replace the simple verb with something better. "Shuffled" expresses slowness and conveys sound as well as speed and appearance; "strolled" sounds more relaxed, and loses some of the other sensory connotations; "slouched" ratchets up the visual and the feel of the walk, and implies a sort of shuffling, so maybe it gets 1/2 a point for aurality as well; "stumbled" says something else, as does "hiked," "trod", "tramped", and "wandered."

"Through the woods" is the next bit of the line. Ask yourself if all the words are really needed. For instance, "I walked the woods" can work perfectly well in some contexts, so maybe "through" isn't neede. Then again, perhaps (like some poets I know), you hate to see useless articles like "the" lying about; in such a case "through woods" might be preferable. Or maybe the article invites an adjective as an addition or replacement: "through darkening woods", "through quiet woods", "through rain-damp woods", "through musty woods". See how those adjectives change your conception of what kind of woods these were? Maybe you should address whteher the walker was on a trail or rustling through the underbrush. Perhaps another line should come in. Perhaps one should go.

If you're getting the idea that every single word in a poem needs to be assessed — weighed and measured to ensure that it has earned the right to stay — then you are correct. And that is just for the creation of the poem in the first place. After it's been allowed to rest a while, all these same issues must be revisited again to determine whether the poem is complete, whether it expresses what you wanted (did you just want to tell me you saw raccoons, or did you want to tell me how it made you feel?)

If you wanted to convey how it made you feel, did you want to do so by telling me "it made me feel this way" (better phrased, of course), or did you want to use imagery to take me into those darkening woods with you so that I could see those raccoons, too, and feel it for myself? Both of these are valid choices, by the way, but as the poet, it's your job to make these decisions. Every poem. Every line. Every time.

This is why those who write poetry can be blown away at the notion of someone writing two poems per week. Or even one a month. In the fifteen months since I began the Jane project, I've completed 57 Jane-related poems, 54 of which are useable. I've also written at least 10 other poems, some of which are actually decent. That puts me at an average of approximately 1 poem per week in that amount of time, some of which still require serious revision. Adding it up, I'm pleased with my progress. But on a day-to-day basis, it feels remarkably slow.

I'll be back tomorrow with my rewrite of the above bit of fluff. Anyone else willing to post their efforts in the comments is welcome to do so, and I'll collect them up.

*Samuel Taylor Coleridge defined poetry as "the best words in the best order."

Monday, April 07, 2008

A poem in my pocket — a National Poetry Month post

The folks over at the Academy of American Poets have decided that April 17th will be the first-ever national "Poem in Your Pocket" day. It's been an annual event in New York City since 2002, and this year it's going national. Or perhaps global.

The entire "movement" in NYC was inspired by this poem by children's author Beatrice Schenk de Regniers called "Keep a Poem in Your Pocket":

Keep a Poem in Your Pocket
by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers

Keep a poem in your pocket
And a picture in your head
And you'll never feel lonely
At night when you're in bed.

The little poem will sing to you
The little picture bring to you
A dozen dreams to dance to you
At night when you're in bed.

So - -
Keep a picture in your pocket
And a poem in your head
And you'll never feel lonely
At night when you're in bed.

You can download a pocket-sized version of this poem from

Teachers have been using "poem in my pocket" activities for the past few years as well. Many of them relate to one of my favorite children's poets, Tony Mitton, who has written a marvelous poem about keeping a poem in one's pocket as part of his poetry collection My Hat and All That:

In my pocket,
feeling round,
what can this be
that I've found?

Pull it out to see
and - oooh!
Look: a poem
just for you.

Another great resource for use with kids? Bobbi Katz's book, Pocket Poems, illustrated by Marilyn Hafner. It leads off with "A Pocket Poem."

A Pocket Poem
by Bobbi Katz

With a poem in your pocket
a pocket in your pants
you can rock with new rhythms.
You can sing.
You can dance.
And wherever you go,
and whatever you do,
that poem in your pocket is going there, too.
read the rest here

But pocket poems aren't just for kids. This link will take you to an array of "pockets", each bearing a single word. At the top left, "frog" will get you a printable pocket-sized copy of "I'm Nobody! Who are You?" by Emily Dickinson. Below it, "roses" will bring you Shakespeare's Sonnet 130, which begins "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun". Both Shakespeare and Dickinson have more than one poem in the array, with poems by others including Sara Teasdale, Wilfred Owen, Gerard Manley Hopkins and more.

I hope you'll take some time between now and next Thursday to find a poem that fits your pocket, and that when Thursday, April 17th comes, you'll share it with some people in your corner of the world.

Sunday, April 06, 2008


On writing poetry

From W. H. Auden in The Dyer's Hand:

"Rhymes, meters, stanza forms, etc., are like servants. If the master is fair enough to win their affection and firm enough to command their respect, the result is an orderly happy household. If he is too tyrannical, they give notice; if he lacks authority, they become slovenly, impertinent, drunk and dishonest."

On writing fiction

B.C. Southam, in his study of Jane Austen's Literary Manuscripts, spoke about what fiction is (or should be), and quoted from the Preface to Joseph Conrad's book, The Nigger of the Narcissus:

"As Conrad saw it, the art of fiction is to seize 'a passing phase of life . . . to show its vibration, its colour, its form; and through its movements, its form, and its colour, reveal the substance of its truth — disclose its inspiring secret: the stress and passion within the core of each convincing momemnt.'"

On writing, in general

Only as it's National Poetry Month, this last bit of advice comes in the form of a poem from Miss Emily Dickinson:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—

Saturday, April 05, 2008

There is no frigate like a book — a National Poetry Month post

I spent today in the company of readers. Passionate readers. Indeed, passionate re-readers, as I spent the afternoon with Jane Austen fans, and many if not most of them have read all her novels more than once. Our speaker was Claudia Johnson, the Murray Professor of English at Princeton University and chair of their English department. Claudia (in the process of final edits on her forthcoming book, Jane Austen's Cults and Cultures) spoke about Victorian opinions of Jane Austen and her work, and on the ability of Austen's books to transport us to a different place and time.

So I got to thinking of one of my favorite poems about the magic of books. It's by Emily Dickinson, and is her poem #99. As a bonus, it's got a bit of slant rhyme in it in the first stanza (away and poetry):

There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.

This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!

Friday, April 04, 2008

Strange Meeting — a National Poetry Month Poetry Friday post

Two days ago, I posted a bit about rhymed couplets, and yesterday I gave you some further examples. But in Wednesday's post, after talking about Fezzik's rhyme ("No more rhymes now, I mean it!" - "Anybody want a peanut?"), I also mentioned slant rhyme. "Slant rhyme" is something near a rhyme, but not exact.

One of the masters of slant rhyme, also called "near rhyme" and "pararhyme" was the noted war poet, Wilfred Owen, whom many of you may remember for his poem "Dulce et Decorum Est" (which I shared in a previous post). Owen lost his life in World War I, the first of the "modern" wars where technology (in the form of mustard gas and early automatic weapons) played a decisive role.

In light of Owen's depiction of death in war, I think that his choice to use slant rhyme for this next poem is particularly appropriate. It twists what is expected, in the same way that war twisted his perception of the world. But let's move on to the poem.

Strange Meeting
by Wilfred Owen

It seemed that out of the battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which Titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall;
With a thousand fears that vision's face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
"Strange, friend," I said, "Here is no cause to mourn."
"None," said the other, "Save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something has been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress,
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery;
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery;
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now..."

You can hear this poem read aloud at Classic Poetry Aloud. The poem is a dialogue between two dead soldiers, as I'm certain you've deduced. And in a reversal of Rabelais's last words (quoted to great effect by John Green in Looking for Alaska), the soldiers discuss a bit of the "Great Perhaps" of what their lives might have been, but for the war.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Rhymed couplets—a National Poetry Month post

A follow-up to yesterday's post about rhymed couplets. Here are some snippets so you can see them in action:

Oft has our poet wisht, this happy Seat
Might prove his fading Muse's last retreat.

~John Dryden: from "Epilogue to Oxford"

And, spite of Pride, in erring Reason's spite,
One truth is clear, "Whatever is, is right."

~Alexander Pope: from An Essay on Man

He learn'd the arts of riding, fencing, gunnery,
And how to scale a fortress — or a nunnery.

~George Gordon, Lord Byron: from Don Juan, Canto the First, XXXVIII

Behold, within the leafy shade,
Those bright blue eggs together laid!
On me the chance-discovered sight
Gleamed like a vision of delight.

~William Wordsworth: from "The Sparrow"

Music, you are pitiless to-night.
And I so old, so cold, so languorously white.

~Amy Lowell, from "Nuit Blanche"

I do not like them in a box.
I do not like them with a fox.
I do not like them in a house.
I do not like them with a mouse.
I do not like them here or there.
I do not like them anywhere.
I do not like green eggs and ham.
I do not like them, Sam-I-am.

~Dr. Seuss, from Green Eggs and Ham

As soon as Fred gets out of bed,
his underwear goes on his head.
His mother laughs, "Don't put it there,
a head's no place for underwear!"
But near his ears, above his brains,
is where Fred's underwear remains.

~Jack Prelutsky, from "As Soon as Fred Gets Out of Bed"

She doesn't mind what people say.
She always does things her own way.

~Nikki Grimes, from "Meet Danitra Brown"

Time to plant trees is when you're young,
So you will have them to walk among -
So, aging, you can walk in shade
That you and time together made.

~James Hayford, from "Goats in Pasture"

And here's one to get you started, should you want to try your hand writing a poem using rhymed couplets. It's two lines I drafted that went nowhere. On the one hand, it's a complete thought; on the other, two more rhyming lines could make it something more. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to write those two lines:

Webbed-foot babies in a row
Ducklings waddle to and fro

I hope you'll share if you come up with an end to my duck tale!

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Rhymed couplets—a National Poetry Month post

One of the simplest rhyme schemes is the rhymed couplet. Basically, two sentences (a couplet), the ends of which rhyme (rhymed couplet). Although usually there's some sort of metre involved as well, it's not always the case.

Some of the best English literature has employed the device. For instance, Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales using rhymed couplets:

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour; . . .

Shakespeare often used heroic couplets (rhymed couplets written in iambic pentameter) when writing poems for use within his plays. Here's an example from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Helena and Hermia speak using rhymed couplets in Act I scene i of the play. Here's a bit of Helena's scene-closing soliloquy:

Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind;
And therefore is wing'd Cupid painted blind:
Nor hath Love's mind of any judgement taste;
Wings and no eyes figure unheedy haste:
And therefore is Love said to be a child,
Because in choice he is so oft beguiled.

Alexander Pope ("'Tis hard to say, if greater want of skill/ Appear in writing or in judging ill") often employed them; so did John Dryden ("All human things are subject to decay,/ And, when Fate summons, monarchs must obey"). So, too, did William Blake ("Tyger, Tyger, burning bright/ in the watchfires of the night"). And Ogden Nash ("In the world of mules,/ there are no rules.") And Dr. Seuss ("I do not like green eggs and ham./ I do not like them, Sam I am.") And Jack Prelutsky. And lots of other children's poets.

Today's icon is directly related to an excellent display of rhymed couplet skills, coming as it does from the movie The Princess Bride, of which I am excessively fond. Here's what the script for the scene between Fezzik the giant and Inigo Montoya looks like on the page:

Inigo has gone close to FEZZIK, who is very distressed at the insults he's just received. As Inigo casts off.

  That Vizzini, he can fuss.
  (a slight emphasis on the last word)

      (looking at Inigo)
  ... fuss ... fuss ...
  (Suddenly, he's got it again,
  emphasis on the last word.)
  I think he likes to scream at us.

  Probably he means no harm.

  He's really very short on charm.

  Oh, you've a great gift for rhyme.

  Yes, some of the time.
  (he starts to smile)

      (whirling on them)
  Enough of that.

  As they sail off, we hear their voices as the boat recedes.

  Fezzik, are there rocks ahead?

  If there are, we'll all be dead.

  No more rhymes now, I mean it.

  Anybody want a peanut?*

*Technically, this is slant rhyme - it almost rhymes (just as, later in the movie, the Man in Black/Westley is "mostly dead"). Just as "[t]here's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead," there's a big difference between an exact rhyme and a slant rhyme (which almost rhymes). But that is a topic for a different day. In this case, it's used for comic effect.

TO SUM UP: If you're setting out to write a rhyming couplet, remember the rules: Two lines. That rhyme. (Metre optional, but usually a good idea.)

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

National Poetry Month

It's not a trick - National Poetry Month starts today. As in past years, I'll be putting up poetry-related posts each and every day that I post this month. (There may turn out to be some non-posting days due to upcoming travel, hence the caveat.)

While on vacation, M announced that she thought she might start worshipping the Greek gods. I'm pretty sure it was in response to her reading of Nobody's Princess by Esther Friesner, and nothing to do with The Lightning Thief books by Rick Riordan. She listed off a bunch of the gods and goddesses, but not the one in charge of the moon: Selene. Selene was the child of two Titans, and therefore had a slightly different status than some of the other gods. If my rusty memory is correct, she was probably assimilated from the Assyrians or some other tribe, and wasn't part of the actual Greek pantheon. I tell you this as a wee bit of background for this original poem that I wrote several years ago now. It was my first try at writing terza rima (a nested form that goes ABA BCB CDC etc.) Terza rima doesn't require a particular metre, just the nested rhyme scheme. Only I botched mine, badly, by not actually ending the poem correctly - it should have a fourth line in the last stanza that should, ideally, rhyme with the first and third lines of that stanza. And mine does not have its final line. Also, the rhyme's a bit tortured in places. But it was a learning experience, and is a form I'll be trying again in the near future.

For Selene
by Kelly Fineman

In ancient times, Selene,
a Titaness of old,
moved moon through night: its queen.

A chariot of gold
pulled by a team of steers
was how she reached her goal.

The sages through the years
decreed the Greeks were wrong:
The moon simply appears.

Forgotten but not gone,
Selene rides through the sky
and pulls the moon along.