· 13 July 2020 ·
[A personal take on the goals of poetry, and how to achieve them]
This post has been a vexatious business for four years, intermittently. Take the pages from the drafts drawer. Grapple inconclusively. Wrap them around a brick, knock myself on the pate to see if it improves the text. It doesn’t, so back in the drawer until next time. The brick goes out the window, which is occasionally open.
The thing is lenticular, like two images morphing from one into the other depending on where you stand to look at it.
From one side it’s a disquisition on poetry’s ends and means. Move to the other and it’s more like Very Old Man Yells At (the) Cloud. Vero Nihil Verius, why not both. Time to let it be what it is. I’m tired of the headaches, and I suspect my glazier of padding his bills.
All opinions below are offered as such. Every poem is priceless to its creator, and poetry shared is a gift to its recipients. I claim no authority but my own experience. My old work has held up fairly well, and these days I am no slouch with a limerick.
Being now a (mostly) digital poet, I sometimes go a-wandering to the websites of other digital poets. Not so much the well-known sort as the students, the dabblers, the aspiring hopefuls, the recreational poet-bloggers. Those who write and post because doing so fulfils an inner need or desire. The æther is replete with them. I go to see what they have to say, and how they say it. I’ve been wandering long enough to have formed some general impressions.
- The writers are young. Granted, everyone is young when you’re 470, but I’d say 18-35 is a fair estimate. They may be over-represented because they share more of themselves online than their elders, but they interest me the most so I don’t mind the skew. For most of them, most of their lives lie yet ahead. Their CVs would not take long to type.
- The poems are introspective and self-referential to a striking degree. They talk to themselves a lot, like Hamlet. The recurring theme is one of emotional reaction to whatever sparked the impulse to pick up the pen. Excepting poems about travel, the writing contains little of observation or engagement beyond the self, and even less of any attempt at narrative story-telling, either real or imagined. Other people, the wider world, and creative invention are conspicuous by their absence, at least when the poets are at home.
I have not had an opportunity to wander since the outbreak of the coronavirus. Plagues engender plague poems. When I get to read some of the new ones, I’ll see how they compare to the others.
- Love’s brand creates many sparks. No surprise there. When poems are emotional and reactive, look to love to be the cause. Its raptures and tortures drive people to poetry, and no one loves more intensely than a young lover. Romeo and Juliet were teenagers for good reason.
The web contains many definitions of free verse, but these will serve. The linked pages go into more detail.
- · thoughtco.com/what-is-a-free-verse-poem
- Poetry that does not have a rhyme scheme or a consistent metrical pattern.
- · literarydevices.net/free-verse/
- Poetry that is free from limitations of regular meter or rhythm, and does not rhyme with fixed forms.
After one especially dispiriting wander, as I was hitting both a bottle of genever and my head with the brickNo, not the bottle with the brick. Schijt’s expensive., the combination of the two inspired me to write the shortest definition I could think of to describe what I had been reading. It was this: phrases on pages.
How we got to where we are
Consider rhyme, metre, alliteration, and all the other tools in the poet’s toolbox. Consider why they came to be.
The toolbox evolved to help the small-b bards learn and remember what they had to perform. Poetry was an oral and aural experience throughout the many centuries before books became affordable and literacy common. From comic ditties to epic tales of great length and complexity, poetry was communicated from speaker to listeners. Some of those listeners could, with the help of the tools in the box, become speakers themselves, continuing the oral tradition across lifetimes and locations.
In today’s developed world nearly everyone reads, and in this time of social disruption the bard-poets perform more safely on the webpage or the podcast than in the coffeehouse. What remains true is that in any medium or venue, most of us prefer what resonates within us. We respond to patterns. Innately. Biologically.
Wander to this essay, The Neural Lyre: Poetic Meter, the Brain, and Time, by Ernst Pöppel and Frederick Turner. Go now, read. It’s long but it says a lot, all of it relevant. It isn’t paywalled . I won’t mind the interruption as long as you come back when you’re done.
Recite a nursery rhyme from your nursery days, or the lyrics to the tune that accompanied the swoon of your first romantic love. The words don’t need to be Ovid or Petrarch (or Shake-Speare). You remembered them.
Now recall some of the prose you learned by rote at school. I assume some little time has passed. Keeping to English, perhaps Elizabeth’s Armada speech at Tilbury , or Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Both are eloquent, both are brief . You may remember bits or even chunks, but all, without reviewing the text?
Even the best prose’s goal is utilitarian: to inform, at times to exhort. It lives mainly in the moment. Poetry exists to uplift or console the souls of its participants, and to stick around long enough to do it again later. The toolbox improves the odds.
In its own soul, a poem wants to be Memorable Rememberable Remembered
My narrative poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece were tales from antiquity given new life in their re-telling by the frameworks I filled with the words I chose. The Sonnets express the same personal, emotional intensities so prevalent in the wander poems, but worn with two differences. One, their outward-facing direction, letters in the post instead of entries in a diary. Two, the repeated pattern enabling them to resound down the decades since they were put into print in 1609. The architecture of 154 poems built from one blueprintOr 151 plus three oddballs, if you’re fussy., combining in groups to hint at autobiographical stories, has empowered their longevity. The pattern helped one bard of my acquaintance get the entire cycle into his singular head, without (as far as I know) any need for bricks. The language in the Sonnets is good and the mysteries of their meanings have helped keep interest alive, but the repetition of form is crucial.
The dance of analogy
Summer’s Lease is the name of the newest (compilation) album by the English band Big Big Train, who have performed already in the Folklore video above. The title is taken from the following track, whose title of course comes from Sonnet 18. The banner image atop the post is a slice from Summer’s Lease’s lovely cover. It’s very satisfying to see something I wrote so long ago repurposed so recently by someone whose work I enjoy so much. Rather makes my point for me.
Big Big Train’s music falls within the boundaries of progressive rock, a genre infamous for its frequent use of complex, irregular rhythms. Here is another band’s much (much) more explicit example – pure instrumental free verse. Don’t even try to count past the opening eight bars, unless you’re this guy.
It’s a paradox approaching cognitive dissonance to type about the value of poetic metre while listening to The Dance of Eternity. (This is where the brick saw its first use.) The point is that you need serious, serious skills to compose and perform like this. It is no coincidence that the musicians in Dream Theater have all studied formally, at Berklee or Juilliard. The drummer in the video resigned his tenured position on Berklee’s faculty when he joined the band.
And as for vers libre, we conclude that it is not defined by absence of pattern or absence of rhyme, for other verse is without these; that it is not defined by non-existence of metre, since even the worst verse can be scanned; and we conclude that the division between Conservative Verse and vers libre does not exist, for there is only good verse, bad verse, and chaos.
– TS Eliot, Reflections on Vers libre
— New Statesman, 3 March 1917
Though I lean by practice, preference, and presumably age toward verse that Eliot called Conservative and others call Formal, it doesn’t mean that I discount his conclusion. I do find his editorial-we negative definition to be more philosophical than practical. My prosaic translation: neither form nor lack of form will let you cheat your way into writing good verse.
Elsewhere in his Reflections Eliot slighted pentameter and the sonnet, throwing shade on Shakespeare from behind the arras. I didn’t take it personally. Shakespeare the construct was the poster poet for the traditions that Eliot was by this time, if not divorcing, then at least moving out of the house from. The Waste Land was published in 1922. Its form was anything but Shakespeherian (no way I’m passing up that pun), but what’s in it you can find for yourself. Look on the internet.
What is to be done?
Should I concede that poetry now defaults to paper and screens? That poems, like Platonic children, are meant to be seen and not heard? Have the poets’ loudest voices become the silent ones between their readers’ ears? Am I Abe Simpson after all? I haven’t yet written any posthumous plays (never say never), but I am still a dramatist as well as a poet, a creator of what must be memorised and spoken in order to do its job. This undoubtedly influences my outlook. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.
Without digressing into reviews or the contentious can of forms known as New Formalism (a club I’m far too old to belong to) , here are two books of instruction and reference, complementary user’s manuals for the tools in the toolbox. Neither is hard to find, nor do they require manors be mortgaged. Only the first is available digitally.
- • The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within [books.google.com]
- · by Stephen Fry (yes that Stephen Fry), 2006
- • Writing Metrical Poetry: Contemporary Lessons for Mastering Traditional Forms [books.google.com]
- · by William Baer, 2006, 2nd edition 2015
Tools and rules develop skills that lead to fluency. Become well-versed. You can’t know whether something will work unless you know how it works. No matter what you ultimately employ or set aside, nothing you learn is wasted.
You may be your own favourite subject, but don’t presume your readers feel the same way. Use your emotions to make your poetry uniquely yours, but point the spotlight elsewhere. Include what’s outside you. What’s inside you will still be revealed.
Intention matters. Why does your poetry exist, especially if it exists online? If its purpose is catharsis, therapy, with no need to interest an audience or outlive the present, then my sound and fury signifies nothing: carry on. But if you publish your poems to anything less ephemeral than Snapchat, the question becomes whether your goal is to share something that’s worth sharing, or, goaded by the zeitgeist, simply to broadcast your internal egologue whether anyone tunes in to listen or not.
Finding the perfect words and the perfect shape for them is hard work. There are no shortcuts. Know your options, then use that knowledge to write poems that speak perfectly for you, here and hereafter. Make the effort to extend your reach. Write your verse to speak in time to come.
- Yet do thy worst, old Time; despite thy wrong,
- My love shall in my verse ever live young.
Accompanying post: Poem: Mommy, by Prince Hamlet
 I urge you to read The Neural Lyre. The link above (or here) takes you to a read-online version at poetryfoundation.org, where the pages are right-clickable PNGs. JSTOR has a PDF, but you’ll need an institutional or paid login to download the file.
- • The Neural Lyre: Poetic Meter, the Brain, and Time [jstor.org]
- · by Frederick Turner and Ernst Pöppel
- · Poetry, Vol 142, No 5, August 1983
- · pages 277-309
[return to  in the text]
 See below.
 Elizabeth’s speech at Tilbury, ~314 words, versions vary. Lincoln at Gettysburg, only 272 (he was not the event’s headliner). For comparison, Martin Luther King Jr’s I Have a Dream, 1664 words. Winston Churchill’s Their Finest Hour, a monumental 4353.
[return to  in the text]
 One peek into the contentious can. This is one of the better summaries of New Formalism that I’ve read, though I’m not fond of linking to Wikipedia (a different can). The article may be material if you care to take any of my advice. William Baer and The Neural Lyre are both mentioned, and it includes comments made by Jorge Luis Borges in 1971 that are entirely relevant to what I’ve said in this post.
[return to  in the text]
Other posts with or about poetry (mainly sonnets, excluding limericks):
- • Sonnets Day
- · Showing their birth, and where they did proceed
- · 20 May 2019
- • Seven Times Fourteener
- · A hodge-pudding of heptameter
- · 14 March 2018
- • Sonnet 60B: Thoughts at 467, better late than never
- · I rewrote Sonnet 60 for my 467th birthday on the 12th
- · 20 April 2017
- • Let Him Die For’t
- · The Sonnets meet 3D printing
- · 06 May 2016
- • Tweeting the Sonnets: #Bard154
- · Joshua Gray’s project to convert my Sonnets to tweets
- · 27 April 2016
- • Sonnet 73 and Limerick 5: once in a while I get serious, sort of
- · Sonnet 73 as written, and rewritten as a limerick (one limerick not excluded)
- · 11 February 2016
Sources and Additional Reading
- • British Library Collection: First edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, 1609 [bl.uk]
- · decent scans of all 40 pages, to view or download
- • Ever thanks to the California Federation of Chaparral Poets, who created and posted the original Poetic Devices handout.
- • T S Eliot’s “The Waste Land” [YouTube]
- · 1987 documentary [59:21]
- • 9 August 1588 – Elizabeth I’s Tilbury Speech [tudorsociety.com]
- · by Clair Ridgway
- • Reason #96 Why Oxford=‘Shakespeare’ – Edward de Vere was with Elizabeth before her Famous Speech to the Troops at Tilbury [hankwhittemore.com]
- [return to  in the text]
- • The Myth of Elizabeth at Tilbury [jstor.org]
- · by Susan Frye
- · The Sixteenth Century Journal
- · Spring 1992, Vol 23, No 1, pages 95-114
- · DOI: 10.2307/2542066
Ms Frye throws a wet blanket over the Tilbury speech, but she mentions this gem. Reminds me of my appeal to the Dutch pirates who interrupted my return from Italy in 1576.
from Elizabeth I and the Unity of England
by Joel Hurstfield, 1960