Archive for the ‘poetry’ Category

Mathew 7:29 states that Jesus of Nazareth “taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” The description has stayed with me despite my agnosticism, and I take it to mean that he had original thoughts and was not just copying what others had said. Over the years, I’ve taken to using the description for gifted poets, so, after reading Cathoel Jorss’ comb the sky with satellites it’s still a wilderness, I want to say at the outset that she has authority and does not sound the least like a scribe.

The title of her book is a typical example of what I mean. If you stop and think, the statement in the title is not particularly profound – something like “despite everything, the wild still exists.” However, what would be an ordinary thought sounds fresh when expressed in her words, making you notice what you might otherwise ignore.. The same is true of an almost throwaway statement like “silence is snorkelling in God’s own pond,” which also has a flippancy that calls renewed attention to it, as does Jorss’ description of what is evidently a trip to England as “Nasty, British, and short.”

A major part of Jorss’ expression is an aptness for metaphor. In one poem, she describes the sea simply as “the largest wilderness.” Another poem that compares men and women includes the comment that men “improvise, like actors / making up their lines.” Still another describes removing cobwebs from her face as “you may kiss the bride / over and over again,” and talks about “my favorite mole, a blarney stone for silence.” Some of these metaphors may be obscure at first glance, but their originality encourages you to slow down and consider them – and, with one or two exceptions, in context they are not hard to figure out.

Jorss’ tone has a formality about it most of the time, so much so that at times you might wish for a change of pace. However, when Jorss provides one, it can be arresting. Sometimes, it is just the use of “fuck” or “pee” that brings you up short, a sudden reference to Star Trek or a brief descent into the simplest of word choices. At other times, it is unexpected humor or flippancy, or a Sylvia Plath-like bluntness, or all three at once, as when she comments, “I was born old and it’s only gotten worse.” In some of her most arresting poems, she veers back and forth between these extremes so rapidly that the shifts can dizzy you:

so if I choose to believe in love
as a verb (in which a noun can dwell)
I am the last remaining member
of an ancient guild eroded
as polar shelves peel back to reveal the shanks of bone

for I have looked into the darkness so long
it seems to be streaming with light
I whistle while I work and never examine the other side
of the glass, for love is extinct, they say
it is being rebred in captivity

Jorss is not afraid to take chances with language, and if you start by half-expecting her to fall flat on her face, she never takes a serious stumble, and succeeds so frequently that much of the pleasure of her collection is seeing her carry off her audacity.

All these comments are not to say that comb the skies…. is flawless. In a few places, Jorss focuses on language so intensely that her narrative structure is weakened. Personally, too, I would like to see how her generally formal tone fares in structured traditional verse. But free verse relies on diction, tone, and metaphor, and these are all elements of writing in which Jorss shows originality and skill,

I have only read this collection twice, so at this point, all I can say is that Jorss’ work lingers with me. However, I have the strong suspicion that in time it will also pass the ultimate test of standing up to many more readings over the year.

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My late friend Paul Edwin Zimmer used to insist that poetry was supposed to be heard. He proved it many times, booming out his verse at bardic circles around the Bay Area and science fiction conventions across North America. His position was a welcome reminder, but I had learned its truth while I was in university during a single magical day.

At the time, I was serious about poetry, writing and publishing regularly, and theorizing about metrics in the little time left over from my academic classes. I was skeptical about the poetic establishment (as any young poet should be), and sure I was going to shake it up (and never be one of those academic poets who taught for a living). When my friend Stuart announced a garden party during which his new poem, a Georgian pastoral, would be read, I quickly took on the voice of the Young Man in the poem.

The day of the reading was one of those hard, bright days that the Lower Mainland sometimes gets in summer. The setting was the garden of Stuart’s parents, which softened the harshness of the day with a mixture of strategic shade and explosions of flowers. Among the guests were Stuart’s girlfriend of the moment and her younger sister of sixteen, as well as my high school English teacher, who lived a few houses down.

I was proud to be taking part and doing my bit to take poetry out of the class room. Aided by a few glasses of wine, I read my part in increasingly rolling tones, like an out of control Laurence Olivier without the talent, intoxicated more by my own self-importance than the alcohol. As always happens when I start reciting poetry, I felt myself taken over by the poetry, and I floated through the rest of the party with a lingering sense of excitement.

But that wasn’t all. When Stuart drove his girlfriend and her sister to catch the ferry to Nanaimo, I went with them. Since we had missed one ferry, we stopped at West Vancouver’s miniature Parthenon.

The place was some millionaire’s folly, with a small temple built on a headland and some credible copies of Classical Greek statues. People used to stop at the first rest stop after the ferry to look down on it and take photos of it with their telephoto lenses and to marvel of the incongruity of the place in the middle of the rain forest.

It’s long gone now, divided into subdivisions after the owner’s death. In fact, it was being dismantled when we visited, the statues hauled from their plinths and a couple of the temple’s columns blackened by fire. Yet, in a way, the ruined splendor added to the attraction. We slipped past the No Trespassing signs in the growing dark, and were soon standing on the plinths, reciting bits of Stuart’s poem, our words booming off the cliffs that ringed the temple on most of its landward side.

For a while, I worried that the sound would bring the police down on us, especially since we were waving bottles of beer and hard cider as we declaimed. I was worrying, too, about how I might get the sister’s phone number before she boarded the ferry. But the sound of our voices was so impressive that I soon forgot such considerations.

Suddenly, the ruins and rocky cliffs reminded me of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” I began reciting it by heart, the sound of my voice much improved by the echoes off the cliffs. I remember experimenting with various pitches, completely overwhelmed by the magnificence of the words rolling through the air around me.

It must have been almost as impressive to the others as it was to me, because when I was done, everyone was silent for a moment, and began praising my delivery. Even I recognized that nothing could follow Coleridge’s masterpiece, and that it was clearly time to go.

I don’t remember dropping off the women, or returning to my parent’s house an hour or so later. But I do remember enthusing to Stuart about the importance of hearing poetry, and turning off the light that night, still glowing from the glory of the sound in the temple. That, I decided, was how poetry should be heard, and I fell asleep full of plans to save the place as a park so that others could enjoy what I had. It was only next morning that I realized I had forgot to get the sister’s phone number, and, even then, I was still so light-headed from the experience that I only minded a little.

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I never did care much for Wordsworth. But the rest of the Romantic poets – Shelley, Byron, Keats, and Coleridge, in that order – taught me the rudiments of poetic technique when I was a teenager. What’s more, I learned well enough to have a dozen or so published poems to my credit without trying too hard. But one aspect of Romanticism that I never managed to accept was having a muse.

That wasn’t through lack of trying. Having a muse is potentially convenient when you’re an adolescent boy and not sure how to approach girls. You can play out your infatuations in your attempts at poetry, and not risk actually talking with the object of your affection. Better yet, if – as happened to me – you are grief-stricken at the focus of your infatuation moving away, you can dramatize events until you feel better. I think of this as the Dante gambit, after the Italian writer of The Divine Comedy, who found a muse in a woman he had met only once, and was never around to casually disillusion him, as a real person might.

That was the trouble, really, with the whole idea of a muse. The closer you actually were to a girl or a woman, the less likely she was to act like a muse. She wouldn’t hang around inspiring you by looking soulful or sighing with bliss as you recited the poems you dedicated to her; she had school or a job and would insist on straying from your side on her own business.

I suppose the difficulty of reconciling the projection of a muse on to a woman’s life is part of what is behind Robert Graves’ White Goddess, and his attempt to cast the poet-muse relation in a myth — a myth that inevitably ends in the muse’s betrayal of the poet’s loyalty and aspirations, only to start again with the next woman he elevated in his mind. Graves was dramatizing the fact that any woman would eventually tire of being his inspiration, and find some other lover who wasn’t playing so many games.

It seemed to me a form of selfishness – especially when I learned from Graves’ biography that while he was enjoying the masochism of living his myth with a succession of muses, he also had a wife who raised their children and oversaw his household.

I thought much the same about Shelley, playing guitar with Jane Williams while Mary Shelley was nearing a nervous collapse, mourning the death of their child, and trying to run a villa in a foreign country without enough money. Having a muse sounded suspiciously like an excuse for flirting.

After a while, another point started to nag me. If poetry was the result of a literary-minded man’s (mostly) chaste infatuation for a woman, what was the explanation for Sylvia Plath? This was a matter of real concern for me as Plath became one of the first moderns from whom I learned.

Robert Graves did have a throwaway line about women’s poetry drawing on different sources than men’s. But he never explained what those sources were, being uninterested in anything outside his own personal mythology.

Obviously, though, women didn’t have muses in the way that men like Graves did. A new lover might inspire poetry – a lot of it in the early stages of a relationship – but no published woman that I could find seemed to view any man in her life as mystical or even temporarily mythological.

It was all very puzzling, especially since the idea of running off to some modern Missolongi  and dying prematurely had limited appeal. I was tolerably certain that dying of consumption wasn’t on the agenda, either.

Gradually, I came to realize that the idea of a muse was only possible in a culture where men knew few women, and had to fill in the blanks in their knowledge with their imaginations. It was a form of projection, really, not much different from pornography – just prettier. Neither was reconcilable with the real relationships I was starting to have.

Later, my readings in feminism would give me the concept of objectification, and encourage me to condemn the whole idea of a muse as something fundamentally unfair. But, even before then, I had abandoned muses as a concept that was not so much false as mentally exhausting. Trying to believe in muses, I found, only made me affected and self-conscious.

On the whole, fiction writers got along without muses. So, a few years after I discovered poetry, I decided that I could too, no matter what genre or style I wrote.

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George Gordon Noel Byron, better known to literature as Lord Byron, has always presented a problem for me. On the one hand, he is the writer of some of the most magnificent poetry and wry comic verse in the English language, and a champion of social reform and political liberty. On the other hand, he was a braggart and a libertine, and may have been a rapist, abuser, and harasser as well – hardly the sort of person that I’d care to admire.

My ambiguity is not helped by the fact that Byron’s biographers tend to believe whatever they want. At one extreme are those who believe that Byron committed incest with his half-sister, raped his wife, and was guilty of all the other crimes heaped upon his name. This outlook is supported by numerous vague yet suggestive hints from Byron himself.

At the other extreme are those who believe that all the allegations against him are the result of a combination of rumors and his own boasting and exaggeration, as well as his deliberate cultivation of a rakish reputation during some periods of his life. Stung by real or imagined tales of his behavior, Byron liked to present himself as someone who stood outside conventional morality – a pose that only makes him appear even more immoral than ever.

One of the problems I have in trying to decide between these two different portraits is that Byron was a passionate and demonstrative man in a passionate and demonstrative age. The generation that followed his was neither, and today we are still far closer in spirit to that generation than Byron’s. A frank and flowery phrase that seems to us proof of his unnatural fondness for his half-sister Augusta or of active bisexuality (not a crime to us, of course, but certainly to his contemporaries) might be no more than the normal discourse of the times, especially coming from a man who postured as a poet as often as he actually proved he was one.

Another problem in trying to decide what view of Byron to take is that both extremes sometimes take evidence from the same events. For example, those who see Bryon as a sexual sociopath take the fact that Byron’s friends destroyed his autobiography as proof that it included confessions of immorality and criminal activity. By contrast, those who believe Byron to be the victim of his own posturing insist that the autobiography was simply more of the same, with exaggerations and fantasies that his friends either believed themselves or were sure that others would. Since the autobiography no longer exists, either interpretation might fit the facts.

Similarly, how much credibility should be given to those who testify to his depravity and cruelty? The jilted, erratic Lady Caroline Lamb is far from the most reliable of witnesses. If Byron himself was unstable, she seems even more so. She seems to have been capable of saying or doing anything, yet what she knew of Byron might have been shocking even by her easy-going standards.

An even more problematic figure is Annabella Milbanke, Lady Byron. Extremely sheltered before her marriage, how would she have known what sodomy and incest were, unless she had experienced or witnessed them? Or did the sexually active Lady Caroline Lamb coach her? Did she exaggerate because she needed a strong case for separation under the laws of her time? If so, why would her accusations be so lurid and potentially damaging to herself as well as Byron unless they were basically true?

Even the fact that she tried to raise their daughter to be free of what she considered the strain of madness in the Byrons is difficult to judge. Was Byron simply too eccentric for her limited experience and imagination to understand? She seems to have suffered mental and verbal abuse, yet her lifelong obsession with Byron even after their separation suggests she was no less unstable than him. It is hard to imagine anyone spending their lifetime justifying themselves, yet that is exactly what Lady Byron seems to have done.

In the end, the evidence is inconclusive on both sides. Writers about Byron simply see in him what they choose. The sexually neurotic accept all accusations as true, although, were that so, Byron would have had little time for the other parts of his busy life. The hero-worshipers find reasons to excuse him, because of the political sentiments he expressed and his death while fighting for Greek independence – as though his life could be neatly divided into good and bad karma and a final score provided.

Only rarely does anyone consider that both viewpoints might be true, or at least have aspects of the truth – or, rarer still, that all the posthumous gossip has little to do with the worth of his poetry. In the end, Byron remains a figure who is impossible to ignore, but also one who is impossible to define.

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I have written and sometimes published more than my share of free verse. However, whenever I am tired of my professional writing, in which deadlines can be as important as quality, I like to retreat into the restrictions of the sonnet. Its rigid structure makes lingering over the exact word a necessity rather than a luxury, and positively encourages small experiments with words. These days, I don’t write much poetry, but, when I do, the result is almost always a sonnet.

Sonnets betray their origins in Italian with their intricate rhyme schemes. In English, which is far more rhyme-impoverished than Italian, the rhyming alone makes sonnets a challenge.

But the strict rules are not just in the rhymes, nor even the iambic pentameter. By tradition, the sonnet is about a serious subject – usually, but not always love (another sign of their origin, since sonnets played a role in the late Courtly Love tradition). The development of a sonnet is also fixed: the first four lines introduce the subject, the next four lines develop it, and, somewhere in the last six lines, the subject is commented on or given a new perspective. In many forms of the sonnet, the comment begins in or near the ninth line, although in the Shakespearean form, it may not appear until the last two lines, when the discussion is hastily brought to an end, often with a declaration of some sort.

To say the least, this structure can be challenging. You might say that the sonnet is like a bonsai tree, twisted into shapes that it would never have naturally because of the confines of its container. The result can be grotesque, but also surprisingly beautiful, provided that the poet takes the time to learn how to work with the form, rather than against it.

One reason I’m so fond of the sonnet is that the first poem for which I received money was a Spencerian sonnet, heavily influenced by Shelley. It was called “Zephyr,” which is pretty much a warning of the excesses to come. It begins:

With weary steps I plodded across the world,
And watched the moon illume, with waxen wiles,
The far-flung reaches of the golden isles.

Which is sufficiently embarrassing that I can’t bear myself to give the rest. The most I can say is that it shows some understanding of poetic technique, which it slaps about like runny plaster on the wall.

Slightly less embarrassing (so far as a love poem can be unembarrassing) are some of the infatuation-based sonnets I have written over the years, either because of a momentary feeling or in the early stages of a relationship. At times, I have written them as an exercise, with nobody in particular in mind.

For instance, in “Love and the Uncanny,” I equate the early stages of love with a sense of eerieness, shamelessly stealing Shakespeare’s habit of using the same parallel structure over and over again and hastily trying to end things with a killer-couplet – a structure that I’ve always thought close to cheating:

You trouble me with hints of the uncanny —
Like depths of silence where somebody waits,
Like houses flexing every beam and cranny,
Perturbing me with omens and strange fates.
I sense you now, just at the edge of eyes,
Like scurryings through leaves beneath my feet,
Like hunts that bay above me in the skies,
Like lightning just before it unrolls in a sheet.
Like wolves’ wild wailing, drawing down the moon,
Like presences that walk behind the trees —
Around midnight half-seen, half-guessed by noon,
You trail the hush and grace of mysteries.
And all that thrills with awe, awaking fear,
Must pale and fade when ghosts of you appear.

In “The Trackless Land,” I combine the old metaphor of the wasteland with an effort at a modern tone, deliberately breaking up the lines to see what I can get away with:

All maps agree: This is a trackless land
That lacks you. Here, the needle swings in riot,
Each GPS runs antic. Nothing’s scanned,
And, looking round, the horizons disquiet.
Old cartographers doodled monsters here;
I conjure from my footfalls strange pursuits,
Here lurk the hulked regrets and stalking fears,
And I am lost and long strayed from the route.
Departure was definitive, I know.
You stay away, from cowardice or choices,
I come across your camps, sometimes,
And breezes people sleep with dooms and voices.
So why, when doubting binds me like a rope,
Am I perverse, and persevere with hope?

I like to think this is the first Shakespearean sonnet to mention geo-tracking – a tawdry piece of immortality, but my own.

As for “Almost,” I think I had been over-dosing on John Donne, considering the tortured structure of the sentences:

We teeter on the edge of almost, spooked
By love’s allure and possibility,
Both hesitant and forward, self-rebuked,
Our diffidence our disability.
This is the tragedy of old regret,
I brood on you and on my ancient traumas,
And you are taut, long taught by fret,
And so like ghosts, we act our separate dramas.
Still drawn together, by decency kept dumb,
We meet in wit, then warily retreat;
A smile, and we advance to what might come
And then – guess what? Repeat, repeat, repeat.
So we dissemble, learn the art of lies,
Endangering our friendship’s lesser prize.

Other times, I’ve declared my own small rebellions against the sonnet’s traditions, as in “Academic,” which not only isn’t about love, but uses a vampire theme – decidely lowbrow material by the standards of sonnets. I wrote in grad school, punning all the way, while taking a course I thought especially reductionistic:

Come, splay the word and stake it to the page.
No need to fear; we have indulgent priests.
Remember in our light its strength is least –
Seesaw the knife through meat and cartilage.
Who cares how it might cadge, or plead its age?
All of us here have catered to its feasts –
Strike, I say, and when the damned thing is deceased,
Lower it to lie, our blood its hemorrhage.
We will not cross ourselves, nor keep a wake;
Dead’s dead, and needs no eulogy again.
Our undertaking over, in this vein,
This time there’s no inevitable mistake:
No innocent admits the thing again;
There’s nothing, nothing tapping at the pane.

I attempted much the same but with a more editorial tone in “The Kingly Ones,” a comment about how official versions of events are used by those in positions of authority and influence:

The kingly ones who send assassins out
Can order innuendo or abuse
As calmly as from a catalogue, or accuse
Anonymous by cell, and never doubt.
A curbing’s committed; they’re not about,
Kneecapping’s done while they sip morning juice.
No animosity is their excuse,
Everything’s convenience and clout.
Just cross them once, and you’re left with a label,
– The law is theirs, you see, to cut and paste –
Complain, and you’re perverted and unstable,
Persist, and you’ll be lonely and disgraced.
To their bland lusts, we’ve lost our innocence,
Our rapes revised for their expedience.

Looking at these sonnets, I’d say that their main problem is that they don’t quite escape their influences. Even after years, I have no trouble picking out which poets influenced which of these sonnets. In particular, several have a mock-Shakespeare tone, especially in the final couplet.

But, then, none of these were written for official publication. They were written for myself, as opportunities to luxuriate in language for a change. And, in that sense, they have served a useful purpose.

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One of the projects I need to finish some day is a translation of the Old English poem “The Seafarer.” It started as a directed studies program when I was an undergrad, and I’ve puttered away at it now and again ever since.

Why, I’m not sure. I have no sympathy for its Christian moral. But the descriptions of sailing have a beauty of their own in the original, and I admire the cleverness with which the vivid description gives way to a moral. As in many of the most moving Old English poems, the description of an outcast’s life in “The Seafarer” has a vividness that comes through even when you have limited understanding of the language.

By contrast, I’m exasperated by the stolid translations others have done, particularly Ezra Pound’s ham-fisted one, which reads like exactly what it is – the work of someone completely ignorant of Old English cribbing from a dictionary and guessing at the grammatical structure. At best, most existing translations seem too literal, hiding some of the complex associations in the poem and giving rise to false issues (such as whether the poem is two or more fragments clumsily welded together) that disappear when you consider the original language.

Translation, of course, is by definition an exercise in the impossible. No matter how hard the translator tries, the best they can ever manage is to recreate an approximation of the original as they conceive it.

Still, someone translating Old English has some advantages that other translators don’t. As in many translations, Old English offers false cognates; “dream,” for example, means something like “joy” rather than the modern “dream.” It also contains what I think of as half-cognates, or words whose meanings overlap with a modern word but aren’t completely synonymous: for instance, “graedig” means “eager” rather than “greedy,” while “lustig” means “longingly” rather than “lustingly.”

However, Old English does have many words that have exact equivalents in modern English. Sometimes, these words may be mildly old fashioned, but often that works well, since Old English poetry does appear to have had some vocabulary that wasn’t used in everyday speech. When no equivalent exists, modern English, with its much broader vocabulary, can often provide several alternatives that don’t seem too jarringly out of place.

Often, translators can even offer a reasonable facsimile of the Old English poetic line. This line usually consists of four accented syllables, of which the first, third, and sometimes the second alliterates. A translator can almost always keep to the four accented syllables per line, and, over three-quarters of the time, to the alliteration pattern as well. When the alliteration pattern can’t be sustained, an alternative such as having the second and fourth accented syllables alliterated gives an acceptable approximation. In general, this meter is far easier to keep up than, say, classical Greek hexameters.

Even so, a completely satisfying translation is a matter of effort. Sometimes, despite modern English’s larger vocabulary, no word exists that fits all the connotations of the Old English original while fitting into the meter.

An especially troubling example is “dryhten,” a synonym for “lord” that implies a leader of warriors. “Lord of hosts” would carry the same sense, especially since the word is used at one point to contrast an earthly lord with the Christian god, but adds an extra syllable to the line, while a coining like “host-lord” looks jarring.

In addition, to make life simple, I want a word that starts with “d,” so that I can easily translate a couple of key passages. Yet nothing really fits. “Director”is too modern-sounding, and “doyen” has the wrong connotations. “Dominus” doesn’t suggest a war-leader. “Dux” wouldn’t be bad, except that it has specific historical connections with the last days of the Roman Empire, and wasn’t used by the Old English so far as I know. Nor could I use “dux”’s modern equivalent “duke,” because, like so many other choices, it lacks the martial implications.

In desperation, I’ve even considered “ordainer” long and hard. Since it contains an accented syllable starting with “d,” it fits the meter, but, unfortunately, is utterly unfitting for an earthly lord. Consequently, I’m starting to look further afield, but, once I get away from the original alliteration, I open myself up to constant problems, because a dodge that works in one place usually doesn’t work in another place where the same word occurs.

And so the translation goes, word after word, trying to balance meaning, sense, and poetry and usually failing to meet at least one of these goals. In retrospect, it’s no wonder that I keep putting the translation away in despair. I often think that I’m trying to do the impossible, especially when I’m driven to considering what I can leave out when I would prefer not to omit anything.

Still, the effort lurches forward. I don’t know that I’ll ever manage the fully annotated version of the poem that I once hoped for, but I hope that before much longer, I will at least have a complete modern English version of the poem that does at least some justice to the complexities of the original.

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Inspirational poems and songs are pieces that reaffirm our core values and beliefs. This is not a great age for belief of any sort, so inspirational works are often equated with religious ones. However, even an agnostic like me can find inspirational poems and songs.

In my case, the situation is complicated by a temperament that requires that a piece has to have artistic merit as well as reaffirm in order to move me. I don’t expect inspirational works to necessarily demonstrate the same talent as poems or songs that I value as art, but, because many works that try to inspire wind up being insipid, they leave me massively unmoved. When I’m looking for inspiration, a Hallmark greeting card just won’t cut it. Still, over the years, I have found a few that satisfied me on both accounts.

For instance, earlier this year, I decided to write an email that might be hostilely received. As I psyched myself up to press the Send button, my mind flitted to Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Looking Glass.” The poem is perhaps sexist in its assumption that aging is a distress to all women, but what I remember best is its insistence that sometimes you have to face up to what makes you afraid, even if the result is unpleasant.

The poem concerns Elizabeth I in late middle-age, stealing herself to look in the mirror:

Backwards and forwards and sideways did she pass
Making up her mind to face the cruel looking glass.

She is haunted, if only in her mind, by Mary Tudor and Robert Dudley, and, in the end she tells herself:

Backwards and forwards and sideways though I’ve been,
Yet I am Harry’s daughter, and I am England’s queen!

Then she draws herself up in front of the mirror, and sees what she must have known all along: That she is aging, and no longer beautiful. I always like to think that I’m the sort of person to face up to unpleasant truths, so the poem is apt to come back to me whenever I’m dealing with something whose results I may not like.

Another inspirational piece for me is Stan Roger’s “The Mary Ellen Carter.” The song is about a group of sailors – fisherman, most likely – whose ship goes down. They decide to salvage the ship, despite being mocked. The chorus apparently kept at least one man alive while trying to survive a shipwreck. It certainly kept me going in the worst period of my life:

Rise again! Rise again!
Let her name not be lost to the knowledge of men,
All those who loved her best and were with her till the end,
Will make the “Mary Ellen Carter” rise again.

The song is sung when all the work is done, and the sailors plan to raise the ship tomorrow:

And the drunken lying rats
That left her to a sorry grave,
They won’t be laughing in another day.

There, Rogers leaves them to deliver the moral – the only moral, incidentally, that I have been able to tolerate:

And you to whom adversity has dealt the final blow,
With smiling bastards lying to you everywhere you go,
Turn to and put forth all your strength of hand and heart and brain,
And like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again!

Rise again! Rise again!
Though your heart it be broken, or life about to end,
No matter what you’ve lost, be it a home, a love, a friend,
Like the “Mary Ellen Carter” rise again!

Endurance, success being the best revenge, never giving in – yeah, I can get behind all of that.

More recently, OysterBand, another of my favorite musical groups, came up with a song that has always seemed a deliberate echo of “The Mary Ellen Carter.” Advising listeners to “lift your head up /gonna rise above,” they launch into the chorus:

And we’ll rise where shadows fall,
And we’ll fly where money crawls,
Looking out for a higher love,
Not gonna fall, gonna rise above.

And we’ll fly where shadows fall,
Till the pain can’t touch you at all,
Crazy things you were thinking of,
Rise above, rise above!

The independence and determination of this song also speaks to me.

Technically speaking, these aren’t the best works by any of these artists. Yet we all need some reinforcement of our core values from time to time, if only to get up on Monday morning. For better or worse, these are the works that keep me moving most often, although from time to time others join the play list: A stray line or two from Shakespeare, a poem by Sir Walter Raleigh, and a satire by Robert Graves among them. I’m sure they all speak volumes about the kind of person I am.

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“Oh, do not tell the priest our plight, or he would call it a sin,
But we’ve been out in the woods all night, a-conjuring summer in.”

– Rudyard Kipling

Well, not really. I’m a little old for the Elizabethean sport of greengowning, let alone getting up and out before sunrise. But I admit to a romantic fondness for the idea of the old observances like the solstice — no doubt due to raising myself on tales of King Arthur and Robin Hood. Certainly, they’re more evocative than the empty cant of Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day, those artificial holidays of the consumer culture.

Of course, with more people tied to their cars than to the land, the solistice doesn’t mean much to most of those around me. But, as a regular jogger, it means a lot to me. I run early in the morning, so all the year around, I’m keenly aware of the changes of daylight. And this year, the start of summer (called Midsummer by my medieval English ancestors because they reckoned summer as starting on May 1) has coincided locally with the end of rain and the first really decent weather all year, so the day feels worth noting, even if I don’t make the traditional observances.

Not being a pagan, neo or otherwise (or especially virtuous, for that matter), I won’t celebrate with anything more strenuous than rereading Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or possibly hauling out Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel riff on Shakespeare’s play.

Still, all day long, I’ve been channelling Rudyard Kipling by way of Peter Bellamy. I know that oak, ash and thorn are simply a spelling out of “oath” in an alphabet of trees, but they’re still full of poetic mystery and splendor to my ear, and I can’t get Kipling’s words or Bellamy’s music out of my mind:

Sing Oak, and Ash, and Thorn good sirs,
All on a midsummer’s morn.
Surely we sing of no little thing
In Oak, and Ash, and Thorn.

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After the four line ballad stanza, the sonnet is one of the most enduringly popular verse forms in English. Consisting of fourteen iambic pentameter lines, it is often divided into eight lines that express a situation (the octet) and six concluding lines that comment upon the situation (the sestet). The advantage of a sonnet is that it’s short enough to fit well with the English lyrical tradition, yet long enough to develop a complex thought. By tradition, it has become the standard vehicle for serious subject matter – mostly love, but also such subjects as death. The sonnet represents such a richness of tradition that it’s no wonder that centuries of poets have wrestled with its structure and natural tendencies, and attempted various innovations.

The standard English sonnet is the Shakespearean, named after guess whom, whose efforts in the field could be a textbook of how to play with the standard meter. With a rhyme scheme of ababcdcdefefgg, in the first twelve lines, the Shakespearean sonnet tends to minimize the effect of the rhymes, and to encourage development of a thought in either a single line or in four. By contrast, in the final couplet, the temptation is to sententiousness. The following sonnet is an effort, not entirely successful, to work against those tendencies, or at least control them:

The Trackless Land
All maps agree: This is a trackless land
That lacks you. Here, the needle swings in riot,
Each GIS runs antic. Nothing’s scanned,
And, looking round, the horizons disquiet.
Old cartographers doodled monsters here;
I conjure from my footfalls strange pursuits,
Here lurk the hulked regrets and stalking fears,
And I am lost and long strayed from the route.
Departure was definitive, I know.
You stay away, from cowardice or choices,
I come across your camps, sometimes,
And breezes people sleep with hints and voices.
So why, when doubting binds me like a rope,
Am I perverse, and persevere with hope?

Another popular form is the Spenserian. It is named after Edmund Spenser of The Faerie Queen fame, although Robert Parker once wrote one from the viewpoint of his private detective who shares the same surname. With a standard rhyme scheme of ababbcbccdcdee (with variations on the last six lines), the Spenserian sonnet is often considered more difficult to write than the Shakespearean, even though it often lacks the distinction between the octave and sestet. However, it would more accurate to say that it presents a different set of artistic problems – namely, the difficulty of keeping the couplets from becoming self-contained and creating too much of a singsong. One of the first sonnets I wrote as a teenager was Spenserian, and reflected my growing love of fantasy. I had never read the romance Amadis of Gaul – actually, I still haven’t – but it seemed to fit into the poem:

Dreams of Courtly Love
Beneath the bannered rafters of my hall,
The minstrels and poets have sung to me
Of candle-magic and moon mystery,
Of the Green Sword and the hero of Gaul,
And pre-Adamites who walked ere the Fall
Across the star-strewn sands of Araby —
But none my roving heart and soul agree
May quite approach her power to enthrall.
The ancient ballads at her glance become
High fantasy to rival Oberon,
So should my helm but bear her golden glove,
My every foeman should be overcome,
And, day to day, my battles fought and won,
For Catherine, my elfin lady-love.

No matter what the technical structure of the sonnet, it is hard to escape a sober tone, or to avoid sounding like Shakespeare. Even noted sonneteers like Keats don’t always succeed. As a result, one of the first experiments that most sonneteers try, especially in the last couple of centuries, is to alter the tone of high seriousness. One of the most successful of these experiments is the Canadian poet Roy Daniells, who started one sonnet with:

My enemies were certain I was starving,
It must have given them a fearful shock,
Through the binoculars to see me carving
A roast beef up on the barren rock.

One of my own efforts at a different tone came when I tried to express my reservations about the critical reductionism I found around as a grad student in an English department:

The Rites of Grad School
Come, splay the word and stake it to the page.
No need to fear; we have indulgent priests.
Remember in our light its strength is least –
Seesaw the knife through meat and cartilage.
Who cares how it might cadge, or plead its age?
All of us here have catered to its feasts –
Strike, I say, and when the damned thing is deceased,
Lower it to lie, our blood its hemorrhage.
We will not cross ourselves, nor keep a wake;
Dead’s dead, and needs no eulogy again.
Our undertaking over, in this vein,
This time there’s no inevitable mistake:
No innocent admits the thing again;
There’s nothing, nothing tapping at the pane.

Another area in which sonneteers have often attempted innovation is in length. A few have tried a double sonnet of twenty-eight lines, but these efforts only show just how ideal the basic form is: at fourteen lines, you rarely get more than a line or two of filler, while at twenty-eight, you often get seven or eight. By contrast, the curtal sonnet of 10 ½ lines, invented by Gerald Manley Hopkins, works extremely well, although the half-line at the end often seems abrupt. One of my own efforts at a curtal sonnet was published by Prism International in its Under Thirty issue in 1977:

A Summer Single
Yes, I have walked the way of beaches, stared,
pretending not to stare when blue-smeared eyes
opened deer-wary. When each body’s bared
in lotioned ease, I’ve eyed across breast-rise
and knotted on nylon-bound loins I’ve passed,
blood wilding on the bottlecap-bright sand.
Then every shadow has seemed couple-cast
except my own. From tideline I’ve toed fast
past those sprawled back on grass, hands spread on hands,
and, empty as an echo, found cement,
my unmingled heat unspent.

However, despite all the frequent efforts to innovate, poets continually return to the basic format. Within its 140 syllables, there’s enough challenges to keep even the most accomplished poets busy, no matter what their subject matter.

The Kingly Ones
The kingly ones who send assassins out
Can order innuendo or abuse
As calmly as from a catalogue, or accuse
Anonymous by cell, and never doubt.
A curbing’s committed; they’re not about,
Kneecapping’s done while they sip morning juice.
No animosity is their excuse,
Everything’s convenience and clout.
Just cross them once, and you’re left with a label,
– The law is theirs, you see, to cut and paste –
Complain, and you’re perverted and unstable,
Persist, and you’ll be lonely and disgraced.
To their bland lusts, we’ve lost our innocence,
Our rapes revised for their expedience.

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In Don Marquis’ archy and mehitabel (a book I first discovered through Allan Chalmers, my most memorable high school teacher), the main character is reincarnated as a cockroach for having written free verse in his previous life. He continues to do so in his present life, unable to use upper case letters because he can’t work the shift key on the typewriter and doubtlessly generating more bad karma for himself. I wouldn’t go so far as Marquis in visiting Kafkaesque doom upon writers of free verse, but at times I can appreciate his point.

The greatest strength of free verse is its versatility. A standard verse form like a sonnet allows only minor deviations — an anapest foot instead of an iambic one, or eleven syllables instead of ten per line — even in the hands of a master like Shakespeare or Keats. By contrast, in free verse, you can alter the line length or meter any time you like. You don’t need to warp your thoughts or tap them carefully into place to fit the rhythm or verse form, and everything can be varied to fit your needs.

The trouble is, versatility is also free verse’s greatest weakness. In the hands of amateurs, the ability to change rhythm at will too easily turns into no rhythm at all. From there, it is only a small step to throwing out all poetic technique until, today, most people would probably say that the main characteristic of poetry is usually a short line length. The paradox of free verse is that, although it looks like the easiest of all verse forms, it is actually the hardest to do well. The truth, as T. S. Eliot said, is that “No vers is libre for the man who wants to do a good job.”

If you have the skill, free verse allows you to experiment with all sorts of different rythmns: rhythms made from parallelism in sentence structure, from a count of syllables, from the number of accents per line or the numbers of lines per verse, from alliteration, from assonance or consonance, breath groups, or practically everything else you can think of. You can combine techniques, switching between them as you like, or conduct other experiments, such as seeing what is the least amount of structure you can get away with and still produce something that can be called a poem. At this level, free verse is a playground of poetic technique.

Of course, most writers of free verse are unaware of these possibilities, as hard drives and blogs full of teenage angst will attest worldwide. I sometimes wonder whether the fact that the prevalance of free verse coincided with the rise of popular music is a coincidence, if people have not unconsciously looking for the rhythms of poetry elsewhere.

If archy is any indication, my own experiments in free verse will probably have me doing time in insect form well into the fourth millennium. I went through a long period in which I was fascinated by the alliterative lines of Old English poetry. For example, in this piece, I graft my work on to Beowulf, imagining what it must have been like in Hrothgar’s hall when everyone lived in terror of the nightly attacks from the monster Grendel:

Lament in the reign of Grendel

I’ve walked cold and wind-chewed,
doubt-fed known dark, unsleeping,
tasted hunger and been fare for horror,
gnawed away roads, nibbled by home-loss.
That passed; this perhaps, too.

To barter in butchery with bloodied men
pumped strength from my arm with each pulse in my youth.
Knees buckled with waiting, but to bolt seemed worse.
That passed; this perhaps, too.

Wrapped in ruin, I rave in song:
I’d a falter-limbed father, folded with age,
and a boy in first beard. Broken by Grendel,
they slouch in sleep, stretched under hill.
That passed; I, perhaps, too.

In another piece, I used repetition in three lines and alliteration in two more:

False knight on the road

“I’m not a good man,” he said. I said, “Did I ask?”
“I’ll blow it on beer,” he said. I said, “Have one for me.”
How tell him of the charm, my coins in his cup
purchased to make me cleaner than passers-by?
“God bless,” he said. I said, “Not likely.”

In still another, I controlled the poem by using three-line stanzas and two or three accented syllables per line:

Taking the omens

Common sense derides me,
I am reduced to omens,
and they become disparaging.

Your messages come like dispatches to an outpost,
late and never long enough
nor with reprieve from exile;

I shelter in my own words again:
a furtive comfort,
coy and abbreviated.

Now as this silence lengthens,
I turn back to cards and runes,
never drawing the future I desire

I make no claims for any more than artisan-like competence in these examples. But I think the variety in these examples illustrates what’s fascinating about free verse: the fact that, even more than any other form of writing, when you write free verse, you are defining your artistic world afresh. And, at the risk of encouraging amateurs without any technique to keep writing, the pleasure of making that definition is enough to risk any number of years as a cockroach.

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