Saturday, July 12, 2014

Poetry Jam #15

Sometimes I forget how long I've been at this blogging game.  15 batches of poetry (amidst my other scribblings) and getting better all the time, if self-evaluation is any measure.  I think it's a little bit remarkable, even if no one's reading it.

Just kidding.  I know someone's reading it.  I have the page views to prove it.  Unless they're just stumbling in here by accident, taking a quick look, and running like hell.

I've been thinking lately about why I allow such a large backlog of poetry to build up before posting it on here.  I think these thoughts a lot, usually when I go through a period of writing a lot of poems.  I always come back to my usual excuse that writing a poem, and then ignoring it for nearly a year, allows me to view it later with a critical distance.  Is this necessary for quality control?  Maybe.  I don't even know.  It's just what I do.

These twenty (twenty!) poems date from July to November of 2013.  Future biographers will note this as my "waiting to go to Korea" period, and some of these poems are sort of about that.  A few of them also contain references to death and violence, so be aware.


No less a man for being filthy,
no less honored for his shame,
and nothing more and nothing less
than human in the face of death,
or wrapped in the embrace of living.
That is what he'd have them write
before they cleaned his filthy corpse
and put his innards into jars:
no more a corpse for being filthy,
no more honored for his tomb,
and nothing less the loss of someone
human to a mausoleum,
lost in the pursuit of living.


Have a look at your city
through the window of a bus.
See the people of your city
in their comings and their goings,
all these people of your city
through the windows of a bus,
see that face of yours in
need of shaving, faintly,
in the window of a bus.
Find the driveways and the
stones of houses in your memory,
buildings from another time
that linger in these windows,
trees from other times before.
Have a look at your city
through the window of a bus
and see it like it's new again,
and never forget it.

The Role of the Praetorian Guard

Waste your day in vain ambition,
dream of rule and wake in ruin;
so the princeling's guard had said
before they dragged him from his bed,
and dashed a club against his head
and, joyless, watched him as he bled.

Thus the realm was saved from ruin
through the princeling's wild ambition;
so the younger princeling said,
a crown of laurel on his head
and bodyguards around his bed,
the wardens of the walking dead.

Clay Castles

Whenever I could manage,
I would build my castles
out of clay,
so the sea would have a
more difficult time
in taking them away.

But when I came back to
my little kingdom,
I never found my castles
made of clay;
thicker sand won't coax
a work of life to stay.

Magic Love

I don't know magic in this life
but when you speak, your tones,
your precious words that move me
with your sorrow and your crying joy.

With all my doubts dispelled, my love,
my heart embraced with silks,
the charm is truly cast,
my love, I need to hold you in my arms.

So summon me, across the sky
and to your bedroom, love,
so I might comfort you
tonight, before you make your sleeping spell.

Science Love

If there's a force that could keep us apart,
I know I've never weighed it on a scale;
they don't make a scale big enough to measure
all the weight they'd need to hold me down,
to keep me here, to stop my arms from finding you
and holding you before you fall asleep,
to hold you up from falling.

Elisabeth Sullivan's Parrot Paintings

The lady found her theme, and it was
parrots, clutched intently
on the tips of boats and surfboards,
sinking in the water, never sunk
while wings could soar;
parrots, perched in waters
where the colors never faded,
parrots on the shore
and parrots where the people
never go anymore.


What time awaits me, I will never learn
until that time remains with me no more,
escaping me, but granting me in turn
the awful knowledge of that open door.

The wisdom of the living for the night
will have no business on the road with me,
wherever roads may lead, whatever light
may shine, wherever my arrest may be.

I would depart in love, and I would choose
to shed the weight that rests upon my brow
before I close my eyes, if I could lose
the fear that holds them open even now.

And if I had a choice, I would forget
the limits of our words, and be at peace,
if time would grant the courtesy to set
a warning of the day of my release.

Beach Bones

Beach bones broken by the sea,
scattered, lying next to me;
beach bones built of burnt-out wood,
leaving roots where once they stood.
Beach bones bitten by the breeze,
Bony husks of weathered trees.
Beach bones barely passing by
the hours of the ashen sky.

Campfire in the Light Mist

I like the way you build
the fire.
I like the way you build
my dangerous tendencies,
the way your fingers run
along me,
the crackle and the
hiss and pop,
the soft implosion, pulsing flame,
the way the sturdy log is thus
the way the water sizzles
in the heat of you,
the mist upon the fire,
the glow,
the burning want.

Document Based Question

The first quote is from someone who
describes history;
the second is from somebody who
makes it,
shapes it,
lives it,
dies alone with it.
As you can see, they are very different.

Magic Potions

If you want to talk about magic potions,
I can buy them at the grocery store
in packs of six, or more if I choose,
in handsome marketer's packaging.

These potions are of limited uses,
but I'll take them over spells of love
and draughts of shrinking land, until
such time as they are brewed like beer.

Untitled October Second Poem

My lungs and your heart,
somehow working apart
from each other, in spite
of how we miss each other,
no matter how hard I breathe
or how few steps there are
from here to your door,
no matter how I distract
myself, if it's you
I want then breathing is
unsatisfying to our hearts.

Letters of the Alphabet

Q looks like an alien letter,
like a body-snatcher,
standing in for K
(or maybe C?)
and hoping no one notices
or asks too many questions
that they aren't prepared
to hear the answers to.

But Q is not a foreign glyph,
at least no more than C
or G or even K
and long lost friends like Þ.
Our symbols have a history,
a right to be among us
and to spell our words
as well as they are able.

Q is not a body-snatcher,
Q is not a rank impostor,
Q does not have to answer to U.

Summer Sun

Like a summer sun on winter mornings
you are here,
waking me with brilliant warmth, and
you are here
because you want to be here,
nowhere else, my miracle, my paradox,
my crisp summer sun.

Tea Time on the Edge

On my right, a steeping mug
and on my left an oily plate,
but one of these is finished;
ten fifteen, it's time to start,
there's so much time I have to fill,
but I am tired of filling time
with tea and Thai food, yeah?
In front of me, a puzzle,
mostly empty, getting fuller,
waiting for the ink to fill the spaces,
but my inspiration struck (or did it?)
and the tea is steeping hot
and I just want to drink my mug, yeah?
before I get caught up in something big.

The Language of Ice

The ice is talking to me,
speaking through the water,
every crack a verb
and silence an imperative:
"get out, get out"
you fool, (it says)
"get out,
and take your little ideas with you."
I can hear it growing softer
as the ice's edges melt,
but if you listen very closely
you might just make out the mockery
inherent in its accent,
defiant to the last
of its most treasured independence,
before my thirst negates it.


I don't want to be a king,
a ruler of the boardroom
or the bedroom,
emperor of some new money manse
or legislator;
not without your wisdom,
not without your sovereignty
exalted up with mine,
so glorious,
abolishing the very thought of sovereignty
with all the tenderness of common sense,
my love,
the only rule we'll know is kiss
and pray for rain,
and make the most of weather
when it snows.

The Victory of Music over Painting

Sound is sight-deprived
and sight is silent, hollow,
cracking through the skull
like ripples in the frost.
But sound is free from sight,
so sound is warm and comely
as a body's heat;
this sound is just as much
a spike in temperature
as echo in the ears,
a triumph over eyes,
and ice, and window glass.
a sound can melt your heart
before a sight can make
you want to change your mind.

The Bear

The bear who came to life to hold your hand
when you were crying on your bed, alone;
his plastic eyes, his fur of ruddy sand,
the way his empathy has always shown
when no one else could look you in the face -
would you trade him for a cigarette,
a carton-full, a bottle (or a case)
if anyone could make that bear forget?


Let the commentary begin!

Epitaph puts us off to a nice, morbid start with a consideration of what it must be like to be a corpse.  I don't remember why I wrote this, exactly, but it's confusing and provocative and I like it.

At the time I wrote Omnibus, I was in the process of moving out of Eugene, Oregon.  Having lived there for the better part of eight years, I was putting things in storage, getting packed for a quick jaunt to San Diego to visit my family, and preparing to subsequently live at my girlfriend's house in Canby until our flight date was set.  I found myself riding the bus home from downtown one day, and feeling all nostalgic.  So that's what Omnibus is: blatant nostalgia with some little repetition tricks.

I wrote The Role of the Praetorian Guard while reading A Game of Thrones.  This cultural phenomenon was in fact a series of books before it was a popular television series, and could easily have been retitled "A Series of Horrifying Murders."  Somehow, it got all up in my poetry.

Magic Love and Science Love are in fact a pair, though I don't remember if I planned it that way before I'd started writing the second one.  In fact, it was probable a happy accident.  Magic Love has a fun little 4/3/3/5 metrical scheme, though I clearly cheated on the second stanza with those gratuitous "my love" insertions.  Science Love has a really wonky meter and I'm not sure it's actually good.  But dammit, these two are meant to be together.

Elisabeth Sullivan's Parrot Paintings is about exactly what it sounds like.  The artist, Elisabeth Sullivan, was at the San Diego Art Walk in August last year, and so was I (as a booth wanderer, not an artist).  I thought her work was lovely, and something inside me really appreciated the liberal presence of parrots.

My return to San Diego came with a very unexpected emotional impact.  Shortly after my arrival, my dad told me that members of the extended family were gathering for a memorial service.  My cousin and two of my uncles, all of whom had died in recent years, were going to have their ashes interred together at the San Luis Rey Mission.  A few days before the service took place, my aunt (who was conducting the event) sent out an email to invite any of us to prepare a speech or poem if we would like to.  This prompted the writing of Preparation, though I was too shy to read it at the time, or to show it to anyone up until now.  The service was very emotional, both for its suddenness and because I remembered that the last time I'd been to San Luis Rey (2007?  2008?), my cousin and my two uncles had all been all been alive and present for the interment of my grandfather's ashes.  Anyway, I'm proud of Preparation, and I wish I'd read it then.

Beach Bones and Campfire in the Light Mist both came out of a weekend with my best buddies on the Oregon coast, as the countdown to Korea began.  The first is about driftwood and, yeah, driftwood, whoo.  The second is about our campfire, which we somehow kept alive through the Oregon coast's notorious and incessant rain.  It somehow spun into something disturbingly erotic.  Don't read too much into that.

Magic Potions is really funny to me now that I've quit drinking.  Aside from the obvious, I got to use the phrase "draught of shrinking land" in a poem about beer.  I am and will always be a huge nerd.

I have no idea what's going on with Untitled October Second Poem.  I read it today, blinked, and counted out the meter:
-/ --/
--/ --/
--/ --/
-/ -/ -/-
-/ --/ -/
-/ -/ -/
-/ --/
-/ -/ --/
-/ --/
-/ -/ --
-/ -/ -/ -/
What the fuck is this shit?  Is this free verse?  Is there any sort of plan here?  I didn't even remember writing it.  But I liked it, so it's here.

Letters of the Alphabet is probably really stupid, but I like it so I will subject you all to it too.  To read it properly, recall that the letter Þ is called "thorn".  If you read it in your mind as "P", you are a very silly person.

Summer Sun and Royalty are about Tara, and my feelings for her in the time that her parents were gracious enough to allow me to live in their house indefinitely while we waited months for our Korea departure.  She likes it when I write her poems, and she is a wonderful muse.

Tea Time on the Edge and The Language of Ice are documentary evidence of what an exciting time that was.  When you're writing about the way ice cracks in water over time, you know you need to go outside.  I kind of miss Thai food, actually.  I think I've only had it once since I got to Korea.

Lastly, The Bear is a poem for making people feel bad about smoking and drinking by invoking the memory of their childhood stuffed animals.  That probably makes me terribly square.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Ways of the Poem

A friend of mine recently asked for some instruction in the arts poetical.  Being something of a poet myself, and otherwise stuck for ideas of what to actually write on this old blog of mine, I thought I'd write him a primer on the subject of writing poems.  If you too have an interest in this most venerable of crafts (and likewise have no real background in it), I hope you'll find the following helpful.

I personally think it's a shame that the basics of poetry aren't more widely known.  On a rudimentary level, poetry is very easy.  The only necessary equipment is the ability to speak a human language (and yes, sign languages count).  You'll need a pencil and paper, of course, if you want to actually write it instead of just memorising verses like the bards of yore.  But most people these days have those lying around, or the digital equivalents anyway.  Just add an idea, and there's no real barrier between doing nothing and writing a poem.

So most people have the tools ready to go.  They just don't quite know what to do with them.  Some people might go their whole lives knowing nothing about how to put together a decent poem, except that it ought to rhyme.  There are some exceptions: certain jokey forms like limericks or haiku (a serious form in Japanese, in my experience usually comical in English) seem to get in people's heads in a way that they can use, even if they can't explain it in technical terms.  What I want to do now, more or less, is root around in the toolshed, and give names to all those pointy things you've always noticed but never used.

Poetry: What It Is

In simple words, stated to be as broadly applicable to as many languages as possible, poetry is the art of organizing words for aesthetic effect.  In a limited sense, this is applicable to prose as well, but there is a key difference.  Prose is ordinary writing that can borrow poetic techniques to imbue a message with feeling.  Poetry is as much about the feeling as it is about the message.  It's about trying to take a message and make it as beautiful, or as ugly, or as much of any other desired effect as you can.

There are a million different ways to do poetry, especially if you're not limited to a single language.  But if English is it for you, it doesn't mean there is only one way to write a stanza.  There is a long line of tradition and convention to draw from, but ignoring the parts you don't like is an acceptable practice.  After all, it's only words in the end.

Much like in music, the most central property of poetry is usually rhythm.  Rhythm means something a little different in different tongues, but in English the primary rhythmic element is syllabic stress.  For most poets in English, the location and number of those stresses in a line is of primary importance.  Building a decent poem out of them means keeping track of their arrangement, and using it fo the advantage of the poem's feeling.

Other essentials of poetry include phonics, vocabulary, and a willingness to disregard "essential" things when they are massively inconvenient.  You can go surprisingly far, however, with rhythm as your primary guide.

Before You Can Write A Poem, You Have To Write Lines

Rhythm is fundamental on at least two levels: within the lines, and between the lines.  The former is the domain of meter, while the latter is what we might call form. 

Meter is basically a scheme for organizing the rhythm of a string of words that has been placed in a line of poetry.  In English the rhythm is defined by patterns of stress.  Thus, meter in English usually consists of counting out stressed and unstressed syllables.  A poet may write a line like this:
A happy rodent playing with the cats
and the pattern of stresses will look something like this:
a HAPPy ROdent PLAYing WITH the CATS
More abstractly, the line could be rendered like this:
-/ -/ -/ -/-/
where "-" indicates an unstressed syllable and "/" indicates a stressed one.  You can use those symbols for your own purposes, but you don't have to.  I just like how they look.

"A happy rodent playing with the cats" happens (by stunning coincidence) to be a line of iambic pentameter, the classic embodiment of formal English meter.  "Iambic Pentameter" is an awful lot of Greek to throw into a discussion of purely English poetry, I know, but most of the technical vocabulary of poetry is Greco-Latin.  It's better to just get used to it.

The form of a poem largely consists in how its lines are arranged in reference to one another.  The lines might all be metrically identical; pentameters marching endlessly into the distance, as it were.  They might also vary in length or type.  "Free verse" consists in telling form to go to hell, which is a valid lifestyle choice but also requires more unconventional and advanced ways of thinking about rhythm.  I wouldn't recommend it for beginners who want to avoid learning about form.  You're better off mastering the writing of metrical lines until you can toss off a line like "a happy rodent playing with the cats" like it's no big thing.

The Wide World of Feet

A line of poetry is measured in "feet", a term that is less reassuringly simple than it might appear.  The word "pentameter", for instance, indicates a line of five feet.  Recall that "a happy rodent playing with the cats" was rendered abstractly above like this:
 -/  -/ -/ -/ -/
The unit "-/" (an unstressed syllable followed by a  stressed syllable) is a kind of foot known as an iamb; hence, a line of iambic pentameter.  This brings us to the point of this section: there are many kinds of feet, and they all have Greek names.  Here are four of the most common/useful feet:
The Iamb (-/): an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one.
The Trochee (/-): a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one.
The Anapest (--/): two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed one.
The Dactyl (/--): a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed ones.
And here are two more with a more specialized use, usually as convenient substitutes for an iamb or a trochee:
The Spondee (//): two stressed syllables.
The Pyrrhic (--): two unstressed syllables.
There are dozens more feet like this, and they're all mostly impractical for writing at length.  Those six will carry you a good long way.  Memorizing their Greek names is useful for technical analysis, but the most important thing is to remember the stress patterns.

Feet and words are both composed of syllables, but they are not the same thing.  "A happy rodent playing with the cats" is ten syllables, seven words, and five feet long.  The first foot consists of the word "a" and the first half of the word "happy".  There is no cause to build a line of iambic pentameter out of five words with a natural "-/" stress pattern.  You probably shouldn't do it, unless you've found five words that sound awesome that way, in which case you should absolutely do it.

Finally, remember that words like "trimeter", "tetrameter", "pentameter", "hexameter", "heptameter", etc., refer to numbers of feet, not syllables.  A line of anapestic pentameter like this:
But they fled the unstoppable army of ravenous bats
has the same number of feet as "a happy rodent playing with the cats", even though it has fifteen syllables instead of ten.  It's also significantly harder to write five anapests in a row over and over, so you know.  Trade off.

Little Rhythm Things

Stress in English does not exist as a yes/no dichotomy.  Words of three or more syllables typically have more than one stress, with one syllable receiving most of the stress and another receiving less.  Depending on the tone of a sentence, syllables that would typically be unstressed can suddenly reverse their roles.  "Put the markers IN the basket," said the stressed-out teacher to the student, investing more weight in the word "in" than any other syllable in that sentence.  In poetry, this makes a world of difference.

Stress is always relative.  A lightly stressed syllable can appear to be unstressed in the right context.  Consider the word "ravenous."  The big stress falls on syllable one, but a smaller, secondary stress falls on the third.  In the line " of ravenous bats," the meter treats the second stress like it's no big thing.  Either I'm just a sloppy poet, or the stress is all a matter of perspective.

Pausing a line, either with a comma or a period, interrupts the flow of the meter. If the natural expectation of an iambic pentameter is to pause every fifth beat, then shortening and lengthening the period between pauses defies expectations in all the right ways.  The proper name for pausing in the middle of a line is cesura; the term for connecting two lines without a pause is enjambment.  Hand in hand, they make poetry seem less artificial and more like the natural, irregular rhythms of speech.

All of this affects the overall rhythm of a line in a way that's deeper than meter.  To a sensitive ear, a metrically perfect line can still sound slightly off if these micro-rhythmic factors are undermining the regular march of stresses.  But with skill, these effects can be put to work in creating a richer and more interesting rhythm than the simple baBUM baBUM baBUM baBUM baBUM of iambic pentameter.  Above all else, poetry is about making the language work for effect.  Play with rhythm, and you are bound to discover all sorts of interesting tricks.

 Phonics Effects

I went a long way with no mention of rhymes, but the time has come.  As everyone knows, the art of poetry calls for more than hypnotic, mesmerising rhythms.  People want the old razzle-dazzle.  They want some rhymes.

Rhymes, alliteration, and other trappings of euphonia make for more colorful poetry.  They also run the risk of looking cheesy, clichéd, and contrived.  But when they work, they really bring the pretty.  If it's pretty you're after, then rhyming is worth the effort.

The rules of rhyme, much like those of meter, are elastic.  Depending on your chosen form or your own personal taste, it can be anything from an exact correspondence in vowel and consonant sounds (bold/gold, free/sea, day/play) to a looser kind of family resemblence (bold/goal, free/scene, date/played).  Near or "slant" rhymes may not always satisfy a purist, but they are valid poetic techniques and can introduce a bit of extra texture.

I'm not much of a rhymer, myself.  I do rhyme, from time to time, and it usually comes out about as well as that.  I'm personally more fond of alliteration as a grace note in my poem.  It's an aesthetic preference and not a recommendation.  Most established poetic forms assume an effort at rhyming, so if you want to try your hand at sonnets or ballads or what not, you'll need to make that effort.

Rhymes and alliteration always tend to work best, in my opinion, as reinforcing elements of the rhythm, highlighting beats with their special ability to draw attention to themselves.  It all comes back to rhythm in the end, because rhythm is the life of poetry.  It's the reason people do poetry at all.  

A Voluminous Vocabulary

The poet trades in words, and a clever or unexpected term can easily turn a dull line into an interesting one.  Blessed with a lexicon like ours, an embarrassment of synonyms and rarities, one could say that English-language poets have something of an obligation to reach for the stars and pluck out some choice novelties.  Mindless repetition, after all, is no path to greatness.

Sturdy, common monosyllables are an indispensable part of any English writing.  However, the interesting stress patterns of polysyllables can improve a poem's rhythm.  Rare words can also introduce new possibilities for rhymes when you've grown tired of the obvious ones.  The more words you know, the more choices you have in meeting your poem's peculiar needs.

The inevitable downside?  People don't talk like thesauruses.  That's the reason we have thesauruses in the first place.  If you stuff every line with rare and unwieldy words, your potential readership will dwindle.  If you care about your potential readership (even if it's just you), be sure that your poem is never missing he kind of words that they can actually relate to.

After all, poetry is not just about putting the words in the right order.  Even more basic than that is finding he right word.  Whether it's love or infatuation, you'll want both in your toolbox for the big jobs.

The Personal Touch

English is an international language with a long history.  There isn't anything like an authority on how to pronounce every little word in the language.  And with every language, there is always variation between even individual speakers.  Sometimes you're going to wonder about a word, even on something as basic as the number of syllables.

One ambiguity that I often encounter (and exploit) is "R-breaking".  This is the tendency to pronounce words like "fire" as though they were two syllables.  The trouble is, when I consider the word "fire" in my mind, it doesn't really feel disyllabic. Depending on the circumstances of the poem, I feel perfectly comfortable treating "fire" as either one or two syllables.

These ambiguities extend to things like rhyme and stress.  Does "maw" rhyme with "ma"?  It does if you're me, but the assertion would puzzle many people.  What about the stress on the word "guitar?"  I stress the second syllable, but in some dialects it's common to stress the first. 

Since poetry is perceived as a formal exercize, it is tempting to agonize over proper pronunciations in the pursuit of a perfectly executed meter or a flawless rhyme.  Don't do that!  The best poets write in their own voice, and consequently their usage is always informed by their own dialect.  If a certain pronunciation or grammatical quirk sounds right or natural to you, it is not necessary to break your back in avoiding it.  If you are deliberately writing in a "Standard English" sort of way, it's another story.  But I suspect you'll have more fun with poetry if you write in your own style.

Alternative Approaches

The kind of poetry I've been describing, with meters organized according to stresses and syllables, is not the only kind available.  Bucking this paradigm does not make you an unpoet, nor does it automatically mean your work is worthless.  It just puts you outside the tradition.

The Anglo-Saxon bards, between their hearty quaffs of mead, considered a line of poetry to be well done if it had four prominent stresses, with the first three emphasized by alliteration, and syllable counts be damned.  Conversely, there are poems in Modern English that derive their metrics solely from counting syllables, with little heed to stress.  And of course there's free verse, where everything is made up and the points don't matter.

The point is, despite all the blathering I've done thus far on the technical aspects of poetry, you can pretty much do whatever you want.  Other people may not like it, but that doesn't mean it's not poetry.  Bad poetry is still poetry, and since you can follow all the rules and still produce monumentally awful verse, you might as well take some time to test out the boundaries.  

And Now, The Method

There actually isn't any one method I adhere to with any regularity when it comes to writing poems.  Sometimes I just write lines until something like a theme emerges.  Sometimes I build up a structure and fill in the blanks.  Sometimes I just freestyle and hope that no one gets hurt.  

Once you have established your relationship with things like rhythm and form, writing poetry is much the same as writing anything else.  If you have a big message to share with the world, bend the rhythm to suit your message.  If you're only concerned with the rhythm, then don't fret about not having anything deep to say.  Sometimes poetry is about deep thoughts and philosophy.  Sometimes it's about stupid dirty jokes.  Both are fine uses of your time and energy.

Writing poetry is an excellent opportunity to express yourself creatively and to learn more about your language.  There is a lot more to discuss on the subject than the quick and dirty notes I've jotted down here.  For a more competent how-to guide, I recommend Stephen Fry's The Ode Less Traveled.   For advanced studies, of course, there is actual poetry to explore.  Read with your ears, then give it your best shot.