One last poem

…at least for this Poetry Month. I’ve really enjoyed taking the time to read poetry again, both new things and some old favourites. I found one last night on line that I remember from when I was quite young. At the time I didn’t understand the structure of it, or why I liked it so much, but I did like it enough to hunt it down many years later. While it looks like free verse, there is a pattern of recurring rhyme.

It’s called “Overheard on a Salt Marsh”, and was written by Harold Munro.

Nymph, nymph, what are your beads?

Green glass, goblin. Why do you stare at them?

Give them me.

No.

Give them me. Give them me.

No.

Then I will howl all night in the reeds,
lie in the mud and howl for them.

Goblin, why do you love them so?

They are better than stars or water,
Better than voices of winds that sing,
Better than any man’s fair daughter,
Your green glass beads on a silver ring.

Hush, I stole them out of the moon.

Give me your beads, I want them.

No.

I will howl in a deep lagoon
For your green glass beads, I love them so.
Give them me. Give them.

No.

 

I love the recurring “give them me” – the first time I’d ever come across this phrase. I’d always heard the forms  “Give them to me” or “give me them”. I liked the way the exchange “Give them me.” “No.” repeated – the goblin as nagging child, the nymph as immovable adult. And the image of the goblin rolling in the mud and the reeds, howling for green glass beads on a silver ring – who could resist that? I blame this poem for a string of green glass beads that I bought many years later – clear, pale green, ridged beads that looked like they might have been made from rippled moonlight on green water.

I suppose the reason I’ve felt it important to share this last poem with you is that it really demonstrates how beautifully and imaginatively crafted words can live in our heads and hearts, influence us in ways we might not have thought.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my Poetry Month posts, and I hope you’ve taken time to read, maybe even write, something poetic. If you have, and feel like sharing it here, please do!

 

 

 

Listen to it here.

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Let that be a lesson to you!

I’ve been thinking about didactic poetry. To be honest, I don’t even know if this is an official category, but it seems to me that a lot of poetry teaches you something, or is intended to have a moral lesson. One of my favourites is Carolyn Wells’ How To Tell Wild Animals. The second verse goes thus:

Or if some time when roaming round,
A noble wild beast greets you,
With black stripes on a yellow ground,
Just notice if he eats you.
This simple rule may help you learn
The Bengal Tiger to discern.
That one’s fairly light and humorous, although the verses mostly deal with being able to identify wild animals by the way they kill you. On the moral lesson side is Struwwelpeter,
which was written in 1844 by Heinrich Hoffman. Hoffman wanted to give his three-year-old son a book for Christmas but couldn’t find a suitable one, so he wrote and illustrated a picture book himself. It contains ten cautionary tales.

 

struwwelpeter

Here’s an excerpt from The Dreadful Story of Harriet and the Matches.
And see! oh, what dreadful thing!
The fire has caught her apron-string;
Her apron burns, her arms, her hair—
She burns all over everywhere.

Then how the pussy-cats did mew—
What else, poor pussies, could they do?
They screamed for help, ’twas all in vain!
So then they said: “We’ll scream again;
Make haste, make haste, me-ow, me-o,
She’ll burn to death; we told her so.”

Friends who saw the book urged him to have it published so other children could also enjoy it, which really says something about parenting in 19th-century Germany. I first encountered this book in the home of a classmate whose parents came from Germany. I must have been seven or so. I don’t remember it giving me nightmares, so maybe Hoffman was on to something after all. It’s certainly worth a read, just for the quaint language and the pictures.
And, of course, there are all the little didactic bits and bobs of verse that we know, but don’t remember we know. These are things like weather lore: “Rain before seven, shine by eleven” or “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky at morning, sailor take warning”.  What about “I before E except after C, or when used as A, as in neighbour and weigh”? Or “When two vowels go walking, the first does the talking”? Another one I’ve used for years is “A pint’s a pound the world around”, which tells you that two cups of flour or sugar is about a pound.
And, of course, “Thirty days hath September…”
Now most of these are mnemonics for me, but at one time, when I didn’t know how many days there were in each month, that little rhyme helped me learn and remember it. Now I wonder how many of these little didactic poems I have in my head, and I’m going to start keeping track of them. Maybe I’ll make a little book. Feel free to send in anything you think of, and I’ll include it.
excerpt and picture from Struwwelpeter through the Gutenberg Project.
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Trying to sort it out

Anyone who knows me well probably knows I have several issues with free-verse poetry. That is, I have several questions or ideas about free-verse poetry that are open for discussion. (Anyone who knows me well also knows that I don’t say “issue” when I mean “problem”.)

Some think this means I don’t like free verse, which is wrong. There are pieces I love. One that stuck in my head, and is still one of my favourite poems, is this one by Richard Brautigan. I can’t even remember where I first read it.

If I were to live my life 
in catfish forms
in scaffolds of skin and whiskers 
at the bottom of a pond 
and you were to come by 
   one evening
when the moon was shining 
down into my dark home 
and stand there at the edge 
   of my affection
and think, “It’s beautiful 
here by this pond.  I wish 
   somebody loved me,"
I’d love you and be your catfish 
friend and drive such lonely 
thoughts from your mind 
and suddenly you would be
   at peace,
and ask yourself, “I wonder 
if there are any catfish 
in this pond?  It seems like  
a perfect place for them.”
three worlds
There is a lot I love about this poem. I love the texture of the words, the catfish in “scaffolds of skin”. 
“Whiskers” is also a delightful word. I love the image of a dark, deep pond, the moon shining down into
 it, and the invisible borders of the catfish’s affection, a psychic as well as physical “home”. And the 
idea that a lonely person and a solitary catfish might somehow reach and touch on some emotional level
is mystical and wonderful. There’s something poignant about the catfish banishing loneliness from the 
person’s mind, and yet remaining unknown, as the person only wonders if there might be catfish in this 
pond. It gives me something of the same feeling I got as a child when I first realized that people I saw 
driving by in cars, or in houses we drove by, had lives of their own, and that I was only a flicker in those 
lives. It’s a feeling both of distance and kinship.

But I can’t understand why it’s a poem, not just a piece of beautiful, moving prose. I don’t even know if 
it’s a good poem. I know when I think a free-verse poem is bad, or good, but I can’t tell why. I keep 
asking people who write free verse about the rules, and I keep getting different answers.
Is it strictly that it’s broken down into short lines? That can’t be the whole definition of the form. 
Because I am puzzled by free verse, I tried to understand it by analysing this piece.

I started with the structure. This piece is a single long sentence which contains several other sentences 
in quotation marks, and is broken into lines. The lines seem to me to be random in length and rhythm. 
Some of the long lines have two stressed syllables, some have three. Some of the breaks fall where a 
sentence might divide into phrases (“in catfish forms / in scaffolds of skin and whiskers/at the bottom 
of a pond...”), and some don’t (“I’d love you and be your catfish/friend and drive such lonely...”) The 
last four lines I would have made into three, breaking at “ask yourself”, “in this pond” and “place for 
them”, but Brautigan broke them shorter, and I don’t see why.

If you wanted to see the short lines as the last lines of stanzas, then the poem is in five stanzas – six 
lines, four lines, three lines, five lines, four lines (the last without a short line at the end). When I 
consider them, the first stanza is about the catfish, how he looks and where he lives. The second is 
about a person arriving at the pond and standing “at the edge of my affection”. The third is the person’s 
longing for love. The fourth is the catfish’s love for this lonely person, and the fifth is the person’s 
unconscious realization of the catfish’s love. But these could be prose clauses as well as (or instead of) 
poetic stanzas.

Is it the subject matter that makes a poem? No, because many people have written moving prose on 
similar subjects – a mysterious connection with something very different from oneself; one who loves 
from afar and unknown; the beauty of nature; moonlight on water; even the appeal of ungainly or odd 
things, the beauty in the beast.

Perhaps it’s language that makes it a poem, those scaffolds and whiskers and all. But most of the words 
in this poem are very ordinary, everyday words, which we use in unpoetic ways all the time. “It’s too 
dark to read,” we say, or, “His headlights were shining right in my eyes.” There are no metaphors aside 
from “scaffolds of skin”, and no similes or other poetic figures.

The organization of the words doesn’t fall into any rhythmic pattern that might tell us it’s poetry, such 
as, say, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow/ creeps in this petty pace from day to day”. There’s 
no internal rhyme; in fact, I don’t think any of the words in this poem rhyme (except where a word is 
repeated).

In trying to apply what I know of poetry to this piece, I find myself frustrated at every turn: no rhyme; 
no rhythm; no special language; no exclusive subject matter; minimal and ambiguous structure. All my 
conclusions are negative and I have a ruddy big poem-shaped hole in the middle. 

Because the thing is, this is a poem. Damned if I can tell you why, except for one thing. When I first 
read it, something in it caught my heart. I never set out to memorize it but it stuck in my brain. Until I 
looked it up this morning for this post, I hadn’t read it for over twenty years. I might have recited it 
half a dozen, or maybe a dozen, times. But every time I thought of it, there it was, scaffolds, whiskers, 
moon, pond and all.

Maybe some of you are going to say, “Isn’t that enough? You know it’s a poem, probably even a 
good one, certainly one that you love. Won’t that do?” Maybe it would, if I weren’t a poet myself. But 
I am, and I’d love to write good free verse, maybe even something as good as this. I just don’t think I 
can do it by fumbling around in the dark.

The problem – my problem with free verse – is how am I ever going to do it if I don’t understand 
what the hell I’m doing? 

 

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How to write a limerick

Just in case you were wondering…

One of the best known, and least respected, forms of poetry is the limerick. Everybody knows at least one, and possibly even one that can safely be recited in the company of one’s mother. Most, however, cannot, because the limerick somehow lends it self to matters racy and sexual.

I enjoy limericks. I find them sticky – that is, they stick in my head, both the dirty ones and the clean ones. Oh, not all of them, of course, because I’m sure I’ve run across hundreds over the years, but I’d probably be able to pull twenty or so up if push came to shove. I also like to write them. Occasionally in our writing group we’ve done prompts to write limericks, and everybody comes up with something witty and amusing.

As a poetic form it’s relatively undemanding. You need only two rhymes, one of which may be a name, and wordplay is encouraged. The first line is often “There once was a fellow named [Name]” or “There was a young lady from [Place]”, so there’s almost a whole line done for you. The rhythm is simple and bouncy and conducive to silliness. It is, I suppose, the poetic equivalent of a paper cup; something light and disposable. Or, if you’re inclined the the scatalogical, like toilet paper. Your call.

Anyway, I’ve done the instructions for writing a limerick, and I herewith present them. They are, of course, in limerick form because, well, why not?

How to write a limerick

You start,“There was [someone] named [who]”

Then you give them some odd thing to do.

In two short lines expand

On the matter at hand,

Give the last line a twist, and you’re through.

If you like, make it saucy and flirty,

Even risqué, if not downright dirty,

And you’d better watch who

You’re reciting them to;

Some audiences can be shirty.

Another favourite of mine is the double dactyl. I’ve only written a few. They’re more complex, but still a lot of fun. The verse form was invented by Anthony Hecht and John Hollander in 1966. I can’t do better for a description than this one from the double-dactyl website https://www.math.wisc.edu/~robbin/Higgeldy.txt

The poem consists of one sentence containing forty-four syllables that are distributed over eight lines and fall into two four-line stanzas. The first three lines of each stanza are dactylic dimeter; the last one is a choriamb. The two stanzas end with a masculine rhyme on the last syllable of the choriamb. The

final feature of the form is found in line six of the poem: a single, six-syllable word which is a double-dactyl. 

The instructions below were written by Hollander himself.

Long-short-short, long-short-short
   Dactyls in dimeter,
   Verse form with choriambs
   (Masculine rhyme):
One sentence (two stanzas)
   Hexasyllabically
   Challenges poets who
   Don't have the time.

[A dactyl is a metrical foot with three syllables, the first one stressed and the following two unstressed. MAR-gar-et is a dactyl. HEX-a-syl-LAB-ic-ly is a double dactyl. A choriamb is a metrical foot consisting of four syllables – two stressed ones bracketing two unstressed ones. The phrase MAS-cu-line RHYME is a choriamb.]

I like playing around with new poetic forms now and again. If you’re up for it, try a limerick or a double dactyl. I’d like to see what you come up with!

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It’s poetry month again!

April is poetry month. I’m not sure when that started, but I’m happy for it. I love poetry, both reading it and writing it. David says I have a quote or a poem for every occasion, and he may be right at that.

I came by my love of poetry honestly. My mother used to quote poetry, and she would also read it to us sometimes at bedtime. I remember a poem called “The Plumpuppets” she quoted while fluffing pillows, and I spent some years looking for it again. (This was pre-internet, when the only way to find a poem was to look through books for it. Somehow we survived.)

When I was still quite young I used to borrow one particular book of poetry from the library over and over again. That book was The Golden Treasury of Poetry, edited by Louis Untermeyer and illustrated by Joan Walsh Anglund. I remember that I once counted all the poems in the book and decided that I wanted to write that many poems, too. When I was twenty, and working for the princessly wage of $3.25 an hour, I found a copy in a Toronto bookstore and shelled out about $25 to buy it without the least hesitation. It’s still one of my favourites, and I buy it for children of my acquaintance from time to time.

I think everybody should have some kind of acquaintance with poetry. You don’t have to read or love the Great Poets, such as Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare and the like. There’s lots of poetry out there, from Edward Lear’s nonsense verse to A.A. Milne’s lovely collections. There are solemn pieces and funny ones. One of my favourite poets is Ogden Nash; another is Geoffrey Chaucer, and still another is Rudyard Kipling. Lest you think I’m leaving out the excellent women poets, I love Christina Rossetti, Edna St Vincent Millay, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Emily Dickinson. (Apparently any Emily Dickinson poem can be sung to “The Yellow Rose of Texas”, which delights me.)

Some time ago David found me a quatrain which immediately made it into my commonplace book:

For years a secret shame destroyed my peace —
I’d not read Eliot, Auden or MacNiece.
But now I think a thought that brings me hope:
Neither had Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Pope.
— Justin Richardson.

If you never, or seldom, read poetry, then just this month read something. It doesn’t matter what. If you do read poetry, I invite you to revisit old favourites, try something new, share a poem you love with a person you love.

As for my childhood ambition to write 200-some poems to match the contents of The Golden Treasury of Poetry, I may be closing in on it. I have one completed archive book with 130 pieces in it, and about a hundred in the second collection, which hasn’t yet been completed. When I looked at the number of pieces I’d written, I was quite surprised. The original goal seemed daunting to that child I was, but fifty years or so of diddling with rhythm and rhyme has stacked up quite a pile of writing when I wasn’t paying attention. That doesn’t count my poet-for-hire gigs or the duotang folder of sophomoric high-school poetry and verse, which I will never show anyone. I know, I know, “never” is a long time. Believe me, it’s not long enough in the case of bad poetry.

It’s a great pleasure to be able to find a rhyme, or a choice of words that says what you mean and maintains a rhythm, or to learn a new poetic form and play with that. It is never a wasted day if you can come up with a quatrain, a triolet or – gasp! – a whole sonnet, or even a bit of nonsense.

I’ll leave you with something I wrote to a five-word prompt. The game is to take the five words provided and write something no more than fifty words long. The words of this prompt (aviary, beret, pecan, savvy, vintage) suggested a counting-out rhyme to me, and so that’s what I wrote.

Aviary, breviary, Bouvier, boo

Pecans, parakeets, parrotlets, poo!

Vintage velvet beret on a cocky cockatoo,

Savvy wavy gravy, and out go you!

Happy Poetry Month!

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Spring is sprung!

I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s spring at last.

I’ve had a few clues. The ground covering in Wharncliffe is changing from rotting snow to squishy mud. The ravens are squawking duets and building nests.The willows and dogwood are putting out bright yellow and red shoots in optimistic expectation that they will not be shrivelled by frost. But my best proof of spring is the sap run.

We made syrup for a few years, back in the days when I was home all the time and could alternate between the studio and the evaporator in the bush. It’s been a long time since I could do that, but we still put in a tap every spring for our annual tradition of sap tea and sap coffee.

We pick a tree that gets lots of sunshine and put in a single tap. We used to use a steel spile and hang a coffee can or a plastic juice jug on it. This year we used a newfangled plastic tap and a bit of line to run the sap into a five-gallon camp water jug. Every day David goes out to get the sap so we can make tea for breakfast. Sometimes he makes me sap coffee; he doesn’t drink coffee, but he makes it well, whereas I love it, and can’t make it worth crap.

It takes forty gallons of maple sap – and a lot of heat, time and attention – to make a single gallon of maple syrup. Any sugar maple eight inches in diameter can handle a single tap, which is what we use, and ours is giving us two litres a day right now. As a topping for pancakes it’s a bit thin, but it adds a delightful sweetness to the coffee. You have to be careful to under-fill the kettle a bit, because the sugar content means the sap boils at a higher temperature than plain water. It’ll boil right over and make an incredible mess if you put too much in the kettle.

Our ancestors used raw maple sap as a spring tonic. I always thought of a “spring tonic” as a refreshing taste of something that hadn’t been preserved or boiled to death. Just a word of caution here – as delicious as raw maple sap is, a glass of it will leave you feeling far – um – cleaner and possibly less refreshed than you hope. Much, much better to take it in coffee or tea. Trust me on this.

If you leave sap at room temperature, or even much above freezing, it starts to ferment. Eventually you’ll have either maple vinegar or maple alcohol. To keep it, you have to freeze the sap, or boil it down until the sugar content keeps it from fermenting. That’s about when you get syrup. If you cook it longer and beat it, it turns to maple butter. If you can get it to granulate – and I never have – you get maple sugar, which is probably the most delicious treat in the world.

I usually get my syrup from my friends Nancy and David Pease in Shelburne. They make lots of it, and we buy a case every couple of years. Someday, when I’m home again full-time, I may well go back to my small-time production, a couple of dozen litres total. I enjoyed sitting peacefully out by the evaporator while the dog rustled through the bush after squirrels.

In the meantime, for the few weeks that sugaring-off runs, I’ll have my maple sap coffee or tea every day and celebrate the change of the seasons.

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One step forward, two steps back

Maybe that’s not precisely what has happened to me lately, but I sure felt like it yesterday. I’d had a bit of a rough week in the editing department, and that combined with my naturally serotonin-sucking brain meant that I was on a downswing for a few days. Then, just when I felt I was coming back up, I got notification from the Ontario Arts Council that my grant entry hadn’t been funded.

I try not to count on getting a grant, but it’s human nature to hope. I felt I had a good shot at it, as I’m sure every other entrant felt, too. I’m not angry, nor can I say that the jury didn’t know what they were doing – I’m sure they did. I’m certain that the manuscripts which were funded richly deserved to win, and I’m also sure that there were more deserving manuscripts than money to fund them. But it is human to be disappointed when hope fails us. On the upside, I had a lovely personal note from the literature officer appended to the official letter, encouraging me to try again. I certainly will.

I take comfort in remembering that, not so many years ago, life was much harder financially. At least I’m not going to have trouble paying bills or putting dinner on the table without the grant. Even if I don’t love my job, I’ll admit that it supports my habit of sleeping indoors and eating regularly. I’m learning to slow down, not focus so much on production, and get more pleasure out of my art. I loved earning my living by art, but it’s more fun to play with something without that worry about having to sell it at a show.

What I’d hoped to do with the grant money was take an extra day each week to write, move from a five-day to a four-day work week for a year. There’s always going to be more art to do than time to do it, though, even if I had every day at home. That is the way of art.

I’ve decided to quit editing for pay, or at least to quit looking for editing work. I’ve had a few bad experiences, and, frankly, I need the time more than I need the money. I’m really, really enjoying what I’m doing with my Patreon page. I’m using some of my engravings from my days as a printmaker as inspiration for writing, making videos and doing new paintings and drawings. It’s totally delightful, an incredible amount of fun and very absorbing. I have a few pieces up that the public can see, if you want to drop in.

Now that the shoe has dropped, and I know I’m not getting the money, I can stop thinking, “If I get the grant, I’ll…” and just get on wi’ t’ job at hand, which is writing, drawing, painting and all that other delicious art stuff there for me to do.

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