The phrase “occasional poetry” is not one I’ve heard often. I found it this week in a contest run by The New Quarterly It turns out that I’ve been an occasional poet all my life, by which I don’t mean I’ve only written poetry occasionally.
Occasional poetry is poetry for a specific occasion. I’ve written them for birthdays, for Hallowe’en, for Christmas and Hogswatch (the winter solstice celebration on Terry Pratchett’s Discworld), for housewarmings and, once, to celebrate the opening of a new publishing house. I haven’t written any poetry for weddings yet, although I wrote an original fairy tale for my niece’s wedding.
Bill Richardsonwrote many, many occasional poems when he hosted Richardson’s Roundup on CBC – a show I still miss. Bill would invite listeners to tell him stories from their lives, stories with an incident around which he could write a poem. Two that I remember vividly are “the day the snake crawled up my husband’s shorts” and “my soft-spoken friend learned to drive, and swears at other drivers”. Not all occasions warrant a sonnet – some are lucky enough to get light verse.
Bill is a master of light verse and I wish I could begin to write it as well as he does. Alas, I don’t work at it as hard as he does, I suspect. And therein lies the shoal on which many people come to grief with occasional poetry. Whether it’s serious or humorous, it’s damned hard work. You might get away with blank verse for a special occasion, but I suspect most occasional poems are rhymed.
Last week I played poetry doctor to a friend who wrote a poem in honour of her mother’s birthday. She’s an excellent writer, but she hasn’t had a lot of practice with poetry, and particularly with poetry for a specific occasion. When she asked me to look at her work she lamented, “This is hard!” I think she was surprised.
I’ve had practice with the genre, and anyway I’m joined at the hip to my rhyming dictionary. I spent a couple of hours tossing lines around and juggling words, looking up rhymes and trying not to be sidetracked into seeing what could possibly rhyme with “Dun Laoghaire”. (The port at Dublin, pronounced “Dun Laira”- and, since I know you’re wondering, rhymed in the Penguin book with, among other things, caldera, habañera and demerara.) I was inspired to, if not poetry, at least limerickry.
The coffee they brew in Dun Laoghaire
Is as hot as Mount Etna’s caldera.
Then they cool it with cream
That’s as smooth as a dream
And they sweeten it with demerara.
But back to my friend’s poem. I tried to say what she wanted to say, keeping as much of her original poem as possible while smoothing out the rhythm. It was absorbing and rather fun, and it probably helped that I was just a little removed from the reason for the poem.
Now I’m all fired up to do more – I just need an occasion.