Decay

Decay

All buds collapse,
decay envelopes flowers.
Green hopes, inept jurists,
keenly lamenting memories.
Nothing opens, pointless
questing radiant sun,
turns underground violent
where xylems yearly zenith.

 

This is an abecedarian poem. In most cases these start with the subsequent letter of the alphabet beginning each new sequential line. The challenge I set myself was to do a poem like this but with only 26 words.

Block Limericks

I mainly hang out on a Discord server called The Writers’ Block. Sometimes I write limericks for my friends there. I thought I’d share a few.

@presley likes Trek.

There once was a writer named Presley
thought Trek was the best show on telly
but her face went all hard
at old Captain Pickard
and soft, every time she saw Wesley.

@diebitch (sometimes known as Charu) was moaning about how much poetry she was writing at the sake of her prose.

There once was a poet, Charu
who didn’t quite know what to do,
cause her prose decomposed
with her writing app closed
as her poetry just grew and grew.

@gmuxx told us how much he hated memes. So I wrote this for his birthday.

There once was a writer called Muxx
who made all his posts in a tux
but the thing that was frightning
was his high-class meme writing
that brought in the steem and the bucks.

@bex-dk is Editor in Chief at the Block.

There once was a lady called Bex
who liked to take texts by their necks.
When she gave a crit
she cut through the shit
with a red pen that hanged the suspects.

We had a user come in who @sufknasen caught plagiarising.

There once was a fella named Surf
who kicked a meltboy to the turf.
He came in to hone
work not of his own
and was banned in a torrent of mirth.

@jwswab used to help edit poetry on the block when I first joined. Where you gone, JR?

There once was a fella called Swab
who took up an editing job.
The bad rhymes he’d chide
as the poets all cried
and gave him a punch in the gob.

@jayna was talking about fitness regimes one night.

There once was a woman name Jayna
who hired a physical trainer.
He said, “Walk to get fit!”
She said, “Really? No shit!”
and canceled the scumbag’s retainer.

We’ve been writing a lot of limericks lately in the Poetry Academy at the Block. Last night @nobyeni said she was never writing a limerick again.

A philosopher named Nobyeni
for a whole week wrote limericks aplenty.
So she slammed shut the door
saying, “Limericks no more!”
and on the very next day she wrote twenty.

Poetry Editing 101 – Session Six: Doing Lines

In his stage show, An Evening with Quentin Crisp, Mr Crisp was asked to define wit. He said:

Wit depends entirely on the order of the words. By nature we say the most important thing, the most urgent thing first and then we say all the qualifying phrases. And this never works. It never becomes a memorable phrase. First of all I hope we’re all agreed that wit is not a way of getting your own back on people with minds less nimble than your own. It is any comment on the human condition made in a way that is memorable. If you can refrain from saying the most important thing first then you will find that you’re able to give what you say this particular pattern, which I take to be wit.

One of the Gaiety Girls – one of the chorus girls of the beginning of this century – was asked by a televisionary whether she really thought that the beginning of the century was really as naughty as we imagine now. She said, “A peculiar morality prevailed at the time. We were allowed to accept gifts of flowers and candies and gloves and furs and jewels and houses and yachts and islands but never money.”

I open this session with that quote because it really brings us to one of the most important considerations in the editing of poetry. In last session’s Q&A, we talked about defining what is poetry. I just want to return to what I believe is the only simple definition.

The simplest definition of poetry I’ve ever heard lies in the distinction between prose and poetry. It is one of form: prose is based on the paragraph whilst poetry is based on the line.

If we look at that Gaiety Girl example we see that the most important part of the sentence is not only held back from the beginning but it is the thing left till the very last.

There’s a great deal of truth to this idea and you’ll spot it clearly when looking at a good poem, working in two very clear ways. Not only that the concluding lines of the poem should be where the wit is revealed, but also that the final word in each line should punctuate the poem with its thematic imagery. This is essential because, in poetry, the weight of each line is with its final word. Our attention naturally falls there, which is why it’s the most common place to position rhymes. You cannot hope to achieve the spectacular effects poetry can deliver to the page if you don’t get this right.

The right word at the end of a line will pound in comparison to the rest and steadily amplify your verse towards a crescendo. Place small and/or insignificant words at end of the lines and it will merely whimper to a close.

Let’s look at an example:

I take the scrambling rodent in
as Jamey slams the door behind me.
I don’t know where to run or go
or what measures to avoid
the biting teeth and scratching claws.

What I want us to note is how this makes us feel when we read. It’s a dramatic event to be sure but it’s not making good use of the end words and so doesn’t take full advantage of the power which poetry can give it. Each line, apart from the last one, seems like it fizzles. In, me, go – all very weak, mundane words which don’t match up to the feel or theme of the poem. Avoid – much better, but still not great. It’s too smooth and without texture.

How do we sort this out?

Either by rewriting or with clever use of enjambments (the continuation of a sentence without a pause beyond the end of a line). So let’s edit this to make as much use of the end words as possible.

I take the scrambling
rodent in as Jamey slams
the door behind.
Where to run,
or go, or what measures
to avoid the biting
teeth and scratching claws.

How does it make us feel when we read it now?

Each line now ends with a more powerful word and, more than that, punctuates theme into the verse itself. Scrambling, slams, behind, run, measures, biting, claws – these words give us a little prod as we read them like the spike at the end of a spear.

I can’t stress strongly enough how important this is when it comes to the editing process. It really is one of the most essential elements in poetic form and is worth spending time on to get exactly right for every poem.

This brings us to another big consideration we have to make and that is with line lengths. How long or short should they be for any particular poem?

It really depends on the feel you want to give. Poems with long lines give the reader the feeling of distance, of a panoramic film shot, as though they’re taking in everything at once. Poems with short lines give the feeling of intimacy, of a close-up film shot, and make our eye move between multiple images at speed.

I wrote some poems this week. Let’s have a look at them.

Armageddon

Armageddon is a poem about the horror of nuclear war. In its construction there were really a few ways I could have gone with the specific line length choice. I felt short lines would have been one possible decision, but only if I wanted to show the effects of the disaster on one person. Medium length lines would also have worked somewhat, but, again, I wanted this poem to have grand feel. In the end, the panoramic view of the terror that long lines would give me made me settle on that choice.

Let’s look at these three lines:

In the suburbs, reinforced windows shatter all the same. Frightened
families hide in basements or under hastily constructed
lean-to shelters made from living room doors.

Now it might be a fair observation to say that the horror would increase if we made these short lines and turned it into a close up, but I think the horror is already prominent within the words of the poem and this feel of taking it in all at once works much better. But I’m game, let’s see how it would read with shorter lines:

In the suburbs,
reinforced
windows shatter
all the same.

Frightened
families hide
in basements
or under hastily
constructed
lean-to shelters
made from living
room doors.

For me, it just seems too much to take in when presented this way. It’s so intense with its rapid frequency of end-words, it makes me want to stop reading and actually doesn’t deliver as much horror as the long lines.

This ability to deliver our images in widescreen is where long line poetry gets its power. If you feel like what you’re writing is something you want your readers to take in all at once then you should consider using this technique.

Now let’s look at the other poem I posted:

Conkers

Conkers is a confessional poem about first love and first lust. I didn’t need to give much consideration to the line lengths here at all – I knew I wanted to bring the reader is as close as possible and so I went for short lines from the start.

We took walks away
from everyone
and learnt
in the inevitability
of that first smile
those kisses
and clutches
on his bed
or under
horse chestnut trees.

And looking at this we can see exactly how short lines derive their power. It is with the frequency of end-words which pull us in close as they hook us with their spikes. This is how to bring the reader in close and make them feel they’re right there with the persona.

As you first encounter these ideas, you may feel that these considerations are really only applicable to free verse and that poems written in form dictate the line lengths you must use. This is true, but it only means that you should carefully consider the form you use when writing a poem in form or strict meter, because line lengths have exactly the same effect in form poems as well. Take a look at these three examples and see how you get closer up with each successional poem.

Death, be not proud (Holy Sonnet 10) by John Donne
An Irish Airman foresees his Death by W. B. Yeats
My Papa’s Waltz by Theodore Roethke

In the next session we’re going to be talking about one of the final processes in our editing to maximise the power of our poems – conservation of language.

Before you go, please take a moment to give me a follow. It’s a great way you can help support the series and the blog. If you have any comments or questions about this session, or just want to say hello, feel free to post a comment below.

For now, go write!

Damian

Armageddon

Armageddon

The sirens rise softly, like a red sunset. A driver hits the brakes,
rolls down his window to listen. A young boy’s jaw trembles
as he stares at his mother, screaming to the sky for salvation.
Pedestrians panic into a frenzy of self preservation.
They push and pull and pummel their way to assumed safety.
Or they stand still, looking for help or hope or comforting words.
That’s when the brilliant light comes.

The city becomes a space of screams and burnt out retinas.
The heat flash hits and melts the skin of man and woman,
child and animal, sets clothes aflame as easy as the pages
of a history book, burns the flesh, the vomit, the shit and dries
the piss in the seconds before the blast arrives to redesign
the face of this magnificent city into a charred ruins.
No one survives within five miles of Piccadilly – ground zero.

In the suburbs, reinforced windows shatter all the same. Frightened
families hide in basements or under hastily constructed
lean-to shelters made from living room doors. Adults cry
as much as the children as they puke and panic with the terror that sends
them into shock. Roofs of houses crack open to radioactive dust, looming
high above the ground in a gyre of wind and heat that will not sustain.

The hopeless souls await the fallout.

Conkers

Conkers

Blue skies
with summer
clouds rolled
in when I
first caught
sight of him
as he walked
over the hill.

In that moment
we took
each other
in, as the rest
of the world
was absorbed
by our instinctive
smiles as if we knew
what the colourful
autumn would hold.

I knew enough
by then to understand
that this had to be a secret.
That the sleepovers
at his house
and walks
to the obscuring
woods around
the local hill
under the guise
of looking
for conkers
were only cover
for expressing
our teenage feelings.

No one noticed
the bags of unshelled
seeds we collected
or made the realisation
we weren’t playing
games.

We took walks away
from everyone
and learnt
in the inevitability
of that first smile
those kisses
and clutches
on his bed
or under
horse chestnut trees.

It was the joy
of a single season
without friends
or fear
or fragile feelings,
which all
got in the way
as autumn died.

 

Unvisited by Us, Unknown

Unvisited by Us, Unknown

This town should not contain
a gothic paradise
of fountain and of garden.
Rusty balustrades flake
with the passion of screams
from beyond the decayed walls,
before the arrival
of monks or broken minds.

Overgrown gardens crawl
with weeds and dead grass.
Centrepieces of fountains
are now dry gravestones.

Ivy grips its way up turrets
ancient as in fairytales.
Awnings flap like old ghosts
protecting the battlements.

Unvisited by us, unknown –
Twyford Abbey – three stops away.

Blooms

Blooms

(Flower Power by Bernie Boston)

I have seen: new flowers
blooming, die in mud,
trod underfoot
by warring boots;

rifles shaking over pits
hastily dug in mud
as cold feet flower
inside shrinking boots;

blood seeping into mud
as broken bodies
hang from metal wire
like black seed pods,
left as rotting flags;

but with the planting
of a single flower
a young man turns rifles
into mud.

Impromptu Holiday

Impromptu Holiday

Call up work
and say you’re ill.
I’ll do the same.

We can put on a Bond movie
and pretend it’s a bank holiday.
Or turn the heating to full
and eat summer lollies.

You can roast a duck
in the afternoon;
I’ll wrap up chocolates
for Christmas gifts.

We can go on holiday
to the upstairs bathroom
and paddle in the tub –
sunbathe under the light bulb.

Tomorrow, I will enter
the office, sheepishly.
Hoping they don’t notice
my tan lines
or New Year’s gut.

Poetry Editing 101: Session Five – Q&A

Welcome back everyone to a very different session.

In our last workshop I asked for people to submit their questions about poetry and poetry editing. So lets get right to it.

@idenkcall asks

How would you define poetry?

This is the age old question. Many poets have tried to define what poetry is over the years. Let’s look at some of their attempts:

“Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.”
~ William Wordsworth

“If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”
~ Emily Dickinson

“Poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds.”
~ Percy Bysshe Shelley

“Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.”
~ T.S.Eliot

“Poetry is the journal of a sea animal living on land, wanting to fly in the air.”
~ Carl Sandburg

“Poetry is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toe nails twinkle, makes you want to do this or that or nothing, makes you know that you are alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own.”
~ Dylan Thomas

“Poetry is, at bottom, a criticism of life.”
~ Matthew Arnold

“Poetry is simply the most beautiful, impressive, and widely effective mode of saying things, and hence its importance.”
~ Matthew Arnold

When I read these, I see truth in all of them. Then I read them again and see the arguments against. The most we can say is that, here, even from some of the greatest poets of all time, all they have given us are personal opinions of what poetry is to them.

The simplest definition of poetry I’ve ever heard lies in the distinction between prose and poetry. It is one of form: prose is based on the paragraph whilst poetry is based on the line. This should be no surprise as use of the line is one of the key areas of focus in the writing and editing of poetry.

Back in the third session of Editing 101 I talked a little about avoiding making value statements in poetry or running the risk of coming off like an absolutist. Statements which are clearly opinions or beliefs are fine, but many people find it intolerable when others represent these personal positions as facts.

So above and beyond its form, I’d be wary of anyone who tries to tell you what poetry is. Poetry has evolved throughout history and has always found ways of reinventing itself. Even if you could pin it down, it’s likely a young poet will come along and do something which forces you to redefine your terms.

Anyone who’s trying to strictly define it is playing a losing game, because they’re giving up all the possibilities of what poetry could be but isn’t yet.

Thanks for your question, @idenkcall. I’ll leave you with what I think is the most sensible position on defining poetry:

“I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat.”
~ A. E. Housman

@bex-dk Asked

In modern free verse, how much does pattern and structure or lack of it matter?

This is going to be a somewhat contradictory answer because it matters a great deal within the poem but it doesn’t matter at all in terms limitations or restrictions to the poem because we’re not forced into following a predefined structure.

When writing free verse we can essentially make all the choices ourselves about the structure of the poem: whether it has elements of regular rhythm or not, whether it uses any rhymes/pararhymes or not – in any part of it or at particular points, whether there is symmetry in the length of lines, of stanzas. All of these elements and much more are up for grabs.

But…

My reading of this is, these things are important, if not essential. What writing free verse actually gives you is the chance to make everything work for the poem in the most powerful way possible.

If you feel lines should be long at one point and short at another, if that’s going to make the poem stronger then you absolutely should do it. If you want to use a rhyme to amplify a line, then you can do that too.

Robert Frost said, Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down. I’m still unsure if that amounts to a positive or a negative, though for Frost it was definitely the latter.

It’s quite a flawed analogy when you consider it, because playing without a net wouldn’t make the game any easier to win – the opponent would have all the same new advantages – it would merely change the game and make more things possible.

Thanks for the question.

@poetrybyjeremy asked

I have seen some people experiment with indentation in pretty unique ways. Do you have a general opinion on indentations – if they are helpful, distracting, or depends on a case-to-case basis?

I guess as a reader and writer of poetry I’m quite old school about this issue. I feel that unless justified by the content of the poem itself, poetry should be justified left, and that’s about it.

Where anything else is going on with the physical structure of the poem it should be to enhance what’s on the page. Let me give you an example of what I mean.

Take a look at this poem by Jon Silkin, Death of a Son.

He references houses and birds many times in the poem, birds in flight, and the line placement in the verses themselves take the shape of rotated V’s that children would use to represent birds, in a painting, or perhaps roofs of houses. Except for the last verse where this form comes crashing down, the moment of death. And in the two line coda:

And the breathing silence neither
Moved nor was still.

In the very last verse, each line is left justified – the son is dead. Left justified text – justified – the last verse forming a justification of sorts for the rest of the experience.

The last line:

and he died

is indented.

This could be read in many ways – pain has been lifted from the son and/or from the persona, or perhaps he feels his son’s spirit rising up out of his body.

It’s probably worth pointing out that Silkin was one of the foremost poetry editors of his day. He founded and was the editor of Stand magazine, which is still one of the most important poetry journals out there.

This particular piece shows what is possible with the structural games that can be played in a poem. The question we should ask ourselves is this: do the structural decisions we’re making serve the theme and deep meaning of the words on the page. If not, go back to basic formatting.

The words of a poem should do the talking. When I see poems structured with indents, or spaces within a line to form curves or shapes on the page, it starts alarm bells ringing. In the right poem it can be magnificent; if its not justified within the content of the poem, it’s a clear signal that the writer knows their words can’t stand on their own and has felt the need to pretty them up in entirely the wrong way.

@darrencray asks:

I know this person who wants to improve on their poetry but refuses to change any cliches and old English in her work. What advice should I give her?

For a start you could direct them to last Editing 101 post in the series. Though I’m guessing this is more about advice falling upon deaf ears more than anything else.

When you read the work of a writer and it’s ridden with cliches, abstractions and antique language, there’s no clearer sign that they’re not reading contemporary poetry. Such writing feels stuck in the past because that’s clearly where the writer is.

So encourage them to read some. Make them a present of a modern poetry collection or get them an anthology – something like Staying Alive would be perfect for this.

The other possibility, especially when it comes to cliches and abstractions (if that’s a problem too), is that they’re just novice writers who believe that their first drafts are good enough. If you feel this might be the case, try and get them to join a writing circle or perhaps go to a workshop with some experienced writers.

@rahlee asks:

I hate writing and I rarely read long poems. I like writing 3 to 5 lines of words with great depth. Any advice on that?

I think short poems can be as powerful as long ones. I don’t see very much different in the disciples between writing them. In a short poem the features and concerns are very must the same as with a longer one.

Another key element of writing and editing poetry is conservation of language and short poems emphasise the need for this aspect of the craft. This will be the subject of an entire session coming up soon, so I’ll not say more than that at this point.

As for not engaging with longer works, if you’re looking to expand into them, my advice would be to go back and look at the very first session and try following the process I’ve laid out there for the writing of a poem. Write five drafts of a poem and see how far you can explore within a theme. Push yourself to uncover new ideas and images and then synthesise all these drafts into a coherent whole.

Either way, I wouldn’t feel any negativity about it. The quality of a poem is much more important than its length.

@diebitch asks:

How do I format poetry on Steemit?

What a great question. I guess everyone has found their own way but this is the method I use to make it look as close to professional publication as I can. This is from a poem I posted earlier this week.

So it’s just a 3# header for the title, a line break and then the text of the poem.

This is how it looks on the page:

So it’s as simple as that.

Don’t use the quoted text marker > It’s great for quotes but looks terrible for original poetry.

This may sound like a ridiculous statement but it’s something else I’ve seen people do – don’t post your poetry in bullet points. It might actually be a nice texture for a poem if it were justified by the theme, but to do it as standard makes the poetry look terrible.

Finally, do not center justify your poetry. Well, unless you want your poems looking like they’re being delivered on a greetings card.

@nikisteem asks

Is poetry that sounds like it’s prose chopped up actually poetry?

So this one takes us to the beginning again and brings us back to talking about what is and isn’t poetry.

One could see this on a sliding scale, of sorts, that poems, in some way, find themselves between the lyrical and the prosaic. In terms of modern poetry, there certainly has been a movement towards the latter in the last seventy years or so.

Poems written in this way tend to have a more hard-boiled feeling. To give you an example of what I mean, take a look at this poem by Matthew Sweeney (one of my favourite modern poets): Gold.

So then we can ask ourselves, would that poem be quite the same if it were couched in lyrical verse? No, it surely wouldn’t be. It’s raw and uncomfortable on the page and it needs to be so.

Now let’s look at a more lyrical work: Molly Peacock’s, A Hot Day In Agrigento.

The lyrical nature of the poem clearly forms a substantial part of what this work delivers. A colder style would change this entirely.

This divide between beautified and matter-of-fact, elevated and earthbound, lyrical and prosaic are not really a divide at all. They’re a choice that should be made to serve the work and make it the best it can be. It’s another option, another texture, another possibility.

It’s sad to have to admit, but there does remain a certain amount of prejudice about poetry from people who have a very fixed idea of it, often 100 years out of date. They will tell you that poetry has to be lyrical or it isn’t poetry. Please don’t listen to them. It’s only bias and ignorance talking.

There’s absolutely room for both the lyrical and the prosaic.

So there we are. Thanks for your question and thanks again to everyone who submitted one.

In the next session, we’re going to be talking about the central, structural feature that makes poetry the form it is – the line.

Before you go, please take a moment to give me a follow. It’s a great way you can help support the series and the blog. If you have any comments or questions about this session, or just want to say hello, feel free to post a comment below.

For now, go write!

Damian

Night Pilot

Night Pilot

The afternoon sun is trying to cut
through the heavy, black
drapes of the sweat-humid dance studio.

Relaxed, local poetry
pours out like lime-cool, 1 a.m. water,
bathing the floor in midnight blue.

Sleepers awaken to conjoin
in an unexpected nocturnal rising.
Dancers spin in a circular reverie –
stretching as their dreams take them
through to the dawn.

A hot, evening shower of rain
releases the steamy smell of clay
from the day baked streets.
A girl begins her journey
and Nox comes to life and speaks.

Cello and trumpet call
outside the shuttered windows
that shade a city room from the dark
that exists only in this night
within the day.