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SONNET OR NONNET?

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During the last ever reading window, there were many sonnets. This form (unlike the villanelle) is close to my heart, so sending some to me ought theoretically to be a good thing. But I've been thinking about sonnets for more than half a century (because I am OLD) and of course I've written them (or attempted to) at intervals. So I may be harder on them than anybody else.

A few centuries ago, when sonnets first became popular in courtly circles, the formal rules were clear enough, though even then not fixed. In the sonnets I most love, which include Shakespeare (of course) and Wyatt and Sydney, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edna St Vincent Millay, Elinor Wylie and Eleanor Farjeon, it's the tension between constraint and experiment that gives me pleasure. I love this particular way of tying up human consciousness in an electric box.

So I thought I might explain — as much for myself as anybody else — how I read a poem that looks like it might be a sonnet. Is it a sonnet or isn't it? And what difference does it make what you call it?

If the poem looks sonnet-ish (size and shape) my mental checklist pops up. If more than one box is ticked, I figure the poem could be thinking of itself as a sonnet. Before anybody gets aerated, I'm not suggesting any of these characteristics are essential. Only that they are to me the most obvious indicators, based on the English sonnet tradition.

Sonnet indicators

  1. Calls itself 'sonnet'
  2. 14 lines
  3. Metrical pattern: most likely iambic pentameter
  4. Lines of 10-11 syllables
  5. Shape — an oblong box, perhaps with a gap just below the middle.
  6. Lines of irregular metre but five strongly stressed syllables in each line
  7. Lines of regular length, syllabically or metrically
  8. A structured rhyme scheme
  9. An argument: opens with proposition, shifts to resolution
  10. A 'volta' (or turn in the argument/thought) at or about the ninth line
  11. An 8-line + 6-line structure (octet and sestet) (marked by stanzas or rhyme scheme or 'turn')
  12. A rhyming couplet at the end
  13. A structural pattern created by line-end words (hard to define: may not be rhyme so much as deliberate similarity)
  14. High level of compression/intensity focussed round a single idea


If the poem doesn't have 14 lines but does have a clear 'turn' about two thirds of the way through, it may well be thinking of itself in sonnet terms. George Meredith's sonnets in Modern Love (which was modern in 1862) had 16 lines each.

And if the poem has 14 lines and one (at least) of the first four is in regular iambic pentameter, it certainly suggests something. (Contemporary sonnets with no regular metre will often have at least one such line.)

But if it's in seven two-line stanzas with no 'turn', no rhyme, uneven line lengths, and no metrical pattern, I will wonder whether the term 'sonnet' is relevant.

On the other hand, if it's in seven two-line stanzas rhyming abba abba cdcdcd, I will think SONNET.

If it's in seven unrhymed, two-line stanzas of loose iambic pentameter, I will feel it's going sonnet-wards.

None of this is about being right or definitive or exclusive. It's personal. I am just trying to explain, as a practising poet and poetry reader, my thinking.

Suppose the poem calls itself: 'Sonnet for Eliza'. Eliza's sonnet has fourteen lines of irregular length, no metrical pattern, no rhyme or sound structure that I can detect, and apparently no 'volta' or any of the other features on my list. I might, therefore, assume the poet is offering it as a 'free verse sonnet'. But I find that term a bit of an oxymoron and, to be honest, I'm not convinced a free verse sonnet is something to aspire to. This is not a criticism of the poem as a poem.

However, everything that calls itself 'poem' stands in some relationship to whatever else is called 'poem', just as all visual art asserts itself in relation to a culture and tradition of visual practice. So any poem that calls itself 'sonnet' has a relationship to the sonnet tradition. Being aware of that tradition can give added aesthetic pleasure (in the same way that sampling a good malt whisky is enhanced by intimate and informed acquaintance with other quality malts).

Sometimes the relationship between a poem and its traditions is defined simply by doing none of what might be expected. So there's some mileage (though it is hardly novel) in calling something 'sonnet' when it conforms to nobody's expectations of that form. The most extreme example of this may be Don Paterson's 'The Version', a prose piece with a volta (a kind of joke about a sonnet that vanished) extending over three pages in a book titled 40 Sonnets.

When it comes to learning sonnets by heart (I recommend this to anyone trying to write them), a structured sonnet is the most pleasurable kind. Getting it by heart allows you inside the mind of the poem and therefore the poet. If the sonnet isn't beautifully constructed, you're unlikely to get far. If the manufacture is high-quality and durable, each and every phrase will seem inevitable and, at the same time, surprising.

You might start with some of the HappenStance sonnet cards. Each contains a sonnet I recommend, and we produce new ones regularly. I apologise if one of them turns out to be by me. You'll find these in the HappenStance web-shop

If you learn any one of them by heart, they'll last a lifetime — which is more than you can say for Glenfiddich.


NO COMPLAINTS ABOUT CONSTRAINTS!

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I don't mean manacles or chains. Or dungeons.

But other kinds of constraints apply a kind of pressure that may make the poet surprise her or himself. Think what Shakespeare did inside iambic pentameter, and Thom Gunn inside syllabic forms.

The WrapperRhyme challenge offered some old constraints and some new ones, and it's been fascinating to see how writers responded to these.

Rhyming, for example, is one of the oldest constraints. Generally, I'd say poets are less good at it than they used to be (with notable exceptions) because it's not one of the main tools of contemporary poetry. But still some lovely examples of super-rhyme have arrived here, and I've been tweeting or instagramming some of them.

But simply writing on a wrapper is in itself a constraint. Much of the wrapping material used for confectionery, for example, is that silvery slippery stuff that welcomes no pen. There are pens that will write on it, but you have to go to some lengths to find them. My implement of choice is Staedtler Lumocolor Marker Pen Permanent Special from Cult Pens. (I am on my fourth pen.)

Crisps and savoury snacks are usually bagged in the same silvery stuff but with an added element of grease at which even the Lumocolor Marker Pens jib. You have to wash the wrapping in soapy water (or at least you could, depending on how you respond to constraint).

But how fascinating, when you think of ancient humans painting on the walls of caves, that we can find ways of applying our mark to almost anything! And food for thought too about how easily we pick up another piece of paper, and another, and another. Or a screen. Or a phone. No shortage of welcoming surfaces for us.

Some entrants, defeated by the difficulty of writing on wrappers, 'cheated' by writing (or typing) onto labels and sticking these to the wrapper. Others stuck the whole wrapper to another backing material and wrote on that.

I love all the rebels. That's another thing about constraint: it feeds rebellion. Without something to rebel against, where would any art movement be?

But I haven't mentioned the obvious constraint of handwriting. Is handwriting getting less legible? Possibly. Certainly some excellent WrapperRhyme examples were extremely hard to read, and without the transcript one would have been seriously lost. No spell-check either, so some spelling was ... creative.

There were constraints of length in the rules too (but many people forgot about them, either accidentally or on purpose) and constraints of the size of the wrapper in the rules (some huge envelopes dropping through the letter box showed what many poets thought about THAT).

And there was the constraint of having to mention the product (or some aspect of it) somewhere or somehow in the content of the poem.

For some writers this was a key advantage because it gave them something to play with. Others wrote whatever they wanted to write anyway and the product just got a mention in a free-floating title (and wrapper-rhymes don't have to have titles at all, though of course they may).

I had expected the rhymers to write on the back of the wrapper, simply because it hadn't occurred to me to do anything else (the Ted Hughes prototype was definitely on the back). But some of them incorporated their rhyme into the actual design on the front of the wrapper. Sometimes this worked rather elegantly. At other times, well ....

Right now we're logging the entries carefully (I'm up to number 88 so far but there is a huge box of them waiting) and beginning to work on making all of them into something else, namely an exhibition/installation. It's going to be really interesting working out how to display a two-sided product in multiple sizes and materials.

But Jenny Elliott and I have a million ideas for handling this constraint. Constraints are great. 


WrapperRhyme Challenge DEADLINE approaches

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23 days, 11 hours, 18 minutes and 29 seconds until Christmas Day which means 24 days, 12 hours, 31 minutes and 29 seconds for WrapperRhymes to arrive at my door.

If you haven't heard about the international call-out for WrapperRhymes, where have you been? Entries have been being shared on Twitter, Instagram and FaceBook ever since 8 June 2019 when the whole idea was launched. (To find them search under the hashtag #HapWrap.)

Since then many envelopes have tumbled through the door here containing wrapper-rhymes of all shapes and sizes, many of them flagrantly and deliciously breaking all the rules. We have even had wrapper-rhymes that didn't rhyme.

But there's still time left for you to join the fray, if you're reading this before Christmas 2019.

Please do one, or more, and share the idea with as many friends as possible. They don't have to be poets. Just people who like rhyming.

Plans are afoot to display them in all sorts of different ways, suspended in strings, on shelves, tables, floors, walls. It will be a memorable event reaching its highpoint at StAnza in St Andrews with a marvelous display of the entries. At 15.45 on Friday 6 March, if you're there for the festival (and why would you not be?) you can come along and hear me talking about them and sharing some aloud.

The genre (as you can read in the original blog) was first thought up by Ted Hughes, with a nonsense rhyme in the vein of Ogden Nash. But since we launch the WrapperRhyme challenge other sub-genres have emerged. There may be some singing....

Why? Well because of the genres that have emerged. For example, there's the song-lyric WrapperRhyme, also known as The Cornetto (launched by Walls in 1982, though alas not written on a Cornetto wrapper). Song-lyric WrapperRhymes have appeared on the wrappers of tins of tomatoes (Why, why, why, tomato) and on wine labels (The Wichita Wine Man). The most recent was on Cadbury's Darkmilk (King of the choc).

Then there is the noble-poem-parody WrapperRhyme, to which Emily Dickinson, W H Auden, Robert Frost, John Keats and William Wordsworth have all fallen victim. It is not their fault.

There is the Deliberately Bad Wrapper-Rhyme of which McGonagall would have been proud, and the Comment-on-health-benefits Wrapper-Rhyme (we have had rhymes on food which had almost nothing harmful in it, as well as the polar opposite).

Some of the very best WrapperRhymes received so far have been short, sweet and extremely pithy. The WrapperRhyme couplet should never be underrated, nor the WrapperRhyme epigram.

In fact, the WrapperRhyme is a unique celebration of the fact that poetry is allowed to play and absolutely everyone can join the game.

(Entry form and rules here.) 


Touchstones: Alison Prince

IMG_2459 From left to right: Helena Nelson, Hamish Whyte, Alison Prince, at the launch of 'Waking At Five Happens Again' in 2016

On Saturday 12 October, the poet Alison Prince breathed her last. Born in 1931, she'd had a long life, as these things go, though her last few years were complicated by illness, including major heart surgery. She is survived by four children, six grandchildren, three great-great grandchildren, and two cats. 

To everyone who knew Alison in her last decades, she was a starburst of creativity. She could turn her hand to almost anything: she could paint, she could draw, she could write, she played clarinet (jazz in a local group), she sang, she sustained friendships, helped and encouraged other writers, especially poets. She lived on the Scottish west coast island of Arran, which she loved. The vigour of her cheerfulness and determination was second to none.

Alison had always loved and written poetry (Mariscat Press brought out The Whifflet Train, a delightful pamphlet collection in 2003) but it wasn't what she was best known for. She was a prolific children's author, a life-long professional writer. The Sherwood Hero (1995) was joint winner (with Philip Pullman) of the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize. Oranges and Murder was the Scottish Arts Council Children's Book of the Year in 2002. She wrote for adults too: biographies of Kenneth Grahame and Hans Christian Andersen. And cult lovers of the Trumpton series will already know who wrote the scripts.

But I knew her as a poet. In 2016 I joined with Hamish Whyte of Mariscat Press to publish a full collection of Alison's poems.

Waking at Five Happens Again was stylishly printed by Glasgow Print and Design Centre, beautifully typeset by Gerry Cambridge.

This lovely book gathered together a rich harvest of late poems. Been 2014 and 2016 Alison had been writing poetry profusely. She was acutely aware of her own mortality: it was as if it had sharpened her appetite for language. In the year before Waking At Five, I would open letters and emails from her and out the poems would tumble, so fast I could hardly keep up with responses. Many featured death in one sense or another, sometimes as the 'seductive musician', sometimes as a croupier, or 'the vast unknown'. Every scrap was characterised by wit, resourcefulness, lightness of touch, and a precise lyric ear.

Certain poems are touchstones. Here is one of them. It is the last piece in Waking At Five Happens Again, by the poet, Alison Prince.

Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae

It's very old, this singing
with no conductor and no instrument,
sometimes monastic, sometimes a madrigal
for joy or lament. Weep, O Mine Eyes,
the rising thirds a creeping grief.

If not running well, do it again.
It's the trying hard, the coming right,
that brings us to this table with its water jug,
to listen and to sing. 



Two of Alison's paintings

Smiles, Forests, Damsels, Knitting and Water

IMG_2580 Two new HappenStance pamphlets

We launch two new pamphlets this coming Saturday (October 5th) at the Betsey Trotwood in Clerkenwell. They are Katharine Towers' The Violin Forestand Smile Variations by Martha Kapos.

So that's five pamphlets in all this year from HappenStance, fewer than usual — yes this is true. But each is packed with rarities.

When I think of any one of them, visual images flood my mind. In The Violin Forest, there's that lovely violin on the jacket, shaded with leafy branches. And inside the poems, there's an abandoned harmonium in a Sussex wood, and a dead fox, 'laid out on the road like a fox diagram'. Some bluebells have 'finished talking' and lain down 'under the tall beeches', and an old man (a luthier, no less) 'comes / to the forest walking and tapping in winter'. To read the poems is to enter a thinking space, green and leafy. You read, and re-read. When you come out, you have that Rip-Van-Winkle feeling. How long have you been gone?

And Smile Variations — here the jacket image evokes music too. There's a stave, and odd note-like symbols, and a treble clef, all moving in a circle, dynamic and strange. Inside the poems, there's fluidity and strangeness too, even where the situation is (almost) familiar. For example, a child listening to parents talking hears their voices as 'the muffled stuff of breath, a broken river'. Soon a smile 'has escaped over high walls'. Later that smile has 'snapped shut'. Perspectives are 'perilous', 'dwindling between hills'. I'm reminded of Alice in Wonderland where the reader identifies with a child's perspective, learning to make sense — a new sense, but never a non-sense: 'Sentences open in the morning / with nothing to hold them up.'

And Rachel Piercey's pamphlet, Disappointing Alice, has Alice stuck in the desert, begging her friends to come and save her. But they won't — 'the topsoil of their affection was thinning'. What's going on? There's a medieval damsel on the jacket, with a magnificent pointy headdress, but the narrator of 'Love' has 'one hand upon the latch' and 'one hand upon the axe'. There are heroines here, certainly, but being Eve, or Cinderella or Amelia Earhart — what does it mean? Who can damsels trust to save them when the damsels may be scamming? A teenager plays Miranda in a school production of The Tempest but she alters the end of the play completely. Forget Naples. Here Miranda stands in the sand waving off 'the boat of lordly men' before going back to the island with Ariel and Caliban to 'start again'.

Then Claire Crowther's Knithoard — this is different from all the others. Of course, it comes out of knitting, that traditional women's craft, that safe woolly pursuit. But this sequence of poems calls risk, fear and fragility into its meditative frame. Loosely based on the French medieval fatras form, it comprises a series of eleven-line poems, each with an introductory couplet. You could read the entire work as being about art. Or life. Or love. Into this, the lovely language of knitting is bound. A 'notion', for example, means (there is a helpful Glossary) 'any item of knitting equipment'. In 'Tension' the speaker says 'I am instructed over and over: / Change your yarn, / use bigger notions'. 'The readiness is all', as Hamlet said, and here that preparedness is in the final section: 'I will finish abandoned garments, cast off all / those vests sleeping in bags and drawers, / all the unfinished [ ... ]'.

The last shall be first and the first shall be last. The first pamphlet to appear this year was Lydia Kennaway's A History of Walkingwhich has now walked its way into many homes. There are two footprints on the cover, each with lines from poems written into them. And the poems are all about walking, and much more. There's Buzz Aldrin bouncing across the surface of the moon; there's Little Red Riding Hood, and Goldilocks; there's a baby taking her first steps; there's an old woman who has walked, and fallen, and will never get up. There's rage and mischief, and politics and desperation, and energy and fun. And there's 'Walking for Water', the image of which stays with me perhaps most clearly of all, because of what it is not:

Walking for water is not
to see an unmissable sight.
It is not on anybody's bucket list.

It is the flight of a migrating bird,
a cruel calculation of distance, fuel
and energy burned.

[Go here to hear Lydia reading this poem precisely as it should be heard.]


Are Your Modifiers Dangling?

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My reading window last month brought more poems than ever before. So 159 poets sent work. I can't read and respond to more than 1000 poems a month and stay sane, so I was at my limit.

But the challenge remains interesting, not least in the way trends change noticeably from one window to the next. So here are some trends I observed during the window. I've mentioned many of them before, but not all.

(I am aware I have a number of bees in my bonnet. It's inescapable. You get over-sensitized to things.)

  1. There were an unprecedented number of poems formatted in double spacing (often because Microsoft Word may double-space each time you hit the 'return' or 'enter' key). I strongly suspect some people think this is what 'poem' text is suppose to look like.
  2. I have seen the most ever poems with zero punctuation, though the poet may make an exception in the case of a dash, a question mark or an ellipsis. So actually there is punctuation but no commas or full stops.
  3. Punctuation-less poems in stanza form but with a capital letter at the start of the first word of each stanza. Gaps may be used to suggest pauses.
  4. 'So' or 'such' used as intensifiers.
  5. Poems that switch verb tense somewhere in the middle. Most poems these days are in the present tense. We have forgotten that this is a fashion. Once they were mostly in the past tense.
  6. Insertion of the phrase 'I think of', sneaking in even more often than 'I remember'.
  7. Prose poems formatted in very wide blocks, long LONG lines.
  8. Line breaks allowed to substitute for commas.
  9. Punny titles.
  10. 'As' used too often (my most unfavourite word, because of its grisly sound and the fact it can mean three things)
  11. Lists of nouns, but no 'and' before the last one.
  12. Metaphors that create an unfortunate mental image if you take them literally.
  13. Some poets have favourite shapes, so each poem looks rather like the one before (even though it may be about something completely different) eg long and thin, or short and fat.
  14. Enjambing every stanza.
  15. Whilst, amidst (but not amongst).
  16. Not heft this time, and only one shards, but quite a bit of musk and citalopram.
  17. Pantoums (loads): it's the new villanelle.
  18. 'After' poems (I need to blog about this separately because there is no consistency in what people mean by 'after' and it really does get confusing).
  19. The single sentence poem that gets its syntactical knickers in a twist in the middle.
  20. Long sentences with difficult syntax, often with the key verb and subject delayed and maybe three or four line breaks to negotiate before things start to make sense.
  21. That thing called a 'dangling modifier' is an arch culprit in poems. If your modifiers are dangling, I'd say you have a problem.
  22. Anaphora poems, by which I mean poems that start each stanza or each line with the same word or phrase (the 'Because' poem is a familiar example). This can be powerful. This can be powerful, of course. This can be powerful in the right poem. But you can have too much of a powerful thing.
  23. Sentences starting with a verb but subject implied: I am seeing this more and more. She goes to the cupboard. Takes out a cup. Thinks of a bad sonnet. (Is this actually a variation on 'leaning verbs'?)
  24. The ampersand is back, judicious use in some poems, rather than a consistent stylistic feature.
  25. Poems that can only work inside the space of an A4 page.
  26. The single most common problem: unintended obscurity. The poem is behaving as though it's obvious what's going on but the reader is mystified. This is quite different from deliberate obscurity, which can be compelling.

If any of the points above are obscure, it was unintentional. Sometimes you just can't see how difficult you're being.