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ON NOT RHYMING PROPERLY

DISOBEDIENCE

Children learn about rhyme probably before they can speak, but certainly they start to be able to do it – for fun and with relish – as soon as they can talk easily.    

My granddaughter and I used to go for walks and do rhyming. I would say, 'What do you want for Christmas? Do you want a mat? .... Or do you want a cat? Or do you want a ....' and she would roar HAT (or RAT or BAT), and fall about with delight. She would even invent words that rhymed. TAT! WAT! DAT!

Create a space and a rhyme falls into it. Goodness knows why rhyming sense is fun. But Dr Seuss, Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, A A Milne, Lynley Dodd and Julia Donaldson are just a few of the names that have profited and continue to profit from this fact. They have entertained children and parents for over a century and a half.

I think it's something to do with knowing what's coming while at the same time being slightly surprised. If I read aloud from A. A. Milne's The Christopher Robin Story Book, or happen to say to you

James James
Morrison Morrison
Weatherby George Dupree
Took great
Care of his Mother
Though he was only ...

won't you leap into the fray with THREE? Can you resist saying 'three'? And

James James
Said to his Mother
'Mother,' he said, said he;
'You must never go down to the end of the town, if you don't go down
                                              with....'

You will finish the line for me, won't you? Me. Me. ME!

But some of the rhyming verses you learn as a child don't rhyme properly. The old ones, the authorless ones that get passed down over generations – some of them have terrible rhymes. 

Jack and Jill, as I feel sure you know, went up a hill to get a pail of water. When Jack fell down, he bumped his crown, which rhymed nicely, but 'Jill came tumbling after' is miserably disappointing. 'Water' absolutely does not rhyme with 'after'.

And this happens a lot. Look at Ding Dong Bell / Pussy's in the well. 

Little Johnny Thin and Little Tommy Stout rhyme neatly. But what about the cat who 'ne'er did any harm'? 'Harm' does not rhyme with the farmer's 'barn', except for the purposes of this ditty (which by the way is grossly modernised on Wikipedia and not the version I grew up with). Still – harm/barn? You can make it rhyme. You can hear the similarity. You can hear a similarity between 'water' and 'after'. But it's not a full-blooded, satisfying, click-into-place rhyme. 

As a child I knew the difference. Everybody knows the difference.

But where are we now? Contemporary poets are nervous about rhymes and go to all sorts of lengths to avoid the delicious neatness they might offer. Perfect rhyme is looked down on, with much the same raising of eyebrows as goes with the word 'Georgian'. 

But poets still pair words like 'sleeping' and 'walking'. Or they may slant-rhyme 'cat' with 'pot' (Philip Larkin being the grand master of brilliant slant rhyme). They rhyme in the middle of lines instead of at the end. They rhyme without a metrical pattern to drive the rhyme home. They rhyme singular with plural (hope / envelopes). Or most commonly they rhyme not at all.

It has been suggested to me on more than one occasion that contemporary magazines reject certain poems because they rhyme. I do not think this is true. It is more likely that the editor felt the poem weak for other reasons. But rhyming is both easy and hard to do. That is to say anyone can rhyme with certain words (the balladeers exploited that to the full by regularly ending lines on sounds like 'lie' and 'say', for which there are many matches). But rhyming with the panache of Hilaire Belloc or Roald Dahl or W H Auden or is a true art. 

Most of the rhymers I have mentioned here wrote for children or humorously, and it is in humorous writing that rhyme still flourishes. The fortieth edition of Lighten Up Online is proof of this alone, and Martin Parker's 'Ermyntrude and the Higgs Boson' offers a number of inspired rhymes for the Hadron Collider. It can still be done.

And not just in light verse. Ruth Pitter, who lived into the last decade of the twentieth century, continued to rhyme all her life. She rhymed through modernism, post modernism and beyond. Olive Dehn loved rhyming, and it worked for her. And of course, Charles Causley, whom I wrote about last week – the man could rhyme.

'New' poets often go to considerable lengths to flout convention, as artists are supposed to do. They drop punctuation. They spatter words across the page. They right justify. They put things in boxes. They put things in columns. They superimpose text with other text. They cross things out. They invent symbols and signs to substitute for words. (They don't, usually, write for children.) Despite all of this, most contemporary poems look, at first glance, remarkably similar to one another. For example (as I have pointed out elsewhere) the practice of writing in (unrhymed) couplets is currently so common as to be a contemporary convention, as well as frequently associated with poems that win competitions.

But rhyme is no longer a convention in non-humorous, contemporary, literary, page poetry. (In performance work, it's a different story, though I might say something about that another time.) Not-rhyming is the convention in page poetry (except at weddings and funerals), even though readers appear to continue to enjoy it, from childhood onwards. I wonder how long it will be before use of rhyme will radicalise the page. It hasn't been in fashion now, except in light verse, for a very long time. It's hard though. It's hard not to sound like a greetings' card. It's hard to do it well.

And hard to write good poems – has been from the year dot.

(Hard to write good poems, whether they rhyme or not.)


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KNOWING WHAT WORDS MEAN WITHOUT KNOWING WHAT THEY MEAN

CAUSLEY

So I was listening to the radio – not properly listening – but it was on in the background, and suddenly 'Timothy Winters' came through.                               

There's something incomparably satisfying about a poem you can join in with, because most of it has stuck indelibly in your mind decades ago – without your ever having to learn it. That's 'Timothy Winters' by Cornish poet Charles Causley, who died in 2003, and whose poems will be remembered – or this one most certainly will.

Poets are highly preoccupied with the idea of being overlooked while alive, and forgotten when dead. You can mention the name 'Charles Causley' in a group of younger poets and see blank faces. But not in poets of a certain age. And not in those who studied his ballads at school. And even those who aren't sure about the name 'Charles Causley' – you see them fumbling through the memory files when you mention him – try them on a line of 'Timothy Winters', and see what happens. 'Ears like bombs and teeth like splinters: / A blitz of a boy is ....'

I think I met Causley in person once, but I was only in my teens, and now I can't be sure. But I met 'Timothy Winters' before that, and he has always stayed close.

What a poem! And it illustrates another thing about poetry: its ability to educate – and I don't just mean educate about socio-historic human deprivation. Who had ever heard the word 'helves' before they encountered

At Morning Prayers the Master helves
For children less fortunate than ourselves

My Picador Collected footnotes the word helves as Cornish dialect 'the alarmed lowing of cattle (as when a cow is separated from her calf); a desperate, pleading note'. I always inferred it meant 'appeals for help', which suggests the sound of the word in context led to not inappropriate interpretation. I have never read the word elsewhere, but I've always remembered its strangeness, and its curious rightness in this poem. Not just there for the rhyme, I think, though rhyme it certainly does.

But most importantly of all, the poem ends 'Amen'. To the many generations of UK children who were once closeted in daily school assemblies and enjoined to pray, 'Amen' meant the closing of something formal and the opening of doors. We had no idea of the meaning of 'Amen' in Hebrew, or that it was originally Hebrew at all. We just knew it signified the end, and the bit we could join in with, agree with – joyfully – if it meant getting on with something else that we hoped wouldn't involve praying.

You can know what words mean without knowing what they mean.

But you can never write (or hear) a poem that ends on the word 'amen' without remembering Timothy Winters, and therefore Charles Causley: humane, metrical, melodic and haunting.

So come one Angel, come on ten:
Timothy Winters says 'Amen
Amen amen amen amen.'
Timothy Winters, Lord.
                                      Amen! 


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THE DREAM POEM COMPETITION

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The HappenStance website has a free competition flagged on its home page. It is supposed to change every two months, though this year it has really been every three. To begin with, it was a kind of quiz, but there were few entries. Latterly, it has invited poems, and this attracts more interest, it would seem, though the prizes are modest.                                  

The entries are anonymised before being passed to a judge, who is usually one of the HappenStance poets taking on this role for no fee, though much appreciation. The most recent competition invited poems about dreams (not more than 18 lines). It was judged by J.O. Morgan, and his comments on the competition and the winning poem were detailed – too detailed to fit easily inside the competition page. So here they are as a kind of guest blog.

J.O. Morgan's comments on the Dream Poem Competition, 2017

The subject of dreams seems apposite for poetry, or so it would appear to me, since the somewhat elusive nature and tumbled imagery of many poems I read does seem to have a sort of dreamlike quality.

Also, the way in which poets read their poems aloud often has a similar dreaminess to the tone of delivery. Had I not known the subject before I began reading the submissions, it might have taken me a while to realise what they all had in common.

And yet many of the poems did capture the sense of dreaming remarkably well; that stream-of-conscious-craziness where the unlikely seems wholly possible, even expected, and what might at first sound metaphorical is in this case simply real – at least in dream terms.

That then could be a problem: a poem's metaphors have clear meanings, whereas a real dream's imagery may have a meaning so muddled that it is in essence meaningless. As such, do you stay true to the dream and have a meaningless poem, or stay true to the poem and in so doing tweak the dream to give it a false profundity?

Both approaches were evident in the poems submitted, and both with interesting results – some with the sheer delight in dreamy weirdness, others with dreams of sometimes worrying portentousness.

'Formication', the poem I chose as winner, did something else again. It stood out at once for its shift in perspective. But also, in particular, for how much it achieved through suggestion, while actually saying very little and in so few lines. There seems to be a great deal going on beneath the surface, as well as an interesting take on how the anxiety produced by nightmarish visions bleeds through into waking activities.

I'll share some thoughts about it shortly, but first here it is:


Formication

The Dictionary for Dreamers says insects
are worries, at least in dreams. Therefore
all those ant poisons, the Raid and Nippon
under the sink, are there to calm me.

I loathe their collective mind, the purposeful lines
that trickle from my ears onto my pillow.
I hate how once you get one, you get more,
lofting bitten dreams in their leaf-cutter jaws.

Peter Kenny


The dream itself is only hinted at in the first half of the poem, but the hint is enough to put us on our guard. Later the dream is still only mentioned from the perspective of the waking world, but it's a dream we can immediately recognise, even if for us – thankfully – it's not a recurring one. There's subtlety in how a real-world, almost off-hand, reference to the dream suddenly becomes the dream, even if only for a single line. 

And then again, following a reference to dream-architecture, how the brain won't be satisfied with a small cast of antagonists, there's the sudden description of tiny delicate mouthparts, which – closer-in, and arrayed in multitudes – might be a lot more concerning for the dreamer.

I also loved those simple phrases 'I loathe' and 'I hate', which seem so controlled, almost polite, in their expressions of dislike, but which have a sense of annoyance, of frustration, of helplessness, of resignation.

Of course we have already been told of the familiar brand-name products that may have no effect on dreams, but which will certainly help in the moment of waking, when the imagined world and its unassailable army lingers for a while in the dark of the bedroom, and then beyond into the daylight hours.

And does the consultation of a dreambook ever really help? Probably not. But when the products of your own mind trouble you this much, what else is there to do?

If it seems that I've analysed this poem partly backwards, that's because it made me read it that way. I read it down, then back up, then through again. It was the poem that made me want to do that. And poems so rarely make me want to do that. A clear sign, for me, that it was something just a bit special. And that last image, both in the dream and out, is really rather marvellous.

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ON 'SWASHBUCKLING'

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Sometimes you don't realise you've learned a word somehow wrong.      

Then someone, or some thing, pulls you up and makes you think about it.    

Like.... swashbuckling, for example.                          

There's a lot of stuff these days about pirates. Kids love pirates. 

My understanding of pirates evolved long before Johnny Depp. Pirates for me were Long John Silver and Captain Hook.

So it's a very long time since I first met the word 'swashbuckling'. It must have come in somewhere back then, because I know it well, and like it as well as most people. Swashbuckling pops up whenever pirates are mentioned—for example, Ten of the most swashbuckling Puffin pirates.

I never looked 'swashbuckling'up (I never looked anything up as a kid—my sister and I read voluminously and picked up the meanings of things as we went along). So somehow I developed the idea that 'swashbuckling' was something to do with the pirates' giant buckles on their belts. At the same time, in my mind some of those belts were more like huge sashes (or 'cummerbunds', another word I like).

As a result, I sort of made swashbuckling into sashbuckling. I certainly had no idea what the word actually meant, though I knew it was fiercely piratish.

It was a cartoon that made me think long and hard. Cartoons work like poems, I find. Often they hinge on a single word combined with an image, and it creates an intense cluster of associations and meaning and fun and joy. 

This time it was Savage Chickens on September 13th: a chicken with an eye patch is applying for a job, and the interviewer is looking at his CV: 'Hm... I see from your résumé that you've done a lot of swashbuckling'.

It made me laugh. And I started to think about swashbuckling and what it actually was. Had I myself ever done any?

I looked it up. And it's not what I thought at all. Well, it is and it isn't.

It means 'acting in the manner of a swashbuckler'. Ha. What is a swashbuckler?

'A swaggering or daring soldier or adventurer.'

Okay, yes, Swaggering, yes (I won't go into how I've always visualised a swagger, but fortunately we all know what swag is.)

But still—buckling what! And why? And what is a swash?

It seems there is no swash. There is 'to swash', which is to strike something violently. And the 'buckle' is nothing to do with the belt. It's a small, round shield.

A swashbuckler is someone who strikes his opponent's small round shield violently. In battle. Or maybe while boarding his ship.

Or maybe via Twitter.

Swashbucklers are not subtle.

They are all boys. 

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WORDS, AND WAKING THEM UP

ceres

'The little rabbits smiled sweetly in their sleep under the shower of grass; they did not awake because the lettuces had been so soporific.'    

Soporific.     

Precisely the right word.    

That's it, isn't it? The right one, in the right place.    

Soporific.                      

The fabulous and mysterious surprise of language, which in the ordinary way we use so lightly – merely for talking.

But when you find it fixed and free in a rhyme or simply placed without fuss exactly where it should go in the dark backward and abysm of time – well, the black bat night has flown, that's what, and ringed with the azure world he stands. 

The right word in the right place is the star to every wandering bark. 

There is wildness and wet, wildness and wet, and then suddenly it's long live the weeds and the wilderness yet. From wildness to wilderness, simply a syllable. But slipping 'wilderness' into the last line of 'Inversnaid', as if it were inevitable, oh my!

I am working on two new pamphlets. They have provoked this excitement and woken up the wonder of words. 

The two poets in question are especially good at putting the right word in the right place, and each time this happens, there's that little shock of recognition. It feels like a miracle.

Maybe this is how clichés get to be clichés. Somebody puts the right word in the right place and the world falls in love with it. So a heart of gold loses its original beautiful self and belongs to everybody. Then the level playing field flattens. At the end of the day, we're back to square one, which may or may not have something to do with hop-scotch.

A day job as a copy-writer has been an honorable trade for many poets and if I could write catch phrases for a living, why would I not? I throw you a phrase. You catch it and pass it on...

But there's more to it than that inside a poem. You linger on the precise and delicious word, yes – but it's precise and delicious because of where it is in the poem as a whole, which the sum of the parts is greater than. Another mystery: how a poem adds up to something that seems to make sense even if it doesn't.

Here are two tasters from the poets who have stirred me to dithyrambs.

Ramona Herdman's forthcoming pamphlet is called Bottle and actually it does contain 'a taster of pink fizz', but that's nothing to what else is in there.

For example, there's a ship in a bottle and its deck 'flexes under your feet'. Flexes. Besides, how did you get inside the bottle?

There's 'a stumble of ice cubes' and then ice 'ticking' in a glass. Ticking.

There's a 'quiver of whiskies'. Quiver.

It is a joyful job to be a poetry editor and linger over words. To set them onto a page one by one and marvel. And then to share them.

Lois Williams's forthcoming debut may be called Like Other Animals. It's a bargain. No, really. Read on. She wakes up words and sets them spinning.

There's a cashier, in Poundland, for example. She's 'stuck there, furious, reliable.' 'What if our bargains are / our only words in common?' Bargains.

At the town centre pond, there are 'goldfish / shimmering their semaphore'. Shimmering. Semaphore.

And at home, there's her father in the greenhouse 'dusting off soil, bits of vermiculite'. Vermiculite. I don't think I've ever said the word out loud till now. Vermiculite.

What a sensuous pleasure language is! What an amazing and humbling gift!



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THE SUMMER OF BLUE

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The poetry window has shut again.   

Some of the coincidences that occurred during the reading period were extremely strange.   

This always happens, but I forget.    

Who would expect, for example, to find more than one poem featuring a walrus?  

Also several poems about promises. The word 'promise' popped up all over the place (a lovely word, when you think about it).

Dusk, too. A lot of dusk. And silk.

As far as colour went, it was the summer of blue. Many shades of blue, more than one poem being entirely about blueness. Payne's Grey did once put a look in, but blue was overwhelmingly the colour of choice.

'Heft' is, as I think I have said before, definitely the new 'shard', and clouds find themselves shrouding the sun quite a bit. 

I am a little sensitive to shrouds at the moment, though I don't think I've ever actually seen one. 

Dead bodies are sometimes wrapped in sheets, but we don't (I don't) refer to these as shrouds. 

The only shrouds I can find on eBay are connected with gas nozzles. However, on Amazon I have tracked down a 'Premier Disposable Shroud with Plain Collar, White, Adult'. How extraordinary. Only ten left in stock.

There weren't as many envelopes as usual – 97 sets of poems, when there are usually at least 120. But I figure people have picked up the fact that things are difficult here at the moment. 

However, reading the poems was a pleasure. Real poems, of which there were many, are not written lightly, and they were not read lightly. I copied out three, so I could keep them and reflect. But images and phrases from others linger, as well as some of the lovely letters that came with the poems.

It is a privilege being trusted with people's poems. I remain convinced that writing them is a good thing, good for the spirit (if not the shroud). and some of that invariably rubs off on the reader.

The work of words is ancient and uplifting. How glad I am to be part of that fellowship. 


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