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FIFTEEN BOLD ASSERTIONS ABOUT POETRY

PHPN7673 Lino print by Gillian Rose

1.   There is no universally accepted definition of what a poem is.   

2.   There is no agreement on what a poem is not.   

3.   Prosody is the study of versification.   

4.   'Versody' is not a word.

5.   Versification is the art of making verses.

6.   A stanza is a verse paragraph. Sometimes it is called a 'verse'. 

7.   A verse is made of verse, and most verse comprises verses.

8.   The canon is not a weapon, and does not have balls, although it sometimes feels as though it is, and does.

9.   Alfred Austin succeeded Alfred Lord Tennyson as poet laureate in 1896. He wrote a verse autobiography, The Door of Humility,
      which nobody alive has read.

10.  The ink used in 99.99% of poetry publications is black.

11.  A list poem is usually formatted vertically and left-justified i.e. it does not list.

12.  If a list poem is entered into the National Poetry Competition, it could be said to have entered the lists.

13.  Writer's block is even in Wikipedia. But this is not a problem. A computer can write poems for you. Here is my latest.

14.  More poets are alive than dead. They thrive.

15.  More poems are dead than alive.

Lino print by Gillian Rose
Recent Comments
Guest — John Peacock
Wrong about no.9
Sunday, 26 July 2020 12:02
Helena Nelson
How, John. I am so impressed! Have you REALLY read it, and all the way through? Maybe I should change the bold assertion to 'that ... Read More
Sunday, 26 July 2020 12:30
Eleanor Livingstone
More poets are alive than dead .... Eh, interesting idea. Might the last 100 years have produced more poets than all of history pr... Read More
Sunday, 26 July 2020 13:05
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  14 Comments

THE LOST LAST POEM

NEWA0117 Painting by Gillian Rose

I put off finishing the poem a good while ago. There was a bit of a muddle in the middle. It needed plenty of time, and I didn't have plenty. I never have plenty.     

Today it occurred to me that it's been over a year — it might even be nearly two — since I last looked at it. But the last line keeps coming back to me. Gotta be telling me something.

It's the last poem in a long set. A long set that I want to make into a book. It's ten years since my last book of serious poems came out. You can put things off too long. 

I can put things off too long.

So I go to the electronic folder to take a look. Oh. It's not where I thought it was. 

Where is that folder?  I know what it's called. 'Find' comes up with four copies of a 2003 folder. Not the one I'm looking for.

But I'm cool with this. I'll find it.

Systematically, I search the usual places. My hard drive; the USB sticks I take on holiday; the desktop of the laptop; the Cloud. It'll show up.

Except it doesn't. Bummer.

The end of the poem is taunting me. It goes like this (the line breaks may not be right):

So now tell me, she says,
what you've done with my pearls.

This might not sound riveting. But I tell you there was a tricky back-story before those lines. A tale that was the last tale to be told in the bigger story of Mr and Mrs Philpott, who began in a Rialto publication in 2003 and might be finally at the end. Except I've lost the end.

I might once have panicked. But not these days. I know how things get lost. I know how to find them. (I know there are too many poems in the world already.) 

I go to my ring-bound paper files, where I print and file every poem. Well, nearly. It seems I didn't print this one. Or if I did, I didn't file it.

But I remember putting the poem into the large file I'd made of all the poems. The WHOLE SET, which amounted to a great many pages. And I printed that file. It's in a perspex wallet underneath the mountain of books and magazines on the table beside the stove.

And this turns out to be true.

Except when I printed that WHOLE SET, the last poem hadn't been added. I might have guessed, since the plastic wallet is dusty. But at least its physical existence proves I did create a file of more than 80 pages. Because here they are.

But I worked on several versions of the last (and longest) poem. I remember this absolutely clearly. It has to be somewhere.

Two hours later, I can confirm the Pearls poem is not somewhere. It is not even in the back-up drive of time-machine-saved files, most of which could be jettisoned with impunity. I must have been keeping it in the Cloud, in the same folder as the book file to which it was to be added. I must somehow have deleted the whole folder, no doubt thinking I had a copy on the backed-up hard drive. It happens. 

Nobody else has seen that poem but me. It might as well never have existed. They call it The Cloud for a reason.

Idly, I riffle through the stack of metal trays on my desk, where I keep all sorts of odds and sods. Letters, poems, bills, cartoons, pictures. I also go through them regularly and throw old poems away. But not this one. This poem is there.

Nearly three A4 pages. It's THERE.

It's not the last saved version, because a whole lot of stuff is horribly wrong with it. I fixed some of the muddle, I know I did. I'm not even sure it's a good poem, now that I read it again. Maybe I should end with the one before. Maybe it was meant to get lost.

On the other hand, one of the reasons for getting poems published (if you're lucky enough to be able to) is to save them from oblivion, at least temporarily. Or to ensure that they get lost in the right way, i.e. by being forgettable for most readers.

So now I had better help that to happen, if I can. It's time.


Recent Comments
grahaeme barrasford young
At least you found it. I've got a poem I know I wrote (or, I shouild say, have just recalled I wrote): I have no idea anymore what... Read More
Sunday, 19 July 2020 16:46
Guest — Sheila Aldous
Dear Helena, I know the frustrations. I hope you find it soon or your previous edits come back to you. How do you normally file y... Read More
Sunday, 19 July 2020 17:21
Helena Nelson
You might be able to find it from a key word or phrase, Graeme. 350 is not so many.... Good luck! :-)
Sunday, 19 July 2020 17:50
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  10 Comments

When Zoom is doom

ZOOM

'She left the web, she left the zoom'  ('The Lady of Shalott')

For poets inhabiting the online world, all sorts of virtual spaces (and opportunities) are springing up. Most publishers (I am no exception) are delivering online events to help promote books. We learn as we go.

People are using many different platforms. Zoom ('In this together. Keeping you securely connected wherever you are') has the most memorable name, and I think it might yet get into the dictionary, like hoover did – when a brand became the generic term. Wouldn't that please the Zoom people?

But all sorts of other platforms are on the go, with their various not very inspiring catchphrases. For example:

  • ClickMeeting ('We help you stay connected' — unambitious but at least short)
  • Zoho ('Your Life's Work Powered By Our Life's Work' — what's with the capital letters?)
  • Webex ('Webex is here when the world needs to connect, communicate and collaborate' —not a catchphrase, practically a paragraph!)
  • GotoMeeting ('WE'RE HERE TO HELP' — please stop shouting)
  • Microsoft Teams ('Nothing can stop a team'—oh YES it can!)
  • Periscope live streaming (developed by Twitter: 'See what the world is seeing' — ho-hum)

But yes, Zoom ('In this together. Keeping you securely connected wherever you are') is the best name, though limp catchphrase. And in the UK, at least, Zoom seems to be the most popular right now, at least for ordinary people as opposed to giant organisations, whose employees use the one they're told to use (which is frequently one they don't like).

All but one of the poetry events I've attended online recently have been Zoom affairs. I spent time exploring both GotoMeeting (and GotoWebinar) and Webex, but it seemed to me Zoom was easiest to use. Also it has the advantage of being the one I'm getting most used to.

Not that I like everything about it, by any means. And there are many things I don't understand. For example, having read carefully about headsets, I don't understand why the sound quality I get through mine is worse than my Imac's own microphone. Okay, so one of the headsets was cheap but the other was £25.00 and I thought it might have something to offer. Nope.

I have learned quite a bit about things that go wrong. 

Like that sometimes my computer's camera stops working, and I have to restart the whole shebang. 

Like that when I select 'record automatically' in Zoom settings, it doesn't record automatically. 

Like that Zoom is unhappy about screen-share when the document shared is set to 'full screen', though sometimes it's ok. 

Like that sometimes nothing works right, and it is not the user's fault. Sundays may be bad days. 

Today, for example, the Zoom website status indicated that all sorts of things weren't working. 'Our team is continuing to investigate this issue.' I can bear witness to the fact that there most certainly was an issue. 

When its good, it's very very good. When it stops working, Zoom is doom.

But for any virtual conferencing technology, watching poets' faces while they read poems, with variable sound quality, is a mixed blessing. Some events share the poem-text at the same time, though. That adds a little something that you don't usually get at a live reading.

Zoom events where attendees can use public chat are ... risky. Sometimes the contributions are, let's say, less than tasteful. And when chat comments pop up in the middle of a reading, it's distracting. Terribly tempting, too, to send a sarky message about the presenter to a friend (a bit like whispering during a poetry reading). Just wait till you find you've sent it publicly by accident.

It's distracting too, when some of the attendees visible in video windows are eating lunch or (as in one recent instance) applying moisturiser.

Having been to live open mic events where the poets left one by one after they had delivered their two minutes-worth, I suspect precisely the same happens online. A bit like Pass the Parcel, except the final one to unwrap the paper is entirely on their own.

Some attendees turn their video off so they can continue to listen while making dinner, without anybody seeing what they're doing. This is actually quite sensible, though maybe not ideal at a poetry event, when you're secretly hoping people might be concentrating.

But maybe the key issue for any of us at online events is motivation. We sign up because we think it might be interesting. But after the novelty of the first few has worn off, what's in it for us? When you go to a live poetry reading, you know you're going to see some friends, probably have a convivial drink and an outing. But on the web?

From a publisher-host's point of view, one reason for zooming is to sell books. So one could argue, that from the attendee's point of view, a reason for going is to find out whether or not you'd want a copy. Is that enough to offset Zoom-fatigue? What else can online events offer attendees?

I don't think it works to transfer the content of a typical poetry reading into an online event. It's a different medium and something different needs to happen. If it's a live event, it might include some conversation, some insights, a bit of background on the book, a bit of enjoyable gossip. There may be aspects of audience interaction too that would draw people in and make them feel involved. Something to be learned that you can't get any other way – that's what I most like in an online event. I like to leave the meeting feeling I know something I didn't know when I went in.

That's if the technology works!

Essential Zoom terms

  • Zoom-gloomlow mood after Zoom events
  • Zoomophobiafear of Zoom events
  • Inzoomnialack of sleep after too much zooming
  • Zoomo sapiensnew species of virtual human
  • Zoom-tombdeadly boring Zoom event
  • Zoom-exhumepost-Zoom analysis
  • Zoom-grooming (don't ask)
  • Zoombaa virtual dance
  • Zoom-Vrrrroomthe energy boost from an inspiring online event 
  • Rule of Zoomrough estimate of length of Zoom event
  • Nom de Zoomability to change one's name at Zoom event
  • Back to the Zomb Therapya new birthing technique
  • Bride and Zoomvirtual weddings
  • Zoominatingreflecting during a Zoom event; alternatively: eating grass during a Zoom event
  • Superzooman—Zoom participant with special powers

Recent Comments
Guest — Brigid Sivill
For those of us who are disabled or live in remote areas or are just poor I think that the current virtual meetings, films and lau... Read More
Sunday, 17 May 2020 21:37
Helena Nelson
You are absolutely right, Brigid, the virtual activity is wonderful when you can't get to the live event anyway. I think such even... Read More
Sunday, 17 May 2020 21:47
Guest — Davina
Brigid, I agree. It's never been easy to travel across country to readings and events for all sorts of reasons — and, to be honest... Read More
Monday, 25 May 2020 11:34
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  5 Comments

Unwrapping the WrapperRhymes

STORY-BOARDS

So the WrapperRhyme exhibition DID happen!

It happened at STAnza, Scotland's poetry festival in St Andrews.

It happened while gatherings of people were still going ahead (though nobody coughed or sneezed).

How lucky we were! One week later and we would have been scuppered.

I hope the photo-gallery on this page will show some of the preparations (I haven't done this before). The strings of regular-sized WrapperRhymes were suspended in the display area of Innes's bookshop. Outsizes and 'rebels' were in folders.

There were typed versions to read as well (since many rhymers have colossally illegible handwriting) in the folders.

The 3D Wrappers (e.g. boxes of tissues, cheese, chocolates and tubs of ice-cream) were on shelves.

There was a corner for Tunnock's products alone, and a chair to sit in while writing your own rhyme and pinning it to the board supplied (lots of people did this).

Or if you preferred, you could sit in the boat. It was challenging getting that boat up (and down) the stairs, but we thought it was worth it.

Jenny Elliott and I orchestrated two talks on the WrapperRhymes, and some rhymers came along to read their rhymes (once they had located them, in the air or in a folder). At the end of each talk, the audience sang a WrapperRhyme about tinned tomatoes to the tune of Tom Jones's version of 'Delilah'. They sang with such gusto that book-buyers downstairs were slightly alarmed.

Now the exhibition is dismantled so I am in process of boxing and labelling everything and putting it in plastic boxes, which will go into our roof space. Ultimately they will be housed with the HappenStance archives in The National Library of Scotland. So if your WrapperRhyme is in there, a bit of you will be saved for posterity, fully identified and catalogued. They should be there long after Covid-19 is a distant (albeit painful) memory.

We had some merry merchandise too, including WrapperRhyme bookmarks and WrapperRhyme beermats. If you order anything from the website, you're highly likely to find one of each in your parcel.

Huge thanks to everybody who contributed. It was wonderful. 


Recent Comments
Marcia Menter
And I have just eaten my FIRST Tunnock's Caramel Wafer Biscuit. It took a surprisingly long time to chew. I saved the wrapper,... Read More
Tuesday, 17 March 2020 17:31
Josephine Corcoran Horsfall
It's been great to read the rhymes shared across social media and to feel part of a big, bonkers project! Thank you for it. Your... Read More
Wednesday, 18 March 2020 11:22
Guest — Mary Thomson
Thanks for sharing the pictures Nell, I couldn't go to Stanza so had been unable to envisage how on earth you were going to displa... Read More
Wednesday, 18 March 2020 12:39
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  3 Comments

HappenStance at StAnza

HAPWRAP2

This weekend it's all stations go preparing for StAnza, the poetry festival in St Andrews which runs from March 4-8th and to which poetry lovers from far and wide will flock. They're packing their bags right now.

An extraordinary variety and range of performers will feature. These include some I know rather well. 

For example, there's Gerry Cambridge,who will read from his new book The Light Acknowledgers on next Thursday afternoon

And there's Nancy Campbell whose HappenStance pamphlet, Navigations, is officially published on the date of her afternoon reading next Saturday (but you can get it right now, if you want a copy before that). She is featuring at a poetry breakfast too, which is live-streamed earlier that same day, so can be watched at home. So even if you can't make it to StAnza, StAnza can make it to you.

If you entered the WrapperRhyme challenge, you too (or your work, at least) will also be on display all week in J G Innes's bookshop (upstairs gallery). If you can't come, I will take photos once Jenny Elliott and I get the whole thing on display. It's looking marvellous even in its disassembled form. 

And if you think poets are not all in the same boat, you may change your mind when you see the boat in the WrapperRhyme exhibition. If you are at the festival, please come to the talk on the Friday afternoon if you can, especially if you have a WrapperRhyme on display. This event will be participative!

There will be a HappenStance flashmob again too. Not Edward Lear this year, but Hilaire Belloc's Matilda, and although all flashmobs are absolutely secret, I can reveal that early on Saturday evening in the Byre café something might happen.

Poets are often a bit intense. But they're also allowed to have fun. 


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SONNET OR NONNET?

IMG_3739-1

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.


Recent Comments
Jim Laing
Was there such a thing as a Scottish sonnet tradition?
Sunday, 09 February 2020 19:35
Helena Nelson
Not so far as I know, Jim. Though there have been many sonnets written in Scots.
Sunday, 09 February 2020 20:09
Guest — Jeremy Wikeley
Thanks for this Nell. I love the form but I think it is a very greedy one. By which I mean, there are times when I everything I wr... Read More
Saturday, 22 February 2020 17:34
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