Not the Monthly Post

Writing as Microcosm 3: The Spontaneity Trap

Last month we talked at fair length about some of the ways that the writing business can serve as a microcosm of life in the declining years of industrial civilization. That same comparison can be taken quite a bit further, and I propose to do exactly that this week. As we discussed in those earlier posts, among the things that make modern life so miserable for so many of its inmates are pervasive propaganda campaigns, pushed heavily by the corporate media and the talking heads of the status quo, that are meant to trick people into doing things that support the current state of affairs at their own expense. We’re going to talk about another aspect of that.

The clearest view of the tangled mess I want to discuss this week can be glimpsed by taking a look at poetry. A century ago, people could make a decent living writing poems. William Butler Yeats, whose occult activities were the center of last week’s post, was only one of scores of poets who turned out volumes of verse so popular, and so widely purchased, that their royalties paid the rent. Not every poet achieved that goal, of course; Robert Graves, one of the influential English poets of the generation that came of age in the First World War, noted in one of his forewords that poetry had always been his passion but his novels paid his bills.  Even among common or garden variety poets of the time, however, it was quite common to place volumes of verse with large to midsized publishers and sell plenty of copies to the general public.

That doesn’t happen any more. There’s no shortage of poets, to be sure, and universities keep on churning out more of them every year, equipped with diplomas and certificates to match; there are also hordes of amateurs, unhelped or unhindered by fancy scraps of paper, pumping out verse by the cubic yard. Outside of the rap scene—a phenomenon all its own, which I’ll discuss a little later on—next to nobody is interested. Go to a hip café that hosts a poetry night sometime and you might see somebody there who just wants to listen and isn’t planning on reading some of their own verse, but they’re the exception.  The poetry aisle, in those few bookstores that still retain such an anachronism, is about as lively as a small-town morgue on a slow night.

There’s a good reason for this, and it’s not the same as the excuses that most of today’s poets like to bring out when somebody’s rude enough to mention the public’s total indifference to poetry in their earshot. No, it’s not because nobody appreciates genius any more, or because the public has lost whatever semblance of literary taste it once had, or because today’s poets are so far in advance of everyone else that the public has been left behind, or whatever other bit of self-serving drivel the literary set has come up with this week. Nor, to be fair, is it because today’s poets are less able than their predecessors; literary ability seems to be more or less constant from generation to generation.

No, the problem here is that the literary mainstream—again, outside of the rap scene—has adopted a set of notions about poetry that make it nearly impossible for those who embrace those notions to write good poems. That didn’t happen by accident. It was part of the general movement in the arts to make credentials more important than ability. Where the writers and artists of an earlier age earned their status by the quality of their work, writers and artists today are supposed to earn their status by going to college and getting a degree in the right program. Since getting a degree from the right program doesn’t  make you a capable poet, and can very easily do the opposite—as the saying goes, those who can, do; those who can’t, teach—the debasement of poetry and the other arts was an essential step in the triumph of credentialism in our time.

The specific gimmick that was used to make sure that nobody would be able to excel at poetry in our time is the worship of spontaneity. That crept into American verse right after the First World War and finished its takeover of the field with the Beat movement, alongside a lot of ignorant misunderstandings of Zen. Away with rhyme and meter! Away with revision and reflection!  Your first thought is your best thought!

No, it isn’t.

The spontaneity trap, as we may as well call it, has become one of the standard tricks used by today’s corporate system to neutralize potential challenges. If you just do what comes naturally, and never stop to think about it, you’ll never notice that “what comes naturally” is the set of clichés and unthinking habits you absorbed in childhood. There’s nothing new in that.  A few centuries ago, “what came naturally” were the prejudices people picked up from their parents and their church; now, the prejudices in question mostly come from schools and the mass media, but the principle is the same.  That’s why the phrase “Just Do It” is a sleazy corporate slogan deployed to sell products.  As long as you’re convinced that you should just follow your childhood programming—which is what “spontaneity” amounts to in practice, under most circumstances—you’ll be utterly predictable, and thus utterly unthreatening.

Mind you, there’s another kind of spontaneity, but it’s found on the other end of the process of learning and using forms. An example from the martial arts may be helpful here. A skilled martial artist can respond to an attack with perfect spontaneity, in a flurry of fluid and effective movements that do exactly what needs to be done. A beginner can’t do that. Why? Because the beginner’s body is hampered by habitual patterns of movement absorbed in childhood, and these get in the way of effective combat. Those have to be overcome. A good bar fighter has to do the same thing, of course—playground brawls and more serious fights in teen gangs and the like serve the same function as hours spent in the dojo, getting past the habitual movement patterns instilled in childhood so that punches and kicks can do what they need to do.

The slightly more refined kicks that readers get from a good poem follow the same rule. If you write down what comes to mind first and leave it unedited thereafter, you can pretty much count on writing drivel, because what comes out of your mind first is the result of automatic habits of thought, feeling, and language you picked up starting in infancy and finished absorbing by the time you hit puberty. You have to get past those to write anything worth reading. No, it doesn’t matter that you think that you’re marvelously unique and special, and so all you have to do is spew your thoughts onto paper and everyone will gather around in awe. They won’t, because—well, I’m sorry to have to break it to you, snookums, but you’re no more marvelously unique and special than anybody else.  Neither am I, and neither is your favorite writer. Most writers are fairly dull—I certainly am. Their (and my) writing is a substitute for an interesting life.

The insistence that you should express yourself is another trap. This self you’re eager to express—what is it?  Why, another set of habits you picked up between infancy and puberty, habits of thought, feeling, perception, and action. That’s what a personality is, and that’s all it is. Everyone else has one too, and the chance that yours will catch the interest of anybody but a few of your friends and family members is pretty small. Forget about yourself, and express the world as you see it, or imagine it, or wish that it could be—that’s where you get interesting. That’s why stories where the main character is too obviously the author are so dreary, and stories where the main character is someone that author can only dream of being are much more lively.

That’s also why most of the items in the poet’s traditional toolkit are ways to stop yourself from getting stuck your own unthinking automatisms. Let’s look at a poem to see how this is done. The one I have in mind here is by H.P. Lovecraft.  Lovecraft was a skilled poet and essayist, as well as the man who wrote some of the twentieth century’s most iconic fantasy and horror stories.  A traditionalist to the last degree in his literary tastes—he wrote a blistering and very funny parody of T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, titling it Waste Paper—he made skillful use of the traditional forms in his own verse, so he’s useful in this discussion.

Yes, I know that Lovecraft has been declared a nonperson in official circles due to some of his writings—notably, a few nastily bigoted poems he wrote in his teen years, when he was reeling emotionally after both his parents died in an insane asylum. Later in life he became a New Deal Democrat, but you won’t find that referenced by those who like to score virtue-signaling points by denouncing him. It’s a source of bleak amusement to me that the same people who insist that people under the age of 25 shouldn’t be blamed for their actions, when they’re talking about criminal law, are at the head of the line flinging blame when they think it’s to their political advantage.

Be that as it may, the verse of his I have in mind is a sonnet in his sonnet-cycle Fungi From Yuggoth, titled “Mirage.”  Here it is:

I do not know if ever it existed—
That lost world floating dimly on Time’s stream—
And yet I see it often, violet-misted,
And shimmering at the back of some vague dream.
There were strange towers and curious lapping rivers,
Labyrinths of wonder, and low vaults of light,
And bough-crossed skies of flame, like that which quivers
Wistfully just before a winter’s night.

Great moors led off to sedgy shores unpeopled,
Where vast birds wheeled, while on a windswept hill
There was a village, ancient and white-steepled,
With evening chimes for which I listen still.
I do not know what land it is—or dare
Ask when or why I was, or will be, there.

Once upon a time anybody who finished eighth grade in an American school knew what a sonnet is and how it works, but one can’t assume such basic knowledge these days. A sonnet, then, is a poem of fourteen lines in iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter?  “Iambic” means that it’s set to a rhythm of iambs, which are paired syllables, the first unstressed, the second stressed. The words “awake,” “forgive,” “collapse” are iambs: a-WAKE, for-GIVE, col-LAPSE. “Pentameter” means you have five of these in a row. Try Lovecraft’s last line on for size:  “ask WHEN or WHY i WAS or WILL be THERE.”  That’s iambic pentameter.

There are plenty of other meters in English poetry, but iambic pentameter is the most widely used. Like all poetic meters, it has some wiggle room built in. The poem just cited makes good use of one of the standard variations, putting an extra unstressed syllable at the end of odd-numbered lines: “exISTed,” “MISTed,” and so on. How much stress you put on each of the stressed syllables varies also, and provides much of the music of the form: compare the rhythm of “and YET i see it OF-ten, VIO-let MIS-ted” to “where VAST birds WHEELED, while on a WIND-swept HILL.” All this is part of the form, and is learned by experiment and by reading plenty of good verse by other poets.

Let’s move on. A sonnet is divided into two sections, an octave of eight lines and a sestet of six. The octave may be rhymed ABBA CDDC—that’s poet’s shorthand for “the first line rhymes with the fourth, the second with the third, the fifth with the eighth, and the sixth with the seventh”—or it may be ABAB CDCD, as in our example (you can work this out for yourself.)  The sestet also varies in its rhyme scheme, but it’s always got three pairs of rhymed lines. In this example they’re EFEFGG; you can find others that run EFGEFG, or EEFGFG, or any number of other variations. Choosing a pattern for the sestet that lets you emphasize what you want to emphasize is an important element in sonnet writing.

Now comes the thing that makes the sonnet unique:  there’s a distinct arrangement of thought in the form.  The octave states an idea.  The sestet picks it up and does something with it. In the poem we’re considering, the octave tells of Lovecraft’s vivid sense of distant, eldritch places and times, the sense that gave so much power to his fiction, while the sestet takes that up and then redefines it vertiginously as his own memory of past or future, someplace Lovecraft senses he himself has been or will be. Every well-written sonnet does something like this with its theme: connects it, comments on it, contradicts it, you name it, but the sestet always picks up where the octave leaves off, and does something different and interesting with the core idea of the poem.

By this point, dear reader, if you’re used to what passes for poetry these days, you’re doubtless thinking, “Okay, but what’s the point of all this faradiddle?  Why wrestle the language into iambs and rhyme schemes?  Why chop your idea up into an octave’s worth of statement and a sestet’s worth of commentary?  You can’t be spontaneous if you do that!”

That’s right. You can’t be spontaneous if you do that, and that’s the whole point. You have to think about it, reflect on it, try words that don’t come immediately to mind, explore different ways of phrasing and thinking, different patterns and rhythms of language. That’s why iambic pentameter is so powerful a tool in English poetry—it’s not how we naturally speak or think. SF and fantasy author Poul Anderson wrote a lively romp of a novel, A Midsummer Tempest, set in a parallel world where every word Shakespeare wrote was literally true and everyone does speak in iambic pentameter; he must have sweated blood over the manuscript to get the dialogue to flow as naturally and spontaneously as it does.

Good poetry is like that. It flows naturally and spontaneously to the reader, but it took the poet many hours of hard work to get it to do that. The process of creating a poem is like any other kind of writing, but more intense than most. With me, at least, the basic idea and a few lines show up spontaneously and I write them down. Then I wait, and listen, and mutter the lines to myself while doing chores or what have you, seeing if I can coax more lines or line-fragments or imagery to the surface. Once I have a rough skeleton of a poem, I write it down.  Then the really hard work begins—trying different words and phrases, discarding many possible choices while I hunt for the one that works.

In the process, I come to a much clearer understanding of the idea itself. That’s what usually happens when you think hard about how you’re saying something. Most of us, most of the time, use words casually, without thinking much about them; that’s why so much shoddy thinking and sloppy communication slides past. Wrestle with the language so that you can say what you want to say, and you have to notice what you’re actually saying; keep at it, and you may even figure out what you actually mean.

Traditional poetic forms are tools to help you do that. In English-language poetry we have a very good selection of those; the same is true of the poetic traditions of other languages, of course. In the English language these days we also have another phenomenon at work, however. Poetry seems to be hardwired into the human nervous system; deprive people of it by way of a wretchedly bad public school system, or in any other way, and they’ll reinvent it all by themselves, without help from experts. That’s what happened in this country’s impoverished urban neighborhoods over the last half century or so, and the result is rap.

I’m not personally fond of rap, as it happens, but I can recognize a vibrant cultural upsurge when I see one. It’s a little dizzying to have a seat on the sidelines while a new tradition of bardic poetry is being born—for that’s what we’re talking about, of course. More than five thousand years ago, performers with a single string instrument for backup created rap numbers celebrating the events of their time; one of those, passed down from performer to performer, eventually got copied down on clay tablets by industrious scribes and titled Shutur Eli Sharri. We know it today as the Epic of Gilgamesh. The same process in other ages, with slightly different backup instruments pounding away to give emphasis to chanted words, gave us the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Song of Roland, Beowulf, and the beat goes on.

The sonnet isn’t a rap form. Rap is still in the early phases of its history, using simple rhyme and rhythm schemes and musical backup while it explores its own creative possibilities; if it follows the usual trajectory, the true masterpieces of rap won’t come until much later in the decline of industrial civilization, when other forms of entertainment become scarce and chanted, rhyming tales told to the beat of a single instrument become the standard way to pass a cold winter night around a blazing hearth. Sonnets and the other classic English verse forms are at a much later point in their historical arc; they are part of the heritage of a dying age. That doesn’t make them useless, and it doesn’t mean they’re going away.  Latin verse stayed lively in such educated circles as there were during the Middle Ages, and helped spark the Renaissance in due time; if it survives, classic English language verse might do the same thing through the Middle Ages and Renaissance to come.

So while the rappers among us are gathering strength and skill for the mighty epics of the deindustrial dark ages, there’s still a point to keeping the sonnet and other classic verse forms alive. Even right here and now, they’re tools that can be used to teach clear thought and reflective awareness, and not accidentally, produce vivid, thought-provoking poems. If that appeals to you, dear reader, consider slipping out of the jaws of the spontaneity trap and giving the old strong magic of poetic forms a good solid try.


  1. John–

    The image of school children of a future civilization studying ancient rap epics of the previous dark age is amazing to contemplate!

  2. “No, it doesn’t matter that you think that you’re marvelously unique and special, and so all you have to do is spew your thoughts onto paper and everyone will gather around in awe. They won’t, because—well, I’m sorry to have to break it to you, snookums, but you’re no more marvelously unique and special than anybody else. Neither am I, and neither is your favorite writer. Most writers are fairly dull—I certainly am. Their (and my) writing is a substitute for an interesting life.”

    Thank you John, for your sincerity, honesty and frankness.

  3. Another very good analogy to this is Jazz. I listen to a lot of music from the golden age of jazz ( from about 1950 until 1970) and what is stunning is the virtuosity, creativeness and output by folks, who for the most part ,did not see the inside of a college classroom. What they did have was a music scene that allowed them to play live ( for money) 7 days a week. In the case of many of the best musicians 8 hours a day because they played for 4 hours a night in the “white” clubs and another 4 hours in the late night ” black clubs”. The ability to improvise in Jazz is the ultimate spontaneity as it has to happen in real time. Try to pull it off without thousands of hours practice and live performance and it will come off as unpleasant noise. And just like poets from the period of which you speak the musicians from this period could record album after album that were picked up by record labels, sold well and made them a living. We have no shortage of university and conservatory programs turning out high brow jazz musicians but nary a Miles Davis or Chet Baker or John Coltrane in sight.

  4. One thing I’ve found myself doing a bit of recently is writing hymns. What’s happened is 1) I can’t sleep 2) my brain starts writing lyrics 3) I turn the light on and write the verse or whatever I’ve got down, then work out a rough chorus and another couple of verses 4) I turn the light off and can actually get to sleep. Then some time later, I go back and look at what I’ve written, and check the scansion. Rhyme isn’t essential for songs, but the rhythm HAS to be right or your song will be a pain to sing/play and won’t sound that great. I’ve sung too many songs that don’t quite scan, and they are a pain. I also check if there’s other words that would make the meaning clearer, and figure out what order verses and chorus go in. Then I look at it and ask if it’s decent.

    So I’m starting out moderately spontaneous, and then editing at a later date.

    If yes, then some time later I grab my harp and write a melody to fit the words, and write it down. This also involves figuring out the time signature and key. Then, often later again, I grab my harp and experiment with chords to see what sounds good.

    This gives me a hymn that I like, that is the right range for the choir to sing, and that is easily playable on my harp. I don’t tend to end up with standard chord progressions a lot of the time because I’m working from the other end, but given how narrow pop music has become I think that may be more a feature than a bug. The other people in my choir liked the one I showed them, and we successfully performed it on my church’s 25th anniversary.

    Also, the sound guy mentioned he liked it, while having forgotten I wrote, and was startled when someone reminded him. That was probably the nicest compliment I’ve received thus far on my compositions, since I know he wasn’t fond of it just because someone he knew wrote it.

  5. One of my all-time favorite poets, Lew Welch, would agree with your take against spontaneity in writing. Here is one of his Hermit Poems (1964):

    The Image, as in a Hexagram:

    The hermit locks his door against the blizzard.
    He keeps the cabin warm.

    All winter long he sorts out what he has.
    What was well started shall be finished.
    What was not, should be thrown away.

    In spring he emerges with one garment
    And a single book.

    The cabin is very clean.

    Except for that, you’d never guess
    Anyone lived there.

    It’s not overtly formal, like a sonnet is, but there is subtle form there.

  6. JMG
    I recall from grade school,
    Learning of limericks and rhyme.
    And though they never explained it,
    I enjoyed it at the time.

    You describe it as a tool,
    To focus and organize thoughts.
    And while I’ve rarely used it,
    I can see the values it taught.

    I’m still reading Yeats’ poetry. I’ve read some of Pohl, now I’m adding tempest to my list.

    “He heard while he sang and dreamed
    A piper piping away,
    And never was piping so sad,
    And never was piping so gay.”
    Yeats-The Host of the Air

  7. On an earlier discussion of the effects of copyright on creative work, if you’ll allow it:

    I’ve discovered that youtube is lousy with copyright trolls, and playing exclusively public domain works won’t protect you. Nor will writing your own music. Being a tiny channel won’t protect you, nor will being a big channel with millions of views.

    What happened to me is that I got a copyright claim on Oh Come Oh Come Emmanuel, played by me on my harp. This song was first written in a monastery during the latter part of the first millenium. It is not only out of copyright, it predates the invention of copyright, and modern forms of written music. The sheet music says public domain on it. It is completely ludicrous.

    Since this happened to me, I’ve started looking into a) my options, and b) how common this is. And it seems to be happening to all larger content creators, and all music content creators regardless of channel size.

    What a copyright claim means is that someone else can come and stick ads on my video and make money off it. I can dispute it, but the way the disputes are set up is seriously in favor of the person claiming copyright, even if they’re a bot. If the person claiming copyright doesn’t agree that they made a mistake, they can just keep making money off your video, or the whole thing can escalate to a copyright strike. You can dispute a copyright strike, but if it’s upheld, you have a problem. If you’re a youtube content creator, you REALLY don’t want a copyright strike, because if you get three your channel gets taken down. And you’ve likely put months or years of work into that channel.

    So the safest thing is to not challenge copyright claims, even fraudulent ones. But it seems fraudsters, copyright trolls and copyright holders alike have noticed how the situation is rigged in their favor, and it’s happening more and more. It happens to youtube content creators of all kinds, but musicians seem to be the most vulnerable.

    I think what’s actually needed is giant class-action lawsuit lawsuit by youtube musicians against youtube, for actively encouraging other people to steal our work. I don’t think anything short of that or all all the content creators leaving for places don’t do that will fix this.

    This really reminds me of the discussion of rent seeking, and how all productive activities get overrun by parasites trying to make money off the work of others during the fall of civilizations, to the point where it is far easier to make money through parasitic means than by doing honest work and the whole thing collapses.

  8. “snookums?” Well, golly gee willikers, JMG.

    I am delighted to learn there was one other American who hates the T. S. Eliot oeuvre as much as I do. For me, Eliot was the second worst famous American writer, the coveted first place in that category belonging to Hemmingway.

    For fun and parody, allow me to suggest an essay, The Literary Sins of James Fenimore Cooper, by Mark Twain. Before there were Hollywood Indians, there were Cooper Indians. And, from our cousins across the seas, the inimitable poem, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, by Lord Byron. For that document of poetical criticism, I can forgive Byron a lot.

  9. More than a decade ago, I interviewed the owners of one of only two poetry-only bookstores in the US. Open Books was in Seattle, and you might know it from their little garage-under-a-Craftsman home storefront in the Wallingford neighborhood.

    Here’s the archived story, from 2008:

    You can read of some of the markers of their survival: They only used a paper register instead of computer system; they staffed the bookstore themselves, and as practicing poets, they were knowledgable guides for their customers. They also owned and lived in the building where they kept shop.

    I don’t know what the trajectory has been since then, or if that couple still owns it, but the store has moved to Cherry Street, downtown.

    Thanks for the wonderful treatment of the sonnet form, Mr. Greer. I’m old enough to have had instruction in it, but it’s been a long time since I’ve written any verse myself. I never could get anyone interested in it, and I didn’t like where poetry went around the time I interviewed the bookstore owners above. I couldn’t even read the “experimental” crap then becoming popular in Seattle, let alone write it with any gusto.

  10. Well that makes me feel a little better for not appreciating The Wasteland, and a little worse for not appreciating rap. In an effort to break long ingrained habits of thought I suppose I should give both a proper try. But where to start?

  11. Thank you JMG this again is a very interesting Essay

    Does any one know of a good single volume of sonnets? Sonnets have come up before on this blog and I thought I should try my hand at them. So the first thing I tried to do was find a poetry book with sonnets so i could read a whole bunch of them. Except for volumes of Shakespeares sonnets I have not been able to find such a book and it is frustrating.


  12. “This self you’re eager to express—what is it? Why, another set of habits you picked up between infancy and puberty, habits of thought, feeling, perception, and action. That’s what a personality is, and that’s all it is.”

    Hard to believe that anyone would believe what Yuval Harari, Klaus Schwab, and the transhumanist are selling, that one can record these experiences and habits into computers to gain immortality.

    My understanding is that Sri Aurobindo worked on and modified ‘Savitri’ his whole life.

    The rap I hear in the city is plain hateful, violent, distasteful, and ugly. It has devolved very far from older upbeat songs such as ‘Rappers Delight’. The group producing it may be artistically creative, but, the culture of it’s creators is so self destructive and faces challenges that may be most honestly described by author Charles Murray, which are not allowed to be discussed, faced, or ever overcome. The money behind rap, and much modern music, misuses much of the symbolism you teach here. I see it as a strong negative force at this point. Maybe that’s the point?

  13. Dear Mr Greer, you wrote “stories where the main character is too obviously the author are so dreary.”

    Indeed. It makes me think of French author Michel Houellebecq, who has written maybe a dozen novels. In each of them the hero is a depressive, alcoholic intellectual who nevertheless has much success with the ladies. That’s Houellebecq himself; I have a friend, himself an author (much less famous than Houellebecq, though; he’s primarily a teacher) who has met him in person and he confirms.

    In the real life, young ladies are repelled rather than attracted by depressive alcoholics, except, seemingly, when the man is a successful author who is frequently interviewed on TV and whose novels sell very well and are translated in many languages, like Houellebecq’s.

    I’ve read three or four Houellebecq novels. The first one kept me glued to the book a whole Sunday, until I was finished reading it. The other novels made me feel like I was reading the same story again and again. Why is Houellebecq so successful? It seems to me that it’s because the man has an uncanny understanding of France. Especially of what is wrong in France. There’s a lot to say about it, and it seems to me that Houellebecq has a talent for saying it without getting cancelled.

    As to Lovecraft, I read Fungi from Yuggoth when I was in my late twenties, almost forty years ago, and it made me enjoy English poetry for the first time in my life. Good poetry is rare, in any language. Besides, Lovecraft is more than an author, in my opinion.

  14. >credentials more important than ability

    Someone once said a bureaucracy is defined by its procedures and not its outcomes. Bureaucratic poetry. Poetic bureaucracy. There once was The Man from Department…

    >Okay, but what’s the point of all this faradiddle?

    You’re the first person I’ve met who actually stopped to give an answer that didn’t consist of “BECAUSE I TOLD YOU SO AND YOU LEARN THIS OR ELSE”. Even those of us who were taught what a sonnet was, got very good at holding the info just long enough to pass the tests and then blissfully forgot it all as it went unused.

  15. I never thought that poetry excercised so much the reflective faculties as you have showed, and you’re right on target, it’s because i always thought about poetry as an spontaneous ability. I was truly on the wrong!

    This week I have a question for you about translations in novels today. Is it just here, or they are also in your side of the pond becoming extremely bad, to the point that they become ludicrous?

  16. On the technique of long-form oral poetry in bardic traditions, Albert Bates Lord’s study, The Singer of Tales (1960), is absolutely fundamental. In Serbia, when Lord was a young researcher, there was still a living tradition of very long epic poems sung by illiterate bards in the Serbian variant of Serbo-Croatian. He studied how they mastered their art and in what that art consisted.

    Lord discovered that each performance of ‘one and the same’ epic actually differed in its details from all the other performances by the same bard (and by any other bard): the bards were not reciting a very long fixed text that they had memorized, but recreating it each time they sang. What the bards knew by heart was the line of the epic’s story, taken as a string of episodes, and a host of fixed metrical formulas which they used to construct each episode as they performed the given epic before their audience in a tavern or village square. As their audience seemed more or less enthralled, they might lengthen or shorten each episode, or even omit some episodes, as they performed the whole epic.
    This is not wholly unlike the way children make necklaces by taking beads from a bead-box and arranging them on a string: no two necklaces made by a single child will come out exactly the same as one another, even if the child’s bead-box is very large and full.

    Lord built on the work of his older colleague, Milman Parry, who had detected the presence of the same sort of formulas in the Illiad and the Odyssey, and had shrewdly speculated that in ancient Greece each oral performance of either epic had been constructed on the spot by means similar to those that Lord actually observed on the ground during his field work in Serbia.

    The same method can be deployed by a teller of simpler tales in prose. An oral storyteller need not memorize and reproduce a fixed text, as if reading aloud from a written script, but can create each “performance” of the story anew as his audience seems more or less wrapt. (I have used this method myself back in the days when I told Hallowe’en stories to undergraduates at Brown some twenty years ago.)

    What little rap I have heard seems to be improvised in each performance by similar means.

  17. Can credentialism be countered proactively or must we simply allow the edifice to collapse under its own weight?

  18. Dear John,

    The degree of your insight, erudition, and clarity of thought and writing rarely ceases to amaze me, and particularly in this post. You’ve taken a subject about which I know every little, and rarely consider, and made it not only interesting, but fascinating, and given me further material for thought and reflection. Thank you!

  19. Spontaneity trap, indeed. Excellent post, JMG, and a rather off-the-wall line of reasoning connecting Shakespeare through Lovecraft to rap. I’m not much of a rap fan either, but I thought more along the lines of it originating from angry minorities – as opposed to a response from the education system. Can’t argue with you.

    We definitely appear to be living in times where we’re deprived of decent art forms for the most part – part of a cycle I guess, and a simplistic view of consumerism and profit seeking doesn’t explain it all away. You’re posts on this topic point out the complexity of the processes involved. Thank you!

  20. Beautifully put, John! Funnily, I was having an inner conversation with myself during my bus commute to work yesterday, precisely about this issue, and how it relates to the Law of Limits: modern ‘spontaneity’ chimes to the tune of the ‘No limits’ belief, “be yourself, you can do whatever you want, there’s no limits to achieve what you want”, etc… The only thing this utter expansion without checks can achieve is dissipation… Poetic form, structure, meter, rhyme, form, etc are the containers that allow for creativity and inspiration to flow and do what it needs to do, conduct the gifts of the Muse. Writing ‘real’ poetry is not as easy as writing modern ‘poetry’, of course, but, like music or drawing, it can be learnt. For those who might think this is beyond their skill, I would recommend Stephen Fry’s ‘The Ode Less Travelled’. Of all the English poetry manuals I’ve read this is the best, it covers a lot of technique in an easy and very entertaining way and, if you follow the exercises, you will end up writing technically accurate poetry (It has certainly helped me to fine-tune my poems and getting them published!)


  21. This fallacy of spontaneity is the fundamental premise of the ‘limited time offer’. If you want people to commit to a course of action contrary to their own best interests, it is imperative that you deprive them of adequate opportunity to think their decision through thoroughly. If I recall correctly, this was also one of the propaganda tactics employed in a fairly recent effort to market a certain pharmaceutical product of dubious value.

  22. In my possibly foolish opinion, sonnet-writing and working with poetry in general is a process of discovery. I am usually surprised at what arises. It is rarely the case that the eventual “idea” is what I started with or what I expected. My role seems to be simply to start the process. Something much deeper than my own fleeting thoughts surprises me almost every time. It often takes a considerable length of time even to pretend I understand the products of such discovery. For example, I have one song that wrote itself without my intending it at all (it appeared unsought) and I am still pondering who it is for and what it means. Though it is not in sonnet form, I think it’s appropriate to mention it here.

    FWIW, I believe there are other sonnet forms than the eight-six discussed above, but they all rely upon iambic pentameter and intentional rhyme schemes, and they all have a beginning “argument” and a “response” or “conclusion” that ties the first part into a greater conceptual framework. Among my favorite are the quatrain x 3 ending in a couplet.

    As with other forms of poetry, the sonnet is something like a bone that must be chewed upon, so at a minimum, reading it aloud is required to get it into another part of your linguistic universe. And some, like Shakespeare sonnets, require to be memorized and recited aloud at random times in order to sort them out or plumb their depths. They are still being argued about to this day, as they promise horizons of meaning that are not immediately evident.

    Poetry is a process at the heart of lingistic meaning, of the deep fires that language arises within. Poetry approaches the mystery of the signified/signifier connection, which is not random no matter how many mathematical linguists assure us otherwise.

    Many forms of magic would be impossible without tossing meaningful verse out into the aether. It is a doorway into the world of the fae, where every word must be spoke with care, for magic swirls around our every utterance, and more thickly is this true with poetry. Consequences abound, and possibilities also.

  23. Thanks for this essay! Just recently, I re-read a marvellous essay on the Welsh techniques known as cynghanedd with some applications to English verse. As the writer says “Compared with free verse, the Welsh meters are an extreme sport, like kitesurfing set alongside paddling.” Similar things could be said about the skaldic meters.

    Your point about rap being in its early stages is well taken. I don’t know Sumerian or Akkadian, but I do know that the Iliad, Odyssey and Beowulf are the product of a long and fantastically sophisticated poetical tradition. Some of the Iliad may have been more or less spontaneously produced by the bard, but that was the same spontaneity as for the martial arts master you mention. In fact, today in Brazil’s North-East, there are still repentistas who duel ex-tempore in traditional poetic forms until one admits defeat.

    In German, poetry is “Dichtung”, literally “densification”. It is incredible how much thought must have been put into just a few lines of masterful verse, since so much comes out of them. When I come back to some passage in the Aeneid that I remember, I am often surprised how short it is and how much it bloomed in my imagination after I had closed the book.

  24. Some great alliteration in that last stanza.

    I recommend Stephen Fry’s (yes, that Stephen Fry) An Ode Less Travelled as a great guide to writing in the various metres.

  25. “Most writers are fairly dull—I certainly am. Their (and my) writing is a substitute for an interesting life”.

    I rather suspect that you must be fishing for praise, as for my money you are one of the best and most edifying writers I have found on the Web. (I am very critical, and have read a great deal online since 1992 or so).

    Regardless, I find this article right up to your normal very high standard. Consistently to say things that are useful, in an interesting way, while being amusing or ironic – that’s very unusual indeed.


  26. Hi JMG,
    Thanks for this – I am really enjoying this new series of thoughts – not an area that I recall you going into before (been reading you since the beginning).

    I would just like to challenge you on the idea that “That’s why iambic pentameter is so powerful a tool in English poetry—it’s not how we naturally speak or think.” On the contrary, I have come across the idea that English is a language that naturally falls into an iambic rhythm – de DUM de DUM de DUM, or the opposite a trochaic rhythm – DUM de DUM de DUM de, which both amount to about the same thing in the end.

    For example:
    I TRY to resPOND to each COMment as TIME perMITS.
    It is not an exact fit when you see it written down like this, because when you speak some syllables are ‘swallowed’ or mushed together to fit the beat. This is because English as spoken by British and American speakers is a stress-timed language, meaning we speak in a beat of stressed syllables and squash other syllables to fit.

    Not all varieties of English do this – for example Jamaican English is a syllable-timed dialect, meaning each syllable is given about the same amount of time to speak.

    One more minor addition – Shakespearean sonnets take the form of three sets of four lines, rather than six and eight, with a ‘punch line’ in the final two. However there is still often the switch in idea or approach after the first two sets of four, so it is a similar pattern.

    On your wider point, I totally agree that taking a natural spoken language and making it fit a predetermined pattern, like a sonnet, can take blood sweat and tears, but the results are SO worth it.
    Always opting for spontaneity can just be a form of laziness.

  27. Thanks as ever, John. This one would surely be in one of your Greatest Hits collections.

    I do like some of the Beats and what they did. The better Kerouac novels were certainly revised. The story around his endless scroll that he typed out On the Road, with a little help from uppers, while true, doesn’t often take into consideration the fact that he revised that quite a bit before becoming the novel that inspired those who followed after him. Chronologically also, his work suffers, as I guess he did too. “Desolation Angels” was not as readable as his previous efforts, and then, further deteoriation.

    Likewise with Burroughs… while I like injecting some things with the randomness that can come from the cut-up method, people often don’t talk about it being a case of using those as the basis for further exploration, and later revision. Interesting juxtapositions can be had, but alone and without further work they don’t work as well.

    So relying soley on spontaneity, chance operations, etc. does put you against the wall you’ve often talked about… the one we need to turn around from and retrace our steps back.

    For rap, its been interesting to see how global a style its become (at least for now), with French, Finnish, Russian rap, and many others I probably never heard of. And yeah, the people who created used what they had at hand -often the sound collage and sampling methods for the musical aspect, with more noise elements than even Luigi Russolo would have dreamed of.

  28. I’ve long thought that the popular market for poems was simply drowned by popular music, and will recover it’s natural place once it is no longer possible (due to declining technology, or changing cultural norms) to listen to endless repeats of recorded pop songs on demand.

    Curiously today I came across “Ian Fleming Explains How to Write a Thriller” ( today on the Hacker News front page. Amusingly the article’s preface can’t resist criticising how parts of Fleming’s essay have not aged well and yet from my vantage the essay remains perfect as it is, and it is the criticism that is not aging well.

  29. Re T.S. Eliot

    Personally, I have always been very fond of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. But my taste tends toward the imagistic.

  30. This instantly made me think of Dylan Thomas deliberately channeling his dismay and anger at his father’s mortality into one of the most restrictive of poetic forms…

  31. @JMG,

    Sometimes poetic form can be violated with ironic (or something) results. For example, take that advanced and highly developed poetic form, the ‘limerick’. 🙂

    E.g., my favorite limerick:

    There once was a man from Lahore,
    whose limericks stopped at line four.
    When asked why this was,
    he answered “because”.

  32. Thanks very much for a wonderful post! A comment and a question:

    First, the comment – Homer is actually what got me to have an appreciation for rap (well, that and humorous nerdy rappers like mc chris and MC Frontalot) – I heard a live performance of the scene where Achilles chases Hector done by Stanley Lombardo, and I went “oh, *this* is what the fuss is about.”

    Secondly, the question – besides “Spellcraft” by Robin Skelton, which you recommended in response to a recent MM question of mine, do you have any recommended books for learning poetry besides “collections of poems by your favorite poets”? If it helps narrow things down, I’m mostly learning for the purposes of prayers and rituals.

    Thanks again,

  33. Robert P, I’d literally never heard of Billy Collins until you mentioned him.

    David BTL, the first time I paid attention to rap, my immediate response was that these were rough drafts for the epic poetry of the future. It’s fascinating to watch it take shape.

    Chuaquin, you’re welcome.

    Clay, exactly. You don’t become good at jazz by getting a diploma from a nose-in-the-air conservatory. You become good at jazz by playing in crowded, smoky clubs late into the night and discovering from personal experience what electrifies the crowd and what doesn’t. I suspect the crucial point is that the old jazz players paid attention to their audience, while the conservatory types don’t know how to do that — and the lack of a dialogue makes their jazz soulless and bland.

    Pygmycory, huzzah! I’m delighted to hear this — and yeah, it sounds a lot like my creative process.

    Robert M, it’s entirely possible to write very good poems in that kind of open format, and that’s a great example. You just have to work harder at it, as Welch did!

    Maxine, glad to hear it. You can find all of Fungi from Yuggoth here:

    Piper, okay, good. Now put the same thought into a more challenging form and do something with it!

    Pygmycory, ouch. I wish I could say that this surprises me.

    Mary, well, that’s two of you, but it’s not three — I appreciate Eliot’s work, just as I appreciate Lovecraft’s critique of it. I love Twain’s pieces on Cooper, but I hadn’t read Byron’s piece; he needs to have a lot forgiven, but that helps.

    Brunette, I knew Open Books quite well — in fact, I bought volumes of poetry there. I quite understand having no patience with recent experimental poetry; me, I don’t like much of anything from the Beat poets on, but then I’m crabby that way. 😉

    Gustavo, de nada.

    Andy, I can’t help you with rap. With Eliot, the best interpretive aid I know of is also the funniest: Martin Rowson’s graphic novel The Waste Land, which turns the whole poem into a Raymond Chandler private eye story, with detective Chris Marlowe in hot pursuit of the Holy Grail from Los Angeles to London to an abandoned casino in the Nevada desert, passing through most of between-the-wars English-language literary culture in the process.

    Will, I’m not familiar with such a book. You’re right that it would be useful to have one.

    Dennis, that’s standard for bardic traditions. They’re violent and self-destructive in their early years because they’re the product of violent and self-destructive eras — like ours, for example. It’s only later on, when the rapper/poets of a later age look back on the wars and struggles of a former era, that they rise to their potential — but without the long apprenticeship in an age of decline, they can’t achieve that.

    Horzabky, yep. In the fiction biz that’s called a “Mary Sue.” You can generally get away with doing a Mary Sue character once, but if you keep at it your novels become dull; they only make money if enough other people wish they were like you to play along.

    Other Owen, of course. The point of modern education is to teach you such things in ways that guarantee you’ll never use them. I have a slightly different notion in mind!

    Guillem, there aren’t a lot of translations on this side of the pond — US firms won’t do them, unless there’s some overriding financial reason to do so. My guess is that some small publisher or other could become a large publisher fairly quickly by taking the best novels in other languages, translating them well into English, and getting them into print — but we’ll see if that happens.

    Robert, agreed — it’s a brilliant book and well worth close reading.

    Raymond, you’re most welcome.

    David BTL, it can be countered quite effectively. All you have to do is find an alternative means to bring creative work to the attention of potential audiences. Look into the history of any formerly marginal art form, and you’ll see that process at work.

    Alan, you’re most welcome and thank you.

    Drhooves, and the most important way in which people are deprived of decent art forms is that they lose track of the fact that they can create art for themselves. That’s the secret I most want to reveal: you don’t have to depend on the credentialed to give you art. You can make it yourself.

    Hwhistle, nice! Yes, it is indeed another expression of the power and value of limits.

    Old Steve, yes, exactly.

    Clarke, oh, granted. I wanted to focus on one standard form for now.

    Aldarion, oh, it’s the same in Sumerian. We only have a few long pieces of Sumerian epic verse, but there was clearly a vast amount of it once — just as Beowulf is the sole survivor of an entire literature of Anglo-Saxon epics.

    Kerry, thanks for this.

    AV, automatic writing usually doesn’t pretend to be literature.

    Tom, I think you’ve missed my point. My life is quite dull — deliberately so; I don’t like stress and prefer a quiet existence — and like most intellectuals with Aspergers syndrome, I’m fairly dull to be around unless you happen to be interested in one of my special subjects. My writing is where all the adventure and color goes.

    Christine, nope. The sentence of mine you’ve cited is an iamb, three anapests, and another iamb. Don’t ignore the poor anapests or their cousins, the dactyls — they also play a huge role in English language speech and poetry!

    Justin, one of our recurrent differences of opinion is about the value of the mid-20th century avant-garde — cough,. cough, John Cage, cough, cough — so this doesn’t surprise me. To my mind, On the Road had the makings of a good novel, but badly needed much more revision and editing. But then such disagreements are as inevitable as they are entertaining!

    Daniel, thanks for the Fleming piece! As for recorded music, no doubt that has a role, but I think bad modern poetry and bad schooling also contribute a lot to it.

    Roldy, that’s a first-rate example — and the villanelle is a superb form for such exercises. You can’t write one without really, truly grappling with the language and the idea.

    Sgage, funny. I’m recalling two other limericks:

    There was an old lady of Kew,
    Whose limericks stopped at line two.


    There was an old man of Verdun.


    Jeff, no, I don’t really have any other resources to hand, other than collections of poems you like, and a vast amount of paper and ink for your own productions.

  34. Hi John Michael,

    Like your style, mate. 🙂

    Writing does take effort, and I too follow a similar process. An essay derives from a single idea, which is dwelt upon whilst doing other things. The idea either grows, stagnates and/or flounders. The writing process involves bringing the ideas together in a form of a coherent narrative. That’s called work. Then there are four edits, one of which is done by Sandra – always good to get someone else’s perspective. Sleep on it, edit the words again. Done. I’m not paid for the work, and that’s as much energy as I can give the words. For the English language has an energy. Yes, people do not realise this, or as you suggest, maybe it is known and hence discouraged. 😉 Anger and frustration are what you get when folks are unable to express themselves, and I would advise against pursuing that path, but wiser heads are perhaps treading on unwise ground.

    I quite enjoy rap music, and Kanye West’s song Runaway is an astounding work. You couldn’t listen to the words and not believe the guy was complicated, with a side serving of trouble – after all, he did say so.

    It interests me that poetry has a traditional structure to it. Yes, that makes a lot of sense, and like writing and music, and even dare I say it: maths, has a language all of its own. A person expects to hear that language spoken, and when it is not spoken that way, it probably does come across as a bunch of drivel.

    I’m of the opinion that poets channel their works into popular music. Middle Kids – Edge of Town. Great imagery using words.



  35. If you want to see what the sonnet is capable of, look for Vikram Seth’s novel “The Golden Gate” written in 1986.

    The *entire* novel, including forward and table of contents and other front and back matter are written as Onegin sonnets, 590 in all.

    Yes, they tell a complete, comprehensive story. The sonnet form enhances the story.

    It’s absolutely worth seeking out. The ending will bring tears to your eyes (because it’s so good, not because it’s so terrible).

    Your library can get you a copy.

  36. Your post is a reminder that books aren’t written.
    They are rewritten.

    First drafts can be dreadful but that’s what editing and rewriting are for: to make the ideas fully themselves, saying what you want to say.

  37. Jeff Russell, you might have a look at Poetic Diction, by Owen Barfield

    In our time, good poets become songwriters. They make more money that way, hang out with interesting people, get invited to great parties, and get loads more respect than do academic poets.

  38. @JMG:

    I was thinking of jazz and the beats, and how the beats worshipped jazz musicians… but in most cases never got to that level of art. (I agree On the Road wasn’t Kerouac’s best, could have been better. Dharma Bums was better…) Then I was thinking of Sun Ra, who even in his most outre avant-garde moments, could still come back and make a song swing in the very next moment. And Sun Ra being from Saturn and all, the planet of discipline -that was Sun Ra’s main thing. When I read his biography I became even more impressed in how he lived, breathed, ate, shaled, slept, music. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. He had major discipline and some of the great jazz players that came through his Arkestra, like Pharaoh Sanders, can improvise and be spontaneous, but it is built on the back of all that discipline and playing.

    Or take the beauty of John Coltrane’s version of My Favorite Things. He takes it into some outer territories of sax skronk, but is able to come back into that form of the original song which is improving on, which is what holds it all together.

    & with my poetry notebook that I have been tinkering in again, I am looking at the classic forms. …because when I read a poem like Yeat’s “The Song of the Wandering Aengus” or others, that he can condense so much power into those lines, what a feat.

    & also thank you for turning me onto Vachel Lindsday through your Appleseed posts. I’ve read some of his other stuff since then and the incantatory quality of it is intoxicating. There is a lot to be learned from his verse, and it’s accessible to people.

    I wander if in part the avant-garde movements of the 20th century were a moment where the pendulum swings in history, a swing of the kind you often right about. When the movement towards opposites when one thing becomes too rigid. Now the techniques imparted by the avant-garde have lead to various dead ends or into kind of exclusive scenes, or niche interests for enthusiasts, the pendulum swings back the other way. Again Sun Ra is interesting, because he could do both the traditional swing jazz music, and the atonal free jazz type thing as well.

    All in all, December puts me in the mood for dissensus even more than usual. I think it has something to do with a prominent holiday celebrated this month, that puts me into Grinch mode. For others who might also have “attitude” problems about Christmas, I did find a few rounds of the Order Spiritual of Alchemy, Breath of Acceptance to be on the topic of the holiday to be helpful into shifting my mood.

    @Roldy, JMG

    Rune of the Finland Woman by Marilyn Hacker is one of my favorite of her poems. She is a master of the villanelle (though I don’t always care for her subject matter). I’m not sure if this counts as a villanelle though. Still, it’s about magic and words and wind and I love it.

    (@Jeff Russell… you might like the poem for the subject matter as much as the wordplay.)

  39. @The Other Owen re: #18

    There once was a man from Department
    Passed out in a basement apartment
    And during his coma
    They found his diploma
    But couldn’t find out where his heart went.


    One of the things I loved about the “Phantom of the Opera” song is precisely that much of it is in iambic pentameter (other than the denouement-ish “inside your/my mind” at the end of each verse). You can fairly readily slot Shakespeare plays into that melody.

  40. One of my favourtites as a kid was Peter Marshall (nickname Twittering Birds Marshall – if he was preaching about birds in the trees you could hear them sings, if he was preaching about walking along the dusty roads of Galillee you would be thirsty) who was considered a master of creating word pictures with his words and they even published books of his prayers.

    One of the comments that was made about him was “he could make the lexicon yeild words we never knew existed” and that was meant as a compliment. These days you would be pilloried for not speaking ‘plain English’

    I always envied that as I pretty much have a list of words in my vocabulary that I know I can never use in public 🙁

  41. Andy, if you are looking for a gentle way to easy yourself into rap, I recommend Kae Tempest’s latest album. Once you’re feeling that, try Sometimes I Might Be Introvert by Little Simz. After that, you’ll be ready for Akintoye.

  42. There once was a gal who said what came natural.
    When a little forethought would have been practical.
    Instead she being a fool instead of oh so cool,
    Put her foot in mouth when better she should have been tact-i-ful.

    My apologies for poor form in the above. Best I could in the spur of the moment.

    I’m afraid I haven’t outgrown foot-in-mouth syndrome, either. But at least there’s been some improvement. I hope.

    JMG – thank you for this series!

  43. Chris, exactly! I don’t think the managerial-class experts who launched the public schools on their dumbing-down trajectory realized that people who are prevented from expressing their feelings in prose and poetry are more likely to do so with gunshots and Molotov cocktails, but then their great blindness is that they failed to realize that the rest of the human race never will just do as it’s told.

    SueS, thank you.

    Teresa, I’ll definitely check that out. The sonnets that impress me most, though, are the ones that express an entire essay — or, as some of Lovecraft’s did, an entire short story in the weird-horror genre — in just fourteen well-crafted lines.

    Justin, no argument there. Thelonious Monk, who’s my favorite from that generation of jazz masters, is another great example — gloriously weird and envelope-pushing, but all of it on a foundation of solid stride piano technique. His solo piano pieces are things of exquisite beauty. As for the holiday spirit, I’ll join you in a rousing “Bah! Humbug,” and hope that Krampus shows up sometime soon to haul the lot of it away.

    Australian, hmm! I hadn’t heard of him, but that’s high praise.

    Sgage, you’re most welcome.

    Patricia T, it’s a solid first draft. Now revise, revise, revise!

  44. Hi JMG,

    It’s hip-hop, so not exactly rap, but it occurred to me that the Hamilton musical is the first rough draft of what could be a historical epic poem style in the future dark ages. I could definitely see a war band culture with no electricity keeping such a thing going for quite a long while.

  45. I recall Billy Joel once describing ‘Piano Man’ as being a series of limericks… I’ve always loved the song and think the limits of the format contribute to it’s strength.

  46. Sgage @ #38

    Thank you for that limerick! I have added it to my repertoire of limericks, right next to *my* favourite limerick:

    There was a young man of Japan
    Whose limericks never would scan
    When asked why this was
    He replied “It’s because
    I always try to fit as many words into the last line as I possibly can”

    (The last line is spoken very quickly)

  47. I had taken a version of The Bornless Ritual as posted on the web by Alex Sumner and reworked most of it into iambic pentameter. Why would I bother to do that? Well, the wording of this famous ritual feels quite cumbersome to me, and I wished to have the words roll off of my tongue. Now that I look for the file on my computer, I cannot find it! Indeed, if it’s not on paper, it didn’t exist!

  48. Hi JMG & all–
    What a marvelous commentary on the ruination of poetry, and how to overcome it! It’s easy to forget that this is meant to be an example, within writing, of the corruption and control of many, many other disciplines in our society– I am going to have to meditate on its application to my own field of practice. Just for now though, it’s too much fun to think about the poetry!

    1) The Style Invitational–
    For those who live in the Washington DC area, the Washington Post Style section sponsors a regular poetry contest called the ‘Style Invitational.’ It is mostly doggerel that is sometimes related to current events, but any reader can submit poems–and they may even get published! Thanks to them, I learned what ‘Double Dactyly’ is, and even got a bumper sticker from the contest. Here’s a link:

    2) Another example of poets responding to one another; Edward Lear responds to Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven.’
    Everyone has heard of ‘The Raven’ by Edgar Allan Poe.
    Many have read ‘Incidents in the Life of My Uncle Arly’ by Edward Lear.

    Clues in ‘Incidents in the Life of My Uncle Arly’ may tell us that Lear’s poem is an answer to ‘The Raven’ and a parody of it;
    Final line in each Raven Stanza is a variation on ‘Quoth the Raven ‘Nevermore.’
    Final line of Uncle Arly Stanzas, ‘But his shoes were far too tight.’
    –Same meter.
    In the middle of Uncle Arly, a stanza begins with “Never, never more, O Never!”
    The Raven locks in on despair from loss in life, while Uncle Arly is about meeting the chaos and uncertainty of life with a light heart–See what you think–Here are some links;

    3) Poetry games, like “Billy Boy.”
    You can build rhyming skills in children (and people in a pub) with this one.
    There is a group singing game built around the folk song “Billy Boy” that starts at verse 2–
    You have a singer at the front, and an audience. Audience members try to stump the singer with a rhyme challenge. If the singer is not able to come up with a rhyming response on the fly, the challenger becomes the singer, and the game continues;


    “Can she bake a cherry pie, Billy Boy, Billy Boy,
    Can she bake a cherry pie, Charming Billy?”

    “She can bake a cherry pie,
    Quick as you can blink your eye–”

    Whole room sings the chorus:
    “She’s a young thing who cannot leave her mother!”

    Next Challenger:
    “Can she fix a diesel engine, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
    Can she fix a diesel engine, Charming Billy?”

    “She can fix a diesel engine
    Without any of YOU henchmen!”

    Room Chorus:
    “She’s a young thing who cannot leave her mother!”

    Next Challenger:
    “Can she get juice from an Orange, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
    Can she get juice from an Orange, Charming Billy?”

    “She can get juice from an Orange,
    She will squeeze them with a door-hinge”

    Room Chorus:
    “She’s a young thing who cannot leave her mother!”

    This continues until the Singer gets stumped.
    Then whoever stumped the Singer gets up front and takes challenges from the audience until stumped. Game continues until the beer runs out (pub) or a 15 minutes or so (children).

    Here’s a link if you don’t know the tune:

    Taking poetry back into our own hands–it’s probably the best course of action, and we can have fun with it!

  49. “I suspect the crucial point is that the old jazz players paid attention to their audience, while the conservatory types don’t know how to do that — and the lack of a dialogue makes their jazz soulless and bland.”

    I wonder if this is why I dislike jazz. It’s meant to be played live, clearly, and I generally have no response to concerts or weddings or sporting events. So without being tied into that social-etheric atmosphere, jazz usually ends up sounding like irrelevant noise to me.

    At best it’s annoying, at worst it conveys a social-emotional tone that I detest immensely. Something like Frank Sinatra on meth (and I dislike Sinatra to begin with).

  50. I’ve often wondered about the egregors of poems. The initial inspiration, the formulation, grind of revision, testing of words and phrases, and then, if it takes off, the reading and recital by others, must charge up a potent egregor around the poem. The rhyming, especially if it starts to verge on vibration, must have an effect too. It may be that subtle side to the best poetry that powers them through tough times, although, by that measure, every poem is sitting out there with a charged egregore that can be brought back into the world as necessary.

    BTW, in a odd way, the hard work you describe of writing applies to any act of creation. You imagine something out on the astral, but the hard work is in bringing it down in full form into the physical. I’ve experienced this in art, engineering, and oddly, also in computer programming.

  51. @Mary Bennet #45 re: Poetic Diction by Barfield

    Ah, thanks for the suggestion! I read this back in college, but not with the thought of it as an aid to writing poetry. I’ll have to revisit it in that light.

    @Justin Patrick Moore #46 re: Rune of the Finland Woman
    Thanks very much for sharing! I enjoyed my first read, and I’ll have to revisit it. I’m especially keyed into alliteration these days, and she did some interesting things with it, as well as the internal rhymes. I’ll have to dust off the old scansion skills to see what else is going on.


  52. Re: rap

    I started typing a comment recommending some rap songs relevant to the topic, for those interested. It quickly got too long. Since I suspect I’m not the only hip-hop head lurking around here and I don’t want to risk launching a pretty-far-off-topic side conversation, I’m cutting it just to this:

    1) I must haughtily clap back at JMG’s characterization of rap so far as using “simple rhyme and rhythm schemes.” Just one verse:
    Video with subtitles:
    Audio with lyrics:

    2) Lots of artists who are technically rapping are rather far removed from the vernacular culture that is the artform’s source. I would insist that the artform itself and that culture likely represent early precursors to future poetic epics. Meanwhile, much of the current music still labeled rap or hip-hop (and still generating from the same culture) isn’t traditional rapping at all but instead completely erases any line between rap and song, utilizing any and everything the voice can do–very dynamic and complex melodically as well as rhythmically. This tiny snippet went viral this year; it’s fairly representative of one popular vocal style right now, and as evocative of a future deindustrial dark-age vocal form as anything else I can think of. Easy to imagine a bunch of young men around a campfire, chanting in rhythm while this bard recounts the glories of the reigning warlord:

  53. ” If you just do what comes naturally, and never stop to think about it, you’ll never notice that “what comes naturally” is the set of clichés and unthinking habits you absorbed in childhood. There’s nothing new in that. A few centuries ago, “what came naturally” were the prejudices people picked up from their parents and their church; now, the prejudices in question mostly come from schools and the mass media, but the principle is the same.”


    This makes me wonder, what effect does the mass media, credentialism and the spontaneity trap have on spiritual growth? I’ve found that most people I know haven’t developed themselves an inch beyond ‘unthinking habits absorbed in childhood and adolescence’ and it’s most socially acceptable to behave like this. Has the mass media made it harder to ‘individuate’ and to critically self-reflect?


  54. Hello Mr. Greer,

    During the last two open threads, I asked you several questions regarding writing. This time, I simply wish to thank you for your excellent blogs, books, and advice. I have only desired to be a writer for around a year and a half, and for thirteen of those months I was apprehensive of my ability to do so. When reading the bibliographies of accomplished authors, I saw a huge list of profound efforts with none of the doubt and trifles overcome during their creation. I assumed that I was equal to nary a writer in the past. Perhaps that is true presently, but the current failure of efforts cultivates the discipline necessary for a greater execution. I appreciate your advice in making logical steps towards being a better writer; thank you so much.

    Today I wrote a sonnet after being inspired by this particular post. I post it as a gift and as evidence of the inspiration imbibed upon reading this particular entry. It’s the first poem I ever wrote that counts; I believe I wrote some as a school assignment, but thankfully memory has obliterated them. This took four excruciatingly enjoyable hours, and it has no title other than “Sonnet One”.

    Wool’s sapped the vigor from a searching hand,
    blanket seams cool and fur warm in the strand,
    raising himself he stretched and grabbed pillow,
    stuffed soft, feather flowers of sleeps meadow.
    Dusk felt this Fall, soon light dust during Spring,
    dark motes float unseen, then dusts a bright ring,
    responsibility made life a must,
    but will feather soft reclined back to dust.

    Moon made the night and resisted morning,
    bleak early driving under a metal roof.
    Window views caused him terrible yearning,
    yet to the outside, he remained aloof.
    Returning he wheeled, on tires black unseen,
    work tired dust feathers made sense un-keen.

  55. This writing series is astonishingly fun to follow along with, and I’m excited to see where it goes next.

    As for why people don’t like poetry, I suspect you’re right that both the limitations of form and the revision process lend themselves to creativity. I’ve also wondered if there’s a topical component. The people who bought those reams of poetry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were frankly better educated. Write like Eliot now, and how many people have a shot at understanding it? The other side of the laziness/first thought issue is the pretentiously elevated poem that people just don’t care for.

    The rappers know what their audiences want to hear poems about! I like to write poetry, and I often question whether I have any clue what others would like to read, or in what form. If I can take one cue from them, maybe it’s high time for oral verse to make a comeback. Something like what Jackson Crawford does with his originals on his youtube channel (for those who like videos: ). He makes a living translating Old Norse, and has never published a work of poetry, but he does write and read originals aloud, and his style has the oral sensitivity of the Old Norse poets, and of Robinson Jeffers.

    Or Vachel Lindsay, who seems to have had as much passion and presence in his delivery as any rapper, touring the lecture halls of the nation.

    Many young people who I know can barely read a news article or a blog post. If we want to interest people in poetry, we composers who aren’t fans of rap could probably learn a lesson or two, and find some way to deliver carefully-crafted works in great meters, but to do it in a way that actually respects and interests an audience, perhaps in oral form. I bet those folks who thumb through Instagram all day wouldn’t mind a good poem video if the poet found a way to hook them. All the more reason to use those meters: their rhythm is more powerful and memorable than irregular unrhymed stresses of varying line lengths.

  56. “…stories where the main character is too obviously the author are so dreary.”
    I’m thinking of Thomas Wolfe from Asheville, N.C. here. I’m old enough to have waded through 4 of his 5 autobiographical “novels.” I hear that nobody reads him any more. What I remember was a chapter titled, “A Microscopic Gentleman From Japan” and very little else; That’s Iambic pentameter I think, with later echoes in that quintessential hippy novel, “A Confederate General From Big Sur.” (Well, if you’ve ever lived in an apartment downstairs from someone with a heavy tread, you’d understand.)

    Yes, “The Dharma Bums” was far superior to “On The Road,” I thought.

    Regarding “The Wasteland,” probably half of the people who ever read Jessie Weston’s “From Ritual to Romance” got there from reading Eliot’s notes to “The Wasteland.” I did, but I still don’t “get” that poem.

    And, finally, I think jazz ended when Charles Mingus died.

  57. Samurai_47, I haven’t seen the musical, but that makes sense.

    Shadowrider, ha! He’s right, too.

    Keno, hmm! Did you find a way to fit the words of power into iambic pentameter, or just the prose sections?

    Emmanuel, I’m embarrassed to admit that I somehow managed to miss Edward Lear until quite recently. I’m now atoning for it by committing to memory “The Dong with a Luminous Nose,” which I think is the first-ever Gothic nonsense poem. Yes, absolutely, taking poetry back and having fun in the process are both essential.

    Cliff, it’s not to everyone’s taste. I had to develop a taste for it, but I did so. The same is true of a lot of 20th century cultural enterprises!

    Peter, not oddly at all. Computer programming is always a craft and sometimes a fine art — I think of some of the creations in Stephen Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science as artistic creations in every sense of the word.

    Jonathan., I stand corrected. Thanks for this.

    Sam, good. Very good. One consequence of the patterns we’re discussing is that they make spiritual growth much harder than it already is. Spiritual development requires turning inward and attending to your own experience of being, and is fostered by quiet time in solitude and by the habit of thinking your own thoughts rather than those that are handed to you — the entire thrust of modern consumer culture aims at making that unthinkable.

    Jonathan P, thanks for this. The poem works.

    Kyle, I think you’re quite correct. One of the reasons that the poetry of the pre-Eliot era catches the eye and the ear so powerfully is that it draws on the power of rhythm and meter, and though I prefer to read poems rather than watching them on video, while the internet lasts, video’s likely to be a valuable venue for poets.

    Phutatorius, Wolfe’s another good example of the failure of modern literature. If he’d gotten over himself and written about characters who were as different from himself as possible — Yeats’s A Vision talks about that — he would have accomplished much more with his skills.

  58. For a collection some truly memorable and execrable (and amusing) poetry, may I direct readers of the blog to this gem of a book: The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse by D. B. Wyndham

    And, for those of us who struggle with iambic pentameter, perhaps writing a limerick or two, (not necessarily ribald) is a good start.

    Also, A. A. Milne’s poetry (in the voice of Pooh) is quite wonderful;

    The more it
    The more it
    The more it

    And nobody
    How cold my
    How cold my

  59. In defense of traditional forms, I like Robert Bringhurst: “Wings are a constraint that makes it possible to fly.” (The Tree of Meaning, 2006).

    Also, I concur with those who are recommending Fry’s ‘Ode Less Travelled’ as a helpful and funny introduction to versifying!

    Thank you, JMG

  60. “Did you find a way to fit the words of power into iambic pentameter, or just the prose sections?”

    No, just the prose. I am not sure how all those names and words of power could be worked into anything resembling blank verse. I did find my file, however, and I shall type it out on paper properly this time! Here is the version I used for my source:

    And here is the simplified version in iambic pentameter to the extent I was able thus far. It was an exercise done for the fun of it.

    Thee I invoke, the Bornless One!
    Thee didst create the Heavens and the Earth.
    Thee didst create the Nighttime and the Day.
    Thee didst create the Darkness and the Light.

    Thou art Osorronophris,
    Thou whom no man hath seen at any time.
    Thou art Jabas; thou art Japos.
    Thou didst create the Female and the Male.
    Thou didst produce all Seed and its Fruitage.
    Thou didst form Men to Rejoice and to Hate.

    (Omission of a section with words of power…)

    Hear Me and make All subject unto Me,
    And ev’ry Spirit, Spell, and Scourge of God.
    Hear Me! It shall be given unto Me!
    Hear Me! I am the One the Winds do fear!

    I am the Bornless Spirit, having Sight,
    A Spirit strong and of immortal Fire;
    The Truth, the Lightening and Thundering!
    The Breath of Life my mouth doth ever Flame;
    My Will doth Manifest unto the Light.
    IAO. Sabao. Such are the words!

  61. _The Making of a Poem: a Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms_ gives descriptions of the major and some obscure poetic forms in English with many examples of each. Judson Jerome’s text _The Poet’s Handbook_ also decries the poetry as spontaneous product point of view. “Many modern poets seem to be eager to disclaim responsibility for what they have written (and their poems often suggest they have good reason).” He says that such attitudes suggest that the poet is just a medium for some outside force, “a chosen priest or priestess.” I haven’t read the entire book, but what I have read shows that Jerome believes that poetry is a skill to be learned, not a spontaneous outgrowth of emotion. _Writing Poems_ by Robert Wallace also covers technical issues such as meter, alliteration, rhyme, various forms and other devices.

    As for disliking Eliot–I tried to convince one of my professors that Eliot so obviously wanted to be English that he should not be counted as an American poet. Unsuccessful.

    When I took a class in contemporary poetry several years ago, one of the requirements was to attend and write a review of a local poetry reading. So, I checked the local listings and trotted off one evening to a local bookstore. Several totally unmemorable people read equally unmemorable works. There was a break, we resumed our seats and suddenly two people wheeled in a wooden cross on which a naked young man was supported while he recited his poem. Nice stunt, I suppose, but even immediately after the reading I doubt I could have recited even one line of the “poem.” He then pulled on some cargo shorts and a Gilligan style hat and proceeded to recite something else while smashing raw eggs concealed in the hat and the pockets. Most book related events I attend inspire me to purchase something—NOPE!

    My ex used to have the clock radio tuned to the local jazz station, which played the type of contemporary jazz that sounds like cats disputing territory. Ironically at that time (early 70’s) Union 76 oil company sponsored a series of “Great Moments in Black History”, which happened to be scheduled at the time the alarm was set for. Many were interesting, but I began to feel they were scraping the bottom of the barrel when one celebrated the first black bank robber! But they were an interesting way to start the day.


  62. Reminds me of a passage from Rilke, where he says, essentially, “Don’t be too quick to write! After you have loved and lost love, seen death and witnessed the birth of life, and done all of these things and more, then maybe you’ll have a couple sentences worth of valuable material.”

    As someone who is currently penning a novel, I think about that often.

  63. The Book of Job is, I suspect, one of the great rap numbers extant. Once, on a whim, I decided to read through the book of Job and boy howdy, am I glad that I picked that book up, because it’s a wild story!

    That day, there was something extra special about the experience, because playing in the house I was reading in was some rap music, I couldn’t well make out the lyrics, it was too quiet for that, but the beat I could feel, a simple driving percussion was the back drop to my reading. Boom boom boom bada boom, bada boom boom… sorta thing. Before I knew it I was reading to the beat, and though any meter it may have started with has been long obscured by translations, in the feel of the words something akin survived.

    In particular I got to a particularly famous section of the book, the part where God is speaking to Job, out of the whirlwind. And suddenly, with that beat in the background, guiding my reading, I could feel something of the power of the poetry of God’s speech to Job. On a level it was an amazing battle rap, responding, almost point by point to Job’s sad musing earlier, and at the same time flexing God’s own glory, and even the expansive intricacy and worth of creation. Also I found some ecological themes of great interest.

    Say anything you like about the theological validity of it’s theodyssey, as a rap its fantastic.

  64. Rap (in both its internal rhyme scheme, and in its subject matter) actually strikes me as the descendant of Norse skaldic verse, specifically drottkvaett. Not designed for epic subject-matter, but rather short, sharp commentary loaded with copious backhanded barbs.

    As for more conventional meters, I think the anapestic limerick (da-da-DUM) is useful for demonstrating that poetic meter is not as scary as is commonly thought (who hasn’t written a limerick now and again?) while also communicating the somewhat more alien idea that particular metrical feet lend themselves to particular subject matter. One wouldn’t write a heartfelt funeral oration as a limerick, because anapestic is simply too bouncy and jolly for such purposes. Iambic? Sure. That’s serious business.

  65. Kerouac’s haiku
    Epigrammic discipline
    Springs forth binding shoots

    Ginsberg’s metered line, american sentences, hidden in plain sight.

    Senryuu’s brevity
    Kindergarden legacy
    Encodes me tightly

    Recent anime
    Awokened many anons’
    Poetic antics

    Pries open closed lips
    With syllabic discipline
    The nervously mute

    Jeff Russell thank you
    A great introduction to
    Stanley Lombardo

  66. Emmanual Goldstein – I hate to be the bearer of bad news, though that’s not so uncommon in these parts, but the Washington Post announced a few days ago that they will no longer be running the Style Invitational. It’s part of their reorganization of the Sunday paper, dropping the glossy magazine (you know, the one where the routine ads were merely unaffordable, and the ones in the annual “luxury” issue were obscenely unaffordable, to honest politicians).

    For the last six years or so, whimsical insults regarding Donald Trump were often featured. Maybe they’ve reconsidered that habit, and realized that “all publicity is good publicity” for the man. Rather than censor the entries that used to be so prominent, it’s just easier to flush the whole feature.

  67. Why bother with the sonnet, with its lines
    Like fourteen bars of an ancient jail cell
    That lock the writer in its stale confines
    And makes an idea so hard to tell?
    Imagine that under the jailer’s nose
    An idea hidden and locked away
    Forms a clever escape plan to propose
    To the chamber itself, so cold and grey.
    And imagine that the old cell agreed
    To be that needed foothold to escape.
    So the idea, now shining, was freed
    And turned its rays on the jail’s outer shape.
    It wasn’t a prison shown in the light,
    But that palace that grants the poet’s flight.

    (That is to say, I’ve been looking forward to this post!)

  68. David, by the lake (no. 2), this is no joke. They’re also going to have to study video games.

  69. I loved this piece, JMG! It occurred to me a few years ago that rap was a vernacular reinvention of old-school poetry – in the sense of using form, meter, and musical accompaniment.

    However, there is a blending of pretentious modern poetry with rap that is known as ‘slam’ poetry, which is pretty much like Beat poetry but with a slightly ‘ghetto’ affectation. It’s terrible, as well as being highly woke-ified.

    For those new to rap, far more interesting would be the likes of Aesop Rock, known for having the largest vocabulary of any rapper. One of his songs is about his childhood love of drawing:

    “Used to draw
    Hard to admit that I used to draw
    Portraiture and the human form
    Doodle of a two-headed unicorn
    It was soothin’, movin’ his arm in a fusion
    Of man-made tools and a muse from beyond
    Even if it went beautifully wrong
    It was tangible truth for a youth who refused to belong”

    There are also the classic 90s rappers like Wu-Tang Clan, Red Man or Busta Rhymes, and some of the newer anti-woke populist rappers like Samson, Tom McDonald, or some of Chris Webby’s work.

  70. Re poems and poetry

    While I tend to imagistic free-verse, I’ve dabbled in the structured forms over the years. Even attempting a sonnet, which I was extremely excited about…until I realized it was written in iambic tetrameter. That did give me a title, however:

    Four-fifths a Sonnet

    The question still will not abate,
    for what is form and what is fate
    that we should scry and correlate
    effect and cause? This chain of states
    we seem to be, when glimpsed in time
    subjectively, in which we find
    no start, no end. Instead, a kind
    of thread, conditioned cause, that winds
    in both directions. Morn and eve
    are linked, entwined, each to leave,
    arrive, or stay–however brief.
    No sooner spring’s than autumn’s leaf.
    Do we persist? Were I to guess
    an answer, I’d say no…and yes.

    A few more samples of my verse are at

    Re the special specialness of special people

    I had this particularly bad when I was younger (and to be honest, until five or so years ago), an almost desperate need to stand out and an overwhelming fear of being lost in an ocean of mediocrity. (This psychological state of affairs was no doubt fed by well-intended opportunities presented by “gifted and talented” programs and other such things as a child.) I have since come to grips with the fact that in the grand scheme of things, we are all ultimately lost to obscurity, but that this incarnation (and every other incarnation) still has its own purpose and meaning for us to develop, just not the kind of purpose and meaning society (“the world,” in biblical parlance) portrays.

  71. @emmanuel goldstein #56: Those double dactyls are hilarious, and the meter is right out of Attic tragedy choruses!

  72. @JMG Many thanks for this recommendation; I’d seen but not read MRs graphic novel covering Tristram Shandy but I hadn’t realised he’d done one for the Waste Land. With any luck, Santa will smile on me and I’ll be able to read his interpretation. Graphic novels are a wonderful art form.

    As for Rap; there’s not a lot of written material out there. Perhaps that’s the point. I’ve spotted a YouTube lecture given at MIT by someone who seems to know what he’s talking about. I will try that.

  73. There has definitely been a trend towards self expression in the US. Pattison’s The Triumph of Vulgarity: Rock Music in the Mirror of Romanticism talks about it extensively. (If you are short on time read McCabe’s one chapter summary on the culture wars in McCabe’s Civic Librarianship.) Pattison equates self expression with pantheism. If you ever read Pattison, I’d be fascinated to hear your take on a possible pantheism connection.

  74. Since other commenters are posting their poetry, here is one that sprang into my head almost full blown, upon awakening one morning some thirty years ago.

    Necromancy at Brown

    By lantern light we sought untrodden lands
    To dig or shape new truth amidst the stones
    With spade or ax new sharpened in our hands,
    But what we wrought was made of dead men’s bones.

    By work both long and hard we sought to know
    The truths within the words beneath the stones;
    At times we stopped to rest our flesh, but oh!
    We took our ease on chairs of dead men’s bones.

    And now we sit before the muted crowd
    As lords of old domains upon new thrones;
    Our living words die as we speak aloud:
    The chairs we hold are made of dead men’s bones.

    Beyond our sight we hear the young at work;
    We are their earth and wood amidst the stones;
    Sharp tools are also weapons in the dark;
    The chairs they build require dead men’s bones.

    And this is right beneath the changing moon:
    The rites of time are worked to tortured moans.
    As we now are, they shall be all too soon,
    The land’s renewed by countless dead men’s bones.

    What had been in my mind the day before was a photograph of a skeleton chair that was being put up for auction at Christie’s. This photograph may or may not be the very chair itself, but it is the exact same design:

  75. As a young boy I was almost wholly ignorant of poetry. And then one day, at the very end of the school year in Berkeley, our eighth-grade Latin teacher read us Thomas Babington MacCaulay’s “Horatius at the Bridge” from his Lays of Ancient Rome, and I was completely hooked. I found a copy of the poem in a local used-book store and committed the whole poem to memory over the next few weeks–all 70 stanzas of it. I relished not only its rhythm and sound, but its sentiment. It might not be too much of a stretch to say that “Horatius at the Bridge” came to shape my politics, too, and my view of what constituted a well-lived life. Such is the power of a well crafted poem, even years later!

    Ever since then, I have read (some kinds of) poetry with much pleasure. On the whole, music does little for me: melody is a closed book to my brain (though I can appreciate the elaborate patterns of, say, a Toccata and Fuge by Bach, or the story-telling of a traditional ballad or sea-chantey). But the “music” of well-wrought words is one of my great pleasures.

    Which brings me to the poems of “Justin Geoffrey” in our host’s <Weird of Hali novels. What superb work they are, JMG! May I urge you to write and publish more poetry?

  76. One thing I’ve also observed is that most popular songs up to around the 1970s or so actually are in metre.

    The rock classics from Chuck Berry to the Beatles were mostly in metre, down to Queen and David Bowie. Something changed in the 90s era and onwards and it seems like metre mostly remained in folk and metal in the Anglophone world.

    There was this expectation, even for those not formally schooled in poetry, to write songs in metre which seems to have gone.

  77. @JMG

    I would like to explore jazz music, given its focus on spontaneous improvisation. Could you recommend me some good starting points, in addition to Thelonious Monk? I would particularly appreciate instrumental performances.

  78. Hello JMG and commentariat. If I may venture a comment on Thomas Wolfe, who was apparently a friend of some rather superior cousins of mine (arch, pretentious and occasionally funny), who hosted him in Roanoke, Virginia on his occasional visits to deliver his works to his editor. Apparently they were delivered as trunks full of notebooks which the editor then dutifully slimmed down into one moderately readable volume, each time. If you found them unreadable as published, imagine how much more impossible they would have been in their draft form! FWIW, his lightly disguised commentary on his acquaintances in Asheville made him persona non grata there. Perils of success. Several movies have riffed on the theme of such lightly disguised published comments getting their authors into trouble (I can’t remember which ones, though).

  79. Justin #46, I first came across Marilyn Hacker when I read Samuel R. Delany’s autobiography The Motion of Light in Water. I knew nothing about him apart from the fact he was a science fiction writer. It turns out he was gay and remarkably frank about it. Some of the scenes had my eyes out on stalks. (The title refers to an observation after an all-night orgy in a trailer park.)

    He was also married to Marilyn Hacker, and quoted some of her poetry. I thought the poetry was superb. The book came out in 1988. Maybe 30 years later I checked up on her. She was a professor. I read some of her more recent poems. It was woke, feminist stuff, seemingly written more from a sense of duty than of passion. But that early stuff was good, as was the “Finnish Woman” poem you linked to.

  80. Tad, thanks for the reminder — it’s been too long since my last encounter with the Stuffed Owl. I’m not at all a fan of any of Milne’s writing, but of course tastes vary.

    Fritter, you’re welcome, and thank you for the Bringhurst quote — that’s one nicely turned phrase.

    Keno, thanks for this. Interesting!

    Rita, oh, but it’s so utterly American to desperately long to be something other than an American, and to go around pretending to be whatever it is you wish you were! We get that in the Druid scene by the metric frackton — “cardiac Celts” (people who feel that in their hearts they’re Celtic) — and of course every other spiritual subculture is equally, er, blessed. Clearly poetry these days is comparable; there are a lot of people who desperately long to be poets.

    Zachary, there I have to disagree with Rilke. A lot of people think they can’t write unless they’ve been through all kinds of exciting and traumatic experiences; I like to remind them that Jane Austen had an impressively dull life.

    Ray, ha! I like it.

    Strda221, oh, granted. Limericks are good for beginners, but again, everyone’s composed a few. I think it’s past time to encourage slightly more challenging forms, such as sonnets.

    Ighy, thank you for this.

    Jbucks, a good solid poetic response! Thank you.

    Luke, and thank you for this also.

    David BTL, the sense of being special can be useful, but only if it’s tempered with a good solid dose of realism. Recognize that you’re no more special than anyone else, but that you have — as everyone else does — some capacity for magnificence in some fields of human activity. Treat the sense of specialness as a dare on the part of the universe. That vast and eternal void gazes down on you, and whispers: “Make me care that you existed.” How will you respond?

    Aldarion, thanks for this. I first encountered cynghanedd via a poem by Robert Graves:

    Billet spied,
    Bolt sped.
    Across field,
    Crows fled.
    Aloft, wounded,
    Left one dead.

    A nice vivid image!

    Andy, ask Krampus for it instead, you may have better luck. 😉

    Bradley, I haven’t read him yet, but my local library system has the Triumph of Vulgarity and it looks very much worth my while. Thank you!

    Robert, that’s a fine piece of verse — vivid and trenchant. Thank you also! Macauley was a fine poet, and a good place to start — me, I backed into an interest in poetry via Tolkien’s verse, and only later got into Lovecraft’s verse, Robinson Jeffers, Eliot, Chesterton, et al. The opening lines of the Ballad of the White Horse still send chills down my spine:

    Before the gods that made the gods
    Had seen their sunrise pass,
    The White Horse of the White Horse Vale
    Was cut out of the grass.

    Before the gods that made the gods
    Had drunk at dawn their fill,
    The White Horse of the White Horse Vale
    Was hoary on the hill.

    Age beyond age on British land,
    Aeons on aeons gone,
    Was peace and war in western hills,
    And the White Horse looked on.

    For the White Horse knew England
    When there was none to know;
    He saw the first oar break or bend,
    He saw heaven fall and the world end,
    O God, how long ago.

    For the end of the world was long ago,
    And all we dwell to-day
    As children of some second birth,
    Like a strange people left on earth
    After a judgment day.

    As for the Justin Geoffrey, those poems came as a surprise to me — it had been a while since I’d tried my hand at verse, but my tentacle stories demanded a poetic accompaniment, and got one. I have no idea if there’s much of a venue for verse in classic forms these days, and I have an inveterate dislike of writing things destined to gather dust in a file somewhere, but I’ll consider it.

    Alvin, I’ve noticed that also. Some of my favorite rock songs work very well as poems. It would be good to see that reclaimed by musicians.

    Viduraawakened, I suspect most of my readers have a better grasp of jazz than I do. Left to myself, I’d encourage you to start with some classic blues and ragtime — for ragtime, Scott Joplin’s a good place to begin, and for blues, see if you can find the collections by John Lomax and his son Alan Lomax. Those are the progenitors of jazz. From there, go straight into classic jazz — to my taste, Louis Armstrong stands head and shoulders above the other figures of that era, though your mileage may vary; Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, and Ella Fitzgerald are all worth a listen. From there, proceed to the Bebop era — Thelonious Monk and Dave Brubeck are my favorites here. But again, I’m sure plenty of my other readers can give you better advice.

    Clarke, funny. That’s always the risk of writing what you know, if “what you know” is your neighbors…

  81. @JMG (#91):

    Parts of “The Ballad of the White Horse, inc luding the lines you quoted, never fail to send chills up my spine, too. Chesterton is simply awesome at times.

  82. Well, I’ll contribute a poem. My greatest hit!

    Years ago I worked as a clerk for one of the home delivery companies. One of my jobs was to file “DPRs”–damaged package reports–explaining to the company and ultimately the sender what had happened to their package en route. Very bored one day, I amused myself. I put this in the DPR system and pressed submit, and I will forever feel cheated that I was never acknowledged or reprimanded for it.

    (I figure this would be iambic octameter?):

    When on a FedEx trailer from
    One package do the contents run,
    The facts of physics do demand
    The liquid seek the lowest land.
    Another package, on the floor,
    Just one among a thousand more,
    ‘Sthe sole and soggy victim of
    The leakage from the box above.

  83. You don’t need to live an exciting, dramatic life to write.
    You just need to pay attention to what’s going on around you.
    Listen to the stories people tell you.

    Ask yourself why, when you were driving down a sunny, narrow road deep among the cornfields, two firetrucks, three police cars, and an ambulance roared past you and all turned down the same one-lane road (this happened to me).

    Ask yourself what happened to the world when that same sunny, narrow road in late January was so snowy and foggy at noon that everything around the car had vanished into a sea of white, the world was gone, and snow ghosts drifted across the road in the headlights.

    If you want more inspiration, read the police briefs, advice columns, and small, filler stories in a small-town newspaper and work from there!

  84. I tried my hand at poetry when I was in primary school, but (as JMG says) it is a lot of work, and I never made a serious fist of it.

    One of my favorite English poets has been Alexander Pope, who mastered the art of expressing complex ideas in pithy verse. His favorite technique was the “Heroic Couplet” which is a rhyming couplet in iambic pentameter. He got a lot of mileage out of that. One of the most famous examples of his use of Heroic Couplets is the expression of optimistic, pan-entheistic Deism with which he closes Part I of his :

    All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
    Whose body Nature is, and God the soul;
    That, chang’d through all, and yet in all the same,
    Great in the earth, as in th’ ethereal frame,
    Warms in the sun, refreshes in the breeze,
    Glows in the stars, and blossoms in the trees,
    Lives through all life, extends through all extent,
    Spreads undivided, operates unspent,
    Breathes in our soul, informs our mortal part,
    As full, as perfect, in a hair as heart;
    As full, as perfect, in vile man that mourns,
    As the rapt seraph that adores and burns;
    To him no high, no low, no great, no small;
    He fills, he bounds, connects, and equals all. …

    All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
    All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;
    All discord, harmony, not understood;
    All partial evil, universal good:
    And, spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite,
    One truth is clear,
    Whatever Is, Is Right.

    (Try running that last line past a survivor of Auschwitz and see how far you get! But I digress ..)

  85. @Martin Back: I am, or was, a big Delany fan, and that’s how I came to read Marilyn Hacker. I have a copy of the book you mentioned, but its one of his I haven’t read.

    When I first read Delany (his Dhalgren) I knew nothing about the mans personal life. I found the language and style to be captivating. From there I went through and read most of his novels. It was only after I’d read a few of them that I learned more about who he was. Gay, black, SF writer, etc.

    There’s some stuff Delany wrote that I literally couldn’t read (his ultra-violent and pornographic Hogg, for instance). & I skipped a lot of his non-fiction that dealt with the sexual stuff. The thing is, I didn’t really care to read about his sexual escapades. I mean, I really, really don’t care what people do with their private parts in private. I don’t tell everyone else about what I do, so why do others need to tell me what they do? At the same time I’m not a prude and I don’t mind reading about sex or erotic passages of whatever nature, if it’s part of the story of the novel, but there has to be something else going on plot-wise besides just that.

    That said, I loved his SF novels from his first The Jewels of Aptor all the way up to Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (where he started to go deeper into pomo territory). After he became a professor of English, writing, etc., I think it had a negative effect on his output. Probably the same with his ex-wife Hacker, when they went into academe.

    My favorite Delany books are probably: Nova, Babel-17, Dhalgren, and the Neveryona series. I really liked Triton too, and I wander what todays woke activists would make of the novel. What I liked about Triton was how, the main character was still unhappy and dissatisfited with all his relationships, even thought he lived in a kind of utopia (or hetertopia as Delany -and Foucault- would have it).

    I do think the post-modernist philosophers had some things to teach and say, but unfortunately their critique was not listened to, but instead used as a playbook by Big Tech it seems. A lot of things happening now (the “schizo-culture” induced by digital trance) seem to have been predicted by people involved in post-modernism, semiotics, etc.

    It’s the semiotic aspect I still find appealing, and why I like writers like Umberto Eco and Delany. As musician Kim Cascone put it in one of his email newsletters “Our mistake was seeing critical theory as being abstract mental gymnastics, instead of a warning for course correction.” That said, I totally get why people are up in arms about all that stuff. In the end, another dead end, I’m guessing. So, course correction

    Sorry for the digression, but yes, some of Marilyn Hacker’s poems really rip. The one I remember liking the best was her series of interconnected sonnets that was about one of her lesbian relationships: Love, Death and the Changing of the Seasons. It was published in 1986 originally, so probably well before she got her system messed up by too much pomo. It’s also a narrative poem, so not abstract at all. The mixture of form + tale made it sing.

  86. @Ray #72: Job is truly great poetry! I once tried to read through several chapters in the original, though my Hebrew was not really up to the task. The good thing about translating Hebrew poetry, though, is that is doesn’t require rhyme nor seems to have such restrictive meters as classical poetry in many other languages (Greek, Latin, Romance languages, even English). It has audible and memorable rhythm, though, even if irregular, and often alliterations, assonances and sometimes internal rhyme, again irregularly distributed. What makes it poetry are also the parallelisms and the vocabulary, and these can be more easily preserved in translation. The most impactful poetry (as poetry) that I have read so far are Job 39 (the chapter you wrote about) and Isaiah 40.

  87. Viduraawakened: Jazz from the viewpoint of an amateur classical violinist: begin with Django Rheinhart and Stephen Grappeli’s “gypsy jazz” from the 1930s. Then on to bebop in the 40s not forgetting Charlie Christian. In the 60s it was more intellectual: Brubeck, the MJQ, & Monk. And winding up with the death of Charles Mingus.

    On Delaney: I enjoyed “The Motion of Light in Water.” But maybe more than I really wanted to know about a certain lifestyle; since I had already read, re-read, and re-re-read “Dhalgren” it wasn’t really a shock. I think Delaney’s ex-wife, Marilyn H, is “Lanya” in “Dhalgren.”

    And regarding the graphic novel version of “Tristram Shandy”: really awful, not doing justice to the original novel at all.

  88. Hey JMG

    Your essay has reminded me of a curious fanfic I read once, in which gandalf summons Dora the explorer for a quest, which is written in iambic pentameter. I did some duckduckgo-fu and found it.

    Also, there is a new poetic form called a Fib, in which the syllables follow the Fibonacci sequence.

  89. Hi JMG,
    This is one of your great topic essays on creativity, and I hope you compile these by topic some day and release them in a book!

    What you have outlined applies to any great art. For example, in my tradition of Indian Classical Music, you spend years memorizing compositions, learning how to put different components of a Raga performance together, grappling with meticulous consistency over the phraseology/grammar, and the nuances of rhythm and intonation before you’re allowed on stage. Even then, it takes decades to be regarded a master, to the extend that a 40-50 year old is regarded as a young artist!

    That’s the sort of practice and concentration it takes to improvise – after years of learning and still being a beginner, I realized that spontaneity is the least spontaneous thing to train!

    I also think that our modern education system and the constant distractions of TV/social media have resulted in most people losing the ability to focus and concentrate for a reasonable length of time. Modern pop-psychology also reaffirms these notions and gives validation to mental laziness.

    For example, how even have we heard the claim that the mind can only focus for 40 minutes at a time, and that’s the length of uninterrupted study we should do? I always thought that claim was utter nonsense – with training, monks can meditate for hours at a time. I myself can easily concentrate for well over an hour in a single round of music practice, which is when my back gives out. On a good day and in the right frame of mind, I have practiced for hours at a stretch with my teacher, or studied as well.

    Instead of validating this laziness, we could do better and train students to ignore distractions, and be focused and attentive. Of course the WEF overlords and their politician puppets don’t want that, they couldn’t control billions of untrained minds so easily that way. A well trained mind is a true danger!

    – YCS

  90. (Since permission to rhyme has been granted, here is an ode I wrote “on the digital divide” …working title)


    In the grocery store lines, the people start to starve
    pulling out knives, on their fellow friends to carve.
    Spurned on by an argument for the last bag of bread
    when the pipe bomb explodes, they’ll be dead.

    “It’s all in your head”, the TV talkers do say
    “there’s no hope for mankind, get on your knees and pray.”
    Don’t listen to them, all their facts are fake
    as they take cash out the back, they’re in on the take.

    The managers pretend they know just what to do
    as they scurry and scuttle around without a clue
    meanwhile the chaos around them does engulf
    while they drink scotch on the green, another round of golf.

    My thirst for truth won’t be slaked by lies
    my Will tempered by fire, ablaze in my eyes.
    All around us the pleroma; all around us the noise
    of the rich kids playing with their rich kid toys.

    With their neuralink implants glued to their skull
    the colors of life, go blue screen, ever so dull
    enslaved to the Skynet, we need to unplug:
    surf the waves of this planet, give a tree a hug.

    The digital drug all around us instilled
    by a cartel of cryptos whose pockets are filled
    by microsoft miners in virtual matrix
    under the whip of a web dominatrix.

    Spectacle pimps keep pushing superpowers
    Marvel Mind Control Systems, wile away the hours
    delivered on DC current in shivers and jolts
    burning rivers of coal in exchange for the volts.

    When the bubbles crash it comes as a shock
    in the ticker tape rubble its time to take stock
    the flocks have been fleeced while no one was looking
    the numbers have been cooked by crooks
    -in a game of double booking.

    “All you need to do is smile and the tears will disappear.
    All your fears we revile, at your concerns we sneer.
    Just have this cocktail, it’s not really been tested.
    Don’t want the injection? We’ll have you arrested!”

    Citizens of the world wide web fed like pets
    hierarchy controlling, with puppet strings, the net
    on all sides politicians are placing bets
    as the Ministry of Truth gets nervous with tourettes.

    Pushing the public to accept the burden of proof
    all the while conniving, as to what is real, and what’s a spoof
    scheming for a pyramid like they were Bernie Madoff
    gunpowder residue is in the air, from homemade sawed offs.

    Roadside regimentals arm for civil war
    as drafted musicians shiver to their core
    yet play their instrumentals as the fog descends
    in the opening salvo for their flag to defend.

    Dangerous thoughtforms breed and infect
    keep your mind clean, from the screen do protect, your neck.
    From the mass mind you can choose to defect.

  91. Psychologist James Hillman also questioned the idea of the first thought being the best thought. He instead championed what he called “the burnished truth.”

  92. Another favorite meter of mine is what is called ottava rima (“eighth rhyme”). It takes the form of AB AB AB CC.

    It is one of the most difficult meters to write in English, because it requires two sets of triple rhymes per stanza, and English is a notoriously rhyme-poor language.

    However, when it is done well, the result is lyrical, contemplative verse. The best example I have found is a translation of Goethe’s Faust by Walter Kaufmann. In the “Dedication” to the poem, Goethe reviews his long life (he was in his mid-eighties when we wrote this), and he wrote it in ottava rima. Kaufmann manages to translate this perfectly, with the result you see below.


    DEDICATION (from Goethe’s Faust, Part I)

    You come back, wavering shapes, out of the past
    In which you first appeared to clouded eyes.
    Should I attempt this time to hold you fast?
    Does this old dream still thrill a heart so wise?
    You crowd? You press? Have, then, your way at last.
    As from the mist around me you arise;
    My breast is stirred and feels with youthful pain
    The magic breath that hovers round your train.

    With you return pictures of joyous days,
    Shadows that I once loved again draw near;
    Like a primeval tale, half lost in haze,
    First love and friendship also reappear;
    Grief is renewed, laments retrace the maze
    Of Life’s strange labyrinthian career,
    Recalling dear ones who, by fortune’s treason
    Robbed of fair hours, passed before my season.

    They will not hear me as I sing these songs,
    The parted souls to whom I sang the first;
    Gone is that first response, in vain one longs
    For friendly crowds that have long been dispersed.
    My grief resounds to strangers, unknown throngs
    Applaud it, and my anxious heart would burst.
    Whoever used to praise my poem’s worth,
    If they still live, stray scattered through the earth.

    And I am seized by long forgotten yearning
    For that kingdom of spirits, still and grave;
    To flowing song I see my feelings turning,
    As from Aeolian harps, wave upon wave;
    A shudder grips me, tear on tear falls burning,
    Soft grows my heart, once so severe and brave;
    What I possess, seems far away to me,
    And what is gone becomes reality.

  93. This is not a haiku. It is not even a try-ku.

    On Campus

    Brown oak leaves decorate
    White concrete
    Fall in December!

    A loud blast of air
    The concrete reigns,
    pristine again.

    Bright-eyed and busty-tailed,
    Squirrels scamper,
    Blazing sparks of life.

    By the lakeside, shrill voices of
    A conference of whistling ducks
    Squirrels scamper unseen among them.

    Traces of gold in the sky,
    filtered, as the sun sets
    behind the longleaf pines.

  94. @Kyle #64

    I have Jackson Crawford’s version of the Edda. It includes the delightful and dead-on Cowboy Havamal. (Though I’d love to have seen him do the episode of Odin and Billing’s Daughter in cowboy style.)

    OTH, I also like the breezy, colloquial Carolyne Larrington translation:
    “Who is that pipsqueak who stands on that side of the inlet?”
    “Who is that peasant who calls over the gulf?”

  95. @JMG #91 re; “Cardiac Celts” – in a nation full of McThis and O’That (who was it that said the largest Celtic country on Earth is the USA?) I’m not surprised.

    Patricia Mathews, nee Shaw. With a scarf in their Modern tartan to prove it.

  96. How, so much talent lurking just under the surface of the water, just to be manifested by an Archdruid’s hat tip! You have been weaving your Mercury magic for quite some time, dear JMG.

    But no discussion of the classic sonnet’s form can be complete without Lope de Vega’s “Soneto de repente” (Sonnet on the spot), which is really a meta-sonnet.

    Un soneto me manda hacer Violante
    que en mi vida me he visto en tanto aprieto;
    catorce versos dicen que es soneto;
    burla burlando van los tres delante.

    Yo pensé que no hallara consonante,
    y estoy a la mitad de otro cuarteto;
    mas si me veo en el primer terceto,
    no hay cosa en los cuartetos que me espante.

    Por el primer terceto voy entrando,
    y parece que entré con pie derecho,
    pues fin con este verso le voy dando.

    Ya estoy en el segundo, y aun sospecho
    que voy los trece versos acabando;
    contad si son catorce, y está hecho.

    Unlike some online bozos who start their translation with “A sonnet commands me to rape…”, – Violante is a (admittedly unusual) given name for women, David Garrison has accomplished the feat of translating the core of the idea (to show the outer form in a playful self-reflective way) while staying reasonably close to the original, Spanish, text. Here you have, Garrison’s “Impromptu Sonnet”

    Violante wants me to compose a sonnet –
    in my life I’ve never been in such a fix;
    they say that fourteen verses win the bonnet:
    first three, now this one for my bag of tricks.

    I thought I’d never find another rhyme,
    and yet I’m halfway through the second quatrain.
    If I can make it to the tercets, I’m
    beyond my fear of quatrains, that’s for certain.

    I’m entering the tercets still unchecked,
    and I’ve started on the right foot, it would seem,
    for when this stanza ends, there’s only one

    more left – the second tercet, I suspect
    I’m ending thirteen verses on the scheme.
    Let’s count them up – fourteen, and there! It’s done.

    You can check this and another four translations on Garrison’s article here:

  97. A thank you to everyone who contributed a poem!

    Teresa, that’s certainly one way to do it. Me, I tend more often to get inspiration from other novels — and I’m not just talking about my tentacle fiction here. My novels The Fires of Shalsha and Journey Star, for example, took much of their inspiration from my irritation at all those colony-world science fiction stories whose authors clearly hadn’t bothered to learn the first thing about planetary ecology, and hadn’t asked obvious questions . For example, what happens if the life forms on a more or less earthlike planet, while superficially similar to ours, don’t use amino acids in their biochemistry? That’s fine so long as you have an industrial system to produce protein, but what if that breaks down — or if people end up fleeing from the settled areas? From that, important parts of the first novel and a core plot engine for the second unfolded.

    Michael, a lovely passage! I like to contrast it, however, with this description of you and me from the same poem:

    Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
    A Being darkly wise, and rudely great:
    With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
    With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,
    He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
    In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;
    In doubt his mind and body to prefer;
    Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;
    Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
    Whether he thinks too little, or too much;
    Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confus’d;
    Still by himself, abus’d or disabus’d;
    Created half to rise and half to fall;
    Great Lord of all things, yet a prey to all,
    Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d;
    The glory, jest and riddle of the world.

    J.L.Mc12, ahem. The author of the mashup doesn’t understand iambic pentameter — quite a few of the lines don’t scan at all. You have to pay attention to the natural rhythm of the words!

    YCS, I think you’re quite right that every art requires that kind of apprenticeship, and the more intricate the traditions of the art, the more demanding the apprenticeship. As for the forty-minute rule, you’re quite correct — that’s a steaming heap of horseradish, and a little regular practice can knock down that limit and leave it in the dust.

    Jacques, hmm! I didn’t happen to know that. Thank you.

    Michael, thanks for this.

    Patricia M, Greer is a MacGregor surname/alias, so I get that — but it makes me roll my eyes when people without a drop of Celtic blood in their veins and without any exposure to Celtic culture other than what they’ve picked up in adulthood from books and Youtube videos swagger it about pretending to be more Celtic than anybody else.

  98. This post was actually quite beautiful in my opinion. Made me think about poetry, writing and music.

  99. @JLmc12 #100: that is a really different take on LoTR! It is kind of metrical, but not consistent, and not consistently iambic. You can’t start a iambic line with “Mexican”, for starters…

  100. Patricia Matthews,

    I may have to check out that translation. Been doing a deep dive on Crawford’s, but it would be nice to compare.

  101. “The digital drug all around us instilled
    by a cartel of cryptos whose pockets are filled
    by microsoft miners in virtual matrix
    under the whip of a web dominatrix.”

    How about:
    “Didn’t see the headlights
    of the car
    Skunk got squashed
    And there you are.”

  102. @JMG, Phutatorius

    Thank you so much for the recommendations! I’ll definitely check them out🙂.

  103. “Poetry seems to be hardwired into the human nervous system” – absolutely! Expose a four-year old to poetry (even if it’s purely oral) and they’ll gobble it up! It is astounding how much information can be absorbed by the human mind when it is put into verse. And if put to a melody – or even a three- or four-note chant as is done with the recitation of the Vedas or Koran – the ability to memorize seems to be practically infinite. I don’t consider myself to be remarkably gifted or anything, but I have been able, with some practice, to recite from memory songs/poems that are one hundred (or more) lines long in quite a few languages of which I have only a rudimentary understanding. I would never be able to do that in the same languages if the same number of words were in the form of a newspaper article. If well crafted, the words and verses seem to ‘remember themselves’.

    More to the point about spontaneity and poetry: I couldn’t agree with you more. While poetry may often be born out of spontaneous inspiration (at least, my poems have been), they need to be forged and refined through the process of reflection and revision.

    I have always believed that the great decline in English poetry during the past hundred years (both in terms of the quality of poetry produced, and the near abandonment of poetry by the reading public) has been linked to the ever-increasingly frantic pace of Western culture. It is considered a ‘sin’ to just sit still: one must be going somewhere or doing something (even if that ‘something’ is watching a flashy and noisy program on TV). And not just one thing: many things at the same time! Who has time to reflect? If the poets are discouraged from reflecting in order to ‘polish’ their poems and people are discouraged from spending several minutes mulling over a few lines of verse (oh, how idle and self-indulgent!), what can the state of poetry be expected to become? I contend that poetry that is deep and compact and precise and touches the heart will only return when society becomes calmer and more reflective than the current trend of “headless chickens rushing about”.

    For a few years now my spouse and I, and some friends, have been making a concerted study of the Hindu religious epic the Shrimad Bhagavat (NOT to be confused with the 700-verse Bhagavad Gita). At only 18,000 verses, it is “light weight” compared to the mammoth 100,000 verse Mahabharat. One of our friends who has been studying it along with us is well versed in Sanskrit and can therefore read the scripture in the original. Just a few days ago he was telling me that sometimes he tries to read along quickly to ‘get the stories’ (the epic is literally a garland of hundreds of stories) but ends up getting so entranced by the beauty and profundity of the language that he can “chew” on a single verse – any verse – for an entire day and still feel that he has not reached the bottom of its depths. And there are 18,000 of them! The amount of time required to finely hone and polish so many verses that each shines like a gem absolutely boggles the mind. It’s no small wonder that the epic is alive and well several thousand years after it was composed. In India, people still flock by the thousands to seven-day-long recitations of the Shrimad Bhagavat by an uncounted number of professional reciters all across the land.

    And to this day, even though the pace of life in India has quickened greatly over the past several decades, there is a love and appreciation of good poetry that abides in practically every household. Living poets are held is such high esteem that governments commission their names to be carved on the sides of mountains for posterity. Sometimes I am very envious of such a culture that still understands and values good poetry and their poets. How far the West has fallen!

  104. JMG and Horzabky, this might be off-topic, but as Houellebecq was mentioned, what do you make of his allusions to Joris-Karl Huysmans? In his novel „Submission“ the Mary-Sue-character, living in a near European future where France is torn apart between a newly elected Islamist government and extreme-right résistance, is a scholar devoted to Huysmans. Occult involvement of the latter author was mentioned on this blog…

  105. Hi John Michael,

    I agree, there is little reason for people to do what they’re told, especially if there is little in it for them to do so.

    You know, I can sort of understand how the situation came to be with the managerial class, and would be curious as to your thoughts in the matter? I’m leaning towards the notion that it was a reaction to the handed down trauma from the ordeals of the early to mid 20th century. But then, you’ve got further trauma in the later part of the century and err, the youth may have watched on with horror at that. And so rather than acknowledge that this is what history looks like, a sort of collective grasp for utopia lead by folks who thought they knew better and claimed intellectual superiority took place. Except it looks the same to me, and in some ways it’s worse because there is less honesty about the means to the ends. You mentioned demons recently, and they do so enjoy a good lie, the cheeky scamps. Hmm. Dunno, but I’m cogitating upon what it looks like.

    Strange days.



  106. Knock out a sonnet? No problem, man.
    If Willie can do it, anyone can.
    Anne Hathaway in her second-best bed
    Could easily do it, all in her head.

    Let’s see. For a scheme, AA and BB.
    A couple of couplets will come easily.
    For a theme? Well I guess it’s composing a verse
    With rhyme and with rhythm. But which will come first?

    If rhyming, the cadence goes for a loop.
    If strictly in rhythm, the rhyming is poop.
    Good heavens above, what am I to do?
    My talent’s more suited to a clerihew.

    I tried for a sonnet, just for a lark,
    But didn’t quite hit it out of the park.

  107. @phutatorious: I’m taking it you like Delany as well, because you re-re-re-read Dhalgren quite a bit? The thing that hooked me was his sentences and paragraph structures.

    & thanks for the kind words about the “microsoft miners” stanza. You’re own stanza…

    “Didn’t see the headlights
    of the car
    Skunk got squashed
    And there you are.”

    …reminds me of some of the “hillbilly haiku” I was writing last year. I like it!

  108. Another vestige of common poetry in the present day is the phenomenon of filk parody, which involves writing new lyrics to familiar songs, not to make fun of the song but to address some topic of interest. This is usually seen in subcultures (the name “filk” came out of SF/fantsay/horror fandom) but, for instance, Mad magazine used to publish parody lyrics regularly, and the U.S. National Anthem started out as one.

    About ten years ago, the unique graphic story “Time” was released online at xkcd, in the form of one small stick-figure drawing per hour round the clock for several months. An amazing creative microculture emerged in the several-thousand-page “Time” discussion thread by people following along, and among other things participants wrote and posted hundreds and hundreds of topically “filked” songs, ranging from trivial word substitutions in the originals to carefully crafted new (except for the tunes) works.

    For my own contributions there, ideas came spontaneously enough, but writing some of them turned into unintended all-nighters. That’s another aspect of constrained forms: they encourage completion! Though the poet can continue to adjust phrasing indefinitely, there’s a compelling milestone when all the A, B, A, B, Cs are filled in for the first time (which in my experience can be surprisingly late in the overall process). Others took days to coax into shape, even with relatively modest quality standards. Some songs have rhyme and meter schemes more demanding than sonnets.

    I learned to appreciate the creative benefits of constrained forms while still in school. I was disillusioned with free verse when I found I could scribble down any old tripe with no effort and the teachers would fawn over it, as long as I used some evocative above-my-grade-level words like “infinity” or “oblivion.” Nonetheless, there are free verse poems I admire, such as “anyone lived in a pretty how town” by e. e. cummings, and “Todesfuge” (“Death Fugue”) by Paul Celan. Most of those turn out to be less free than advertised, having unconventional structural constraints of their own; e.g. as the word “fugue” suggests.

  109. Follower, thank you!

    Ron, I’ve certainly found poetry easy to memorize. I committed Bilbo’s poem about Earendil to memory back in boyhood and still have it word for word. I’m delighted to hear (a) that epic verse is still valued in India and (b) you’re studying one of them. I plan to put a lot of time into Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri but I want to finish working my way through The Life Divine first, so I’ve got the philosophical underpinnings.

    Jessi, thanks for this.

    Njura, Huysmans is a fascinating figure; I have no idea how much attention his work gets in France these days but he’s got a following in English translation. He wasn’t an occultist, though — Là-Bas is the only work of his that brushes up against the occult, and he does so from a quite orthodox Catholic standpoint. I’m not at all sure why Houellebecq refers to him.

    Chris, that’s an interesting hypothesis. Certainly that seems to be a major factor in the rise of the European managerial class; here in the US I think sheer hubris, combined with a frantic attempt to insist that the myth of progress hasn’t already disproved itself, plays a large role.

    Martin, ahem. If I may be infernally picky, there are a lot of dactyls and anapests infesting your scansion…

    Walt, ha! Yes, I picked up the habit of parody songs in boyhood, from Mad Magazine, and later refined (?) it through exposure to SF filk. Unfortunately most of the music I like to use went out of fashion a very long time ago!

  110. @Martin Back: Bravo! I liked lines 9 and 10 best – the problems with cadence and rhyme word illustrating themselves!

  111. >I like to remind them that Jane Austen had an impressively dull life

    Perhaps a dull life isn’t just an option, it’s required in order to think about, then write about exciting things. If real life is more exciting than what’s going on inside your head, why write about it? You’d – go outside – and live it.

    In fact if you are dealing with danger on a periodic basis, if your paycheck depends on you surviving it, if you’re writing about it, you’re probably writing about how to manage and mitigate it rather than live it or experience it. And you’re not doing it in iambic pentameter either.

  112. I do that too: what did the author miss? I always notice how do people eat? Who does the actual work? What happens when you have 400 million mile supply line?

    That said, when people tell me they don’t know where ideas come from, I suggest looking around and asking what happened? What could happen?

    For some folks, that’s easier than reading a novel and thinking with every page, I could do better than this.

    What I try to get across is that ideas are cheap, easy, and everywhere. They pile up in the room in heaps, each begging to be picked next.

    Doing something with an idea is harder.

  113. I think acceptance of out-of-fashion music might be a feature of the kinds of creative subcultures that produce filk. Even when Mad did it back in the early 70s they were more likely to use old standbys or well-known Broadway tunes than recent hits.

    Forgot to mention “Weird Al” Yankovic who’s made a career of writing and performing song parodies. (Actually recording productions of the parody songs does bring up more rights issues than Mad just printing “sung to the tune of” along with some original poetry.)

    Mad also did original poetry and poetry parodies. I read “Edgar Allen Poe’s version of Casey at the Bat” (to the meter of “The Raven” of course) before ever reading the original.

    Now that’s a challenging rhyme scheme! A-A, A-X, B-B, B-X, and all the X’s have to be different and rhyme with each other, though an occasional exception is allowed. Here are a few of the (ten total) verses of “The Alt-text,” about the experience of being drawn into xkcd’s “Time”:

    Once upon a morning cheery, while I pondered, slightly bleary
    Over many a new webcomic full of dreary trendy wit,
    Suddenly with brief foreboding I beheld an image loading –
    ‘T’was a PNG decoding on my panel bit by bit.
    Just a simple shadow-picture taking shape there bit by bit.
    I thought, ‘What’s the point of it?’

    Not inclined to whine or curse it, I intended to disperse it
    But my mouse chanced to traverse it and up popped a tiny chit:
    An alt-text, I saw, not fearing to expect the purpose clearing
    By the letters there appearing like a scroll of holy writ.
    Rapt I read the words inscribed there, terrible as holy writ –
    And they spelt out: ‘Wait for it.’

    As time passed, I gained conviction this must be some sort of fiction.
    Every hour, a new depiction on my browser screen alit.
    Thus they seemed designed for spelling out some tale that needed telling
    But my mind was still rebelling, for I saw no benefit
    As the figures played in sand; whatever was the benefit?
    Quoth the alt-text: ‘Wait for it.’

    And the alt-text, ne’er updating, still is waiting, still is waiting
    As each new frame looms, relating tick by tick the drawn-out skit.
    I can but, through days ensuing, ponder on my soul’s undoing,
    The one hope for my renewing being that I somehow quit
    Whilst the alt-text whispers softly that I’m doomed never to quit.
    I can only… wait for it.

  114. I just realized I still remember the entire first verse of “Casey at the Bat by Edgar Allan (spelled right this time) Poe.”

    Once upon a final inning, with the other ball team winning,
    And my Mudville teammates trailing by a score of two to four
    With two outs, my fate it beckoned, for with men on third and second,
    I could win the game, I reckoned, or at least tie up the score.
    Crazed, I was, that final inning, just to win or tie the score.
    Only that and nothing more!

  115. JMG, I’m delighted to hear that you will be tackling Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri soon but are first ‘girding your loins’ prior to diving into it. As odd as it is for an occult novice like me to advise a person who has been a full-time occultist for four decades, the prep work is a wise move. A poem that has been polished for decades by a person who was arguably the greatest Indian mystic of the 20th century (which is really saying something!) is bound to be bursting at the seams with occult insights and straining the very limits of what any human language can possibly express.

    I’m not sure if you have heard this, but it is known among occultists who dived very deeply into Sri Aurobindo’s life that in the late 1930s, Sri Aurobindo picked up on what the occult faction of the N*azis were up to – and what noxious entities they were playing with and so, he gathered intel through remote (psychic) means. And then when the N*zis were in the midst of their assault on Switzerland, Sri Aurobindo impersonated one of the main ‘baddies’ that the occult N*zis were consulting via seances and gave them the suicidal advice of Operation Barbarosa (invasion of Russia). Or so the story goes. What I do know for sure is that Sri Aurobindo had many amazing predictions of events which became obvious only decades later. Such is the calibre of the author of Savitri! I suspect that the formidable mystic Blake was in the ‘kiddie end of the pool’ while Sri Aurobindo was on the ‘high diving board’.

    Have fun!

  116. If I may, I’d like to share the web page of an artist that I find to be a very inspiring example of how to not give a … about conventions and the art world – but not for the sake of being “commercial”, just for expressing what she sees in nature. Has a very druidic attitude, too:

  117. @Justin Patrick Moore #120: Sorry, that’s not my lyric, tho I think it’s a marvel of compactness.. The credit goes to Loudon Wainwright III. See “Dead Skunk” on youtube.

  118. Njura #117 and JMG #122

    Huysmans is fairly well-known and read in France as a 19th century author. I’ve read several of his books. If memory serves, he was interested in occultism but always a Catholic, especially in his old years. He is the kind of author that the hero of Submission, who is a scholar teaching French literature, would be interested in.

    Huysmans was not a very cheerful fellow. He never married, and his short book, La Bièvre, shows that he knew very well the bars, restaurants and taverns of the poorest districts of the Paris of his time, which is a bit surprising for a meritorious civil servant like he was. He was also an erudite. He probably was one of those bachelors who are competent at the workplace, who read a lot but whose social life is very limited.

    I was introduced to Huysmans’ works by a friend of mine, who, like Huysmans, read a lot, was deeply in love with old Paris, and was socially clumsy (but not as much as Huysmans, though, for he had a wife and a daughter).

  119. I certainly don’t have tons of friends, but that internal life…well, I’m not asleep at the wheel anymore, whatever could be said about my determination.

    I got into a knockdown-drag-out verbal quarrel with a new-ish female friend – wife of a new friend couple – last week over the subject of Progress. Obviously the first time anybody had ever dropped reality on her, and she went off! (Being a Taurus didn’t help.) My gods. I haven’t been so thoroughly brow-beaten for thinking unapproved thoughts in a very long time.

    She apologized to me today, for thought-policing, but wow. I hadn’t seen anything like that in years. I get so insulated here…

    It’s nice.

  120. I like what you say to Dr. Hooves, that you can make art yourself.
    That’s how I became a writer. I was taking modern dance classes at a studio in Chicago, and saw a dance writer for the Reader, a version of the Village Voice, in another dance class. I asked her how you got a review into the Reader. She said, “Well, you write it and send it to me. If we like it, we’ll publish it.”
    And that’s what happened. I practiced writing a few reviews, then saw a show I really liked, sent in a review, and it was published! I was utterly shocked.
    And then I learned how to write. I quickly saw that I didn’t write very well, and I studied the reviews of all the other reviewers. At first, I just read everything, then I developed likes and dislikes, and then I tried to figure out why. Some people, like the managing editor, were able to do things with the language that I knew I could never do. So after many reviews, and many more hours of corrections on the phone with my editor, I started to finally like my stuff a little.
    I look back now at my reviews, and I’m a little embarrassed but give myself a break.
    What really helps is to find a forum that actually wants your work. The Reader published as many as twenty reviews a week, and had a steady need for copy that didn’t need to be all that great, just reasonably interesting, with a clear, well-defended point of view. And it also really helps to be edited, to effectively get the advice of a senior writer.

  121. JMG,

    I wonder if you might have something to say about the experience Robert mentioned above – having a poem appear “of its own accord” (or nearly so) in the context of spontaneity. The poem comes spontaneously, but it seems not to be a product of the human author’s conscious intent so much as a case of said author being in the right place at the right time to catch the right space-beams (or whatever).

    Having had that happen a few times, I ultimately fell prey to that egregious sin of loving the experience of inspiration but couldn’t exactly figure out how to cultivate it and as we know, waiting for writing to happen is plain stupid. Well, I moved on and away from writing poetry for the most part, but some years after having moved on, I had one “given” to me.

    At first glance, it looks to be a kind of response to Dylan Thomas’s musings on his father’s death and on nature’s force that always wins in the end – though I wasn’t aware that I had anything to say about the two of Dylan’s poems my own chews on, having been far more claimed up by his “Fern Hill”- – but upon looking at it today, it seems rather relevant to our society’s decline in general.

    If I may be so bold, I offer it here and would be very much interested to hear your take on such things that arrive as a matter of “inspiration” (very nearly whole in this case.. Like Robert, I awoke to this one) and how to cultivate that through the necessary work that gets writing written:

    Gone, the force – and cold, the fuse
    and faded is the flower.
    Lost, the lust – flown, the heat
    and withered all its power.

    Stand alone within the house
    and peer from out the curtain;
    remember—once—what life had hummed
    what hopes had once seemed certain.

    What built, turns now to creaks and groans
    and, slow, all dwindles down to dust;
    decay, the home – and blast, the yard
    what shone has gone to rust.

    Where once the sound of pleasure played
    where once there’d been a riot
    falls all—now—to disrepair,
    turned now, the thrum to quiet.

    Nothing’s left but to watch it go,
    the draining of all hours,
    no fuel to burn, no rage to rave
    cursed or blessed it matters not;
    the worm, it will devour.

  122. I always liked writing in blank verse.

    Per your advice last Monday on learning magic that has obvious effects since I want to see obvious effects—“ah yes, the *doing* of the thing…”— I tried some single-element invocations, and had strong, uncomfortable psychological reactions both times. I am humbled and clearly out of my depth, although I won’t let the fear I felt stop me from doing them until I get a grip.


  123. Other Owen, I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary to have a dull life in order to write, but it certainly seems to help!

    Teresa, exactly! Ideas are everywhere. Then it’s time to write the story, and that’s where the work comes in.

    Walt, that may well be the case. Still, does anybody remember “Hooked on a Feeling,” better known as “the Ooga-Chaka song” these days? My best parody song just won’t work without those deep male voices going “Chupacabra, Chupa-Chupa-Chupacabra” in the background. 😉

    Ron, I did some preliminary reading about Sri Aurobindo and got that useful piece of advice from several places. One of the things I find most impressive about The Life Divine, btw, is that the author was just as conversant with Western philosophy as he was with the Vedas, and uses both to make his points; one of the other things I find most impressive is that the match between his insights and those of the Western occult writings I find most convincing is very, very high. On the one hand, it’s clear to me that Sri Aurobindo knew his way around Western occult writings — as, of course, did The Mother; on the other, it’s a pleasant bit of evidence that he and the occultists I respect were in fact looking at the same realities.

    Njura, many thanks for this.

    Markernewek, I was around when the original came out and it’s pretty well tattooed into my brain, but Weird Al is always good; I can’t hear Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” without immediately shifting into the Weird Al version.

    Patricia M, thanks for this. It applies equally well to most current poetry!

    Grover, good heavens, you gotta be careful about challenging people’s devout religious beliefs. That’s their sole hope of salvation, you know!

    Tomriverwriter, that’s certainly one good way into it.

    Temporaryreality, it happens, but it happens when it chooses, not when you choose. I’ve had that kind of inspiration land very hard a couple of times — the Weird of Hali: Innsmouth is one example; that came crashing into my imagination over a few days, and I wrote the whole 70,000-word manuscript in a little over six weeks. I don’t know of any way to get it to happen, and so most of what I know is how to write when it doesn’t happen. The poem’s quite good, btw.

    Ataulfo, that doesn’t surprise me at all. Many people who want to see dramatic effects from magic are also frightened of seeing dramatic effects from magic, sometimes crap-their-pants terrified of that. May I suggest some journaling, to unpack the roots of those psychological reactions?

  124. Who needs practice when I can tell my computer to do it for me 😉

    Found that link in an article from The Atlantic in which the author was lamenting the failure of “Humanities” courses in higher education. Methinks they fell short of realizing what the real problem is but I don’t think The Atlantic lets their writers think reflective thoughts.

  125. JMG,

    Yep. That occurred to me to me right away. Sad as it is. I’m sure my buddy sitting on the other side of me when she and I were quarrelling thinks I let her off the hook too easily, but this is a delicate matter! And an enormously important one. I can assure you that further conversations will be measured out in teaspoons instead of buckets…

    I remember very clearly how earth-shattering that moment was for me, getting on 14 years ago, when I suddenly recognized that Progress was over. But I’m awfully glad it happened. One of the most important milestones in my life in fact.

    The husband is a nuclear chemist with the NRC, btw, and a devout believer in “limitless clean nuclear energy.” My eye is twitching just thinking about it.

  126. If you have ever tried to write a verse
    That uses ten exactly syllables
    To capture inspiration that has burst
    Upon you and has given you the chills,

    You’ll find that forcing it to fit the scheme
    Required by the type of verse you choose
    Is tougher than it might at first have seemed
    When flushed with inspiration by the muse.

    Beware oh tyro versifier. Know,
    Although you might have truly done your best,
    Among your finely crafted rhythms grow
    The dactyl, trochee, and the anapest.

    Be strong. Accused of misuse of iamb,
    Reply that frankly you don’t give a damn.

  127. JMG and all,
    Snookums? Haha, great to see someone else uses that. Do I detect a diddums lurking in the shadows and awaiting its moment?
    Re topic: there are loads of nursery rhymes in the English language. Some 100s of years old. They have strong rhythms and rhymes. Can be sung or recited. Before my son could speak the whole repertoire had to be gone through every evening. The tunes came back after lying dornant for years, if not decades. I wonder whether this contributed to the wide spread of poetry in previous decades and centuries. Do parents still sing/recite them to their children? I’d be interested to hear from people from different cultures or who grew up with different languages whether they have something like this and as extensive. German has children’s songs, some poems, but nothing quite comparable. Other languages have great epics. Is it also usual for people to nake up their own poetry? Would love to hear more about this.

  128. This post is really inspiring, btw. Thank you for writing it. I’ve just sent an email to a retired middle school teacher friend of mine asking if she’d like to start writing and exchanging sonnets as a form of mental exercise.

    You’ve seen the only “sonnet” I’ve ever written, when I sent you a sample of our herbal products a couple of years ago, and I’m pretty sure you’ll agree that there is only upside potential in the art form for me! 😉

  129. Classic haiku in English – a small, slim book called “In A Cat’s Eyes,” with illustrations that look hand-painted. The title comes from the first poem given:
    “In a cat’s eyes
    Is the sea
    In autumn.”

    Fairly new, I think; found in The Village library.

    Simple enough that toddlers would love it; enough meat that poets and poerry fans would, too.

  130. @Teresa from Hershey #125 – when the viewpoint is 100% male, I often look to see how the society in a book works out for the women. And my best work has been done when I’ve seen a major plot hole – real world or internal – and found a way to fill it. JMG once mentioned the midcentury literature advocating total sexual freedom; Dion Fortune dismissed that in one sentence with “The problem with Free Love is that it leads to too many homeless children.” One could write a decent short story, or even a novel, with that theme.

  131. Around The Lake on a foggy morning:

    Low gray fog.
    Black and white duck swims
    On fog-gray water.

    If you want forest and shoreline
    Take the path that goes by the road
    With your back to the road

    In the east a glowing pearl
    You can look directly at
    Is it the moon?
    Sunrise on a foggy morning!

  132. I’m really enjoying this series of post; thanks for putting in the time to write them!

    For anyone who wants a short but effective introduction to meter, I highly recommend Poetic Meter and Poetic Form by Paul Fussell

    For those interested in how oral bards improvise epic poems (like the Odyssey and Beowulf) I highly recommend Singer of Tales by Alfred Lord. Great book with recordings and transcriptions of Serbo-Croatian oral poets from before WWII. I was a classics major in college and loved Homer but I never had a feel for how the discipline of oral improvisation worked (or how it differed from both written poetry and ‘free verse’) until I read this book. Great stuff.

    There is long English non-metrical poetic tradition that seems to come from the influence of the Psalms. Plus there’s Walt Whitman. Personally I never loved Song of Myself but it had something of the impact in the 19th century that Jack Kerouac had on the 20th.

  133. @Temporaryreality (#137):

    I experienced the poem that came to me finished one morning as the product of another Being that resides within me and on very rare occasion wakes up and makes itself known. I think of it as the Teacher Within.

    Mostly that Being wakes up when some other person is in distress and needs a bit of magic that I myself have never learned (and do not know) how to do. Then all of a sudden I do know precisely what I can do to help, and it is turns out to be a thing that I never learned nor studied anywhere, or would ever have thought of doing on my own. And that magic works for the person in distress. On a very few occasions the Teacher Within has given me unexpected insight into the future facing some person with whom I am talking, and I am impelled to pass that insight on to them.

    Since these events never benefit me, but only occur for the good of some other person, and are always effective, I have come to trust that Being when it chooses to make itself known. I have never tried to wake It/Them up myself; that would be very presumptious of me.

    The only part of the poem that I added was the title, which may have detracted from the reader’s comprehension of it. What the poem is about is the experience of being a scholarly Medieval philologist in the academic world, and the vicious struggle for dominance among scholars in the academic world. It was the only time when the Teacher Within woke up and gave me something for my own benefit, not for any other’s.

  134. “Hooked on a Feeling” (Blue Suede cover, 1973)? Absolutely. It’s pretty well-known due to that unusual rhythm line. Age-wise, it’s more recent than “American Pie,” 4% older than “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and 22% older than “Beat It.” It’s right in range for filking/parodying. Challenging, because of the short verses, but it sounds as though you’ve got that handled.

    The average teenager today has probably never heard it, but the average teenager today has a music subscription or access to YouTube that lets them play any song they can name, instantly on demand, for instance if a parody of it catches their interest.

  135. One of the things I find most interesting about rap is the subject matter. The oldest poems which you cited are stories about great heroes being tough warriors. You look at most modern rap and that theme runs through almost all of it. Virtually every rapper has some song talking about how epic and dangerous he is. Its in some ways a medium to express warlord culture for the 21st century.

    Yet, despite this, or perhaps because of it, rap has increasingly become a major source of sophisticated political commentary. Tom McDonald’s “White Boy” is arguably the best counter point to using race as a thought stopper that you’ll find. Loza Alexander’s admittedly far simpler “Let’s Go Brandon” set up a cultural slogan that we are sure to hear more from. Tyson James has in some ways weaponized evangelical theology (both figuratively and literally… just hear him sing about the 2nd Amendment), and guys like Tupac Shakur gave a serious voice to the ugly realties of the urban poor. In a sense, these ultra masculine tough warlords are rapping circles around the officially sanctioned English classes in the universities not just because they are producing intricate rhymes, but also because they speaking about the things that no one else is allowed to talk about, hence the phrase, “keep it real”.

    Perhaps the most interesting thing of all is how rap music is actively breaking down the race divide. When rap music first started it used the n word to fence off people from outside the black inner city community. Nevertheless, as more white people fell into poverty more white folks began to connect with the music’s themes. Then Eminem came and starting singing about all the same themes minus the n word. He built a bridge between the poor whites and the poor blacks. Now substantial cultural traffic is traversing that bridge and the race divide amongst the poor is becoming ever thinner even as the cultural elite shriek louder and louder about it. This is even being reflected in voting patterns.

    Honestly, there are few cultural forces in a better position to do greater good for the U.S. right now than rap music. It makes sense why Plato said, “When the music changes the walls of the city shake” and the communist’s so often want to regulate art. Art gives voice to the masses and enables them to unit against the elite. I suspect no attempt to convert America into authoritarianism can last for as long as the rappers can remain free.

  136. @ Patricia Mathews #146

    Exactly! Where are all the kids? Who’s growing the food? Where does food even come from? Who’s doing 90% of the day-to-day work keeping things going?

    Those thoughts underpin plenty of my own writing.

    It also reminds me of a quote from David Lodge: “Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children. Life is the other way around.”

  137. “ and so most of what I know is how to write when it doesn’t happen. ”

    That probably makes it all the more useful since it’s a real-world option for those times when muses are off whispering in other people’s ears.

    Thanks for the poem-praise. I think it’s perhaps “my” best, recognizing full well that I just happened to be the conductor of current and not it’s source – so I can’t get bigheaded about it (and besides, I have, what, 4-5 half-decent poems out of the bunch I’ve written (or transcribed) over the years).

    Here’s one that’s lower on the best-of list, but relevant topically and structurally, AFAICT; so since all I only really ever had “planned” for any of the “bests” was to post them here if they were ever on topic, I’ll giddily offer this one too (livin’ the dream!):

    Give thanks to Muses, famous poets say,
    Before you write, that they may well receive
    Your praise to them whose songs bring forth the day —
    And acolytes be not by gloom deceived.
    The gloom, of course, is not the cloak of night,
    But stands for that which hinders fluid prose,
    Or lyric verse, or any art that might
    Be granted to the humble to compose.
    Some thing of beauty, some voice within the heart
    Knows only that it wants to sing, and yet
    The claim of pride—“The artist makes the art!”—
    Reveals by stuttered pen the unpaid debt.
    Make good what’s owed – give credit where it’s due:
    It’s not you who writes; the Muse writes through you!

  138. StarNinja, if my experience is anything to go by, The Atlantic doesn’t let its writers think thoughts of any kind — just slogans.

    Grover, okay, so she’s also looking at her husband losing his livelihood. Got it. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

    Martin, ha! Very nicely turned, and with a fine crisp change at the end.

    Stormer, that’s an excellent point. I grew up with many of the standard nursery rhymes, and have to make a serious effort to repeat them without falling at once into the standard childhood singsong recitation style. There’s a fine book, The Annotated Mother Goose by William Baring-Gould, which includes most of them in all their glory, including the weird ones:

    How many miles to Babylon?
    Threescore miles and ten.
    Can I get there by candlelight?
    Aye, and back again.
    If your feet be quick and light
    You can get there by candlelight.

    Grover, you made the effort. That’s worth a lot.

    Patricia M, thanks for all of these.

    Joeljones, and thanks for these as well.

    Walt, I’ll keep that in mind.

    Stephen, these are among the reasons I’ve been sure all along that it’s bardic verse in the process of getting going. You’ve got the proto-warband culture of the urban streets, you’ve got strong young men boasting about their exploits, you’ve got everything but the dragons and elves and those will show up in due time. As for the disintegration of racial lines among the poor vs. the increasingly shrill rhetoric about race from the rich, why, cause and effect — once poor white people and poor people of color realize that all this yelling about race is a gimmick to keep them divided against each other, it’s game over for the privileged classes that manufactured and maintain those divides.

    Temporaryreality, and that’s also a well-turned piece. You may be less in need of inspiration than you think.

  139. @Joel jones re: non-metrical poetic forms – I think a lot of original Irish and Scottish songs flowed without meter – think The Londonderry Air when the singer isn’t imposing a meter on it by cutting it up into sentences, and I’m fairly sure that gypsy violin music, like gypsy jazz, flows freely in the same way. (? – grammar — when it’s a genre of music tied to a given culture, do you capitalize it? And/or use the terms for the culture preferred these days, even though the genre retains the older names? Inquiring minds want to know.)

    (Full disclosure: I’m writing, in my head mostly, since it moves faster than my fingers, a long and rambling Our Town in and post-Crisis tale* in which the patients in the VA are giving a concert and one of them breaks down and hauls out a violin to give a very Highlands-flavored number to tear your heart out; another of Eastern European origins does the same, see reference above; followed by another with a slide guitar and a repertoire of the blues…..ending, in true Irish-epic style with the first musician closing with The Flowers of the Forest….Words to convey the power of it come slowly.) *consists of many short stories, which I have kept as such, call them the pecans in the pie, and other long, rambling threads which are the filling.*

  140. Several people have commented on popular music substituting poetry, and on popular music then also abandoning meter and rhyme. I wonder if this is connected to the habit of singing (instead of listening to) popular music. When I was at university in the 90s, we still had that weird habit of sitting somewhere with a guitar or next to a piano and singing “Sad Lisa” or “Leaving on a Jet Plane” or “When I’m 64”. I am sure (though I haven’t thumbed through the notebooks) that everything we sang had at least meter and probably rhymed. By the way, I think Nirvana and REM would have lended themselves equally well to our active singing, but we never chose those.

    I am not young anymore, but maybe those who are would like to answer if they still actively sing, and if they sing recent songs? There are quite a number of more recent songs I like, but I have never sung any of them and have never heard anybody sing them. Maybe that’s why they mostly make do without meter and rhyme.

    Just out of curiosity: do normal rap fans actively rap their favorites, or do they only listen?

  141. Hi John Michael,

    hubris, combined with a frantic attempt to insist that the myth of progress. I agree that this is indeed what it looks like. However, I’m struggling to comprehend the consistency of application of the approach combined with results across the western world, after all conditions vary greatly between countries, cultures and geographical areas (compare the US energy situation to that of Europe just for one example). How much is reaction, and how much is instruction, is really difficult to say, and perhaps we’ll never know. Take this week’s example of poetry, how could it have fallen from grace so consistently from one western country to another? There is something in that general, but consistent state of weirdness that’s hauntingly just out of plain sight. A mystery! Have you noticed this pattern?



  142. JMG,

    “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

    That exact phrase crossed my mind as well.

    The weird part is, I seem to be having a greater impact on him than her…and because of that I’m hesitant to go any farther. Not everyone is cut out to be poor. Especially by choice.

  143. @Aldarion #157 – I can tell you precisely when people stopped singing. I was on the filk scene in a minor, local way for a long time, and people brought their instruments and sheet music and sang. Then there came a filk session which put the word up on a screen to sing along to, as some churches do today. The next year, the songs were streamed from a computer, to which people listened, and a handful sang along, or tried to, then trickled off into silence. Ever since then, anyone who wants music in an indoor group just calls up some group singing the songs, often in a style or key we didn’t use (gotta be Original, y’know) The exceptions were outdoor events; even then, the sell phones were out, and used for everything from lighting to looking for the words.

  144. Njura, certainly women in epic poetry got treated very, very badly as often as not. Of course so did the men. Epic poetry is like grand opera: nobody gets out alive.

    Chris, yes, I’ve noticed that pattern, and I don’t yet have a single explanation for it — just a series of hypotheses.

    Grover, so noted. I think, though, that being poor by choice, and thus downscaling in a controlled manner, beats the stuffing out of suddenly ending up poor with no time to prepare and no clue how to handle it skillfully. That latter’s going to be a very common experience in the years ahead.

  145. @YCS

    Since you mentioned Indian Classical Music, I just wanted to ask you – are you training in Hindustani or Carnatic? I used to learn Hindustani Classical Music (vocal) from my maternal grandfather, who is a direct student of Pandit V. N. Bhatkhande’s foremost disciple Pandit S. N. Ratanjankar. I agree with your points, having experienced them myself – I started learning when I was between four and five years of age, and I still remember my grandfather making me sing only the shadja for the first twenty minutes of every session, which would be around two hours long, with minute-long water breaks in between. While I used to get restless and complain to my mother about my grandfather’s strict regimen, she would smile and cajole me into learning. I learned very few ragas as a child, namely – Shuddha Bhairav, Bhupali, Yaman, Brindavani Sarang, Kafi and Purvi. However, my grandfather’s rigorous training and insistence on acquiring a thorough grounding in swara jnana, tala and laya paid off very well – today, even though I no longer am learning from him (for reasons I don’t wish to go into), I can read Bhatkhande’s notation for the notes and talas, and also understand the basics of singing a raga that I haven’t studied before, simply by listening to performances in it, and reading the descriptions of the same in Rajan Parrikar’s site (not for newbies) and in the books my grandpa gave me. I learned ragas like Bageshree, Bhimpalasi and Jog this way (albeit on a far more basic level than someone who has learned it first-hand from a guru), enough to be able to recognise them when they are being played/sung, and have an informed discussion about the same.

    You are also right in saying that it helps concentration; my classical music practice helped me in many ways outside of classical music. And yes, the “you can concentrate for only 40 minutes at a stretch’ is BS of the self-help variety.

    Best wishes to you, and all the best for your continued music practice! 🙂

  146. Hey JMG

    Fair enough about the fanfic, I didn’t realise it’s poetic sloppiness at the time.

    Continuing on poetry, have you heard of the little poems the eccentric musician Moondog made? They are short rhyming poems, many of them seem to me to be prompts for larger works. It would not be a bad idea to take one of his poems and craft a larger story out of it.

  147. JMG,

    I couldn’t agree more, sir. Glad we chose the prior, and remain open-minded about the necessity of cutting expenses as our budget requires, instead of fighting the tide and killing ourselves trying to make more money!

    Need less, not make more, that’s our mantra. Still, that alone is an utterly foreign, and offensive, concept to nearly everyone else. But I’ll keep easing my perspective into discourse with them. Next will be a bit of talk about net energy, I think, particularly the industrial world’s reliance on the petro-subsidy to make anything else work.

  148. JMG – Ah, the Ooga-chaka song! I once heard it introduced on the radio as “and now something from the University of Michigan Faculty Men’s Chorus”. This _may_ have happened in East Lansing (the home of Michigan State University).

    It’s amazing what bits of memory remain locked away in my brain, until just the right key comes along!

  149. @JMG: “You’ve got the proto-warband culture of the urban streets, you’ve got strong young men boasting about their exploits, you’ve got everything but the dragons and elves and those will show up in due time.”

    On this note, it’s worth mentioning that, at least here in Britain, a surprising number of serious hip-hop heads are also avidly into D&D and the like. One troupe even called itself the Dungeoneers. It might be a little different in the USA or other places, I guess, but maybe less than one might expect; that piece by Aesop Rock I quoted above is about how much he enjoyed drawing two-headed unicorns, after all, and shock-rappers Insane Clown Posse actually ran adverts in Dragon Magazine back in the day…

    There is also a certain crossover in audience between hip-hop and heavy-metal – I can see leftover influences from the heavy-metal aesthetic being quite strong in the warband culture of the coming Dark Ages.

  150. Chris at Fernglad Farm says:
    #158. December 10, 2022 at 4:54 PM

    “Take this week’s example of poetry, how could it have fallen from grace so consistently from one western to another?”

    The anti’s (however you characterize them) who are working assiduously and consistently with an almost unerring precision to destroy whatever has sustained life in the West ALSO have among them people who are sensitive to the inner currents. This is a theory, but I think a good one, as several centuries of recent history (compounded by milennia of other history) would seem to demonstrate. Please read (or re-read) JMG’s “Weird of Hali” series if you haven’t and you will see a well laid out pattern for this stuff.

    The forces on the side of life (our guys, roughly speaking) do not have anything like an organized effort to eliminate, run down, or oppose the anti’s…but we do also have people who can see what’s happening and name it accurately. Hence, to mention just one example, Chesterton. And there are those whose lives are complicated mixes of both but who have been equally prescient, like Nietsche.

    The baddies don’t hide what they are or what they’re doing (viz. Karl Marx’s diaries or that German dictator’s magnum opus the title to which can be translated as “My Struggle” or the current Bigbaddie’s books on the “Great Reset” which can be found through the WEF’s own website!).

    What we have going for us is that life will come up even through solid concrete, opportunistically. What they have going for them is solid concrete (take that how you will).

  151. J.L.Mc12, nope — Moondog is new to me. Thanks for this.

    Grover, that ought to help.

    Lathechuck, funny. I simply heard it on the radio, and giggled.

    Luke, good heavens. No, I wasn’t aware of that — and the thought of heavy metal barbarians in the deindustrial future is so 1970s I have no words for it…

    JustMe, thanks for this.

  152. JMG – I suppose it was just luck, but I ran across a slim volume of recent poetry in a Little Free Library a few days ago. “Poems of Love and Marriage” had been placed with the full cover visible through the window, not just the spine, and the title was appealing. It was published by a University press in 1988, and the jacket promises “gentle wit, emotion, and craft”. The author, John Ciardi, translated Dante’s Divine Comedy, and “was for years director of the Broad Loaf Writer’s Conference.”

    “for years”, they say, but not for how many years. Seems an odd omission. But, I digress.

    And so, I read:

    “Sometimes the foundering fury that directs
    the prayer through storm, the sucking mouth;
    sometimes a gentleness like a parent sex;
    sometime an aimless tasting mild as broth

    or the drugged eye of the invalid; sometimes
    a naked arm laid loose along the grass
    to the brown-eyed breast and the great terms
    of the turning flank printed by root and moss;


    There’s something sort of like rhyme going on here, maybe, if you look too hard, but I think I’ve run across the very “bad poetry” that only the academics can bear, to bear politely at the reading until their turn comes to be politely tolerated by others waiting their turn to read.

    It can’t hold a candle to the original submissions on this blog, can it?

  153. JMG, re “You may be less in need of inspiration than you think.”. You are right. I probably could do with less hope of being handed something on a plate, particularly since your deeper point beyond the basics of particular poetic forms is precisely the thing which I feel most in need of developing within myself, namely “the development of clear thought and reflective awareness” and cultivation of the ability to think about an idea, “reflect on it” and “come to a much clearer understanding of the idea itself. I love the idea of the poem as a tool (for the development of thinking ability and for discursive meditation through writing) rather than (just) a desirable end product.

    Robert Mathiesen,
    I agree, given such an experience -or rather relationship – it would be presumptuous to try to “force” occurrences in any way. And it makes me think that maybe my question to JMG was actually “how does one cultivate mystical experiences?” which supposes they can be cultivated. I wonder if the Muses and the Gods and the wiser Beings actually don’t care one whit for humans’ methods but have their own criteria to determine what they reveal and to whom.

    Still this then gets to JMG’s other point that you have to put in the work if you’re not going to just sit around hoping to get hit by figurative divine thunderbolts.

  154. >The image of school children of a future civilization studying ancient rap epics

    The origins of the French language were street Latin, as I understand it. Time has a way of legitimizing all sorts of things.

  155. @temporaryreality (#171):

    I don’t suppose that mystical experiences can be cultivated, precisely: “cultivated” doesn’t seem to me to be quite the right word here. They happen or they don’t happen. And they don’t seem to happen all that rarely.

    The chief problem we humans face, IMHO, is not that mystical experiences are rare. Rather, it is that our lives are packed full to the brim with distracting noise and clutter, which keep us from payimng attention to such experiences–or even so much as noticing that they are happening–when they do happen.

    Our host’s LESS (Less Energy, Stuff and Stimulation) is good advice for the spiritual side of life as well as its material side. Live with lots and lots of silence and stillness, as much as your duties and responsibilities toward others allow you to.

  156. Further to our discussion on artificial intelligence, I challenged chatbot to write a sonnet. Clearly, AI has some ideas, but lacking in execution.

    Write a sonnet about writing sonnets

    A sonnet is a poetic form that originated in Italy in the 13th century. It consists of 14 lines of iambic pentameter, and is typically written in rhyming couplets. Here is a sonnet about writing sonnets:

    With quill in hand and ink-stained fingers,
    I sit and ponder what to write.
    The blank sheet stares back at me, taunting
    As I struggle to put words to light.

    But then, as if by some divine spark,
    An idea takes hold and starts to grow.
    I feel the rhythmic beat within my heart
    And know that a sonnet I must show.

    The words begin to flow, each one just right
    As I craft each line with care and skill.
    The rhyme and meter, all just so,
    Till a sonnet is born, a thing of beauty, a thrill.

    To write a sonnet is a special art,
    That brings me joy and feeds my heart.

  157. Wildly off topic but I hope of interest I hope. There are unconfirmed rumours that the National Ignition Facility has managed a lab based fusion reaction extracting 2.5 million joules using 2.1 million joules of laser.

    To put this in perspective 2.5 million joules is what you get if you burn about 6 ounces of a decent hardwood. The 2.1 million is the energy that hit the target but by all accounts the lasers run at about one half a percent efficiency. That’s over 400 million joules in.

    I think I could do better with a match.

  158. OT: Offering 3 booklets for deindustrial crafters, usual terms. An SCA friend, cleaning out her stuff, sent me these The Compleat Anachronist handbooks. Sizes: 5 1/2″ x 8 1/2″

    Herbs II An Herbal Grimoire. Fragrances, potpourri, scented oils, foraging for materials, lotions & potions. 35 pp

    Dyestuffs. How-to, plants, materials, etc. 85pp

    An Introduction to Blackwork, 29pp. That’s embroidery.

    Email me at mathews55 at msn dot com.

  159. Speaking of rap, I came across this cut from an album with music from the 12th and 13th centuries. It’s on an album called Music of the Troubadours from Naxos. Listen to those vocal passages between the instrumental parts. It’s a YouTube link, but there are is no video to watch.

    That rhythm, and its tempo, sounds an awful lot in the same vein as rap music, especially because it serves to frame whatever the singer is saying. I don’t understand the vocals, but it sounds like some kind of story telling.

  160. To Andy (post #176),

    Indeed, I had to laugh at the utterly desperate, misleading and laughable claims of a “breakthrough” in nuclear fusion in that report. Only the most innumerate among us (which today are in fact the vast majority of the population) could fail to see through the disingenuous claims of this nuclear snap-crackle-pop as being some fundamental “breakthrough”.

    “Commercial nuclear fusion is only 30 years in the future!”, they say.
    And ‘the experts’ were saying the same thing 50 years ago.

  161. Thank you so much for this guide to creative writing! If anyone is interested in the sonnet form, I’d like to point out that Alexander Pouchkine’s novel “Eugene Onegin” is made of sonnets entirely, and there are interesting translations available in different languages, as well as a californian remake from 1986, also in sonnet form, titled “The Golden Gate” by Vikram Seth.

  162. >To put this in perspective 2.5 million joules is what you get if you burn about 6 ounces of a decent hardwood.

    Fusion energy – “Any day now, any day”, for the past 50 years. Cynically, that project is probably up for budget renewal, is my guess.

    In their defense, they are getting that out of something that’s much much lighter and smaller than 6oz of wood, that’s part of the siren song of nuclear, is how frickin energy dense it all is. E=mc^2, you know. Although if you factor in that really huge laser that surrounds that tiny little pellet, it does make you ask well, wouldn’t it be simpler just to burn the wood to begin with.

    But then you start asking that and like with Douglas Adams, you start wondering why we came down out of the trees in the first place.

  163. @Martin Back re: #175

    Hmmm… 14 lines in three quatrains and a coda, check, a couple of which are even in iambic pentameter. A few more are iambic but I wonder how much of that is related to the natural English cadence rather than to deliberate effort on the chatbot’s part.

    Rhyme scheme seems ABCB more than ABAB; “spark/heart” can maybe be thought of as a near-rhyme, but there’s no way “fingers/taunting” or “right/so” can be taken as even near-rhymes.

    Also, most sonnets do not begin with a prose description of what a sonnet is and its history. I therefore give the chatbot a grade of D.

    @Andy re: #176

    So, 400,000 “net” joules? Let’s see, that comes to… 95.6 food calories, about the same as one of the healthier sides at an American chain restaurant. And as you’ve said, it’s probably not even actual net.

    Wake me when they have a net gain after taking into account (1) the waste heat produced by the lasers that doesn’t actually hit the target, (2) the electricity needed to power the computers running the lasers, (3) the energy needed to build the facility in the first place, including all fuel and electricity used in mining, extracting, processing, and transporting the raw materials needed to do so, (4) and the energy needed to keep the facility maintained. Then I’ll be impressed.

  164. I have to weigh in at this late date to say thank you for this series, JMG. The vast bulk of my writing is technical with large sections of well-sweated-over equations and painfully simple graphics (if I can’t say it with two axes and less than five lines and maybe a scatter of data, I need to re-think the matter!), it is good to see how the other writers live.

  165. I grew up in a small city embedded deep into the mountains, in a country far away. Poetry was big there. Books were published and bought, prizes won, and ‘poet’ was a title some people wore. It just happened to be the culture there, what people did. Something you grew into, something you shared to be part of the place.

    All of that is gone. Eaten by the mighty smartphone, which brought in the fungus that was feasting on the world but hadn’t found us.

    Poetry has found a refuge in music, and other forms of audiovisual culture. It’s a comfortable refuge, where it can survive for eons.

    I remember

    I had a home once
    A manor
    overlooking the sea
    Upon the world, this was a vestige
    Calling forward onto strangled ears
    But when the skies turned dark
    The house was taken by the sea
    A pillar truncated
    Cast down to the seabed with all the other forgotten things
    But I remember
    Fleeting shells sinking ever slowly
    Folding downwards, into themselves
    Forever tearing along the seams of the sky
    Until nothing remains except the eternal ghost
    And you ask yourself…
    Could there be anything greater than this?


  166. Lathechuck, Ciardi could have been a first-rate poet — his translation of Dante is quite good. The problem was that he was spoiled by the pervasive academicism of the circles he ran with. Bland, very bland.

    Temporaryreality, the gods help them who help themselves. Get started writing poetry, without waiting for inspiration, and it may show up unexpectedly!

    Chuaquin, thank you. That’s Rodney Matthews’ artwork, and it was the cover art for Nazareth’s 1979 album “No Mean City.” Matthews did a helluva lot of album covers, and some fantasy novels as well; I got calendars with his art on them in my late teens. His stuff was right up there with Roger Dean’s as fave artists for me in those days. Here’s another Matthews piece:

    Damn, those bring back memories.

    Other Owen, yep. Modern French consists almost entirely of a thousand years or so of fossilized slang.

    Andy, I heard about that, and chuckled. A little numeracy is helpful in dealing with this kind of thing.

    Jbucks, thanks for this.

    Njura, hmm! I didn’t happen to know that.

    Dr. Coyote, you’re most welcome.

    Mario, it’s pleasant to reflect on the fact that smartphones require resource and energy inputs that can’t be sustained indefinitely. Thank you for the poem.

  167. @John #66 re: The Dong with a Luminous Nose — Gothic nonsense for sure, it’s great! Lear often gives the subject of a poem an official title (“The Dong, The Yonggy Bonggy Bo, The Quangle Wangle) and we see them enveloped in tragedy. They make me laugh and cry at the same time–

    Wait ’til you get to this one;

    “Cold are the crabs that crawl on yonder hill,
    Colder the cucumbers that grow beneath
    And colder still the brazen chops that wreath
    The tedious gloom of philosophic pills!…
    Where buffaloes bewail the loss of soap
    Where frantic walruses in clouds elope,
    And early pipkins bid adiew to hope.”

    @Lathechuck #75
    They’re STOPPING the Style Invitational?? No, Noo, NOOOO!
    For years that was the only reason I read the Washington Post at all. Perhaps it will be reincarnated as an online blog– Don’t lose hope!

  168. JMG # 186: Matthews is great! Dinosaurs, cavemn (barbarian?) and flying saucers all in one! It’s fantastic…3 different mythologies together.

  169. Just one last comment: I think lines with three or four accented syllables come naturally to speakers of Germanic languages, including English. They are heard in nursery rhymes and other popular rhymes. Lines with five accented syllables, like the iambic pentameter of the sonnet, take a little more effort to write and even to speak. I do know that when I first read the Divine Comedy (and didn’t know Italian very well), I forced lines into a straitjacket of four accented syllables by mumbling the rest. Only later I discovered how much better the lines sounded with their natural sound pattern of iambic pentameter and a hiatus. So I think writing a sonnet takes more of an effort in English or German than in a Romance language. Of course, that is a good thing from the point of view of this week’s essay!

  170. John, your essay brought to mind a ten-year span during which I dabbled with renga, senryu and haiku. It was a fascinating time, and your words stir me with inspiration. I may well pick up that pen again!

  171. Hi John!

    You’ve mentioned modern rap as a form still in its infancy and composed off simple musical and lyrical forms. I think this may come from a passing familiarity with the most blandly crowd pleasing of the genre. To me, the form has approached its young adulthood in recent years.

    If you get the chance and inspiration to explore some novel musical territory, I’d highly recommend checking out To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar, the greatest rapper of this past generation. I think you may find yourself deeply surprised.

  172. My thanks to Australian Dreamer for bringing up the lexicon. I’m no poet, but when engaged in debate, the limited lexicon of “plain English” is such plain fare that I despair at trying to inculcate a new concept; boorish limitations and inaccurate conflations create an abyss of misunderstanding that hypnotically stares back into the eyes of the ignorant.

    It had not occurred to me how poetry can help push past the 10,000 words required to be considered fluent in a language, towards that noble goal of being erudite. Thank you, JMG, you have expanded the bounds of my ignorance!

  173. Thank you for your sincerity, and for your insightful comments. It is a great balm for me to read someone who can articulately express the concerns I feel about society. This webpage on “the poetics of possibility” might be of interest on the theme of good poetry:

  174. Dear JMG–this was in the NYT today–an MSM approach–perhaps nevertheless instructive– to publishing industry problems:
    Good morning. The book industry usually does well during the holiday season, but has faced a tumultuous year instead.

    A library in Tennessee.Nicole Craine for The New York Times
    Book bans are sweeping schools and libraries. A failed corporate acquisition resulted in an antitrust trial and an executive shake-up. Strife over low wages has sparked labor actions.

    This is a moment of upheaval for the book publishing industry, a multibillion-dollar business with extraordinary cultural power and influence in the United States.

    The industry is also facing other headwinds. After a boom in sales during the pandemic, some high-profile books underperformed this year. Michelle Obama’s most recent book, “The Light We Carry,” had less than one quarter of the first-week print sales of her 2018 memoir, “Becoming.” Publishers are worried that 2023 will be a bumpy year, with fears of a recession ahead.

    In today’s newsletter, I’ll explain three issues that are causing angst in the publishing industry: free speech, labor and corporate consolidation.

    Banning efforts
    Which books should children read? It’s a question that has sent parents complaining to meetings of school boards and public library councils in recent months.

    Many were mobilized by conservative groups who say they are defending the rights of parents. These organizations succeeded in persuading school boards and libraries to remove specific books, said my colleague Elizabeth A. Harris, who covers publishing.

    Their most frequent targets are books with plots on race or gender, or stories with L.G.B.T.Q. characters. They have even gone after books with acknowledged cultural and historical significance: In Tennessee, a county school board removed “Maus,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, and refused to reinstate it despite a national uproar.

    The efforts of these conservative groups have very real implications. For millions of American families, especially those with lower incomes, books are usually borrowed, rarely bought. If a book is not available in a school or library, children simply lose access to them.

    In some cities, parents and administrators have pushed back. A school board in Downers Grove, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, rejected calls recently to remove a memoir on gender identity from its libraries.

    But the conservative groups are becoming more organized and better funded, Elizabeth said. They have sophisticated operations in place on the state and local levels and show no sign of slowing their efforts.

    “It’s happening all over the place, and it’s very alarming for publishers and the larger book world,” she told me.

    Labor conflict
    Publishers are also facing opposition from within their own ranks. Employees have been restless and angry on the topics of both wages and diversity in a business that has historically doled out low pay to its editors, publicists, marketers and other workers, while requiring them to live in the astronomically expensive New York City area.

    A younger generation of employees is challenging the industry’s longstanding assumption that newcomers will work long hours for lower wages. They have begun demanding that executives build a more diverse work force, and raise its pay. A unionized group of HarperCollins employees went on strike in November, arguing that the minimum starting salary should be raised to $50,000, from $45,000.

    More than one month later, the strike hasn’t stopped HarperCollins from publishing books. But the action has gained support. Padma Lakshmi, the author and chef, hosted the National Book Awards last month with a union button on her dress that striking employees had given her outside the gala.

    Business fundamentals
    Back in 2013, I was covering the publishing industry during the merger of Penguin and Random House, a jaw-dropping move that created the most dominant book publisher in the world. A charming Random House executive, Markus Dohle, was tapped to lead the newly merged company as its C.E.O., and his rise in the industry seemed unstoppable.

    Much has changed since then. Dohle fought for the acquisition of Simon & Schuster, another major publisher. The Justice Department sued to stop the merger, arguing that it would have stifled competition and hurt authors. After a trial in August, a judge ruled in the government’s favor to block the deal, a blow to Dohle. He resigned this month as chief executive.

    Does this mean that consolidation, which has ruled the publishing industry for so long — and is a complaint of authors, who are left with fewer choices when they are looking to be published — will pause? Perhaps. Hachette and HarperCollins, two major publishers, have also expressed interest in buying Simon & Schuster.

    One outcome seems clear: Publishers are going to think carefully before they consider a merger that will come under government scrutiny. The Biden administration has demonstrated that it is not afraid of the challenge.

  175. This article reminds me of one of my all time favorite English poems (I am not a native English speaker) – Invictus, by Ernst Stanley Hemmingway. The poem has moved me like few things in my life, and I am ever grateful to him for cobbling together such blazing fire from just a few words.

  176. I believed I have erred in my previous comment on this post. Invictus was composed by William Ernest Henley, not Hemmingway. I have confused the names up.

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