Posts Tagged ‘Algernon Charles Swinburne


Poetry Assignments: The Book (Online): Forms: Obscure, Updated, & Invented


Brian Warner's The Cave

“The Cave” by Brian Warner. Used with the permission of Brain Warner.

or 100 Jackhammers for the Poet with Writer’s Block;

or 100 Ways to Jumpstart the Engine;

or 100 Pencil Exercises;

or 100 Ways to Stimulate Your Next Wine, Cheese, & Poetry Night


Table of Contents


  1. Finding the First, Discovering the Middle, & Chasing the End
  2. Imaginary Worlds
  3. Science, the Universe, Time, & Other Evolutions
  4. Fun with Letters, Words, Language, & Languages
  5. Forms: Obscure, Updated, & Invented
  6. New School; or Double Vision; or WWI (Writing While Intoxicated) & Its Repercussions
  7. Miscellany; Trying to Relate the Unrelated; or These Gotta Go Some Place . . . So Here
  8. Stupid Money, Dumb Politicians, & Celebrating America
  9. Responses; or Calling All Poets (Dead & Alive); or Talking to Eternity
  10. It’s All About You


Double Abecedarian

This one is kind of like an acrostic, but cooler.

Here’s how it works: The first letter of each should read A-Z down the left side, & then the last letter of each line should read Z-A down the right side.

Or, in the case of “Dead Critics Society” by Mike Dockins, Z-A down the left side, & A-Z down the right.

The additional challenge is to make it look like a box, i.e. to aim for similar line-lengths.

Also, it will probably be important to pick a subject matter that calls for such a form. In this case, you could say it’s a poem of arts & letters. . . . Because a poet would have to ask herself, “Why use this form? For what purpose?”

Mike says: “This poem was a sarcastic reaction to the notion that all poems are about death, or, worse yet, must be about death. F*** that. Note: the word ‘Zooks!’ is from a poem by Robert Browning. Enjoy!”

   Dead Critics Society

   Zooks! What have I done with my anthologies? I’ll need a
   year of sleep after writing my millionth review (with aplomb).
   XX bottles of moonshine litter my bedside table like arsenic.
   Why no lilting iambics in contemporary poetry? Only dead,
   vermin-ridden prose riddled with autobiographical treacle.
   Under my bed, the skeleton of Browning. I use his broken-off
   tibias as walking sticks. For hundreds of scenic miles I drag
   sensitivity, & marvel. Content must be pounded into a rich
   risotto of form – evident rhyme scheme & equal stanzas. I
   quote Keats: “Gasp! I am dying!” Were he as prosperous as J.
   P. Morgan, he may not have suffered so. These days, a black-
   out of good taste, a dimming of metrical etiquette, a dismal
   nerve of postmodern surrealism, whatever that means. I’m
   mad! I raise one of Browning’s femurs in revolt! I’ve a notion,
   ladies & gentlemen, that our language has crumbled into
   kindling – a few tiny sparks, maybe, but no thick log to keep
   joy in prosody truly alive. Meantime, I’m just about up to Q
   in my encyclopedia of verse: Quixote, etc., but still I gather
   hives hunting hopelessly for my beloved poetry anthologies.
   God knows Browning would have understood – what a saint.
   Five finger bones claw the floor under my bed, searching. You
   entertain such a relic, you pay the price – each knuckle a shiv
   digging for inspiration in the floorboards, scraping shallow
   crosses into my skin as I slumber. I should lock him in a box!
   But then nothing would remind me of my own bones – O my
   awaiting death – the only theme suitable for a poetry buzz.

This first appeared in The Atlanta Review and then on Verse Daily on August 10, 2006.

Look for other ones by Mike Dockins. “The Fun Uncle” in the Indiana Review (Winter 2004), “Zarathustra Paints Town” in jubilat (nine), & “Timbuktu” in New Zoo Poetry Review (January 2007).


The Clerihew

According to Jonathan Williams in his newest collection Jubilant Thicket: New & Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2005):

The clerihew was invented in 1890 by Edmund Clerihew Bentley, who was a schoolboy of sixteen at St. Paul’s in London when the divine numen of Orpheus struck him. His best one seems to me:

   The digestion of Milton
   Was unequal to Stilton

   He was only feeling so-so
   When he wrote Il Penseroso.

Later Williams’ continues:

Frances Stillman’s The Poet’s Manual and Rhyming Dictionary (1965) says this: “The clerihew is a humorous pseudo-biographical quatrain, rhymed as two couplets, with lines of uneven length, & often contains or implies a moral reflection of some kind. The name of the individual who is the subject of the quatrain usually supplies the first line.”

Here’s a couple of Williams’:

   Ezra Loomis Pound
   bought a lb

   of Idaho potatoes
   (the Hailey Comet always ate those).

   Hank D. Thoreau
   too seldom used eau

   de cologne,
   and always asked to live at Walden on his own

   Babe Ruth
   in all truth

   weren’t borned like you an’ me –
   he come down out of a tree.

   (Quoted poems by Jonathan Williams as they appear in Jubilant Thicket: New & Selected Poems 
   (Copper Canyon P, 2005)© are used with permission of Copper Canyon Press.)

Ok go have fun. And if you like intelligent fun poets, read Jonathan Williams.


“Double Sonnet for the Minimalist”

I think this was first created by Mona Van Duyn. I read about it in Emily Grosholz’s “Poetry and Science in America” in The Measured Word: On Poetry and Science, ed. Kurt Brown (University of Georgia Press, 2001). (The poems first appeared in Van Duyn’s Near Changes (Knopf, 1990).)

This sonnet has fourteen lines. It has the same construct as a sonnet with the meter & the rhymes & the volta & all. But this sonnet has dimeter lines. The lines tend to be iambic, but the base minimum is to have two stresses per line. After the first sonnet is made, a second sonnet is made in response. Hence, “Double Sonnet.” See Below:

   The spiral shell
   apes creamhorns of smog.
   Dalmation, quenelle
   or frosted hedgehog,
   yet is obsessed
   by a single thought
   that its inner guest
   is strictly taught.
   When the self that grew
   to follow its rule
   is gone, and it’s through,
   vacant, fanciful,

   its thought will find
   Fibonacci’s mind.

The response:

   That fragile slug,
   bloodless, unborn,
   till it knows the hug
   of love’s tutoring form,
   whose life, upstart
   in deep, is to learn
   to follow the art
   of turn and return,
   when dead, for the dense
   casts up no clue
   to the infinite sequence
   it submitted to.

   May its bright ghost reach
   the right heart’s beach.

   “The Spiral Shell” and “That Fragile Slug” from Near Changes by Mona Van Duyn, 
   copyright © 1990 by Mona Van Duyn. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, 
   a division of Random House, Inc.


Tit for Tat & All That

This makes me think of a sestina, but it is not.

Let’s say we have stanzas with six lines each. The first line ends with a word. The second line ends with the same word but with one letter changed. The third line’s end word has another letter changed. Etc. See Below from the second stanza of John Hollander’s poem “Getting from Here to There” in Figurehead: And Other Poems (Knopf, 2000):

   One hears such stories with one’s eyes unwet:
   She woke up one day and found that the Tet
   Offensive had left her widowed with a tot
   Who broke her heart as if it were a toy.
   Luck, having given her one so-so try,
   Wrung out her life and left her bones to dry.

   Lines from “Getting from Here to There” from Figurehead by John hooander, copyright © 1999 by John 
   Hollander. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.

Now I imagine one could add a letter, as the title of the assignment suggests, and I don’t believe all stanzas need be six lines either.

Hollander’s poem has six six-line stanzas, a seven-line stanza, an eight-line stanza, a twelve-line stanza, & a thirteen-line stanza.


Chain Link Poems

This will involve a series of poems, & the first one you use in the series may already have been written.

The last line of the first poem will become the first line of the second poem. The last line of the second poem will become the first line of the third poem, etc…. until you are done. I imagine the linking will create a continuity & forward momentum. A subtle tension might be created between the poems, as well.

For a real Joycean challenge, make the last line of the last poem be the first line of the first poem; thus creating a cyclical movement.

I got this idea from Beckian Fritz Goldberg’s “Lucifer’s Crown” in Never be the Horse (University of Akron Press, 1999). Hers, however, is a “Crown of Sonnets:” a series of seven sonnets that follow the above rules.


The Glosa

I got this idea from Eleanor Rand Wilner’s poem “Αντíο, Cassandra” from The Girl with Bees in Her Hair (Copper Canyon Press, 2004).

The Glosa is comprised of four ten-line stanzas & begins with a four-line epigraph. The first line of the epigraph becomes the last line of the first stanza, the second line of the epigraph becomes the last line of the second stanza, the third line of the epigraph becomes the last line of the third stanza, & the fourth & last line of the epigraph becomes the last line of the fourth stanza, thus the poem. Also lines three, seven, & ten of each stanza are to rhyme. (Some say lines six, nine, & ten of each stanza are to rhyme. I say rhyming is not necessary, but to try anyway.)

Wilner, however, did it her own thing to the form. (Hmm . . . see poetry assignment “Make It New,” below). As she says in her endnote, “Since I can’t write if I know how something ends, I opened each stanza with the quoted lines, and reversed the form.” That is, the first line of the line epigraph became the first line of stanza one, the second line of the epigraph became the first line of stanza two, the third line of the epigraph became the first line of stanza three, & the fourth line of the epigraph became the first line of stanza four.

(Quoted passage by Eleanor Rand Wilner as it appears in the “Notes” of The Girl with Bees in Her Hair (Copper Canyon Press, 2004)© is used with permission of Copper Canyon Press.)


Minute by Minute, Syllable by Syllable

I’m sure most of us saw this on Poetry Daily on December 11, 2004 [which is now inaccessible 😦 ].

The form is called the “minute,” & was “formulated by Verna Lee Hinegardner, former poet laureate of Arkansas.” It works like this:

“Poems in this form consist of sixty syllables in rhyming couplets with a syllabic line count of 8,4,4,4– 8,4,4,4– 8,4,4,4,” as explained by the description for Cathy Smith BowersA Book of Minutes (Iris Press, 2004).

More: “A Book of Minutes is structured like a Book of Hours, the medieval prayer book that was its age’s own version of today’s literary best-seller. The Book of Hours was arranged in sections corresponding to with the eight canonical hours of the day, beginning with Matins, moving all the way through to Vespers, and ending with Compline. A Book of Minutes retains the same eight sections, and is illustrated to suggest illumination.”


The Gerald Stern Experiment

On February 10, 2005, Gerald Stern was in Spokane, WA, visiting Eastern Washington University’s Creative Writing Program. At the Q&A, he shared with us poems from one of his recently released, but not well-known, books: Not God After All (Autumn House Press, 2004).

Each poem is what Stern called a “petite narrative” or an “aphorism,” & he explained that each aphorism is composed of two lines of seven syllables each. I did not hear a connection between the poems, but I suspect they are connected in his mind associatively. In that regard, to me, from what I heard from what he read, they resemble the Sutras one uses to help remember The Upanishads.

Here a couple examples of Stern’s petite narratives.

   It’s not God after all,
   It’s the Chase Manhattan Bank.

   A fire I understand,
   but how do you make a flood?

   Don’t make God come too fast,
   be a bastard a while longer.

   (The Gerald Stern poems are from Not God After All copyright 2004 by Gerald Stern. 
   Reprinted by permission of the author and Autumn House Press.)

As part of the assignment, I am suggesting you just sit & write a bunch of these without being consciously involved except for the counting. Write & count. Write & count. Write & give me twenty!


Addonizio & the Sonnenizio; or Love is Hell for Fucci

In Kim Addonizio’s latest collection of poems What Is this Thing Called Love (Norton, 2004) (which is a solid book, by the way), there is a form poem I have never come across called a sonnenizio, & I would like to share Addonizio’s discovery with everyone as the next poetry assignment.

Addonizio has a footnote explaining the form:

note: The Sonnenizio was invented in Florence in the thirteenth century by Vanni Fucci as an irreverent form whose subject was usually the impossibility of everlasting love. Dante retaliated by putting Fucci into the seventh chasm of the Inferno as a thief. Originally composed of hendecasyllabics, the sonnenizio gradually moved away from metrical constraints and began to tackle a wider variety of subject matter. The sonnenizio is fourteen lines long. It opens with a line from someone else’s sonnet, repeats a word from that line in each succeeding line of the poem, and closes with a rhymed couplet.

It seems this form has the feel, or sensibilities, of a sonnet meets a sestina. And it seems like some cadence or rhythm will or can be built upon this repeated word, too. Also, it seems a slight variation on the word is a good idea so that the reader’s ears aren’t then just wafting to hear the repeated word. Make surprises as Addonizio & her poem do in:

Sonnenizio on a Line from Drayton

Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part;
or kiss anyway, let’s start with that, with the kissing part,
because it’s better than the parting part, isn’t it –
we’re good at kissing, we like how that part goes:
we part our lips, our mouths get near and nearer,
then we’re close, my breasts, your chest, our bodies partway
to making love, so we might as well, part of me thinks –
the wrong part, I know, the bad part, but still
let’s pretend we’re at that party where we met
and scandalized everyone, remember that part? Hold me
like that again, unbutton my shirt, part of you
wants to I can tell, I’m touching that part and it says
yes, the ardent partisan, let it win you over,
it’s hopeless, come, we’ll kiss and part forever.

   “Sonnenizio On a Line From Drayton” and the “note”, from What is This Thing Called Love: Poems by Kim 
   Addonizio. Copyright© 2004 by Kim Addonizio. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.


The Helen Humphreys’ Experiment

At Helen Humphreys’ reading on October 5th, 2005, at The Writers Forum at SUNY Brockport, Humphreys read a Sylvia Plath poem. She then read one of her poems, but this poem used all the words in the Plath poem she had just read – she just rearranged the order of the words to make a new poem. Humphreys said she does this because in her own poems she finds she often uses the same words in her poems. This experiment then allows her to break free of her word-choice confines.

The name of the poem she read I can’t recall, but it appears in Anthem (Brick Books, 1999).

Ok. Go & play in this new form; or, go in new & form this play.


Erasure Poems

Mary Ruefle has come up with a new way to compose poems & to make a new art form, or at least new to me. In her newest book, A Little White Shadow (Wave Books, 2006), there are a collection of poems arrived at from a larger book with the same name. What Ruefle has done is to use a page of text from the larger book & then white out/paint out words to leave only a few words to make a poem.

What is interesting to me about these poems is that they involve active reading. Your eyes have to move around the page, which creates for extended line breaks, & it affects the breath. Not to mention the spaces between words that are on the same line – it’s a type of projective verse. Plus, if you get the book, you will also see textures from the white out/paint, not to mention how the aged, faded brown pages play with the lively, contemporary bright white paint. Here are two examples that are used with permission from Wave Books.

Mary Ruefle Page 9

Mary Ruefle “the dead” (page 9).


Mary Ruefle Page 28

Mary Ruefle “a heart” (page 28).

I’m not sure of the process behind this, but I imagine it is more than just saving words. I imagine you have to consider how it will look when complete, how to breathe & read your way through the final piece, & what the poem will actually be. [Ten years later, I realize/learn the erasure poem needs to have a conversation with the original text. But you can’t just use any text, as some poets do. No, you need a significant text, and then by erasing words, you find something like a secret meaning to the poem or text your are erasing from or “discover something like poetry hidden within [a] book.” John Cage did this with Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, but he added a twist. With the unerased words, he made an anagram: ALLEN GINSBERG. (See Perloff’s essay for the example.) Also see more here:]

Your assignment is to do this. Your assignment is to go to a used bookstore, buy a book, & try this out. I suggest first starting with Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man or H. G. Wells’ The Invisible Man. Until then you can visit this page & practice online:

(The Mary Ruefle poems “the dead” and “a heart” as they appear in A Little White Shadow (Wave Books, 2006. Copyright 2006 by Mary Ruefle.) are used with permission of Wave Books. Please visit their website at:


Make It New

I got this idea from Swinburne & Pound & James Wright. Sappho wrote her poems in a quantitative metric now called Sapphics. With ‘-’ representing a long syllable & ‘u’ a short syllable, it went like this:

   -u- -- uu- u --
   -u- -- uu- u --
   -u- -- uu- u --
         -u u--

Or, three hendecasyllabic lines & one adonic line. There also tends to be a caesura after the fifth syllable, and the fourth syllable in lines 1-3 is often free.

Swinburne then came around & realized quantity doesn’t work as good in English as it does in Greek, so in his poem “Sapphics,” he wrote in a qualitative meter, but with the same pattern as Sappho – but using a stressed syllable in place of a long syllable and an unstressed syllable in place of a short syllable.

Pound then came along & dabbled in Sapphics in “Apparuit,” where he tends to use both qualitative & quantitative meters simultaneously. But in the poem “The Return,” the meter is strictly quantitative, however! he hides the form by varying the line & stanza lengths. The meter is there, it is just camouflaged & jumbled.

James Wright then came along & said enough. He Americanized it in “Erinna to Sappho.” He used a qualitative meter more fitting to American rhythms, while keeping the spirit of Sappho’s meter.

Wright’s form is three lines of iambic tetrameter & one line of iambic dimeter. To scan it with “/” as stress & “u” as unstressed:


Ok. Make sense? Now go find a form & contemporize it!


Make it New (Number Two); or Make it American; or Repackaging – Making the Same Product Seem New & Improved

This is a variation of “Poetry Assignment: Make it New.” It arose from the following rapid-fire correspondence between Rob Carney & me, using three different email addresses. Here’s how much of the correspondence went:

Tom (from email address #1) [responding to a particular haiku in a series of Haiku and Tanka Rob sent him]: [. . .] “coming” in “coming in the wind” seems the wrong word to me. It sounds way too sexual, for some reason, and it just seems the wrong verb with the movement of snow. [. . .]

Rob (to Tom’s email address #2): yeah, I want a different verb for the snow in the soon-arriving future but arriving has 3! syllables! – fucking Japanese forms . . . the Japanese have one-syllable words for words like cascading or disappear or animal, they gotta, or how can they fit stuff into these shot-glasses?

Tom (from email address #2): Why not put a James Wrightian, Americana spin on the poem. 4-8-4 in iambs?

I say James Wright, not because he Americanized Haiku, but because he Americanized Sapphics. And you could do the same with Haiku.

Tom (from email address #1):

   A New York State of Mind

   The snow cascades
   in spring amid the yawping geese –
   rotate the tires.

4-8-4 in iambs (with an allusion to Whitman).

Aha! A new poetry assignment. Shit. This will be posted in 10 minutes.

Rob (to Tom’s email address #1): Dig it. Funnyclevercool.

[. . .]

Rob (later to Tom’s email address #1): Yes, of course. That’s fine. Oh, and I love that “rotate” doesn’t just command/resign to rotate/rotating the tires and also do an imagery thing BUT ALSO THIS: precedents were all iambs, then this first words actually, by going trochee on stuff, enacts the word “rotate”.

[. . .]

Rob (even later to Tom’s email address #1 and regarding the new poetry assignment):    [. . .] bonus points for ironic tone rather than reverence for Nature? or bonus points for making it funny too, a beautiful joke rather than a Zen koan like so many in Japanese are, meaning humor rather than riddle. Or bonus points for making great use of enjambment or fitting use of syncopation? [. . .]

Ok. There you go. Americanize the Haiku. Four syllables / eight syllables / four syllables in iambs, plus ironic tone &/or humor &/or great enjambments &/or syncopation.


Concrete Poetry; or Gaudier-Brzeska with the Line; or Watch Out for that Stinger

The shape of a poem on the page is indeed a worthy consideration when writing a poem. For me, for instance, I will write a poem with pencil & paper, & I will write it over & over with all the revising until I think it is done. Then I type it into Word. I then stare at it. Fix the shape better so it works better with the content. (It’s so nice to have that uniform spacing, unlike my random scrunching & expanding scribblings with my pencil.) Then when I think it is done, I print it. And then revise some, & sculpt the shape some more. Then back to the screen. Then to printed copy, etc. until I think, or the poem tells me, it is done.

The shapes of my poems, good or bad, tend to be rectangular. But there are others who have sculpted lines to represent the shape of the object of the poem. As far as I know, the first person to do this was George Herbert, with poems like “The Altar” (where the shape of the poem looks like an altar) & “Easter Wings” (where the shape of the poem, when turned ninety degrees, looks like a butterfly). The concrete poem then had a resurgence in the 1950s & 1960s. And then recently in William Heyen’s poem “Scorpions,” which appears in The Rope (MAMMOTH Books, 2003). The poem is below.

William Heyen "Scorpions"

(William Heyen’s “Scorpion” is used with permission of the author and MAMMOTH Books.)


In this poem, the reading of the poem imitates the viewing of a scorpion. You look upon the scorpion’s body, then curl up his tail, then drop off the stinger, then back to his body & legs. So the poem, has the second line as the body (the first line read), the first line as the stinger (the second line read), & then the third line the feet (the third line read). And the stinger-line dangles with one word, just like the stinger dangles. The poem snaps your head around as a scorpion would snap its tail. Heyen has another concrete poem, “Wishbone Hull Requiem,” that appears in The Rope.

I think this assignment is a good investigation, or reinvestigation, into the study of the line & line breaks. I think it will make us turn our head & ears just enough to reconsider how the line can act, breathe, perform, seduce, & mimic. I think it will also make us consider & re-consider how the sculpted shape of the poem can contribute in new ways.

Ok. Go forth!


Ghazals, Gazelles, & Jezebels; or Distracted from Distraction by Distraction

Ok, I’ve been reading a lot of Robert Bly, lately. The Night Abraham Called to the Stars & My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy. He’s writing Ghazals, and I’m staring at them. I’m noticing each stanza stands on its own, yet relates to the preceding stanza & the following stanza. And I notice each poem is complete, whole, despite the discreteness (though not really discrete). I stare again differently, but away from his poems & towards my generation of poets. I think, “This is a good form for my generation of poets. We are so easily distracted yet able to keep it whole. (Keep it real.) The sum of the distracted parts is greater than the whole” (with apologies to Creeley).

So, why not make this our generation’s form of poems. Our generation being 25-40. Born in 1966 (yea, you know the associations of that year & time period) to born in 1981 (when Regan became president). Why not make stanzas that are about one thing, then make the distracted associative leaps. Then at the end of the poem pull that draw string & yoke the poem into wholeness. Let’s call it Garbage Bag Ghazals. A place where we empty our thoughts, pull the draw string to close it up & contain it, haul it over our shoulder, walk it to the dumpster, hurl it into the dumpster, watch it explode on impact, & see what results. Watch the associations scatter & combine.

Let’s connect our distractions. Let’s write Garbage Bag Ghazals.

Oh, & to make it more interesting, let’s focus some of these poems on “grief.” I add this because, Bly says we (Americans) don’t know how to deal with grief, & because I’m not sure if I even know what grief is (other than “Good Grief,” ala Charlie Brown). I know sadness. I know burden. I know heaviness. I know sorrow. But I don’t think I know grief. Do you?

And now for a wonderful response to the assignment.

   Optic Nerve

   So the task swivels: look with your word-eye,
   keep a bright light on, see through the word eye. 

   On the bone planet, night time warps. Spooks morph
   delusional, bobbling a tight, weird eye. 

   At the rim shattered, junk started, speeding
   the labyrinth city – one hot-wired eye. 

   Air here so thin. Your chest wrenched by what
   can or cannot be cranks wide the worried eye. 

   Heed: ropes, riddled grapes, pikes. Drag your feet
   to the crossroads. Stamp out the wayward eye. 

   Afterburn. Blue mortar blast. Dying. Kin
   in the sights. Does it heal, the skewered eye? 

   Guts on hold, it shrinks, gelatinous; alights
   anywhere but here, that coward eye. 

   Ambling, misproportioned, poorly tethered
   from its mate; must we love the awkward eye? 

   Acid wash. A flaying grief. Tears just scratch
   the surface, grate salt on the raw red eye. 

   Hot tempered Damascus. Zealous blood gut-
   ters up the hilt. Quick! Unhorse that sword eye! 

   They give reasons. Justify. Explain. Not
   quell. Is it satisfied, our answered eye? 

   Though well-oiled; galvanized; springy; his stripes
   soft in the breeze; resist the bedward eye. 

   Tabloid: Dear Abby, What have we done? What
   do we do now? Yours, true, The Inward Eye.

   (Used with the permission of Abby Millager.)

By Abby Millager. (5-18-06, or so)


The Coop de Gras Experiment

[This one is brought to us by Linda Cooper! and used with her permission.]

Write six ten-line poems with no repeat nouns. Include internal rhymes within lines nine & ten. Do not think about content while writing the little vignettes. Afterward, look for a common theme & bring it to life! (Revise away the form if it doesn’t serve the poem). Go Forth!!


The Switchback Poem

This is probably a new poem form!

While hiking in the Olympic National Park near the Heart O’ the Hills on “Switchback Trail,” which leads to the Lake Angeles Trail & the Klahhane Ridge & overlooks Port Angeles & British Columbia at the top, I noticed something on the way down. I noticed that my thoughts, when not diverted by throbbing thighs, were toward one thing – a dorsal-finned mountain, & then on the switchback, my thoughts turned toward another thing – two blackbirds flying, who at certain angles reflected white or red – & as I kept going down my thoughts went back & forth between the fin & the birds depending on the direction I was facing on “The Switchback Trail.”

The assignment is to write a poem which follows the movement of a switchback trail.

Write a poem that starts in one direction & then turns in another. That is, start off in direction A, for instance, & then change to direction B, & then to direction A & back to direction B & on & on. But only two thoughts can be had. Two thoughts that share no associations.

You could combine two unsuccessful poems for this assignment.

Here’s the form: I imagine each direction, switchback, should be a stanza long (as a line would be too abrupt). I imagine each stanza should be about the same length, but of course, variances will be had based on thoughts & because the switchback trail had switchbacks that tended to be of similar length but at times also varied in length. The length between two adjacent stanzas, however, should be of similar lengths (for instance, one stanza could be five lines & the next stanza six lines & the next five & the next four). In addition, the length of stanza one could be completely different than the last stanza if enough subtle movements are achieved. For example, stanza one could be three lines, but by the time the last stanza is reached & some clever writing is had, the last stanza could be ten lines.

Ok. I hope you get the idea.

Also, if your two thoughts come to a conclusion, if associations are finally achieved between the two disparate thoughts, then great. If not, then you had a helluva hike!

a: The Cigarette Cough of the Just Poet; or Joseph K Writes a Poem; or the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE / the HEART, by way of the DRAG, to the LINE (with apologies to Charles Olson); or Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em

I was thinking about Creeley (who according to Olson in the essay (“Projective Verse,” which contains “the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE / the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE”) said, “FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT”).

As I was saying, I was thinking about Creeley. I was thinking about his poems – their pace. I was remembering that back in ’93/’94 I was reading Creeley & smoking cigarettes. I was remembering that I would take a drag of a cigarette & read a poem & then exhale. I was remembering what I was thinking while reading Creeley: “Creeley must have been a smoker. That his poems, the length of the poem, coincide with the drag of a cigarette.”

Thus, this assignment. Write a poem that lasts the length of a drag of a cigarette. A poem that commences after the inhale & ends with the exhale.

And then write a series of poems that can be read to one cigarette. I don’t even know how many drags that is. Five, ten, twelve, twenty? Wait. . . . puff . . . puff . . . puff . . . puff . . . puff . . . puff . . . puff . . . puff . . . puff . . . puff . . . puff . . . puff . . . pufff. Ok. I get thirteen. Hm. So now you got to work the moon into the series, too. Thirteen moon phases in a year, right?

b: Unanswerable Questions; or What’s at the Edge of the Universe?; or What’s the Last Digit of Pi?; or How Does Venus de Milo Hitchhike?; or . . .

After writing that, I couldn’t help but think of a lollipop commercial from the late 70s. So, now you gotta write a poem that lasts as long as a Tootsie Pop “How many lick does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop” will be theme to that poem. Work an owl into the poem, too.




Poetry Assignments: The Book (Online): Science, the Universe, Time, & Other Evolutions


Brian Warner's The Cave

“The Cave” by Brian Warner. Used with the permission of Brain Warner.

or 100 Jackhammers for the Poet with Writer’s Block;

or 100 Ways to Jumpstart the Engine;

or 100 Pencil Exercises;

or 100 Ways to Stimulate Your Next Wine, Cheese, & Poetry Night


Table of Contents


  1. Finding the First, Discovering the Middle, & Chasing the End
  2. Imaginary Worlds
  3. Science, the Universe, Time, & Other Evolutions
  4. Fun with Letters, Words, Language, & Languages
  5. Forms: Obscure, Updated, & Invented
  6. New School; or Double Vision; or WWI (Writing While Intoxicated) & Its Repercussions
  7. Miscellany; Trying to Relate the Unrelated; or These Gotta Go Some Place . . . So Here
  8. Stupid Money, Dumb Politicians, & Celebrating America
  9. Responses; or Calling All Poets (Dead & Alive); or Talking to Eternity
  10. It’s All About You


Science, the Universe, Time, & Other Evolutions

Break on Through to the Other Side; or T+3, T+2, T+1, T=0, T-1, T-2, T-3, . . . T-2006 AD; or The Big Crunch as Big Bang in Reverse; or Neo Takes the Red Pill of Negative Eternity

Recently, some physicists have provided a mathematical model that suggests there was a time before the Big Bang, which seems contrary to reason, as how could time exist in a state of no space or motion? Hmm. But by staring through the lenses of Loop Quantum Gravity (what’s that? Quantum Gravity is a model physicists use to try & combine the predictions & theories of General Relativity (gravity) with the predictions & theories quantum physics (the sub-atomic world where gravity doesn’t seem to apply), & Loop Quantum Gravity, as far as can tell, is similar to Quantum Gravity but with more subtleties, or specifics).

According to the calculations of Tomasz Pawlowski & Parmpreet Singh, there is another universe on a timeline preceding the Big Bang, & this universe is similar to ours.

But what is before the Big Bang? Is a god gathering her paints, paint brushes, a canvas, & a palette? Is that universe a mirror image of ours, but maybe where the laws of thermodynamics are in reverse – things move towards order (the broken coffee mug on the floor flies up on to the table & becomes a solid mug holding coffee, which gets hotter as time progresses, or regresses as the case may be)? Or is it just part of the flux/breathing of the universe – expand, contract, expand, contract, Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva? Is there a white rabbit running around, singing “I’m early, I’m early, I’m early, for an unimportant date”? What, I ask, is on the other side?

Go explore. Go down the hole. Take Morpheus’s red pill & see how far the rabbit hole goes, I mean, how far the other universe goes.

For more information, google: Probing Question: What Happened Before the Big Bang?

“Remember . . . all I am offering is the truth, nothing more.”


Before the Beginning of Years; or Ylem – the Cointreau of a Cosmospolitan

We are going to write a poem about the beginning of it all, or shortly thereafter. This assignment is inspired by the cover picture of the wonderful book: Genesis of the Big Bang (Oxford University Press, 2001) by Ralph Alpher & Robert Herman.

Photomantage of R. A. Alpher, G. Gamow, and R. Herman, 1949

In the picture: Robert Herman (holding a “wired programming plugboard for an IBM CPC computer at IBM’s Watson Laboratory)” is left, Ralph Alpher is right, and George Gamow is in the middle (he’s not the bottle of Cointreau). Alpher took the photo of Herman holding a wired programming plugboard for an IBM CPC computer at IBM’s Watson Laboratory. The photo of Alpher was taken by Newsweek, but never used. Gamow’s photo came froma security badge at the Applied Physics Laboratory, Johns Hopkins University. “Photomantage of R. A. Alpher, G. Gamow, and R. Herman, 1949” from Genesis of the Big Bang, copyright 2001. Used by permission of Oxford University Press.

The poem you will compose will thus incorporate Ylem & Cointreau. (“Ylem” is pronounced: ī ’ lum). Its definition is below:

Ylem: [n] (cosmology) the original matter that (according to the big bang theory) existed before the formation of the chemical elements.

  • The word used by George Gamow & his collaborators for the primordial material of the Big Bang. In most of his work, Gamow assumed that the ylem consisted entirely of neutrons. In inflationary cosmology, the role of the ylem is played by the false vacuum.
  • Primordial state of matter – neutrons & their decay products (protons & electrons) – before the Big Bang. The term was taken from Aristotle & used for the α-β-γ (Alpher-Bethe-Gamow) theory.
  • This view of an expanding universe seemed to fit beautifully with the concepts envisaged by the Russian physicist Alexander Friedman & G. Lemaitre (a Belgian Jesuit priest) around 1920 & later by George Gamow, where at the beginning of time, the Universe began its existence as an extremely hot & dense concentration of matter. Gamow named the substance ylem from Aristotle’s basic stuff from which all matter was derived. It would later become known as the primordial nuclear soup.
  • Etymology: Middle English, universal matter, from Old French ilem, from Medieval Latin hylem [where the y is long], accusative of hylē [where the y is long], matter from Greek hulē.

There will also be a structure to this poem. The first line of the poem will be one syllable. Each line thereafter will slowly grow in length but not exceed twelve syllables. If you take a liking to Alan Guth’s “inflationary model” of the standard Big Bang model, then your second or third line should have a big jump in its number of syllables, but should not exceed nine syllables.

The last line of the poem has three possible endings.

  1. Should you think the universe will grow to a certain size & then shrink into the Big Crunch, then the last line of the poem must be one syllable.
  2. Should you think the universe will grow indefinitely & without end, then the last line of the poem must be the longest line of the poem.
  3. Should you think the universe will grow to a certain size & not grow anymore, then the last line should be as long as the longest line in the poem, but the last line cannot by itself be the longest.

Also, if you can get a keyboard into the poem, or Aristotle, or alpha, beta, & gamma, then kick ass!

By the way, the first title of this assignment was taken from the first line of a “Chorus” in Algernon Charles Swinburne’s “Atalanta in Calydon,” which can be found in this new & best edition of selected Swinburne poems: Swinburne: The Major Poems and Selected Prose, eds. Jerome McGann & Charles L. Sligh. (Yale University Press, 2004).


Irony & the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, or the Cat’s Revenge

Erwin Schrödinger tried to help his students & us understand the uncertainty principle through a model of a cat in a box, a vial of poison, a hammer, & a random element that may or may not trigger the hammer to break the vial & kill the cat in the box. As observers who cannot see into the box, the observers can never know if the element has triggered the hammer & thus led to the cat’s demise. As a result, & in relation to the uncertainty principle, the cat is either dead or alive, or both . . . or not even in the box!

With that in mind, let us envision Erwin Schrödinger’s funeral. Let us envision him inside the casket & whether his casket was left open or closed at the viewings & such.


Quarks & Sestinas

For Greg Glazner

It’s actually kinda silly, but to me it seems natural, though I imagine quite difficult.

There are six types of quarks: up, down, top, bottom, strange, & charm. Those quarks, especially, two of them, help to make up a lot of matter in this universe (& some others, I suppose). As these quarks are constructs, & because sestinas are constructed upon six words, the connection seems obvious to me & a worthy challenge. “Up,” “down,” “top,” “bottom,” “strange,” & “charm” will be the end words for a sestina.

The idea comes from this sentence: “Well, now there are six quarks, and they bear the names up, down, top, bottom, strange, and charm, end words to some quantum sestina” (M. L. Williams, “Knowers and Makers,” The Measured Word: On Poetry and Science.  ed. Kurt Brown. University of Georgia P, 2001. P 17). It is a wonderful book, & I highly recommended it.


The Other Evolution; or The Man with Two Hearts: The Continuing Adventures of Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr – a New Movie for Steve Martin; or Lub Lub Dub Dub

It occurred to me evolution should have given us an extra heart, a back up heart, a just-in-case-one-heart-stops-working heart. Then it occurred to me to wonder what it would be like to have two hearts. How would symbolism, especially toward love, change? How would love change? How would humanity change? How would music change?

Your assignment is to create a new world of humans, where each human has two hearts. You are to explore love, music, humanity, & everything else the imagination can discover in regards to that world. This should surely produce many poems, or an epic poem.

Explore form, too. Should you use quatrains? Should you use couplets? If rhyming, how would rhyme schemes change with two hearts? How would metrics change? Should your lines have two iambs each? Will the new heart beats affect the way the line breathes? etc. etc. etc.

Go forth! Love twice as much!!

Me & My Clone, or How to Raise Myself My Way

This one was inspired by D.A. Feinfeld’s poem “Cloning,” which appears in Rodin’s Eyes (Fithian Press, 2004).

The idea of this assignment is to pretend that you have cloned yourself, that you or your wife give birth to the clone, & that you have to raise your clone from its birth into childhood & beyond.

The Hands of Time; Like Grains of Sand in an Hour Glass; or Redefining Time

So you have just created new constellations (which a few people still use to measure time). Now our assignment is to make new metaphors of how we measure time, or define the movement of time.

That is, hourglasses are hardly used anymore, clocks with minute hands & hour hands & second hands are starting to become extinct. The “tick tock tick tock” of a clock is becoming an echo of previous centuries. And the “tick tick tick” of a stop watch or a time-bomb is also disappearing. (After the time units wind down to 0:00.00, only the bomb’s ka-boom remains as affirmation that time did indeed move & was heard.)

The clocks that are starting to gain dominance are silent in their LED & digital displays. Thus, we need new metaphors of how we measure & see time in our new clock era.

One idea for this – how will the heart beat be heard? How will it be measured without a ticking clock? Or rather, to what will the heart beat be compared to? Has the heart, as a result of silenced clocks, also grown silent?

Is the precision of a Swiss watch now in the silence & invisibility of an atomic clock? . . .

Oh, the metaphors seem as endless as my monthly bills!

Make haste. Go make time!


Getting to Know Our Solar System

I am currently (3-28-04 at 10:24 p.m. PST) listening to Gustav Holst’s The Planets (as done by John Eliot Gardiner & the Philharmonia Orchestra), & it is comprised of seven pieces/movements. Each piece is like the personality of each planet, & with their mythic undertones. (There are no movements for Earth nor for Pluto.)

And now that we recently discovered a tenth planet in our solar system (the discovery was made by Dr. Michael Brown, associate professor of planetary astronomy at the California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena), or rather the “discovery of the most distant object ever detected orbiting the Sun,” it seems appropriate that we try to write a poem for each planet. (A neat little chap book could be had). Oh, the new object has been named Sedna after the Inuit goddess of the ocean.

Some more information to help you with the new planet: The body is believed to be about 1,250 miles across, but may even be larger than the furthest known planet, Pluto, which is 1,406 miles across & was discovered in 1930.

Scientists believe it is 6.2 billion miles from Earth in a region of space known as the Kuiper Belt, which contains hundreds of other known bodies.

Whether the new discovery can actually be called a planet is likely to be debated by astro-physicists for months or even years to come.

(9-1-06 addendum): Well, the debate is over. Neither Sedna nor Pluto are considered planets, but don’t let that stop you from doing this assignment. Also, Holst must have been a visionary genius to realize Pluto is not a planet.



Swinburne, Four Syllables, and Learning to Listen to Write

The prompt for this essay was to write a 10-15 page paper about poems, stories, or novels that influenced my writing. Below is my response.


Algernon Charles Swinburne

“Algernon Charles Swinburne” by painting George Frederic Watts 1867.

As I thought about what poems changed my work or writing, I had to ask myself in what capacity. In the capacity of expressing myself? in the capacity of using images? being concrete and clear? in the capacity of using the line? in using etymologies? in sounds? etc. Many poems of course came to mind, such as John Donne’s Holy Sonnet #10, Edmund Spenser’s “One day I wrote her name upon the strand,” Gerard Manley Hopkins “The Windhover,” W. S. Merwin’s “The Mountain,” “The Unwritten,” “For the Anniversary of My Death,” and “The Last One.” Two essays also came to mind: Ezra Pound’s “A Retrospect,” which was really the start of everything for me, and Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse.” There were so many choices, but the more I thought about it the more I kept dwelling on Algernon Charles Swinburne and one of his poems. In fact, it was really just four syllables in this poem that I kept turning to for ten years during the 1990s. I believe these four syllables changed my writing more than any other poem. As a result, I will show how this happened and what I learned. In essence, I will show the growth of how my ears learned to listen. As a result, much of what follows will probably be common knowledge to anyone who’s been writing poems for some time, but it is still a sketch of how I learned prosody, or invented my own prosody.

I was introduced to Swinburne by way of Ezra Pound’s “Swinburne and His Biographers.” In this essay, Pound says:

Swinburne recognized poetry as an art, and as an art of verbal music. [. . .] No man who cares for his art can be deaf to the rhythms of Swinburne, deaf to their splendor, deaf also to their bathos. [. . . ] The rhythm-building faculty was in Swinburne, and was perhaps the chief part of his genius. (292-93)

Before I found my way to that essay and to Swinburne, I had been living in and practicing Pound’s advice in “A Retrospect.” You are probably familiar with the three principles (“Direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective;” “To use no word that does not contribute to the presentation;” and “to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of the metronome”) as well as the motto “Go in fear of abstractions.” In the “Rhythm and Rhyme” section of the essay, Pound also points out:

Let him dissect the lyrics of Goethe coldly into their component sound values, syllables long and short, stressed and unstressed, into vowels and consonants.

It is not necessary that a poem should rely on its music, but if it does rely on its music that music must be such as will delight the expert. (5)

As a young writer, I of course wanted to “delight the expert,” as well as everybody else. However, I didn’t know how. Nor did I know what long and short syllables were. I only knew stressed and unstressed syllables, and not very well. And then, as I mentioned, I met Swinburne, and he, and especially one of his poems, drastically informed and changed how I wrote poems during the 1990s.

Swinburne’s poems will force anyone to hear stressed and unstressed syllables. One really can’t “be deaf to the rhythms of Swinburne.” It’s unavoidable. It’s with him my decade-long research into meters (qualitative and quantitative) and forms began. Swinburne wrote in so many meters and forms, I felt required to do the same. I especially loved Sapphic meters, and he has two Sapphic-metered poems, but they are done with qualitative meters instead of quantitative meters. However, I didn’t know this yet. All I knew was to listen.

And so I listened to Swinburne and other poets and my own poems. It was a long training process, but the poem that may have taught me more about meter and rhythm and influenced my own writing is one of the chorus sections from his Greek-like play in verse Atalanta in Calydon. The chorus opens:

Before the Beginning of Years

And it continues for 46 more lines in a bouncy rhythm. The backbeat of the poem is iamb, anapest, and anapest, which Swinburne will play off of throughout the poem. However, there’s much more going on than that. Here’s a typical scansion of the opening line:

Before the Beginning of Years - Simple Scan

In this scansion, I use “u” to indicate an unstressed syllable and “/” to indicate a stressed syllable. That scansion is absolutely correct, or is it? There’s something more complicated going on in that first syllable. I didn’t realize it the first few times I read it, but eventually, sometime later, I heard it different.

I read the opening line over and over again. I read it loud, soft, fast, and slow to try and figure out what was happening with that first syllable. While the “be” in “before” is unstressed, it certainly has more stress than “the.” “How can that be?” I asked myself. I discovered a number of reasons for this.

Edmund SpenserThe first reason was breath. “Be” is the first syllable of the poem, as a result it receives the first exhale from the speaker’s mouth. It receives initial breath, which is more powerful than subsequent breaths in a poem, at least when it pertains to unstressed syllables. When reading a poem aloud, one can’t help but to burst into the poem on the opening syllable, even if it’s just a small burst. The breathing takes time to regulate, usually a syllable or two or three. What I learned from this is that the opening syllable to a poem can’t really be unstressed. Actually, where I first realized that the opening breath adds stress to an unstressed syllable was in the opening line of Edmund Spenser’s “Sonnet 75,” which begins, “One day I wrote her name upon the strand.” The “one,” while correctly scanned as an unstressed syllable, is more of a semi-stressed syllable. I read Spenser’s poem again and again, I compared “One” to “u” in “upon” and to “the,” which are obviously unstressed syllables, I thought about it, and then applied what I learned to Swinburne’s chorus. It held true there. It held true with many other poems, too. It held true with the poems I wrote. What I learned is that the opening syllable will almost always have a little more stress than the same syllable later in the poem, unless there is a deliberate metrical play being facilitated by the poet. This semi-stressed syllable realization while important was still not fully developed, especially in me and my poetry.

The idea that there was the special syllable intrigued me. I had assumed there were either stressed or unstressed syllables and nothing else. This is all I ever read in books or was taught. Even in the dictionary, there are only stressed and unstressed syllables, and the “Be” in “Before” is unstressed. But here’s a third syllable that is neither. “Is it just an aberration? Is it only true of opening syllables?” I asked myself. I eventually found two answers. The first was realizing that stressed and unstressed syllables are not absolute. They are relational, as hinted at before with the “u” in “upon” and the “the” in Spenser’s poem. While “be” in “before” will usually be unstressed, its unstress comes in relation to the other syllables around it. Since the “be” in “before” is always surrounded by the stressed “fore,” it will almost always sound unstressed. Still, it is more stressed than the “the” later in the Swinburne line. In fact, articles are almost always unstressed, especially when it follows the stressed “fore.” The next unstressed syllable that follows the unstressed “the” is also “be,” but this time in the word “beginning.” This “be” is also considered an unstressed syllable because of where it is in relation to the stressed “gin.” But when I listened closely, I heard it being more stressed than the preceding “the.” I didn’t hear the “be” in “beginning” as stressed or unstressed. It was in between. This time, however, it wasn’t because of initial expulsion of air. It was something else.

When I listened to the lines in this chorus, I heard rising rhythms. Of course, the rhythm will rise naturally with iambs and anapests, but there was more nuance in the rising in Swinburne’s chorus, and it occurs in the second syllable of the anapests. It turns out Swinburne wasn’t using a two-scored scansion system of syllables. He was using a three-scored scansion system. Here’s a different scansion of the opening line:

Before the Beginning of Years - Three Tier

In this scansion, I use “u” and “/” as I used them above, but here I use “u/” to indicate a semi-stressed syllable. When I scanned it by hand with a pencil in the 90s, I used a “u” with a slanted line through it. I was inventing my own scansion and scansion markings, and I would invent more. But back to this line. The rising rhythm is nuanced. It’s smooth. It glides up into each foot’s stressed syllable – unstressed to semi-stressed to stressed. But there’s even more to this rising.

Again, after reading this poem many more times, as well as reading other poems and writing my own poems that tried to imitate meters and rhythms, I heard this chorus’s opening line differently. This time I heard how the last syllable “years” is more stressed than the other syllables in the line. Here’s how I scanned it:

Before the Beginning of Years - Four Tier

Here I use “x” to indicate what I call a strong stress. My ear now heard four levels of stress and I had built my scansion system to include one more scansion symbol. My poet’s ears were really coming alive. Hearing the sounds wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to know why it happened and how I could do it. While figuring it out, I reread Swinburne’s poem “Sapphics.” I liked the way the poem moved, but I didn’t know why it was called Sapphics. At the time, I had a little 4 ½” x 3 ¼” inch Collins Gem Latin Dictionary. (I still have it.) In it, in the prefatory materials, there is a seven-page “Metres” section about Latin meters and poetic forms. One of those was called “Sapphics,” after the poetic form Sappho used, which may have been created by Alcaeus of Mytilen (Sappho’s contemporary). But when the dictionary laid out the meter and format of the poem and gave a brief description of it, it didn’t use stressed and unstressed syllables. It used long and short syllables to represent the three hendecasyllabic lines (or “lesser Sapphics”) and the one adonic. I then remembered Pound mentioning “syllables long and short.” I realized some syllables have a longer pronunciation duration than other syllables. For instance, the “e” in the word “he” is longer than the “e” in the word “the.” I listened to that opening line again.

Before the Beginning of Years - Quantitative

The “–” below the line indicates a long syllable and the “u” below the line indicates a short syllable. My scansion system continued to grow as did my scansion markings as did my poet’s ears. The quantitative scansion system, I would later realize, is also relational, but the relationship has a wider scale. It works mainly with the whole line rather than what is nearby, as in qualitative scansion.

At this point you may be asking, “Why is the ‘Be’ in ‘Before’ longer than the ‘be’ in ‘beginning’?” That’s a good question. Outside of this poem, or if “before” and “beginning” are spoken as independent words, both “be”s would be the same length. In this opening line, however, I hear the “e” in “Be” in “Before” as a long “e.” It is as if the poem begins with a running start or as if the speaker is tuning his/her voice with the commencement of the poem. It might also be because of that initial expulsion of air. Nonetheless, pronouncing it as a short “e,” as in “beginning,” just doesn’t sound right. It’s seems out of key and out of tone, especially with the mood of the poem. One could argue that it is in fact a short syllable, and that is fine, as scansions can be debated. However, I heard and still hear it as a long syllable. The more important observation is the long syllable “years.”

I’m sure Swinburne was aware of long and short syllables, but he didn’t seem to consciously implement them. Even in his poem “Sapphics,” he translates the Greek quantitative meter into an Anglo qualitative meter. Pound will later write at least two Sapphic poems (“Apparuit” and “The Return,” though he disguises the form) where he plays quantitative meter against qualitative meter, and even later on, James Wright will Americanize Sapphics in “Erinna to Sappho,” using three iambic tetrameter lines and an iambic dimeter line. That, however, is another lesson. Back to Swinburne. No matter what Swinburne’s intentions were or were not, “years” is long and stressed. I thought this is how he made the syllable have more stress than a typically stressed syllable. I would later learn that a long syllable, and sometimes just a long vowel, can not only make a stressed syllable more stressed, but it can add stress to an unstressed syllable. In the opening to the chorus, the length of the syllable may also contribute to “Be” in “Before” being a semi-stressed word.

So what I had learned so far and practiced in writing by way of Swinburne? While there are stressed and unstressed syllables in poetry and they can be used as a backbeat to build a poem on, there’s more nuance to those syllables. There are at least four levels of stresses and they can be impacted by the length of the syllable. I learned that I can play stress and length off each other to create certain auditory effects. I would later learn that there’s even a fifth stress. It is more stressed than the strong stress I represented with an “x” in the above scansion. I picked this up from Robert Duncan, who somewhere wrote something like, “in each poem, there is one syllable that is more stressed than all the other syllables.” I found and find this to be often true. Though sometimes there are two syllables that are more stressed than all of the other syllables and sometimes there aren’t any outstandingly stressed syllables. I also learned that stresses are relational as well as the length of the syllable being relational. In addition, this chorus from Swinburne also aided me in realizing that rhythms can rise and fall, rhythms have their effects and can be used to create effects to please a listener’s ear and “delight the expert,” and they can also be used to affect meanings.

Writing in quantitative meters in English, however, is more a difficult endeavor and much more complicated than the four levels of stress. In the Romance languages, as I understand it, the lengths are more certain, just like our Anglo-American stresses. In Anglo-American, however, there are so many variable lengths of syllables it’s too difficult to scan effectively, but knowing when to use a long or short syllable is still useful in composing a music that “will delight the expert.” Further complications in quantitative syllables are compounded with schwas and diphthongs. How many syllables are in a diphthong? For instance, is “fire” one or two syllables? Or is it even more syllables as Robert Pinsky once pointed out when he was in the south and saw a woman running from her burning house yelling “fire” as a five-syllable word. This also became a learned lesson: context can dictate how a syllable is pronounced.

Additionally, after figuring out how a long syllable became a long syllable, which often occurs with a long vowel sound, I learned that vowels, especially long vowels, carry emotions. I thought the long vowel’s emotional effect had to do with duration and pitch. I learned some of this from Robert Bly, who I had thought had a tin ear, but would later realize he was using long vowels to create tones, which was his music. In “Educating the Rider and the Horse,” he briefly discusses it effects:

[The third type of sound a poem with a “wild animal” form is] the conscious intensity – not sequence – of pitches. Syllables that rose high, very high, in the Old Norse line the poets called “lifters.” We can hear them in Beowulf. Sometimes the lifters resemble the peak of a roof, sometimes the dragon prow of a Viking ship that rises and falls. Sounds pronounced naturally in the roof of the mouth, such as “ee,” drive the sound up; conviction drives it up; the beat as it arrives helps drive it up. This is mysterious, unquantifiable. (294)

Allen Ginsberg would do something similar as Bly, but his music came from the ups and downs of pitch. His poems, the lines in his poems (at least the ones I liked and read and studied) would often rise and fall in pitch. Bly would rely on a field of pitch (or a small range of pitches) for tonal effect, whereas Ginsberg would rely on mountains and valleys of pitch for movement and for physical effects. I eventually made up a hypothesis that in poetry the vowels in a word carry the emotions and the consonants carry the meaning, which I think is even more true the further back in English poetry history one listens.

During the 1990s, as mentioned, pretty much all I did was to write in as many meters (quantitative and qualitative) and forms as I could find, including free verse and projective verse. Olson’s “Projective Verse” essay was a major influence on how I wrote poetry. It taught me about breath and breathing, and informed, as a result, though indirectly, my understanding of long and short syllables. I would quote some of the poems I wrote, but I burned them all (all two boxes of them) in a bonfire fifteen years ago on July 3, 1999. It might be for the better because I couldn’t master aligning sound and sense, and to quote them would be embarrassing. Nonetheless, I could write meters very easily. And I could write a line or two that were clear, but writing a whole poem, especially with the complications I added (which I will note below), was more difficult than I could expect it to be. The poems I wrote had intricate meters and sounds, but the meaning of the poems were held together only in my head. They wouldn’t make much sense to other readers. Or the poems would be too abstract. Meters, I discovered, lend themselves to polysyllabic abstract words. At least that is true for me and even Swinburne. Swinburne in his later years fell into polysyllabic music, too. Still I kept at writing in meters and forms. I even tried to train myself to speak in sonnets, but I drift off topic.

Swinburne was not only an inspiration, but he also became a testing ground. If I discovered something in another poem, I would test it out in his poems, as I briefly illustrated above. I would also test it out in my own writings. I began with writing syllabics and used Swinburne’s poem “Syllabics” as a guide, as well as other poets. Once I got syllabics down, I moved on to iambs and then trochees and then to forms with those meters. Then I returned to syllabics and tried to incorporate other musically devices into it, like assonance, alliteration, and consonance. Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Campion, Wallace Stevens, and Linda Bierds were vital in this musical development to “delight the expert.” Having figured out how to make those sounds, I then tried laying those sounds on top of iambs, and then atop other meters, and then into forms. This process restarted again with syllabics and then trying to incorporate etymologies into syllabic poems. I learned how to do this from Hopkins and Wallace Stevens. For instance, in one of Hopkins sonnets (I think it is the one that begins “Thou are indeed just, Lord, if I contend”), most of the words in the poem have etymological roots in feudal law, especially concerning lord and vassals, which I learned after half an afternoon with a dictionary in the Paddy Hill Library in Greece, NY. The poem was rooted by way of etymologies. Stevens did something similar, at times, especially with “Crispin” and “clipped” in “The Comedian as the Letter C.” I would even invent a school of poetry called “Skeatsism,” based on Rev. Walter W. Skeat’s An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language and my findings with Hopkins and Stevens. My writing/discovery process continued with the iambs, other meters, forms, and harmonies, etc. Swinburne was then also a motivator to go learn more. While Swinburne can teach a lot, he can’t teach everything, like long and short syllables, the emotions of vowels, and etymological rotisserie. Still there is one last lesson he had for me.

Besides not being able to write successful poems in meter and form, I also couldn’t master what call the ghost syllable. A ghost syllable is a syllable that has no representation in words or sounds. It is a syllable that is felt. It is a syllable that lingers like a ghost lingers after someone passes away. For example, I will return to the Swinburne chorus I’ve been writing about. Here are the opening four lines again, with scansion:

First Four Lines - Simple Scan

You can see and hear how Swinburne varies the rising rhythms in lines 3 and 4. If you listen even closer, you will hear two extra beats at the end of each those four lines. So it can be represented like this:

First Four Lines - Ghost Syllables

Those two extra stresses (“/   /”) at the end of each line are what I refer to as ghost syllables, and they move the poem forward. They create an extra tension between what is heard and unheard. They extend the line. I thought perhaps I might be hearing things. However, once in 2002 or 2003, I gave a poetry reading to a very receptive audience. Not too far into my reading of this chorus by Swinburne, the audience started supplying those ghosts beats at the ends of the lines by stomping their feet and slapping their tables. They picked up on the ghost syllable, and validated my reading. This effect is magical. Later on, I purchased The Fugs: The Fugs First Album. (The Fugs were an avant-garde rock band, and poets Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg are the most known members.) They did a musical rendition of the same chorus and called it the “Swinburne Stomp.” They heard and included the ghost beat, too. (Their rendition of the song has also influenced my reading of the poem, which is now more dramatic, especially at the end.) To this day, I still do not know how the ghost syllables work or how to do it. I wish I did, but I don’t. This among many things is what makes Swinburne a metrical genius from whom I learned so much about the music of poetry. Those two ghost syllables, the “Be” in “Before,” and “years” were the four syllables that affected me the most.

As a result, Swinburne prepared me for listening and listening with intent. He taught me prosody and how to talk about it. He prepared me for Gerard Manley Hopkins, especially “The Windhover,” which was another influential poem to my ears, as well as Edmund Spenser’s “One Day I Wrote Her Name Upon the Stand” (which maybe a perfect sonnet), and it prepared me John Donne’s Holy Sonnet #10, “Death, be not proud, though some have callèd thee.” It prepared me in such a way that I preferred to write musical poems over poems that made sense. That is, I became so obsessed in writing music to “delight the expert” that I forgot about everyone else, which means I forgot about clarity. The reader needs clarity. Writing poems with clarity would take me a whole other decade with W. S. Merwin to accomplish.




Works Cited

Bly, Robert. “Educating the Rider and the Horse.” American Poetry: Wildness and Domesticity. New York: Harper & Row Publishers: 1990. 289-96. Print.

Donne, John. “Holy Sonnet 10.” The Norton Anthology of English Language: Volume 1. 5th ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986. 1099. Print.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “Thou are indeed just, Lord, if I contend.” Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose. New York: Penguin Books, 1988. 67. Print.

Pound, Ezra. “A Retrospect.” Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. Ed. T. S. Eliot. New York: New Directions: 1968. 3-14. Print.

—. “Swinburne and His Biographers.” Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. Ed. T. S. Eliot. New York: New Directions: 1968. 290-294. Print.

Spenser, Edmund. “Sonnet 75.” The Norton Anthology of English Language: Volume 1. 5th ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986. 770. Print.

Swinburne, Algernon Charles. Atalanta in Calydon. Major Poems and Selected Prose. Eds. Jerome McCann and Charles L. Sligh. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. 3-67. Print.





– u  – u  – u u  – u  – u

– u  – u  – u u  – u  – u

– u  – u  – u u  – u  – u

– u u  – u


u = short syllable. – =long syllable.

The first three lines are the hendecasyllabic lines, or “lesser Sapphics.” The fourth and eleventh syllables are open syllables. Originally they were long, but now are variable.

The adonic is the fourth line.

A Sapphic poem usually consists of a number of these formally structured stanzas.




To download a PDF of this essay, click Four Syllables.



Algernon Charles Swinburne’s Major Poems and Selected Prose (2004)

Over the next few weeks or months, I will post all my reviews (“Tom’s Celebrations”) that appeared in Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose (formerly Redactions: Poetry & Poetics) up to and including issue 12. After that, my reviews appeared here (The Line Break) before in the journal. This review first appeared in issue 4/5, which was published circa early 2005.


Algernon Charles Swinburne – Major Poems and Selected ProsePraise be given to McGann & Sligh for at last providing a good selection from one of my all-time favorite poets, Algernon Charles Swinburne. This is easily the best selected Swinburne in a long time. It even has the complete Atalanta in Calydon (a rarity) & thus contains my favorite poem, a chorus containing many of Swinburne’s theme’s & that begins:

   Before the beginning of the years
      There came to the making of man
   Time, with a gift of tears; 
      Grief, with a glass that ran;
   Pleasure, with pain for leaven;
      Summer, with flowers that fell;
   Remembrance fallen from heaven,
      And madness risen from hell;
   Strength without hands to smite;
      Love that endures for a breath:
   Night, the shadow of light,
      And life, the shadow of death.

That poem has stuck with me for years, in part because of the strong, heavy meter. Yes, if you want to learn just about everything there is to know about meter, then read Swinburne. The most important aspects he will teach you is how to negotiate rhythm, syntax, & the imagination to create sheer music. Yes, Swinburne is one of the great musical poets in the English language – he can stand side-by-side with Milton. If one can’t find the meaning of one of Swinburne’s poems from the language, then you only need listen & you will hear the meaning arise from the music. (“It don’t mean a thing / if it ain’t got that swing” aptly applies to Swinburne.)

Swinburne can also translate from other languages, including Anglicizing foreign meters, such as Sapphics. Swinburne is a poetic descendent of Sappho (sometimes I think he has direct connection to her) & a descendent of William Blake, though less religious.

But this book is well put together. It starts with a hell of an introduction by Jerome McGann. He informs us of Swinburne’s influence on the moderns. (Ezra Pound loved Swinburne –his poetry & “theory and practice of poetic translation.”) The introduction also has a close study of Swinburne’s life, poetry, & poetics –there’s a lot to be learned from this introduction. Oh, & most important for many of us, there is a fine notes section at the back. It not only provides footnotes to certain allusions & the such, but it also provides little histories about the poems, like whether the story is a real translation or something Swinburne made up that seems like it came from Greek mythology, or elsewhere.

This Major Poems and Selected Prose also contains important prose – Swinburne was as good a reader/critic as Samuel Taylor Coleridge & Pound – & he wrote on Baudelaire, Byron, Arnold, Blake, the music of poetry, & more.

Swinburne is one of the great musical pagans, & much thanks to McCann & Sligh for bringing him back to our times & in such a good way.//




Swinburne, Algernon Charles. Major Poems and Selected Prose. Eds. Jerome McGann and Charles L. Sligh. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004.//


Writing Poetry Aloud

Sean Thomas Dougherty and I started a Facebook poll. We are asking our poet friends the following question: During the composition of a poem do you read the poem out loud?

Sean and I want to know because it seems there are a lot of “ear dead” poems out there. While we wait for responses, I am thinking about how I read the poem aloud during its composition.

I can tell you right now that I don’t read my poems out loud during composition that often, but I tend to read the poem aloud once during the composition. But why don’t I read  aloud more often during the poem’s composition? Why only once if at all? especially when I love reading them out loud at poetry readings, especially when I love the rhythm my body falls into and the trance I fall into when I read the poems aloud.

Charles Olson

Charles Olson. Creator of Projective Verse.

I used to read out loud a lot more often, especially during my Charles Olson and Projective Verse phase, which lasted about three or five years. I had to get the poem’s layout with all the spaces between the words to match my breathing, which is more fun when you try to match it to how you smoke!

I should go back further.

I have written in almost every form and every quantitative and qualitative meter that I could find in English, Latin, and Greek. And I have written at least three poems for every meter or form. The only way to write in every meter is to read aloud.

Algernon Charles Swinburne

"Algernon Charles Swinburne" painting by George Frederic Watts 1867.

Swinburne taught me the most about qualitative meter, and it was Ezra Pound, I think, and a Latin dictionary that taught me the most about quantitative meter. By the way, qualitative meters are based on syllabic stress while quantitative meters are based on syllabic length.

Back in the early 90s I heard of a guy who would talk in complete sonnets. He just made them up on the spot in mid-conversation and as part of the conversation. I wanted to do that. So I began another level of training. After a while, I was able to talk in rhyming iambic pentameter fairly well and in blank iambic pentameter with hardly any effort. I never did reach the sonnet level. Maybe once.

I also learned to read slow so I could hear each sound, how it moved, and how it connected to other sounds. Did you know that each letter of the alphabet is made of multiple sounds? That’s useful in harmony making. Did you know there are five levels of stress? They only teach you two in school: stressed and unstressed. But there are five. I even created my own five-level scansion symbol system to mark all the syllables.

Did you know that it’s impossible for the first syllable of a poem to be unstressed? It’s not necessarily stressed, but it’s not completely unstressed. This is because you are speaking for the first time. There’s an extra build up of air. More air comes out here than it would in another spot. For example:

The house had gone to bring again
To the midnight sky a sunset glow.

That’s from Robert Frost’s “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things.” That first “the” has more of an accent than the “the” in the second line. It’s because of the initial expulsion of air.

Robert Duncan

Robert Duncan

Also, in every poem there is one syllable that is more stressed than any other syllable. That’s what Robert Duncan said. I’ve confirmed it true, usually. Sometimes there are two syllables that are the strongest.

So how do I accurately explain how much I read out loud? I don’t know, but I did. Every poem I read, I read out loud. In fact, there came a point when I thought you could derive a poem’s meanings strictly from its sounds. You can. Not always, but often. In fact, there came a point when I didn’t care about the content in any poem. I just wanted sounds. Long vowel sounds especially. Like Bob Dylan’s vowels or Campion’s. Eventually I learned that in a poem the vowels carry the emotion and the consonants carry the meaning. That’s what the letters do. Go read a poem. The emotional ones have lots of long vowels or good vowel movements. The heady poems are consonant based.

T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets

T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets

Almost all my papers on poems were about sound, meter, and rhythm. What I’m trying to say is that I spent an intense twelve to fourteen years reading every poem aloud multiple times and in different intonations. The beginning of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets may be the most beautiful sounding poetry in the history of the English language.

Plus, I scanned poems. I wrote down the stresses and unstresses using my five-level scansion symbol system. I wanted to see what I was hearing. By seeing what I was hearing, by recording it, I was better able to train my ear.

Now, I don’t read out loud that much. Now, when I read out loud, I read for pitch and tone. Because of all my self-imposed training, my mental/silent ear can pick up on the vowel movements and harmonies and rhythms quite well, at this point. It’s actually like a visual and internal-audio dialogue as to how I hear most of the poem. But it’s not so good at hearing the height of the sound, or at least in hearing how the heights work throughout the poem, and how those heights affect the poem’s tone. The poems I don’t read out loud while composing are the ones that are generally flat in language and imagination and end up being to thinky or cerebral. Plus, I want to hear the puffs from my lungs. At some point in the composition, I want my lungs involved. Also, if I’m trying to work out sounds in the poem, I will read it aloud a number of times.

Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg

Thinking of pitch and tone. If you want to learn about pitch, read Allen Ginsberg. If you want to learn about tone read Ezra Pound or Christopher Howell.

Now, I wanna write a long Ginsbergian poem because those are the most fun to read aloud.


Everything I wrote above is true. At the same time I’m being defensive. I’m rationalizing my laziness for not reading aloud my poems during their compositions.

Jack Spicer

Jack Spicer

A poem needs energy to exist. The hardest part about revising a poem is keeping the original energies. The more revisions that occur, the less of the original energies that remain. That’s generally true. That’s why I think Allen Ginsberg “revised lightly.” That’s probably why Robert Creeley didn’t revise. That’s probably why Jack Spicer trusted the Martians who gave him his poems.

And a poem can’t have energies if it’s written flatly on the page. It can only have two dimensions that way. Writing with the voice creates additional energies and dimensions. The vowel aloud has more emotion that what I hear in my head.

A poem written on the page is a zombie.

It needs breath to be alive. Charles Olson knew that, and now I am reminded of that.

It’s time to stop being lazy. It’s time to sing aloud.//

The Cave (Winner of The Bitter Oleander Press Library of Poetry Book Award for 2013.)

The Cave

Poems for an Empty Church

Poems for an Empty Church

The Oldest Stone in the World

The Oldest Stone in the Wolrd

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Pre-Dew Poems

Pre-Dew Poems

Negative Time

Negative Time

After Malagueña

After Malagueña

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