Poems that have both rhyme and reason

The Bard didn't find rhymes too hard. Picture: YorkMix
15 Apr 2013 @ 2.45 pm
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The Bard didn't find rhymes too hard. Picture: YorkMix
The Bard didn’t find rhymes too hard. Picture: YorkMix
YorkMix Poet In Residence Carole Bromley considers the sonnet and other rhyming verse – and asks for your contributions

Well, I’ve just about recovered from the task of judging the poetry competition. Actually I had serious withdrawal symptoms for days. Simply didn’t know what to do with all those hours of extra time and missed the excitement of opening emails not knowing whether I’d find a dud or a gem. Thank you to all the poets who turned up to read their lovely poems, some travelling from as far away as Middlesbrough and Manchester. It was a real pleasure to meet you and very special for me to hear the poems read by you.

I have, by the way, given up on the telly completely. Dancing on Ice is finished. Actually it nearly finished me. One episode of watching a vertiginous Gareth vomit into a dustbin was more than enough. No more TV dinners for me. And Masterchef’s OK but it does go on a bit and I feel they were all dab hands with a wok in the first place.

Anyway, I’ve had better things to do for the last couple of weeks with the wonderful and all too brief visit of the RSC to the Grand Opera House and also, of course, the York Literature Festival. Didn’t Miles and the team do an amazing job? It’s a long time since I enjoyed a poetry reading as much as the evening with Simon Armitage or the afternoon with Carol Ann Duffy.

One of the things that struck me about both these giants of the contemporary poetry scene is the way they can move effortlessly between free verse and traditional form. The beauty of rhyme and rhythm in expert hands shone out for me. This was particularly evident in the extracts from Sir Gawain And The Green Knight but also there under the surface of even the poems (which Armitage refused to call prose poems) in Seeing Stars.

Both poets are very interested in and knowledgeable about texts written centuries ago and this knowledge enriches their work. In Armitage’s case this comes in the form of translation of texts such as Gawain and The Death of King Arthur in which the resulting poems are brought vividly alive for a modern audience thanks to the translator’s facility with language and decades of writing in all manner of poetic forms; in Duffy’s case it is a familiarity with and a love of classical texts, in particular Greek myths which enliven the poems she is writing today.

The influence of these writers from the past is as evident in her recent books, such as the love poems in Rapture (which Grace Clarke enjoyed in her excellent review of the reading) and the very moving, personal poems in ‘Bees’, as it is in the more obviously literary references in the poems which Duffy read from her 1999 collection, The World’s Wife.

So, with that in mind, the challenge this month is to write a poem which rhymes. I can hear the cheers already! If you are a regular reader of this blog you will know that I love free verse and all the exciting ways it is used by some of the best poets on the contemporary poetry scene. Quite by chance, I think, all the poems which won prizes in the competition were written in free verse. However, among the shortlisted poems were no less than five sonnets and also a poem written in rhyming tercets.

Sonnets are hard to write well in my experience. I have published a few (and also a couple of Ghazals which are even harder and one poem in terza rima which is well nigh impossible). But mostly I write in free verse as most poets do these days.

I think I save the sonnet form for special occasions – for subjects which demand the beauty of it. Often my efforts fall short and I abandon the attempt. The apparent simplicity of the sonnet, the grace of its shape on the page and in the air when it is read aloud belies the complexity of its composition. It can’t be dashed off in an afternoon. It needs to be carefully and painstakingly honed over time until it’s as near perfect as you can get it. Get that wrong and you fall into the doggerel trap.

As with most poetry writing you need to immerse yourself in really good examples before you even think about putting pen to paper. Your ear needs to be attuned to its rhythms and cadences. It also helps to study examples of the different ways your 14 lines can be arranged on the page.

Here are the five shortlisted sonnets from the YorkMix/ York Literature Festival Poetry Competition for starters:

Cheryl Pearson (Newton le Willows, Merseyside)
Bat (A Sonnet)

The thin wing-spokes turned inside out
like a flimsy umbrella in high wind.
Just last night I saw, flickering about,
three, four, hitching star to star with bounced sound,

casting ripples around the moon, sound-stones
deftly skipped. Now there’s this: stiff in the grass;
alien. Look at the fine fan of bones.
Fox-ears, fur. Look at its fixed, curdled face,   

see your own occur in it. Palmed, it’s dry
and cool as leather. Little sky-mouse.
Moth-mouthed predator. A vacant space high
in the roof, a tenant less in the house -

say a prayer for its small life. Say a spell.
Incant its names: Grey. Vampire. Pipistrelle.

Terry Jones (Warwick Bridge, Carlisle)

It is only when you see them hanging
about, draped languorously over chairs,
standing quietly in wardrobes or on stairs,
deceased in drawers or relaxed and lying
like sleepers on the floor, that you realise
clothes could get by easily without us:
shirts, vests, frocks, coats, even shoes strike a pose
of being in the world.  They have projects
that cast them; they have iron in their souls;
they have angst and existential creases.
And clothes are philosophers: these trousers
embrace their emptiness like zen masters.
Clothes are dependable, know where they are:
take that skirt, take those knickers, take that bra…

Chris McLaughlin (Belfast)

His trainer travelled alongside in
A jeep: watching that now famous
Elongated stride; bay body, white star,
Against the backdrop of cancer.
They fretted over him daily,
Kept a constant vigil, as he
Provided the requisite scares
En-route to a maximum clearance.

Effortlessly shifting through gears
As if perhaps they were infinite.
Confidently pricking his ears
With another victory imminent.
Proof that he lay beyond the norm
In fourteen perfect lines of form.

Lynda MacDonald, York
Henri Cartier-Bresson takes Sunday Communion
Harlem 1947

He’s captured the intensity of the sun
in black and white.  It’s in the play
of light and shade on the flaking stone
of a seedy apartment block.  It’s in
the illusion of sparkle on blank windows.
In the shimmer of sweat, as light licks
across the black faces of Sunday best children,
in crisp taffeta and pint-sized suits.
Out of church they teem, eyes squinting,
at the vision of a man in winter tweeds,
leaning on not one, but three sticks-
his head, apparently stuck,
inside a big wooden box.

Seán Hewitt (Warrington)
for David Kato

Open your mouth again, Canon, for peace.
Ministers of grace, defend us! Call sermons
and drive them out until we see lines of men
hanging in the street like bunting, the wind of change
rippling their toes as it passes. Roll the stone away.
Then, in the silence that follows, picture the town,
church-still in the dead of the night, the car pulling up
in the dust of the dry road, its scrape echoing
in the vaulted sky, and them going secretly
to the altar of his small bed, where he’d slept in
too-perfect symmetry with another man. Here,
take your eye for another’s eye, and see instead
the bludgeoned head, the birds shocked into flight,
their wings like the hammer of law falling and falling again.

You will notice that I have included examples which follow the traditional rhyming pattern as well as half-rhymed poems, an unrhymed poem and even one of 13 lines which I feel, nevertheless, qualifies as sonnet shaped.

Cheryl Pearson’s poem is beautifully observed and she handles line breaks, enjambment (one line running on into the next) and caesura (a break within the line) with real skill. Terry Jones’s poem is witty and inventive and I love those long flowing sentences.

Chris McLoughlin’s was one of two poems I received about Frankel and it stands out for the skilful way the poem uses the line breaks and also words like “elongated stride” and “effortlessly shifting through gears” to introduce movement into the poem. That final couplet is wonderful.

Lynda MacDonald breaks the sentence before the end of the line twice to give the effect of someone studying the painting and noticing how the painter achieves his effects. Sean Hewitt’s poem uses the techniques of classical poets, eg Apostrophe (that powerful “Ministers of Grace, defend us!” and the dramatic instructional tone (“Open your mouth again”, “Call sermons”, “Roll the stone away”) reminiscent of classical tragedy to emphasise the horror of this contemporary atrocity and I love that last line with its metaphor of the birds like the “hammer of law falling and falling again”. Wonderful use of repetition. Fabulous, aren’t they?

I don’t expect yours to be as polished as these but I would like you to have a crack. Even if it’s your first attempt at a sonnet, email it to me, please. You have to start somewhere. It doesn’t have to rhyme, though it would be lovely if it did. It doesn’t have to be written in perfect iambic pentameter, though do read it aloud and listen for the rhythm if you can. It doesn’t have to conform to the traditional sonnet pattern at all if you don’t want it to. It just has to have 14 lines. And it has to be as good as you can make it.

If you want to read further examples you could do worse than go back to Carol Ann Duffy. You will find Prayer and Anne Hathaway on the web. Or go to Simon Armitage and read Poem for a superb example of a sonnet that doesn’t jump out and announce itself. The everyday language and subtle rhymes are the secret.

The reason I haven’t sent you back to the classics is because I don’t want lots of archaic words. Your poem needs to be slap bang up to date for maximum effect. If you want to see how contemporary poets have made the form their own, read 101 Sonnets edited by Don Paterson. And, if you want to really study the form and its history and read examples from the earliest poems to the modern day, I recommend The Making of a Sonnet by Edward Hirsch and Eavan Boland.

I may even have a stab at this one myself. “Sonnet”, by the way, comes from the Italian “sonetto”, meaning “a little sound” or “a little song”. Let’s get singing!

Carole Bromley is married with four children and lives in York. Twice a winner in The Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition, she has two pamphlets with Smith/Doorstop (Unscheduled Holt, 2005, and Skylight, 2009) and a collection A Guided Tour of the Ice House. She has won a number of first prizes, including The Bridport and Yorkshire Open, and her poems have appeared in a range of magazines and anthologies. Carole is a graduate of the MPhil in Writing at Glamorgan University and teaches creative writing for York University’s Centre for Lifelong Learning.