Posted tagged ‘formal poetry’

Winter Sonnet- Trying to Cool Down

January 8, 2010

Winter Light

Yesterday, I posted a poem “Porch” which was, at least a bit, about remembering summer’s warmth in winter.  Here’s perhaps a truer winter poem, about trying to cool down (emotionally) out in the cold.  It’s a sonnet, written in a Shakespearean rhyme scheme.  For more on sonnets – wintry sonnets, Spenserian sonnets, rhyme and meter in sonnets, click on the links, or check out the poetry category from the ManicDDaily home page.

(Reading note–in my poems, pauses come with punctuation and not, necessarily, at line breaks.    Thanks for reading!)

Winter Light

The corn bent down in broken-spined decay
as she thickly squelched her way to what she hoped
was fresher mind, clear of a stuffy day
spent in a house where all resolve had moped.
In movement, mud, cold, steely winter air,
she sought to shed the skin of that day’s self.
She’d bitched at him;  she knew she wasn’t fair,
but his acceptance of their place upon life’s shelf
tore anger from her ribs like leonine jaws.
It spewed, it spattered, stained everywhere she walked.
She knew regrets to come should give her pause,
but his patient face made self-possession balk.
So she labored through the frozen field of corn
waiting for redemption to be borne.

All rights reserved.  Karin Gustafson.

Another Villanelle – “The Nap”

November 22, 2009

Believe it or not, I have found, on this blog’s “stats,” that there are almost as many people interested in villanelles as in Robert Pattinson.  (Well, maybe not almost as many.)  Still, there is an interest.

This is fortunate for me as the villanelle form is one that I really like.  (Check out my other posts on this subject, if you would like to read explanations of the villanelle form and suggestions about how to write them.  Check these out especially if you also like Magnolia Bakery’s Banana Pudding.)

Today, I’m posting the villanelle, “The Nap,” because it it feels to me to have an autumnal aspect–after the fall, as it were.  (I was in upstate in New York when I wrote it, when the leaves were fallen, brown, and slowly drying out.)

To all those who are afraid to try writing a villanelle–you’ll see that  I cheated!  I modified the repeating lines;  in other words, I gave priority to meaning over manneristic form.   (Ha ha!)

Reading suggestion:  line breaks, in my poems at least, are not intended to denote pauses, unless there is also a specific punctuation break, such as comma or period.

Thanks as always for reading this blog.  I very much appreciate your sympathetic interest and time.  Comments are also always welcome.  Thanks again.

The Nap

Side by side, we slid to a dry, still, place.
It was not a woeful drought of age or dust,
the softer dryness of a tear-trailed face.

We never used to find this quiet space.
Any closeness quickly clambered into lust.
But side by side, we slid to a dry, still, place

where hands touched in a sweat-free interlace,
fatigue overwhelming pheromone fuss
with the softer dryness of a tear-trailed face.

Some other time we’d find that moist embrace
where pleasure mounts to such synaptic bust
I find myself side-sliding to a place

as blank as emptied well, as capsized chase.
(My brain reacts so badly to heart’s trust,
the softer dryness of a tear-trailed face.)

But today, we two, exhausted by the pace
of time and life and words like ‘should’ and ‘must’,
side by side, slid to a dry, still, place,
the softer dryness of a tear-trailed face.


I am submitting this post into the Gooseberry Garden’s Poetry Picnic, with the theme of love and lost love.

All rights reserved, Karin Gustafson.

Also check out 1 Mississippi by Karin Gustafson on Amazon.

Changing Gears – The Sestina – “Pink”

October 13, 2009

 I am retreating from the world of politics today  to the more ordered world of formal poetry. The sestina is an extremely “ordered” form of poem with a strict line structure that focuses on six repeating “end words,” (that is, the last word in each line.)  Thankfully, these end words do not have to rhyme.

There are six six-line stanzas, and six repeating end words.  At the end of the six six-line stanzas, there is a three-line stanza (the “envoie”), in which the six repeating words are used again, two per line.

The hard part is not just repeating the six words, but repeating them in the right order; each stanza turns itself partly inside out for the next one.  The music of the poem comes from the shifting, and sometimes surprising, echo of the repeating words.   If the meaning and tone of the words can also shift through the poem, a kind of irony can be found.

Here’s how the form works:

For notation purposes, I’ll assign each end word a number  – 123456.  That is the order of the first stanza.

The second is 615243.   The third is 364125, the fourth 532614, fifth 451362, and finally 246531.    You’ll notice that the last line of each stanza becomes the first of the next, the second- to-last line, the third, etc.  It helps to think of the stanzas as interlocking or clasped hands, with the clasp between the fingers moving up the hands with each stanza.  (I guess they’d have to be Anne Boleyn-style hands – six fingers.)

There are different forms for the order of the words in the last three-line stanza;  my favorite puts the words in reverse of their original order, meaning 65,43,21.

The form is hard, yes.  A tip:  once you’ve decided on your repeating words, write them down in the prescribed order for the entire poem.  (This means that you’ll have a nearly blank page or so, with just a column of numbers and words on one side.)  This list will not only help you keep your focus; it will also avoid the frustration of having a nearly finished poem that, you suddenly realize, did not quite follow the rules.  (If it’s a great poem as is, terrific.  But if you wanted to write a great sestina, this can be upsetting.)

It is useful to pick end words with flexible meanings and usage (meaning words that can be either nouns or verbs, even homonyms).   Commonplace words are easier, but less interesting.

I have to confess I have only written a couple of  sestinas.  They are long poems;  beginning one is a big commitment.  But a completed one is really quite satisfying.  Here’s one of mine:

(As always, keep in mind that pauses are intended to be taken only at punctuation breaks, not at line or stanza breaks, unless punctuated. )


Trees full of blossom, the night smells pink
though it’s black, a thick summer darkness
barely held back by window screen.
I hear dishes in the sink, a familiar clatter,
and think of the summer kitchen
of my youth (my grandma’s), where the women wiped

the dishes, too many for the rack, wiped
the oilclothed table too; the men, skin pink
from glossy food, escaped the kitchen
glare, slinking into the darkness
of the den, the chatty t.v. clatter
a sound fluorescence against the dim screen.

There too, we were protected by a screen
from bites, buzz, wing, and the wind that wiped
that stretched-flat land, a soft clatter
of night and grass and damp that blew towards the pink
edge of dawn, an engine of chill darkness
that was only truly blocked by the glow of kitchen

yellow.  I watched one aunt in the kitchen,
amazed that she never even tried to screen
her keen sense of life’s darkness.
When she looked at my grandmother, she often wiped
her eyes, and sniffing, face too pink,
cleaned with a banging clatter.

Though she was always a center of clatter,
that aunt.  She had a kind of two-walled kitchen
in her own house, open; and wore hot pink,
played jokes, charades, a half-hearted screen
of despondency, still, the good housewife, she wiped
the smallest speck from her counters.  Her own darkness

seeming inevitable, it was a darkness
she hurried towards, smoking, drinking hard, the clatter
of uncertainty (as to timing) wiped
her out.  In the meantime, she cleaned-—my grandma’s kitchen
after her death, and, at the Funeral Home, made a quick screen
of the corpse.  “That lipstick’s way too pink,”

she hissed, then wiped my grandma’s lips like a kitchen
stain.  Despite the clatter in my brain, I served as screen,
a guard in the blossomed darkness, as she rubbed off pink.

(All rights reserved.  Karin Gustafson)

Pantoum – Hard hard hard: “Overheard on the Esplanade”

September 27, 2009

I’m tackling a different poetic form today – the pantoum.

Pantoums are sometimes compared to villanelles because they too involve repeating lines.  But pantoums are, to my mind, much harder to write.

As explained previously (see e.g. post comparing villanelles to banana pudding), writing a villanelle is largely a matter of assembly.   It takes preparation time, but once you get two reasonably resonant, flexible, lines (the ones that will be repeated), you can just kind of layer them.   (Like your pudding, your wafers, your bananas, your whipped cream.)

Writing a pantoum is more like setting up a house of cards–a house in which the same cards are used to build both the lower and higher levels.  (My attempts sometimes remind me of a clown stacking boxes to reach some high place; because of a shortage, the clown keeps putting the bottom boxes on top, until, slowly, she realizes she’s just not getting anywhere, at least anywhere transcendent.)

Pantoums also make me think of some Groucho Marx or Charlie Chaplin schtick in which the same coin or flower is recirculated (tied to his pocket etc.)   My brain here keeps picturing Roberto Benigni as waiter in Life is Beautiful, re-serving a light fish dish (abandoned by another customer) to the Nazi commandant with an ulcer by emphasizing the “fritti fritti fritti” quality of the mushroom omelette previously ordered by the commandant.   (Comparing a pantoum to recycled fish is probably not fair.)

The problem and also the magic of a pantoum is that all the lines are repeated.  The form is made up of quatrains.  Traditionally, it involves a rhyme sequence, though some writers dispense with rhyme.   Frankly, it is a type of poem in which “slant rhyme” or near rhyme works well to avoid a sing-songy quality.

It sounds more complicated than it is.   I’ve included a line-by-line breakdown, after my sample, below.

A note:  in reading, pay close attention to punctuation, which trumps line breaks.  (Meaning that pauses are only to be taken at commas, periods, dashes, etc. and not at line breaks unless punctuated.)  Sorry to sound churlish, but punctuation is particularly important in pantoums as it is one of the few tools for sculpting the repetitions.

(Sorry also for grim subject matter of poem.)

Heard on the Esplanade, a Pantoum

The woman cries
that she doesn’t believe it.
“Don’t tell me lies.”
She pulls away from him.

“That she doesn’t believe it—
Is that what you’re telling me?”
She pulls away from him
in the sun of the walkway.

“Is that what you’re telling me?”
Sky overbright on sleeves
in the sun of the walkway
twists the fall of fall leaves.

Sky overbright on sleeves
he holds onto.  Her, she tries to tear,
twists, the fall of fall leaves.
All pretend not to hear.

He holds onto her.  She tries to tear.
“Tried to rape me,” rings out.
All pretend not to hear.
“How can she, how can she not—”

“Tried to rape me,” rings out.
“Don’t tell me lies.
How can she, how can she not?”
The woman cries.

(All rights reserved, Karin Gustafson)

Now for the truly curious, here’s the breakdown:

For notation purposes, “A” and “B” refer to the end rhyme of the line.   “A1” refers to a specific whole line (which is repeated) and which uses the A rhyme;  “A2” refers to another specific whole line which also uses the A rhyme. “B1” is a specific B rhyming line; “B2” another specific B rhyming line.







A pantoum can have any number of quatrains as long as the patterns are maintained.

If you’d rather count octopi than repeating lines–check out 1 Mississippi at link above or on Amazon.

Villanelles – Banana Pudding

September 7, 2009

I love formal poetry, particularly villanelles.  I will write about the exact form (a traditionally French embrace of repeating lines and rhymes) tomorrow.  (I hope.)

Today, I’ll just say that the form itself generally ensures a villanelle a certain amount of built-in music and irony.

The form is a bit complicated, however.   So getting your villanelle to more or less follow the rules, and also to make sense, is often about all you can hope for. Profundity must be left to the sidelines. (Traditionally French, remember?)

My view is, well, who really cares that much about profundity when you’ve got built-in music and irony? (I don’t. But remember that I’m also someone who has spent a not insignificant amount of time blogging about Robert Pattinson.  See e.g. posts re same. )

Another reason I like writing villanelles (besides their music) is that I am fundamentally (or perhaps I should just say, mentally) lazy. This makes a villanelle kind of perfect for me because (a) as mentioned above, profundity is often left at the sidelines, and (b) the whole poem revolves around two repeating lines.  Which means that once you get your repeating lines right, you don’t have to come up with all that much else.

The poem also involves only two different sets of rhymes: the rhyme of your repeating lines and the rhyme for the intersecting lines.   This limited rhyme scheme definitely narrows your options, a great benefit for someone like me:  a narrowed field of choices means fewer places to get lost, side-tracked.

As I was thinking about all this on the subway this morning (hungry),  I realized that the seeming complexity (but actual simplicity) of the villanelle is very much like Magnolia Bakery’s Banana Pudding.

Although the dessert, a layered concoction of creamy custard, banana slices, vanilla wafers, and whipped cream, seems very elaborate, it is in fact made with a relatively small number of ingredients, several of which are prepackaged (as in the vanilla wafers and the bananas).  What the recipe does require, however, is planning;  i.e. your pudding needs time to set, your bananas must be more or less uniformly sliced (and not too soon before assembly); your cream whipped, your wafers unboxed.  Without that planning, the whole concoction is flat, runny.

Which is amazingly like writing a villanelle.  Because you really do need to spend a bit of time getting your repeating lines right, and choosing flexible rhymes. Otherwise it will just collapse.

But once you have your base ingredients ready, the assembly is really quite fun.

Unfortunately, villanelles, like many poetic forms, seem to have fallen from fashion in modern poetry. (I’m guessing it’s the whole profundity thing.) Some critics might even say that villanelles, like Banana Pudding, are essentially a Trifle. (As in an English confection of sherry-soaked cake, fruit, custard, cream.)

All I can say is that Trifle, like Banana Pudding, is pretty terrific stuff.

*                   *                   *

Despite the similarities to Banana Pudding, most of my villanelles are not particularly light and fluffy. As a result, I am re-posting one that I posted several weeks ago simply because it is one of my more cheerful, and suits the end of summer. I’ll put some different ones up later in the week.

The two repeating lines are “our palms grew pale as paws in northern climes” and “in summers past, how brightly water shines.”  Rhymes are based on climes/shines and skin.

Swimming in Summer

Our palms grew pale as paws in northern climes
as water soaked right through our outer skin.
In summers past, how brightly water shines,

its surface sparked by countless solar mimes,
an aurora only fragmented by limb.
Our palms grew pale as paws in northern climes

as we played hide and seek with sunken dimes,
diving beneath the waves of echoed din;
in summers past, how brightly water shines.

My mother sat at poolside with the Times’
Sunday magazine; I swam by her shin,
my palms as pale as paws in northern climes,

sculpting her ivory leg, the only signs
of life the hair strands barely there, so prim
in summers past. How brightly water shines

in that lost pool; and all that filled our minds
frozen now, the glimmer petrified within
palms grown pale as paws in northern climes.
In summers past, how brightly water shines.

Copyright 2008, Karin Gustafson, All rights reserved.

If you like elephants swimming, please check out 1 Mississippi at the link above or on Amazon.

For more on Villanelles and how to write them, click here.