I ran a poetry workshop out in the wilds – even wilder than the wilds I live in – of Dartmoor the summer before last. The participants were all extremely friendly (and also highly talented – watch out for Rebecca Gethin’s forthcoming debut collection), and the only hiccup, apart from my attempting to find the venue, came when I steered the writing into the territory of sonnets. I let slip that a sonnet might not need either a) to rhyme, or b) to have fourteen lines. One of the group took exception to this. ‘A sonnet,’ he said, ‘is a sonnet.’ He was prepared to cut me some slack on the rhyme-scheme, since Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth and a few other big names use different schemes (which all have names, i.e. Shakespearean, Miltonic, Wordsworthian), but he wasn’t budging on the fourteen lines or on the rhyming. Nor, if I’d pushed him, would he have given me much rope on the question of metre (or meter as the Americans rightly and sensibly spell it. Why the British continue to use the same word as the one for that length which is a bit more than a yard, I do not know. But the British are funny about weights and measures. There are plenty who would back any party who promised to bring back the groat, the doubloon, the rod, the pole and the perch, and who treat the decimal side of a ruler with contempt).
Anyway. We had to arrive at a compromise that what I was calling deviant sonnets were merely ‘poems’ (we didn’t get as far as arguments about whether a sonnet should have a volta – a shift halfway through – or what Shelley thought he was doing with Ozymandias, the rhyme-scheme of which is very peculiar. And to go off at a tangent, I had another student, elsewhere, who once rightly pointed out that the framing device Shelley uses – ‘I met a traveller from an antique land/ Who said:’ is pretty unnecessary).
But the fact is, it is good fun to subvert a traditional form, so that the ghost of the original lurks around the poem, giving it some strength. And I love tinkering with traditional forms, just as I also like sticking to them. (To throw in a puff, there is a chapter by me on this in the book A&C Black are about to publish: A Creative Writing Handbook: developing dramatic technique, individual style and voice.) One of the hardest, because there are only two rhymes, is the villanelle. There are some great villanelles in the world, and they always work if they have a clean first and third line. Strictly, these should be repeated, word for word, as the sixth and ninth, twelfth and fifteenth, and eighteenth and nineteenth lines (you can mess with the punctuation). But, as Elizabeth Bishop shows with ‘One Art’, you can produce a great villanelle without being slavish about the form the repetition takes. The most famous villanelle is probably Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’, which has such a strong first line (the title) and third line (‘Rage, rage, against the dying of the light’) that it lodges in the memory. Read it here. But since I’ve been unwise enough to have a pop at Shelley, I think I’ll just suggest that, having chosen one of the easiest rhymes (-ite/-ight) available to any poet, Thomas includes a really terrible line in one of the other mandatory echoes of lines 1 and 3 (which come in the fourth, seventh, tenth, thirteenth and sixteenth lines). It’s the sixteenth line:
And you, my father, on that sad height
which is so clumsy. What ‘sad height’? The rhyme is driving the poem and no mistake.
Anyway, having got that out of my system… I was casting about for a subject for my weekly poem (see it here), when the TV news quoted the Israeli deputy prime minister as saying that they would continue bombing Hamas ‘to the bitter end’. And ‘the bitter end’ struck me as a phrase that would naturally fit a villanelle. And, in writing it, it struck me that the subject needed the hiccup of truncated ‘b’ lines, to indicate the speaker’s madness, and also that the first line, which should be the eighteenth, needed to be, varied, the last line. So even the form of the poem is rebelling against the very vicious attack on Gaza. Israel, to get political, strikes me almost as a national suicide bomber, bent on self-destruction. It’s been armed to the teeth by the West. As a result, it has lost all sense of scale and decency.
And this was supposed to be about strict verse forms. And they wouldn’t all approve on Dartmoor, when it comes to the form. And I never know if lobbing a grenade of a serious poem into a sequence of ‘lightly satirical’ poems works. But then the subject of what we mean by ‘light verse’ is worth a blog in its own right.