Form and Variations

September 20, 2022


This week’s post was prompted by comments from two or three people in last week’s Fridays at 4 discussion of meter.  They wondered how much a writer could vary a form and still have it be that form–an excellent question.  All works of art are made up of patterns and variations on those patterns–it wouldn’t be art without that crucial pairing.  The form conveys certain things, and the variations are meaningful departures from the form.  So I thought it would be helpful to look at some examples of maintaining a particular form while departing from it in interesting ways.

Since we we were talking about meter, I started with a Frost poem that I would certainly describe as iambic pentameter, but with a high percentage of irregular lines within that.  You can try scanning it for yourself.  Then I thought of sestina form, and some variations on it.  It usually is 39 lines long–six stanzas of six lines each, followed by a 3-line envoi, but that envoi is often dropped.  Bishop’s is very regular except for the omission of the envoi.  Donald Justice’s  “Here in Katmandu” uses relatively short lines for a sestina–a sign of his virtuosity, since it’s hard to keep up the necessary word repetition without writing much longer ones.  Alberto Rios’s “Nani” doesn’t show six distinct stanzas–I’ll leave it to you to see if he keeps to the pattern of word repetition.  Those are followed by sonnets, both regular and with variations.  I’m hoping you’ll look up both sestina form and sonnet form ahead of Friday’s discussion, and also read a little about Wanda Coleman’s sonnets and Terrance Hayes’s.


Variations on iambic pentameter:


Robert Frost

The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood,
Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.
And from there those that lifted eyes could count
Five mountain ranges one behind the other
Under the sunset far into Vermont.
And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled,
As it ran light, or had to bear a load.
And nothing happened: day was all but done.
Call it a day, I wish they might have said
To please the boy by giving him the half hour
That a boy counts so much when saved from work.
His sister stood beside him in her apron
To tell them ‘Supper.’ At the word, the saw,
As if to prove saws knew what supper meant,
Leaped out at the boy’s hand, or seemed to leap—
He must have given the hand. However it was,
Neither refused the meeting. But the hand!
The boy’s first outcry was a rueful laugh,
As he swung toward them holding up the hand
Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all—
Since he was old enough to know, big boy
Doing a man’s work, though a child at heart—
He saw all spoiled. ‘Don’t let him cut my hand off—
The doctor, when he comes. Don’t let him, sister!’
So. But the hand was gone already.
The doctor put him in the dark of ether.
He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath.
And then—the watcher at his pulse took fright.
No one believed. They listened at his heart.
Little—less—nothing!—and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.


Sestina form–from very regular to variations:


Elizabeth Bishop

September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.

She thinks that her equinoctial tears
and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
were both foretold by the almanac,
but only known to a grandmother.
The iron kettle sings on the stove.
She cuts some bread and says to the child,

It’s time for tea now; but the child
is watching the teakettle’s small hard tears
dance like mad on the hot black stove,
the way the rain must dance on the house.
Tidying up, the old grandmother
hangs up the clever almanac

on its string. Birdlike, the almanac
hovers half open above the child,
hovers above the old grandmother
and her teacup full of dark brown tears.
She shivers and says she thinks the house
feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.

It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
I know what I know, says the almanac.
With crayons the child draws a rigid house
and a winding pathway. Then the child
puts in a man with buttons like tears
and shows it proudly to the grandmother.

But secretly, while the grandmother
busies herself about the stove,
the little moons fall down like tears
from between the pages of the almanac
into the flower bed the child
has carefully placed in the front of the house.

Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house.



Donald Justice

We have climbed the mountain.
There’s nothing more to do.
It is terrible to come down
To the valley
Where, amidst many flowers,
One thinks of snow,

As formerly, amidst snow,
Climbing the mountain,
One thought of flowers,
Tremulous, ruddy with dew,
In the valley.
One caught their scent coming down.

It is difficult to adjust, once down,
To the absense of snow.
Clear days, from the valley,
One looks up at the mountain.
What else is there to do?
Prayer wheels, flowers!

Let the flowers
Fade, the prayer wheels run down.
What have they to do
With us who have stood atop the snow
Atop the mountain,
Flags seen from the valley?

It might be possible to live in the valley,
To bury oneself among flowers,
If one could forget the mountain,
How, never once looking down,
Stiff, blinded with snow,
One knew what to do.

Meanwhile it is not easy here in Katmandu,
Especially when to the valley
That wind which means snow
Elsewhere, but here means flowers,
Comes down,
As soon it must, from the mountain.



Alberto Rios

Sitting at her table, she serves
the sopa de arroz to me
instinctively, and I watch her,
the absolute mamá, and eat words
I might have had to say more
out of embarrassment. To speak,
now-foreign words I used to speak,
too, dribble down her mouth as she serves
me albóndigas. No more
than a third are easy to me.
By the stove she does something with words
and looks at me only with her
back. I am full. I tell her
I taste the mint, and watch her speak
smiles at the stove. All my words
make her smile. Nani never serves
herself, she only watches me
with her skin, her hair. I ask for more.

I watch the mamá warming more
tortillas for me. I watch her
fingers in the flame for me.
Near her mouth, I see a wrinkle speak
of a man whose body serves
the ants like she serves me, then more words
from more wrinkles about children, words
about this and that, flowing more
easily from these other mouths. Each serves
as a tremendous string around her,
holding her together. They speak
Nani was this and that to me
and I wonder just how much of me
will die with her, what were the words
I could have been, was. Her insides speak
through a hundred wrinkles, now, more
than she can bear, steel around her,
shouting, then, What is this thing she serves?

She asks me if I want more.
I own no words to stop her.
Even before I speak, she serves.


Sonnets–from regular to variations


Gwendolyn Brooks

Oh mother, mother, where is happiness?
They took my lover’s tallness off to war,
Left me lamenting. Now I cannot guess
What I can use an empty heart-cup for.
He won’t be coming back here any more.
Some day the war will end, but, oh, I knew
When he went walking grandly out that door
That my sweet love would have to be untrue.
Would have to be untrue. Would have to court
Coquettish death, whose impudent and strange
Possessive arms and beauty (of a sort)
Can make a hard man hesitate—and change.
And he will be the one to stammer, “Yes.”
Oh mother, mother, where is happiness?



Denis Johnson

Here in the electric dusk your naked lover
tips the glass high and the ice cubes fall against her teeth.
It’s beautiful Susan, her hair sticky with gin,
Our Lady of Wet Glass-Rings on the Album Cover,
streaming with hatred in the heat
as the record falls and the snake-band chords begin
to break like terrible news from the Rolling Stones,
and such a last light—full of spheres and zones.

you’re just an erotic hallucination,
just so much feverishly produced kazoo music,
are you serious?—this large oven impersonating night,
this exhaustion mutilated to resemble passion,
the bogus moon of tenderness and magic
you hold out to each prisoner like a cup of light?


from Vikram Seth’s novel in verse, Golden Gate:


John looks downwards, as if admonished,
Then slowly lifts his head, and sighs.
Half fearfully and half astonished,
They look into each other’s eyes.
The waiter, bearded, burly, macho,
Says, “Madam, though it’s cold, gazpacho
Is what I’d recommend. Noisettes
Of lamp, perhaps, or mignoninettes
Of veal to follow….” Unavailing
Are his suggestions. Nothing sinks
Into their ears. “Ah, well,” he thinks,
“They’re moonstruck. It’ll be plain sailing.
Lovers, despite delays and slips
And rotten service, leave large tips.”



Wanda Coleman

our mothers wrung hell and hardtack from row
and boll. fenced others’
gardens with bones of lovers. embarking
from Africa in chains
reluctant pilgrims stolen by Jehovah’s light
planted here the bitter
seed of blight and here eternal torches mark
the shame of Moloch’s mansions
built in slavery’s name. our hungered eyes
do see/refuse the dark
illuminate the blood-soaked steps of each
historic gain. a yearning
yearning to avenge the raping of the womb
from which we spring




[I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison]

Terrance Hayes

I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison,
Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.
I lock you in a form that is part music box, part meat
Grinder to separate the song of the bird from the bone.
I lock your persona in a dream-inducing sleeper hold
While your better selves watch from the bleachers.
I make you both gym & crow here. As the crow
You undergo a beautiful catharsis trapped one night
In the shadows of the gym. As the gym, the feel of crow-
Shit dropping to your floors is not unlike the stars
Falling from the pep rally posters on your walls.
I make you a box of darkness with a bird in its heart.
Voltas of acoustics, instinct & metaphor. It is not enough
To love you. It is not enough to want you destroyed.








Share the word

The Pulse of Meter

September 13, 2022

  “The only feet that patter here are metrical.”  That’s a line from a poem by the brilliant–and childless–poet James Merrill.  Rhythm is physical.  It starts in the heart, spreads to the body, and makes it move.  Makes words move.

When you write in meter, the rhythm is there before the words are: ta-TAH/ ta-TAH/ ta-TAH/ ta-TAH/ ta-TAH.  But you can’t start with words and force them into a straitjacket.  You have to let the music rise up in that rhythm until it begins to turn into words.  And those words into sentences.  At that point you have the rhythm of the sentence laid over the metrical ground–the two of them traveling together, meeting and parting and coming together again.  That’s what creates the energy and power of metrical poetry–those two elements intertwining.

Metrical poetry is based on a simple binary distinction: alternating stressed and unstressed syllables.

Meter is simply a language that developed over time to measure the various rhythmic patterns used in English poetry.  Meter isn’t math–though it’s often taught as if it were.  The basics are few and simple, and enough to describe the rhythm of any metrical poem you’re reading.

The language of describing meter refers to two things: what kind of metrical foot is used, and how many of them are there in a given line.

A metrical foot is simply a grouping of stressed and unstressed syllables that’s used repeatedly.  There are five basic ones:

iamb  ta TAH
trochee  TAH ta
anapest  ta ta TAH
dactyl    TAH ta ta
spondee  TAH TAH

Line length is named for how many feet there are in it: monometer, dimiter, trimeter, tetrameter, pentameter, hexameter, heptameter.

The most common line in English poetry is iambic pentameter–like the James Merrill line above.  It’s five iambic feet.

You can hear meter, of course, without naming it.  But the more attention you pay to the details, the more you will hear of how rhythm affects meaning.  Poets use variations on the basic meter to signal everything from a hesitation, to emphasis, to a change in tone, to shifting emotions.  When you’re aware of the underlying pattern, you’ll hear the departures from it too.

I’ll leave it to you to listen to the meter in the poems that follow.  Remember that describing a poem as, say, iambic pentameter, refers to the poem as a whole, and that there will be lines that vary from that–the poem is still iambic pentameter.  Or trochaic trimeter, or something else.  But there will be that underlying steady pulse.  And some poems might alternate line lengths–Emily Dickinson does.  But a poem that had a line of iambic poetry and then a line of dactylic poetry, say, would be chaos.


Anonymous (about 1530)

O western wind, when wilt thou blow
That the long rain down can rain?
Christ!  That my love were in my armes
And I in my bed again.



Robert Frost

The shattered water made a misty din.
Great waves looked over others coming in,
And thought of doing something to the shore
That water never did to land before.
The clouds were low and hairy in the skies,
Like locks blown forward in the gleam of eyes.
You could not tell, and yet it looked as if
The shore was lucky in being backed by cliff,
The cliff in being backed by continent;
It looked as if a night of dark intent
Was coming, and not only a night, an age.
Someone had better be prepared for rage.
There would be more than ocean-water broken
Before God’s last Put out the light was spoken.



Elizabeth Bishop

In one of the Assyrian wars
a chariot first saw the light
that bore sharp blades around its wheels.

That chariot from Assyria
rolling down mechanically
to take the warriors by the heels.

A thousand warriors in the sea
could not consider such a war
as that the sea itself contrives

but hasn’t put in action yet.
This morning’s glitterings reveal
the sea is “all a case of knives.”

Lying so close, they catch the sun,
the spokes directed at the shin.
The chariot front is blue and great.

The war rests wholly with the waves:
they try revolving, but the wheels
give way; they will not bear the weight.



T. S. Eliot


The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
Six o’clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.

And then the lighting of the lamps.



Robert Herrick

Thus I
Pass by,
And die:
As one
And gone:
I’m made
A shade,
And laid
I’ th’ grave:
There have
My cave,
Where tell
I dwell.



Robert Frost

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.


# 269

Emily Dickinson

Wild nights – Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile – the winds –
To a Heart in port –
Done with the Compass –
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden –
Ah – the Sea!
Might I but moor – tonight –
In thee!




A. E. Stallings

Sleep, she will not linger:
She turns her moon-cold shoulder.
With no ring on her finger,
You cannot hope to hold her.

She turns her moon-cold shoulder
And tosses off the cover.
You cannot hope to hold her:
She has another lover.

She tosses off the cover
And lays the darkness bare.
She has another lover.
Her heart is otherwhere.

She lays the darkness bare.
You slowly realize
Her heart is otherwhere.
There’s distance in her eyes.

You slowly realize
That she will never linger,
With distance in her eyes
And no ring on her finger.



Heather McHugh

It isn’t in itself a thing is known–
en soi pour soi applies its sauce to sauce
and all the increments of living bone
amount to marrow-making: rounder loss.
Where would a self be best advised to look
for self-assurance?  Where put emptiness?
How move the mind to awe, its best address?
Can wonder come to life (whose breath we took)?

In the Japanese garden the bee’s regard
begins to fumble, fondle, multiply.
Unthinkabilities are seen; but hardly
have the surfaces seduced the eye
than every curve begets its wave of thought.
The mind is blinded, so the heart goes out.



And finally, a little amuse-bouche:

 John Hollander:


John Simon Guggenheim,
Honored wherever the
Muses collect,

Save in the studies (like
Mine) which have suffered his
shocking neglect.



Benjamin Harrison,
Twenty-third President
Was, and as such,

Served between Clevelands, and
Save for this trivial
Didn’t do much.



William Cole

Yamaha yamaha
Yukio Mishima
Mourned for the militant
Days that were dead;

So he dispatched himself
Then an old friend kindly
Chopped off his head.


Share the word

How Does A Poem Mean?

September 6, 2022

Not what does a poem mean, but how does it mean.

This week’s post began with something that happened at the end of last week’s Fridays at Four discussion.  Someone read a beautiful short poem by Jean Valentine, “Mare and Newborn Foal.”   Someone else asked a question about what it was saying, I offered some quick impressions about possible things behind it, and the person who had read the poem stepped in and pointed out–correctly–that that wasn’t necessary:  the poem was whole and complete as it stood.  This is a crucial point.  All of my first teachers repeated something it took me a few years to understand: that a poem isn’t about the world, it is a world.  We understand it by considering how its various pieces relate to each other, not to things outside the poem.  That’s the aesthetic I’ve followed ever since.  There are others, of course, but that’s the one that’s deepest in me.

And that line of thought took me back to an inspired book title: How Does A Poem Mean?, by the poet, translator, and scholar John Ciardi, first published in 1959. Poems “mean” in very different ways, just as paintings do–from realism to impressionism to surrealism to abstraction, and an array of others (see the images above).  What we need to do as readers is discover how any given poem “means”–if we try to read it through a different lens, we won’t be able to make any sense of it.  If you try to read a Wallace Stevens poem, for example, in the same way you’d read a Robert Frost poem, it won’t work.  And vice-versa.

We find poems that seem to reflect the daily world we live in the easiest to enter on first readings, just as we might paintings that show recognizable scenes and objects the simplest to talk about.  But keep in mind that those “realistic” paintings are based on illusion–the techniques of creating three-dimensional perspective in two dimensions took centuries to develop.

As you read these poems, think about how they mean: the music, the language, the tone, how the images connect to one another.  Listen to them as if they were cello sonatas or jazz solos.  Look at them as if the were paintings–or an Alexander Calder mobile.  What do you hear and see?  One suggestion: I think you will respond to the beautiful music of Heather McHugh’s poem, but if you want to unfold deeper layers, follow the hint in the title and look up some etymologies.



Philip Levine

Here in February, the fine
dark branches of the almond
begin to sprout tiny clusters
of leaves, sticky to the touch.
Not far off, about the length
of my morning shadow, the grass
is littered with the petals
of the plum that less than
a week ago blazed, a living
candle in the hand of earth.
I was living far off two years
ago, fifteen floors above
119th Street when I heard
a love of my young manhood
had died mysteriously in
a public ward. I did not
go out into the streets to
walk among the cold, sullen
poor of Harlem, I did not
turn toward the filthy window
to question a distant pale sky.
I did not do anything.
The grass is coming back, some
patches already bright, though
at this hour still silvered
with dew. By noon I can stand
sweating in the free air, spading
the difficult clay for the bare
roots of a pear or apple that
will give flower and fruit longer
than I care to think about.



Jean Valentine

Sharing bread
is sharing life
but truth–
you ought to go to bed at night
to hear the truth
on the childhood clock
in your arms: the
cold house
a turned-over boat,
the walls
wet canvases…



Kay Ryan

The mind must
set itself up
wherever it goes
and it would be
most convenient
to impose its
old rooms—just
tack them up
like an interior
tent. Oh but
the new holes
aren’t where
the windows



Tomas Tranströmer (trans. Robin Fulton; McGriff and Grassl)

Spring lies desolate.
The velvet-dark ditch
crawls by my side
without reflections.

The only thing that shines
is yellow flowers.

I am carried in my shadow
like a violin
in its black case.

The only thing I want to say
glitters out of reach
like the silver in a pawnshop.



Mary Ruefle

Oh, I said, this is going to be.
And it was.
Oh, I said, this will never happen.
But it did.
And a purple fog descended upon the land.
The roots of trees curled up.
The world was divided into two countries.
Every photograph taken in the first was of people.
Every photograph taken in the second showed none.
All of the girl children were named And.
All of the boy children named Then.



Heather McHugh

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear.

Calm comes from burning.
Tall comes from fast.
Comely doesn’t come from come.
Person comes from mask.

The kin of charity is whore,
the root of charity is dear.
Incentive has its source in song
and winning in the sufferer.

Afford yourself what you can carry out.
A coward and a coda share a word.
We get our ugliness from fear.
We get our danger from the lord.








Share the word

Poems You Have Questions About

August 29, 2022

  I’m thinking about poems I have questions about.  Many of them are poems I love for their music and mystery–something draws me back to them over and over, but I have trouble describing them to myself or others.  Some are poems other poets value–people I respect–but that feel impenetrable, opaque to me.  They make me feel stupid, and that makes me angry, so I keep asking why they like them.  When I’m that passionate, it almost always means I’m working up to really engaging with them–if I didn’t care, I just wouldn’t bother with them.  And of course there are well known poems that include something that  baffles me, but I’m too embarrassed to ask about it.  I’d like this to be a space where we can ask those questions, from large to small–anything from an image that puzzles you, or a line you’re not sure how to read, to What’s a way into this poet?

This is definitely audience participation.  I’d like you to add a poem in the comments section here, along with your question or questions about it. Please do that as early as possible so that people have time to read and think about them before we discuss them during this week’s Fridays at 4 (eastern time).

I’m priming the pump here with some poems I have questions about.  I am really drawn to Laura Kasischke’s work, and read her poems with a lot of pleasure.  At the same time, I’m not always sure what exactly is happening in them or how to talk about them to someone else.  I think the best way to learn to read anyone’s poems is to read a lot of them, whole books, but since we can’t do that here I’m including three.

In “Mushrooms,” my questions are about the last two lines: Is the mother saying it?  The daughter?  Has the mother been lost in thought?  The child lost?  Why is the child crying?  In “In this Order,” my question is about “Watery.  Irony.  Memory.”  I love the word play of it, these words with similar endings that aren’t really parallel.  I know what watery means–does irony here mean “like iron”?  But then what to make of memory in that trio?  What’s the tone of “You’ve Come Back to Me,” the emotion?  Is the speaker happy about the return?  Angry?

Now let’s see the poems you have questions about.


three poems by Laura Kasischke, from her book The Infinitesimals:



Laura Kasischke

Like silent naked monks huddled
around an old tree stump, having
spun themselves in the night
out of thought and nothingness—

And God so pleased with their silence
He grants them teeth and tongues.

Like us.

How long have you been gone?
A child’s hot tears on my bare arms.



A tail, a torso, a tiny face.
A longing, a journey, a deep belief.
A spawning, a fissioning, a bit of tissue
anchored to a psyche,
stitched to a wish.
Watery. Irony. Memory. My
mother, my face, and then

the last thing
she’d ever see, and then
the last words
I’d hear her say: You’re
killing me.



A small thing crawling toward me
across this dark lawn. Bright
eyes the only thing I’m sure I see.

You’ve come back to me,
haven’t you, my sweet? From
long ago, and very far. Through

crawling dark, my sweet, you’ve
come back to me, have you? Even
smaller this time than the stars.
–for G.



Share the word