Sonnet 201. The Force that Through the Green Fuse Pulls the Poem.

Written in the Dylan Thomas Museum, Swansea. July 2017

Oh to be the Poet! Love the words
And see them wound around the teeth and tongue,
To shake the shingle from the seas-absurd,
To dance upon the dragons’ blood burnt song,

With all creation calling throated-full
And you attuning ears and scars to hear:
We listen through our wounds as word-rain falls
To soak through skin washed raw in written tears,

As, passive to words’ touch, in bones of fire,
The skeleton around our flesh absorbs
A muffled ache, transmitted by desire,
To ring within the heart that howls the globe.

___How Gaia still inspires head, hand, pen,
___As force and fuse are driven forth again.


Sonnet 130. Change Their Story.

For ‘Room to Read’*

They say that there’s a way to there from here,
There’s maps and plans there’s menus into life,
But how to know which tickets take you where,
When you can’t tell the product from the price.

There’s dragons in the castles, so they say,
And trolls beneath the bridges, but I know
That what’s behind your eyes most blocks your way
To stop you getting where you want to go.

There’s scorn within the Tower, there’s concern
When ‘educators’ get to choose their texts,
But here the story’s ‘How the Hero Learns,’
No longer one in seven, signed as X.

___And let me ask: What more than literacy
___Best builds that bridge to hope from misery?


*Poet’s note: Room to Read is a charity primarily concerned with female literacy, and “Change Their Story” was the theme of one of the charity’s “pushes.” The sonnet takes the idea of Joseph Campbell’s Heroes’ Journey and makes the journey an educational one. The “tower” in line one continues the castle, dragons, trolls and bridges imagery from earlier in the poem and the “concern” spoken of here is to do with how much power educators have over those they educate. We could argue that educators should get to choose the texts they teach, and there are doubtlessly many cases when this is absolutely as it should be. At the time I wrote this sonnet I was quite concerned about this issue myself. I was teaching texts I thought particularly uninspiring, because they were at a level I deemed to be understandable to the students. I could quite understand someone questioning why someone would ask why. “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” should be taught at University level. (I’m sure I would ask myself if I wasn’t teaching it). But, to state an obvious truth, the story was not about me as a teacher, it was to do with appropriate material being selected for the students. And worldwide one in seven girls can’t read, so we are told.

Andrew Barker spent his youth working as bricklayer in England, before entering academia and obtaining a Degree in English Literature, an MA in Anglo/Irish Literature and a PhD in American Literature. He now works at Lingnan University in Hong Kong and releases poetry online through his poetry web channel His online Mycroft Lectures on poetry are popular with a wide range of netizens, and he is the author of “Snowblind from my Protective Colouring” (2009), and “Joyce is Not Here: 101 Modern Shakespearean Sonnets,” (2017).

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33 Responses

  1. James Sale

    Andrew, really like your poems – ambitious use of language and syntax, and the sort of compressed neologisms that Thomas/Hopkins were so good at. I look forward to reading more of your work – this is excellent stuff.

  2. Monty

    Very well written, Andrew: two fluid pieces, containing some most imaginative metaphors . . and within which, one can sense yer passion as a teacher, and for educational-standards.

    It puts me in mind of another poem elsewhere in these pages: ‘Decay of the Literary Sense’ by Joseph S Salemi; an equally-impassioned portent on the same subject. Or, more loosely, a masterpiece by the same author: ‘The Composition Teacher Addresses His Class’. If ya ain’t seen ’em; they’re worth a peek.

    I couldn’t help noticing in line 13 of 201: if the line was to end with ‘head, hand AND pen’, this would maintain both metrical and syllabic equality (assuming that the ‘Oh’ in line 1 is to be stressed).

  3. Mark Stone

    Andrew, Hello.

    Sonnet 201. 1. In line 13, I pronounce “inspires” with three syllables, and therefore the iambic meter in that line works for me. If one pronounces that word with two syllables, then one might want to insert an “and” before “pen.” 2. Although I don’t follow all the references in the poem (e.g., shake the shingle), the poem sounds quite pretty, with all of its alliteration, assonance and consonance. Line 6 is an excellent example of that.

    Sonnet 130. 1. Stanza 1, Line 2 (S1L2) contains two sentences, so I would put a comma or semi-colon after “plans.” 2. Regarding S2, L3-4, I would simplify the verb (so it reads more easily) and I would get rid of “stop,” which you don’t need. My suggestion is:

    That what’s behind your eyes can block the way
    To getting to the place you want to go.

    3. In S3L1, I would put a semi-colon after “Tower,” since you have a complete sentence both preceding it and following it. 4. S3,L3-4 read like they’re talking about the present, so it seems that “signed” should be changed to “sign,” and I would delete the comma in that line. 5. Because “misery” is a downer, and I wouldn’t want to end an upbeat poem with a downbeat, I would flip the last two lines. Here’s one possibility:

    What builds the bridge to hope from misery?
    There is no better bridge that literacy. OR
    No bridge is better than literacy.

    6. I enjoyed reading both poems.

    • Monty

      For ‘inspires’ to be sounded as 3 syllables. . would it not have to be spelt ‘inspiress’? In the same sense, it must follow that ya see the word ‘spires’ as containing 2 syllables. In which case: you’re saying that ‘spires’ and ‘choirs’ don’t rhyme . . is that the case?

      • Joe Quintanilla

        How ‘bout “fire” and “higher”… do they rhyme to you? The way I say it, they do.

      • Joe Quintanilla

        Spire, choir, fire, higher… all two syllables (for me anyway – I lived in Germany, California, and now Guam).

    • Monty

      I wish there was a way in which I could hear ya say the word ‘inspires’ using three syllables. . without deviating from the word’s natural pronunciation.

  4. Sally Cook

    In-spire -s,- in-spires — two or three syllables; probably of interest, but not top of the list? I have heard it pronounced both ways, and it is your call.

    I like the way you think, and hope to see more.

    • Monty

      I must tell ya, Sally: I’m currently sat with two close chums – both of whom possess a native (uk) english tongue – and we’re in unified uproar to hear it claimed that the letter ‘s’ can be a syllable all by itself . . and none of us are having an ounce of it.

      As I press these buttons, the three of us are sat here trying earnestly to stretch the word ‘inspires’ to 3 syllables; an’ it ain’t happening . . it CAN’T happen (unless one allows for a flagrant distortion of the word’s natural pronunciation).

      In such a case: how is it to be pronounced? Would it be in-spire-ez; in-spire-suh; in-spire-zuh; or would the ‘s’ be pronounced as in the word ‘shh’ without the aitches? In recent minutes, we’ve tried ’em all, and (notwithstanding some unusual noises and facial movements) we’re equally unified that it can’t happen (not without silly noises, anyroad).

      I must confess to not having thought too deeply about the following: but off the top of my head, it seems to me that if your claim was correct, then it must necessarily follow that every one-syllable word ending in ‘s’ (trillions of ’em) can be, if desired, rendered to a two-syllable word; every two-syllable word to three; three to four . . and so on. Is ‘shames’ a two-syllable word: shame-s? Is ‘details’ a three-syllable word: de-tail-s? Is ‘carpenters’ a four-syllable word: car-pen-ter-s? Can ‘spires’ be pronounced in a way that it doesn’t ryhme with ‘choirs’? (indeed, can ‘choirs’ itself be wrenched into three syllables?) Further; if a single ‘s’ can be considered a syllable: would ‘impress’ then become a four-syllable word.. im-pre-s-s? (To that last question, one of said chums put his head in his hands and asked: “What’s happening to our language?”)

      If ya’v heard the word ‘inspires’ pronounced with 3 syllables, then one can only imagine that it’s come from one with a non-native-english tongue (I have in mind the amount of humans your side of the pond for whom spanish is their first language; the accent of which, when speaking english, might.. MIGHT result in something like een-spy-uhs). But, if we’re talking about classical english poetry, then one must imagine that tongues not native in that language are not to be considered in such situations).

      A slight variation on the same theme: Native speakers in Nepal (where I live for 3 months every year) and north India have a fascinating and endearing speech-pattern whereby they can’t say an english word beginning with ‘s’ . . without first making the ‘ess’ sound (‘ess’ as in the way we pronounce the letter ‘s’). Thus, ‘school’ for them becomes ‘ess-kool’.
      I say this as it being the only example I’m aware of where an unambiguously one-syllable english word can be rendered into two-syllables.

      Needless to say: the above claim has been met with a resounding and confident ‘NO’ in my lounge; and we find ourselves anticipative as to whether anyone feels they could/should oppose our conviction.

  5. Monty

    Yeah, Joe: ‘fire’ and ‘higher’ do rhyme, but only as a near-rhyme . . not a full-rhyme.

  6. Monty

    I envy ya, Joe.
    After my lengthy rant trying to get my point across . . and now ya’v just neatly summed-up everything I was trying to convey by using only 1 line. Very economical.

    We both know that the plural for a group of spies is the two-syllable word ‘spiers’; and that’s the word that ya’v used to change ‘inspires’ from 2 syllables to 3. The way ya’v spelt it (in-spi-ers) reveals all that I was trying to convey.
    Spiers is 2 syllables, and we can insert a hyphen in between to accentuate the syllables: spi-ers. Can ya tell me where the hyphen would be inserted if one was trying to accentuate 2 syllables in ‘spires’? Would it be ‘spi-res’.. ‘spir-es.. or ‘spire-s? It don’t happen!
    The same with yer other offerings: ‘fire’ and ‘higher’. We know that ‘higher’ is two syllables, ‘cos one can insert a hyphen to accentuate such: high-er. But can one do the same with ‘fire’: fi-re.. fir-e? Of course not.

    As has been said: ‘inspires’ can only be afforded 3 syllables by distorting it’s natural pronunciation. Yer perfectly entitled to hold that ‘inspires’ is 3 syllables “for you” . . and it’d be 3 syllables for anyone if they chose to pronounce it as ‘inspiers’.
    If it’s still not clear; I can only suggest that ya repeat the following two words 10 or 20 times . . till ya hear the disparity in sound: spires..spiers; spires..spiers; spires..spiers . . . keep going!

    • Joe Quintanilla

      Ha! Exact same sound bro! Spire & spier… Exact. So funny! When you say them, do you pronounce the “r” the same way in both?

      • Joe Quintanilla

        Oh! Entry 2 for “spier” says the Scottish variant is more like SPEER. Never mind… too much brain power.

      • Monty

        I duly clicked, Joe: and I must confess that there was hardly any noticeable difference in sound.
        But, before clicking, I’d already noted that ya were quoting from a U.S. Dictionary: hence the words were narrated by a speaker of those shores . . and it’s not unknown that they have a propensity on that side of the pond to draw their words out slowly. Well, the aforementioned narrator didn’t disappoint: he said the word ‘spires’ practically in slow-motion. It must’ve taken him more than a second to get it out. If one was to say ANY one-syllable word ending in ‘ire’ as slow as that, of course it would begin to sound like 2 syllables – as in ‘higher’. The slower one said it, the more they would naturally form a 2nd syllable.

        I was speaking (and can only speak) of UK english, which is a lot more sharp: what is known as ‘clipped’. Hence, the average speaker this side of the pond would only take about a quarter of a second to say the word ‘spires’; short enough to dismiss any ambiguity about it being a one-syllable word.

        I’m not unfamiliar with the scottish accent, and I can assure ya that they would naturally pronounce ‘spiers’ as ‘speyers’

  7. Charles Southerland

    The ancient Greeks would sound out “inspires” as 2 syllables. They would even draw it out as 2 1/2 syllables but not three syllables.

    Short syllable, long syllable. Short sound, long sound. Let the Anglish fight over it.

    “In” is a really short sound. Add a “g” to “in” as a suffix and it brings the value of the sound up to a value of at least a 1 1/2 on a scale of 1 to 4.

    It’s pretty difficult to give less than a value of 4 to “spires.” You’d have to be really unenthusiastic (uninspired) or drunk to give it less. Anyone for a pint?

    One has to take into account the difference between qualitative and quantitative renderings of language. I vote for quantitative sound because it’s sound to do so.

  8. Beau Lecsi Werd

    choir [‘kwī(ә)r], inspire [in·’spī(ә)r]

    I’m with Ms. Cook on this one; and I use inspire as two syllables, if I want it clipped, or three syllables, if I want it extended.

    I would note that, in addition, to British and American pronunciations, the OED is also adding some Australian, Canadian, Caribbean, Hong Kong, Irish, New Zealand, Philippine, Scottish, Singapore, Malaysian, South African, and Welsh English pronunciations.

    I personally think South Asian English (Pakistani, Indian, etc.) and African English (Nigerian, Kenyan, etc.) are also important. The English-speaking peoples (to use a Churchillian phrase) compose a vast and heterogeneous group, contributing enormously to the World at large; and there will be varieties. Think what a farraginous group of views are expressed even here @ SCP.

    • Charles Southerland

      Choir, is a diphthong, as is spire. 1 syllable each…

      Ire, is one syllable.

      Ireland is 2 syllables. And so on and so on.

      Pronunciations of different words in different dialects of English vary in weight. Diphthongs are always diphthongs, otherwise, there would be no diphthongs in the English language. The ancient Greeks used diphthongs to great advantage in oratory. It was easier to pronounce vowel sounds (and still is) to project the speaker’s voice with clarity and power so that the audience would remember what was being said. It was easier to give a controversial speech using sound to please or ease the ears where people could accept what was being said, no matter how unpleasant. Unfortunately, it is a lost art today, even in poetics. And politics. And religion. And bedroom talk.

      • Joe Quintanilla

        I think I’ll just use the word “chorus” from now on… Ha!

    • Monty

      Therein lies my qualm, Bruce: the act of ‘wrenching’.

      Your above assertion that “I use inspire as a 3-syllable word if I want it extended” provoked in me the desire to scream from the rooftops: “Why would anyone want to extend a word? Leave it alone.” If a writer’s looking for a 3-syllable sound to fit a given meter in a poem . . simply FIND A 3-SYLLABLE WORD! OR 2 WORDS CONTAINING 1 and 2 SYLLABLES! Don’t try to wrench 3-syllables from a 2-syllable word. What right have we got to manhandle a word by trying to extend it into something it’s not? Is it the case that a writer can claim ‘poetic-license’ in attempting such an unnatural action (an action which can only result in a word being pronounced differently to how it naturally should be)? I fervently hope that such a flagrant misuse is not given rights under the banner of poetic-license . . ‘cos if that IS the case, then I will henceforth regard poetic-licence to be nothing more than a veneer under which writers can, if they feel, take an easy option.

      On the other hand: I perfectly accept that an apostrophe can replace a letter(s) when trying to ‘lose’ a syllable in a word; that’s another thing altogether . . which doesn’t result in the word being wrenched and stretched to somewhere that it shouldn’t be.

      • Joe Quintanilla

        But… is it “wrenching” if my natural speech pattern (and of those around me) count “choir” (kwai-urr) or even “oil” (oi-ull) as two syllables? How many people must say “choir” with two syllables before I can count it as such?

  9. Charles Southerland


    It doesn’t matter how you pronounce the word. It only matters how the syllables are metrically counted. When there is a question of lexical usage, always defer/refer to the dictionary as a guide. Colloquialisms don’t count.

    Many poets count diphthongs as 2 syllables in metrical lines. Most who do so wrongly do so. There are rules to English usage whether you like them or not. The reason for those rules are so that proper speech may be employed. You can do whatever you want. It’s your poem/s. Why not just go ahead and write free verse? Golly, the rules of usage still apply but rules are further broken which devolves the language into a further morass.

    Here’s a quote from the late poet, Donald Hall:

    “Poems are image-bursts from brain-depths, words flavored by buttery long vowels. As I grew older—collapsing into my seventies, glimpsing ahead the cliffs of the eighties, colliding into eighty-five—poetry abandoned me. How could I complain after seventy years of diphthongs? The sound of poems is sensual, even sexual. The shadow mind pours out metaphors—at first poets may not understand what they say– that leads to emotional revelation.”

    It is the sound of a poem that provokes a reaction of the reader or hearer. Why not try to construct the best damn poem you can construct? Manipulation of sound is pre-eminent to success. Damn your natural speech. It is inconsequential to a metrical poem.

    Why do you fight this truth?

    • Joe Quintanilla

      I’ve already concluded that syllable count is something to give a little more attention to and I accede to the power of the dictionary. And yet… within… this burning… this yearning… to FIGHT! Might it be that, along with hope, the need to fight is inherent to humanity? (..or maybe just my own.. HA!)

  10. Beau Lecsi Werd

    Mr. Barker’s brush with Thomas has inspired SCP discussion, especially his line:

    “How Gaia still inspires head, hand, pen.”

    For me his line reads perfectly iambic as is, despite Mr. Med’s argument for:

    “How Gaia still inspires head, hand, and pen.”

    Mr. Stone pointed out he pronounces inspires “with three syllables”.

    Ms. Cook suggested the two possible pronunciations.

    Mr. Quintanilla pointed out that fire and higher rhyme, but for Mr. Med they do not rhyme exactly.

    In my twenties, id est, from twenty-six to twenty-nine (and then even a little after), I wrote English phonetically in my broadly Western American English dialect; and I had to deal with rhymes, like Mr. Quintanilla has posited; and I also rhymed words, like crime and climb, a rhyme pair from Dylan Thomas, which Mr. Med recently suggested did not rhyme, but for me rhyme perfectly.

    Mr. Med suggests, in British English, the pronunciation of inspires would be “clipped”; if not he desires to “scream from the rooftops”—very Whitmanesque. I say go for it. It was invigourating in my late teens, id est. from eighteen through nineteen, I remember vividly declaiming to the skies, in an empty football stadium, walking down streets at night, even through cemeteries, on freeway overpasses, on bridges, in an arboretum, singing loudly to the wind. Like singers, from ancient Greece till now, I would extend sounds and clip sounds. There is a great fluidity to language; and it is one of the exciting parts of existence. By the way, in ancient Greek poetry, a lengthening of a vowel is called ectasis and a shortening of a vowel’s length is called systole.

    Mr. Southerland reminds us that the Greeks did not count diphthongs as two syllables; and that is, as far as I know, absolutely correct. However, and this is the important point, in their metaplasms (that is, speech for the sake of oratory ornamentation or meter), they would turn a diphthong into two vowels [diaeresis], or even two vowels into a diphthong [episynaliphe]. In short, in Greek poetry, a diphthong could count as two short syllables or one long syllable in the metrical line.

    • Monty

      If I may have a word with Mr Werd . . . I had no “argument” with Mr Barker regarding the line in question, only a ‘suggestion’. The word ‘argument’ was Mr Werd’s word; not to be attributed to me.

      Mr Werd may also have been influenced by his colleague Mr Wise’s propensity to use commas gratuitously; ‘cos, in the said line, Mr Werd has quoted me as using a comma after the word ‘hand’; failing to notice that in my initial comment, there was NO comma used after ‘hand’ . . for the simple reason that one doesn’t belong there.

  11. Beau Lecsi Werd

    For relaxing lectures, I listened to Mr. Barker’s lectures on “Digging,” “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” and “My Last Duchess” this afternoon.

    Pardon the Oxford comma, Mr. Med, and using “argument” as a reason for the aim of persuading. I can see it really was only a suggestion, and not an argument, even in the sense I meant.

    • Monty

      Kindly extend my gratitude to Mr Werd for his accommodation; and ask him to accept that I wasn’t being unnecessarily officious in my request for the expunction of said comma.

      It was purely down to my ever-present unease, even fear, at being misquoted . . in the same sense that some Irish fella called Wilde (who, along with Philip Larkin, are the two humans most responsible for me first starting to take poetry seriously 20 years ago) once claimed that “A poet can survive everything but a misprint”.

  12. Claude I. S. Weber

    Despite Wilde’s humourous admonition, I know a poet can survive a misprint; because it happened to me today (October 25, 2018). A poem of mine was published elsewhere today, and the text of a poem on an American novelist was switched for the text of poem on a French poet, retaining the title of the poem on the French poet. It was deconstructed—totally. Yet I’m surviving. Yes, editors are human too; not only do they make errors in print, like poets and critics, or teachers and commenters, but it is survivable as well, and really is very small in the great scheme of things.

    • Monty

      Times have changed, Bruce: a misprint can now be corrected with the press of a button.

      But ya should consider how things were in the days that Wilde was making such utterances. Imagine, back then, that one had finally had their first book published, it’s now on sale in the shops . . and then one learns that the publishers have committed a misprint(s)! Can ya imagine the feeling of utter helplessness; sentenced to a life of knowing that your work will forever be irretrievably blemished? I feel that I personally would be mentally crippled for a while.

      That’s what the Irish chap was getting at. Of course he was only generalising (we’d all react differently); and maybe he was just trying to envisage how he himself would react. Either way, when he chose to use the word ‘survive’, he would’ve been aware that individual humans would interpret that word in their own way: as you yourself have done.

      Regarding your above viewpoint that a misprint for a writer is “Really very small in the great scheme of things”; I couldn’t help noticing elsewhere on these pages that you’d deemed it ‘un’small enough to make an appeal to the editor: to swap ‘brings’ for ‘bring’.

      Did ya not feel that ya could’ve ‘survived’ that misprint?

    • Monty

      I didn’t make a misprint: thus I don’t have to consider whether I can survive it or not! As far as I can tell, I’m still breathing.

  13. Andrew Barker

    Thanks for the replies on this. I spend a lot of time with the syllable count on these sonnets and, without wishing to be non-contraversial, agree with what most people have said, but I’ll explain my thinking on this to anyone who is interested. To me, the line “How Gaia still inspires head, hand, pen,” works as a perfect iambic. “Gaia,” is two syllabled. “Inspires” has three.
    But in another context, “inspires” could also have two, depending on its positioning within the line. This may sound like nonsense, but the word that really demonstrates this for me is “memory.” I hear is with two or three syllables depending on its position in a line.
    For example.
    “The market for my mother’s memories” would have three.
    “Her memories of a better saner time,” would have two.
    (Remember, this is only when the word is couched in, or surrounded by, other iambic lines, and a small poetic event gets created by the iambic being disrupted. Which, in neither of these cases is desirable). What I’m saying is that when there is dispute about the number of syllables in a word the iambic gets the deciding vote.
    If I wanted to go one further, I’d argue that in,
    “My memories of those other memories,” the first “memories” would have two syllables and the second would have three, because hearing the line in this way is simply more pleasant.
    Though I would write it as,
    “My memories of other memories,” so both could have three syllables.
    Also, this attentions to syllable counting is but a moment’s thought, and I trust I’m posting this in a place where people also notice and are interested in this sort of thing, and I don’t get “What does it matter?” as a reply.
    It doesn’t matter. But it kinda does as well.


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