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How to Write a Formal Poem
(That Doesn’t Seem Like One)

abandon capitals at all times. Trust
Your sense for sound but, please, avoid rhymes. Choose
A rhythm you can readily adjust
And phrase what you mean so it does not fit
Iambic’s smooth predestination. Use
Your head, or use a pencil if you must,
To strike the telling signs—the damning clues—
Of regularity. You’ll get no credit
For manuscripts an editor won’t edit.

First published in Iambs & Trochees

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Vocabulary

For Joe T., with great respect and admiration

If my sesquipedalian leanings
Tend to flummox and trouble your head
To the point where my putative meanings
Seem elusive or denser than lead,

Then perhaps you should learn a new word
To unravel a difficult sentence,
An activity highly preferred
To demanding the author’s repentance.

After all, it’s a valuable service
To provide a new concept or two,
And a reader should never be nervous
About doing what logophiles do.

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Free Verse

So rarely do contemporary bards
Enjoy an upgrade in financial status.
Amassing riches isn’t in the cards
When one’s essential work is tendered gratis.

It’s said that poets write for other poets,
Which isn’t quite as bad as this must sound,
For those submitting verse at least will know it’s
Not subject to review by Ezra Pound.

Of course they’d like a broader readership,
But bowing to contemporary culture
Would just legitimize the septic grip
Of modern poetry’s licentious vulture.

As Robin might have said to Marian:
Preserve what’s good; all else is carrion.

First published in Blue Unicorn

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C.B. Anderson was the longtime gardener for the PBS television series, The Victory Garden.  Hundreds of his poems have appeared in scores of print and electronic journals out of North America, Great Britain, Ireland, Austria, Australia and India.  His collection, Mortal Soup and the Blue Yonder was published in 2013 by White Violet Press


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23 Responses

  1. Mike Bryant

    C.B. All three poems have plenty to admire, but I like ‘Vocabulary’ best. Now… I gotta hit the books and figure out what it means… not really, the words are all perfectly understandable with a little (very little in my case) understanding of Latin roots. You know, it’s possible to conduct an equine quadruped to the immediate vicinity of an aqueous liquid, but bibulation cannot be induced by any coercive process.

    Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      Wasn’t it Dorothy Parker who said: You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.

      Reply
  2. BRIAN YAPKO

    All three of these are extremely fun to read. “How to Write a Formal Poem” definitely hits home for me. First, I greatly enjoyed the understated but rigorous rhyme scheme which supports a somewhat wry tone. Second, I’ve written a number of “contemporary” poems and I feel like I’m cheating almost every time. I think poetry requires the discipline required to write with meter and rhyme to create something enduring.

    I also greatly admire your effortless cleverness with rhymes — especially in “Free Verse.” Rhymes like “Status” with “gratis”, “culture” with “vulture” and “Marian” and “carrion” are fun and very satisfying!

    Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      It had better be fun, Brian; I don’t do this for the money. I used to write “free” verse and even published a few pieces. But then one day I just said to myself, “Enough of this!”

      It’s difficult to write good free verse — nearly impossible in fact. But one must be careful here. I’m sure some writers use structures with which I am not familiar, and so lull readers into thinking there is no structure.

      Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      I’m glad Joe. You are the person who gave me the idea for the poem. I suspect that you are a closet logophile, even though you are down to earth and habitually plainspoken.

      Reply
  3. Margaret Coats

    In “How to Write a Formal Poem,” your most effective means of “not seeming like one,” is demonstrated rather than described. It’s beginning a sentence with the last word of a line, which I call “enjambment at the extreme” (lines 1, 2, 5). You really have to rely on this technique to hide your perfectly regular meter here. It’s also useful in disguising end rhymes as less obvious internal rhymes (lines 1 and 2). Great fun!

    Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      There’s another kind of extreme enjambment, Margaret, which is when the first word of a line is the last word of a sentence begun in previous lines. On at least two occasions, the editor to whom I was submitting the poem thought it awkward and asked me to come up with a better solution. In both cases, I acceded — never argue with an editor! And of course line 4 is not iambic — show by example was the idea, of course, as was the lower-case “A” at the beginning of the poem. Now you know what kind of goofy things occupied my mind in 2005.

      Reply
  4. Joseph S. Salemi

    Kip, I remember when “How to Write a Formal Poem” was accepted in Iambs & Trochees. Bill Carlson and I loved it on sight.

    Back in the 1980s and early 90s, there really was an attempt by some gutless “formalist” poets to disguise their work and thereby make it “acceptable” to free-verse editors. It was his rage at this cowardly stooping that prompted Bill to found Iambs & Trochees. I remember his growling about these cowardly formalist poets: “It’s like messing up your elegant clothes so that you can fit in with a crowd of bums!”

    Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      Back then, Joseph, in what I regard as the golden years of the formalist revival, I wanted desperately to become a member of that sodality. At the time there was a proliferation of formal-friendly venues, and I regarded my appearance in Iambs & Trochees as a rite of passage, as an initiation into the sacred mysteries. I once had a brief telephonic conversation with Bill. I had included my telephone number with my submission, and he pressed me for some bio information; and yes, his voice was a bit of a growl, as mine is now. I, too, once tried to fit in with a crowd of bums, but I have since discovered greener pastures, as you are well aware. I only hope that we live long enough to look back on today as a time when fond memories were created.

      Reply
  5. Jeff Kemper

    You authored quite some nifty stuff
    About licentious pseudo-poets
    And about their dreadful, fulsome fluff.
    I dig the most your drifty “know it’s.”

    Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      I do what I can, Jeff, and no more. It’s a good idea to avail oneself of every possible option. Everybody has feelings and thoughts, but good poems are made by those who can express these things well. Sometimes I just get lucky.

      Reply
  6. Paul Freeman

    Though I prefer traditional poetry (which on occasion I get paid for), I still sometimes dabble in free verse. It helps me focus my concentration on imagery, which is important in my prose work.

    Anyhow, after reading CB’s three fine pieces, I hope you’ll excuse me posting the piece of fun below. I wrote this limerick some years back when told nothing rhymed with ‘purple’:

    The folk in a cafe who slurp’ll
    Earn plaudits, whilst others who berp’ll
    Hear no yell or curse
    From this poet whose verse
    Can at last use that tricky word ‘purple’.

    Now, ‘orange’…

    Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      There used to a an online journal, called Strong Verse, that paid $10 per accepted poem. The last time I checked, the site was no longer active. One time the editor, probably for lack of formal verse submissions (which he seemed to prefer), asked me to submit some poems from my old stock, with the condition that I state the year each poem was written. He accepted seventeen of them, for which I received the princely sum of $170.00.

      The singer/songwriter Roger Miller beat you to it. In a song called “Dang Me” one verse went like this:

      Roses are red and violets are purple,
      Sugar is sweet and so is maple surple.

      And you need no excuse for posting ditties in the comment section. People do it all the time.

      I once (sort of) rhymed “orange” in a poem titled “In the Rue Family” and it started like this:

      “Knowledge” is a fair rhyme for “orange” (the fruit),

      It was published, for some damn reason, in an online journal called Ascent Aspirations. I have no idea whether or not this venue is still active, but I am certainly no longer active in writing pseudo-formal poems.

      “Silver” is another color that is hard to find a rhyme for, but I once paired it up with “Wilbur” as in Richard Wilbur, “b” being the unvoiced counterpart to “v.”

      Reply
      • Paul Freeman

        Many moons ago, when I was at university, there was a radio show on LBC (London Broadcasting Corporation) called the Tommy Boyd Show. It ran from 10 pm on a Sunday night to 1 am on Monday morning and was largely a phone in / write in show discussing almost anything. The rhyme something with ‘orange’ challenge came up, and the nearest anyone came up with was ‘car hinge’!

        Getting paid $10 to $25 per poem in a literary or otherwise magazine is quite standard these days, plus there are a whole bunch of free entry, or otherwise, paying competitions. I’ve been paid for everything from a 3,800-word Canterbury Tale (paid for at a short story rate) to a 28-word limerick published, though haven’t submitted much poetry in a while.

        That said, if I frequent a site, short story or poetry, I’ll submit my work for free if it’s a shared community. We all learn from each other, after all.

      • Julian D. Woodruff

        Sorry to be commenting so late. Great fun, CB.
        On modern poetry, I want to add:
        The modern bards cannot spell “and,”
        Ergo the handy ampersand.
        &c., & al., & more, I b&,
        For “and”‘s a word they all forg&.

        On color rhymes: I once did limericks in response to Adam Rex’s Nothing Rhymes with Orange (orange / four inch (es)) and to Jane Yolen, Henry Winkler, and Lynn Oliver, who somewhere note that rhyming purple is tough (purple / herbal). You challenged me on silver:
        To one whose lines I find
        I often want to pilfer–
        (It’s likely crossed your mind):
        A rhyme (sorta) with silver.

      • C.B. Anderson

        Julian,

        I think silver/pilfer is pretty good. “V” & “F” are really the same consonant — one is voiced, the other unvoiced. Such voiced/unvoiced pairs are similar enough to make a decent rhyme when in a medial position, yet different enough to make a perfect rhyme when used as initial consonants, e.g. very/ferry.

  7. David Bellemare Gosselin

    Dear Mr. Anderson,

    Thank you for sharing.

    I think there is an increasing interest in poetry that offers us more than just “lived experience” or “free verse” free association.
    People want something that has meaning, that they can actually ponder and think about and enjoy at the same time, rather than just “feel.”

    Robert Frost famously said, “A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” I think this remains an excellent standard for those seeking to write something lasting in the poetry world today.

    As for the question of vocabulary, I like the idea that ultimately a great poet is using language to express and communicate something which is in many ways “inexpressible” or unspoken—something that goes beyond all words. Finding the best words, and words that allow for more nuance, freedom and complexity increase our ability to do that.

    The universe is a very nuanced and complex thing. So I think that the more rich, the more nuanced and original our language can be, the closer and clearer these “inexpressible” things and the beauty of our universe may become.

    Best,

    David

    Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      It’s hard, David, to write a good poem with no meaning at all (asemic poetry), but it’s been tried. I don’t really care whether the meaning is a deep one or a small one. If a poem is not about something, then it is about nothing.

      Expressing the ineffable is by definition impossible, but there is always the possibility of a subtext. Does that come close to what you are getting at?

      Reply
      • David B. Gosselin

        When it comes to the question of meaning, I think Poe’s description of the “poetic principle” is very important. He describes what he believes to be the poet’s ultimate goal, beyond simply the creation of beautiful language, fine descriptions and rhyme. Poe identifies two very distinct requirements.

        He writes:

        He who shall simply sing, with however glowing enthusiasm, or with however vivid a truth of description, of the sights, and sounds, and odors, and colors, and sentiments, which greet him in common with all mankind — he, I say, has yet failed to prove his divine title.

        [A lot of writers are able to achieve this first part “and simply sing, with however glowing enthusiasm.” The second part is more challenging.]

        There is still a something in the distance which he has been unable to attain. We have still a thirst unquenchable, to allay which he has not shown us the crystal springs. This thirst belongs to the immortality of Man. It is at once a consequence and an indication of his perennial existence. It is the desire of the moth for the star. It is no mere appreciation of the Beauty before us — but a wild effort to reach the Beauty above. Inspired by an ecstatic prescience of the glories beyond the grave, we struggle, by multiform combinations among the things and thoughts of Time, to attain a portion of that Loveliness whose very elements, perhaps, appertain to eternity alone.

        Edgar Allan Poe – The Poetic Principle

        This is a great challenge, but I think that’s why Poe is stating his idea in the form he is, and with the kind of language that he is.

        The typical Formalist or Modernist (not all, but many) will dismiss Poe’s language as pure rhetoric. The reality is that Poe is using the kind of language he is using because his subject itself does not lend itself to the kind of “clear” language which the Modernist would love to prescribe.

        The reality is that Poe is describing something which is by its nature immaterial, a principle, which by its nature requires a different kind of language. So here we have an instance where the choice of language is not a question of style, but an indication of the nature of the subject at hand. THIS is what many (not all) Formalists and Modernists will actually protest against. It’s the immaterial nature of the subject and the requirements for treating such “abstract” ideas. They don’t like that, and it’s emotionally triggering for them because it ultimately challenges their world view. I think of it as the mathematician who says you can’t talk about God unless you can provide some formula to describe him.

        The issue is one of method and epistemology, rather than style and rhetoric.

        In a word: the whole point of poetry is to express those things which we can’t express with literal language or logic. That’s what poetry is for. Otherwise, why not just say what you want to say in prose?

      • C.B. Anderson

        Yes, ipse dixit, David, but I don’t know that poetry is, or needs to be, all that, yet when I read something like “Dover Beach” I get intimations of what it is I think you are talking about.

  8. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    C.B., these fun poems are entertaining, educational, admirable, and an absolute privilege to read!

    Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      Well, thank you, Susan, but I must say that having one’s poems read at all is a greater privilege than someone else’s getting to read them.

      Reply

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