How to Write
Contemporary Poetry

a pantoum

in free verse composition
keep letters lower case.
dump classical tradition
then cite the marketplace.

keep letters lower case
make use of ampersands
then cite the marketplace
if no one understands.

make use of ampersands
so texts can look progressive.
if no one understands
that means your work’s expressive.

so texts can look progressive
choose words meant to confuse.
that means your work’s expressive,
with no need for a muse.

choose words meant to confuse
in free verse composition.
with no need for a muse,
dump classical tradition.



Brush Up Your Shakespeare

If you want to get rich writing verse
Skip the stay at a London-based Hilton.
Grab some books and, for better or worse,
Learn from Tennyson, Coleridge and Milton.

But the blue ribbon poet to rave on
(Take Cole Porter’s advice with good cheer)
Is the playwright from Stratford on Avon.
So lay on! And brush up your Shakespeare!

Channel Hamlet like Gielgud or Hopkins
Then use phrases like “zounds!” and “ods bodkins!”
If you reference a romance-filled garden,
As you like, it’s the Forest of Arden.

Should your heroine seem adversarial
Make her charm-filled and sprightly like Ariel.
If your hero lacks any persona
Give him two – like those gents from Verona!

If their romance gets too hot to handle
Have your lovers cry “out, out brief candle!”
End Othello’s concern with that hanky;
And make Kate, the young shrew, much less cranky.

Keep Ophelia away from herb rinses
And bar Richard the Third from young princes.
Cleopatra should not bet on snake-eyes;
Don’t let Titus Andronicus bake pies.

Let your villains get lost in a tempest
While your hero prevails—that gets them pissed!
Have the royals you write commend all staff
And be truthful more often than Falstaff.

If your heroine whines but won’t do much
Tell the lady she doth protest too much.
If some squatters take over his camp spot
Have your hero shout, “Out of my damn spot!”

If your heroine’s tattoos are sprayed on
Make those artworks the stuff dreams are made on!
If your hero is too shy to seize her
Give him gall just like Julius Caesar.

With this fulsome advice, sally forth!
Write light verse just like Henry the Fourth
Or a comedy based on King Lear.
Just remember to credit Shakespeare!



Brian Yapko is a lawyer who also writes poetry. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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35 Responses

  1. Paul Buchheit

    Shakespeare would be rolling over with laughter. Very good, Brian.

  2. James A. Tweedie

    Hahaha! Clever and you must have had fun writing them! The first poem nailed the subject (as well as being an excellent pantoum) and my favorite bit in the second is how you embedded the title of WS’s play, “As you like, it(‘s).”

    Good fun. Thanks.

    • Brian A Yapko

      Thank you very much, James! I’m so pleased that you caught that slightly fragmented title embedded in the line. These Shakespeare rhymes were indeed fun to write. The pantoum, too, which is not my favorite form but seemed to lend itself well to the subject matter.

  3. Mike Bryant

    Love them. If only I knew Shakespeare well enough to appreciate every reference. Still plenty there for a plumber!

    • Brian A Yapko

      Thank you very much, Mike! I’m not sure if I get every reference either! But if there’s one reference to look up for the non-Shakespeareites out there, I think it should be the Titus Andronicus pie reference.

  4. Paul Freeman

    Brian, I take off my h@
    and really can’t believe th@
    you’ve swept free verse under the m@
    in twenty lines, five stanzas, fl@.

    And as Shakespeare might say – ‘Adieu!’

    Great stuff, Brian.

    • Brian A Yapko

      Paul, thank you for this! Despite the fact that your poem rhymes, you have truly captured the spirit of contemporary poetry! Let me give you a p@ on the back!

  5. Jeff Eardley

    Brian, you have dispensed a great dose of fun with these two. The pantoum is so clever and the Shakespeare piece has so many great rhymes, some I could see coming, others not. “Snake eyes” with “bake pies” is genius, but “Tempest” with “them pissed” is pure magic. You have started me off singing that song, was it from “High Society?” and I will start spouting him now.
    Great stuff today.

    • Brian A Yapko

      Thank you so much, Jeff! Sometimes a poet just needs a break from the serious stuff! The “snake eyes”/”bake pies” lines are two of my favorite. Rhyming tempest was tougher.

      I confess that the Cole Porter song “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” has been floating around in my mind ever since I made the decision to write this poem. It’s sung by the jovial gangsters in “Kiss Me, Kate” which is, of course, Porter’s spin on “The Taming of the Shrew” embedded within a wraparound contemporary (1940s) Broadway story. The show contains many other great songs including “Wunderbar,” “Another Opening, Another Show” “I’ve Come to Wive it Wealthily in Padua” and my personal favorite, “Where is the Life that Late I Led.”

  6. Cheryl Corey

    Your pantoum is spot on. In “Brush Up..”, terrific rhyming of “rave on” with “Avon”; “Hopkins” and “bodkins”; and my favorite, “seize her” with “Caesar”. Also, fabulous that’s it’s full of references from Shakespeare’s many works.

    • Brian A Yapko

      Thank you very much, Cheryl! All of the rhymes in the poem are my originals with one partial exception. I based my poem on Cole Porter’s “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” who wrote the lyric “But the poet of them all/Who will start ‘em simply ravin’/Is the poet people call/The bard of Stratford-on-Avon.” So I can’t take full credit for the rave on/Avon rhyme since I borrowed Porter’s rhyme idea here (albeit with my own spin since I “rave on” rather than go “raving” in New York gangsterese.) I hope my explicit reference to Cole Porter and the direct borrowing of his title makes it clear this is an homage to Porter as the original composer/lyricist in addition to the plays of Shakespeare.

      Thank you, Cheryl, for allowing me the opportunity to make that clarification. And thank you for your many kind words!

  7. Norma Pain

    These two poems are a lot of fun and very clever. I thoroughly enjoyed them. Thank you Brian.

  8. C.B. Anderson

    This, Brian is a superb example of what we call light verse, but as with all great light verse, there is a kernel of seriousness just below the surface. And for damn sure, you know a lot more Shakespeare than I do. Please enjoy this period in your poetic career when you continually manage to outdo yourself. This happenstance doesn’t always last forever.

    • Brian A Yapko

      Thank you very much, C.B. I’ve loved Shakespeare ever since high school where I won a competition for playing Falstaff in Henry IV, Part 1. I also wrote a lot about Shakespeare’s plays in college. The Bard has been a part of my life for a long time. And I sure hear you on the poetry front. I try to do my best with each poem. It’s not easy to maintain quality and creativity and my present output won’t last forever. But you once gave me a piece of advice in a comment on my Mystery of the Amber Room poem a couple of years ago: to never accept less than sheer perfection from myself. I’ve never forgotten that advice. I try to heed it and will continue to do my best.

  9. Roy Eugene Peterson

    Those are two great poems. You are so right about contemporary poetry that is usually amorphous, devoid of imagery, and has either no, or questionable substance lacking charm and vitality. I have several poems about the subject and plan on sharing a couple of them in the future. You exhibit a wonderful knowledge of Shakespeare with your references to things like “ods bodkins,” the characters, and the plays! In short, I really “grooved” on these poems.

    • Brian A Yapko

      Thank you very much, Roy! I’m grooving that you grooved on them! I have an interesting relationship with contemporary poetry because I’ve actually written a fair amount of it. But to me it’s rather like the fast-food of the literary world. As far as I can tell, it’s really just prose chopped into random lines. Anybody can do that. But to actually shape meter and rhyme into something communicative and, dare I say, maybe even beautiful — now that takes some real skill. Discipline, too. That’s one of the reasons classical poetry is disfavored by so many. It takes a discipline, patience and meticulousness that many people — especially young people addicted to instant gratification — aren’t willing to invest. It’s very easy for such people to whine “well, who likes classical poetry anyway?” Like I said. Fast food.

  10. Margaret Coats

    Brian, you are the first fiddler of fulsome farce! My preferred fun pun is “Give him gall just like Julius Caesar.” I will propose another puzzle here. I think you have named or alluded to the title of all the plays you quote, except one, and that one has two quotes here. Hamlet and The Tempest also have multiple quotes or allusions, but their titles are present in the poem.

    • Brian A Yapko

      Thank you so much, Margaret! How I wish I could put that “first fiddler” title in future biographies! The line “Give him gall just like Julius Caesar” actually had me laughing uncontrollably when I wrote it. As it happens, I had recently watched a documentary on Caesar’s conquest of Gaul so the pun was ready and waiting. As for the puzzle that you mention, although the omission of the play’s title in my piece was unconscious it seems perfectly appropriate since it is (for reasons I do not know) traditionally bad luck to mention this play’s name — at least in the theater. Perhaps this bad luck has something to do with the toil and trouble of staging it!

      • Margaret Coats

        Brian, I think the bad luck applies to performances. I have assisted in teaching the Scottish play several times, with no ill effects. But perhaps actors, who are taking a risk by performing, put a taboo on the name as a means of warding off a potential catastrophe. One of my Harvard professors had done a great deal of research on the curse, and found that it did not begin in Shakespeare’s time or place, but in the Netherlands in the 17th century. There was a performance with a love triangle among the actors, and the deceived husband did in fact murder his wife’s lover on stage, and escaped because no one realized the violence was not play-acting. Since then there have been numerous misfortunes in connection with performances. Although it is my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays, with some of his most moving lines, I have never seen a performance. I once had purchased tickets, months ahead of time, for one at Stratford, but several things worked out so that I did not see it. There must be something to that curse.

  11. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Brian, I adore these hilarious poems written with romp-along smoothness and rhymes to die (laughing) for.

    ‘How to Write Contemporary Poetry’ is a perfect example of choosing the right form for the subject matter – the repetition in this poem is a shining highlight that hammers home your spot-on point so well that a knowing giggle is inevitable. Very well done indeed!

    But (for me) your pièce de résistance is ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’ – the wit, the wackiness, the wonder, the clever references, and those hoot-inducing end rhymes – tempest/them pissed is a stroke of poetic and comedic genius that had me reeling like a drunken Falstaff! What more could this Shakespeare fan ask for. Brian – thank you!!

    • Brian A Yapko

      Thank you so much, Susan. I’m thrilled that you like the two pieces! The pantoum practically wrote itself. I’ve sometimes struggled with pantoums but I think the key may well be finding the right subject matter. I was lucky on this one.

      On my Shakespeare poem, I especially hoped you would read and enjoy it! When I wrote the line “Keep Ophelia away from herb rinses” (the poor girl likes flowers with specific properties and sadly drowns) I thought “this line is for Susan.” I was recalling your very sad “Remembering Ophelia” poem. As a fellow Shakespeare lover, you know that he really is an inexhaustible source of poetic material!

  12. Joshua C. Frank

    Brian, these are great, as usual! While I’m not as familiar with Shakespeare as you, I could still appreciate the jokes in “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.” Those are well done, with all the references to his plays. But I really like “How to Write Contemporary Poetry.” I love the French forms, and the pantoum is perfect for this one. And, of course, there’s the irony that it’s about writing free verse and dumping tradition while you use rhyme and meter and pay minimal lip service to the idea of free verse with the lines beginning with lowercase letters. My favorite lines are, “if no one understands/that means your work’s expressive.” That’s the contemporary poetry world in a single sentence!

    It’s a shame that a lot of editors won’t even look at poetry done in a traditional form. I recently submitted some poems to a magazine (that normally accepts traditional poetry from conservative poets) for a special issue edited by guest editors, who turned out to be “post-modern,” so they rejected my poems just because they aren’t free verse. Had I written pompous prose with random line breaks, I might have been accepted… but who wants to attach his name to that kind of drivel?

    • Brian A Yapko

      Thank you so much, Josh! I’m very pleased that you like my Shakespeare poem and I hope it’s at least somewhat enjoyable to those who are not totally familiar with his plays. I’m also glad you like my “Contemporary Poetry” poem. Now an interesting thing about the pantoum — it’s actually not an original French form. It’s a Malaysian form which was somehow discovered and adapted into French and English in the last 200 years or so. In my opinion, it’s a difficult form to work with because it has such strong limitations. The form has a sing-song quality — you need just the right subject matter to make it not cloying or annoying.

      You’re certainly right about the state of poetry publication these days. It’s somewhat disheartening that the vast majority of literary publications have no interest in rhyming, metered poetry. Imagine if classical music sites had no interest in symphonies, chamber pieces or choral music — but everything else is welcome!

      I agree that pompous prose (with an emphasis on navel-gazing) is indeed annoying. But one thing about free verse — despite it being literary fast-food, I think it’s worth it for poets to try their hand at it. Yes, it’s a bit like a competent English speaker speaking in pidgin, but if speaking pidgin allows the poet to communicate effectively with people he might not otherwise reach, perhaps it’s worth it. It certainly won’t impair the poetic or speaking skills the poet has already mastered. On the other hand, nobody wants to see Rembrandt paint in the style of Jackson Pollock. Something beautiful and sacred would be drastically diminished…

      • Joshua C. Frank

        What an interesting concept, classical poets writing in free verse… there’s the problem you mention, but also, when I try to write in a different style like that (or even Paul Simon’s stew-of-images style), I find that the quality suffers. I think our work is best when we bring to it what only we can bring.

        Also, publications that don’t take rhyme and meter are by nature so liberal, they won’t accept anything we write because of our already published work. I’ve learned that the hard way.

        We’d have more success at an open mic, reading our blatantly conservative work—they’d call for our heads, but at least we’d get a wider audience! (I can just imagine reading “Arlington,” “A Woman’s Right,” and “Two Empty Chairs” in a room full of today’s college kids, with lots of rainbow flags and hair…)

  13. James Sale

    Ha ha ha!!! Very brilliant writing Brian; both poems are ingenious, witty and so technically accomplished. There is so much to learn from writing like this, and it lends itself to mimesis: we need poems like yours in the educational system so that kids and students can see what is really possible in poetry in terms of expressive capabilities and not simply the fripperies of ampersands, no lower case etc etc etc and ‘no muse’! Well done.

    • Brian A Yapko

      Thank you very much for this comment, James! You’ve made my day!

  14. Patricia Allred

    Two delightful bright lights, Brian…
    Being a huge Cole Porter, fan…
    I have a tend to fav the second!
    You are so clever. Best of all I needed a
    laugh and your wit, had me smiling.

    Thank you.

    • Brian A Yapko

      Thank you so much, Patricia! Cole Porter wrote so many great songs!


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