1.   There is no universally accepted definition of what a poem is.   

2.   There is no agreement on what a poem is not.   

3.   Prosody is the study of versification.   

4.   ‘Versody’ is not a word.

5.   Versification is the art of making verses.

6.   A stanza is a verse paragraph. Sometimes it is called a ‘verse’. 

7.   A verse is made of verse, and most verse comprises verses.

8.   The canon is not a weapon, and does not have balls, although it sometimes feels as though it is, and does.

9.   Alfred Austin succeeded Alfred Lord Tennyson as poet laureate in 1896. He wrote a verse autobiography, The Door of Humility,
      which nobody alive has read.

10.  The ink used in 99.99% of poetry publications is black.

11.  A list poem is usually formatted vertically and left-justified i.e. it does not list.

12.  If a list poem is entered into the National Poetry Competition, it could be said to have entered the lists.

13.  Writer’s block is even in Wikipedia. But this is not a problem. A computer can write poems for you. Here is my latest.

14.  More poets are alive than dead. They thrive.

15.  More poems are dead than alive.

Lino print by Gillian Rose

Reining in the high horse

Do you say ‘weep’ ever – except inside a poem?

It’s a word I noticed a lot during the reading window. If you’re a rhyming poet, ‘weep’ has always offered temptation because it goes with sleep and deep and keep. Also ‘weeping’, as a feminine ending, has a deliciously mournful fall to it.

But these days there aren’t so many rhymers. The poets are doing other things. These things include a subconscious (I think) attraction to certain ‘poetic’ words. They tend to turn up towards the end of a poem.

The little word ‘yet’ is one to watch. It often signals a mini-epiphany (‘and yet’), which means the poet may be getting onto her high horse. 

On the other hand, ‘yet’ (meaning ‘but’) may put in an appearance because the poet has already used ‘but’ and needs an alternative.

Alas (and ‘alas’ has gone, except for entirely mock sorrow), poetic technique is tricky. A matter of getting the balance right between deliberate repetition (allowable even on a low horse) and accidental harping on one word too much.

And yet ‘yet’ is allowable, even in contemporary conversational register, in the phrase ‘yet again’, or ‘not yet’. So it’s not the word itself that’s retro: it’s the way it’s used. 

Which brings me to ‘for’.

‘For’ as an ordinary preposition (‘This is for you’) is no problem.

It’ s no problem in a phrase like ‘left for home’ or ‘for the love of Mike’, either. But when you come across ‘for’ meaning ‘because’, you’re back in high-horse territory.

I couldn’t do it here for I would immediately sound odd. (See what I mean?) But it pops up in poems all the time. It’s more convenient than ‘because’, less business-like than ‘since’…

But back to weeping. If you need to weep (in a poem) and don’t want to use the word, what will you do?

I don’t weep at funerals; I cry. But ‘cry’ brings its own problems, for it also means to shout out loud.

‘Whimper’ and or ‘howl’ sounds like a dog.

‘Keen’ is interesting and yet you worry what the person is actually doing.

‘Snivel’ is a person who doesn’t have a hanky, and ‘sob’ is certainly emotive though it sounds blobby.

‘Tear up’ is modern, unless you read the word wrong and visualise shredded paper.

In Scotland, we have the word ‘grete’ for weeping but alas it can get confused with the English ‘hello’, forbye. 

On balance, weeping in poems is not such a great idea. Though obviously if the reader weeps, it’s quite another matter.


Dreams and Rejection

So I’m dreaming and in the dream, I’m thinking, this dream wouldn’t make a good poem because it’s stuck.

Dreams like stuckness. They take it and put it in a giant symbol.

In this dream I’m on a train. This train is luxurious and very fast and packed with passengers. Among them, there’s me and my sister Louise. Louise has pushed my heavy suitcase into a luggage space somewhere and we’ve moved up the busy train to find a seat. But actually we’re not sitting, we’re standing and chatting.  

Before I expect it, I see the train’s approaching my station and I don’t know where the suitcase is. Louise goes off to find it. She doesn’t come back.

I don’t know where she is. I don’t know where my suitcase is. I have my handbag but NOT THE SUITCASE. I can’t get off the train without my suitcase.

The guard’s slamming the doors shut again – bang, bang, bang – and the train moves off with me still on it. Louise hasn’t come back.

The train’s carrying me in the wrong direction. It’s carrying me south and I want to be in the north.

Somehow I’ll have to get back. I go in search of my suitcase. There’s a small child following me who wants to play, so I have to hide in one of the toilets while the child disappears, and then creep out again.

Finally, I find my suitcase! It’s a dirty-white colour, and even heavier and larger than I thought. I can hardly drag it out of its space. How my little sister ever manage to stow it?

Louise reappears. We’re very glad to see each other though she doesn’t say where she’s been. My huge suitcase is blocking the aisle. We’re chatting and I realise the train has stopped. It’s sitting beside a platform and I should get off and wait there – wherever it is – for a train going the other way to take me back to my own station.

But the suitcase is too heavy. I can’t get it past the seats and into the corridor. The guard is already slamming the doors shut again – bang, bang, bang – and the train’s carrying me further and further away from where I need to be. The train is travelling south. I need to be travelling NORTH. Get me out. Get me out.

So that was last night’s dream, or part of it. The business of not being able to get off happened three or four times because I was trying to wake up and couldn’t manage it – and that’s why, in my sleep, I even began to think of dreams and poems, and what the symbols might mean, because I knew I needed to get up and WRITE THE BLOG.

In fact, I never did get off the train. I just, in the end, managed to wake up.

And what about the suitcase? You don’t need a psychoanalyst to work that one out. The symbol explains itself. It works at more than one level. I didn’t come up with it consciously. It sought me out. 

Poems often do something not dissimilar, especially those poems that seem simultaneously obscure and easy to grasp. I like dream poems (though many editors don’t), and I’ve written a number. I’ve even blogged about them before, here.

But what makes a dream like a poem? I think it’s the combination of symbol and powerful feeling, so not just any dream will do. It has to be strongly felt.

Here’s the background to one of mine, written after a poem had been rejected by a worthy magazine. This poem popped up, of course, beforesubmittable’ was dreamed up.

I know I urge other people to send poems to magazines. I tell them not to be put off when they come back, it’s something you have to go through. But the truth is I hate it myself. I hate the brown envelopes coming through the letter-box. More than anything else, I hate the fact that I hate it! Grrrrrr. I hate picking up the envelopes and feeling how heavy they are. If pretty heavy, that means ALL the poems have come back. If a bit lighter, maybe the magazine has taken one. Or even two! And if very light – could it be, could it be. . . ? And why do I even care?

Anyway, in the past I have often managed it: the sending out of poems and the dealing with returns. But it used to take me 48 hours for the cold feeling associated with rejection to go away. I thought this feeling was completely ridiculous but I still felt it. And the feeling did go away. It would gradually fade over the first day and night, and disappear completely in 48 hours. (Only 24 these days for ‘submittable’.)

But once I had a more complicated rejection. One of the editors of a magazine had liked one of the poems in the brown envelope but suggested I change a line. So I changed the line and sent it back cheerfully. Alas, another of the editors opened the envelope and must also have seen the poem before. This person did not like it, and returned it immediately with a snippy comment about it being no use sending in the same poem twice, they did remember them.

I was not just rejected. I was enraged and wounded. I was so full of injured rejection that I wrote a letter explaining how truthful and honourable I was and sent it to the unjust editor. I dreamed about the whole thing that night, and also wrote down the dream as a poem. I’m going to include it here, because it’s in Unsuitable Poems, which has now been out of print for years. (I may have to do something about that, if I can just get time. But the suitcase is so heavy. . .)


And then I woke up. . . .

You were extremely red in the face
and when you opened your mouth to speak
you made no sense at all, you were obviously pissed
first thing in the morning and I told you so.
Did you care? No.
You said they’d slipped something into the soda water,
it wasn’t your fault
and in any case you were never drunk before nine,
I should know that, and then
I had to marry the man who picks up litter round here,
the one with the funny hat.
I didn’t particularly want to do this because
I didn’t think marriage was a great idea and in any case
he was already married and had six children
but he was still keen and it turned out he was
the editor of a poetry magazine called Trash
and he told me not to be so stupid because
                                    I was only dreaming
and so I woke up except I was still dreaming and
in the dream I had woken up and was writing a poem
about the dream, another dream poem
for Kevin’s magazine Trash
and it was going to be wonderful, like no other
                                    dream poem
had ever ever been, and then I woke up
and bugger me—is this a poem?


Jacket of pamphlet Unsuitable Poems, HappenStance's first publication. It is blue and centred has the title at the top, in lower case, and the name of the author and the press ad the bottom, quite small. In the middle is the graphic of what Gillian Rose called 'the foetus tree'. It should a tree with a serpent wrapped round the trunk. The serpent has a woman's head - she is grinning -- and round breasts with large nipples. Where the tree might have round fruits, instead you can see they are more like eggs with small black human foetuses inside. Great tree.

The Strangeness of the Present Tense

I pick up the book in my left hand. With my right I riffle through to page 31.

I start to read. ‘She’s drowsy and deep,’ I read. ‘She’s drowsy and nearly asleep. She sits on the high chair and nods, like a little old lady, though she’s only two. She makes one weary cheep, a baby sparrow. From nowhere, in a flurry of perfume and patterned frock, her mother blows in, smothers her with kisses, and sweeps her up and away.’

That paragraph was in the simple present tense. Most novels and stories are these days. You get used to it, though in the nineteenth century (Dickens, Thackeray, the Brontës) they were all in the past, except for passages of direct speech:

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was now out of the question.
           (First sentence of Jane Eyre).

Like stories and novels, poems used to describe experience in the past tense: ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud / That floats on high o’er vales and hills’. In those Wordsworthian days, some words (o’er) were squashed to fit the metrical pattern. We regard that as seriously retro now, and most mainstream poems these days are in the present simple. It almost seems natural.

She’s drowsy and deep.
She’s drowsy and nearly asleep.
She sits on the high chair and nods
like a little old lady
though she’s only two.

However, it’s not ‘natural’ at all. It’s a literary device. We do funny things with verbs for creative reasons. When we’re just talking and not creating a literary effect, the simple present tense is what we use for habitual actions: I go to the gym on Tuesdays. I catch the bus and get off in town. If we’re describing what we’re doing ‘right now’, it’s the present continuous tense: I’m sitting down on the bus and I’m looking out for my stop.

But poets, for ‘right now’ descriptions, choose the present simple. It creates a sense of immediacy (and there are fewer ‘ing’ words). Sometimes the event happened ages ago, but the present tense is still hauled in, in which case it’s a ‘historic present’. We cheerfully buy into this literary device and forget it’s a stratagem.

A radio journalist would do it differently. Their immediacy would be summoned by the present continuous: ‘I’m looking at a little boy. He’s probably about two years old. There are sores on his arms and legs and I can see a bruise on his forehead. I’m going to talk to his mother in a moment. She’s coming into the house now.’

Another verb trick for poets (but not journalists or podcasters) is to bring the reader in with a series of imperatives:

Look at her. She’s drowsy and deep.
Look how she sits on the high chair and keeps
nodding like a little old lady.
Watch her mother sweep in now. . .

This can work – if not done too often. Tricks work best when they sneak up on you.

We prize a conversational tone in poetry these days. It’s part of our extended reaction against what was regarded as ‘Georgian’ or ornate in early twentieth century writing. So we do different things and think they’re not stylised. We do like to feel contemporary.

But we’re just as stylised as any age has ever been. It isn’t conversational to say ‘She sits on the high chair and nods like a little old lady’. It’s a cross between surreal dream style and the Janet and John books, ‘John sits on the chair. Janet nods. See, mother, see!’

Oh yes, I use the simple present tense myself in poems (especially in dream poems, where it’s great for capturing a sense of the surreal). It’s something I’ve learned, one of the devices of my age. Most poets use simple present at least some of the time. I’m not knocking it on principle. I’m just doing my bit for raising awareness.

Because sometimes I pick up a set of poems, and every single text is constructed that way. The ubiquitous I + simple-present-tense can wear thin.

There are changes that can be rung. Time for some ringing.

 Copper bells, hanging in sunlight

 photo credit: Of Tings and tongs via photopin (license)


On the absence of rhyme during the reading window

Page after page I read, and then
    another page I turn
and lovely things are popping up
    but I confess I yearn
for rhymes sustained and intricate
    and not just at the end
but in between and profligate
    and bursting to transcend
the free-ish verse and couplets
    (which can be very nice
but there are such a lot of them)
    and rhyme’s a sort of spice
that’s still employed by lyricists –
    they put it in their songs
and people seem to like it
    as if it still belongs.
I don’t want rhyme in every text
    but I’d like to see it more
and when Professors, sorely vexed,
    say English is ‘rhyme poor’,
that’s why we don’t write well with it,
    that’s why it’s out of use,
I hereby say To hell with it –
    that’s merely an excuse!


[This post is in honour of George Simmers
who has now been running Snakeskin webzine
for no fewer than twenty years, and is himself
a rhymester sans pareil.]


The question is: what is ‘the ‘caused’ doing?

“Flight C53Z62 to Southampton has been delayed due to mechanical problems. We are sorry for the inconvenience caused.”

“The 16.52 service to Portsmouth is running 15 minutes late. We are sorry for the inconvenience caused.”

Occasionally the apology is more formal. We regret any inconvenience caused. But we are sorry for the inconvenience caused is better.

All the same, why ‘caused’? Caused by . . . us? We are sorry for the inconvenience caused by our inefficiency? Or maybe caused . . . to the victims? We are sorry for the inconvenience caused by buggering up your plans for the day?

‘Caused’, in this familiar phrase, is redundant. We are sorry for the inconvenience means precisely the same thing as We are sorry for the inconvenience caused. The first sounds like something a person might actually say – I mean something a real human being might say. The second sounds like a tannoy announcement.

While being inconvenienced by delays, I spend much time reflecting on the official expression of regret. I very nearly said ‘on the phrasing used’. That’s because I was being dragged, against my will, into the same remote mindspace where words are offered as placebo. Inconvenience is caused. Phrasing is used. The verbs contribute nothing.

Nothing meaningful, that is. But maybe they’re there for the rhythm. We are sorry for the inconvenience caused is not iambic pentameter – not quite. But if you allow for the tripping entry of ‘We are sor…’, the rest is iambic, and it has that numbing quality of regular iambic verse. You can say I am sorry for the inconvenience caused and not feel a thing.

Once you’re into We regret any inconvenience caused it’s a riskier business. You can’t avoid the fact that the emphasis falls on ‘any’.  Such a statement may preface an overnight in a hotel, or a bus laid on to take passengers to Glasgow.

Besides, the definite article does have a function in the original phrase. It is not just any inconvenience, it is THE inconvenience, the concept of which floats through life on a regular basis. It is the inconvenience we know so well but for which we cannot carry responsibility. It is the inconvenience we experience with a wearily iambic sigh.

There are two other things I specially like about the inconvenience of an inconvenience caused. One is the issue of spelling.

Both convenience and inconvenience, when it comes to spelling, have one more syllable than is strictly convenient. As a result, a popular error is to write ‘convience’ or, more often, ‘inconvience’. We are sorry for the inconvience caused. (NB This has a different rhythm and fails to placate agitated travellers.)

The other pleasure in inconveniences is when they occur to toilets. One of the great British euphemisms for toilet is, of course, ‘Public Convenience’. So a notice on the door reading: “Closed for cleaning. We are sorry for the inconvenience caused’ strikes me as comic. Recently I was on a plane flying from Edinburgh that was delayed (really) because of a problem with one of the toilets. They were sorry for the inconvenience caused.

But the toilet was fixed eventually and we were invited to board the plane. As we went down the stairs with our hand luggage, a notice instructed us to Please use the handrail provided. Provided? What is the provided doing?

I could continue. Please, however, use the full stop provided.