Villanelle is not a Place in Spain

poetry villanelleHistoric Poetry in Modern Verse

Not all modern poets stick religiously to the credo of abandoning all historical forms of poetic composition in accepting free verse. While James Joyce is said to have included a villanelle in his ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ as a means of satirising Stephen Daedalus’ juvenile attempts at versification, Dylan Thomas is credited with one of the most celebrated villanelles written in the English language: ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’.

The origination of Villanelle

Although the word villanelle originated in France, it is said that there are more villanelles written in English than in any other modern language. I came across a close analysis of this form first in Stephen Fry’s ‘Ode Less Travelled’. Then, I wrote one of my own (Villanelle, p. 43).  Although there is no requirement for a fixed meter, a repeated rhyme scheme is characteristic of this form. With five tercets followed by a quatrain, the villanelle is made up of 19 lines. (A tercet is a three-line stanza). The first and third line of the first tercet are repeated in a patterned way in the following lines with the same two lines repeated as the third and fourth lines of the last verse, the quatrain. I found it to be a pleasing arrangement.

The Poetry of Dante

Another verse form I used in my book is Terza Rima (Retirement, p. 52). This form is said to have originated with Dante when he used tercets (symbolising the Trinity) when composing his Divine Comedy. All major English poets including Chaucer, Milton, Shelley and Byron have used this form. Among modern poets, W.H. Auden and Robert Frost have provided us with shorter examples of this verse form. It is written using an interlocking three-line rhyme scheme (aba, bcb, cdc, ded, ee). Given that rhyming words are not as profuse in English as in Italian, there may not be that much enthusiasm to continue to engage with this form.

Next week I shall briefly explore two other forms I use in my book. They are sestina and enjambment.

Migel Jayasinghe is the author of Solace in Verse.


Poetic Verb Use

poetic verb useOnomatopoeia sounds just right

Following my previous article on this topic, I must mention another important verbal device that poets use. This is onomatopoeia. The brief dictionary definition of this word is (Late Latin from Greek): ‘The formation of a word that sounds like that to which it refers’. More pertinent to poets is the second definition:  ‘The use, especially as a literary device, of words whose sounds suggest a sound referred to, or produce some other evocative effect’. ‘Crash’, ‘bang’, ‘wallop’ are simply words ‘suggesting the sound referred to’ perhaps not of much use to the poet.

Tennyson Broke Boundaries

When Tennyson begins his poem ‘Break, break, break, On thy cold grey stones, O Sea!’ he evokes not only the sound of the waves breaking on the craggy shore, but also uses the repeated assonance of the vowel sound ‘o’ to underline the sombre theme of the poem. Repetition (e.g. ‘My love is like a red, red rose’- Burns) is another device seen in Tennyson’s lines too, as the first line is repeated in the last stanza of his poem.

Make diction the choice of your voice

Now we come to another important concept in the composition of poetry. This is ‘diction’. Diction is defined as the ‘choice and use of words in speech or writing; manner of expression’. This is essentially what distinguishes one poet from another. It is basically his or her personal ‘voice’. Over a period of time, through extensive reading and discussion, the writer of poetry, or indeed prose, acquires an extensive vocabulary as the raw material of his/her craft. Differences among poets over historical periods or epochs reveal the changing nature and familiarity of words over time.

Right words spring to mind

The other day a reader asked me why I used a ‘difficult’ word like ‘passerine’ in my poem ‘Urbanization’ (p. 14). The first line of the second stanza is: ‘Among the passerine birds, the sparrow prevails’. Obviously ‘passerine’ was not a word in her vocabulary. Asked for the meaning, I said that the word ‘songbird’ would perhaps convey the same meaning. ‘So, why didn’t you say ‘songbird?’ she asked. I explained that in poetry every word must be the right one in context. For example, the word ‘passerine’ is consonant with the ‘p’, ‘s’ and ‘r’ sounds repeated in the words ‘sparrow’ and ‘prevails’ which follow. I am pretty certain that I did not deliberately set out to construct the line with that aim in mind. It is an observation made after the event. To any versifier it is not surprising for the appropriate word to spring to mind in keeping with his/her diction.

Next week I’ll take a deeper delve into poetry.

Migel Jayasinghe; author of Solace in Verse  .

Migel’s Solace Receives Poetic Praise

solace in verseMigel Jayasinghe has recently seen his latest poetry collection published by Strategic Books.  Titled Solace in Verse, it details Migel’s reflections of his autumn years – or rather, as he more eloquently says, his ‘golden years’ – and the impact of change from an active career to a more relaxed retirement. It’s perfect reading for those quiet moments when a little contemplation is called for.

Here, John E. Roper reviews the book, a review that was first published in The US Book Review.

“Please grant me space, I want to live
freed from past failure. A few forgotten
triumphs, thinly glimpsed, remain shining
like polished armour; though hardly a crusading knight
defending honour, faith or creed.” 

Daily life comes with constant demands. Focusing on a career, establishing and providing for a family, etc. can often be draining as we keep running from one thing to another. The change from an active lifestyle to one not as fast-paced in retirement can also be stressful. Some attempt to cope with this change by getting more involved in their community; others find more creative ways to adjust. Jayasinghe falls into this latter category, seeking Solace in his poetry. The result is an intriguing collection of poems that not only reflect his thoughts on his “golden years” but frequently turn more philosophical as he muses on topics such as religion and society.

Although his poetry often follows established Western patterns of stanza structure in regard to meter and rhyme, Jayasinghe occasionally experiments with other forms such as in the selection “Five Haiku” and the whimsical “Solace.” He is also not above engaging in a bit of literary allusion and comic wordplay in altered lines such as “The Ode Less Travelled” and “June is undoubtedly the fairest month.” All of his poems, though, whether serious or flighty feel to be almost watermarked with the poet’s personality. Whether raging at the world’s greed and materialism in “Price of Progress,” musing on aging in “Curtain Call,” or exploring the soul of a certain location like in “St Petersburg,” Jayasinghe pulls back the curtain just enough for a brief glimpse at the older, introspective gentleman who is deftly pulling the levers and operating the smoke machine of his wizardry. Solace isn’t a lengthy book, offering readers only four dozen poems to sample. However, like all pleasing tastes they leave the palate wanting more.

Solace in Verse is available from Amazon

Rhyme and Rhythm, Nursery Rhymes and Beyond

little bo peep rhyme and rhythmLast week, we published Migel’s first prose on poetry. Here he follows up.

Beginning with nursery rhymes, our experience of poetry is associated with lines ending in rhyming words. While ‘twinkle, twinkle, little star’ consists of a perfect four-line stanza of rhyming couplets, ‘Jack and Jill’ does not end its six-line stanza with the sixth line end rhyming perfectly with the third line ending. ‘Water’ and ‘after’ are more ‘eye rhymes’ than what are called ‘masculine’ rhymes.  A masculine rhyme is the true or, perfect rhyme where two words end with the same vowel-consonant combination (e.g. ‘June’, ‘moon’).

What do ‘feminine’, ‘slant’, and ‘free’, have in common?

Academics speak of several other types of rhyme referred to as ‘feminine’ rhyme, ‘slant’ rhyme, etc. These need not deter us here. The English language is limited as a source of rhyming words that the rhymes we come across have been around a long time, more to be found in clichéd ‘pop’ songs. This may be a reason why modern poets prefer ‘free verse’, ditching most established rules of prosody. Indeed, today’s poets use more internal rhymes than end rhymes to embellish their poems. For example, in my poem ‘Villanelle’ (p.43), after five stanzas keeping to the rigid aba, aba, rhyme scheme, I used an internal rhyme in the second line of the last four-line stanza. (‘Now thin on the ground and scarcely to be found’.)

Bang the drum and write rhythmically

Rhythm is more important in poetry than rhyme. Rhythm is described as the patterned recurrence of specific language features, based on sound, movement, and cadence. One must have an ear for rhythm, and in poetry, linguistic features such as ‘alliteration’, ‘assonance’, and ‘consonance’ serve as rhythmic signposts.

Poets procrastinate purposely for the art of alliteration

Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of words. In my poem, ‘By the Shore’ (p.32) the fourth stanza has the line ‘bathers thrash around the supple, shallow sea’, The‘s’ sounds are alliterative. Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds within words. Again, in the ‘Villanelle’ I have used assonance in the first half of the line ‘You tread the red carpet and escort her to the bar’. Consonance is the repetition of end or middle consonant sounds to enrich the texture of a line.  ‘The curfew tolls the knell of parting day’ is a good example.

Quotes from Solace in Verse by Migel Jayasinghe.

The Oldest Artform in the Book

solace in verseToday we look at poetry, with this contribution fro  WordPlay member Migel Jayasinghe, whose latest collection, Solace in Verse, was published earlier this year.

We were all poets once upon a time

Language is the vehicle for poetry as well as prose. Poetry preceded prose as literature when it arose from the oral tradition of human ancestors long before the development of the written word. That ancestry makes poetry a rich art form which uses words in regular rhythmic cadence clothed in repetitively memorable imagery and metaphor.

Poetry written in verse? I don’t think so!

Traditionally poetry in written form consists of stanzas. The simplest stanza comprises of a couplet, which is two lines of verse with an end rhyme. There could be different patterns of rhyming with three-line (tercet or triplet), four-line (quatrain), and five-line (cinquain) stanzas, and so on. In a sonnet, where the whole poem consists of 14 lines, the rhyme scheme can vary depending on whether it is modelled on Petrach or on Shakespeare. A soliloquy in a Shakespearean play written in blank verse has no breaks in stanza form. Narrative poems and ballads are similar. The term ‘verse’ is synonymous with ‘poem’ although the dictionary definition and usage indicate that ‘verse’ could be a more light-hearted attempt which does not aspire to the high artistic standards of serious poetry.

Poetry: science or art?

This brings us to the mechanics and tools of poetry writing. Prosody is defined as the ‘science of versification’.   The word ‘science’ here is a dead giveaway. Poetry is art. The attempt to classify and codify is something that critics and academics have initiated long after the event. Indeed, in the mid-twentieth century, poets broke away from the regimented formalism which they thought had stifled poetry (e.g. T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound).  They began writing in what came to be known as ‘free verse’ (vers libre).  Free verse is not the same as blank verse. Blank verse keeps to a fixed syllabic count or metre length in each line, whereas in free verse almost ‘anything goes’. There are no pre-set rules to follow. For example, Shakespeare’s blank verse already referred to, is written in iambic pentameter.  It is said that this is the most common meter for English poetry as it closely resembles the rhythms of everyday speech.

Poetry – a stressful way to write

To explain these terms in a little more detail, a metric unit or ‘foot’ is composed of stressed and non-stressed syllables. According to the manner in which the stressed and unstressed syllables follow or precede each other, these ‘feet’ are given various names. For example, the ‘iamb’ in the iambic pentameter consists of an unstressed followed by a stressed syllable. (da, DUM). Pentameter means that there are five iambs in a line. An example: ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’. A trochee is (Dum, da). Spondee (DUM, DUM) and dactyl is (DUM, da, da). There are many others, but the very mention of ‘dactyl’ reminds one of the pterodactyl, a prehistoric extinct flying reptile. Classical prosody has never been of much use to practicing poets.  If interested, do look up Google.

Poetry has its exceptions

Poets have not stuck religiously to these metric patterns. For example, although Shakespeare’s sonnets are said to be written in iambic pentameter, doesn’t ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds’ begin with a trochee? There are always exceptions because poetry is creative art and not an exact science. We shall look at other tools of poetry such as rhyme in the coming months. Meanwhile, any reader comments, questions, or contributions on the topic are very welcome.