The Speed of Light

[Hilary quite correctly pointed out there was something rong with this poem in it’s original version. This is the revised version, which I’m still not entirely happy with but which is better. The problem is the first quatrain came to be entire while greeting the sun from my balcony one morning last week. I noticed how different each day was as we progress toward the equinox, now less than a moon’s turning away. The rest of the poem, though, remains obscure to me. The original version can be found below.]

Each day the morning sun slips down the sky
changing light of seasons moving fast
shadows lengthen like a lover’s sigh
future sliding softly into past.
Each day beneath the sky so clear and blue
above the dew-dropped Earth that smells of autumn
winds of change are blowing straight and true
scrubbing down the world from top to bottom.
Each day the trees are turning brighter shades
of red and yellow, oranges like fire
lit by morning sunlight, burning glades,
unconsumed, growing each year higher.
Each day the changing light greets morning new
Each day there’s time and still much work to do.

Autumn is a season of renewal for me, and yet at this point in my life I’m aware–very aware–that there are quite likely more days behind than there are ahead. But there is still a lot I plan to do in the late summer and early autumn of my life, and I am in fact busily engaged in doing much of it, with more to come.

Original version:

Each day the morning sun slips down the sky
changing light of seasons moving fast
shadows lengthen like a lover’s sigh
future sliding softly into past
day by day. The speed of changing light
announces Autumn, parabolic curves
blow silent fanfare, welcoming cool Night
through the gates of evening to preserves
once ruled by Day alone. And yet there’s time
before cold Winter blusters through the gates
and freezes out the last remaining rays
of Summer sunshine with a glance of hate
making final end of all our days.
The changing light greets each morning new
And promises there’s time and much to do.

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Deep clear cold running water
down from shadowed upper bend
distance dancing with time’s daughter,
no beginning, without end.

Sunlight dappled river bed
cedar overhearing
what the roaring thunder said
down rapids, water rearing

over rocks and into pools
where currents softly twist
plaits of shadow, catching jewels,
like fireflies in the mist.

Down around the lower curve
still the rushing river leaps
past the rocks in graceful swerves
water running cold clear deep.

From notes taken on the path to Brandywine Falls.

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Putting the \”Shake\” in \”Shakedown\”

I took Murrelet out for a shakedown cruise this weekend, to Plumper Cove, a local marine park on Keat’s Island on the Northwest side of the entrance to Howe Sound. It’s an easy day sail from here, about five hours in typical conditions.

spring evening at anchor a family of river otters sculls silently toward shore their small heads poking above the water's surface

spring evening at anchor
a family of river otters
sculls silently toward shore
their small heads poking
above the water’s surface

There was a strong wind warning up Saturday. Out in the Strait, there were winds gusting up to force 7 on the Beaufort scale, which looked a lot like this: the long streaks of foam are what really distinguish it from 5-6 in my mind.

But before getting to that, I had to get out of the north arm of the Fraser.

As the Fraser approaches the sea it splits in three: the south arm contains most of the river, but the middle and north arms have plenty of traffic, both industrial and recreational. The north arm is protected by a breakwater on the south side, and runs along the coast toward Point Gray, exiting into the ocean at Wreck Beach.

One of the fun things about sailing in Canada is some of our most popular sailing grounds have some of the nastiest water. I know a guy who has sailed all over the world, including off South Africa, and he says for his money the water between the mouth of the Fraser and Howe Sound is the worst in the world. I tend to agree: the confluence of waves, winds and currents mean that there are multiple patches of disorganized waves, or steep, short waves that make for a very rough ride. I got the latter exiting the Fraser, the former as I crossed over toward Howe Sound.

Murrelet is a 29 foot sailboat, with a nicely sized Yanmar diesel that never seems to do much work but moves the boat pretty well in all conditions. I was grateful for it Saturday morning as she dug her nose deep into wave after wave while I bulled through the transition from river to ocean. I’m a reasonably fit, strong, man who knows how to ride a boat well, but even hanging on to the steering stanchion and doing my best bobbing and weaving rather than fighting the motion, it was work. There was lots of crashing from below as things I hadn’t stowed quite well enough came out of their assigned places.

The tenders were a bit loose on the foredeck, despite my having tied them down earlier. I hadn’t anticipated quite so much bouncing. They did stay in place, more-or-less, although it looked like I might lose one overboard at one point. I simply ignored them while conning Murrelet through the mess. A sailor’s priorities are very simple: keeping the ship matters; nothing else does.

I saw a number of boaters turn back at the transition zone, and reasonably so. And I talked to a guy on the docks today who did the same. Knowing your boat and your own capabilities are critical to safety.

After what seemed like a long time, but was probably only five or ten minutes, I was through the worst and got the jib up, which hardened the boat up a lot. Sailboats want to sail. The wind being what it was, I cut across to Point Atkinson through more dirty, conflicted water. Unlike the stuff at the river mouth, this was just disorganized, with large waves moving in several directions at once. We take this stuff for granted on the West Coast, but it really is something that most places don’t have to deal with. Lucky them.

Heading toward Howe Sound. The state of the main is explained below.

Heading toward Howe Sound. The state of the main is explained below.

On the good side of the ledger: Murrelet came through with flying colours. She handled easily and took as good care of me as was possible under the circumstances. She bucks and screws pretty hard under the right circumstances, but she’s predictable, which is really important.

I did learn some things about her:

1) The autopilot motor should be mounted pointing forward. If you put it on backward it not only gets in the way, the poor electronic brain thinks port is starboard and vice versa, resulting in uh… sub-optimal performance.

2) It is surprisingly easy to lose the manual bilge pump handle overboard when you do not properly seat it in the pump bellows, which results in it flipping out of your hands on the up-stroke and spinning through the steps of the pulled-up swim-ladder, to be lost to the ocean somewhere off Bowen Island. The shear elegance of this event is not to be under-estimated: if it hadn’t been spinning end-over-end in just the right way it wouldn’t have made it through the ladder steps. It was really quite entrancing. Although it does mean I have to buy a new pump handle.

3) The windlass for the anchor has a separate switch under the chart table, outboard. I knew there was such a thing but could not for the life of me remember where it was, all while drifting in Plumper Cove in the hope of anchoring. Anchoring theater is something sailors live for, and I’ve seen people spend twenty minutes trying to catch bottom, to the quiet amusement of all around. I didn’t want to be one of those people, so I did what any confident, capable sailor would do: I called the previous owner, and said, “Hi Lillian, it’s Tom. I’m trying to anchor Murrelet. Where’s the breaker for the windlass?” Fortunately she was home. Note to new boat-owners: always keep the previous owner on speed-dial. My last boat I got a call about six weeks after she sold, adrift off Sidney, wondering if there was some trick to getting the engine started (there wasn’t, although I hope the advice I gave him about checking the electric fuel pump was useful.)

4) The anchor rode is marked every 25 feet with red paint and yellow zip-ties. It’s all chain, so you can’t tell when the anchor is on the bottom because the chain always hangs vertically under its own weight instead of going slack like nylon does. Every boat I’ve had with all chain rode has 25-foot markings. Maybe it’s some kind of ISO standard I don’t know about. If it is, it’s the only thing about sailing that is standardized.

5) I cleverly double-reefed the main before leaving port, as I knew the wind was high, but I’ve literally never reefed a sail before (other than roller reefing a jib, which doesn’t count) except to practice. It turns out you want to make sure the out-haul is taunt before you tie the reef-points, or you wind up with something pretty creased and ugly (see picture, above.)

Overall, it was a really good first trip. Despite heavy use of sunscreen I got way too much sun on my face, but there are much worse problems to have.

Complete with tacky Hawaiian shirt.

Complete with tacky Hawaiian shirt.

I think Murrelet and I are going to do well together.

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Notes on Genre and Wants

Notes from Graeme Duffy’s Soap Opera genre workshop at VTSL, which was run with their new intensive gym format of two weekend afternoons followed by a performance:

These are general notes, not specific to the form, although the observation that the soap opera form provides a template for relationship drama that can be transplanted into different contexts–medical, legal, whatever–really helped focus on how the stories are always about relationships.

1) Things gel. Our first run-throughs were rough and awkward. We were trying stuff out and sometimes it felt not so good. We trusted in ourselves as individuals and a group and it all came together nicely. This has become a common enough experience for me that by the time we were on our second run-through on the first day I was confident in our ability to get it amazing in the end, even though I didn’t see how w we could get there from here. This is similar to the process in technical problem solving where you reach a point that you know you will find a solution to a problem even though you do not yet know what that solution is.

2) The inner life of characters. Graeme commented on the life-history of his hunchback character, to the effect that, “That guy as has been in thousands and thousands of scenes. All of that informs who he is.” This was a really lovely way of identifying the value of characters who recur in your own work, because you are discovering how that character reacts in a wide range of situations, which is especially useful because…

3) Play the scene, not the narrative. Let your character do what they would do in the scene, with only local, in-scene concerns as the focus. The narrative will (mostly) take care of itself. Stories want to be told. Carrie later mentioned a thing by TJ and Dave where they talk about how all the stories we tell are going on before we tell our part of them, and they go on after we have stopped telling our part of them. Terry Pratchett talked a lot about this too, as have others. Narrative causality will take care of the big picture. All we have to do is be that character in that scene.

4) Wants. We only started playing wants heavily the second day, and it both made everything easier and made manifest how wants affect the story.

It made everything easier because every story became the story of various people pursuing their wants and either failing or succeeding in fulfilling them. It’s that simple. That is what a story is: someone with a want either fulfills it or does not. If there is more than one person in the story there are multiple wants and they can come into conflict, but that conflict is not what drives the story. The wants drive the story.

Given that, it’s no surprise that when the wants changed, the stories changed. We did a couple of run-throughs where characters had different wants, and it was like a little controlled experiment on how wants change the story. It might be interesting to do a “Wants Workshop” where we focus on a few characters, and simply do repeated scenes with different wants and see how that results in different stories.

It was also interesting to see how individual characters’ wants sometimes diffused out of their own storyline and into the broader narrative–Joe Jone’s desire to do down Tate Powers ended up as a pretty general conspiracy against the poor guy.

Overall this was one of the best improv workshops I’ve done, easily in the top three. Graeme did a fabulous job as always, and I couldn’t have been with a better group of people. Thanks, guys.

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In the firelight stories grow
between the shadows, with the glow
of ember’s heat and flame’s soft light
while the darkness of the night
presses in and all around
the shadows dance across the ground.

Here within the circle’s magic
legends rise: comedic, tragic,
strange, compelling, sad, uplifting,
while the smoke is softly drifting
toward the stars where heroes dwell…
of their lives the stories tell:

Andromeda strains on her rock;
Heaven’s Shepherd guards his flock;
Crooked Running Water flows;
Great Fisher plants the summer rose;
Rahu and Ketu eat the Moon;
Haft-owrang’s seven sisters loom. [*]

Beneath the ever-changing sky
As the dawn is drawing nigh
When the fire is down to coals
Bodies curl for warmth, and souls
Entangle in the dark
Warmed by stories’ living spark.

[*] Greek/Sumerian/Chinese/Native American/Indian/Persian

I’ve been doing a lot of musical improv lately, thanks to the brilliant and wonderful Jennifer Pielak, whose work as a teacher and performer I cannot recommend enough. It has got me thinking a lot about music, and the human voice. Poetry in my world is speech before it is anything else, and music in some primordial sense is the sounds we make with our bodies. Instruments are great, but the vibration of the vocal chords, the clap of hands, the slap of flesh on flesh… these are the core of music. Without them, we would never have gotten to the piano or violin or whatever.

All of which reminds me of an idea that Matt Bernardo told me about once, that music, not mathematics, is the fundamental thing unifying all intelligence in the universe (it sounds way flakier than I intend when I say it that way, but so what?)

So I found myself thinking about hominds in the circle of firelight. The use of fire predates modern humans by at least half a million years. The smoke of burning woods smells pleasant to us, whereas other animals are generally not so keen on it. Fire, and the love of fire, is in our genes: we are descended from and evolve from fire-loving creatures. Who gathered in the darkness around the light, who made music. Not words, but sounds, rhythmical, melodic… together.

This poem doesn’t reach that far back in time, but it grew from the idea that gathering in the firelight to make music together is a primordial experience, uniting all human cultures everywhere.

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Improv and Elaboration

This is a simply brilliant article by Lloyd Alexander on the challenges of story construction in a fantasy world, which is pretty much every world there ever was.

The creation of a fantasy that starts from the ground up is something else again. Melancholy men, they say, are the most incisive humorists; by the same token, writers of fantasy must be, within their own frame of work, hardheaded realists. What appears gossamer is, underneath, solid as prestressed concrete. What seems so free in fantasy is often inventiveness of detail rather than complicated substructure. Elaboration — not improvisation.

Reading that, I find myself thinking, “Isn’t improv mostly elaboration?”

That’s what “Yes, and…” means: we elaborate on the offers that have come before. The trick with improv is that we mostly build the foundation we are elaborating on as we go. So there is that difference. But one of the basic tricks of improv is that it is more elaboration than improvisation, and that’s what makes it amazing to audiences: they think we are improvising when we are mostly elaborating.

After Spoiler Alert!‘s recent Twilight Zone show a student said to me, “You must have rehearsed parts of that, right?” This is the greatest compliment an improvisor can get, and it happens because people assume we are improvising rather than elaborating.

Improv is impossible. Unless, rather than “make it all up” we instead elaborate on some commonly understood, agreed-upon story structures in the context of the offers that have gone before.

180 Improv, a troupe I co-founded (shameless plug) has the goal of “Performing Amazing Human Stories”, and we do it by elaborating. We do the simplest thing in the world (which is hard as hell, because “simple” and “easy” aren’t the same at all): we take a character on a meaningful journey.

There are plenty of other improvisors out there doing the same thing. Sin Peaks, Vancouver’s improvise soap opera, is a great example of this: a long story told over time, engaging audiences via continuous elaboration on well-established characters. Improv.

We don’t have to make it all up, even though we make it all up. The Hero With a Thousand Faces is already in everyone’s mind, in everyone’s soul. We don’t have to make that up: it’s just given to us. What we have to do–what the secret is, what the magic is–is to use that knowledge effectively.

Improv is elaboration. It is elaboration both on pre-existing expectations in the audience’s mind, and elaboration on the offers that have gone before. If we can make those two kinds of elaborations work well together, so we figure out how to elaborate on our scene-partner’s offers in such a way that we also elaborate on the audience’s expectations, we will make magic.

And perform amazing human stories.

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Surprised by Joy

I made a list of things I’ve done or that have happened to me in the past 22 days. 2 days were “peaceful” in the sense that nothing requiring exceptional effort happened. One day had four exceptional events, a few had three, many had two, and as the number scaled down the significance scaled up.

And by “exceptional” I mean things like, at minimum, “Your doctor has some not-so-great news” (not anything on the scale of “you have two weeks to live”, and pretty fixable, but definitely “not so great”). Or “Here, do this musical improv thing that will validate your work as a poet in ways that nothing else possibly could, and confirm that your last fifteen years of artistic choices might have been basically OK.” Life changing. Those are among the least exceptional events on my list. Really.

I had planned February to be a busy month, and there was a four day period that was supposed to be “peak busy”. The universe apparently took this to be a sign of “the new normal” and has kept up the pace ever since.

The good news is that unlike the last time I passed through a period like this–which lasted for almost five years, so I’m ready for the long haul–no one is dying (yet, and I will say a prayer to a God I do not believe in to keep it that way). So that’s no bad thing.

I’ll never show my 22 day list to anyone, in part because almost anyone who knows me would be impressed by some things on it and pissed off by others, and one of the immediate outcomes of this period of intense stress is that I’ve ceased to care about explaining or justifying myself. It’s not like it ever did any good back when I did it. I am, as the great stoic philosopher Popeye was wont to say, what I am. I have returned to my beginnings, and come to know the place for the first time.

What I care about is what I make. I have written code that will still be running when I’m gone–which despite my doc’s best efforts is going to be a good long time from now. Some of my poems may survive the test of time. And I’ve still got a few “works of noble note” in store, some of them personal, some of them public.

In the meantime, I live a ridiculous life, full of incident and adventure. I do unto others and god knows others do unto me. Sometimes in ways I enjoy, sometimes not.

I have responded to this ridiculous 22 day period full of completely random events layered on top of planned ones by falling into myself and away from myself at the same time. It feels pretty good.

I have not lived a particularly joyful life. My moments of joy are few enough to count on the fingers of one or two hands: holding my newborn children for the first time and some incidents in their growing up, and then on the other hand a few particularly stunning sexual escapades, some times of deep emotional connection–which is extremely difficult for me–and a few days on the water sailing, canoeing or diving.

Yet I found myself this morning overwhelmed by joy. Despite all the bullshit that has happened in the past 22 days. Despite the challenges I know are still awaiting me.

Partly it was a friend telling me that after talking to me last week she had clarified events in her own mind well enough to take action, which may be a leap in the dark. Falling free. That is a joyous thing. The joyous thing.

Partly it was realizing that the fix I’d put into a poem from long ago was precisely right for all kinds of weird reasons, some of which are still to come.

Partly it was that it was a gorgeous day, and I took a long and vigorous walk in the morning sunshine before another amazing and transformative musical improv class.

Partly it was the cumulative effect of the improv community on me over the past year. Surround yourself with dedicated, genuine people and you’ll learn a lot and grow a lot. This is a good place to be. And as Graeme Duffy says, “If you’re doing art right, it changes you.”

Partly it was knowing I’d be paying a ridiculous amount of money for new hearing aides today. I’m wearing them now and man is the world full of sound! I can hear the rain. My cat’s meow sounds different. I’m slightly worried that maybe I’m a lousy improvisor when I can hear.

But mostly I think it’s the sense of profound autonomy I’ve felt these past 22 days and more. I’ve been doing what I want to do. Some of it has not necessarily been entirely wise, some of it has been so far beyond my control it’s stupid, and some of it has been just plain weird. I have been required to react to events that in any well ordered universe would simply not be events.

But it has all been me, and that’s a good feeling. After far too many years of putting far too many other priorities first, I’m in a position to do nothing but what I care about. Which is making: poetry, code, prose, machinery, improv, connection, love (in every sense of the word).

How joyous is that?

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Theory of Poetry

This is based on something I wrote a long time ago, and in another place, not here. I’ve informalized it a lot and added a bit of stuff that I’ve learned in the intervening years, much of it quite recently. It really needs a total re-write, but I’m happy to say that while it’s limited and narrow, after a whole lot more growing as a poet I don’t think these naive observations are totally wrong.

Poetry is rhythmical speech. I’m going to get all formal about that in a bit, but that’s the short form of the basic idea. It is what matters, because we are rhythmical creatures.

Consider the following examples of increasingly poetic speech. In each case, the same thought is expressed several different, increasingly poetic, ways:

I heard from an old man that there’s a river that flows between where the sun rises and where the sun sets

He told me a river runs between the setting and rising sun

And he whispered, “There a river lies
Between the dusk and dawning skies”

Or this:

Whoever you are, as you do your job, think about Phlebus and remember he was alive and is now dead

No matter what you believe as you sail through life, consider Phlebus. dead, who was once handsome, tall and strong.

Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward
Consider Phlebus, who once was handsome and as tall as you

Or this:

I saw you on the beach, by the water, near the pier on a day when the wind was whistling through the pilings that hold up the pier.

I saw you on the beach by the water, as the wind whistled through the pillars of the pier

I saw you on the beach today
Standing by the pillar
Between the wind and the wave
Where grey mist swirls the sand fleas dance
To the skirl of the wind
Through the pipes of the pier

In each case, the final instance is from an actual poem (William Ashbless’ The Twelve Hours of the Night, Eliot’s The Waste Land and a bit of my own stuff) while the preceding two are increasingly poetic prose translations of the poem’s content.

There are three things that we can observe as the lines become more poetic. The speech becomes more rhythmic, more evocative, and more concrete or immediate. Of these three features, rhythmicity is essential to poetry, as we can see from consideration of other examples, such as this from Lewis Carol’s The Mad Gardener’s Song:

He thought he saw a Rattlesnake
That questioned him in Greek:
He looked again, and found it was
The Middle of Next Week.
‘The one thing I regret,’ he said,
‘Is that it cannot speak!’

One could hardly find a more abstract notion than “the middle of next week”, and part of the fun in Carol’s nonsense is that he is playing off our expectation that poetry is concrete, because it usually is. But it doesn’t have to be.

The existence of nonsense poetry and abstract poetry demonstrates that neither concreteness nor evocativeness is required for speech to be poetic, although I will argue that most good poetry is both concrete and evocative.

So the concept “poetry” refers to rhythmic speech, or at least has something to do with rhythmicity. To get a more precise idea of what it is about rhythmicity that makes speech poetic, we need to look more closely at how rhythmicity can be achieved. Before doing so, a few words about the genus, and what it is we are differentiating poetry from.

I’ve taken the genus of poetry to be “speach” rather than “text” or “language”. The reason for this is that the effectiveness of the rhythms of poetry are intimately tied to the natural, physical rhythms of spoken language. Neither text nor mental language have any natural rhythms associated with them, because they are not mediated by anything that imposes rhythmicity the way our vocal apparatus does.

We are made out of meat, and we communicate by flapping our meat.. In more ways than one.

Given that poetry is a kind of speech, the kind of speech we are distinguishing it from is prose, which is first and foremost grammatical. Prose is speech that is by dominated grammatical structure; poetry is speech that is dominated by rhythmical structure. All speech has both rhythmical and grammatical structure, and the difference between poetry and prose is in the preponderance of one or the other. To understand what this means, an understanding of rhythmicity is required.

One of my favourite lines from Cindy Lou You is:

She patted the morse with nerves all aflutter
her brain seemed to melt like summer in butter

which is not grammatical at all, but makes perfect rhythmical sense.

The dominance of rhythmical structure explains a lot about poetry, from rhyme to verse and beyond… Speech has rhythmical structure at many levels or scales. The smallest scale normally recognized in English poetry is the metrical “foot” of the poem–the pattern of repeated stresses such as the unstressed/stressed pattern of the iamb. The following table shows some of the more important scales on which speech can have rhythmical structure:

Rhythmical Scale Explanation
foot pattern of stresses
meter number of feet per line
rhyme repeated sounds of words
words repeated words
metrical scheme variation of meter across lines
lines repeated lines (as in a villanelle)
stanza repeated metrical scheme
narrative conceptual patterns within the poem

This table has many fine distinctions–one could argue, for instance, that repeated words are merely a special case of rhyme, but because words name concepts the repetition of a word brings added emphasis to the concept it names, which is not the case with repeated sounds, whose significance is primarily sensual.

The first few entries in the table should be fairly familiar. There are many different kinds of metrical foot: the iamb (di DA) is the most common English poetry, but there are a bunch of others, from trochees (DA di) to Seusian anapests (di di DA) and there complement the dactyl (DA di di).

It’s worth noting that in different languages, the same rhythmical effect is achieved in different ways. In ancient Greek poetry, for instance, syllable length rather than stress was the medium of the meter. In Anglo-Saxon alliterative poetry, the sound of first letters was the source of the basic rhythmical structure.

The foot is the smallest scale of rhythm in modern English poetry, mechanically linked to the rhythms of the tongue and mouth of the speaker. Free verse has no feet, no regular pattern of stresses, but depends instead for its rhythmical structure on variation in cadence and tone.

Meter is the number of feet per line–the most common form of English poetry is iambic pentameter, consisting of five iambic feet per line. Variations from monometer to ten or twelve feet per line are not impossible, although most poems cluster in the range from four to eight feet per line. The line length of iambic pentameter is closely matched with the rhythm of breathing–the time it takes to speak a line of iambic pentameter is the time it takes to exhale:

Like as the waves make toward the pebbled shore
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with that which goes before
In sequent toil all forwards to contend

Each line from this opening quatrain of Shakespeare’s Sonnet LX is the length of a single inhalation or exhalation, making the poet’s words flow easily and naturally through the lips of the speaker.

Rhyme is often given great pride of place as a defining characteristic of poetry. It should be clear from this discussion that I consider it just one element amongst many that give a poem rhythmical structure, and it is entirely dispensible. While rhyme certainly has a large role to play in much good poetry, it is easily subject to abuse. Robert Frost reputedly likened writing free verse to playing tennis without a net; rhymed poetry can at it’s worst be reduced to playing tennis against a backboard, bouncing a ball off of a regular, reliable surface that has simple properties and is always sure to bounce the ball back at you just as you expect, with no top-spin and no harder than you like.

Rhymed poetry at its best is profoundly beautiful, and it’s possible to achieve effects that can’t be had any other way, but to make rhyme the defining element of poetry would be to miss out on nine tenths of the kinds of rhythm that make poetry such a beautiful, sensuous experience.

That said, the primary role of rhyme is to give structure to the poem across lines. Repeated sounds can link together lines on quite large scales, running throughout the whole length of the poem. Rhyme is a rich technical subject within poetry that it would be unprofitable to go into here–like most technical subjects poetry is full of special terminology designed, apparently, to scare off neophytes. While it has its uses, such a detailed technical knowledge is rarely required to appreciate or understand a poem. One of the odder bits of technical terminology is the “feminine rhyme”, which is a rhyme that covers the last two syllables of a word, rather than just the last syllable. Ordinary, one-syllable rhymes, being “masculine”, apparently don’t need to be identified as such, masculinity being the universal norm.

End-rhymes are the most common, but rhymes between words in other parts of the line can be used with effect as well:

There is no end to the world
No stopping point where all grows cold
Or hot or dead or old and dry as dust
No place where lust for life and fire
Wither on the dying vines while angels
Pine for bright ambition’s passing time
The world goes on

In this example, picking up the sound from the end of the previous line adds a kind of rhythmicity that draws the voice on, giving it no pause. This also illustrates an important use of poetry, of why rhythmicity matters: it allows the structure of the poem to reflect its conceptual content, providing an immediate, concrete representation or reflection of that content.

The larger scale rhythmical structures–the metrical scheme, stanzas and narrative structure–are a large topic in themselves. There are many defined poetic forms that name variations on these. The Shakespearean sonnet, for example, consists of fourteen lines of iambic pentameter consisting of four quatrains with an ABAB end-rhyme scheme and a final end-rhymed couplet. The total number of named forms runs into the dozens at least, and any discussion of them here would be unprofitable, particularly as they are more closely linked to the conceptual content of the poem, and so have less visceral impact than the rhythms at smaller scales, which are more closely linked to the mechanics of speech.

The larger-scale structures of poems, being linked to the conceptual content, are closer to the structures of prose. Lines and stanzas, like sentences and paragraphs, should have an internal unity and be in some sense complete, even though their meaning or beauty won’t necessarily be apparent if taken out of context.

Structure at all levels is important to poetry. We are creatures of structure. Visually, we like scenes and textures that have structure at all levels of detail, and the same is true of poetry: structure at one level is not enough. Our brains want more. It is simply the way we are made.

Having described what I mean by rhythmical structure in the foregoing, and presuming that everyone knows what grammatical structure is, I can offer the following definition of poetry, and a corresponding definition of prose:

Speech that is dominated by its rhythmical rather than it’s grammatical structure
Speech that is dominated by its grammatical rather than it’s rhythmical structure

So that’s what I think poetry is. But what’s it good for, and why would anyone want to read or write it? Part of the answer to these questions can be found in looking at what rhythmicity brings to speech.

As mentioned above, the power of rhythmicity arises first and foremost out of its reflection of the natural rhythms of speech. It is a way of experiencing the meat we are made out of, and one that has a low risk of pregnancy and STDs.

If we were creatures who communicated purely by long ululating howls, it is unlikely that we would be poets. Human speech is richly punctuated, and poetry is parasitic on the natural rhythms of that punctuation: the motions of the tongue, the pauses of the breath, the opening and closing of the lips and the trachea.

As such, poetry lets us experience the act of speech itself in a special and particularly gratifying way. It emphasizes the sensual pleasure of speaking. When the first creatures walked the earth who could communicate using sounds, some of them discovered that it was pleasurable to make those sounds in patterns, rhythmically, poetically. As such, poetry is possibly the first amongst the distinctly human sensual pleasures.

I wrote the above paragraph a long time ago. Today I believe that “poetry” in this sense plausible predates speech. It may well be that we communicated by rhythmical expressions long before anything as grandiose and weird as a concept or word came along. Poetry may well be the primordial speech, and grammar parasitic upon it.

The rhythm of a poem can also carry with it a reflection of the content–the pounding of the spondic foot (DA DA) makes it suitable for Kipling’s more marshal ballads, for example.

At the level of conceptual content rather than evocative imagery, repetition of key words, sounds or phrases can effectively emphasize them, building up their power to almost hypnotic force. Even used sparingly, repetition of a single line can add considerable force to a poem:

One day I will stand on the edge of the quiet sea
Infinite and dark, welcoming me home
I will stop there on the shore
Stand in the silent breeze across the water
At the edge of a summer night
And lay my burdens down
The things that I have carried for so long
Leave them there on that dark shore
While slow-flooding night engulfs the sky
Long purple twilight, endless cloak of stars
This is the night
When I step into the wine-dark sea
And lay my burdens down

Finally, rhythmicity of all kinds is an aid to memorization, as knowing what the structure has to be gives us clues as to what the words have to be.

And really finally, rhythmicity gives the audience expectations, which can be both reassuring (when they are fulfilled) and delightful (when they are cleverly violated).

Rhythm is what gives a poem structure, in the same way that grammar gives prose structure. Unlike grammar, the essential nature of rhythm is repetition: the simplest rhythm is a steady, monotonous beat. And monotonous is what poetry rapidly becomes if there isn’t some variation in it’s rhythms. As in music, which is rhythmically structured tones, too much regularity leads rapidly to boredom. The ear–the mind–craves variation on a theme, and the structure of poetry should reflect this.

Rhythmicity does not therefore mean perfect regularity or banal repetition. These can be used to effect in rare cases, but most thoughts expressed in poetry require something more. One of the great benefits of modern poetry has been to create a more relaxed atmosphere about irregularity of rhythm, whereas in the preceding few hundred years saw an increasingly stuffy attitude toward the least irregularity, creating poetry that is often boring to the modern ear. Modern poetry, while notable for its excesses of irregularity, has given us the opportunity to explore the baroque delights of intermingled, complex and irregular rhythms, giving us richly structured and intertwined poetry.

My own writing has involved a lot of what I think of as “broken sonnets”, which are almost sonnets but don’t quite make the grade. Weirdly, I can’t seem to find an example in my recent stuff, so I may be totally making it up.

But T. S. Eliot was the master of this art. Consider the opening lines of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo

The rhythm flows and rolls from line to line, never repeating, yet never quite losing its basic shape.

Poetry is subversive. It involves us in its rhythms, slips past our defenses and touches us in intimate places, where we might not otherwise let ourselves be touched. For example, the words of James Joyce–one of the most deeply subversive poets of the past century–can slide smoothly past every defense of those of us who would rather not recall much of our childhoods:

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo….

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man has been described as a poem in five acts, with considerable justification.

But poetry has a more important use than subversion. Poetry is the quantum of narrative art. It is the art of small things, of moments. Although sustained poetic narratives are possible and valuable, in a modern context we have many other forms capable of dealing with extended narratives, and nothing else able to capture moments: a quiet night; waking up beside a lover; the face of a dead child… Our lives are made up of moments, and our lives are valuable, and so it’s important, sometimes, to be able to capture those moments as entities.

Poetry is the best instrument we have to capture those moments, to make them breathe with the living rhythms of our speech that reach down to touch the quiet depths of our soul.

Posted in language, poetry | Comments Off on Theory of Poetry

Valentine\’s Day

Some years it’s better, others worse, but then
that’s to be expected. The ebb and flow
of chemicals within a fleshy brain
determines, more-or-less, just where I go:
up today and down tomorrow, yes?
Then down again the day and after that
a dance of chaos, something of a mess,
graceless as a dog beside a cat.
Limping through tomorrows on and on,
damned and yet alive against all odds
waking every morning to the dawn
dreaming of a world devoid of gods.
Time that heals all wounds is passing slow
And toward my own long home I slowly go.

Posted in life, poem, sonnet | Comments Off on Valentine\’s Day

Some Notes on Failure

“One word characterized the most strenuous of the efforts for the advancement of science that I have made perseveringly during fifty-five years; that word is FAILURE.” — Thomson, Lord Kelvin

I think about failure a lot. It’s my default assumption: that what I do will fail. It makes for a pleasant surprise when things do work out.

I have failed at most of the things I have attempted in my life. Most of the startup companies I’ve been involved in failed. Most of the relationships I’ve been involved in failed–some quite spectacularly. This makes me deeply grateful for the few that didn’t. I have failed friends and I have failed family. I have failed myself.

And there are other failures, deeper failures, mortal failures, that I’m not going to talk about here beyond this one oblique mention. As such, I am something of an authority on failure. And as engineers we are taught that the study of failure is one of the most important things we can do.

So it always irritates me a bit when I see a successful person giving advice, because I have a pretty good idea of what separates them from the vastly less successful people I have worked alongside over the years: one decision.

In the 1990’s I worked with a guy who was without question the best software developer I have ever encountered, at least judged by the standard of pure meticulousness. I maintained his code for six months or so after he left the company and encountered one bug in all that time. He was working off my designs, so I’ll take a tiny bit of credit, but I was working off my designs too, and let’s just say I wrote more than one bug.

The thing about Joe (not his real name) was he had made one bad decision. In the late 80’s he had graduated at the top of his class at a very good school, and been offered a job at Microsoft, just before Windows 3.0 came out. Which was followed by Win3.1, which was followed by Microsoft exploding into the stratosphere. He turned them down. The compensation wasn’t that great, the stock options were pretty thin based on past performance.

If he had taken that job, he would have been a millionaire by 1995, a few years before I met him. He told me that rarely a day went by that he didn’t think about that decision.

In the 2000’s I worked with a guy who had co-founded a WebMD-style company that WebMD wanted to buy. His co-founders didn’t want to take the deal. He was not able to sway them. The crash came and the company went out of business. Again: he was one decision away from never having to work again.

The tech landscape is littered with people like this. People no one would ever ask for advice because they are just ordinary working stiffs in the technology landscape.

This is not to say that people who are successful don’t work hard. They do. But so do a lot of people who aren’t nearly as successful, and the dividing line between them is trivially thin.

This doesn’t lead me to conclude that we should all do what we love. That’s bad advice as often as it is good. It suggests that we should do what is enough. That what we do should be satisfying and rewarding even if we fail to follow the path we planned.

I don’t regret my years in academia despite my eventual exit. I don’t regret working in startups despite the prevalence of crashing and burning. I don’t regret the relationships that have failed. Even the spectacular failures serve as fodder for me as a maker of stories.

I do have regrets. Failures I’m ashamed of.

It seems to me that failures are of two kinds: regrettable and non-regrettable. The non-regrettable ones are of the “one bad decision” type. The regrettable ones cover a great range, but mostly involve metaphorical weights that are too heavy to lift, despite our best efforts and our strong feeling that we ought to be able to lift them.

These are not reasonable judgements, but they are judgements we stand by never-the-less. As I am apt to say of my greatest failure: “I believe to this day that I made the right decision. And I will never forgive myself.” This is the fundamental nature of the human condition.

Contemplating our failures, analyzing our failures, owning and acknowledging our failures, is one of the better ways to get on the path to being better at this whole humanity thing. Insistence on our own perfection–trusting in our own righteousness–is not a great way to motivate self-improvement.

There’s a trade-off, of course, as there so often is. Too much focus on failure and we’re paralyzed and depressed. Too little and we’re narcissistic. The optimum, as someone once said, is the middle path.

Me, I lean a little harder in the direction of “focus on failure” than I might, which makes me off the scale in today’s mostly narcissistic society. It’s my Puritan roots. But those same Puritan roots give me sufficient bloody-mindedness to have the strength to go on in the midst of failure. Others may find different balances work better for them. Go for it.

But it’s important that we never lose track of our failures entirely. Our failures and our failings matter. They define us at least as much as our successes do. We should recognize them and accept them. They are part of who we are, and when we cut ourselves off from our failures we cut ourselves off from ourselves. That’s never a good thing.

Posted in improv, life, science | Comments Off on Some Notes on Failure