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December 29, 2007

A poetry-writer’s reference
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 07:01 PM * 112 comments

Quoth Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers):

Would it be helpful to put together a list of poetry resources for those who want to versify but may not have extensive google-fu?

But of course, Bruce. My three favorite reference sites are detailed below.

The writers of metrical verse
Who swither and fumble and curse
And search for a site
To get their forms right
Could go further yet and fare worse.

But meter, a lot of the time,
Is less of a worry than rhyme.
When stuck on your own
Just go to the zone
And soon your line ends are sublime.

Though edit-wars oft make it seedier,
Among all the Interweb media
On poetic forms,
Historical norms
Are often best found on the ‘pedia.

Further suggestions, anyone?

Comments on A poetry-writer's reference:
#1 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: December 29, 2007, 08:16 PM:

A thesaurus
isn't much use
when trying to write haiku

#2 ::: Virge ::: (view all by) ::: December 29, 2007, 09:06 PM:

There's a useful summary of Nordic Prosody here. (Go up a level to Arnaut & Karkur's ultimate on-line prosody resource for a description of a wider range of forms served with a side order of snark.)

#4 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: December 29, 2007, 09:24 PM:

Also a couple of books about poetry that are worth reading are:

Malcovati and


#5 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: December 29, 2007, 09:38 PM:

The best kinds of metrical verse
avoid being florid or terse.
Instead, the good writer,
shows he's not a fighter
and heads off to the hills with a nurse.

#6 ::: Virge ::: (view all by) ::: December 29, 2007, 09:39 PM:

One more website springs to mind:
If you find you're lacking choice,
Welsh forms number twenty-four.
Go explore your bardic voice.

#7 ::: Evan ::: (view all by) ::: December 29, 2007, 10:10 PM:

There once was a man from the Coast
Who liked, of his poems, to boast
But though lovely at first
Every poem was cursed
Because he had an unfortunate tendency to lose track of the rhyme and scansion
And let the poems run on too long.
Eventually the whole thing would devolve into a fart joke
Or something equally inane.
It was pretty pathetic, really.

#8 ::: Mark Wise ::: (view all by) ::: December 29, 2007, 11:28 PM:

Frango @4

I second the recommendation for Stephen Fry's book. It's informative and a fun read. I can't vouch for its content, though --- I'm neither an English major nor a poet.

#9 ::: Steve Taylor ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2007, 12:14 AM:

Not a website, but Stephen Fry's book _The Ode Less Travelled_ is one of the best and most enjoyable reference books I've seen - on any subject.

#10 ::: Steven Brust ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2007, 01:10 AM:

I just want to say that the rhyme of "seedier" with "media" filled me with awe and delight.

#11 ::: John D. Berry ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2007, 01:33 AM:

Are you interested in real poetry, or in doggerel? For real poetry, the best resource is simply to read the best. And read lots of poetry in translation, not just American or even English-language poems. (Read 'em in the original languages, if you can.)

Good resources for good poetry:

#12 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2007, 02:28 AM:

Terry Karney @ 1
A thesaurus
isn't much use
when trying to write haiku

It is not the words
but the feel
of snowflakes brushing the air

#13 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2007, 03:17 AM:

My different dialect warps my ear,
And shifts the lines I write and hear.
I choose the words to try and con it
(Which is a working rhyme for "Sonnet").

#14 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2007, 03:43 AM:

The tiger atype in his den,
gives thanks for ML once again.
To see that you've listened
gives me quite a frison,
and spreads poesy to the fen.

#15 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2007, 06:19 AM:

Steven @10:

Turnabout, as they say, is fair play.

#16 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2007, 06:22 AM:

John D. Berry @11:
Are you interested in real poetry, or in doggerel?

Oh, now there is an interesting discussion. Is doggerel not real poetry? How would you define real poetry?

#17 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2007, 06:23 AM:

abi @ 15

And that may have been the most gracious and elegant* acceptance of a compliment I've ever seen.

* in the mathematical sense

#18 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2007, 07:23 AM:

abi @ 16: "Oh, now there is an interesting discussion. Is doggerel not real poetry? How would you define real poetry?"

Whah? *doubletakes* Didn't I just close that thread?

Making Light: where you get not one, but two discussions of the nature of art.

#19 ::: Andrea ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2007, 07:49 AM:

Robert Pinsky's The Sounds of Poetry is lovely, and my favourite so far.

#20 ::: Robin Z ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2007, 09:28 AM:

I haven't bookmarked any guides to writing poetry (although for a while I was reading a book on the subject - Forms of Verse: British and American by Sara deFord and Clarinda Harriss Lott, Appleton-Century-Crofts, New York, 1971 - that I thought was rather good), but in terms of collections of poetry, "Representative Poetry Online" from U. Toronto has long been a favorite site of mine, mostly because of their superb site design.

(That was one sentence? Dang.)

A couple other sites I had bookmarked: Humanities Web (poems under "Literature"), The Wondering Minstrels (a collection by someone at Rice University), and Poets' Corner.

#21 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2007, 10:22 AM:

True verse says it all
between the fall of brown leaves
and return of green.

#22 ::: Debbie ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2007, 10:43 AM:

physics' bet*
common ground?
Making Light!

*This one-syllable synonym for "speculation" brought to you courtesy of

#23 ::: David DeLaney ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2007, 11:08 AM:

Abi, a Sutherland
opened a thread on po-
etical forms

Other contributors
provided plethoras;
prosody swarms


#24 ::: Leslie in CA ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2007, 01:42 PM:

A poem that is real's never doggerel
It reaches those lofty heights, maugre all
The ways to be silly
And sound like a filly
Or write with the sense of a hoggerel.

#25 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2007, 02:24 PM:

I note with considerable amusement that the Google ads for this post are currently reading:

"Online Writing Contests. Enter Poetry Writing Contests. Write and compete for cash prizes!"

"Skip the Poetry Contest. Publish your poetry. Fast. Easy. Free.* No Obligation. Start now!"

"Poetry Publishers Found. Literary agency finds publishers for your poetry. Submit online."
(Does the domain name ring any bells?)

"Poetry: We Need Writers. Publish, be read, and get paid. Start writing poetry instantly!"

* HA!, I say, and again, HA!

#26 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2007, 02:29 PM:

Roses are red,
Violets are blue.
My rhyme is dread,
So says Cthulhu.

#27 ::: Chris Quinones ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2007, 03:26 PM:

I only versify in the shower and when I'm angry at my team, but I'll put a plug in for James Fenton's An Introduction to English Poetry and John Hollander's Rhyme's Reason, which includes self-defining examples such as this:

Triolets' second lines refrain
From coming back until the end;
Though the first one can cause some pain
Triolets' second lines refrain
From coming back yet once again.
(The form's too fragile to offend.)
Triolets' second lines refrain
From coming back until the end.
#28 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2007, 08:23 PM:

the way to hope long ago closed and barred
gives us good reason to smile at this hour
each memory we cherish then discard
our faces turn from smiling to quite dour
the tastes experienced from sweet to sour
we left the ship tied up at the north quay
turning our backs on the long time at sea
not needing much our feet here to persuade
towards the places only fools would flee
our efforts guarantee we'll make the grade

the wishes we once made have long been marred
by those who find it easier to glower
and leave the hopeful only a sharp shard
our hearts confronting this must quail and cower
around us now the harsh winds rush and scour
allowing not a one simply to be
what we would want nobody would agree
that in the tempest only those afraid
of horrid consequence refuse to see
our efforts guarantee we'll make the grade

those choices never made turn out quite hard
the villains never great are just a shower
of foolish sorts against whom we must guard
and who should never be allowed much power
so that the worst will never come to flower
there are not many who would make the plea
against the ones who hold the golden key
to step aside and just end their charade
that is no reason for such prideful glee
our efforts guarantee we'll make the grade

prince you may watch as under the great tree
the many halt and brew their morning tea
waiting like all of us for the parade
each of us pays the standard entrance fee
since nothing in this life is truly free
our efforts guarantee we'll make the grade

#29 ::: Laertes ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2007, 01:11 AM:

hand on a jersey
a flag flies, a whistle blows
pass interference

#30 ::: Mary Frances ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2007, 01:15 AM:

I don't know how helpful it would be for poets, but I've always found Paul Fussell's Poetic Meter and Poetic Form a fairly useful text for readers who want/need to become more comfortable with meter in particular.

#31 ::: Vassilissa ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2007, 02:25 AM:

If anyone's looking for an offline reference, I really love E.O. Parrott's anthology How To Be Well-Versed In Poetry, published by Penguin. It has examples of different feet as well as forms.

#32 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2007, 10:21 AM:

Mary Francis @ 30: I found Fussell useful, but my first such manual was Lewis Turco's Book of Forms. There's a local guy, Miller Williams, whose Patterns of Poetry is well-regarded by folks I know.

#33 ::: Mary Frances ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2007, 12:11 PM:

John A Arkansawyer @ 32: I'd agree with you about the Turco, particularly as a handbook; what I always used Fussell for was a fairly narrow and specific classroom overview of meter. (And I stopped doing that when the book got so [expletive deleted] expensive.) I'm not familiar with the Williams; I'll have to look for it.

#34 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2007, 12:46 PM:

Mary Frances @ 33:

I'd agree with you about the Turco, particularly as a handbook

Or a backpocketbook--mine's mass market size and thin enough to carry that way. After peeking at Amazon, I'm thinking I've got a first edition, which is 160 pages. I've had it for a long, long time, so that's possible--or maybe my memory is futzy.

#35 ::: Debbie ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2007, 12:54 PM:

John @34 -- "a backpocketbook". *sigh* My copy of Immortal Poems of the English Language, a nicely sized paperback which I got for a quarter at a garage sale, is sadly not made of acid-free paper, and is disintegrating visibly. Have to find a replacement, soon!

#36 ::: rams ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2007, 12:55 PM:

John D. Berry @11

Brave man. That was my question, but I was too chicken to post it -- and the original question was about "versifying." To supplement your advice I'd add Steve Kowitt's In The Palm of Your Hand Addinizio/Laux's The Poet's Handbook -- and then I'd brick up the door and hide under the bed.

#37 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2007, 01:13 PM:

rams @36:
Really, I'm serious in asking. Where is the dividing line between doggerel and poetry, for you? How do you distinguish? How can I tell whether what I write is one or t'other?

I can think of many edge cases, from Catullus to Rabbie Burns, where there is no clear, bright line between the two.

#38 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2007, 01:40 PM:

Dave Bell @ 13

Re. pronunciation, I presume you've seen the wonderful poem on the difficulties of the English language and its pronunciation for non-native speakers? Has to be read aloud for full effect and I find it difficult 'cos I always end up laughing. It starts (and you can use this to Google the rest if you want):

Dearest creature in creation,
Studying English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
It will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.
Pray console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it.

Some of the examples could be useful for non-standard rhymes...

#39 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2007, 01:58 PM:

In the absence of any reply from either person who has pulled the pin out and tossed the doggerel grenade into the room, here's my point.

If you're going to tell me that some versification is doggerel and some is True Poetry*, you have to give me a method of distinguishing them. Otherwise I'll think your highfalutin' statements are just a bunch of snobbish hot air.

And adding all the quips about "bravery" and "bricking doors up"† just makes you sound like one of those posters who assumes his ideas are too daring, too true, and too dangerous for the rest of the world to handle.

We have a bingo square for that.

* cue angel trumpets
† against, one presumes, the barbarian hordes

#40 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2007, 02:11 PM:

abi, 39: OK, I'll bite!

Seems to me that "doggerel or poetry?" is the verbal equivalent of "craft or art?" My own view, as a person who writes almost nothing but doggerel, is that doggerel doesn't generally have a Truth in it. So your dragon sonnets are poetry--nay, Art--but your spamkilling placeholders are doggerel.

This means that "The Tay Bridge Disaster" is poetry, albeit execrable. Similarly, if I could find my mom's Ogden Nash compendium, I'm sure I could find some poetry in it too. It also means that some sonnets are doggerel.

I'm by no means convinced I'm right. I think I'm on the right track with the parallel to "craft or art," but then again, I have no idea where craft stops and art begins, even after having this discussion about needlework, quilting, and knitting more than once.

#41 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2007, 02:13 PM:

abi @ 39: I agree the distinction is hard--what are we to make of 'I am my master's dog at Kew/Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?'--but I think Perrine's two chapters in Sound and Sense, "Bad Poetry and Good" and "Good Poetry and Great", are valuable in learning to make such distinctions, according, of course, to Perrine's judgement. My teachers may rise up out of their grave on hearing this--or maybe not--but I'll take great doggerel over lousy poetry any day of the week.

By the way, I've been trying to find a poem for some time now that I'm sure I saw in some big anthology collected as a textbook. It's a war poem from one of the two WWs, that ends, "And now we three in Euston waiting room." Any help?

#42 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2007, 02:29 PM:

TexAnne @40:
I can work with that definition.

As a bookbinder, I strive to be a craftsman. I avoid the term artist entirely when I describe myself and my work. If someone feels that what I do is art, I'll say thank you, but I'm not sure enough of myself to label it as such. I think that I, personally, will have lost a piece of myself if I ever do so.

As a versifier*, I try to write stuff that rhymes, scans, and still sounds unstrained and natural. I am usually motivated to write it by some inner itch to express something. (This does not include the spam-zapping, which is simply like arranging the food on a kid's plate to make a smiley face: having fun in whatever one does.) I am content for what I write to be considered either poetry or doggerel.

I am not content, though, to have someone come in and ask if I'm trying to write "real" poetry, or "just" doggerel, like a granny painstakingly admiring a three year old's finger painting. Particularly not if they then run away again.

* avoiding the word "poet"

#43 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2007, 02:48 PM:

abi, 42: I did have bookbinding in mind, actually. I think that your binding of The Ghost Hunters is most emphatically art--but you couldn't have done it without craft. My knitting is craft, OTOH; I choose my own yarn, and sometimes I even change the pattern--but the designer is the artist, and I'm the craftswoman. When I do a pastiche, Shelley or Williams is the artist, and I'm the craftswoman.

My favorite art involves a high level of technical skill--e.g. Bruce's example in the other thread of the first 20pp of Glasshouse. You can't do that by accident: Stross is a craftsman. And the whole of the book is art because it tells me things about how the world works and ought to work. (See also, inter alia: Brust, Steven; Bear, Elizabeth.)

But mostly I just go with the "I know it when I see it" test.

#44 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2007, 03:02 PM:

I can observe the voices rise and swell
defining verse, and what is doggerel;
while others, with hardly time for pause,
proclaim that art is subject to some laws
not stated in plain, ordinary terms.
But what can I (and other suchlike worms)
declare anent a subject of such heft?
With all the force that in me has been left
I'll take no cudgels up, nor seek to hide
the fact that here I will not take a side.
Some find the haiku and the sonnet terse,
and think heroic couplets rather worse
than limericks. But, for my humble part,
I'd say that all craft has its art.
(Did I say humble?) Also, every craft
requires a skill not shown by dull and daft.
It's New Year's Eve, I'll head off to my bottle
and leave in peace the ghost of Aristotle.

#45 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2007, 04:09 PM:

TexAnne @ 40... Vogon craft or Art?

#46 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2007, 04:26 PM:

Serge #45: If it's a Vogon craft you can hitch a ride to Barnard's Star.

#47 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2007, 04:53 PM:

Serge, 45: I don't know, never having heard any Vogon poetry in the original.

#48 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2007, 04:57 PM:

TexAnne...It's my understanding that Vogon poetry is so atrocious that it causes its listeners to have blood come out of their ears. (Is that correct, Fragano)

#49 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2007, 07:01 PM:

John @41--

Frances Cornford:

Parting in Wartime

How long ago Hector took off his plume,
Not wanting that his little son should cry,
Then kissed his sad Andromache goodbye -
And now we three in Euston waiting-room.

Or is it another poem?

#50 ::: Virge ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2007, 07:23 PM:

John D. Berry @11
Your implicit dichotomy between real poetry and doggerel is either extending the definition of doggerel beyond my understanding of the term (Oxford: 1 comic verse composed in irregular rhythm. 2 badly written verse. Merriam-Webster: loosely styled and irregular in measure especially for burlesque or comic effect; also : marked by triviality or inferiority) or extending the mantle of real poetry to cover well-written versification.

The latter position is more generous and inclusive than I would have expected. The former seems snobbish and mean-spirited (and dilutes the meaning of doggerel). Perhaps you could either clarify or acknowledge some middle ground between extremes.

As to your idea that "For real poetry, the best resource is simply to read the best", I agree that it is one way to improve your skills. I disagree that it is the best resource, since the books and sites that help the most contain both instruction and carefully selected examples.

#51 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2007, 07:26 PM:

Serge #48: I believe that is indeed the case. My babelfish has been removed in the interests of its health.

#52 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2007, 07:48 PM:

Craft builds art as art holds craft to light.
The question "Is it poetry?" will not provide insight.

#53 ::: Mary Frances ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2007, 08:18 PM:

Re: doggerel vs. poetry . . . I think we have to acknowledge the connotations of both words. "Doggerel" to most people has a negative connotation, in the sense that it seems to imply something "inferior," aka "bad poetry." On the other hand, TexAnne (@40) and John A Arkensawyer (@41) seem to be attempting to define "doggerel" and "poetry" as two different things. I don't disagree, mind you; in fact, I think that's a useful and intriguing way of approaching the subject. I just think that we also need to be aware that for some people the continuum is between "good poetry" (or "great poetry") and "bad poetry," with "real poetry" on the good end and "doggerel" on the other.

It's also possible to distinguish between "poetry" and "verse" in much the same way, with "verse" as a less negative (connotatively speaking) term for the "less serious" end of the continuum. TexAnne, I find your "craft or art" distinction especially worth thinking about, here--you seem to be using the subject of the poem and (perhaps?) authorial intention to define it. Me, I tend to focus on the emotional impact of a poem, which is a lot more subjective and probably a less useful approach . . .

#54 ::: Tim May ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2007, 08:19 PM:

Coleridge's mnemonic poem Metrical Feet might be useful to someone. Well, the first bit, anyway.

#55 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2007, 08:36 PM:

Mary Frances, 53: Mmm...."poetry or verse?" doesn't bug me because in my idiolect verse is a subset of poetry. But then, I was scarred for life by Baudelaire's "poèmes en prose"--he often wrote two versions of the same piece, one metrical and the other not. They're both undeniably poetry, but I've never found a satisfactory definition of the difference between "prose poem" and "poetic prose."

#56 ::: Shmuel ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2007, 10:10 PM:

I enthusiastically second the recommendation of John Hollander's Rhyme's Reason.

Also, while I haven't done more than play with it, VersePerfect is an impressive software application. And it's free!

#57 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2007, 10:23 PM:

TexAnne @ 55... Speaking of Baudelaire, you knew that he translated Poe into French, right? I don't have an edition of that anymore. Too bad. It'd be interesting to compare The Raven to Le Corbeau and see how much wound up translated and how much was adapted.

#58 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2007, 10:35 PM:

Serge, 57: I didn't know that...ben, vas-y!

#59 ::: Mary Frances ::: (view all by) ::: January 01, 2008, 01:59 AM:

TexAnne @ 55: Me, either. Especially since "form" is part of my definition of "poetry." I usually wind up falling back on authorial intention--if the writer calls it a poem, prose poem or otherwise, than that's what it is . . .

Interesting. I don't think I regard verse as a subset of poetry, but I do perceive an overlap there. I'm going to have to think about it.

#60 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: January 01, 2008, 03:31 AM:

Reading Blake in french was what convinced me that it's worth learning the original language to read most poetry.

#61 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: January 01, 2008, 05:38 AM:

People say that Homer must be read in the original Greek, that something is always lost in the translation. I've always wondered if that isn't put forth by people who have done so, to console themselves for having made the effort.

#62 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: January 01, 2008, 06:57 AM:

There is, of course, George Orwell's essay on Kipling, in which he describes the latter's verse as "good bad poetry".

That is, unable to explain the fact that certain of Kipling's verses - and we all know the ones - have grafted themselves into the very fabric of the English language, Orwell was reduced to explaining that the words were poetic but the sentiment was rotten, and therefore the result is not poetry, but something else. This is the very apotheosis of the academic view of poetry, and academics have thanked Orwell for his great insight ever since.

Screw Orwell.

#63 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 01, 2008, 07:23 AM:

David @61:
People say that Homer must be read in the original Greek, that something is always lost in the translation. I've always wondered if that isn't put forth by people who have done so, to console themselves for having made the effort.

No, sorry, it is true. And it can't be conveyed. The best I can do to explain it is to say that he was not a modern man, with modern assumptions about cause and effect, truth, and the nature of the universe. (It's a divide that separates him from Plato and Socrates, even.) The world of the gods was real to him. I don't mean in terms of religious faith, nor in the sense that he thought Pallas Athena of the shining eyes occupied the same world as he did. If anything, he knew her to be more real than he was.

That worldview comes through in his writing in ways that I can't explain. It's like if you ever really "get" Aboriginal art, for even a moment, you can't necessarily explain what is different to someone who hasn't had that experience.

This is not to say that the Odyssey is not a wonderful work in translation - I prefer Lattimore - but it's not the original work.

#64 ::: Mary Frances ::: (view all by) ::: January 01, 2008, 11:33 AM:

abi @ 63: Well, "traduttore, traditore," as my Dante professor once reminded me--the translator is inevitably a traitor, on some level.

#65 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: January 01, 2008, 11:58 AM:

I love this place.

Just had to say that. Carry on.

#66 ::: rams ::: (view all by) ::: January 01, 2008, 06:01 PM:

Aie. I have to leave and by the time I'm back the discussion has already extended to prose poems, Poe in French (he's supposed to be better in French, just as Herman Hesse's supposed to be better in English -- translation's a can of worms, third shelf from the top) and Kipling. Can we just go somewhere to drink and talk about this? So many worthy directions...

There's Dickinson's definition: "If I feel so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my read were taken off, I know that is poetry. Is there another way?"

Well, if it's in double dactyls or limerick form, probably not.

As to craft, I rejoice in the potter who said wearily "If it leaks, it's Art."

#67 ::: Chris ::: (view all by) ::: January 01, 2008, 11:31 PM:

David @61:

As a lit student who's taken (wasted?) the time to learn a few languages, I admit I may be biased here, but I'd side with Homer-in-Greek crowd.

There are translations that are works of art in their own right, but you haven't read any poet until you've read his or her actual words, not someone else's.

I recently had occasion to read Orlando Furioso in translation, and it actually made me uncomfortable. At the end I felt like I hadn't read the thing so much as I'd skated over someone's especially detailed summary of it.

Also, Homer is beautiful in the original Greek. Here's a bit recorded online.

On a tangential note, I find it completely mind-boggling that there are devout Christians who don't read Koine Greek or Hebrew.

#68 ::: Chris ::: (view all by) ::: January 01, 2008, 11:32 PM:

Whoops, my link doesn't seem to have worked.

#69 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2008, 02:41 AM:

Come to that, I believe it was A E Housman who remarked that to check on whether his lines were poetry or not, he recited them while shaving - because poetry was that which made the hair rise up.

#70 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2008, 02:43 AM:

One of the most fascinating discussions of translation of art I have ever seen is in
Le Ton Beau De Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language
by Douglas Hofstadter. Like most of his work, trying to describe it is basically useless; it's just not possible to convey the scope of his themes and the wit of his language. All I can do is recommend this book to anyone who loves language and who wants to find out what what a very bright and articulate thinker has to say about the nature of what we say with language.

#71 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2008, 03:46 AM:

I look away, and I miss things.

re poetry in the original... Don't speak greek, Homer is the reason I want to learn. I do, however, speak Russian, and used to speak French (I can still, pretty much, read the latter). Pushkin is completely different in the original.

There is a very good, translation of his, "I loved you" in Sound and Sense (referenced above). It's terribly non-literal, and catches much of the meaning. I have a friend, who is a native speaker of French/English/Russian. He doesn't like that translation, nor the one I did, in a similar attempt to catch the meat of it.

But that's because of the way Russian and Greek poetry seem to be related (rhymes in Russian are more complex than in English, becuase the stresses have to match, and the stress pattern is different. One can't write sonnets in Russian, iambic pentameter isn't doable). It also has to do, I think, with Sasha being a genius (he makes me feel a dunce, and he's the idiot child of the family, having taken a double major in mathematics, and Middle English at UCLA, graduating at 19. To amuse abi, he did an English final once by writing a shakespearean sonnet, complaining in the couplet that his "one-hundred forty syllables are gone", but I digress).

The language informs the sense. Russian, poetry, for example uses a lot of passive constructions to convey active sentiment. It doesn't translate well. Capture the passive forms, and the sense is lost. Move to the active form and some of the flavor is missing (that, I think, is the real reason Sasha doesn't like the translations I was talking about, actually. I think he can see the Russian forms in his head when he reads the passive structures in English, I digress, again).

As for doggerel... I don't think I can define it. Mostly because I don't know it when I see it... or that I see offered up as doggerel is merely clumsy work.

I tend to think of it is ill-formed, put together with poor craft. It's not the subject, or the intent, but rather the execution.

The work of someone whom Pope would call a poetaster the sort he railed against in his Sound and Sense.

#72 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2008, 04:05 AM:

abi@63: I hope you're remembering that I myself have learned Homeric Greek? I finished reading the Odyssey last year, and ended book I of the Iliad yesterday. And...well, I don't know. I had a great deal of fun reading it, and I don't regret a second of the time I spent, nor the time I anticipate using on the Iliad in the coming year; but I don't feel any essence coming from the original words.

(I would love to ask Fitzgerald why he had Hermes speaking in rhyme.)

Chris@68: That's almost enough to get me to find a RealMedia player.

#73 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2008, 06:34 AM:

Dave @72:
That's why I was so surprised at the way you phrased that comment.

I had a strong, almost staggering reaction to the Odyssey in Greek. It was just...diffferent than in English, different in a way that I could not explain. I read you a passage* in April that seemed to capture it.

But I guess not everyone hits that, or hits it on the same work. I wonder if you'll find it on something else?

* From The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

#74 ::: Doug Burbidge ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2008, 08:42 AM:

elise @ 65:

I second the motion. Poetry threads are one of my favourite things on Making Light.

And watching abi be good and nice is another. Thank you, Bruce, for pointing out to me that she was doing it more subtly than usual.

(I have taken
the WCW poem
that pastiches
so well

and which
you were probably
to parodize later.

Forgive me
it was so delicious
so simple
and so cool.)

#75 ::: Chris ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2008, 02:49 PM:

David @72:

Rats! I'd convert it for you, but I don't have anywhere to host the file.

For me, though, Rachel Kitzinger's reading of the Helen and Aphrodite passage captures a lot of what can't be translated in the Iliad. The jagged edges of the passage disappear in translation, and English renderings don't capture the way that the measured rhythm of dactylic hexameter actually makes the exclamatory bits more affective, not less. When I read Nietzsche on Homer "dancing in chains," this is the passage I think of.

At any rate, forgive me - I'd assumed you didn't read Greek. If you've read the Odyssey entire in Greek and don't think there was much of anything there that can't be captured by a translation, then you would know better than I.

You're also in good company - for a long time, the one of primary differences between "oral" and "literary" epic was considered to be composition at the level of the episode, not the word. (I use the past tense here because people aren't writing about epic in this way so much any more, not because everyone agrees these people were wrong.) Personally, though, I'll never get the distinction. Who could read a translation of the "Com on wanre nicht" passage in Beowulf beside the original without thinking that the Anglo-Saxon words mattered?

#76 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2008, 03:35 PM:

Who was it who said "Poetry is that which is lost in translation"? I don't completely agree, but it gets to one of the main issues with both translation and with judging poetry in general.

I think that when a poem is translated, something essential is lost, because a poem uses the sound of the language to inform, amplify, or contrast with the sense. A translator can't preserve that; they can, however, put something else in its place in the target language. That's essentially a new poem based on the original, not a translation as we'd think of it for prose...and even for prose, some of that substitution of the translator's own work for that of the original writer must take place.

One of the best examples of this that I can think of is Brian Hooker's translation of Edmund Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac. The original is in French syllable-counted verse, rhymed in couplets if memory serves. French lacks strong stress, which is why lines with the same number of syllables, but no particular meter, don't seem lame in that language. It's also quite rich in rhyme.

English has fewer rhymes, but very strong stresses. So using the form that worked so well for Rostand would not serve; the play would be desperately awkward and sound terrible. Hooker, therefore, translated it into blanks (blank verse, that is: unrhymed lines of iambic pentameter). I think of this as "translating the form," because blanks are a form that works in English the way the syllabic verse worked in French.

In addition, blank verse comes trailing theatrical expectations for English speakers, due to its association with Shakespeare. I think Hooker made a brilliant choice, and his verse is also adept; as a teenager I found the "No thank you" speech worth memorizing (since lost it, of course).

Whether it's an accurate translation, and whether it captures Rostand's moods and beauty, is something that will have to be judged by someone who reads French, which is to say not me.

#77 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2008, 04:06 PM:

Mary Frances, #59: Whereas I tend to regard "poetry" and "free verse" as both being subsets of the larger category "verse". In my brain, the term "poetry" includes the linguistic tags +rhyme and +meter.

Chris, #67: I find it completely mind-boggling that there are devout Christians who don't read Koine Greek or Hebrew.

I don't. That worldview is perfectly summed up in the (probably apocryphal) statement, "If the English language was good enough for the prophet Isaiah and the apostle Paul, it's good enough for me." IOW, anything before the KJV doesn't count.

#78 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2008, 04:08 PM:

Xopher @ 76... French lacks strong stress

You've never seen me when there's a tight deadline looming.

#79 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2008, 04:22 PM:

Chris, 67, and Lee, 77: I'm a devout Christian who reads neither Greek nor Hebrew. I don't think you know how effin' hard it is to find Greek and Hebrew classes, let alone how many other things I have to do with my time, like say earning a living.

Lee, I know you really don't like the version of Christianity you were raised with, but could you please take your scorn elsewhere? In my faith tradition, we DO believe that pre-KJV versions matter--that's why we send our clergy to seminary. Your childhood trauma was real, but you keep forgetting that not all churches are like that.

#80 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2008, 05:12 PM:

Xopher: I agree, poetry is that which is lost in translation. There more to it. War and Peace loses a lot for lack of cultural referents to how Russians use names. I don't know how many people I've tried to explain the subtle distinctions of relationship which are conveyed in the difference between, "Mikhail Sergeevich", "Mikhail", and "Misha" (without even going into the ultra-diminutives).

It's like trying to explain the cutting nature of Hamlet's usage of you/thou in the bedroom scene with his mother.

When I was studying haiku, I came to much the same decision you ascribe to translating Cyrano. The sense of the Japanese is what I want to catch, and I find it, usually, lost in the effort to make the syllabic counts match.

I'm always pleased to see people who can do it, but too many years of too many translations have made it not work that way for me.

And nothing good can come of someone trying to translate haiku into rhymed sets of counted syllables.

#81 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2008, 05:15 PM:

translating poetry
is like licking
edible rice paper

#82 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2008, 05:21 PM:

Terry @81:

Are you sure you didn't mean:

Translation of some
poetry is like licking
rice paper, yum yum!

*flees for the second time today*

#83 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2008, 05:31 PM:

abi seems so nice
but is cruel as one who
works for Blackwater

#84 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2008, 05:38 PM:

Like software, I test
Those posters here most harshly
Whom I love the best.

#85 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2008, 05:53 PM:

(in case anyone was wondering about the value of doggerel in conversation...)

#86 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2008, 06:08 PM:

Rice paper
can be strong, soft
or delicious

Haikus can be whimsical
but silly they should not

For that, one that one uses limericks

There was a translator from Nippon
Had some rice paper to write on
One day it rained and
the lacquer was stained
with the verses he wasn't complete on

#87 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2008, 06:12 PM:

Now I am conflicted.

I think the limerick looks lousy with the "and" but the scansion wants the syllable.


#88 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2008, 06:18 PM:

Terry, how about

There was a translator from Nippon
Who had some rice paper to write on.
Then one day it rained,
And the lacquer was stained
with the verses he wasn't complete on.

#89 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2008, 06:20 PM:

*with large, soft object,
thwumps abi across the head*
And we love you, too!

#90 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2008, 06:26 PM:

Making Light pillows:
Are those dinosaur feathers?
Quick, Serge, make a pun!

#91 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2008, 06:33 PM:

Xopher: I thought of that.

It is, of course, exactly the same, but it doesn't look ugly.

I just wish I'd typed it that way, when I added that "and" (which was the last word I put in the thing).

#92 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2008, 06:37 PM:

The Xopher will manifest now,
To prepare for the poetry row.
He is clad, not in feathers,
But dinosaur leathers,
With fossilized teeth on his brow.

#93 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2008, 06:38 PM:

TexAnne @ 90... Are those dinosaur feathers?
Quick, Serge, make a pun!

Charlotte Brontö's Jane Eyrecheopteryx, who loved Mister Pterochester?

#94 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2008, 06:41 PM:

The teeth topple down from his brow;
Distressed, Xopher asks the world "How?!"
"You're not wearing feathers,
But your 'dinosaur leathers'
Have come from the back of a cow!"

#95 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2008, 06:43 PM:

The brow of the Xopher's exciting,
But pales when compared to his writing.
Had TexAnne her druthers,
In this band of brothers
And sisters, we'd all be inditing.

#96 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2008, 06:56 PM:

A Canadian punster named Serge
for programming had quite an urge;
but a dinosaur feather
quite tickled his leather
and he just forgot how to mailmerge.

We note, with haiku Terry Karney
took up a good spot for a barney;
with verse never arch
he made a quick march
and collared the last sausage sarney.

Meanwhile, Xopher, who's named Hatton
(and mortally fears to be sat on),
declared he'd abhor
who calls a chicken a 'saur,
and eagerly reached for the baton.

Our fearless leader, great Abi,
declared that my verse was quite shabby;
so I swiftly declared
it would be repaired.
But she telephoned for a cabbie.

#97 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2008, 07:21 PM:

TexAnne, #79: You're right, and I'm sorry. And as much as there are several other things I'd like to add, they would make this a non-apology, so I won't.

Terry, #80: And sometimes you get fortunate. The amount of time I spent in the SCA gave me a handle on one particular scene in Branagh's Henry V: that bit after the battle, when Henry has just discovered the slaughter of the non-combatants in the baggage train, and just then the French herald comes riding up to sue for terms, and Henry yanks him off the horse and throws him down in the mud. Yes, it shows that he's furious... but if you don't know that heralds were effectively sacrosanct, the full impact of that gesture -- the realization of just how angry he had to be to do that -- is going to slide past you. I still remember my stunned "OMG he GRABBED the HERALD!" reaction...

#98 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2008, 09:08 PM:

A bunch of Making Light poets
passed limericks instead of notes.
They were all kind of silly,
and one was a dilly,
so I won't be giving out quotes.

#99 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2008, 09:14 PM:

The tree is still green
the branches are drooping
ornaments on its breast

#100 ::: rams ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2008, 10:27 AM:

Xopher @76 -- Cyrano! Brian Hooker! I learned French wholly and exclusively to be able to read it in the original, having first read Hooker (loved it) and then an inferior version (nearly went to sleep.) I'm sure my French isn't up to passing judgment (clearly not, since alexandrines just hit my ear as hinky)but it was worth it for the cadets' chant -- "Nous sommes les cadets de Gascogne..."

Ah. The one place translation does let you down in Cyrano? The nefarious nobleman in charge of our boys during the seige had erased his Gascon accent -- at the moment he throws in his lot with the cadets for real, he rolls his Rs. I keep trying to figure out how you could do this in English -- I think they'd have to come from Texas. Georgia, maybe, but Texas for the braggadocio.

#101 ::: Dan Layman-Kennedy ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2008, 11:28 AM:

In judging verse (what's good, what's worse)
A working measure's best, perhaps:
I feed my Art the meaty part
And toss my doggerel the scraps.

#102 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2008, 11:48 AM:

Dan (#101): Bravo!

#103 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2008, 03:33 PM:

Q: What's the difference between a poet and a hedge fund manager?

A: They're opposites: a poet versifies, a hedge fund manager de-versifies.

#104 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2008, 04:09 PM:

Rams: Make them Scots, or Irish, and have the commander affect an Eton accent, until he tosses his lot with them, when he reverts. Keep just a hint of the accent there, but make it obvious he's suprressing it.

#105 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2008, 08:38 AM:

fidelio @ 49: Thank you! I've always found that poem moving, even if I haven't been able to remember the first three (hell, I thought there were only two!) lines other than in vague intention. Now I have it back. Thank you!

#106 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: January 09, 2008, 09:02 AM:

No problem, John--I, too have known the itch of an imperfectly-recollected poem. I'm glad I could help soothe yours.

#107 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2009, 02:19 PM:

Snarfled spamlink, too. Weird.

(note: when I tried to comment using Firefox, I got a message saying NoScript was detecting a possible crossscripting exploit.)

#108 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2009, 02:31 PM:

Nevermind, I had NoScript set to block Oops.

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