Poetry

Politics and Poetry: Early Modern English Poetry

I like to write poetry. I can’t say I’m the best at it, but I’ve been published a few times and I continue to study rhetoric and poetic form as well as continue to try to write and publish the work that I do. I’m also a passionate person when it comes to politics and social justice. My major in college was English, but my minor was political science.

So often when I write, I write politically-themed poetry. This struck one of my friends as odd. When I got to thinking about the link between politics and poetry, though, I have to say it’s really not all that odd for politics and poetry to be combined.

Politics and poetry have always been aligned. Poetry has always been a place for marginalized people to make their voices heard or to covertly challenge those in power. Today poetry continues to be an arena for social commentary and pushes for social change, and, above all else, a way for people to make their voices and opinions heard.

Queen Elizabeth I in her coronation robes.

Early Modern English Poets

Also known as the English Renaissance, this period lasted from the late 15th century into the cusp of the 18th century and was filled with political turmoil. Protestant and catholic monarchs kept being crowned which meant every time the power passed between faiths, the people of this time period were expected to convert. The idea behind a monarchy is that the political leader, the king or queen, is ordained by the Christian God to be in power. So when a protestant was in power, everyone from the nobles to the peasants were expected to convert and to believe, in their heart of hearts, that this new religion was the one true religion. Then when a Catholic took the throne, the people would again have to convert and know that in their heart of hearts, that this new religion was the one true religion. Some monarchs, like Elizabeth I, said, you know what? This isn’t fair. As long as you practice the faith you believe in, I don’t care if your religion matches mine. That worked for about five minutes, until Pope Regnans in Excelsis said that, because she was a protestant, she was not the legitimate Queen of England and anyone who assassinated her was doing God a service and would be forgiven. Now Elizabeth had to be wary of all Catholics, which did little to ease political tensions in the time period. Add in some international conflicts, like wars between England and Spain, and mix in a Virgin Queen and the fear of no apparent heir causing another War of the Roses (for you Game of Throne fans, the War of the Roses is the political conflict that inspired the fantasy series) and you get a lot of turmoil and a lot to criticize.

During this time of constant conversion, poets like John Donne issued a challenge through his poem Satire III to the logic behind forced conversion with such lines as:

Keep the truth which thou hast found; men do not stand
In so ill case, that God hath with his hand
Sign’d kings’ blank charters to kill whom they hate;
Nor are they vicars, but hangmen to fate.

Donne states that God has not given Kings the right to force conversion, nor execute the populous for their religious beliefs. In England during the Early Modern Period, religion and politics were intertwined so criticizing the way the crown handled religion was a political issue and one, as Donne alludes to in this poem, that can lead to execution.

My Brain got Stuck in a Rhyming Loop

When it comes to creative projects at school, my go-to is poetry. I had a big creative project due in one of my classes this past week, and I decided, since it was for Arthurian Romance, to imitate the Medieval French style of poetry. For a week solid, I was spending my nights creating plot and writing in rhyming couplets.

Let me tell you about rhyming couplets.

Door-hinge? I guess that rhymes with orange. Try working that into a poem organically.
Door-hinge? I guess that rhymes with orange. Try working that into a poem organically.

At first, it really isn’t that easy to do. I tend to use a rhyming dictionary when I start out, because my brain isn’t in rhyming mode yet. For the first few days working on an epic, 15 page poem written in eight syllable rhyming couplets, the rhyming dictionary is a godsend. I also use an on-line thesaurus to find words of varying syllables so I can force my thoughts into the eight syllable mold. A thesaurus is also useful in finding words that have the right concept behind them and easy rhymes – for example, the word orange is a jerk when it comes to rhyming, but using a thesaurus gives me all kinds of other options to that dreaded word – warm, flame, gold, etc., which are all much easier to rhyme with.

As time passes, however, these tools fade as the brain starts thinking in rhyme. I’m not kidding – on the third day of working with my project until the day it was due, my brain was rhyming. And so the downside of rhyming started to kick in.

Alan Rickman Reads

When I read, I don’t hear my own voice in my head. Generally, I’ll hear someone with a British accent. Why? Because I like the way it sounds.

And, after watching some of my favorite movies like Sense and Sensibility or, you know, any Harry Potter film, I get Alan Rickman’s voice stuck in my head. For about a week on out, his voice echoes in my head as the voice of every play, poem, and novel I read.

And now I’m going to get Alan Rickman’s voice stuck in your head too. Youtube – beautiful, wonderful Youtube, has entire playlists of Alan Rickman just reading stuff, like poems and excerpts from novels and plays. My favorite reading, because the only thing I love more than Alan Rickman’s voice is Shakespeare’s works, is Alan Rickman’s reading of Sonnet 130.

Damn, Poetry’s Hard

In Adam Frank’s recent article on NPR, the writer compares poetry to physics. He begins his discussion with T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland, which is 434 lines. In other words, it’s long. For some readers, that length provides something to hold onto a bit longer. An author might claim that more space allows for them to create greater meaning. But for some readers, longer poems can be daunting.

However, length isn’t the only thing that makes certain poems more difficult for some than others. Why someone may not “get” a poem can be for many reasons. In Frank’s article, the writer interviews John Beer, poet and professor at Portland State University. Beer had this to say about the subject:

There are, it seems, as many ways for a poem to be difficult as there are for it to be a poem at all. For most people, a lot of poetry written before the twentieth century will be a challenge: the vocabulary will often be unfamiliar, the syntax may be more complicated than we are accustomed to reading, and allusions, especially to classical learning, abound.

Ode to the Ode

Ah, the ode. You know what an ode is, right? You can ode to joy or ode to a nightingale or, heck, you can even ode to your father. An ode, in case you weren’t familiar, is a poetic form characterized by its lyrical stanza that celebrates something, someone, or someplace the poet admires.

This post, being an ode to an ode, is about celebrating the poetic form. To date, there are three types of odes – the Pindaric Ode, the Horatian Ode, and the Irregular Ode.

The Pindaric Ode

The Pindaric Ode was created by the ancient Greek poet Pindar – the inventor of the ode. Pindaric Odes contain a structured opening called a strophe with a complex metrical structure, followed by an antistrophe. The antistrophe mirrors the strophe in form. The final part of a Pindaric Ode is the epode, or closing section that has a different metrical structure than the strophe and the antistrophe.

Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood by William Wordsworth is a great example of a Pindaric Ode.

Here is the strophe:

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;–
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

The rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the rose;
The moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare;
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.

And here are the first two antistrohpes:

Now, while the birds thus sing a joyous song,
And while the young lambs bound
As to the tabor’s sound,
To me alone there came a thought of grief:
A timely utterance gave that thought relief,
And I again am strong.
The cataracts blow their trumpets from the steep,–
No more shall grief of mine the season wrong:
I hear the echoes through the mountains throng.
The winds come to me from the fields of sleep,
And all the earth is gay;
Land and sea
Give themselves up to jollity,
And with the heart of May
Doth every beast keep holiday;–
Thou child of joy,
Shout round me, let me hear thy shouts, thou happy
Shepherd-boy!

Ye blesséd Creatures, I have heard the call
Ye to each other make; I see
The heavens laugh with you in your jubilee;
My heart is at your festival,
My head hath its coronal,
The fulness of your bliss, I feel–I feel it all.
O evil day! if I were sullen
While Earth herself is adorning
This sweet May-morning;
And the children are culling
On every side
In a thousand valleys far and wide
Fresh flowers; while the sun shines warm,
And the babe leaps up on his mother’s arm:–
I hear, I hear, with joy I hear!
–But there’s a tree, of many, one,
A single field which I have look’d upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone:
The pansy at my feet
Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

And here is the epode:

And o, ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves,
Forebode not any severing of our loves!
Yet in my heart of hearts I feel your might;
I only have relinquish’d one delight
To live beneath your more habitual sway;
I love the brooks which down their channels fret
Even more than when I tripp’d lightly as they;
The innocent brightness of a new-born day
Is lovely yet;
The clouds that gather round the setting sun
Do take a sober colouring from an eye
That hath kept watch o’er man’s mortality;
Another race hath been, and other palms are won.
Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

The Horation Ode

Ode to the Haiku

The haiku is one of my favorite poetic forms. I will often jot one down in class when not paying attention to a teacher, or when riding as a passenger in a car, or on my friend’s facebook pages when I am awake late at night and procrastinating on something important to do.

Haikus are short and to the point, much like I am. It was as if the form was made for me, but really, it wasn’t. Haikus were made for all to enjoy, not just me. A traditional haiku has 17 syllables, broken up into lines that are 5/7/5 syllables each. In sticking with tradition, most haikus usually include references to nature or the seasons and contain a contrasting image within it. It is common for haikus to have spliced words, elongated vowel sounds or double syllabic sounds to fulfill the syllable count requirements. Haikus can also be joined together to make a larger poem, but each haiku must stand on its own and be able to be read as an independent piece for the poem to truly be considered a haiku.

Below is my interpretation of a traditional haiku. This is a series of haikus, but each also stand independently, or, I at least hope they do.

So You Want to Write A Villanelle

Okay so maybe you don’t want to write a villanelle, but that’s only because you don’t know what a villanelle is yet. But once you do know what a villanelle is, you’ll totally want to write one because it is a fun form to write.

In 16th century Italy and Spain, dance songs known as villanella or villancico were peasant tunes without any fixed form. French poets started to write poems called villancelle that again did not follow any fixed rhymes or schemes shortly thereafter.

The first villanelle with a fixed structural form, Jean Passerat’s Villanelle also known as J’ay perdu ma tourterelle, came about in the late 19th century. While the villanelle started in France, it never really caught on there but American poets claimed the poem form and are most known for executing its rigid structural form.

One of the most famous practitioners of the villanelle is Dylan Thomas, with his poem Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Now that you’re familiar with the form, let’s talk about the specific features that make the villanelle a villanelle.

How to Read Poetry with a Little Help from Billy Collins

Ah poetry, that thing we all universally love, appreciate, and understand.

Well, some of us, anyway. For others, poetry is a torture device full of alliterations, assonance, allusions, and apostrophe that cause anger. This is because some of us read poetry to appreciate it, think about it, and to find pleasure in it, and others, well, as Billy Collins’ poem Introduction to Poetry shows, try to find meaning.

Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

But a poem isn’t about meaning. A poem’s answer is never going to be five. A poem isn’t something that can be solved – a poem is something to bring about contemplation and pleasure.

Viral Poetry

The title of this blog almost seems like an oxymoron, right? But I’m not talking about poetry that goes viral like Kristen Stewart’s poem did when she published it Marie Claire. No, I’m talking about poets that have videos posted on Youtube or their poetry shared on Twitter and suddenly, they’re being reposted all over the internet.

Recently, a poem by a 14 year old for class went viral. It’s appeared on all over Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and has over 11K shares on the Independent.oc.uk. The poem, titled Our Generation, reads as follows:

Our generation will be known for nothing.
Never will anybody say,
We were the peak of mankind.
That is wrong, the truth is
Our generation was a failure.
Thinking that
We actually succeeded
Is a waste. And we know
Living only for money and power
Is the way to go.
Being loving, respectful, and kind
Is a dumb thing to do.
Forgetting about time,
Will not be easy, but we will try.
Changing our world for the better
Is something we never did.
Giving up
Was how we handled our problems.
Working hard
Was a joke.
We knew that
People thought we couldn’t come back
That might be true,
Unless we turn things around
(Read from bottom to top now)

The second piece of poetry that’s gone viral lately is a poem titled What Kind of Asian Are You? by Alex Dang. This piece has only a few thousand likes on Youtube, but the UpWorthy article talking about the context of the video has over 39K shares on Facebook alone.

The question remains, why do these things go viral?

So You Want to Write a Sonnet

Sonnets are a classic form of poetry which first started in Italy in the 13th century by Giacomo da Lentini. In the 16th century, Sir Thomas Wyatt pioneered the Sonnet as an English form of poetry. Sonnets are also poems that do not stand on their own. Sonnets come as part of a sequence, yet they can be read as stand-alone poetry. While all sonnets have some structural similarities, such as having fourteen lines and a set rhyme scheme, there are different kinds of sonnets with their own distinguishing features.

If you want to write a sonnet, you should understand the structural rules associated with the different forms.

The Petrarchan/Italian Sonnet

The Petrarchan, also called The Italian, sonnet is divided up into two sections – the octave and the sestet. The octave is made up of eight lines, divided in itself up into two quatrains, with the rhyme scheme of ABBA ABBA. The octave usually sets up some sort of problem or question that the speaker in the sonnet is asking. The sestet is made up of six lines, divided into two tercets, that is the volta, also known as the turn or solution to the problem or question posed in the octave. The rhyme scheme of the sestet can vary – it can either be CDE CDE, CDC CDC, CDD CDE, or CDC DCD. Other variations of the rhyme scheme of the sestet have developed over time, but these are the most common classic forms.

While Petrarch wrote his 317 sonnets in Italian, there were many English sonneteers that used the Petrarchan form in English, like The Long Love That in My Heart Doth Harbor by Sir Thomas Wyatt, a translation of Petrarch’s Rima 140.

The long love that in my heart doth harbor
And in mine heart doth keep his residence,
Into my face presseth with bold pretense,
And there campeth, displaying his banner.
She that me learneth to love and to suffer,
And wills that my trust and lust’s negligence
Be reined by reason, shame, and reverence,
With his hardiness taketh displeasure.
Wherewith love to the heart’s forest he fleeth,
Leaving his enterprise with pain and cry,
And there him hideth and not appeareth.
What may I do when my master feareth
But in the field with him to live and die?
For good is the life ending faithfully.

This sonnet follows the ABBA ABBA ryhme scheme within the octave and the CDC CDC ryhme scheme within the sestet. The topic, as is common in most sonnets, is about love. Or, to be more specific, about yearning for love because there’s some obstacle in the way. This theme of longing for love stays true within most sonnet forms.

The Shakespearean/Elizabethan Sonnet

While Shakespeare wasn’t the first Englishman to write sonnets, nor the Elizabethan form of the sonnet, he is the most celebrated practitioner of the form which also bears his namesake and wrote 154 sonnets in his lifetime. The Shakespearean and Petrarchan sonnet share some similarities, such as a set rhyme scheme (though that scheme varies between the two forms), the number of lines, the presence of a volta, and the theme of longing love, but there are many differences between the two forms as well.

The Shakespearean sonnet also has a set meter called iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter consists of five feet. These feet are made up of two sets of syllables – the first unstressed and the second stressed. And, because English, as a language, does not have as many rhymes as a Romance-based language like Italian, the rhyme scheme was also restructured to be ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. The division of the sonnet was also reconstructed to be three sets of quatrains with one volta occurring in the last two lines of the poem, so the shift or answer in the poem comes much later than it does in a Petrarchan sonnet.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 demonstrates the rhyme scheme and meter of the Shakespearean sonnet.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

While this poem is less about yearning for love, the speaker in the poem still demonstrates a yearning, but this yearning is to preserve the object of their love past what is natural.

The Spenserian Sonnet