Learning Poetry: Exercise 1

This is the first part in a series of posts documenting my efforts learning more about prosody:

If you've been following my blog at all, you may have noticed that I have posted a poem or two. These attempts at prosody are remnants of songwriting attempts – lyrics that never gained a tune. Though I enjoy writing lyrics and, on the odd occasion pretending they're real poems, I've never taken the time to learn about the art of poetry. Because of this, much of what I write lacks the structure and care that would indicate or more learned authorship and I expect to some I may just come across as nothing but a poetaster1.

With that in mind, a couple of years ago I bought a book by Stephen Fry while I was on vacation in San Francisco. It's called The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking The Poet Within. Allowing for the appropriate length of procrastination, I started reading it this weekend on my trip to Chicago for St.Patrick's Day and I've really been enjoying it. Each concept is introduced with examples and analysis before the reader is given an opportunity to put their newly acquired knowledge to work in simple exercises (Fry's view is that we're each capable of poetry if we only try).

I won't recreate the book here, it would be a poor facsimile, but I would like to present my attempts from each exercise. Whatever you think of my poetic prowess (or lack thereof), I hope it will be fun to follow along as I learn and improve my prosody. I'll begin with a brief explanation of the exercise and then provide my attempts2. As I don't intend to explain the terms in detail, you may want a copy of the book or a dictionary in order to understand the exercise.

The Exercise

Write 20 lines of blank3 verse in iambic pentameter4.

The Results

When Mrs. Wilson claimed she was a bitch,
Miss Chrissy said it was not really true.

Tonight, I slept inside an apple core.

The night is young and eager for some fun,
but what to do, I'm bored and losing time.

This exercise is rather dull for me.

The driver stopped to get another fare.

His face was low, without a look of love,
yet some might say he's clearly lost in thought.

I'm learning all about iambic lines.

My friends will all be quite impressed with this,
I know a term or two about the moon.

It burns to think she left me all alone.
Where will I find a girl as bright as her?

Another dog falls foul of Sergeant Crow.
The pound is where he locks them all away.

Tomorrow takes a darker turn for me.
The crows come home to roost and bury me.

A line or two of prosody to write.

I stole a pack of mints from Mrs. Brown.


  1. A word I learned from my new poetry professor, Stephen Fry. It means 'bad poet'. 

  2. Each exercise is actually introduced with some rather detailed instructions in the book that provide additional guidance and challenges than the summary I will provide. 

  3. Non-rhyming 

  4. Verse with the metre 'ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum', also known as the Heroic Line. 

Shattered

I go to sleep and dream of broken glass.
It sparkles in the sunslight like diamonds,
And dances across the floor like a million tiny bells.
Such beauty in something so painful.
Walking barefoot across it is like being close to you.
You're beauty is all devouring as you cut deeply,
With the words and actions you choose to employ.
Like a thousand tiny fragments of glass in my feet, you slice,
And I can't walk away.
Like the glass is stuck in my feet, you are stuck in my soul,
The pain following me no matter where I tread.
It's comforting to feel it, I should miss it if it were gone,
But oh, how it cuts, how I bleed.
I don't know how you came to be so broken, so shattered,
But like the glass, I don't think you can be repaired.
I wish I had the strength to turn and walk away,
But the pain would be too much, so like you, I stay;
Slaves to each others flaws and free only to do what we've always done,
Carry one another's scars as our own and dream.

October 2006

Furious Fowl

If your birds are upset,
And some swine are snooping round,
It makes total sense,
That a catapult be found,
Into which you place,
The angry avians you see,
And watch each porcine face,
When hit by flung poultry.

Now you may be in wonder,
Why it is the birds don't fly,
"Why a catapult?" you ponder,
Instead of wings to get them by,
But it really doesn't matter,
I really wouldn't ask,
They're each mad as a hatter,
They might take you to task.

So with careful aim,
Teach the pigs what for.
These birds aren't tame,
They are angry, out for war.
No wooden tower,
Or icy outcrop will be safe,
When wrathful feathery power,
Lays the porky land to waste.

Jonah

I rediscovered this poem lurking in my files the other day and I don't remember the circumstances that led to it being written or the inspiration behind it. It's a little different to things that I'm used to writing. Let me know what you think.


A young man named Jonah once set out to sea, to sail the seven seas,

and at no point did he,
ever doubt whether she would be waiting,
for he knew somewhere far and away from his heart was the beautiful girl of his dreams.

So with compass in hand,
and a gold wedding band, he set sail.
Now the first night was fine as he travelled the waves, sleeping under the stars,

but the next blew a storm,
that did little to warn him of danger.
As he tried to hold course through the rain and the swells with prayers to Gods and the stars,

the storm, it grew worse,
the hull it did burst and Jonah was thrown to the depths.
For a week he was drifting through briny demise with nought but the sea to be found.

With the sun beating brutal,
and all hope left futile he drifted,
when a long came a ship full of friendship and food to save him before he had drowned.

As they fed him to health,
they shared knowledge of wealth and desires.
Now these new friends he had found were not sailors, but pirates of ill intent,

and when Jonah came round,
to see pirates abound he got frightened.
but with nothing to do, no escape to be made and all of his energy spent,

Jonah succumbed to greed,
joined the piratical breed and sailed on.
Two score years and ten, he would sail through the foam, plundering all in his wake,

until one day a tale,
met his ears over ale in a tavern.
It told of a girl with such beauty and grace that none could hope to forsake.

Jonah set down his mind,
that this beauty he'd find and they'd wed.
So a pirate named Jonah then set out to sea, to sail the seven seas,

in search of girl who,
somewhere in the world, he would marry.
Jonah knew somewhere far and away from his heart was that beautiful girl of his dreams;

with his cutlass in hand,
and a gold wedding band he set sail.
Just out of port, and outnumbered by far, Jonah's crew were caught quite unware—

revenge it would seem,
was to shatter his dream in a flash.
A merchant, quite bold, had sought Jonah's crew to reclaim what he saw as fair,

so a battle ensued,
one that Jonah would lose, he was sure.
After some time had passed, Jonah's ship lay a wreck, not a pirate alive to retell,

the tale of his plight,
and the fantastic fight they had fought.
Jonah lay with his pride, both bleeding and torn, in puddle of blood where he'd fell,

As his eyes closed up tight,
the ship sailed through the night to the shore.
When he neared the end, his ship came aground on the shore he had left as a youth,

where there stood a girl,
who had traveled the world, for her love.
A young maiden fogotten was stood on the shore, a smile of love as her proof,

and together they soared,
to the stars where he'd moored, young Jonah and his true love, Marie.
A young man named Jonah once set out to sea, to sail the seven seas,

and at no point did he,
ever doubt whether she would be waiting.
For he knew somewhere far and away from his heart was the beautiful girl of his dreams.

Hell and Hot Chocolate

This was my entry in a short story contest held among the denizens of http://bbs.chrismoore.com (affectionately known to the Mooreons that frequent it as The Boardello).  The challenge was to write a story with the title Hell and Hot Chocolate. I won a mug for this. I love that mug.

Hell and Hot Chocolate

by Jeff Yates

It was cold outside and the skies looked ominous, not that I knew what ominous meant at the time, I was only eight.  I probably would have said the skies looked scary back then or maybe, in an attempt to get the right word, called them odorous.  That would've been wrong though, they weren't odorous at all (at least not from this distance), just ominous.  Mum, fearing for the well-being of her children as mothers often do, made sure we wore extra layers before bracing the winter morning.  My sister wore hiking socks, leg warmers and boots with a pink puffer jacket, pink scarf, pink mittens, and a pink bobble hat; her cheeks glowing red against the biting wind.  I wore two pairs of socks, my wellies, jeans, a vest, a t-shirt, a white school shirt, a wool jumper with a rabbit on the front knitted by my Gran, a scarf of random colours knitted by my Gran, a wool duffle coat, and a flat cap that my parents had bought me for my birthday after my Dad got fed up of me stealing his.  We each carried a satchel containing sandwiches, crayons, paper, and a flask of milky hot chocolate.   My sister was like candy floss from the local fairground and I was like a better looking British equivalent of Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone.

It was Sunday morning and my Mum had just dropped me and my sister at the bottom of the church steps.  They were eroded from wind and rain, cracked by freeze and thaw, and harboured frost-covered plants between their old stone blocks.  Their edges were worn smooth from centuries of churchgoers traipsing their way to and from christening, matins, communion, wedding, evensong and funeral services, Easter, harvest and Christmas celebrations, and Sunday School.  That was where we were heading, Sunday School.  Every Sunday morning after the communion service we would go to Sunday school where various volunteers under the guidance of the rector would impart to us the wisdom of the Bible whilst we made Easter cards or painted one of the Disciples.  Usually, we would have been at the service too but this morning my Mum had struggled to wake me and my Dad: me because I was lazy, my Dad because he was hung-over.  So, there we were, at the bottom of the church steps waving to our Mum as the last of the congregation left the church and Mum drove away.

My sister grabbed my arm and dragged me up the icy steps, "Come on, you mong.  Stop staring at the sky, we'll be late!"  She was ten and with her maturity came her sass.  She was a proper well-spoken little madam and I looked up to her even though we were starting to grow apart; me refusing to mature beyond my years and her racing for the finish line of retirement.  I was sure that within a year, she would be married with kids and I would still be pulling the legs off spiders and putting frogs in her bed (though no Nostradamus, some of my predictions did come true, much to my sister's irritation).

*   *   *

“Today, we are going to talk about Heaven and Hell.  Who can tell me what Heaven is?”

Miss Dickle was about eighteen or nineteen.  She was a member of the youth fellowship and she was hung up on God.  I think it had something to do with the bullying she got, or the boys thinking she was a dyke (I didn’t know what that meant, but they didn’t say it like it was a good thing so I guessed it was bad which my Mum confirmed when I called her one), or a bit of both, but whatever it was, my Dad had said she was bothering God for the wrong reasons.  I could not see any signs that God was bothered by her at all, but then I could not see any signs of God full-stop—other than the ones that hopeful believers had built, installed, or written on his behalf—so what did I know?

Bobby Jenkins raised his hand, “My Mum says that sitting on the washing machine during a full-spin cycle is heaven.”

“Yes, thank you, Bobby.  That isn’t quite what I was looking for.  Anyone else?” said Miss Dickle, making a note and slipping it into her pocket while Bobby shrugged like he had given it his best shot, “No?  Well, Heaven is where God lives.”

“But I thought this was God’s house?” said Angela Joyce.  The twenty-strong group of eight year old children nodded in agreement.

“Yes, it is, but God is everywhere.”  Miss Dickle was used to thinking fast.

“So Heaven is everywhere?” said Angela.

“No.  Heaven is where we go when we die, but only if we’ve been good.  Now, who can tell me what Hell is?”

Julie Brent raised her hand, pushing it as high as she could, using her other arm to prevent the first from falling off before she got to answer.

“Yes, Julie.”

“Hell is a really hot place with fire and lava and the Devil where people go when they’re naughty.”

Julie Brent was a know-it-all and she knew it.  I hated her.

“That’s very good, Julie.  To be exact, Hell is the eternal punishment for those who do not believe in Jesus Christ like we do.  The Devil, who is sometimes called Satan or Lucifer, used to be an angel in Heaven but he tried to fight God and was sent to Hell with a third of the angels who are now demons.  Hell is filled with the souls of the damned and if you do something naughty and you don’t say sorry, that’s where you end up.  The Devil roams the Earth looking for souls to devour, separating them from the spiritual light of God and condemning them to eternal damnation.  Temptation is often used by the Devil to lure the weak away from Jesus Christ and God.  So, when you are tempted to do something that you know you shouldn’t, remember what might happen to you.”

We all sat there in silence, too scared to look anywhere but straight at Miss Dickle, whose face looked deadly serious.  I was pretty sure that none of us fully understood everything she just said, but what we did understand was more than enough to petrify us.  I was horrified, even more so when Bobby shit himself and burst into tears; he was sat right next to my flask.

*   *   *

Mum came to collect us at 11:30.  There we were, standing in the slush at the bottom of the Church steps.  My sister was holding the advent candle she had made and grinning from ear to ear as if it was the best thing ever.  I was holding my flask of hot chocolate at arm’s length, unable to believe that Miss Dickle had washed if all off like she insisted.

On the drive home, my sister happily regaled the little bits of gossip she had overheard during her advent candle manufacturing class while I tried not to think about the implications of my “how to scare the shit out of at least one kid” class.   It wasn’t until we got home that Mum took me aside to ask why I appeared so upset (seems I had been sniffling a little on the way home).  So, I told her what happened, word for word, or at least as well as I could remember and when I was finished, she gave me a hug.

“So, you’re worried that you might go to Hell?”

“No,” I said.

“No?”

“Well, I was, but then Bobby pooed on my hot choc’lit.”

“And that stopped you worrying?”

“Well, you always say it might be tempting to drink it before Miss Dickle finished talking but I shouldn’t.  But today I was going to, then Bobby pooed on it.  And now he’s going to Hell.”

“I don’t think that’s very nice, honey.  You can’t send someone to Hell just for pooing their pants.”

“But he didn’t say sorry and Miss Dickle said that if you don’t say sorry after you’ve done something naughty, you go to Hell.”

“Well, I don’t think Miss Dickle explained that very well.  How about I make you a fresh mug of hot chocolate and we’ll talk about this after dinner?”

“Ok,” I smiled and ran off to watch Bugs Bunny with my Dad.

*   *   *

It wasn’t until the following weekend when I returned to Sunday School, that I discovered Bobby had bigger things to worry about than Hell.  After all, why worry about where you’ll end up when you’re dead when you have to spend the rest of your life being called Bobby Poopants, Poobum Bobby, and Bobby Bobby Bumboy (although that last one didn’t really become popular until he came out during high school).  He never lived down the embarrassment of defecating to the point that it oozed from his shorts and I never ever used that flask again.  Angela Joyce became a hard-hitting journalist, probing politicians and celebrities with her unique style of questioning. Julie Brent got ordained and continued to have an answer for everything.  Miss Dickle got a theology degree and after many years as a missionary, she embraced her sexuality and moved in with Julie Brent.

As for me, well, that’s another story altogether.