Week Nine: The Horatian Ode

Horace (65 – 8 BCE)

Quintus Horatius Flaccus–better known to the English-speaking world by the mononym Horace–was a Roman soldier, lyric poet and satirist during the time of Augustus. He was a leading Latin poet of his time and is still celebrated for his odes, satires, and epistles. “Ars Poetica,” or “The Art of Poetry,” (c. 19 BC), his most influential epistle, offers advice on the art of writing poetry and drama.

Horatian Odes

Horace studied Greek ode forms–works by celebrated Greek poets such as Alcaeus, Anacreon, and Pindar–and adapted them for his own purposes, making them suitable for Latin. He not only changed the formal conventions of the Greek odes (stanzaic patterns, meter, rhyme scheme), but also modified the tone and subject matter to best highlight his own unique artistic sensibilities. While Greek odes tended to be heroic–elaborately glorifying a person or event–Horace’s odes were more personal, contemplative, and philosophical. The odes of Horace are also known for their charm, sophistication, and occasional touches of light humor.

Reading Horace

Non-Latin readers are immediately confronted with the challenge of translation. It is widely considered a fool’s errand to attempt to preserve formal conventions such as meter and rhyme when translating poetry, so you’ll need to regard any English translations of Horace’s work as approximating the art and meaning of Horace’s original odes, rather than duplicating their formal conventions.

That being said, there is a great deal to be gained by reading Horace–keeping this limitations in mind–in English and many translations are available online. For the bookshelf, I recommend Oxford World’s Classic’s Horace: The Complete Odes and Epodes featuring translations by David West.

A Horatian Ode in English

Although we can’t look directly to Horace to learn the conventions of his signature odes (without first learning Latin, that is), we can, however, look to Horatian odes written in English by English poets, and there are several good examples. Perhaps the most famous of these is Andrew Marvell’s “An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland”.

The forward youth that would appear 
Must now forsake his Muses dear, 
Nor in the shadows sing 
His numbers languishing. 
’Tis time to leave the books in dust, 
And oil th’ unused armour’s rust, 
Removing from the wall 
The corslet of the hall. 
So restless Cromwell could not cease 
In the inglorious arts of peace, 
But thorough advent’rous war 
Urged his active star. 

Scanning the first eight lines of Marvell’s Horatian ode reveals several key requirements of the form. Firstly, you’ll notice each two lines feature an end rhyme in an aabbccdd… pattern. Secondly, you’ll notice that while lines 1 and 2 are written in iambic tetrameter, lines 3 and 4 are written in iambic trimeter. Thirdly, you’ll notice that–and this is an important feature unique to the Horatian ode–the pattern set in the first four lines is repeated without variation in each subsequent quatrain.

Requirements of the Form

Structure

Any number of stanzas that unvaringly follow the pattern set by the first stanza. Stanzas can be of any length, but Horatian odes usually feature repeating stanzas of two to four lines. Enjambment is allowed.

Content

– Tone tends toward philosophical, contemplative, gently playful, tranquil
– Style is sophisticated and formal, but not restrictive

Meter

Meter is chosen at the discretion of the poet. Again, the important factor is consistency from stanza to stanza. Iambic meter is commonly used in English.

Rhyme

Rhyme schemes vary, but (again) subsequent stanzas must repeat the pattern set by the first stanza. Lines are always end-rhymed.

An Original Horatian Ode

A Horatian Ode to the World Goddess

The Goddess of the World, I sing–
Her many forms and faces bring
The light of fertile life,
The fear of judgement’s knife.

Like Draupadi of Indian fame,
Born of the sacrificial flame–
Where she perceives a wall,
Illusion’s palace falls.

Or Anath, golden Canaanite,
Her retribution fierce and right,
She’ll cut you with a word,
Then feed you to the birds.

Online Resources

Ode – Wikipedia
Odes: Praise Poetry! – Writer’s Digest
An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland – Poetry Foundation
Ode – Poetry Foundation
How to Write an Horatian Ode – Forward Poetry
The Horatian Ode – Poetry Magnum Opus

Week Seven: The Minute Poem

The Minute Poem is a modern form of unknown origin. Despite it’s name–and fortunately for us–the Minute Poem is not a poem that you must write in 60 seconds. Rather, it’s a poem consisting of exactly sixty syllables. Further requirements in length, meter, and rhyme help this form stand out and make for a fun and fairly simple challenge.

Lucky for us, the Minute Poem counts syllables, not seconds.

Requirements of the Form

Form

– Consists of three quatrains (four-line stanzas) for a total of twelve lines

Meter

– Strict iambic (unstressed-stressed)

Syllable Count

– Eight syllables in the first line of each stanza
– Four syllables in the proceeding lines of each stanza

Rhyme Scheme

aabb/ccdd/eeff

Requirements Breakdown

1-xxxxxxxa
2-xxxa
3-xxxb
4-xxxb

5-xxxxxxxc
6-xxxc
7-xxxd
8-xxxd

9-xxxxxxxe
10-xxxe
11-xxxf
12-xxxf

An Original Minute Poem

I often sleep through summer’s storm

I often sleep through summer’s storm
when nights are warm
and thick with dreams
or so it seems

the quilt pulled high covers my eyes
as lightning flies
like moon in shroud
of creeping cloud

I wake to find the darkened road
the flowers bowed
the sagging sky
the river high

Online Resources

Minute Poetry – Shadow Poetry
Minute Poem – Poetry Dances
Minute Poem – Writer’s Digest

Week Five: The Miltonic Sonnet

John Milton (1608-1674)

The Miltonic Sonnet is named after the 17th century English poet, political writer, and civil servant, John Milton. With the publishing of his epic poem Paradise Lost, widely regarded as one of the greatest works written in the English language, Milton solidified his reputation as one of the greatest English poets of his time. Milton’s work would live on to influence Romantic poets such as William Blake and William Wordsworth.

Photo caption: A wood engraving from the 19th century depicts a blind John Milton dictating his influential epic poem “Paradise Lost” (Fortuné Louis Méaulle / Wellcome Library) 

Milton’s Sonnet

Milton adapted the Petrachan sonnet (named for Italian poet-scholar Petrach) and made the popular form his own. He took the sonnet out of the category of “love poems” and brought it into the world of politics, religion, and social issues. He also introduced enjambments (the technical term used for when a poet carries a line through to the next line), while at the same time removing the space between what was before the first and second stanzas, thus tightening up the form. By removing the volta (also known as a pivot, or turn) after the octave (first eight lines), and varying the rhyme scheme of the sestet (proceeding six lines), he further opened up the form.

A reading of one of Milton’s most famous poems should help demonstrate these contributions to the evolution of the sonnet:

“When I Consider How My Light Is Spent”

When I consider how my light is spent,
    Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
    And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
    My true account, lest He returning chide;
    “Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
    Either man’s work or His own gifts. Who best
    Bear His mild yoke, they serve Him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at His bidding speed,
    And post o’er land and ocean without rest;
   They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Requirements of the Form

Form

– Fourteen lines
– No spaces between ‘stanzas’
– Lines contain enjambment (see above for brief definition)

Content

– Occasional, political, and religious subjects
– Unlike other sonnets, does not have a distinct volta (also known as a pivot) after the eighth line

Meter

– Iambic pentameter (ten syllables per line, unstressed-stressed pattern).

Rhyme

– First eight lines (octave): abbaabba
– Preceding six lines (sestet): often cdecde, but variable

An Original Miltonic Sonnet

The viral imagine haunted every screen–
A photograph too horrid to ignore:
A pair of bloated bodies on the shore.
In Congress followed yet another scene
Of bickering and washing white-hands clean.
No older than The Virgin when she bore
The Savior that they claim to so adore,
The budding mother wonders what they mean.
As children hungry, dirty, sick and scared
Are torn away and locked in concrete halls
Lay weak with worry, overwhelmed with fear,
The value of their lives is weighed and tared;
As Washington debates the costs of walls,
Who dares to speak of Christ’s compassion here?

Notes on My Original Sonnet

I challenged myself to write a sonnet that was true to the Miltonic themes of politics, religion, and current events, and found in the issue of immigration a combination of all three. The line “children hungry, dirty, sick and scared” was taken from this BBC News article and served as the fulcrum of this poem.

Online Resources


Sonnet Examples – Poetry Through the Ages
Miltonic Sonnet – Poet’s Collective
Miltonic Sonnet – Poetry Magnum Opus
John Milton – Wikipedia

Week Two: Diminishing Verse

Meet the Form

Origins Uncertain

Not much is known about the origin of this form, but it’s possible that the Diminishing Verse form that we know today evolved from the classic triplet, and there is some evidence to suggest this (more on that here). All triplets consist of a three line stanza (commonly referred to a tercet), as do many Diminishing Verse poems. But where a classic triplet features a distinct rhyme scheme, the Diminishing Verse form has a more interesting–and challenging–way of creatively manipulating the last word of each line.

The Incredible Shrinking End Word

The key unique feature in a Diminishing Verse poem is the manipulation of the last word in each line, in a diminishing fashion. I did find some variation on where the emphasis should be placed within the end word itself. In one variation, emphasis is placed on the vowel sound of the end word, making the challenge to decrease the number of preceding consonants while maintaining the vowel sound (flair/rare/air). Another variation offers less flexibility, asking the poet to remove initial letters of the word without any other changes to spelling (heat/eat/at). A poem of this kind might read:

If you can stand the heat
And you can’t wait to eat
The kitchen is where it’s at

Nearly all of the contemporary examples I could find focused on this second emphasis, and this was the basis for my own experiments.

Other Notes On Structure

Beyond the above-mentioned end word requirements, there are very few formal restrictions in this form:
– No rules for syllable count, line length, rhyming, poem length, etc.
– Stanzas can be of any length, but tercets are most common. This is mostly due to the strict end word requirements and the natural constraints those requirements impose.

Tips and Techniques

Reverse-engineering your poem by starting with a cluster of usable end words may be the most fruitful way to get started in this form.

I began by making a list of possible end words in sets of three (if you can up with more, take it as far as you like!). Starting with the smallest word (usually one consisting of two or three letters) and working backwards by adding one or two letters at the front may make this easier. Even with only 3 lines, you’ll be surprised how limited your options really are.

When selecting your end words, watch out for affixes (kind/un-kind) and compound words (bee/honeybee) that modify the meaning of a word, but signify nearly the same thing. They may not make for good poetry.

Once you’ve made your list, pick out some of your most intriguing word clusters for further development.

Two Original Diminishing Verse Poems

The Riots of Spring

As the thunder churns, as the lightning cleaves,
The nestlings cower in the quaking leaves;
The spider’s web quivers beneath the eaves.

But soon the red fox will doze in the clover;
The monarch will settle on its yellow-petaled lover;
The riots of spring will be over.

Daily News

He dreads
The daily news–he only reads
The ads.

Bonus Challenge!
Diminishing Verse…in Reverse

If you add one or more letters to the beginning of the end word of each previous line (instead of subtracting), you get Diminishing Verse’s opposite: the Culminating Verse poem!

An Original Culminating Verse Poem

Tart

The art
In eating a tart
Is knowing when to start.

Links to Online Resources:

Diminishing Verse – The Writer’s Digest
Triplet – Poetry Magnum Opus

Week One: The Gwawdodyn

The Gwawdodyn

Welsh poetry — much like the language itself — often has a musical quality and emphasizes the sound of the words through the use of assonance and alliteration. The Gwawdodyn (gwow-DOD-in) is an old Welsh poetic form made up of a varying number of quatrains with strict syllabic restrictions and rhyme requirements.

Snowdon from Nantlle Valley 
Sir Kyffin Williams R.A. (1918-2006) 

Structure of the Gwawdodyn

Requirements of the Gwawdodyn form:

– Comprised of any number of quatrains (four-line stanzas)

– Usually features a 9/9/10/9 syllable pattern for each stanza

– Follows a unique rhyme scheme with matching end rhymes (a) on lines 1, 2, and 4, with a variable internal rhyme (b) on line 3:

1-xxxxxxxxa
2-xxxxxxxxa
3-xxxxbxxxxb
4-xxxxxxxxa

Variations on lines 3 and 4:

– The internal ‘b’ rhyme in the third line can be shifted to the left or right as needed, but is usually found towards the middle of the line

– One possible variation features a matching internal rhyme in lines 3 and 4, with no end rhyme in line 3:

1-xxxxxxxxa
2-xxxxxxxxa
3-xxxxbxxxxx
4-xxxbxxxxa

Other Variations

You may find other variations of this form featuring slightly different syllable counts and rhyming patterns, with the most variation found in lines 3 and 4.

Tips and Techniques

Syllable Count

The first major challenge of this form is the restricted number of syllables. If you’re aiming to stay true to the original form, count carefully and try to avoid compromises.

I usually begin by searching for a line I’ve previously recorded in one of my notebooks. As I flip through my notebooks, I search for a line that can be molded to fit the syllabic requirement and has an end word that isn’t too restricting.

Rhyming

As with any poem featuring end rhymes, you’ll want to choose these words most carefully. You’ll have some choices to make on the types of rhymes you’d like to use. A poem that uses only true, masculine rhymes (dire/fire) will have a different feel than one that uses only true, feminine rhymes (desire/retire) or one that uses only slant rhymes of either type (moon/doom) or any combination of these.

Once I have what I believe to be a workable first line, I list out my possible end rhyme words, using my first line’s end word as my guide. I almost always explore the possibilities within the true rhymes first. If these options are too limiting (and they often are) I’ll explore slant rhymes, staying as close to true as I can while aiming for maximum resonance. Once I believe I have a sufficient end rhyme word bank to select from, I’ll underline or highlight the words I feel are most resonant with the tone and theme of the first line.

An Original Gwawdodyn Poem

Sons of Abraham

Tell me all you Sons of Abraham
Spilling sacred blood for sacred land:
Do your daughters weep to see the slaughter
Of so many sacrificial lambs?

Commentary on my original poem

While there are no metrical specifications for this form, I often enjoy writing in meter, and you’ll find my poem is mostly written in iambic tetrameter.

Though this poem in its current form consists of a single quatrain, a traditional Gwawdodyn can be made up of as many quatrains as the poet pleases. I’ll no doubt explore options for expanding this work in the future.

I use a mixture of masculine and feminine rhymes. And although my rhymes are often slanted, I still match the sounds closely.

There is a great deal of assonance (long and short a sounds) and alliteration (s sounds) in this piece, which I believe is in keeping with the musicality often associated with traditional Welsh poetry.

Links to Online Resources:

Gwawdodyn: Poetic Forms – Writer’s Digest
Gwawdodyn: Poetry Forms – Poet’s Collective
Gwawdodyn – The Poet’s Garret