It might surprise you as it did me, that there are at least 50 different forms of traditional poetry, and over 82 different types of invented poetry forms. Traditional forms include the Acrostic. In an acrostic poem, the first letter of each line spells a word, normally a word related to the subject of the poem.
Edgar Allan Poe wrote the poem, An Acrostic in 1829:
Elizabeth it is in vain you say
“Love not” — thou sayest it in so sweet a way:
In vain those words from thee or L. E. L.
Zantippe’s talents had enforced so well:
Ah! if that language from thy heart arise,
Breathe it less gently forth — and veil thine eyes.
Endymion, recollect, when Luna tried
To cure his love — was cured of all beside —
His folly — pride — and passion — for he died.
Another sample of an acrostic comes from Jody Kupervage, who wrote the following acrostic in 2000:
He broke my heart
Every piece, shattered
All I wanted was his love
Real, as he promised
True, as mine for him
But he walked away
Right in the middle of paradise
Every beat of my heart
Aches for his love
Keeping the flame aglow
I will wait by the light
Never losing the hope
God will send him back to me
A Clerihew is a comic type of poem. A Clerihew is composed of two couplets, each using the rhyming scheme, aabb. The poem is written about a person or character. The subject is mentioned in the first line, and the second line ends with a word that rhymes with the name of the person or character. The form was invented by writer, E.Clerihew Bentley. A famous Clerihew written by the creator of the Clerihew form was written about a political figure of his day:
John Stuart Mill,
By a mighty effort of will,
Overcame his natural bonhomie
And wrote Principles of Political Economy
Another Clerihew, written by Ben Johnson (no not that one) in 2000 was about Clerihew himself:
Edmund Clerihew Bentley
was famous before he was twenty
for writing biographies in verse
and keeping them terse.
One of my favorites Clerhews was written by James and Marie Summers in 2000:
Garfield the cat
On his rear he sat.
Eating lasagna galore
All about the decor.
Clerihews are great devices for committing facts and ideas to memory. The following is one such Clerihew:
Sir Humphrey Davy
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium.
The Minute Poetry is a form composed of 12 lines including 60 syllables written in iambic pentameter. The rhyme scheme follows aabb ccdd eeff. The poem is formatted into three stanzas including 8 444, 8444, 8444 (syllables for each line of each stanza).
The path that leads to things not shown,
to trails unknown,
and tales untold…
has fate controlled?
Arcane, the shadows called and wooed
with minstrel’s strum,
they begged me come.
And dare I follow, once coerced
by winds thus versed…
Or dast I stay
and waste this day?
Larry Powers, 2007
A Palindrome Poem, reads the same way forward and backward.
Used often in Arabic poetry, ancient Sanskrit poems, and the devotional poetry of Tamil, palindrome poetry requires great skill to make it work in both form and meaning.
This line of poetry in Arabic, is a palindrome.
مودته تدوم لكل هول * وهل كل مودته تدوم
Transliterated, it sounds/reads like this: mawaddatuhu tadumu likulli hawlin, wahal kullu mawaddatihi tadumu.
Translated, this poem reads, “His cordiality lasts despite all calamities”.
Famous English palindromes include:
“Able was I ere I saw Elba” and “Madam I’m Adam”, and featured on the animated favorite, The Simpsons, “Rise to vote sir”.
The Fable. And finally, to end this month’s celebration of National Poetry Month, the fable. A fable is a poem composed of either verse or prose telling a story which leads to a moral. The fable often has animals taking the place of different types of people. I grew up hearing and reading Aesop’s fables, an Ethiopian/Greek poet who lived around 620-560 BCE. These stories were handed down through the oral traditions, from one generation to another. Aesop’s Fables are some of the most well known:
The Lion and Love
A Lion once fell in love with a beautiful maiden and proposed marriage to her parents. The old people did not know what to say. They did not like to give their daughter to the Lion, yet they did not wish to enrage the King of Beasts. At last the father said:
“We feel highly honoured by your Majesty’s proposal, but you see our daughter is a tender young thing, and we fear that in the vehemence of your affection you might possibly do her some injury. Might I venture to suggest that your Majesty should have your claws removed, and your teeth extracted, then we would gladly consider your proposal again.”
The Lion was so much in love that he had his claws trimmed and his big teeth taken out. But when he came again to the parents of the young girl they simply laughed in his face, and bade him do his worst.
The Moral of this Fable: Love can tame the wildest.
A fable written by Louise Gluck, cited from her collection Ararat published by Harper-Collins in 1990:
Two women with
the same claim
came to the feet of
the wise king. Two women,
but only one baby.
The king knew
someone was lying.
What he said was
Let the child be
cut in half; that way
no one will go
drew his sword.
Then, of the two
renounced her share:
the sign, the lesson.
you saw your mother
torn between two daughters:
what could you do
to save her but be
willing to destroy
yourself—she would know
who was the rightful child,
the one who couldn’t bear
to divide the mother.
American folklore is full of stories told as in the form of fables, including this story retold by S.E. Schlosser. Author, S.E. Schlosser wrote Spooky Series and Ghost Stories in which she tells the stories she has been hearing and telling since childhood.
Mama told me I should never to walk along the marsh shortcut that led from our plantation to the town of Brunswick. She said it was dangerous and I’d get myself killed if I didn’t listen to her. That didn’t make any sense. The marsh shortcut was a wide, sandy path that my buddies used all the time when they went to the store in town. None of them ever got hurt. And at the age of thirteen, I was perfectly capable of taking care of myself.
It was Pa who told me why Mama was so scared of the marsh path. Pa said: “Your Mama’s little sister disappeared in the marsh a long time ago. She was taking the shortcut to the old pond to gather some firewood, and she never came back. They found her straw hat floating in the stagnant water, but they never found her body.”
“I ain’t gonna fall into the water like Mama’s sister,” I protested.
“That ain’t it, son,” Pa said. “It’s the spirit of yer little aunt. She comes to the marsh path some evenings and she…she sings.”
Color drained from my face and my arms grew goose fleshed. “She’s a ghost?” I gasped.
“Not just a ghost, son,” Pa said. “Your little aunt, she’s kind of like the Jack Ma Lantern. After she drowned, her ghost started floating over the marsh at night, singing softly of death and the grave. She’s lonesome and wants her family to join her, so she tries to lure them into the water with her song.” Pa swallowed hard and continued: “It’s safe for your buddies to walk that path ‘cause they ain’t family. But if you go there, the ghost will come fer you. So you stay away from the marsh.”
It was easy to forget the ghost in the long days of summer as the fellers and I rambled around the countryside after the day’s work was done. One day, my buddy Jimmy and I were caught in Brunswick after sunset. “My Pa’s going to be sore at me if I miss dinner,” Jimmy said. “We better hurry.” Jimmy swerved onto the shortcut through the marsh, expecting me to follow. I stared after my buddy, torn between speed and safety. I knew I shouldn’t take the shortcut, but with Jimmy present, chances were good that the ghost wouldn’t come because he wasn’t family. I raced down the marsh path after Jimmy.
As the wind swished through the marsh grasses, all whisper-whisper-whisper, I paused for a moment to admire the moon, which was rising over the treetops, making a glittering path across the still water. Suddenly, the air around me grew cold until my whole body shook with chills. Out of the silvery moon-sparkle there came a child-like figure that danced and floated above the dark water like a will-o-wisp. I gasped, my throat tight with fear. I called to Jimmy, just a yard in front of me, but he didn’t hear me and I knew he couldn’t see the spirit floating toward us across the marsh. Puffs of freezing air formed in front of my nostrils as the little girl started to sing.
“I know moonrise, I know star-rise, Lay dis body down. I walk in de moonlight, I walk in de starlight, To lay dis body down. I ‘ll walk in de graveyard, I’ll walk through de graveyard, To lay dis body down. I ‘ll lie in de grave and stretch out my arms; Lay dis body down….”
I relaxed suddenly, as lovely pictures floated through my head. I saw myself as a grown man and I had become rich and famous. I had a fancy house and an expensive car and a lovely family. Then I saw my Mama right in front of me. She was beaming with pride over my achievements. She beckoned to me, want me to come give her a hug. I hurried forward, splashing through water that came to my knees, my waist, my chest. “I’m coming Mama!” I called, stretching strangely heavy arms toward her. Then I was overwhelmed by the stink of stagnant marsh gases. My mouth filled with sour water and I choked as the world went dark.
I woke gasping as someone pounded me on the chest. I choked and vomited swamp water all over the person thumping my ribs. ThenI heard Pa’s voice: “Son? You all right? Son!” I opened my eyes and saw Jimmy and my Pa staring down at me in the shimmering moonlight. It was Jimmy that pulled me out of the swamp, and Pa that forced air back into my lungs. I was soaked to the skin and my whole body trembled with cold and shock. “I saw Mama’s little sister,” I gasped. “She sang to me…” Then I lost consciousness again.
When I woke the second time, I was in my bed and Mama was holding my hand and weeping. She hugged me so tight I could barely breathe and scolded me something fierce for disobeying her. I promised her then and there that I wouldn’t walk the marsh path again, and I kept that promise. And ever after, I could never listen to anyone singing the song ‘I Know Moonlight.’ It made me feel sick to hear it. ”
This fable is written in prose style, and captures the reader’s or the listener’s attention. Reread the tale, and then retell the story to your family or friends. Make the retelling of stories and reciting of poetry part of your family’s traditions. It’s a wonderful form of entertainment.
Another famous fabilist was Jean de La Fontaine. Born in July of 1621, La Fontaine was born into an affluent family of nobility. He studied theology for a while, until his lifestyle got in the way, and then became a lawyer. Here is one of his famous fables:
THE MOUSE METAMORPHOSED INTO A MAID. (IX, 7) A mouse fell from an owl on high :
I had not picked it up, not I ;
A Brahmin did though, and, which I believe,
Each country thinks as they their thoughts receive.
The mouse was injured by the fall. Of such a neighbour we think nought at all :
But Brahmins treat him as a brother,
For they have sucked it in somehow or other,
That the great soul, just as it quits a king,
Takes lodging in some common thing,
Enters a mite, a grub, a louse, a fly,
Pythagoras drew up this mystery.
Ruled by his laws, the Brahmin thought
He did his duty, and a conjuror sought,
Begged him to lodge the mouse as lodged of old.
He did so, and a wondrous nymph behold,
With every charm, just turned fifteen.
Paris for her had more enraptured been,
And had done more than for his Grecian queen.
The Brahmin., wondering at this object, said :
” You that just now were but a wounded mouse,
Have wounded all, 0 lovely youthful maid
And you have but to choose your spouse.” ”
I choose the strongest then,” the maid replied.
” 0 sun ! ” the kneeling Brahmin quick replied,
” For son-in-law I fix on thee.”
” No,” cried the sun, ” that pitchy cloud ye spy, Hides all my rags, and stronger is than I :
I recommend you then my powerful shroud.
” Well,” cried the Brahmin to the flying cloud,
” Art thou born. for her ?”
” No, for still I find I’m chased from clime to climate by the wind !
I don’t pretend with Boreas to reign.”
The Brahmin cried with haste again.:
” Then. come, 0 wind ! and wed the fair..”
He came : mountain stopped him in the air.
The Brahmin next the mighty mountain. tried,
Who in his turn. the ball refusing, cried :
” War with the rat might hence ensue,
And I my folly soon. might rue,
As he in time could eat me through.”
At sound of rat, the fair Miss Mouse
Opened her ears an.d hailed him spouse.
” A rat ! a rat ! such. matches love has made :
0 love ! we wonder at the pairs we find ;
Thus such a one and such in wedlock joined.
But this between ourselves be said.”
Men of their birthplace show the trace ;
Proves that point well, but then it seems to fail
Elsewhere, and shows a little sophistry.
For what spouse is not better than the Sun,
If we may take it thus ? and is a flea
Stronger than giants, because, all said and done,
It makes its dinner off them ?
Then the rat In logic ought to offer to the cat
His fair one ; he should give her to the hound,
He to the wolf, and so on till the round
Was come full circle, and again
The fair one to the Sun was ta’en ;
Thus had Pilpay doubtless done,
And with her young bloom fed the Sun.
Again metempsychosis seems to be
Proved false by this good Brahmin’s sorcery.
According to his system, man and mouse
Receive their souls from one same treasure-house;
Both then are of one temper, though they act
Diversely both in theory and fact.
’Tis owing to the organ solely then,
That the mouse creeps and we’re erect as men;
If so, how comes it that a lovely farm
So highly organised did not compel
The maid to wed the Sun, however warm ?
The reason was she loved the rat too well.
Shortly, they’re net the same in my advice,
The souls of maidens and the souls of mice.
Fixed is your portion by the laws of fate ;
Fleeting the forms your fancy may create.
Consult the devil in a conjuror’s room,
‘Tis all but marching on to meet your doom.
People who wish good counsel to improve,
This length of cord from madmen will remove ;
If not, their blows your fondness soon may cure :
The fool has sold you wisdom, I am sure.”
Almost as much as I love the poetry of the fablists, I also love the illustrations. In future columns I will feature more in depth about some of the wonderful illustrators who help bring poetry and literature to life in our imaginations. All cultures and languages are rich repositories of poetry, and I intend to feature many different types of poetry, poets, languages, and cultures in future columns. And since poetry is something to be celebrated throughout the year, not just for special occasions, I am leaving it off the shelf, and using it now as part of my everyday practice of sharing poetry and poets with you. Each week, at least, I will continue to write about and share good poetry with you through this column. In the immortal last words of the poet Brazilian poet, Olavo Bilac, “Give me coffee, I am going to write.”
To read de La Fontaine’s fables in French, visit this website.