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  • Billy Mills 10:19 on 19/10/2021 Permalink | Reply

    Local Wonders anthology from Dedalus Press 

    I’m very pleased to say that seven of my lockdown haiku from my ongoing Very Far After project are going to be included in this handsome looking volume. A rare Irish publication for my work:

  • Billy Mills 10:56 on 13/10/2021 Permalink | Reply  

    Some notes on verbal music 

    The April 1913 issue of Poetry magazine contained this now-famous short poem by Ezra Pound:

    In a Station of the Metro

    The apparition     of these faces     in the crowd:
    Petals     on a wet, black     bough.

    This printing of the poem in the New Freewoman on 15 August is notable for reproducing Pound’s original spacing, an innovation he explained to Poetry editor Harriet Munroe in a letter of March 30th: ‘In the ‘Metro’ hokku, I was careful, I think, to indicate spaces between the rhythmic units, and I want them observed’[i]. I imagine that the explanation was intended to overcome objections by either Munroe or her printer (or possibly both) to Pound’s irregular requirements, and that similar objections may be why the layout was dropped in all other printings of the poem.

    Pound’s explanation is interesting in its echoing of the last of the three principles that Pound, HD and Richard Aldington had agreed the previous summer: ‘As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome’[ii]. As I understand it, the sequence of the musical phrase represents rhythm, while the metronome represents formal metre, and Pound’s visual disruption of the lines of the Metro poem are a scoring of the ‘rhythmic units’ that comprise its music. Without the spaces, and if one is willing to distort any kind of reasonable reading, it’s just about possible to read the first line as an iambic hexameter:

    The apparition of these faces in the crowd

    The sequence of the metronome gone mad.

    If, on the other hand, one takes Pound at his word and treats the spacing as a kind of mutual notation, the line resolves into a three-stress line, with the number of unstressed syllables in each unit both variable and relatively unimportant. This notation disrupts the tendency towards imposing regular metrical/metronomic units so as the highlight the underlying rhythmical music of the verse.

    The apparition     of these faces     in the crowd:

    Petals     on a wet, black     bough.

    The second line has four stresses, again not tied to any formal metrical scheme, but with the three final stresses balancing the opening three unstressed syllables of line one.

    Of course, Pound, HD and Aldington were not claiming to have discovered something new; they were concerned with recovering neglected approaches to verbal music. In this context, it’s interesting that Pound appended his ‘Treatise on Metre’ to ABC of Reading, with the inference that the ideas expounded in the treatise should be read as exemplified in the example poems earlier in the book.

    The final paragraph of the treatise bears quoting in full:

    Beyond which we will never recover the art of writing to be sung until we begin to pay some attention to the sequence, or scale, of vowels in the line, and of the vowels terminating the group of lines in a series.


    Let’s look at a famous, and metrically conventional, stanza from the canon:

    The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,

             The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,

    The plowman homeward plods his weary way,

             And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

    As I touched on when discussing ‘In a Station of the Metro’ above, one key aspect of vowel music that is not as much discussed as it might be is the contrast between long and short vowel sounds, where long vowels are vowels pronounced as they are named (A = ape. etc.). There we see a regular major scale of vowel sounds running through the first three lines, with the long ‘O’ and ‘A’ sounds serving as pivotal points around which the tune revolves. In the fourth line, the substitution of a long ‘E’ for the ‘O’ acts as a resolution, a kind of deceptive cadence.

    It’s interesting to see how Gray manages to marry the iambic pentameter exactly to the rhythm of natural speech (something that’s all too unusual) while using the long vowels to highlight the key tones in the verse: tolls/day/lowing/lea/home/way/leaving/me serve as a kind of emotional summary of these lines. And similar patterns run through the entire poem.

    I’m not contending that he sat down and decided on a pattern of long and short vowels as the framework for the ‘Elegy’ (although he might have), but that his control of that verbal music that he was using that his ear naturally discovered such patterns in the language as if instinctively; but it isn’t instinct, it’s the learned behaviour of the poet as artist, or, if you prefer, technique.


    The focus on patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables that underpins our understanding of English metrics is a consequence of the fact that English is primarily a stress-timed language, where, in speech, the unit of time is the stress, not the syllable, with the intervals between stresses being approximately equal in duration, regardless of the number of unstressed (pr short) syllables between them.

    However, this is not a universal language feature. The romance languages, Finnish and Japanese, for instance, are syllable-timed, with each syllable having approximately the same duration, and so you arrive, if I am allowed in a very over-simplified path, at syllabic metres, perhaps the most well-known being the 5 – 7 – 5 haiku, if we allow that the mora is more or less similar to an English syllable. Since the Renaissance, some English poets have experimented with syllabics, and this became more common in the 20th century, with poets like Dylan Thomas, Louis Zukofsky and Marianne Moore being among the most successful. Here’s the opening stanza of Moore’s ‘Bird-Witted’:

    With innocent wide penguin eyes, three

    large fledging mocking-birds below

    the pussy-willow tree,

    stand in a row,

    wings touching, feebly solemn,

    till they see

    their no longer larger

    mother bringing

    something which will partially

    feed one of them.

    The stanza pattern of 10 lines with 9/8/6/4/7/3/6/4/7/4 syllables per line and a rhyme scheme of A-B-A-B-C-A-D-E-A-C is repeated five more times. But the stress patterns don’t repeat. Take the first line above:

    With innocent wide penguin eyes, three

    Four stresses, five unstressed syllables. Now the first line of the second stanza:

    Toward the high-keyed intermittent squeak

    Again the same number of stressed and unstressed syllables, but the pattern of alternation is completely different. It is the tension between the syllabic form and stress pulse that creates the unique music of this poem, variation and repetition, repetition and variation.


    In a letter to Richard Eberhart dated 23 May 1954, William Carlos Williams talked about his ‘new measure’, the variable foot he believed bridged the gap between verse that had become too ‘free’ and the need for poetry to carry a tune: ‘by its music shall the best of modern verse be known’. The measure is linked to the triadic line he’d been working in since the 1940s, as illustrated by the examples he includes in the letter, and to his insistence on the American Idiom, ‘a language we hear spoken about us every day’.

    The idea seems to be that each line is a metrical unit, a ‘foot’ that might be more like a yard, or a unit of breathing. Here’s a well-known example from ‘The Descent’, the first time he really used the triadic stanza form, which was included in the 1954 collection The Desert Music:

    The descent beckons

                    as the ascent beckoned

                                Memory is a kind

    of accomplishment

                    a sort of renewal


    an initiation, since the spaces it opens are new places

                    inhabited by hordes

                                heretofore unrealized

    of new kinds—

                    since their movements

                                are toward new objectives

    But what’s going on? Williams is, it seems, counting neither stresses nor syllables. Neither are the individual lines, nor the triads, necessarily closed units of sense. Like Moore’s regular stanza above, the triadic form sets up an expectation of pattern for the reader, but that expectation is not fulfilled by a pattern of stress that mirrors the form. Instead, it seems to me, what Williams is doing is setting syntactic expectations that tend to be disrupted by the line and triad breaks o that, for instance, the word ‘even’ has two sets of syntagmatic relations with the word about it, one referring backwards, the other forwards, so that we have two senses to hold in our reading mind at the same time: ‘A sort of renewal, even’ and ‘even an initiation’. The music, the measure here is a kind of logopeia, not melopeia. However, there is a definite melodic structure here that depends not on the beat, but on the ‘pitch’ elements of language: assonance, dissonance and rhyme. This can be seen in the first triad not only in the obvious repetitions (descent/ascent/beckons/beckoned) but also in the sound variants on the ‘e’ vowel, with similar but different patterns in the second and third triads.


    The essence of verbal music, of any music, is repetition and variation, the creation, disruption and resolution of the ear’s and eye’s expectations. This can be accomplished through rhythm, pitch (as I understand it in poetry, vowel and consonant patterns and the contrasting of long and short vowels), or any combination of the two. f course, I’m focusing here on poetry in verse; prose, concrete and visual poetries raise a whole range of other questions, but again the answers can, I believe, be resolved by appeal to these two primary elements.

    [i] Letters

    [ii] “A Retrospect” Pavannes and Divagations (1918)

  • Billy Mills 10:40 on 04/10/2021 Permalink | Reply

    The English Strain and Bad Idea by Robert Sheppard: A Review 

    The English Strain, Robert Sheppard, Shearsman. 2021, ISBN: 9781848617469, £12.95

    Bad Idea, Robert Sheppard, Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2021, ISBN: 9781912211746, £11.00

    ‘What is badly needed at the present moment is some small Malherbe of free verse to sit on the sonnet and put it out of action for two hundred years at least. Perhaps Mr Pound…?’

    So wrote Samuel Beckett in 1934, but sadly Mr. Pound declined and the sonnet continues, if not exactly to flourish, at least to be written and has, in recent years, undergone something of a reinvention at the hands of what we might loosely call ‘linguistically innovative’ poets, including Robert Sheppard.

    The two Sheppard books under review here form part of a trilogy of volumes in which he works through the ‘English strain’ of the sonnet and the influence of Petrarch on its development. Given that the books were both written in and about the emerging Brexit shambles, a bad idea if ever you saw one, the emphasis on Petrarch reads, to me at least, as implicit comment on the long-standing interpenetration of British and European culture, with the great flowering of the Elizabethan age stemming from Wyatt and Surrey’s ‘discovery’ of the Italian poet’s work. In fact, much of the first volume consists of versioning the versioners’ versions, with Sheppard writing through translations from Petrarch by Wyatt, Surrey and Charlotte Smith, alongside some radical reworkings of the Italian’s Sonnet 3, ‘Era il gorno ch’al sol si scoloraro’ and of original sonnets by Surrey, Smith and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. There are also a number of original Sheppard sonnets

    The versions, and ‘original’ sonnets here are peopled with BoJo, May and their assorted advisors and ministers in a kind of carnival parody of the Tudor courts in which many of the originals were written, and these distortions work both ways, with, for example, Wyatt’s career as a diplomat across Europe being repurposed as an involvement in Brexit negotiations.

    I’m taking the rap (again) between these sheets (alone)

    or undercover in Brussels. My mind presents present promise

    against the presence of the past, which is expiring faster than

    my EU passport. (When I speak like that I wish I were dead.)

    Meanwhile, Smith’s connection with Sussex leads to meditations, not quite the right word, on connections with France, and Europe, across the sea:

    Are they grey EU gunboats firing on our freighters,

    our entrepreneurs smuggling flammable cladding,

    the dead and the dying dumped in the English Channel

    as France dowses England’s chalk redoubt in cheep cheese? No.

    With echoes of Elizabethan sea piracy folding into the contemporary news. Similarly, in the ‘Brazilian Sonnets’ versioning from Browning, the forfeiture of the family estate in Jamacia in the wake of abolition folds into the Brexit narrative of international debt, while the poet herself stands as a physical reforging of the link to Petrarch and direct English entanglement in a cultural Europe.

    If the first volume jumps from the Tudor roots of the English sonnet strain to its revival in the Romantic and Victorian eras, Bad Idea bridges that gap by bringing us back to the form’s Renaissance pinnacle via Michael Drayton’s ‘Idea’ and ‘Idea’s Mirror’ sequences. Sheppard’s title folds Drayton’s into the Brexit narrative immediately (a definite bad idea), but an epigraph quote from Gregory Bateson that begins ‘There is an ecology of bad ideas, just as there is an ecology of weeds, and its characteristic of the system that basic error propagates itself’ opens out into a much wider field of failed thinking that underpins the rise of the so called ‘Alt Right’. Incidentally, the opening sonnet of Drayton’s sequence, an unnumbered address to the reader, is the source of Sheppard’s overarching title:

    My Muse is rightly of the English strain,

    That cannot long one fashion entertain.

    As may befit writing that delineates a world that revolves around the twin poles of Boris and Donald, the poems here frequently deploy the language of hard sex, of porn even, as part of its rhetorical armoury, and this finds echo in an accusation of lewd behaviour made against Drayton in the London Consistory Court in 1627, which is used as epigraph to Sonnet XXI in the ‘Bad Idea’ sequence, which opens:

    The shitless scumbag Member, Rut, entreated his ‘tart’

    To a filing-cabinet knee-trembler and implored me

    To draft his chat-up (as a sonnet)!

    The obvious level on which this works is the simple notion that Brexit was a way of the Tory elite to fuck the rest of the country for their own benefit, but I also read it as a kind of study of the commodification and instrumentalization of sex; to adapt a slogan of Sheppard’s (and my) youth), the interpersonal is political.

    There is some inevitable tension between Sheppard the ‘avant-garde’ linguistically innovative poet and Sheppard the apparently insatiable sonneteer, a tension that he addresses head on in Sonnet XLII of the ‘Idea’ sequence:

    Some like my multiform methods,

    and commend my social poetics.

    Some say I’m a funny old translator,

    ‘expanded’ like a supersized codpiece.

    Some that I excel in explicit vitality.

    But others call this strange ventriloquism

    ‘unsuccessful and overheated, loud and repetitive.’

    Ignore my grudge over the ‘esquire’ thing. Now

    Duffy’s off, poets leave the laureateship alone.

    Am I not best remaining bard for Brexit’s long betrayal,

    the ‘better spirit’ that even Shakespeare envied,

    before I drank him to death with fat Ben?

                 I’ll knock one out for the local elections. Free.

                 Flick through the only Companion I need: you

    Reading this sends the diligent reader back to these lines from one of the ‘original’ sonnets near the beginning of The English Strain, in a poem addressed to the memory of Lee Harwood:

    I searched everywhere for your letter

    that I know says something like You’ve

    got a special language for poetry,

    Robert, and I haven’t. I didn’t find it

    but I’m trying to lose that language now

    For me, this attempt to lose his ‘special language’ through the ‘strange ventriloquism’ of versioning is perhaps the most interesting part of these two books. When the politics pales, as politics always will in the end, we are left with some wonderful patterns of sound. Take, for example, the first four lines of the Drayton version just quoted:

    Some say I’m a funny old translator,

    ‘expanded’ like a supersized codpiece.

    Some that I excel in explicit vitality.

    But others call this strange ventriloquism

    Other readers may place the stresses differently, in an attempt to force the lines to match the rhythm of an iambic metronome, but I’m taken with the idea of a kind of mad ballad metre being imposed on the sonnet form. More interestingly, the patterns of assonance and consonance that Sheppard weaves here, primarily the sibilant alliteration and the predominance of short vowels in stressed positions, with an exception for that vital ‘strange’ marks a kind of departure for Sheppard, a move away from his ‘special language’ towards something of a new departure.

    So, with Beckett in mind, does the world need what promises to be in the region of 300 new (or ‘new’) sonnets? I’m not sure, but the fact is that the two instalments of Sheppard’s trilogy are endlessly fascinating, both for their rumbustious handling of the surreal reality of Brexit and as an instance of a poet doing what poets do, deploying technique to make poetry out of the matter that is given to them. As a sonnet sceptic, I find myself wondering what he’ll do with the morass of the Romantic sonnet in the final volume.

  • Billy Mills 09:10 on 04/10/2021 Permalink | Reply  

    Cut Flowers by Harriet Tarlo (Guillemot Press) 

    Tears in the Fence

    The enthralling collectionCut Flowersby Harriet Tarlo cleverly combines form and content in hybrid structures in which the horizontal lines intersect with a vertical reading. This form allows different possibilities that coexist at physical and conceptual levels. The poems are also beautifully illustrated by Chloe Bonfield, though they were not created in collaboration with the artist. In her previous works, Tarlo collaborated with many artists. For example, in the exhibition ‘A Fine Day for Seeing’ at Southwark Park Galleries she worked with Judith Tucker in reference to the artwork ‘Dark marsh: silvered out’ (2021) in relation to her poem ‘Winter Saltwort’. The illustrations in this collection strongly express the essentiality of the writings, whose style is a minimalist one:

    cut flowers why would they when

    it came to itlasting longer

    long daysbefore dawn sees

    a fair lightcrows & robins upright

    on the walllook out, learn to travel in


    View original post 467 more words

  • Billy Mills 08:25 on 21/09/2021 Permalink | Reply  

    #GreatBigGreenWeek 18th – 26th September. Day Four. I am looking for your words/artworks/photos on Climate Change. Please join and add to the works of Caleb Parkin and Billy Mills while we explore ecopoetry. I would love to feature your #ecopoetry, your #ecoartworks, your #ecophotos your short #ecoarticles, here. Your #ClimateChangepoetry, #ClimateChangeArtworks. I will feature your work in my blog posts during this period. 

    With thanks to Paul for including me in his Big Green Week.


    The Wombwell Rainbow

    The Great Big Green Week – Day Four

    the great big green week logo

    -Caleb Parkin (https://poetryfilmlive.com/the-zone/)

    from imaginary gardens 1.1 Billy Mills

    from imaginary gardens 1 Billy Millsfrom imaginary gardens 2 Billy Millsfrom imaginary gardens 3 Billy Millsfrom imaginary gardens 4 Billy Millsfrom imaginary gardens 5 Billy Mills

    -Billy Mills

    Sustainable Poetry

    Everything is connected to everything else.

    A bald statement to begin: most contemporary poetry is predicated on a set of unsustainable anthropocentric views of the nature of the world. That the world exists to serve as a stage set for the enactment of human dramas. That it reflects the moods of, or evoked by, the poet. That it exists only when observed. That it exists only when written.

    These attitudes are, in English-language verse, at least as old as Spenser, but have enjoyed a massive resurgence thanks to postmodernist views of language as game. Interestingly both ‘mainstream’ and ‘avant-garde’ poetries tend to find common ground in this drive to subjugate the world as written to human needs and ends. The pathetic fallacy meets literary theory and nobody wins.

    Other current cultural…

    View original post 2,593 more words

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