Sunday, 10 April 2016

It's day 10 of the poem a day challenge, and I had to come up with found poetry based on book spines. Somehow it ended up being about sex magic and mermaids singing Tom Jones songs...

Friday, 17 April 2015

Ebony and Ivory is a Terrible Metaphor for Race Relations

This is from my first novel 'The Cybermancer Presents'. Two characters are walking past Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park, within a Grand Theft Auto-type videogame set in 1980s London:

'And that's why Britain doesn't care for the black man!' he concluded.

'But hold on,' said a voice from the audience. 'How can you say that? 'Ebony and Ivory' was number one for seven weeks! They still play it on the radio. And that was all about racial harmony. It was even banned in South Africa because of its message of inclusion. How can you say Britain doesn't care about race relations?'

'Ebony and Ivory? Say what?' He was getting into his stride now. 'Have you ever seen a piano keyboard? I mean, have you ever really looked at it? What do we know about the black keys? They're in the minority and they're standing at the back. They have no opportunities compared to the whites. You know what you get if you're a black key? A pentatonic scale. Five notes. That's it. None of the fancy-arsed semitone intervals the white notes get. Oh no. You know how many chords the black notes can make? Two. An F sharp and an E flat minor. Two chords. That's it. They're not even in the same key! We don't even have keys. You need seven notes for that and we only have five. You know what you get if you're white? A whole octave. That's right, a whole octave that you and your white buddies can play around in to your heart's content. That's enough for three major chords, three minors, and a diminished. You know what diminished means to a black man? A reduced responsibility defence in a murder trial because the CIA have filled him with crack! White notes have a whole octave of things they can do. Black notes can do almost nothing. And you know why? Because 'Ebony and Ivory' was written by a white man. Because the piano was invented by a white man. Why do kids learn in the key of C? It's not because it's easy. It's because it's white!'

'But what about accidentals?' said the man in the crowd. 'You seem to know a bit about music. You can't play something in the key of E flat or whatever until you use both black and white.'

'There are seven notes in a key,' said the speaker again. 'There can never be equality. At best it's four of one and three of the other, with the three oppressed by the four and resenting them. The white notes sound good on their own, the black notes sound good on their own, but if you mix them up and you don't know what you're doing, you get discord.' He ended with another rhetorical flourish. 'And that's what we've got in Britain today, folks – discord!' He bowed to a smattering of applause. This guy was more interesting than the usual Christian nutters who turned up. He was a showman. And the name of the game was entertainment. That was what politics was all about. Even the US president was an actor.

Ram and Raffles looked at each other and walked on. Interesting guy. Ram privately agreed with the speaker. He thought that a zebra crossing would have been a better metaphor. It doesn't matter if you're black or white. You still get alternately stepped on or run over your whole life and you get no opportunity to do anything about it.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Poetry Rivals & Beyond

Everything changed when I won the Poetry Rivals competition.

I had been writing for about 20 years by that point, but had done nothing with it. On my own, I probably wouldn't have done. My daughter saw the competition online and talked me into entering. I never thought I had a chance.

My life at this point was in something of a slump. I'd come to Swindon for a job which no longer existed. I'm bipolar, prone to depression and unemployment was not kind to me. Now I was stuck here and couldn't afford to leave. My marriage was over. I used to work as an IT consultant in places like Hong Kong, Australia and the City of London. Now I watched the same Top Gear on Dave three times a day and only left the house when I had to. I don't drive and I'm not a fan of cars. I think I found the repetition comforting.

And then I got invited to the final of the first Poetry Rivals Slam Championship. I was stunned by this. I didn't think I had a chance – I'd stopped thinking of myself as the sort of person who wins things – but I'd give it a go. I managed to talk my Housing Association into paying for the trip all the way to Peterborough. There's a sign right there how far my horizons had shrunk.

I was incredibly nervous when I was doing my Money God poem. I'm not normally the nervous type: I did amateur dramatics for a few years as a young man and I'd given any number of corporate presentations, but usually on nice safe unemotional subjects like getting a computer system to recognise changes in tax laws. This was very different. This was me, competing with the top 50 poets from the competition, having to interpret my own words and express them to a panel of judges made up of proper qualified poets. This wasn't like handing a mate a piece of paper and saying 'check this out – I just wrote it'. It wasn't like putting something up on Facebook. I'm not even sure what it was like. I have no frame of reference. It felt so personal. I don't think I'd ever said 'this is me – tell me if I'm any good' before.

The compere of the night said that my intensity was such that he feared for me, but it was really just nerves, a newly shy man thrust into a spotlight and putting his own words up for approval. It was probably some kind of public breakdown. I was pretty much terrified. I remember shouting.

Somehow, though, I'd done something right and I won. I won! This was something I'd genuinely not expected. Writing was something I'd done for 20 years, but so was music, and they were both just pleasant recreational activities, things I would do when I was away from home in a hotel room somewhere in Asia. They were both just hobbies. It never occurred to me I might be good at them. They were ways to feel better about myself, ways to think 'yeah, OK, I've got a boring job but at least I have some cool pastimes'. This was more about the music than the poetry, of course. Poetry has not been cool for a long time. Poetry is the anti-cool. It's a way of rejecting everything that cool implies. Set it to music, of course, and things change...

And now I had a publishing contract. Wow. Never saw that one coming. It wasn't like I had a book or anything. What I had was a 100 page Word document euphemistically called 'Complete Works' that had somehow survived all the challenges of evolving technology. It started off as a word processor document on my old Atari 520 when I was still living with my parents, then laboriously copied word for word to my first PC. It had migrated, constantly growing, as it went from hard drive to floppy disk to USB stick, finally ending up in the email account of my editor, Lindsay Evans.

It was when we were putting the book together that I realised how euphemistic my 'complete works' filename actually was. There was stuff everywhere. By the time Lindsay had sent me a formatted draft of what she had, I'd found more. Or written more. Probably about a third of what ended up in the final version of the book was written in the six months between winning the contest and publishing 'Reflections from a Broken Mirror'.

I was starting to think of writing as my job. I had a publisher and everything. I got involved with a local poetry group: I was even their treasurer at one point. It didn't last, but that was not for reasons related to poetry. I just got sick of the politics. Twenty years earlier, I'd given up amateur dramatics for the same reason.

But I carried on writing. I went through Wikipedia's list of poetic forms and attempted all those that interested me (some examples are here). I wrote a series of articles on poetry (available here) for Wise Badger, a now-defunct webzine. In a particularly bleak period, I was even poet-in-residence for Walford Web, an EastEnders fan site (I am no longer a fan). I was involved with a Facebook group that would suggest themes to respond to artistically, and many of the poems for my second collection ('Knitting Orang Utans') were inspired in this way.

I stuck with the poetry for about 18 months, I guess. I'm still writing verse and my third collection 'Et Cetera (And Other Similar Things)' is almost ready to publish. But I don't think of my job as 'poet' any more.

I had discovered prose.

In November 2011, I tried NaNoWriMo (the National Novel Writing Month - a separate blogpost on my first NaNoWriMo is available here) for the first time, and I was hooked. There's a target of 50,000 words to write for the month, which equates to 1,667 words per day. This is about 3 sides of A4. It's not a big deal.

So I tried that, by the end of the month I had 80,000 words, and a few months later, I had my first novel ('The Cybermancer Presents', weighing in at 108,000 words). It wasn't poetry, but I still maintain it was the confidence in my writing that came from winning the competition that let me believe I could do it. It had always been one of those 'wouldn't it be nice if...' things before.

To be honest, I didn't really believe I could fill out a story to 50,000 words. I was a poet / songwriter. I wasn't used to writing in bulk. Even the songs that went on for 11 minutes were only a few sides of A4. So I kind of cheated a bit. I came up with the idea of having players trapped in a videogame, fighting from game to game, and each game would be a different genre, so they could go from sci fi to fantasy, etc. Then I'd only have to write a series of vignettes about a consistent cast of characters. Cunning, eh? I'd fill the 50,000 words in no time.

What I'd not considered is how long a story takes to tell. By the time I'd done the first level (a fantasy role playing game), I'd written 30,000 words. I looked at the list of the dozens of games I wanted to include and scaled things back a bit. For that novel, at least. I've written three more since in the Cybermancer Chronicles, and there are at least four more to come.

To paraphrase a line from The Commitments, I'm happier as an unemployed writer than an unemployed IT consultant. I would define myself as a writer now. It's the job I feel most passion for, the one I spend the most time doing and it neatly encompasses poems, novels and songs, so I don't have to commit myself to anything. I wouldn't say I was a successful writer, because that's usually a function of sales and I'm terrible at marketing, but it's what I do, whether anyone wants me to or not.

Scribo ergo sum. I write therefore I am.

If winning Poetry Rivals taught me anything, it taught me that.

Monday, 29 April 2013

Guides to Writing Poetry

A friend of mine was recently doing some research on poetry and I remembered I'd written some guides for the now sadly defunct Wise Badger website. These are here. There are sections on rhythm, ballads, villanelles and cinquains.

1. A Guide To Poetic Rhythm

Poetry has much in common with music. It is soothing to the ear, if that is its intent. It can stir the passions. It can alter your mood instantly. Music is essentially a combination of pitch, rhythm, meaning and the shape of the sound. Poetry has all these elements but pitch.

Because of this, the rhythm and the shape of the sound need to be more interesting for a poem to be successful. The need for meaning depends on the style of the poem. People like Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll and Wendy Cope did without it on occasion.

I am not going to go into all the details of what differentiates a trochee from an iamb from an anapest. These are just technical terms for the type of rhythm a poem possesses, but anyone interested in a list of the jargon can find it here: What I am going to do is give you some ideas how to use them.

The basic unit of measurement in poetry is a 'foot'. The 'metre', the equivalent of the time signature in music, is made up of the type of foot and the number of them per line. The 'iambic pentameter' you might have heard from school just means there are five 'iambs' (an unstressed beat followed by a stressed one) per line.

So what are stressed and unstressed beats? These are the syllables that make up your words. Some are stressed and some aren't. Let's take the start of Shakespeare's most famous sonnet as an example:

Shall I compare thee to a Summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.

There is a recognisable rhythm to these words. All the way, it is an unstressed beat followed by a stressed one (the 'iamb') and there are five of them per line. If the stressed syllables are emboldened and the unstressed ones are not, we get the following:

Shall I compare thee to a Summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.

Being a musician, I tend to think of this in terms of drum patterns, with a kick drum for the unstressed beats and a snare for the stressed ones. If it helps you to think of it in Morse code, dots can be unstressed syllables and dashes stressed ones. So this rhythm is :

. - . - . - . - . -

As a rule of thumb, the key for rhythm in poetry, as it is in music, is consistency. Once a rhythmic pattern has been established, the poem is often stronger for adhering to it. This is more important when writing lyrics than poems, to be honest. There are times when you would want to change metre for effect. For example, this limerick:

There once was a bard from Japan
Whose limericks never would scan.
When told it was so,
He replied, "Yes, I know,
But I always try to fit as many words into the last line as I possibly can.

But the basic rhythm is as follows:

.-. .-. .-
.-. .-. .-
.-. .-
.-. .-
.-. .-. .-

This is the standard limerick metre. It is not enough to get the number of syllables right. They also have to be the right type of syllables.

What I find helpful is to know, when I'm writing a poem, what the underlying rhythm is. Generally, once I've got the the first two lines, it tells me enough about the metre and rhyme scheme to continue.

Let's write a quick couplet as an example:

Feel the rhythm in your feet

This is as follows: -. -. -. -

So we need a similar rhythm for the second line. How about ''the poem's heart is the poem's beat'? This is .-. -.. -. -

There were a couple of extra unstressed beats in that, but that's fine. That often happens when a drummer is playing, and drummers don't know much but they do know rhythm! It's just a couple of extra beats and that makes the poem more interesting. The important thing is that the stressed beats (the snare drum equivalent) are in the right place.

This also works because the additional unstressed beats (the opening 'the' and the 'is the') were short syllables. Some take longer to say than others. 'Heart' for example, is a word to luxuriate over. It's always a good idea to read your poems over a beat – fingers snapping, hands clapping, the slapping of your thigh if you're getting into a country rhythm, etc. This ensures that everything is in the right place. Regional variations of pronunciation should be taken into account. I'm a Londoner, so 'bath' is pronounced 'barf'. Were I from somewhere more Northern, if might be 'baff'. This is the difference between a long syllable and a short one.

There are poems to be recited aloud, and poems to be read on the page. Bear in mind when writing that repetition of rhythm gives the reader more of a chance to understand what's going on. However, like progressive rock music, only complexity can satisfy a more discerning reader. Like so many things, the key is to know your audience.

2. How To Write a Poetic Ballad

There is probably no word that appeals to me as a poet while simultaneously repelling me as a musician as much as 'ballad' does. As a musician, it conjures up images of schmaltzy, sentimental, over-emoted slow tempo songs about love. Perhaps uniquely, putting the word 'power' in front of it doesn't make things better at all. As a poet, however, 'ballad' reminds me of some wonderful poems, a continuous tradition that goes back to the 13th century and was itself influenced by earlier works such as Beowulf. To most people, a ballad is just a song you can slow dance to. But that definition has only been the musical one, and is only about a hundred years old. So what is a ballad in poetical terms?

As you might expect from something that has been going on for hundreds of years with only poetic fashion to regulate it, there are conventions rather than rules. Most ballads tend to be made of quatrains (four line stanzas), although the likes of Oscar Wilde subverted this with 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol', which had six line stanzas. Most ballads in Europe follow a pattern of alternating lines of tetrameter (four beats to the line) and trimeter (three beats) but in places like Spain, the tradition was more for eight beats. The tetrameter / trimeter structure was so that ballads could be sung over any number of folk tunes.

One thing that seems to be consistent with ballads everywhere, though, is that they have a narrative. They tell a story. This story can be whatever you like: comic, tragic, religious, romantic. There aren't really any bounds. The alternating lines tend to rhyme, although even that is not a rule. Spain, breaking with tradition, used consonance (like alliteration, except the repeated consonant is not at the start of the word). Ballads also tend to be long and detailed. Some can have dozens of stanzas. They are more concerned with telling a story than the sort of images that could be savoured in a shorter poem. If, say, a haiku is a watercolour, and a limerick is a seaside postcard, a ballad may well be a movie.

I would love to tell you a story as an example of what I mean. To be honest, it was my wife's birthday last night, I'm still hungover and coming up with a new story is beyond my current powers! But I am someone who likes fairy tales in space, so I'm going to have a go at writing a ballad based on some scenes from the Star Wars movies.

I'm going to follow the more common European traditions and use four line stanzas. I will use the standard 'ballad metre' of iambic tetrameter followed by iambic trimeter ('te TUM te TUM te TUM te TUM' followed by 'te TUM te TUM te TUM').

First we should set the scene:

A long, long time ago,
In a galaxy far away,
A young heroic farmboy prince
Was bored of baling hay.

Welcome, Luke Skywalker! You are now the hero of this ballad. Many ballads tell the tale of a character, often a doomed one. And Luke did have his moments of peril.

His name was Luke, his hair was blond,
Tattooine was his world.
There wasn't much to do at night
With two suns and no girls.

Eagle-eyed readers will spot that I borrowed the last line from Blue Harvest, the Family Guy special on Star Wars. But this is actually in the ballad tradition. There is some heated debate by experts as to whether ballads were even written by one person or came from a whole community, like a football chant. But even those who believe they were written by one person agree that they were written for and often based on the community. Tiny Scottish villages have a whole heritage of traditional ballads just based on their history, which battles they fought, etc.

But back to our ballad. We know a little about Luke now. A typical role playing character, basically, a humble innocent unaware of his destiny but itching for more. What happens next? Well, the thing that really rocked his world was the arrival of the droids, R2D2 and C3PO. They were pivotal characters, the only ones to appear in all six movies, and responsible for much of the humour of the franchise. So how do we get them into the ballad?

The pedal bin and golden man,
As camp as Larry Grayson,
Ended up with Uncle Owen,
Luke's closest relation.

I don't like the last line, to be honest, but like rap, many traditional ballads took some terrible liberties with rhymes and there are many examples of words that are seemingly included just because they fit, so I think I'm consistent with the form.

I have introduced the droids by nicknames because I think they give you an affinity with a character. It makes you feel you know them better, especially if it's the sort of affectionate mocking you get among friends. And R2D2 does look like a pedal bin.

So poor Luke is still stuck, having to wait to go to space academy until after the harvest, not understanding it's probably for his own good and angry with those who protect him. To make this seem more immediate, to try and make the reader empathise more, I'm going to write this in the present tense. Also, 'wanted' would have been too many syllables:

He wants to join the rebels but
He's still stuck on the farm.
Uncle Owen keeps him there
To keep him out of harm.

And then the Merlin of the piece arrives, the almost immortal Obi Wan Kenobi. R2D2 had escaped and went looking for him in the desert. The force is strong with that one:

The pedal bin had slipped a cog
And flew across the sand.
Luke went to investigate
But ran into a band

Of sand people. Thankfully,
Obi Wan attacked.
He drove them off and rescued Luke
And took him to his shack.

This technique of spreading a sentence across stanzas is called 'enjambment' and can be effective in building tension during passages with action in them. It might not be something found in the more traditional ballads, but the ballad form is still evolving, still being used by a new generation of poets. This is my first ballad and I'm having a ball.

But back to Luke. He now discovers his father was a Jedi, gets given a light sabre and instantly believes everything a complete stranger tells him about a religion he's never heard of. But that makes him sound less heroic, so we'll leave it out.

Obi Wan dressed like a monk
And sounded like dementia.
But Luke had heard his destiny
And lusted for adventure.

These are not the sort of rhymes I use in any other poetry I write. But I think they fit with a ballad. There is something declamatory about them. Like the limerick, the ballad has its own rhythm that lends itself to immodest rhyming, at least in this metre and style.

It's probably time to give R2D2 his real name. At this point, he plays the hologram he had refused to show Luke. To continue with our ballad:

R2D2 (pedal bin)
Had played a DVD:
On holographic desert air
Was Princess Leia's plea.

I reversed the usual order of the last two lines to put it into the style of Yoda, another character in the Star Wars universe. The small green syntactically challenged Jedi, he is.

'Help me please, oh Obi Wan,
The hour of need is nigh.
Meet me here in Alderan
Before we all must die'.

'Die' is always a good word to end a line with. Everything about it screams finality.

The impassioned speech of the princess brings a bit of melodrama to the proceedings, which was another staple of the ballad tradition. At a time before radio, TV, videogames, etc, and where there was no facility for playing music without playing the instruments, ballads were the soap opera of their day. This is the reason so many traditional songs are quite grisly in their depiction of murders, executions and the like. One way or another, the dark side has always entertained us.

And so have ballads. And they still do. I've been having a great time writing this. You should try it. Pick a story you like and rewrite it in verse. Find inspiration in the newspapers. Writing just this bit has got me thinking about other poems I want to write. Maybe there is even a place for an epic ballad saga based on the lives of the Skywalkers, their droids and all the space folk they meet on their many adventures through the galaxies.

But it is not here. I realise now that there is no way I would be able to write the whole of Star Wars in ballad form for this article, so I'll stop right now. I don't know why I thought I'd be able to. I blame Old Speckled Hen.

Hopefully this has given you some ideas as to what a ballad is and how to write one. They're fun to do and like any creative act, writing a ballad opens up neural pathways that can keep the brain working, prolonging active life.

But for those of you who have somehow avoided seeing Star Wars and want to know what happens, this is the whole saga in abridged ballad form:

The Jedi only fight for good,
The Empire do not.
Things explode, the tale gets told,
The good guys end on top.

3  How To Write a Villanelle

The villanelle is arguably the poetic form that has the most 'rules'. The poem must be exactly 19 lines long, 5 tercets (3 line stanzas) followed by a quatrain (a 4 line stanza). Of these 19 lines, 8 of them are the same 2 lines repeated 4 times each. The first line of the first stanza becomes the last line of the second and fourth stanzas, and the third line of the sixth. The third line of the first stanza becomes the last line of the third and fifth stanzas and the fourth line of the sixth. Only 2 rhymes are allowed.

Villanelles tend to be about loss, but there are examples of villanelles on all sorts of subjects. 'Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night' (below) by Dylan Thomas, written to his dying father, is probably the most famous one. But give it time - one day, somebody might be writing an article like this about your poem! You just have to write it...

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.

What makes the villanelle so tricky to write is the need to have the repeated lines and the fact that only two rhymes are allowed (words that rhyme with 'night' and those that rhyme with 'day'). For this reason, at the planning stage (and you will need one), it is important to come up with lines that you don't mind hearing over and over again, and also to make sure that there are sufficient rhymes for them. Don't be shy about using a rhyming dictionary if necessary – there are lots of them available online. Also, be creative with other writing aids – I used a spreadsheet to write my villanelle. It seemed the best way to insist that rhymes got repeated in the right places. It also meant that changes to the repeated lines were instantly reflected in the rest of the poem. Bear in mind also that, as the first line of the first stanza becomes the last line of two others, it needs to be a line that stands on its own.

When I reread Thomas' poem, I wanted to write a villanelle of my own. I booted up Excel instead of Word and got the repeated lines in the right places. It is very easy to link one cell to another just by entering '=' and the reference for the cell you want to copy. That got the structure in place. I tried several repeated lines before deciding on 'This is it. This is the end' and 'And now I've lost a lover and a friend'. I had already decided I wanted to write about the end of a relationship, these lines would not be overly jarring if repeated frequently, 'end' has lots of rhyming words, and the repeated 'this is' was a deliberate echo of Thomas' repeated 'rage' in his villanelle.

So now I had the structure and the repeated lines in place, I just had to flesh it out. The first stanza was almost finished – as it contained both repeated lines, it was only the middle line that was needed, and at this stage it didn't need to rhyme with anything. I tried a few lines and ended up with 'For many years, I've tried to make you stay'. It fitted nicely between the two lines I already had and like 'end', 'stay' has many rhymes.

And that basically was it! I just tried new lines that fit, one stanza at a time. Because I already had the structure and repetitions formalised in Excel, it was impossible to get it wrong.

I was quite pleased with the final poem. This is as follows:

This is it. This is the end.
For many years, I've tried to make you stay
And now I've lost a lover and a friend.

I've made mistakes. I've tried to make amends
And in return, you tried to make me pay.
This is it. This is the end.

I've changed so much and no more can I bend:
I think my whole persona's gone astray
And now I've lost a lover and a friend.

My love for you was strong: it did ascend
To heaven, but now it's gone away.
This is it. This is the end.

I do not mean to anger or offend
But you and I are now as night and day
And now I've lost a lover and a friend.

For too long we've attempted to pretend
That everything could carry on OK.
This is it. This is the end
And now I've lost a lover and a friend.

The villanelle can be a lot of fun to write, and like anything difficult, you really feel like you've accomplished something when it does all work out. Happy writing!

4 - How To Write a Cinquain

The cinquain is an interesting poetic form. Like the haiku and tanka, on which it is based, it emphasises economy and adherence to syllabic rules. The cinquain was invented by American poet Adelaide Crapsey in a posthumous collection from 1915, It derives its name from the five line structure of the basic form.

There are many types of cinquain to choose from, but they all basically follow the same pattern – one line has (say) two syllables, the next four, the next six, etc, The number of syllables alters from line to line in accordance with the rules of the individual form.

A good example of Mrs Crapsey's cinquains is 'November Night':

With faint dry sound,
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisp'd, break from the trees
And fall

This basic cinquain follows a 2-4-6-8-2 syllable pattern. But we're not going to do a basic one. That would be boring. We're going to push the boat out and write a 'garland cinquain', which seems to be the hardest of all. A man's reach must exceed his grasp, to quote Robert Browning.

The garland cinquain is made up of six separate cinquains, the sixth one derived from the previous five. So the first line of the sixth one comes from the first line of the first, the second line of the sixth from the second line of the second and so forth.

Like the villanelle, a planning process is useful. It is better to write the sixth cinquain first and base the earlier ones around it.

How do we do that then? Well, a good place to start would be to come up with a theme. This is usually the hard part. I find it somewhat daunting to sit down with a blank page and every subject in the world as an option. I work better with parameters. Maybe you do too. So as I'm writing this for Wise Badger, I'm going to make this poem about the wisdom of badgers.

The first line of the last cinquain has to have two syllables. By a fortunate coincidence, 'badgers' has two syllables. So I'm going to make that my first line. We have established a cast of characters. What can we say about the badgers?

Well, we want to emphasise their wisdom, and we have to do it in four syllables. So how about 'wiser than owls'?

The next line needs to be six syllables long. The previous line was unexpected: owls are generally considered rather wise. So we need to justify this statement. What makes badgers wiser than owls? I needed some time with Wikipedia to work this out, but the badger has some advantages over the owl. For one thing, a badger can eat an owl but an owl cannot eat a badger. So I suggest: 'can pluck birds from the trees'.

The following line is eight syllables long. So far, we have: 'badgers / wiser than owls / can pluck birds from the trees'. What can the owl do instead? Not much, really. For such a wise bird, it lives mainly on a diet of vermin. So let's reflect that. 'But owls can only chew on rats' seems to sum this up. We need a two syllable line to finish the sixth cinquain, so let's just add 'and voles'. We now have the following:

Wiser than owls,
Can pluck birds from the trees
But owls can only chew on rats
And voles.

We're on our way. It may not seem like we've done much, but we're actually 33% complete. We have written five lines, all of which will be repeated, making ten in total, and the whole poem will be thirty lines long.

The first line of the first cinquain will be the first line of the sixth one we just wrote. So it starts with 'badgers'. A good place to start, given the subject matter. There are no rules that we need to adhere to for the remaining lines, except for the syllable count. So line two needs to have four syllables.

What else do we know about badgers? They're white, black and grey in colour. By another remarkable coincidence, 'white, black and grey' would fill the four syllables we need quite nicely. So let's add that.

Comparisons often work well in poetry. What else is white, black and grey? An elderly nun springs to mind. Also a well read newspaper. We need a six syllable line, followed by an eight and a two. So I suggest: 'like an elderly nun / or a newspaper, smeared by thumbs / and time'. That seems to work.

Cinquain number one is therefore:

White, black and grey,
Like an elderly nun
Or a newspaper, smeared by thumbs
And time

Cinquain number two needs to have 'wiser than owls' as its second line, but no-one says the punctuation has to stay the same. I'm going to rephrase it as a question and make the first line 'what are', so we have 'what are / wiser than owls?'. As it's a question, we should probably answer it. There are many things wiser than owls. At least some humans, I would imagine. I've never understood why the owl was considered wise when 'bird brained' is an insult. Who are some famously wise humans? I don't want to get into whether Socrates was wiser than Nietzsche, or Keats more wise than Shakespeare so I'll limit myself to job descriptions. The following six and eight syllable lines suggested themselves immediately but seemed to require a more defiant statement. Luckily the two syllable line was available.

Philosophers, poets,
And, believe it or not, badgers.
They are.

Cinquain two is now complete as follows:

What are
Wiser than owls?
Philosophers, poets,
And, believe it or not, badgers.
They are.

Getting into my stride now. Only another twelve lines to write and we've finished this. It's already 60% complete.

The previous line seems to require some explanation. We need to come up with a way to justify the grouping together of badgers with the loftiest ideals of the human psyche. Back to Wikipedia. One thing that impressed me about the badger was that, in North America it sometimes eats coyotes, sometimes is eaten by them but has been seen working co-operatively with the wolf-like creatures when they hunt. This intrigued me.

The only other constraint on this cinquain is that the third line must be 'can pluck birds from trees'. Hmmm.

How about 'badgers / can run with wolves / can pluck birds from the trees'. That showcases their occasionally co-operative natures and their tree-climbing skills. The next line, the eight syllable one, will probably need to start with 'and'. So how about 'and work with species not their own / to hunt'.

The third cinquain is now complete:

Can run with wolves
Can pluck birds from the trees
And work with species not their own
To hunt

This may not seem like a big deal. Humans hunt with dogs and horses. The badger / coyote relationship seems a lot more democratiic though. Could this be a sign of wisdom?

By this time, I had got the rhythm stuck in my head and words were just coming out that fit without much conscious thought. I was pleased with this:

We hunt
With dog and horse
But we dominate them
The badgers just collaborate

Then I remembered that the fourth line had to be 'but owls can only chew on rats'. I thought of the badger's omnivore status and came up with the following:

The gut
Of a badger
Can process many things
But owls can only chew on rats.
Real wise.

Another badger skill, especially if you're a honey badger, is to shrug off the venom from the snakes you eat. They have the resistance to toxins of a beat poet. The honey badger has been described as 'the most fearless animal in the world'. Its willingness to fight, and fight dirty, is a staple of YouTube links around the world.

'Honey / badgers are brave' fits the requirements of the first two lines of the fifth cinquain. They are natives of Africa and have eaten from animals as wild as lions. Their taste for exotic meat could be represented as 'fearless in their hunger / for more exotic fare than mice / and voles'. The 'and voles' was required by the form.

So now we have a finished Garland Cinquain. This is the final piece:

White, black and grey,
Like an elderly nun
Or a newspaper, smeared by thumbs
And time

What are
Wiser than owls?
Philosophers, poets,
And, believe it or not, badgers.
They are.

Can run with wolves
Can pluck birds from the trees
And work with species not their own
To hunt

The gut
Of a badger
Can process many things
But owls can only chew on rats.
Real wise.

Badgers are brave,
Fearless in their hunger
For more exotic fare than mice
And voles.

Wiser than owls,
Can pluck birds from the trees
But owls can only chew on rats
And voles.

There are other types of cinquain than the 2-4-6-8-2 format shown here. A reverse cinquain goes 2-8-6-4-2. A mirror is a normal cinquain followed by a reverse one. A butterfly cinquain goes 2-4-6-8-2-8-6-4-2. And a crown cinquain is five cinquains combined to make a longer poem.

The cinquain is an interesting exercise in writing. If you are writing something in blank verse, where there are a specific number of syllables on each line, writing some cinquains can get you into the flow of counting beats. Like the haiku, it can be considered both an end in itself and a means to other writing.