IPM 2MXI – Rhyme’s Reason: the lure of form

Since my tumble for the Romantic poets in high school, I had been writing in Free Verse, not the kind that gives poetry a bad name:

“a kind of free verse

without any special

constraints on it except

those imposed by

the notion – also

generally accepted – that

the strip the lines

make as they run

down the page (the

familiar strip with the


right-hand edge) not

be too wide”

John Hollander from Rhyme’s Reason: A Guide to English Verse

But the kind that any poet with half a wit will recognize as taking a bit of work: with internal rhyme, intentional rhythm, and subtle resonances within the meaning of words from line to line. I wouldn’t own any of it now, but that is more because of the subject matter: painfully romantic and introspective… impossibly beautiful loves, broken hearts left, battered and beating in lonely silence. Not that one shouldn’t write about those things; it’s just that one has to do so really well in order to overcome the built-in triteness waiting to clog up the poetry with a nasty mix of sugar and blood. I wasn’t that good.

I abandoned Byron and  found a new love: William Carlos Williams. I scrawled out his poem This is just to say on part of a paper grocery sack and stuck it to my boyfriend’s refrigerator knowing that he would understand it as the passionate expression of affection that it was. I flirted with Dylan Thomas, Rilke, and Neruda while maintaining an abiding respect for the acid bite of Dorothy Parker and the amazing craftsmanship of Edna St. Vincent Millay. When the same young man left both me and his refrigerator to go off to art school on the east coast it was her : “Not in a silver casket cool with pearls, that I gave him (along with my broken heart) as a parting gift.

I got older. I kept writing. I turned 30.

Somewhere in the late 90’s I got bored with my life (work, eat, watch TV, shop, do the same things with the same friends: repeat); so, I started taking ‘extension courses’ at Southern Methodist University. I signed up for: Introduction to Philosophy, Intermediate Conversational French, Organic Landscaping. The classes were at night, after work; there were no grades. It was another way to use the only reward that I got for working so hard at my job: money.

It seemed like a good investment. For $74.00 I got a few hours of interesting information and conversation two or three days a week for six weeks. Introduction to Philosophy was fascinating, exhilarating; Organic Landscaping helped me cure the bald patches in the lawn of my rental house and left it smelling of tropical islands and pancake syrup. I had though I might have been overreaching  with Intermediate Conversational French but found that none of the other students even knew the passé composé and I ended up both bored and feeling a bit sorry for the professor.

A new brochure for the next round of courses came out: Writing Poetry in Metered Verse. I was excited, I would learn how to construct a sonnet: then if I wanted to I could. I would meet other grown-ups who were interested in doing the same (an audience!). We were in 14, the professor was Martha Heimburg. She helped us work through the text:   John Hollander’s Rhyme’s Reason: A Guide to English Verse and shepherded us into the world of the Deep Ellum poetry slam (a profound disillusionment for me) and submitting our fledgling work to literary journals. More importantly for me, she introduced us to the work of Sharon Olds and Wallace Stevens. I looked at the poems of these writers not with adoration but with curiosity.

I wrote my first sonnet, my first roundel, my first shaped poem. I met with a firey-haired fellow student at the Inwood Bar and drank martini’s while writing exquisite corpse poetry on cocktail napkins. I sent envelopes full of poems off to prestigious and not so prestigious literary journals and in due time got them back with polite and not so polite rejection slips. I switched the poems out and tried again. I kept writing. They came back again. I took a class in book-making, compiled my own work into a small book, made 14 hand-bound copies which I gave away to friends and family. I fell out of love with poetry. I still liked it but who needed the heartache? Occasionally I rearranged the words from my magnetic poetry kit on the refrigerator.

Then, in the middle of the road of my life, I met HIM…I mean, I’d run across him before but I’d been too young to see how attractive he really was: charmingly fragile and filled with self-doubt, bitterly intelligent, and he’d built this huge, fabulous thing, designed it and tied the words to it…and it SANG, and then something inside of me broke and sang back; it hurt. And then it made me blush with the pleasure of reading language tied so intimately to form.

It changed me, unhinged the order of things, made me stop trying to force the language to ‘do what I wanted it to do’ and to start forming an intimate relationship with words and structures in which publication and attention were no longer a goad/goal. I was overcome with desire, a desire and a curiosity as real and as visceral as that one kindled by a lover’s first kiss…

By bonniemcclellan

Mother, poet, american ex-pat from Texas living in Northern Italy.


  1. i just saw dead poets society again yesterday, remember “open your pritchard”?^^
    the end of your post sounds a bit like rimbaud’s firestealer rules “if the poet brings back shaped things, it’s ok; if unshaped things, it’s ok too” (don’t remember the exact words^^)


    Trust your hand
    And the lady shows you
    Which part of her body
    You have to tell
    Her breast for firemilk drinking
    Her shoulders that support the world
    Her sex which is painting your desires
    Whatever you want she gives it to you
    Be a slave of her own
    No matter odds and ends
    As the highlander game occurs
    There are not many survivors

  2. “I like to hang around words and overhear them talking to one another.” – John Ciardi

    Every time I think you can’t write a better essay, you do.

    Love, Dad

  3. *W.H. Auden was once asked what advice he would give a young man who wished to become a
    poet. Auden replied that he would ask the young man why he wanted to write poetry. If the
    answer was “because I have something important to say,” Auden would conclude that there was
    no hope for that young man as a poet. If on the other hand the answer was something like
    “because I like to hang around words and overhear them talking to one another,” then that
    young man was at least interested in a fundamental part of the poetic process and there was
    hope for him.* – John Ciardi, “How Does a Poem Mean”

    Click to access ciardi.pdf


  4. the bukowski lines on writing are a bit more sexy, look:

    so you want to be a writer? by Charles Bukowski

    if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
    in spite of everything,
    don’t do it.
    unless it comes unasked out of your
    heart and your mind and your mouth
    and your gut,
    don’t do it.
    if you have to sit for hours
    staring at your computer screen
    or hunched over your
    searching for words,
    don’t do it.
    if you’re doing it for money or
    don’t do it.
    if you’re doing it because you want
    women in your bed,
    don’t do it.
    if you have to sit there and
    rewrite it again and again,
    don’t do it.
    if it’s hard work just thinking about doing it,
    don’t do it.
    if you’re trying to write like somebody
    forget about it.
    if you have to wait for it to roar out of
    then wait patiently.
    if it never does roar out of you,
    do something else.
    if you first have to read it to your wife
    or your girlfriend or your boyfriend
    or your parents or to anybody at all,
    you’re not ready.
    don’t be like so many writers,
    don’t be like so many thousands of
    people who call themselves writers,
    don’t be dull and boring and
    pretentious, don’t be consumed with self-
    the libraries of the world have
    yawned themselves to
    over your kind.
    don’t add to that.
    don’t do it.
    unless it comes out of
    your soul like a rocket,
    unless being still would
    drive you to madness or
    suicide or murder,
    don’t do it.
    unless the sun inside you is
    burning your gut,
    don’t do it.
    when it is truly time,
    and if you have been chosen,
    it will do it by
    itself and it will keep on doing it
    until you die or it dies in you.
    there is no other way.
    and there never was.

    1. Dear GMC,
      You’re right, Bukwoski is the sexy bad boy of American poetry. What he says is lovely and intense but I do have to say that I believe every poet finds their own method to cope with their exhorting angels and their madness: some burn, some prefer the icy wind of the mountain top and others find their way in the silence of the desert…I should have the last essay done tomorrow and I’ll be considering Bukwoski. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. I really do appreciate it.

  5. don’t worry, on some plain – for instance, like rumi says, “there’s a plain beyond good and bad, i wait you there” -, ice = flames, up = down, crowd = desert, aso
    so, in a way, scales of value (not sure of the translation^^) don’t have any value.

  6. Wonderful insight into your growth and inspirations Bonnie. I love what I have read of William Carlos Williams though I admit I have not read a lot of his work. The Red Wheelbarrow was the first of his that I discovered and I was taken aback by how succinct and moving it was.

    1. Thanks Brad, I’m glad that you enjoyed it. I think you might like Williams more mature work, less spare, more human. He wrote a long poem called asphodel that greeny flower which contains this lovely line: “It is difficult to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” and then: “It is ridiculous / what airs we put on / to seem profound / while our hearts / gasp dying / for want of love.” If you pass by a library in your travels, it could make a fine afternoon of reading.

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