Poetry Roundup – August 2020

I’m publishing (on average) a short piece per day on Twitter, including a mix of poetry and prose, so I’m posting a “highlights reel” here, and the rest can be found on my profile, @PeterRavlich.

If you enjoy ultra short form work, there are hundreds of other poets and writers creating moments of delight, tension, wonder and bravery, most consistently using the hashtag #vss365.

Prompt: Swoon (vss365)

You are so
beyond me
in every
single dimension—
I can’t even

Prompt: Flutter (Poetryin13)

That sweet
lub-dub was
so sufficient—
but feeling
this flutter
is bittersweet

Prompt: Integer (vss365)

In your influence
I feel
and yet constrained
only to your orbit
where I’m dying
to remain
Count my singular
and salve this pain

Prompt: Concern (painfulprompts)

There are only four chambers
inside this heart
but I can’t seem to find
my way out

Prompt: Triangle (vss365)

The first is a fragile instant—
A heart is surrendered and won
The second a cognitive frisson
A deft dalliance is begun
The third is the angle unchallenged
Who toys with the others in turn
He’ll posture and pout as misdeeds echo out
But never be ready to learn

Prompt: Commute (vss365)

Everything you are to me
an absolute anomaly
in isolation can’t exist
(the pun misplaced but accurate)—
This is a sum that can’t be split
the product is inviolate
no cognitive coherence how
you’ve come to populate my now

But I’m glad

Prompt: Complex (vss365)

You say you’re
so simple

maybe it’s the word
that’s insufficient

maybe it’s me

because simple

has never meant
so much

Prompt: Field (vss365)

A heart is not a book
but a library
Where the authors each submit
a single tome
Whose pages leave us shook
and sad, and teary
But where sometimes we still sit
to dream of home

Prompt: Vector (vss365)

Turn my key until it binds
and point me down a stumbled line
I’ll be your rusting soldier
til the end
And when that final spring unwinds
my clockwork heart, my whole design
will be no single fraction colder—
For I’ve had you as a friend

Prompt: Calculus (vss365)

You nudge me
and sometimes
off the edge—
how is one to
these rates
of change?

If I were in
any way a smart
predictor I would
It is not at all
but it’s strange.

Prompt: iff (vss365)

I just can’t see a case
that tests for true

When something ill-defined
and ephemeral is
what do you weigh?

I know it’s my fault
But not how
when I can’t
be false

Prompt: Vector (vss365)

I have value
I know
and volition – a vector
so why
does my verse
to zero
on you?

Prompt: Enhance (vss365)

If wishes
even once
You’d be unafraid
still perfect
but content

Requisite Words 22 – Shakespeare’s better foot

We attempt to balance out the bawdy and bluest of the Bard with a few of his nicer Sonnets.

Featuring Sonnets 17, 18, 19 and 29.

Transcript follows below.

Episode Music:
Be Chillin’ by Alexander Nakarada | www.serpentsoundstudios.com
Music promoted by www.free-stock-music.com
Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Photo by Shamia Casiano from Pexels.com


You’re listening to this pod, so you’re likely familiar with Patrick Stewart‘s recent “a sonnet a day” initiative, where he’s working his way through performing all 154 of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

For the last week, I’ve been summarising each of those daily poems for my wife, who is incredibly patient with me, but less so with Shakespearean language and idiom.

Unfortunately, Sir Patrick is currently up to Sonnet 95, and this part of the sequence, while containing some beautiful works, is also deeply paranoid and potentially anxiety-inducing.

So with far too much context there, I’d like to share a few of the more uplifting and just generally lovely sonnets from Shakespeare’s sequence, along with what I’ve been calling the Lisa Versions.

I’m certain I’ve shared Sonnet 18 before, and it’s the best known of Shakespeare’s sonnets, but I’d like to start with it and 17.

The early part of Shakespeare’s sequence is an appeal for the speaker’s beloved “young man” to procreate and in doing so immortalise his beauty.

In a precedent that will continue through the sequence, the speaker then attempts to find an alternate solution: what if the young man does not have children? How can his beauty be immortalised?

Sonnet 17 is an attempt to impose a dual solution, and might be seen as a bridge from “go forth and multiply” to “I’m an amazing writer, I can just preserve you here -” but ideally, let’s do both and build in some redundancy.

Sonnet 18, as the most famous of the sonnets today, is both signifier and signified: it is the single enduring image of Shakespeare’s young man sequence, which is precisely what it posits.

Sonnet 17

Sonnet 18

And I can’t stop there, because 19 is also an amazing piece.

To recap, we’ve gone from “have children to keep your beauty in this world,” to “well, my poems can help too,” to perhaps a sudden realisation that genetics aren’t always predictable, so let’s double down on the poetry.

In 19, we again go a step further: now that 18 has established a permanent
“save point” for the beloved, the speaker gets cocky and decides to taunt Time, placing the beloved explicitly beyond its reach.

Sonnet 19

I’ll conclude this episode with Sonnet 29, in which the speaker attempts to describe the disparity between the value of being loved and of all worldly aspirations. It celebrates the power of love to grant transcendence, and to fundamentally and utterly reframe the world for the better. Sonnet 25 follows a similar theme, but is more militaristic, and while the tone is darker, I find this one more heartfelt.

Sonnet 29

Detour: Depression

Two weeks ago, I thought I was old and tired. Thankfully, I’ve still got that to look forward to — I was unknowingly carrying chronic depression, and it came to light only by chance and the selfless intervention of someone special.

I was doubly lucky, because my depression was tied to clear external triggers, around which I had wrapped a bundle of secret, illogical, shames and fears. A couple of those were unwoven at a fundamental level, causing a contextual reframing that destroyed my depression’s habitat — literally overnight.

After a week of extreme oversharing with a few patient individuals, I wanted to post something publicly because we need to continue to normalise these topics beyond the meme level, and the conversations kept coming back to a few key points which seemed worth sharing:

It can be easy to dismiss or suppress our own struggles in the face of objectively harder ones, but life is not a competition, and self-care makes it possible to be there for our part in the “bigger” battles. Shame is often misplaced, and rarely constructive — especially the shame that arises when we measure our issues against others, and decide they don’t matter.

It isn’t enough to know you are surrounded by loving and supportive people if you don’t turn to them when you actually need them. Not asking for help is something I’ve always struggled with, and in the local context, at least, I know I’m not alone in that (which is why I’m posting this).

Checking up on yourself is vital. Use more than one set of tools. I didn’t feel “bad” when I was depressed. Nor did I feel the numbness I’ve experienced in the past: I just felt worn, heavy, and quietly worthless, and loosely blamed existentialism and age. But when it was suddenly lifted I felt (feel) at least a decade younger. I have energy I thought was gone forever — which is energy I can now apply to the “insurmountable” external things I had thought I couldn’t affect.

Depression is insidious precisely because it’s a personal and holistic affliction. It can hide in plain sight because it’s tied up with all of our other individual neuropathies and can be easily justified. In hindsight, it’s usually painfully evident, but that doesn’t make it easy to see when it’s inhabiting our bodies. Because of this, it’s also nuanced and subjective, so it’s worth scheduling time to ask yourself hard questions and have difficult conversations with those you love. Whether or not depression is in residence, these moments can help us be better.

A certain Lisa just reminded me that even in our own conversations we’ve (I’ve) had a tendency to minimise suggestions of depression — because while we’ve made great strides towards normalising depression as “a bad thing”, it’s therefore something we’d prefer not to acknowledge or recognise if there’s a more palatable explanation.

I have no pithy take-home message: this is my experience, and yours operates in your own unique context. But depression is an ill that takes so much so easily, and if my story might offer a second of self-reflection or a spark of recognition, then I felt an obligation to share it.

Please don’t diminish your own experiences. The following page has some useful resources in Aotearoa, and your GP will often be a good place to start to get help.


In Shakespeare’s Footsteps

The Shakespeare Globe Centre New Zealand (SCGNZ) has been running a series of competitions, and I’m really pleased to have won second prize in their sonnet competition for my piece From The Dark Lady.

My winning sonnet and other entries follow. Two draw on Shakespeare’s characters, and the other two take four “quotable lines” from his work and shape sonnets around them.

This first piece was written from the perspective of one of the addressees of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, the titular Dark Lady.

From The Dark Lady

I cannot quite decide which fate is worse:
To have you make presumption of my sin,
Or bear your masochistic little verse,
Ostensibly to worm your way within.
Were I to lesser station given birth,
Perhaps I’d deign rejoinder to your “wit”
With puerile intimations of your worth:
“How short, how thin—how ever will it fit?”
But, rest assured, I’m flattered by your rhyme,
Propriety, you see, requires grace;
So should we meet at some unwitting time,
That isn’t raw contempt upon my face.
    Aye, Will, you might have plucked a willing rose,
Had less been on the page, and more inside your hose.

My next sonnet borrowed Lysander’s words from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “The course of true love never did run smooth,” and Friar Lawrence’s “Wisely, and slow. They stumble that run fast.” from Romeo and Juliet. This one was the most difficult to write, because I had a clear vision for the piece that was a little too ambitious and autobiographical, and ended up having to pare the concept down.

The Race

The course of true love never did run smooth
Since on Her toes thy clumsy footstep fell,
And trying this impression to improve
Then trod upon Her other foot as well.
Thy missteps were too numerous to count,
And ignorance in similar degree,
If offered love of any small amount
You’d magnify it exponentially;
Then reeling in despair—of thy own make—
Would jealousy comport you to cliché
And even thy convictions would forsake,
Until that love in tatters tore away.
    We seldom love well, till our youth is past:
Wisely, and slow. They stumble that run fast.

The following piece is the first sonnet I wrote in this sequence, and it provides a right of reply from Shakespeare’s Young Man, the other addressee of his sonnets. Like the poem From The Dark Lady, it extends from Shakespeare’s own bawdy tone.

From The Young Man

These centuries have passed, but I remain
Ensorcelled by your hubris on the page,
And where you scribbled pseudonyms for shame,
I suffer each indignity of age.
You wrote of youth, committing me to ink,
Ideas, you calculated, would endure;
But did you ever hesitate and think
Your motivation might have been impure?
The scholars do not worship at my thighs—
My name, my face, my self remain unknown—
But rote recite your shittiest of sighs,
While I am just a guy you might have blown.
    Will I forgive who took away my name,
Imperfectly you loved me, but you loved me, all the same.

This final piece takes a new approach to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 2, starting with the same first line, “When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,” and sticking as obstinately as possible to that military metaphor and its implications. After much deliberation, I took “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad” from Antonio in The Merchant of Venice as a fitting, if not uplifting, conclusion to my final couplet.

Revise and Conquer

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow
They shan’t expect thy forehead to attack—
Descending in a weak, compliant bow,
Then striking up to claim thy beauty back!
Mere Time is a pretender to the throne,
Her armies flee in regimented beat
Before the dread advance of thee alone;
Upon the faintest fancy of thy feet.
This coward isn’t sanctioned in Her war
Yet takes immoral plunder as Her due:
The colour from thy tresses as we snore
And memories that we together grew…
    I have a plan… That is… How odd! I had…
In sooth, I know not why I am so sad.