Writing Short Rhyming Poems with Metaphors

Reviews of 21stCentury Bread

QUICK REVIEW EXCERPTS: "Playfulness"

Leland Jamieson is a poet dedicated to the playfulness of rhyme and iambic meter.... [The book shows an] overriding joyousness the writer has for his craft... the poet’s diction is vivid and musical... ripe with powerful verbs....

Some of Jamieson's warmest, most festive poems involve food or eating— briefly, as in “Blind Spot in the Restaurant,” or... one of my favorite poems in the collection, “How Deep the Night!....”

Yes, 21st Century Bread hosts a feast of succulent sound, and formal poets everywhere should rejoice in Jamieson’s adept treatments of lines.... I think that even free verse readers pleased by a clear voice, snappy enjambed lines and crisp iamb-gery [sic] can “party down” with this....”

— Review by Dallas J. Bryant, writing in the February 2008 issue of The Centrifugal Poetry Journal.

COMPLETE REVIEWS:

“Outstanding Book... of Unusual Unity and Grace”

Reviewed by Steffen Horstmann
21st Century Bread, by Leland Jamieson

Despite my biases, until recently I have not become much engaged with the status of a particular movement or school or mode of writing poetry—mostly because I’ve always felt excellent poets will find a way to be heard, however it is they choose to practice their craft. Also, perhaps, because as a reader it is an individual poet’s resourcefulness that interests me most.

In recent times contemporary poetry has experienced a vast hybridization of styles that has led to the emergence of what Derek Walcott has termed the “idiosyncratic genius,” or to put it more plainly: the poet who resists a categorization, whose aim is a fascinating blend of spontaneity and verve. Some of the most tantalizing poets that have emerged out of this trend include Mary Jo Bang, Suzanne Gardinier, and Mary Ruefle. Many of these innovative poets still work (albeit sparingly) with traditional forms. The sonnet, villanelle, and sestina continue to be widely practiced.

But it is the formalist (I would define a formalist as a poet who writes the majority of his or her work in forms) that is declining in number. This is a condition due in part to the perspective that has been growing for some decades now—that formal verse is outmoded, that it is much too concerned with artifice, that the speakers of its poems simply do not sound natural... This type of thinking persists despite the fact important books (that have achieved critical acclaim) of formal poetry are still being written with some regularity.

The past decade or so has seen the publication of Robert Pack’s Rounding it Out, Jared Carter’s Les Barricades Mysterieuses, Rhina Espaillat’s Rehearsing Absence as well as Willis Barnstone’s massive volume of sonnets, The Secret Reader. But Pack, Carter, Espaillat, and Barnstone are all established poets.

It was the recent publication of Leland Jamieson’s 21st Century Bread that has marked an all too rare occasion—the release of a volume of formal verse by a new voice.

The title of Jamieson’s book implies the hope for worldly reconciliation. Many of the poems have an artistic or literary focus. “Breaking Light” is a poignant piece about a moment of recognition between artists; and “Painter's Dimension,” written in rhyming couplets (AB AB AB), has to do with the challenges and joys of the creative process. There are also some philosophical pieces, such as “Kingdom Lies,” “Archimedes’ Second Thoughts,” and “Philosophy 101 in a Difficult Lie,” that are a nice blend of seriousness and wit.

The strongest poems in 21st Century Bread, though, are about Jamieson’s more personal experiences—as in “The Banyan,” which reveals in its final line a six-year-old boy’s concealed strife. I’m not certain anyone who hasn’t stood in front of a banyan tree can fully appreciate its actual dimensions, its uncultivated grandeur. Its shape evokes a sense of mystery and strangeness, making it a powerful presence in this childhood poem. Some of the finest poems of memory in this collection include “Rapture in the Sun,” “Jalopy’s Gift,” and “Ocracoke.”

Each of these poems possesses a conversational directness that provides them with a dimension of exactness, of a specified moment arriving at deepening insight. As the reader advances through 21st Century Bread, it is impossible to ignore the powerful accumulation of sounds (of all the sonnets, tercets, couplets, and quatrains). Here are two of the more playful excerpts from this book’s many metrical sequences:

from “Formal Poet as a Rooster”:

The horsehair bow of reading stress
contests each line—articulates
what's drawn across pentam or less
(tetram or trim)—and celebrates
new vibes that “free verse” can’t express.
What un-taut string reverberates?


from “Arcs of Quarks?”:

What is this pleasure, making poems
from tabula rasa, from scratch?
From void’s deep nothingness, what homes
upon the sentient being’s thatch?
What lights it like a flaming match
and would consume it—yet ignites,
with grace, these words by bits and bytes?


These excerpts are from poems appearing in the final section of 21st Century Bread, titled “Coda for Readers & Poets: Twelve Dances.” The book’s concluding poems are both humorous and intimate in tone, and are engaged with the practice of writing formal verse. I don’t often involve myself much with an author’s notes on poems (perhaps a symptom of my New Critical training), but Jamieson’s extensive notes on this section are compelling—mainly because they give the reader insight as to just how poets may coax the seed of inspiration.

This is a brief passage about Jamieson’s approach to writing a poem: “I let a random rhyme word—possessing nothing but pure potential—lead me to an appropriate next line’s imagery, action, feeling, or thought.” Jamieson appears to have the ability to suppress the poet’s typical preconception of a poem, and instead build it line by line, utilizing the form he has chosen to work with to present the poem with its subject. It is a fascinating process by which Jamieson has written an outstanding book.

As I’ve said, I’m not much for the taking up of a particular literary cause, though lately I have become concerned by the near absence of books by emerging formalists. 21st Century Bread is a volume of unusual unity and grace, and it is Jamieson himself who deserves the final word:

“Hearthstone in the Watershed”:

Hiking in Connecticut. Early Spring.
For M.B., with thanks for the crow.

This watershed is laced with walls of stone
hardscrabble farmers clanged with plough, dug up
by “Gee!” and “Haw!” and dragged to bound fields blown
so bare by winter no crows swooped to sup....
A tulip tree well-past a hundred years
ago took root within this cellar hole
beside a hearth where once moms roasted ears
of corn and simmered chowder, bowl on bowl.

The love of place—that fell away as they
exhausted all its soil, burned every tree,
their kids rode west and elders died away —
feels present still in moss-green stone debris,
in frost-felled hearthstone...sun its only heat.
We sit on it, and rub our weary feet.


“Review of 21st Century Bread by Leland Jamieson” © 2007 by Steffen Horstmann. Reprinted in its entirety by permission of the author and the magazine in which it first appeared, Contemporary Rhyme, Vol. 4, No. 4, 2007.


"Calls to Be Read Out Loud"

A Review by James Swingle

Leland Jamieson's poetry calls to be read out loud. Listen to the way the consonants play off each other from the very first lines of the book:

I trample, snapping twigs, a trackless wood
so overcast I can't point toward the sun.
I'd read the moss on pine trunks if I could
but it encrusts all sides of every one.

I love the way the T's snap across the first line like cracking twigs, the stop-and-go of the line not at all a walk or stride or trudge, but itself the rhythm of trampling. I love the resonance of the passage—I briefly considered the possible echo of Dante, whose journey likewise started lost in a woods, though reading on I found the poems had a far greater echo of Frost, who also stopped by some woods along his way. This Prologue, "Needles in a Pinewood," shows right from the beginning what to expect from this wonderful volume: precisely observed imagery; a poet who confidently uses meter and rhyme; and poems that are expansive, that point to more than they say directly.

And we soon also see Jamieson's gift for telling stories in verse. Here, in "Against All Odds," we find a young Jamieson (in third person in the poem) jumping onto a train already pulling out of the station.

Again he breasted the Lookout post, rail, stair,
grabbed the post, vaulted bag and butt through air,
and landed, teetering. He crawled up-tread,
stood rocking, guts and knees like gingerbread.
The door: locked tight! What could he do? Good lord!
Up high, 'Emergency!' He pulled the cord.

Jamieson's narrative poems give the book a sense of playfulness, a sense of fun. They also give the book as a whole a sense of balance, because while he tells fun stories, and creates funny sketches of people he knew and things he did, Jamieson doesn't shy away from the big themes. He approaches them gently, never ranting at the unfairness and pain life sometimes brings. But neither does he avoid them. Several poems are in memory of his father, who we find out died of cancer when Jamieson was young. Here we get a glimpse of his father in "A Landing."

You lived to climb the wind sock's luffing breeze—
in Fairchilds, Pitcairn Mail Wings, DC-3's—
almost as much as you had lived to write,
to mount imagination's wings and flight.
Your writing and your flying (both paid well)
gave way before a pancreatic cell.

The great achievement is that when Jamieson does turn his poems to loss, he makes life feel valuable, something to be celebrated as long as it lasts. And he does this without resorting to sentimentality, but through honest sentiment.

In the last section of the book, "Coda for Readers and Poets: Twelve Dances," Jamieson turns to writing poetry, and in particular writing poetry using meter and a formal rhyme scheme. I particularly enjoyed "Springing Formal Tongues," where a challenge given in free verse is answered in formal meter:

I said to Freeverse, "Think! Make sense!
It's speech-stress springs the formal tongue
and heaves into the breeze its scents
and sights, its ear's delights — when wrung
from pulsing lines the poet's strung.
You hold in hand the poem, whole.
You feel its heartbeat, sense its soul.

And as a final bonus, the notes contain a nice introduction to writing poetry in formal meter and rhyme, with the reasons Jamieson himself turned to them, and some great advice for any poets who wish to experiment with meter and rhyme themselves.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and recommend it.

(Copyright © 2007 by James Swingle and reprinted by permission in its entirety from The Noneuclidean Café, where it first appeared in Vol. 1, Issue 4, Summer, 2007. In a follow up letter the reviewer added, "Thanks for the chance to read your book — it really spoke to me.")


“A Powerhouse Commitment . . . .”

21st Century Bread, by Leland Jamieson
Reviewed by Oke Mbachu.


Leland Jamieson’s 21st Century Bread is a powerhouse commitment to metrical, ear-rhyming verse. Divided into six sections, this handy collection of 99 poems celebrates and muses on family, memory, family memories (some of the poems are dedicated to relatives and others), worldly observations, and philosophy. The sections appear to unfold chronologically, with childhood remembrances gracing the first section, while teenage/school-year incidents, fatherhood and grand-fatherhood pieces appear in the second, third and later sections.

Although not exclusively, the latter sections take on a more cosmic/metaphysical air: the speaker’s father visits from another realm, mollusks give their two cents on the state of the world (“Prophecy of a Mollusk”), while some other poems are spurred by Biblical passages and Earth Chronicles by Zechariah Sitchin. Archimedes and Plato also make appearances in other parts of this well-rounded book. All the while, the anchor holding these diverse poems in place are the precise ropes of meter and shiny hooks of rhyme.

The majority of the poems are employed in tetra- and pentameter, while dressed in couplets, tercets, quatrains, sestets, and other forms. Petrarchan sonnets and occasional sestinas also make appearances. Although the thematic ventures of the poems are compelling enough, the reader might find himself or herself eyeing the rhyme schemes, for they stand out. They do not stand out as roadblocks, however, but as consciously-placed guiding steps to the poems’ ends. Naturally, the best poems combine vivid imagery with unobtrusive rhyming, as evidenced in “Hearthstone in the Watershed”:

This watershed is laced with walls of stone
hardscrabble farmers clanged with plough, dug up
by “Gee!” and “Haw!” and dragged to bound fields blown
so bare by winter no crow swooped to sup....


Jamieson's poem’s of social and natural observation are also noteworthy as they demonstrate his formal poetry skills in combination with his human wisdom. Poems like “In the Crowd at the Big H,” “By Floundering,” and “A Modest Hope” fit that mold, as does “That Elixir,” with such lines as

Some say that marriage is a hostage-dance:
The taker and the taken in a trance
exchange their masks. Within, they each grow ashen
in search of that elixir called compassion.


In other poems, “Hook and Ladder” wishes on a fire truck’s ladder as a device for fetching night dreams lost on waking, and “Rapture in the Sun” is a juicy reminder of William Carlos Williams’ “Just to Say.” While some of the lines in the collection might appear as syntactically complex or irregular (a sacrifice formal poets have to occasionally make for the sake of strict meter and rhyme), a second, closer reading should clarify the intent of these lines.

The last section of the book (“Coda for Readers & Poets: Twelve Dances”) is (as the heading proclaims) dedicated to poets, readers, and to the writing of formal poetry. In it, the formal poet and poem take metaphorical forms (“Formal Poet as a Whittler,” “Form as Kindling”) that inform and elevate the nature of this classic poetic practice. “Scrabbling for Scarlet Oaks,” addressing the process of writing formal poems, says

With serendipity he stumbles on
those sensate words that rhyming lines evoke,
with images a meter spawns: clear-drawn
rough acorns which prefigure scarlet oak.


However, more than serendipity is at work in 21st Century Bread: the combination of memory, insight, worldview, formal and overall poetic know-how leaven this collection to the considerable piece of work that it is.

(Copyright © 2007 by Oke Mbachu. Republished here in full by permission of the author. This review first appeared in Contemporary Rhyme, Vol. 4, No. 3, 2007.)



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