Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Civil Rights Poetry

From slavery to Black Power, poets have been moved to write about civil rights.

1.  To Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe (1854), was written in reaction to the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, a novel loosely based on the slave life of Josiah Hensen

2.  The Hunters of Men (1835), written by John Greenleaf Whittier, brings to the forefront the hunting of escaped slaves, complete with hounds and whips (

3.  I Have Seen Black Hands (1934), written by Richard Wright, who was denied a library card as a child because he was black (

4.  Let America be America Again (1936), written by Langston Hughes, talks about all skin colours (

5.  A Seat on the Bus for Rosa, by Luke Easter, focusses on seamstress Rosa Parks who, in 1954, refused to give up her seat on an Alabama bus to a white person, prompting the famous bus boycott (

6.  Ode to Emmett Till (2013) was written in honour of the black boy who was lynched for supposedly "whistling" at a white girl in 1955 (

Emmett Till.jpg

7.  The Little Girl from Little Rock (2004), by Joan Dresner Bernstein, features the black girl who along with nine other helped integrate Little Rock High in 1957 (


8.  Mississippi Burning Poem, written by blogger Leah (2011), talks about the four civil rights activists who were murdered in Mississippi in 1964 (

9.  Here is my civil rights poem, Justice for Johnnie Mae (2008), written in honour of the mother of ten, Johnnie Mae Chappell, who was gunned down on her way home from work in Florida in 1964.

In the ditch at the end of the day
A black lady looked for her wallet.
Inside was all of her weekly pay,
This mother of ten named Johnnie Mae.

As a loud shot rang out, she was hit.
An ambulance marked "colored" was hailed.
Her husband held her hand for a bit,
Yet despite his pleas, her heart soon quit.

At the church, as her small children wailed
Murdered Johnnie Mae was laid to rest.
But five months went by with no one jailed
In old Jacksonville, justice had failed.

"Four white men killed her" detectives say.
But the sheriff freed them anyway.
Ten grown children continue to pray
All seeking justice for Johnnie Mae.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Social Issues Poetry

Poets are inspired to write about social issues every day.  Here are some powerful poems about issues which have touched people over the last two hundred years.

1.  John Greenleaf's Whittier's The Barefoot Boy gives us a glimpse of child labour in America in the 1800's  (

2.  Charles Dickens' The Hymn of the Wiltshire Labourers talks about child labour in Britain in the 1800's (

3.  The Ghosts of the Black Donnellys, refers to the Donnelly family who terrorized the town of Lucan, Ontario for 30 years and, when local justice failed, were murdered by a vigilante group (

3.  Charlotte Anna Perkins Gilman's The Anti-Suffragists proves that not all women were for the vote back in the early 1900's (

4.  Dustbowl Days, by Nicole S. Porter, describes the suffering of the Okies during the Great Depression (  Hence, the term "dust bowl poetry".

5.  Requiem to a Fourteen Year Old, composed by Pierre Berton, features a young Steven Truscott, jailed for a murder he did not commit and sentenced to be hanged (

6.  Farewell Saigon Bride, by Joan Baez, addresses the issue of American soldiers' relationships with Vietnamese women during the Vietnam War, most of which ended with the Fall of Saigon (

Monday, 25 May 2015

Anti-War Poetry

"Poetry makes things happen." (W. H. Auden)

You know the old saying "Life imitates art."  Such is the case with poetry.  The power of the pen is mighty.  An aptly written poem can change the world as we see it.  Here are some anti-war poems which moved their readers.  

On Christmas Day in 1864, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, wracked with grief after the tragic death of his wife and the crippling of his son in the Civil War, penned Christmas Bells.  Set to music in 1872, it became the Christmas carol "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" (  

After seeing his fellow soldier gunned down on a World War I battlefield in France, Dr. John McCrae wrote the rondeau In Flanders Fields, now recited in schools across Canada on Remembrance Day (

Soldier Frank Gibbons wrote A Beach in France, dedicated to the memory of British Sergeant Arthur Walton (

After four anti-Vietnam War protesters were gunned down by the National Guard at Kent State University in 1970, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young composed the song Four Dead in Ohio (

Michael Burch wrote the villanelle Because Her Heart is Tender, on the first anniversary of 9/11:

She scrawled soft words in soap:  "Never forget"
dove-white on her car's window (though the wren,
because his heart is tender, might regret
it called the sun to wake her).
As I slept,
she heard lost names recounted one by one.

She wrote in sidewalk chalk "Never forget"
and kept her heart's own counsel, no rain swept
away those words, no tears leave them undone.

Because her heart is tender with regret
bruised by razed towers' glass and steel the stone
that shatter on and on and on and on...
she stitches in damp linen:  "NEVER FORGET"
and listens to her heart's emphatic song.
(The wren might tilt his head and sing along
because its heart once understood regret
when nestlings fell beyond, beyond, beyond...
love's reach, and still the boot heeled toe strode on.)

She write in adamant:  "NEVER FORGET!"
because her heart is tender with regret.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

The Six-Stanza Sestina

The sestina, which originated in France, is an unrhymed form of poetry.  The poem is six stanzas long with each stanza containing six lines; a three line envoy completes the poem.  Just as every line of a pantoum is repeated later in the poem, the final word of each line of a sestina is repeated later in the poem.  Once again, patterning comes into play.  Here is the pattern of the words in a sestina:

(62) (14) (53)

John Ashbery's Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape, published in 1966, is an example of a sestina (  

The first of the undecoded messages read:  "Popeye sits in thunder,
Unthought of from that shoebox of an apartment,
From livid curtain's hue, a tangram emerges:  a country."
Meanwhile the Sea Hag was relaxing on a green couch:  "How pleasant
To spend one's vacation en la casa de Popeye," she scratched
Her cleft chin's solitary hair.  She remembered spinach."

And was going to ask Wimpy if he had bought any spinach
"My love," he intercepted, "the plains are decked out in thunder
Today and it shall be as you wish." He scratched 
The part of his head under his hat.  The apartment
Seemed to grow smaller.  "But what if no pleasant 
Inspiration plunge us now to the stars?  For this is my country."

Suddenly they remembered how it was cheaper in the country.
Wimpy was thoughtfully cutting open a number two can of spinach
When the door opened and Swee'pea crept in.  "How pleasant!"
But Swee'pea looked morose.  A note was pinned to his bib.  "Thunder
And tears are unveiling," it read.  "Henceforth shall Popeye's apartment
Be but remembered space, toxic but salubrious, whole or scratched."

Olive came hurtling through the window; it's geraniums
Scratched her long thigh.  "I have news!" she gasped.  "Popeye, as you know, forced to flee the
One musty gusty evening by schemes of his wizened duplicate father, jealous of 
the apartment
And all that it contains, myself and spinach
In particular, heaves bolts of loving thunder
At his own astonished becoming, rupturing the pleasant.

Arpeggio of our years. No more shall pleasant
Rays of the sun refresh your sense of growing old, nor the scratched
Tree trunks and mossy foliage, only immaculate darkness and thunder."
She grabbed Swee'pea.  "I'm taking the brat to the country."
"But you can't do that.  He hasn't even finished his spinach,"
Urged the Sea Hag looking fearfully around the apartment.

But Olive was already out of earshot.  Now the apartment
Succumbed to a strange new hush.  "Actually, it's quite pleasant
Here," thought the Sea Hag.  "If this is all we need fear from spinach
Then I don't mind so much. Perhaps we could invite Alice the Goon over" -- she scratched
One dug pensively -- "but Wimpy is such a country 
Bumpkin, always burping like that."  Minute at first, the thunder

Soon filled the apartment. It was domestic thunder
The colour of spinach. Popeye chuckled and scratched
His balls.  It sure was pleasant to spend a day in the country."

The Complaint of Lisa, by Algernon Charles Swinburne, is a double sestina (

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Rime Royale

The rime royale, or rhyme royal, was popularized by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th Century.  His imitator, James I of Scotland, also used it in his own verse; hence, the term "rime royale".  Each stanza of the rime royale consists of seven lines, each of ten syllables.  The rhyming scheme is: ABABBCC.  See Troilus and Criseyde (  Sir Thomas Wyatt composed They Flee from Me, also a rime royale, in the 16th Century (

They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot, stalking in my chamber
I have seen them gentle, tame and meek,
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themself in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range,
Busily seeking with a continual change.

Thanked be fortune it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
Therewithall sweetly did me kiss
And softly said, "Dear heart, how like you this?"

It was no dream; I lay broad waking.
But all has turned thorough my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of foresaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness,
And she also to use newfangleness.
But since that I so kindly am served
I would fain know what she hath deserved.

The rime royale went out of favour for a couple of centuries, but reappeared in the 19th Century. Byron popularized the "ottava rima", an 8-line stanza variation on the rime royale.  W. B. Yeat's A Bronze Head is a 20th Century rime royale (

Friday, 22 May 2015

The Delighful Diamante

Diamante, from the French for diamond, is a poem shaped like a lozenge or diamond.  The form was introduced by Iris Tiedt in 1969 in A New Poetry Form:  The Diamante.  The diamante can be the focus of two opposite subjects, like war and peace, or two synonyms, like bike and car.  It is seven lines in length and follows the following pattern:

Line 1:  subject (noun)
Line 2:  two words describing line 1 (adjectives)
Line 3:  three words describing line 1 (verbs)
Line 4:  a short phrase about line 1; a short phrase about line 7 (nouns)
Line 5:  three words re line 7 (verbs)
Line 6:  two words describing line 7 (adjectives)
Line 7:  end subject (noun)

Here is an example from the website

Shiny, quiet,
Pedalling, spinning, weaving
Whizzing round corners, zooming along roads
Racing, roaring, speeding
Fast, loud

The following example, War and Peace, contains antonyms rather than synonyms at

violent, deadly
confusing, damaging, suffering
armament, strategy, dialogue, harmony
forgiving, respecting, understanding
mental, spiritual

This example, Orphaned, is near and dear to my heart:

Abandoned, Afraid
Losing, Longing, Lacking
Always Alone, Forever Home
Lasting, Loving, Lavishing
Chosen, Secure

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Kyrielle: A Cousin to the Kyrie

Kyrielle, from the French, is a type of poem.  A Kyrie is a type of Christian liturgy with the same attributes as a Kyrielle.  The Kyrielle has 8 syllables in each line.  Each stanza consists of four lines, ending with a refrain.  The poem demonstrates the rhythmical form of a couplet.  Generally, Kyrielle poems include a minimum of three stanzas.  The rhyming scheme is as follows:


The capital B represents the refrain repeated in each stanza.

Thomas Campion's A Lenten Hymn is an example of a Kyrielle (  Where Once We Played is a modern example:

Across our childhood street we trod
on carpet lawn and hold sod.
We walked along where some had prayed.
Where once we played, he now is laid.

The dead's abodes we visited.
But times we ran and sometimes hid.
Such escapes by fancy made!
Where once we played, he now is laid.

Our bikes we'd ride on many a track
That wound around and further back.
A decade near this place I stayed.
Where once we played, he now is laid.

He left.  We followed, each our way
until the fateful sorry day.
We all returned and farewells bade.
Where once we played, he now is laid.

Another decade passed, then two.
Cruel time, it's passing now I rue.
My place for his, I would not trade
Where once we played, he now is laid.

*Dedicated to my brother Dale, who died much too young and is buried across the street from our old family house in a place called the Greenwood Cemetery where kids rode bikes and played.