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Rhyme and No Good Reason / 4 November 2014

One of the things John first picked up on about my existing work was my liking for strict versification. Where possible, I like to write poems that have strict metre and rhyme, as in ‘Bite the Hand that Feeds You’ (‘Frank is a nice boy/He never makes a fuss’/Frank spends all his time at home/He can’t get on the bus’).

John suggested I should read Charles Causley. Causley was a twentieth Century Cornish poet, best known for ‘Timothy Winters’, a poem drawing on his own experience as a schoolteacher, which starts:

Timothy Winters comes to school
With eyes as wide as a football pool,
Ears like bombs and teeth like splinters:
A blitz of a boy is Timothy Winters.

Influenced by Auden, Causley wrote rhyming poems, most typically in four line stanzas. Many of his poems were framed as ballads.  

He is probably, like Betjeman, one of those poets who is underestimated because of the very accessibility of his work. (This does not apply to his fellow poets; Causley’s admirers included Ted HughesSeamus HeaneyPhilip Larkin and Elizabeth Jennings.)

I’ve known Causley’s work since the 1960s, but I’m happy to make myself more familiar with it. That’s the kind of homework that won’t prove at all dreary.

But John was suggesting that I should concentrate on this kind of work. I was sceptical. What a poem lends itself to formally varies a lot.

The thing is that I don’t find that creating poems is a matter of thinking ‘let’s write about so and so’ and then whacking it into whatever form takes my fancy: vers libre, sonnet, ottava rima...  

The idea for a poem always contains some sense of what its formal qualities will be.  I’m pleased if that can have clear versification and rhyme, but it doesn’t always present itself like that.  

For example, ‘What Happens to Old Epileptics?’ was well suited to four line rhyming stanzas.  I remember drawing conscious inspiration from Larkin’s ‘This Be the Verse’.  But ‘Leaning on a Lamppost’, a poem about seeing the world from a state of epileptic confusion, demanded something more free-form.  If that poem had any formal inspiration, it was probably beat poets such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

As it happens I’ve since started writing new poems with strong formal qualities.  But I’ll talk about them another time.

Keywords: charles causley,disability,disability art,epilepsy,metre,performance poetry,poetry,rhyme,seizures,versification,writing