Category Archives: Poetry

About verse, and the writing thereof….

Here, have another old one.

I happened to start flipping through my very old file with my poems in it–here’s another of the earliest I have archived in a clean copy.  You can tell a lot about what hymnody I grew up on, from this one.

“Meditation on a Rainy Day”

“O God of dust and rainbows, help us see
That without dust, the rainbow would not be”
Langston Hughes

O God Who sends upon us rain,
Help us to sing Thy praise;
Help us Thy glories to proclaim,
Sing wonders all our days.

We see the drop fall in the grass,
To nourish up the seed;
Lord, how out of this earthy mass
Grow plants to meet our need?

The waters pass; the clouds are dry;
The sun sends forth his rays.
We see Thy rainbow in the sky
Exalt Thy wondrous ways.

O God of grandeur: rain or sun,
May we in thee find peace;
That, with our day’s hard labor done,
Our joy shall never cease.

3-4-1993 PGE

In These Times

I’ve started putting together a playlist of things that hearten and console, In These Times:

And here’s the oldest poem I have written down in my archives (not absolutely the first, but I’m not going to dig out my old file with scraps of blotter pads and napkins on it to check, right now).

For, y’know, a sense of depth.

“To Live”

to laugh at the threat of evil;
to defy death and pain
in a quest for the right,
the greatest gain.

to sneer at wrong and might;
to breath free and deep;
to laugh and love,
to lose and weep.

to be free to the last,
to die with grace;
in the pursuit of truth
to set high the pace.

1991 PGE

Send me a link if you have something to suggest for this playlist. I think we all need it.

While I go make coffee….

You can take a look at this.

Because sometimes we all need a little reminder.

Sip Before Speaking Morphing Mug
Sip Before Speaking Morphing Mug by Inkandescence
Create one-of-a-kind personalized cups from

I promise, it won’t be all ads. But I have enjoyed getting these things designed and set up, and I’m trying a lot of things out.

So please, do chuckle, do laugh, do let me know if you spot bugs or design problems, and remember me when you want to read a poem–or send a pretty or witty gift.

What Are Sonnets, Anyway? (Part Five)

Finally, and often forgotten, the most strictly traditional sonnets should have closed syntax throughout.  By “closed syntax” we mean two related things.  

First, and more important, that the sonnet is usually composed of actual sentences in standard English; the sonnet form does not lend itself to the sorts of fragmentary or merely associative utterance often found in free verse effusions or more experimental verse forms.  

Second, and more precisely the meaning of the term, in “closed syntax” the line boundaries are also phrase boundaries.  This does not mean that line boundaries are necessarily sentence boundaries, though it is conventional for each quatrain to begin and end on a sentence boundary.  But whether it is a prepositional phrase such as “into the applecart” or even a noun phrase such as “the sun that bakes the asphalt road ahead,” the line break should come before or after the phrase, not in the middle of it.

Breaking a grammatical unit with a line break is a technique called “enjambment”; the most strictly traditional sonnets will use it sparingly, if at all.  Enjambment is typically used to indicate an overflow of emotion or thought (as though it could not be contained within the line), or as one way to set up a “false syntactic closure” effect (where the first words of one line incorporate the last words of the previous line into a larger grammatical unit that changes the apparent sense of the first line).  Sonnet writers vary significantly in their observance of this convention, but it always exercises some degree of force; and the stricter the sonnet, the greater the power of any particular enjambment will be.

Announcing The Clay Pot

My most recent poetry collection is now available, and I believe it is the best yet.

Poems, mostly sonnets, written since the completion of my last collection. In these works, concrete imagery and metaphysical reflection serve as lenses to survey a number of durable realities. The progression from “Thinging” to “Thinking,” as well as the philosophical nature of many of these poems, derives from the major intellectual adjustments that have resulted from my embrace of the Catholic faith and the metaphysical realism, best worked out by St. Thomas Aquinas, that follows naturally from that understanding. A brief annotated selection of 1995 poems provides some depth of field for the intellectual and poetic landscape here sketched.

(source: The Clay Pot by Peter G. Epps (Paperback) – Lulu)

If you know someone who would be willing to review it, I’d be happy to arrange to send a copy. And do please consider adding it to your collection!

I’d prefer you ordered from my printer directly (or help me get this shelf space in your local bookstore), but all my work is available through as well.

What Are Sonnets, Anyway? (Part Four)

The second basic component of the definition is “iambic pentameter,” which many people think sounds difficult even though they can almost effortlessly recognize it with just a tiny bit of instruction.  But let me explain it a bit, anyway; indulge me, and let your browser help you look up any terms that seem unfamiliar.

A verse has iambic rhythm, one of the four common poetic rhythms used in describing English verse, when the syllables can be divided into pairs.  Each pair (called a “foot”) has one syllable that receives more emphasis than the other, whether by loudness, quantity (how long it takes to say it), or weight (how complex the sound is).  This is the “stressed” syllable.  What makes the foot distinctively iambic is that the second syllable, not the first, is stressed.  A two-syllable foot with the first foot stressed is trochaic, not iambic.  Because both trochees and iambs have two syllables with one stress, a verse with iambic rhythm may well have trochees in it, as well; these occasional substitutions are used by writers to vary the rhythm from line to line.

Pentameter is quite easy to understand from the name:  each line has five stressed syllables.  Iambic pentameter, then, has five iambic feet per line.  Tetrameter and trimeter are also common descriptions of lines in English verse, and even dimeter is not unheard-of.  More complex rhythms often have lines of varying length (for example, “fourteener” rhythm has a tetrameter line followed by a trimeter line in each verse and two such verses in each stanza).  In the sonnet, however, which gains most of its complexity from rhyme scheme and theme, the only typical variation would be the Alexandrine, now rarely used.  An Alexandrine is the addition of two extra syllables (also called a “hypermetric foot”) to one line in a verse, strictly to add variety or emphasis.  Alexandrines are common in long poems written in heroic verse, but in sonnets they are almost never used except in the last line of the poem.

What Are Sonnets, Anyway? (Part Three)

So, what is the sonnet, then?  Assuming we don’t accept Dr. Johnson’s definition—just this once—we can summarize as follows:

A sonnet is a poem consisting of fourteen lines of rhymed iambic pentameter in closed syntax, where the rhymes conform to a specified scheme.

Poets will, with some historical warrant, refer to almost any sonnet-like poem as a sonnet; in some periods the word has been used for most kinds of short poems (as in Donne’s Songs and Sonnets, though unlike his Holy Sonnets, which all meet the typical definition).  One could plausibly choose to define “sonnet” very broadly, treating a poem as a sonnet to the extent it approximates some or all of these basic features.  Thus a sixteen-line poem in iambic tetrameter with a typical Shakespearean sonnet’s rhyme scheme, a free verse poem fourteen lines long with heavy enjambment, or any number of modifications might be thought of as sonnets.

Personally, though, I prefer to keep up a distinction between poems which allude to the sonnet form and poems properly called sonnets.  Such a distinction will have fuzzy borders, of course; but it does seem worthwhile to look carefully at whether a poem meets all three parts of the basic definition, even if it also modifies one of more of them.  Readers and critics will want to know, in any case, whether a given poem has stopped short of consistent sonnet form, or whether the modification to the form serves some specific purpose.  It also matters whether a “sonnet-like” poem should be thought of as a sonnet with specific innovations, a new variant of the sonnet, or some other form of poem arranged to allude to a sonnet.

Briefly, then, and without spoiling the more detailed discussion in the book I’m working on, let’s define the three basic elements of the definition:  fourteen lines, rhymed iambic pentameter, and closed syntax.  Fourteen lines is easy enough; the rest of the terms describe relations of sound and sense to those lines.  It is often handy to know that lines in English poems are frequently grouped by rhymes, so that a “quatrain” is a group of four lines identified by a rhyme pattern; an “octave” eight lines; a “sestet” six lines; and a “couplet” four lines.

Rhyme in its most common and consistent sense means that exactly the same sounds are repeated from the last stressed syllable to the end of the word or phrase; two lines rhyme if the sounds at their ends rhyme, and only those end rhymes are counted for purposes of the sonnet’s rhyme scheme (as with most other English formal verse).  As a quick primer, the following pairs do rhyme:

do you care? —- over there!
under the water —- dad with daughter
what I wish is —- Do the dishes!
instigator —- refrigerator

and the following do not rhyme:

Walter Pater —- Darth Vader
what a pair! —- put away our
turn the light off —- whooping cough
What he sees is —- try to free us

There are additional kinds of rhyme, of course; I’ll be looking at some of them in my book.

In future posts, we’ll continue by looking at the rhythmic and grammatical rules for constructing a sonnet.

What Are Sonnets, Anyway? (Part Two)

About the time Johnson wrote his definition, however, the sonnet was being revived in a way that makes his reference to “any man of eminence” seem ironic.  Although the “Big Five” Romantic poets Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats would make considerable use of the form, this tight-knit group of men were introduced to the sonnet by a group of women spanning the generation before Wordsworth and Coleridge.  Of particular interest in this connection are Charlotte Smith and Mary Robinson, who in radically different life situations began to use the sonnet form in similar ways and for similar purposes.

Their great literary rival, Anne Seward, was known to Johnson; Seward engaged in an acrimonious literary dispute with Johnson and famously defended the literary superiority of the “legitimate sonnet,” providing us with a key to the importance of the sonnet to these women and later writers.  Smith and Robinson both, in publishing their sonnets, respond in two different ways to Seward’s insistence on the “legitimate” (Petrarchan) sonnet.  On the one hand, they did not consider themselves bound by Seward’s strictures; Smith translates Petrarch from the Italian but also writes in multiple variants of the sonnet.  On the other hand, their use of the form accomplishes two goals at once, granting them the sort of “legitimate” poetic reputation Seward also sought while bypassing the fading Augustan consensus that heroic verse was the proving-ground of great poets.

Seward, Smith, and Robinson lived as the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution were disestablishing natural social bonds and replacing them with a revolutionary rationalism whose “science” would declare women physical and psychological inferiors well into the 20th Century.  This cultural consensus would perhaps reach the height of its strength in the 19th Century, as seen in the vogue of pseudoscientific understandings of human development such as phrenology, popular applications of Darwinism to individual and socio-cultural development, and the reduction of women to perpetual minors in the Napoleonic Code; but in the late 18th Century these determined (and sometimes desperate) women were already finding ways to defend their dignity and make their voices heard.  Rather than strive against the memory of Pope and Dryden and the criticism of Johnson, writers like Smith and Robinson chose to work in the tradition of undoubtedly great English writers that many Augustans failed to appreciate.  Shakespeare’s reputation, and Milton’s, had languished for years, but they had never really disappeared; and the formative years of the “Big Five” Romantics would also see the rehabilitation of Milton as a hero for an age of revolutionary radicalism.  As part of that formative period, poets like Smith and Robinson wrote in the form of Sidney’s still-popular work, a form appealing both for the Italianate flavor of Petrarch’s originals and for the English variants innovated by Shakespeare and Spenser and Milton.  By leapfrogging their contemporaries in favor of a “legitimate” form practiced by major writers of the past, Smith and Robinson secured their place in literary history—and became key figures in the revival of the sonnet.

Since the late 18th Century, the sonnet has never completely gone out of fashion.  Even in the United States after Walt Whitman’s promotion of free verse, writers as different as Edna St. Vincent Millay, e.e. cummings, and Gwendolyn Brooks have all made significant use of the sonnet form.  Rupert Brooke’s promise that, if he dies in battle, “some corner of a foreign field” will be “for ever England” comes from a sonnet; even horror fiction writer H. P. Lovecraft put together an odd sonnet cycle titled Fungi from Yuggoth.  In more than a few of these cases, the poets use the sonnet in ways Smith and Robinson would recognize.  Like most traditional forms, the sonnet embodies a range of cultural and personal habits of expression, a means of sharing certain insights that both gives them shape and selects them; in choosing the form, the writer of the sonnet takes on those habits and uses those means, and gains the opportunity to innovate by modifying the expectations evoked by the form.

What Are Sonnets, Anyway? (Part One)

Sonnet. n.s. [sonnet, French; sonetto, Italian.]

1. A short poem consisting of fourteen lines, of which the rhymes are adjusted by a particular rule. It is not very suitable to the English language, and has not been used by any man of eminence since Milton.

–Samuel Johnson

“Not very suitable to the English language.”  Thus did the great lexicographer summarily dismiss the sonnet under cover of defining it.  Definition two is almost as crushing:  “A small poem.”  When Johnson wrote the definition in 1755, however, it would have seemed defensible.  After all, John Milton’s career had ended a century earlier, and few poets had used the form in the interim—and, as we shall see, it was no “man of eminence” who would revive the sonnet, either.

The sonnet had been a going concern for nearly two centuries in Milton’s time.  Beginning in the middle 16th Century, sonnets in English were written whole collections at a time.  Like the plots of Shakespeare’s plays, sonnet cycles were cultural imports from Italy.  Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, translated and adapted Petrarch’s Italian sonnets for English use, and the form caught on.  Great lights of literature such as Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, and John Donne all contributed collections of sonnets which are still read today.  Some sonnet cycles, like Spenser’s, were bids for fame; others, like Shakespeare’s, probably were not intended for publication as a single cycle at all.  But the English Renaissance was an era of great projects, and the aspiring virtuoso could display considerable skill and patience in wrangling out a successful sonnet cycle.

Why, then, a century of silence after Milton’s few and scattered sonnets?  So many reasons have been suggested that it may be best to simply say, “We don’t really know.”  I find it hard to take seriously the notion some suggest, that Milton’s use of separated sonnets to express passionate responses to matters of war and politics, and to reconcile himself to personal suffering, was so shocking to the sensibilities of the English-speaking world as to require a century’s abstinence.  More plausibly, the dominant poetic voices of the Restoration may have seen fit to write as differently from the proud regicide as possible.  They certainly did so in their long verse narratives, which often echoed Milton even as they attempted to one-up his style.  Milton had insisted that rhyme was a decadent innovation in English long verse, and so had written Paradise Lost and his other great epics in blank verse.  Restoration poets such as John Dryden and Alexander Pope built their reputations in heroic verse, which requires that long poems be built up out of rhyming couplets—and that every line ending also be a phrase ending.  Few poets can write for long without turning heroic verse into an unbearable jangling, a point that Pope’s Essay on Criticism drives home with memorable wit.

My own conjecture, added to the heap of such historical second-guessing, is that this warfare over poetic form itself probably led to the neglect of the sonnet.  With Paradise Lost dominating the imagination of English poets, commanding their political opposition and their literary allegiance at once, there was little for the reputation-hungry poet to do but attempt the grand philosophical epic.  Milton’s own arguments against rhyme sharpen the question; Johnson’s dismissal of Milton’s sonnets is, ironically, based on his agreement with Milton that English is no fit language for tightly rhymed forms.  The epics and mock epics written in defiance of Milton’s writ over the next century and a half seemed instead to verify it, so thick were book-length concatenations of iambic pentameter couplets on the ground.

“Imagine” (a conversation poem)

Imagine a very field of wheat that cannot die;
where elephants do not lay down their heads,
or trumpet last, or feast the jackals;
life causing endlessly, effects of life, and on
and on
and on except the wheat has blighted, and you cannot eat;
the elephants are mad with parasites, their rheumy eyes
nagged at by growing swarms of deathless flies,
and we the jackals.
we die.

…in conversation with Philip Irving Mitchell (and a fig for Lennon)

(source: Imagine–Peter Gordon Epps)