It is my pleasure to welcome Frank Coffman as this month’s guest columnist. I love that he includes a poem about Rawhead: Bloody Bones—he’s an expert on folklore themes and an impressive master of formal verse. Coffman is a retired professor of college English, creative writing, and journalism. He has published weird, horrific, supernatural, and speculative poetry, short fiction, and scholarly research in a variety of magazines and anthologies. His main literary interests have been in the origins, rise, and relevance of popular imaginative literature across the genres of adventure, detection, fantasy, horror, and science fiction. Founder of the Weird Poets Society Facebook group, he also selected, edited, introduced, and did commentary for his Robert E. Howard: Selected Poems.
Rhyme Roaming and Metric Musing: Exploring the Freedoms of Form
As far as my poetic work goes, I should state right up front and say that I’m a traditional, formalist poet. In other words, the vast majority of my work has been in rhymed and metered verse, with very few examples of vers libre in my poetic corpus. Some might say “New Formalist,” but it seems to me that would be wrong—for at least two reasons. First, I’m not exactly “new,” having just taught my final semester at my college and retired from a long teaching career, with the “Big 70” coming up in late June. Second, the so-called “New Formalist Movement” seems to me to be nothing more than contemporary poets simply deciding that the free verse mode is not for them. Essentially, poets who have been avid readers of and in love with the freedoms to be found within the restrictions of fitting forms.
At heart, I consider myself a “sonneteer,” an avid practitioner of that most ubiquitous type of fixed form verse in all of Western Literature. Having said that, I must add that I’m decidedly not a “sonnet purist”—a member of the ultra-traditionalist camp, some of whom believe that the Italian/Petrarchan mode is the only true sonnet, with a few others willing to admit the English/Shakespearean type. I define a sonnet as: “A fourteen-line poem in whatever meter might be used, also inclusive of fourteen lines of free verse (unmetered).”
Having said that, I’m also very much a lover of experimentation within and “hybridization” of forms. I’m nearing completion of a collection of poems that includes sonnets done in the various (and challenging) Welsh and Irish meters and harmonies, sonnet blends with various Medieval and Renaissance standard forms, and a few with Middle Eastern and even Oriental formal modes. I also love the ballad and its versatility, more free-form random rhyming longer narratives, and other fixed modes such as the villanelle, the ballade, the sestina, etc.
The poetic collection I’m finishing up is sectionalized into topics and themes. The titles of these sections ought to give a quick overview of the kinds of stuff I write:
- Witchcraft & Warlockry
- Ghosts & Hauntings
- Sorcery & Summonings
- The Lycanthropicon
- Vampires: The Undead
- Ghoulies, Beasties, and Things That Go Bump in the Night
- Arch Weirdness: The Inexplicable and Abnatural
- Horribilus Mundus: “Physical Fear & the Mundanely Gruesome”
- Fantasy & Myth: The Realms of Gold
- Ekphrasis & Hommage: Poems on the Other Arts and for Some of My Fellow Poets
- Other Genres of the Imagination [including Science Fiction, Detection, Western, Adventure.
- Ars Poetica Nova: Metapoesis & Some Thoughts on Poetry Itself
- Some Traditional Verses
The poetic offerings are followed by a “Glossary of Forms” over the many and various “hybridizations” and unusual and exotic forms used in the collection.
My poems are mostly narrative, with other offerings descriptive of time (chronographia) or place (topographia), some ekphrastic poems—hommages to particular poets, writers, and artists whom I admire, some metapoetic pieces, commenting on the art of writing poetry (especially the ways poems come to me), and some decidedly traditional lyrics and others, such as my rendering of a few quatrains of Omar Khayyam into new verse (rubai stanzas, of course).
I’ll throw in a couple as-yet-unpublished poems here as a sampling of my stuff:
(a poem in Pararhyme*)
© by Frank Coffman
He had been told the townsfolk had a ban:
To “never fare out ‘neath the fullest moon.”
He heeded not—he was a fighting man.
To scores of foemen he had proved the bane.
But now he wandered where scant few had been,
And soon he pondered what their words could mean.
Just then he heard—quite close!—a deathly moan;
He saw red, gleaming eyes, heard crunch of bone!
Drawing his sword, he turned to face the wood.
A shape moved through the trees—a grey, grim ghost?
The full moon glinted off his burnished blade.
The thing came out into the clearing wide.
The wolf-beast walked as man!—he stood aghast!
One second more—he saw the white fangs flash—
Tried once to cry out through his throat’s torn flesh …
… The moon mirrored in the black pool of his blood.
*Pararhyme is a type of slant rhyme that echoes both the initial and terminal consonant sounds of words while changing the medial vowel. Championed and perfected by WWI British poet Wilfred Owen in such poems as “Arms and the Boy,” this poem uses that effect. The “true/full” rhymes of “ban-man” and “moan-bone” are—while not accidental—unnecessary to the pattern.
Here’s one using the intricate Irish pattern of Rannaicheacht Mhor “hybridized” into a sonnet:
A Call to Weird Poets
(a Rannaicheacht Mhor* Sonnet)
© by Frank Coffman
Come near, and neatly enthrall
The reader; some voice to veer—
By seer-skilled, choice, charmed page pall—
Reveal dark depths, horror’s home!
Some part curtains that conceal
And feel whence cosmic fears come.
As poet-mage, terrors true,
Drew dark pictures to engage
Sage readers with Nightscapes new.
“Find the ways to frame True Fear.”
*Rannaicheacht Mhor (ron-a’yach voor) is a very complex old Irish form, a heptasyllabic quatrain with an abab rhyme scheme, including obligatory consonant end sounds. There should be two cross-rhymes in each couplet of the quatrain. The final word of line 3 rhymes with the beginning or interior of line 4. At least two words should alliterate in each line. The final word of line 4 of each quatrain alliterates with preceding stressed syllable or word. Dunadh is used: the final sounds of the poem echo (at least in close rephrasing) the first sounds of poem [syllable, word, phrase, or whole line].
I’m also a lover of the ballad stanza and its various options for both the folk/traditional and the modern literary ballad. Coupled with that, I love to explore legends from various cultures and lands. The following is based upon a North Country legend from England—Bloody Bones or “Rawhead” as the creature is sometimes called:
Rawhead: Bloody Bones
A Ballad of the North Country
(a Literary Ballad)
© by Frank Coffman
It’s said a dreadful creature dwells
Upon the northern moors.
And, such a fiend, as legend tells,
Makes folk make fast their doors.
He’s taller than a man by half,
And from his heighty head
The blood pours—covering his face.
But he is nowise dead.
His skin is like a serpent’s—smooth
And glistening ’neath the moon.
And should you meet old Bloody Bones
Your tale is over soon.
He prowls ‘round hill and heather.
It’s said he likes the young.
His teeth are sharp as sabers;
Blood drools from slavering tongue.
And many a bairn has disappeared
On cold and moonless nights.
And many a man has ne’er returned
That hunted this Fiend of Frights.
The children call him “Bloody Bones”
Or by the name “Rawhead.”
They have been warned by ancient tales
That night’s best kept abed.
But he’s not just a Boogeyman—
Not a mere tale to scare.
If you go out upon the moors
You well might find him there.
And if you see those bloodshot eyes,
Behold those fangs and claws.
Aghast, gaze on his nine-foot frame—
This beast ‘gainst Nature’s Laws—
Don’t say that you weren’t warned of him,
Now that you’ve tempted Fate.
You’ll see him horrid, grim—and Real!
And you’ll have learned too late.
While the vast majority of my poetry is verse, the meters I choose are decidedly not all in the Greek/Roman tradition of accentual-syllabic metrical feet. As seen above, I love to experiment with the Celtic syllabic meters and have poems in haiku/scifhaiku and tanka syllabics. My forthcoming book includes accentual verse patterned after the Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse stories and sagas.
For an example of some traditional themes, here are four carpe diem/transience renderings of some Omar Khayyam (based upon translations by Fitzgerald, LaGallienne, and McCarthy):
Last night I wandered to the pottery.
Two thousand pots! And one pot spoke to me:
“Where’s the old potter now? The ancient seller?
The former patron? All are part of me.”
The Dawn has come. Arise! Arise, my Dear!
Pour wine and strum the lute as we lie here.
For all who are thriving now will not stay long,
And those departed will ne’er again be near.
Last night I dropped and smashed my drinking bowl.
My bout of clumsy drinking took its toll.
The shattered bowl in sad reproof cried out,
“I was like you; my clay once held a soul.”
We can’t be certain of tomorrow’s plot—
Live now; let all heart’s worries be forgot.
Love, let us drink wine by moonlight, for the moon
Will shine long after this, and find us not.
Here is a sci-fi poem in one of my invented sonnet measures: abcabc || defdef || gg:
© by Frank Coffman
It has, through the millennia, brightly beckoned.
At first but a ruddy, wandering point of light,
A marvel in the sky the eye could hold,
A stimulus to our imagination, fecund
With possibilities—luring us in the night—
Bright star of blood with secrets to unfold.
Our science plodded slow—so slow—ahead.
Then scopes! Our hopes to solve those mysteries
Were wildly gorged! An orb came into view!
Varied terrain, white poles, canals! seemed spread.
Then fictioneers began to weave strange histories:
Tales of adventure in the cosmos—vast and new!
And now we plan to visit neighbor Mars!
First milepost on our mandate to the stars.
And, just for good measure, here is a fairly recent sci-fi composition in free verse (which, again, I rarely write):
© by Frank Coffman
Arching gracefully, on a flame-colored stem,
the Moonflower sprouts downward petals.
Nestling into the soft lunar dust; planting itself.
Resting but a while beneath the so-black sky,
bejeweled with a bejillion points of fire—
—but with one huge blue orb crowding the welkin—
It blossoms and opens despite the vacuous lack of air.
And warm-wind humanseeds …
with “small step,” “giant leap” …
My great thanks to Marge Simon for allowing me some space to be a guest columnist here. As you folks all know, she is a great and established poet of the speculative genres, and I am honored to have had an opportunity to share some of my thoughts and poems with you.