Monday, November 19, 2018

A Legacy of Poetry - #poetry #rhyme #music

Pen nib

By Lisabet Sarai

I’m mildly surprised my first words weren’t in rhyme. Or perhaps they were—nobody in my family has ever been able to remember a time when I wasn’t talking, so I really can’t check! I do know that my parents surrounded me with poetry from my very earliest years. Before I could read myself (prior to year four), they read to my brother and me, including nursery rhymes and poems like “The Owl and the Pussycat” (which I can still recite). 

My mother sang, mostly nineteen forties torch songs with regular meter and rhyme:

Fly the ocean in a silver plane,
See the jungle when it’s wet with rain,
Just remember till you’re home again,
You belong to me.

My dad composed his own original songs for my siblings and me:

Consimo was a talented cat.
There certainly was no doubt of that.
He’d climb on stage in his big top hat
And play the clarinet in the key of B-flat.

There were always books around, and many of them included verse. So I guess it’s not too surprising that I grew up writing poetry. I can’t recall anyone suggesting I should, or telling me how. I just picked it up, a sort of inheritance from my verbally-gifted family.

Here’s a poem I still remember (I don’t know if I have a written copy), composed when I was  nine. We’d gone out on a friend’s boat (a real thrill for me) in the Atlantic off the Massachusetts coast, on a still, cloudy summer afternoon. The moody atmosphere made a strong impression:

The sky is the gray of an eagle’s wing;
The sea has a leaden tint.
Drowsy waves gently rock the bow of our craft.
And then on the breeze comes the sound of a bell,
Telling the story and ringing the knell
For the ships and the sailors ever gone.
And under the waves of the watery deep
The brave and the noble eternally sleep
While the bell buoy rocks in the sway of the sea
Its bell ever singing, ‘leave these brave men in peace’
As it in its watch eternally keeps.

Okay, it’s a bit grandiose, but I think the structural complexity’s pretty impressive for a fourth grader.

I continued to pen poems all through high school, mostly about unrequited desire.

We’ve pro-ed and con-ed for many months, my friend
And come to no decision.
Hot and cold running dreams,
Fires and frosts of the heart.
The climate of our love has been
New England.

As I sank deeper into anorexia and temporary insanity, my poetry grew darker in mood, but I never stopped using words, rhythm and rhyme to express my emotions. Through my college years and my recovery, the poetry still flowed, with less agony and more openness to the world.

Then came graduate school and my wild, crazy “sex goddess years”. All my lust and excitement exploded into poetry. I met my master and came to understand the lure of submission:

Meditations on a Crescent Moon (to GCS)

a bright thorn lodged in my flesh,
scarlet petals crushed on my breasts;
silver hook reeling me in;
scimitar pricking my skin.

clipping of a fingernail,
charm to bind; scorpion's tail,
sweetest poison in the sting,
fever dreams; broken ring
of the ancient myth,
how I shall know
my other half.

silken curl
from some platinum plait;
comma - a pause,
saying hush, wait.
light leaking beneath the door,
beneath the blindfold --
nothing more,
in the darkened room
but a lingering kiss
and the rough caress
of the bonds
on my wrists.
Sometimes I think my best poems are the ones I dedicated to him.

There was a lull in my versifying when I began writing and publishing fiction. But the rhyme, the rhythm, the music that are my birthright were still there. You can hear the poems in my prose, if you listen. I’m always aware of the cadence, the way the words fall on the ear.

Lately, I’ve been moved to write poetry again, though less urgently than before. Meanwhile, I can come up with a rhyming ditty in a matter of minutes. I have the lyrics for hundreds of songs stored away in my head. If it rhymes, I’ll remember.

My parents have both left this earth. They didn’t leave me a lot of money or property. However, they bequeathed to me both a love of and a skill with words. For that, I’m deeply grateful.

(You can find more of my poems on the free reading page of my website.)


  1. I remember those 1940s songs, including that one. My mother song them sometimes, but I think they were still playing on radios well into the fifties, and when we got TV we watched many a 40s movie. I've written a couple of stories set in WWII, and referred to the songs of the times, frustrated because all I could legally use was the song titles, which only people as old or older than I am or fans of 40s movies would recognize. I used "To Remember You By" as a story title, and included many others in the story itself, wishing all the time that readers could hear the songs in their heads as I did.

  2. Are you sure you can't use snippets of lyrics? I do it all the time.

    But probably many readers wouldn't pick up the reference anyway. My students don't even know about dial phones. I did a lecture the other day where I used TV dinners as a metaphor. I had to spend a long time explaining them!

  3. Legal "Fair Use" is tricky when it comes to lyrics and poetry in general. Since those are usually much shorter than prose stories or books, a single line can constitute a larger portion of the work. I'm not sure that there's a standard percentage of a work that can be legal fair use, but I've heard again and again that lyrics to songs are forbidden, and the music industry is quick to sue in protection of its members. If the songs are so old nobody has legal rights to them, you're probably okay, but WWII songs are not yet that old, and the estates of the composers/writers are still vigilant. They may well not notice our short stories, but with the story I mentioned above, the publisher, Seal Press, told the anthology editor to make sure I was using just the titles. However, some of those songs had been publicized under various titles, so we took the chance of using the ones that suited us best and the publisher was satisfied.

  4. I don't think I've ever read any of your pens until now. I like the last one especially, because I've been reading a lot of erotic poetry these days. I'd love to know what your creative process is like.

    I've noticed that people like yourself who have experience writing poetry always have a skillful prose style. Poetry makes us love more sounds of words. Who should love the sound of words more than erotica writers?

    1. Thanks!

      I haven't shared my poems? I don't write that many these days, but I have a pretty large backlog. If you are interested, you can check out the pages on my website.


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