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Chorus girls in “Rhonrad” wheels roll across Bondi Beach, c. 1935 c/- State Library of NSW on Flickr

Hi everyone, it’s Peter from Australia with another Meeting the Bar tune-your-craft exercise. Tonight, we’re talking circles.

Why circles? Because as I’m writing, the east coast of Australia is being flooded. Huge atmospheric confluences have inundated towns. Rivers have risen, grand dams overcome and we’re watching helicopter rooftop rescues on the news. Meanwhile brilliant meteorologists are explaining how warm sea temperatures, on-shore flows and deepening troughs have conspired to create a great wet circle driving water into air, having it cascade onto sodden earth and then rushing seaward again.

Circles appear in nature: birth-death-rebirth; seed-plant-fruit-seed; day-night-day. Botanical, seasonal and astronomical, circles are everywhere (though if you look closer you’ll find change, a planet wobbles in its orbit around a star, the seasons shift over aeons). And as poets, we love these circular tropes; the seasons become metaphors for our own journey through life, love, loss or our daily commute.  

So, to start with a definition:

a circular poem is one which starts in one place, then journeys away from that place and then circles back to the beginning.

Circular and repeating forms – the Villanelle and the Pantoum 

Poetry in English has a number of repeating forms. The villanelle is a 19-line poem where one sound is repeated thirteen times, a second sound is repeated six times and two entire lines are repeated four times (see Frank Hubney’s excellent session on how to write a villanelle). 

Here’s an extract from Marilyn Hacker’s Villanelle for D.G.B. Notice what the poet does with the repeating lines – particularly how meaning shifts using enjambment and punctuation. 

Villanelle for D.G.B.

Every day our bodies separate,
exploded torn and dazed.
Not understanding what we celebrate

we grope through languages and hesitate 
and touch each other, speechless and amazed;
and every day our bodies separate

us farther from our planned, deliberate
ironic lives. I am afraid, disphased,
not understanding what we celebrate

…and the last stanza

wake to ourselves, exhausted, in the late
morning as the wind tears off the haze,
not understanding how we celebrate
our bodies. Every day we separate.

The pantoum is another repeating form. Composed of four-line stanzas in which the second and fourth lines of each stanza serve as the first and third lines of the next stanza, it’s described as the slowest poetical form, taking four steps forward and two steps back. (Björn wrote a terrific session on the Pantoum in February 2019. Dverse is a wonderful resource for creating poetry)  

Here’s American poet Natalie Diaz with a pantoum on mental illness. 

My Brother at 3 A.M.

He sat cross-legged, weeping on the steps
when Mom unlocked and opened the front door.
        O God, he said. O God.
                He wants to kill me, Mom.

When Mom unlocked and opened the front door
at 3 a.m., she was in her nightgown, Dad was asleep.
        He wants to kill me, he told her,
looking over his shoulder.

3 a.m. and in her nightgown, Dad asleep,
What’s going on? she asked. Who wants to kill you? 
He looked over his shoulder.
                The devil does. Look at him, over there.

She asked, What are you on? Who wants to kill you? 
The sky wasn’t black or blue but the green of a dying night.
        The devil, look at him, over there. 
He pointed to the corner house.

The sky wasn’t black or blue but the dying green of night.
Stars had closed their eyes or sheathed their knives.
My brother pointed to the corner house.
His lips flickered with sores.

Stars had closed their eyes or sheathed their knives.
O God, I can see the tail, he said. O God, look. 
Mom winced at the sores on his lips.
                It’s sticking out from behind the house.

O God, see the tail, he said. Look at the goddamned tail. 
He sat cross-legged, weeping on the front steps.
Mom finally saw it, a hellish vision, my brother.
                O God, O God, she said.

Such a powerful piece. (It reminds me of Nabokov’s 1948 short story Symbols and Signs) And you can see how the poet uses the repetition of the pantoum to slowly slowly unfold the horror that the brother is experiencing.

This leads to my second point. 

There are no true circles (in poetry)

There’s no such thing as a true circle in poetry – between the first line and its return there is always (well, nearly always) the journey of the poem. 

Glyn Maxwell in On Poetry argues that often what looks like repetition isn’t repetition. He gives this example from Robert Frost’s poem On Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep.

Try reading the last couplet out loud. Now try reading it so both lines sound exactly the same. See how uncomfortable that is? There’s a world of meaning between the first and second line of the couplet, be it the exhaustion of the rider or the rider’s strengthening or wavering resolve.

Concrete poems

As an aside, concrete or shape poems can also incorporate circles. Often concrete or shape poems aim to jar the reader from their left-to-right, top-to-bottom reading habits. They also bridge the gap between image and text while sometimes being impossible to read out loud. (for more on this, see Gay Reiser-Canon’s session from 2011 on Etherees, Shape and Concrete Poems)

Here’s Sea-Poppy 2 (Fishing Boat Names), by Scottish Poet Ian Hamilton Finlay, from 1968

and my own humble celebration of old technology – the o

A final go round

Finally, here’s a few more circular poems for your enjoyment:

John Ashbery’s Instruction Manual  
‘As I sit looking out of a window of the building
I wish I did not have to write the instruction manual on the uses of a new metal.

After many lines and a diversion to Mexico (!) the poet returns to his beginning:

‘…I turn my gaze
Back to the instruction manual which has made me dream of Guadalajara.’

And Scottish poet Carol Ann Duffy’s poem – The Way My Mother Speaks
I say her phrases to myself
in my head…

and after her journeying

…I am homesick, free, in love
with the way my mother speaks.

There are many more circle poems (try Michael Theune’s excellent website for a start) but the rain has eased and it’s time to write something.

Over to you

Tonight let’s circle round, let’s end where we started. 

You may want to try a pantoum or a villanelle, an open form or even a shape poem if you like, but let’s attempt a circular poem where the first line and the last repeat (or are close). Think about the journey, where has the poem taken us? How has the meaning of that first line shifted? Has it become more certain or less? 

And to help in your thinking (and because I’m off on a long hike in a few weeks) here’s Japanese Zen monk Ryūsen Reisai’s (d. 1365) poem… 

On the Road on a Spring Day

There is no coming, there is no going
From what quarter departed? Toward what quarter bound?
Pity him! in the midst of his journey, journeying —
Flowers and willows in spring profusion, everywhere fragrance. 

(trans. Marian Ury, from Poems of the Five Mountains: An Introduction to the Literature of the Zen Monasteries, 1992, University of Michigan Press, Peter 33)

You know what to do – 

  • Write your poem. 
  • Post it on your blog. 
  • Link it up to our Mr. Linky. (Don’t forget to check the little box to accept use/privacy policy)
  • Importantly, visit other blogs, enjoy some amazing poetry
  • and above all have fun.

And while you’re doing that, here’s some circular music from Don McLean and Max Richter.  

Max Richter with Vivavaldi’s Four Seasons recomposed