The Number Nothing #1

So here it is, a couple of weeks late due to computer trouble: the inaugural Number Nothing.

If you would like one of your poems critiqued in the manner that follows, please do send it to with “Number Nothing” in the subject line. But remember, the criticism will be in the same style as that below, so if you don’t fancy that, don’t send it. (Also remember, the poem below was written by me, and I like me; you, I’m probably indifferent to.)

Before we get to the poem, there was a good point made by David Turner in the comments about how I presented the poem. The fact that I told readers that it was written as a teenager was an act of intellectual cowardice. If this segment takes off, I promise I will leave a more recent hostage to fortune at some future point.

Now, to the poem itself:

A Rule: If
by Paul M.

Hung up on achieving. Hung
Up on succeeding. How young
Must you see import in They
And see heroics unsung
as so much as if to say
‘I had no hands and no tongue’
(Eyes? ears? – No matter). Obey
Instead: Failure? U r a

Life. A better maxim: less
Responsibility, guess-
work; that sense of guilt when you
Guess wrong. Hey – it’s not your mess
Why should you not get your due
Happiness in sloth? ‘Success’
is not worth that sense of rue
nagging – you are overdue

Always. There is not enough
Space nor time to put this strife
to words. The gods’ play is rough;
you’ve had enough of this tough
Prison-rules life – corrupt; rife
with nothing; meaning-shorn – wife,
husband, kids are nothings: stuffed
Zilch. Failure – U r a life.

What are titles for? Many magazines insist on poems having titles, I suspect more for administrative than aesthetic reasons, but poems having titles as a rule is a pretty recent convention. If a title doesn’t add something to the reader’s understanding of the poem, there is very little reason for it to exist. However, if you must have a title, but can’t think of anything which adds to the rest of the poem, a neutral title is better than one that actively detracts from the poem. A bad title can scupper a poem before it’s even started – a title like ‘A Rule: If’.

What does it mean? Does it mean anything? “A Rule” wouldn’t be so bad – bland, but not actively inimical – the poem is laying out a rule, of sorts. But “If”? Is this supposed to be a response to Kipling’s famous rule-poem? Well, how? There are no “ifs” in this poem – there is no succession of subclauses leading up to the rule – the rule is disclosed pretty early on.

That “rule”, though, is less a rhetorical clincher than a callow pun – an anagram of the word “failure”. The title is another anagram of “failure”. Clever, huh? No. Because it doesn’t mean anything, and so distracts from the poem itself. Sometimes titles don’t really work until you read the poem and come back to them. That’s alright – poems are meant to be reread, and sometimes it can be satisfying to read a poem in some perplexity, and then look back to the top of the page and think “Ah!” But this title starts you off in “What?” territory and falls messily into “No really, what?” once you have read the rest of the poem.

So, what sort of poem lives under that vexing title? I have already alluded to a couple of the broader problems with it above: 1) anagrams are not clever (and neither is replacing words with homophonic letters) – if you think they are, perhaps crosswords might be more your thing. And this is a problem because 2) the main point of the poem is this anagramattical aphorism – “Failure: u r a life” – which, if it packed as much rhetorical punch as you clearly think it does, ought not to come a third of the way into the poem; especially as the rest of the poem mainly consists of packing peanuts for this precious bon mot. In fact, I suspect that the only reason the poem doesn’t end after the first stanza is simply because you couldn’t work out how to do so and make it rhyme.

Speaking of rhyme – yeah, it’s a rhyming poem; rhyming poems rhyme – that’s not a problem. The problem is – as David pointed out – that many of the rhymes land with the subtlety of a lead elephant. Why they do so is interesting: you have obviously attempted to avoid this by enjambing (enjambmentalising? enjambening?) nearly every line. As such, the rhymes shouldn’t feel like end-rhymes, but often they do. Why?

Because your lines don’t scan. What metre are you using here? There is no uniformity to the number of feet in a line or the dominant foot of each line. The first line seems to be trochaic tetrameter with the last weak syllable lopped off (common with trochaic metre, although absolutely unsuited to a poem in which the majority of lines are supposed to run on): “Hung up on achieving. Hung”. But the second line makes no sense, metrically, seeming to be iambic trimeter with an extra unstressed syllable stuck on the end: “Up on succeeding. How young”. You cannot rhyme a stressed with an unstressed syllable – it sounds incredibly awkward and trips the reader up: the reader wants to stress that final syllable “young” rather than having it trail off, but this leads to the unnatural sounding “How young”. This is why the rhymes fall so gracelessly – the same thing happens with “unsung”, “no tongue” and “r a” (yuck) in the first stanza alone.

So what’s going on here? The problem is a basic failure to understand how metrical poetry in English works: you are counting the syllables, rather than the feet. Each line in this poem has seven syllables. Syllabic poetry very rarely works in English, as English is a stressed language – the important thing in English poetry is the number of stresses and where they fall. In normal life “hung” and “young” rhyme, but in this poem they don’t feel like they do, because one is stressed and the other isn’t – it sounds like a teenager is repeating every line in a sarcastic mumble.

Oddly, this problem is less prevalent as the poem goes on, but by stanza 3 we run into the opposite problem: the internal rhymes in the middle of the stanza, apart from congealing like slithery mushrooms on top of a cliché mixed grill, absolutely batter the rhymingness of the poem into the reader’s head to the point where there is room for nothing else. Rhyme can be a good tool to build momentum in a poem – especially towards the end, but here it has the opposite effect: it feels like the bit in a Western where the stagecoach runs out of control and one of the wheels is broken, the whole thing hirpling crazily along. Also, in this stanza the rhyme scheme changes for no obvious reason. Well, there is one obvious reason: you couldn’t work out how to keep to the scheme you used in the first two. If you are going to write formal poetry, it has to be formal. If you are going to mess around with the form you have to have a good reason – the change has to reflect a change in the content of the poem. Form is part of the poem and must serve the poem and so it is perfectly acceptable to modify your form during the course of the poem, if that reflects some development in the content of the poem.

But there is no development in this poem – it takes 24 lines to say what you have already basically said in the first few, to lead up to a (weak) punchline that you’ve already blown a third of the way in. Really, you could replace the whole poem with a “Keep On Truckin’” sticker and little would be lost. Writing a poem with a specific point in mind is okay – although if all you want to do is convey some very straightforward piece of wisdom in a straightforward way, why put it in a poem? Prose is much more effective for that sort of thing (and for this particular message, a tobacco tin with a picture of a hash leaf on the lid might be more effective still). But there has to be more – there has to be ambiguity or something else to reward rereading, something to think about or at the least an intellectual journey on which the reader can be taken – you have to start at A and get to Z: you start at Y, reach Z almost immediately, and spend the rest of the “journey” doing donuts in the car park.

I’m afraid this one can’t be saved, and there is little worth salvaging for use in other projects. Even the better sounding phrases are fairly light on actual meaning. (“Stuffed zilch”? But if it’s stuffed, it isn’t nothing.) In the mean time, keep at it; read as much as you can; and if you want to continue with metrical poetry, spend some time reading up on how it works.