Terza Rima: Craft

I had no choice. This is my life. My trade
Was not in doubt. I was not pre-ordained
To take up hammer, chisel, brush or blade.
Long deskbound years I craved a craft; untrained,
Unmanned, I longed to work in wood or stone,
Thatch roofs, make flutes, shoe horses, hand-paint stained
Glass for cathedrals: I have never thrown
A pot (except in anger) wrought a wheel,
Felled timber, laid a hawthorn hedge or grown
A crop of winter wheat. Old ways appeal
To foolish heart, and fingers with no feel.

But what is this, if not a time-worn way
To work? Did men not celebrate in song
In times and tongues unknown – relive the day
Around the feasting fire? The ties are strong
Through generations. Just as some are stirred
By steel and brick, I know that I belong
To that long line who labour with the word.
Though fashion may, perhaps, not recognise
This métier, my voice remain unheard,
No company or office could devise
So grand a task, so glittering a prize.

And thus I find myself indentured, bound
Apprentice to the woods and fields: the sun
And scented air my salary; no pound
Pressed in my palm for pay when day is done.
My workshop is the world; my only tool
The pen; when ink hits paper, I’ve begun.
The iamb is my plumb-line, and the rule
Of rhyme and metre studied and obeyed.
I was enrolled in this exacting school
By higher powers. Their decision made,
I had no choice. This is my life, my trade.


As so often, I’m indebted to Thomas Davis, whose generous comments on a previous piece got me thinking about the whole notion of poetry as a craft. Haven’t tried the terza rima form for a while, and now I know why…the interlocking rhyme scheme (ABA BCB CDC, etc) can, in theory, go on forever, but for reasons that escape me now, I chose to do three stanzas, using a pair of ‘D’ rhymes to make the breaks. Drove me nearly demented, I can tell you. I don’t think it’s strictly necessary to start and finish with the same line, but it’s the kind of thing Robert Frost would have done, and that’s good enough for me. N.


11 thoughts on “Terza Rima: Craft

  1. You would know that I love this, Nick. Thanks for so much for mentioning me too, but it is my experience in life that you usually get what you deserve it praise is given, but not always when criticism rears its head and roars.
    I like this as well as anything I’ve read by the old masters. Probably because it is a line of thinking I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. I haven’t tried terza rima either for awhile, but you and John Steven usually get me going, so we’ll see. Those of us who pursue the discipline of meter and rhyme are craftspeople as much as those who can do a stained glass window for a cathedral, and our homing goes back into the days when only voices said out the stories of people in song, chant, and what became poetry. Of course, poems are not only made from craft, but also from art, the marrying of spirit, emotion, and humanity to thought and ideas. Pound, especially in his later years, delighted in obscurity and sending scholars scurrying into the dark corners of small histories to search for his genius. You, on the other hand, are as clear and ringing as a crystal bell whose sound reverberates across the landscape, bringing alive who you are in the way John Stevens’ farmer in his last poem brings alive the distant past into the present. To quote David Agnew, this makes me smile.

    • And your comment makes ME smile, Tom; I’ve often worried that my poems are too ‘obvious’ and not ‘difficult’ enough to be the real deal, so you’ve reassured me enormously! Although I love the rigours of metrical form, I also love the simplicity, directness and ‘catchiness’ of old folk songs; I guess I’m trying to bring the two together somehow. So I’m more pleased than I can say with your reponse to this piece. Thank you so much. N.

      • Poetry is a magic cloak with many colors and threads woven by the muses, Nick. Sometimes unraveling a poem leads to the conclusion that the poet is a great poet. We have had those poets: Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, John Donne, and others. But sometimes clear ringing of a crystal bell made of idea, emotion, craft, music, story, and references that do not make you study them for a year before they can be understood can lead to the conclusion that this is an extraordinary poet. Never fear to be who you are–for on this side of the Atlantic at least, who you are is more than good enough.

  2. Nick,

    This brought to mind a poem by Seamus Heaney.
    And if I could remember the title I would tell you. DUH!!

    It is a poem in which he compares his life as a writer with that of his father who was a farmer.

    If I can find it I will let you know. Or perhaps one of your less memory-impaired friends might help us out. 🙂

    As regards poetry as a craft (and taking a sideways step) I have heard David Hockney say about painting that “to make a painting requires 3 things – the hand, the eye and the heart – 2 out of 3 won’t do.”

    So to poetry – I think to make poetry requires 3 things – the pen, the craft and the heart – 2 out of 3 won’t do.

    This poem fills admirably those three requirements

    My best to you


    • Ah David – you must be thinking of ‘Digging’, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve unconsciously turned over the same ground Heaney broke with his infinitely greater skill. It comes from his book ‘Death of a Naturalist, which I studied for A level English Lit; despite this (!) it’s still one of my favourite poems and has been a huge influence on me. The opening lines – Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests; snug as a gun – though apparently so simple were a revelation to me at 17, and I’ve never forgotten how it felt to feel a poet’s words leap off the page and become suddenly and blindingly clear to me.

      We watched a documentary about Hockney the other evening, in which he said exactly what you’ve quoted about ‘the hand, the eye and the heart’; I picked up on it, too, but hadn’t extended it to poetry as you have – and I absolutely agree with you. And your poems definitely have all three elements; the closely observed detail, the honesty that can only come with writing from the heart, and the skill of a man in full command of his material.

      As ever


  3. Picking up on your reply to Thomas Davis, you certainly should not worry about whether your poems are difficult enough! Why should they be? Clarity opens them up to readers who find a lot of pleasure in them. Also, of course, your day job (from what you’ve told us) requires clarity in writing, even if there are many subtleties in the sub-texts, and you are true to yourself in writing this way. There are plenty of lines in this latest one that give me pleasure.

    • Thank you, John – you’ve set my mind at rest! It’s certainly true that Gonecyclingagain is a welcome respite from my paid work, where I’m often required to make words say one thing and mean another (and sometimes nothing at all!) and I have to write in a different voice – frequently that of someone I’ve never even met. Before I came over to the Dark Side I trained as a journalist (and still do some freelance feature-writing for Cycling Plus magazine, as it happens). My tutors were a posse of hard-bitten ex-Fleet Street pros (fortunately of the old-school Fourth Estate, not the modern NewsCorp kind) who mercilessly drummed into us the basic tenets of getting your facts right and saying what you mean clearly and unambiguously. Hard lessons, for sure, but I’m pleased to say I’ve never wholly forgotten them. They definitely inform my creative writing, too; hence my worry that my poems are too descriptive, or even ‘factual’, for want of a better word. That said, I was encouraged to hear David Hockney talking about how ‘depiction’ had become unfashionable in painting: doesn’t seem to have stopped people wanting to see his landscapes at the RA..! N.

  4. This certainly encourages me that my efforts at pounding stubborn words into meter and rhyme are not in vain. In fact, it requires the skill of a craftsman to do so. I’m encouraged to continue developing the skill. I really appreciate many of your works for inspiring me. Please keep them coming.


    • Hey Eric – thanks so much for your comment. Metrical verse can be a tough school, I’ve discovered, but I’m really enjoying the challenge. Once you get iambic pentameter in your head, it’s REALLY hard to get it out again, though! N.

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