Droighneach: Defiance

For the first time in my life I am despairing.
Our worst fears realised: sickness, hatred, strife, corruption
Spreading through the land; our leaders gross, vile, uncaring
As we’re heading, deep in denial, for destruction.

When I was younger, stronger, I might have resisted.
But I no longer have the will to fight; defeated
By depths of greed and lies I never knew existed.
And deed by wicked deed the coup’s completed.

So to the wood, the field. In their quiet rehearsing
Of good, timeless tales, truth is revealed; no agenda.
I regain my voice and strength. The dark is dispersing.
My choice is stark but clear. I will not surrender.

The Celtic droighneach is probably the most challenging form I’ve encountered; although it looks simple enough, to my mind only the sestina comes close in terms of metrical constraints and complexity. It’s so taxing I can manage only about one a year, but it’s always fun to do (in hindsight, and following a stiff drink and a lie down in a darkened room). N.

Droighneach: Back on track

You have not changed: it’s me. I’ve been distracted
By events, become estranged from you: unlearning
All I knew and understood, my view refracted
Through dark prisms; all good things lost. But I’m returning.

I let myself be taken. Dumb and dutiful
I joined the fight. Chain yanked, cage shaken, I ignited;
Burned hot and strong awhile, but nothing beautiful
Formed in that flame; no song beguiled, no line delighted.

Please: show me all I’ve missed; the slow revolving
Of the seasons; days kissed by early snow, descending
Into winter’s night, rising to summer, dissolving
In fire and bright gold as the great wheel turns, unending.

By long ways round I stand back where my road divided.
A wrong turn? Perhaps: yet it showed my true endeavour
Is to be your voice, speak your truth. I have decided,
Made my choice. And so to work; today, and forever.


Continuing from yesterday’s post, I’m making a conscious return to the forms and themes I was exploring – and enjoying – before the events of 2016 and afterwards knocked me off course. I thought my duty as a writer was to join the war effort; but there are many, many others far better qualified who can make bigger and more meaningful contributions to those debates than I ever could. And it turns out I’m not a fighter anyway; it just makes me miserable.
One could argue (and I have told myself for years) that writing about the beauties of the world is pointless, frivolous and self-indulgent, when there is so much hard, real, dangerous stuff to deal with. But I’ve found that road, for me at least, leads nowhere good. It’s time to accept my purpose lies elsewhere and believe it has a value; somewhere, somehow.
Anyway. I felt the need to stretch my writing muscles again – and nothing stretches ’em like the droighneach. (Apart from the sestina, but that’s for another day.) I haven’t attempted this fiendish form for about five years, and now I know why: it is a refined and exquisite torment, made up of four-line stanzas (as many as you can stand) of nine to 13 syllables, with at least one cross-rhyme between the first and second line (eg long/wrong, road/showed) and third and fourth line (voice/choice) in each. Oh, and there’s the small matter of the ABAB rhyme scheme; AND that every line has to end on a three-syllable word. It was quite the tussle, and I’m still not sure who came out on top, but I feel SO much better for it! N.

Droighneach III: Tiercel

He stood sixteen hands high, and then some. Thoroughbred,
Good-natured, but never stirred the stands. Bay, begotten
Of a storied sire, too far from the fountainhead
For higher things. His star fell; broken, failed, forgotten.

I came across him in rough-and-ready retirement.
Little lame, but tough, his heady past and programming
Still chasing through him – an electric enchantment –
And, blood racing, I grew into him, hammering

Cross-country; a shy boy belatedly believing
In himself, the joy of speed; and through the thundering
Of hooves and heart, I heard my soul sing plain, perceiving
The start of feeling whole, ending my wild wondering

About my place and purpose. Perilous, predicting
Life so lightly: no trace of it, or him, evident
Now; fear, finance, tyrant Time’s tireless roll, restricting
Duties – all hold me here. But the pull’s persistent.


Here’s how stressful my week has been: writing another droighneach counts as fun and relaxation…

Anyway, my third go-round at this horribly intricate form is a tribute to Tiercel, a craggy, big-hearted ex-racehorse I rode throughout the glorious summer of 1984, when I was a gauche, insecure and insular lad of 15, and had started riding just the previous winter. Swaggering around on a giant bay steeplechaser when all your friends (and your sister, who’s been riding for years) are still on ponies does wonders for a fragile sense of self. He was well past his best (which hadn’t been that great anyway, by all accounts) but once he got going, boy could he motor: his half-brother was the brilliant Night Nurse, who won the blue-riband Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham two years running.
It was 30 years ago this summer, and Tiercel was well into his teens then, so he’ll be long gone now. But I’ve never forgotten him, and although I haven’t ridden in years, even now few things swell my heart like the grace and courage of the English Thoroughbred. Happy trails, big fella. N.

Droighneach II: Harvest

High summer heat. Out here, the pressure’s palpable.
Sun-shimmer on the wheat, and yet we’re worrying
About the weather, praying it’s possible,
To keep running hell-for-leather with harvesting.

The tractors creep beside combines crawling ceaselessly.
Night brings no sleep for now; we’re hauling heavyweight
Trailers gorged with golden grain, and checking constantly
For news of rain; the threat we don’t care to contemplate.

Days drag, dredged in dust and diesel fumes. We’re wondering
If we’ve edged ahead. The work consumes us utterly.
From dawn to dew the big rigs roll through, thundering
Scorn at forecasts and fatigue. The heat builds brutally.

One last load. Black battlements brood high overhead.
On the road, racing back beneath a sky suspended
Like an executioner’s axe; throbbing thunderheads
Prepare to strike. The first cracks come. Dark, distended

Clouds tear open; an electric ecstasy
Ignites the bristling air too late: the storm’s defeated –
The fields stand silent; tyre-tracks the only legacy
We’ve left. The land exhales. Another crop completed.


I’m not going to let the droighneach beat me. Still tricky as all hell, but at least I managed five stanzas this time! My admiration for Tom and Ina, who’ve got this thing well and truly nailed, knows no bounds. Wishing you all a splendid weekend. N.

Droighneach: Out for the count

No man should shrink from artistic adventure;
He must drink deep, live large, assert his mastery.
I signed this binding intellectual indenture.
And took the winding road to a cross-rhymed Calvary.

So it seemed through dark days of restless rewriting.
I had not dreamed, in all my vaunting vanity
Of such prosodic pain: words were devils, delighting
In strife, and the levels of strain on my sanity.

I’ve tried. Truly. But now I’m done, defeated,
My poet’s pride all run down in its designing.
A fiendish form: often essayed, rarely repeated.
And having played my part, I’m ruefully resigning!


It’s taken me days to work up the courage to attempt the droighneach; a prosodic challenge thrown down by Cynthia Jobin, which my dear friends Ina and Tom Davis have so brilliantly taken up and vanquished. I managed three stanzas before my brain melted. I may have another crack at it sometime – I confess there’s something strangely compelling about its diabolical complexity – but don’t hold your breath. N.