A new poem form

Last night at the stanza meeting I mentioned that I have written (but am still editing) a sequence of 23 poems. Some of these have been around for a while. However, I am slowly converting the sequence to use a form that I have invented (though doubtless, unbeknown to me,  it has been invented many times before). The form is quite simple to explain, but a bit of a bugger to use. It is based on prime numbers.

For those who don’t know, or have forgotten, what a prime number is the explanation is simple: a prime number is a whole number that is only divisible by itself or 1. So for example 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19 are the first 9 prime numbers. Mathematicians have been in love with the primes since the time of the Greeks, and maybe longer. Euclid (he of the Elements) proved two of the most important facts about primes. First he proved that there are infinitely many of them. More importantly he proved what is now known as the Fundamental Theorem of Arithmetic. This states that if you take any number (100 say) then you can always break it down into a product of primes (so 100 = 2 x 2 x 5 x 5). What’s more this can only be done one way – there is no other way of breaking 100  into a product of primes. The prime numbers are the building blocks of the whole number system!

The way I use primes in the form is twofold. First the poem must contain a prime number of lines (excluding the title). Second, each line (including the title) must contain a prime number of syllables. That’s it.

Below, by way of example, is another poem from the sequence. This one mentions someone called Mr C who has appeared in my poems lately. The poem actually first saw the light of day in 2001 after an Arvon course (my first), though it was quite different to the one here. Indeed I think I brought a version to a recent stanza meeting.


Saturday Morning

Candle drool blears at Milo.
His stubbled chin scrapes the breeze.
He reaches out over the garden railings
until he touches the crags of Golden Clough.
He shakes the dew from the Scots pines silhouetted on the horizon.
Drifting wood smoke snags his throat
while he’s splashing his face in a gritstone trough.
Blackbirds chink chink chink at his rude intrusion.
Somewhere a toilet flushes.
Steam vents from a pipe.
Someone coughs and a door slams.
An urge moves Milo to leap
into the stream by Lumb Mill.

me got language now ~ me help that mr c
me master blaster milo

The week is over.
Things will never be the same.

5 thoughts on “A new poem form

  1. Robbie Burton

    For anyone who’s been to the Arvon Centre at Lumb Bank this transports them back there immediately. For anyone who hasn’t, this is exactly what it’s like! Candle drool – perfect!

    Keith, does having the prime number structure make you tighten up lines, relax them, hunt the thesaurus for words that you might otherwise be lazy about? If so, especially that last point, I’ll definitely give it a go.

    1. Keith Post author

      I think any strict form makes you think twice – it’s all about writing with constraints isn’t it? I seem to remember George Szirtes banging on about this a few years ago at The Hurst – do you remember? I read somewhere that ‘free verse’ is the 20th century’s response to the chaos around us, unlike the halcyon days of yore when they could write nice metrically correct verse. I don’t believe this though. What I do believe is that poets must think of the structure of their poems in relation to meaning/content – even totally free verse has structure, albeit one used by a single poet for a single poem! But, to answer your question, yes the prime number form does force me to do all the things you say. It is quite satisfying to spend a few hours mucking about with a couple of lines until they come right. The beauty of the form, unlike iambic pentameters and the rest, is that you can vary the line length to fit the meaning while staying true to the form.

  2. Martin

    The use of a prime number of syllables in a line prevents the occurrence of cyclic rhythms (for obvious reasons). This has an unsettling effect whereas the (non-prime) 10-syllable line: ‘The curfew tolls the knell of parting day’ is rhythmically cosy despite its content! I’m not certain of the impact of employing a prime number of lines although varying a sonnet by losing or gaining a line may have the same effect. However, although 13 is a prime number, 15 isn’t!

    1. Keith Post author

      Thanks for your comment Martin. You are quite right of course, it does have an unsettling effect when contrasted with traditional metrics, such as iambic pentameter. Somewhere I read that free verse is a reaction to the pretty pretty preindustrial world of poetry when certainty and was the name of the game. Science and technology have screwed that up: the world is chaotic and the poetry of the 20th century reflects this. Hmm. I find I need some sort of formal metric for my poems yet find myself irked by traditional forms, so either revert to FREE VERSE or the said formal metrics. The Milo poems are discordant, so I suppose the prime number thing accords with this. I also see it as a sort of free verse that has structure (if you look). But at the end of the day it just is.

  3. David Edwards

    I like lovely sounding collections of words and nice ideas – this poem has both. I’m not one for precise structure, and to be honest, never had the time to study it, but when I read a poem such as that I find it interesting, and always have to read it several times to squeeze the writer’s brain out of it. Well done Keith.

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