The two-by-four is a rather quirky eight-word poetic form invented by the American poet and book publisher Lee Ann Brown, which I originally discovered on pages 100 and 101 of her first book of poetry “Polyverse” published in 1999. As its name indicates, the form consists of four lines of two words apiece, and may or may not rhyme (only one of Brown’s eleven two-by-fours in her book does). There is no restriction on subject matter, and the form itself can be very versatile, but the poem’s main emphasis should be on whimsical, creative, and often experimental usage of language and wordplay. Although the original poems by Lee Ann did not have individual titles, I prefer to title my own two-by-fours to help identify and set up each poem’s premise (otherwise, I am afraid readers would be scratching their heads trying to figure out what they are all about). Like many of the other weird and offbeat poetry forms I have written about in the past, I find the two-by-four to be quite delightful and amusing to play and tinker with, and hope my following examples might inspire you to try writing some of your own:
Scuttling the Scuttlebutt
Consultation With My Chiropractor
On the Midway at the 1979 Iowa State Fair
Fashion Tip No. 9
(According to My Girlfriend)
Stalking the Wild Poem
Dancing – polka
Playing a Hunch(back)
In Celebration of Mr. Presley’s Controversial
Appearance on the Milton Berle Television Show
(June 5th, 1956)
Having received such a seemingly enthusiastic response to my last post on the pollock, I decided to follow it up with yet another poetic form inspired by an abstract expressionist visual artist – the rothko. Created by poet Bob Holman who named the form after the painter Mark Rothko, it is a three-line poem with each line consisting of three words. Emulating Rothko (who was notorious for his bold use of color), the poem must contain the names of three different hues. These colors have to appear in the poem in either a horizontal, vertical or diagonal line (much like in tic-tac-toe). Another one of Holman’s rules for writing a rothko is that it can only be written while standing in front of an actual Rothko painting. Because of the difficulty for most poets to follow this, I think it is definitely permissible to ignore that particular rule. Instead, I found images of Rothko’s masterpieces online, and used them as my inspiration for the following examples:
Frisky black spaniels
Pursue grey squirrels
Through green grass
The Leaf Peepers
Everywhere they seek
Heralds of autumn –
Red, Orange, Yellow
Our Daily Quarrel
Verbal purple explosions
Puncturing white hush
Of amber afternoons
Tragedy on the First Day of School
Blue skies above,
Yellow bus runs
Red stop sign
Beige bones buried
Under umber earth –
Grief so black
The Pollock is a rather obscure and fairly eccentric poetry form invented by poet and art critic John Yau to pay tribute to the American abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock. It is a fourteen-line poem with the rather unusual requirement that the first line must be a quotation by the artist. The remaining thirteen lines consist strictly of words from Pollock’s quote, the idea being to splatter words repeatedly on the page like he famously did with paint on his canvases. Although the form might sound restrictive and totally wacko, I actually found it a real blast to write. Interestingly, another one of the rules of writing a pollock is to break the rules any time you feel like it (much like Pollock did with his painting). So it is more than permissible to substitute one of your favorite quotes by someone else for the Pollock quotation (perhaps even a clever quip by a poet that was previously posted on this blog). However, in my attempt which you will find below, I decided to stay a purist, and utilize Pollock’s response during an interview when asked “How do you know when you’re finished painting?” He simply replied, “How do you know when you’re finished making love?”:
Making Love (a Pollock)
How do you know when you’re finished making love?
When you’re making love, you know.
You know when you’re making love,
you know how you’re making love.
You know when you’re finished.
You love making love,
you know you do.
When making love, you know love.
you know you.
You love love,
you love you,
love making you you.
How do you do, Love,
how do you do?
So what do you think of the pollock? Is it a form you would like to try or wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole? Ironically, for a poetry form inspired by a visual artist, I personally feel (that because of the repetition of words and its resulting musicality) pollocks sound much better read out loud than they look written on the page. Keep that in mind if you do decide to write one (perhaps you can read yours at a local poetry open mic, something I honestly believe that every poet should do every once in a while).
I wish to thank Linda J. Wolfe for introducing me to the octameter poetry form which she posted as a writing prompt on her online Wolff Poetry Literary Magazine. The octameter, originally invented by Shelley A. Cephas, is a 16 line poem consisting of two stanzas of eight lines each. Because of the name, one might expect the form to be written in octameter (lines of eight metrical feet), but instead, each line consists of 5 syllables apiece. The rhyme scheme is rather complex – xxabxbxb cxacxcbb (x representing non-rhyming lines).
I was so intrigued by the form I tried writing one right away and submitted it to Linda’s magazine for a poetry contest she was running. To my utter amazement, it was selected as the winner! The poem, which was not submitted under my own name but my WordPress account of a photoblog that I also run, was published on Linda’s site. However the version that was originally posted, I later discovered, was altered somehow (either by an electronic glitch or editorial choice) with changes to some of the words and line breaks resulting in a violation of the strict 5 syllables per line rule thus disqualifying it as a true octameter. So here is the original version which follows all the rules and can serve as a model if you do decide to try your hand at writing one:
Like a schoolyard fad,
Summer always fades,
leaving you to mourn
the loss of its light.
Please try to ignore
now premature night,
fields shrouded in white.
Your thoughts, dense as lead,
weigh your spirits down.
Your body’s so worn,
it won’t rise from bed.
Old snow forms black scabs.
All songbirds have fled.
Spring, nowhere in sight,
is late (just for spite).
No doubt about it, the expanding definition poem is probably one of the most obscure and offbeat poetry forms I have ever come across. The first and only time I ever read about it was in a forgotten issue of The American Poetry Review probably sometime in the late 1990s. There doesn’t seem to be a trace of its origin or even existence now anywhere on the internet. It is extremely simple and fun to write, seeming more like a weird writing exercise than an actual poetry form. What makes it so unique is that this form practically writes itself. To begin, all you have to do is choose a single word, any word at all. Then you look up that word in the dictionary and write down its definition. Selecting certain words from that definition, you replace those words with their own definitions. You just keep doing that, substituting words with definitions (editing as much as you like) until you are satisfied with the results. And that’s it, you have written an expanding definition poem!
As an example, here is a poem I wrote expanded from the single word “laundry” when I was asked to give a poetry reading at a local art gallery as part of the opening of a photography exhibit on the colorful clotheslines of Venice, Italy:
(An Expanding Definition Poem)
A particular spot in space,
A place, a building where
Garments, wearing apparel,
Or bedclothes, i.e. sheets,
Blankets, pillowcases, etc.
Are freed from any filthy
Substance such as mud,
Dust, excrement by compounds
Of fat or oil with an alkali
And a transparent, tasteless liquid;
The essence of rain, rivers, lakes
And so on, then liberated from
All moisture or wetness,
By the process of evaporation
Before being made smooth
With pressure applied by
A heated instrument or utensil
Usually composed of the most
Abundant and useful
Of the metallic substances
That cannot be chemically
Interconverted or broken down
Into a simpler particular kind
Of real physical matter
With uniform properties
And possessing a tangible,
I created the lux poetry form earlier this year to pay tribute to one of my favorite poets of all time, Thomas Lux, who passed away in February of 2017. The form itself was inspired by and closely patterned on his delightful short poem “A Little Tooth” (please check it out; you will be glad you did). The lux is a nine line poem consisting of three tercets (stanzas of three lines a piece) with a rhyme scheme of abc cba abc. The lines can be of any length.
Due to the rather subtleness of the rhyme scheme. I feel the lux is a very versatile form suited for a diverse range of subject matter and tone which I hope is demonstrated by the four I wrote posted below. You might note that the last one does double duty, not only as a lux, but as an example of a catalog or list poem (a poem that is simply an inventory of people, places, things, ideas, etc.) as well:
O Captain! My Captain (My Cat)!
The cat’s exploring in the wardrobe
while, in bed, we cuddle, we spoon,
listening to French songs from 1934.
Bored, the cat claws on the wooden floor,
as we sing out loud (and out of tune).
From the night stand, he knocks over a glass globe.
Then he licks your eyelids, and my earlobe,
as he leaps on the bed, running out of things to ruin,
settling instead for chin scratches and a lil “amour” .
If you feel the need to defend
yourself, you’re probably at fault.
You’re simply guilty, there’s no denial.
Your once “clean” jokes are considered vile,
what was romance to you is now assault.
Don’t speak your mind if it will offend.
Your time of being right is at an end.
Go lock your morality in a vault.
Perhaps one day, it will come back in style.
Aging as a Failed Card Trick
My life now is like that parlor trick
where you attempt to memorize
a deck which you riffle with your thumb.
A continuous stream of faces will come
and go, flickering before my eyes.
Yet as much as I’ll try, my brain’s not quick
enough. The names of five or six might stick
in my head, but the rest just flies
by like my days, recalling only some.
50 Shades of Beige
Khaki, putty, buff, sand, desert dune, camel, taupe,
fawn, muslin, unbleached silk, burlap, chicken feed,
egg shell, hummus, pablum, oatmeal, flan, sugar cane,
sisal, jute, paper sack, cardboard, driftwood, dirty rain,
soup bone, bisque, biscuit, cookie dough, honey mead,
ginger ale, beer, wheat, baguette, waffle cone, castile soap,
manila, trench coat, ram’s horn, graveyard dust, hangman’s rope,
smoke, smog, straw, ecru, penuche fudge, cumin seed,
dried manure, sewer sludge, cat vomit, and aged pee stain.