Rainbow Collage / Ptalabeh

Rainbow Collage




 Your xebec
 was visibly unsuited
 to Smyrna's Royal Quay.

 on next month's landing,
 keep just inside
 her great fortifications,

 especially during
 business ashore.


It’s two for the price of one this week, as I offer you a couple of very short poems I’m going to use to help me say a bit about form.

Basically, form is used to describe how the poem looks on the page, or how the words (and punctuation, and blank space) are used to enhance the message the poet is trying to convey.

Some poetic forms have a very formal structure, with strict rules about patterns of rhyme, meter, or length of line or stanza – the 14-line sonnet, for example, or the more obscure villanelle (as discussed in Poem of the Week #1). Others, while no less prescribed, are a lot easier to attempt and so are more commonly found (the Limerick, the seventeen-syllable, westernised version of the Japanese haiku).

Other forms are much more relaxed, as is the case with an acrostic. This is a poem in which the first letter of each line spells out a ‘hidden’ word, phrase or message. But that’s all you need. Lines don’t need to be of any particular length. They don’t need to rhyme. There can be as many of them as you want. Just as long as you spell out your message. In fact, there’s absolutely no reason why you can’t write an acrostic sonnet, or villanelle if you feel up to the challenge. Good luck!

And so we come to the first of this week’s poems which is, of course, an acrostic. It’s not a particularly secret one – in fact, I’ve even put the hidden word in the title – but that’s because the point of the poem is not to disguise the fact that it’s an acrostic, it’s to make it very obvious.

The idea for the poem was a very simple and obvious one. In the UK most children (of my generation, anyway) grew up learning the colours of the rainbow by using the mnemonic: Richard of York Gained Battles In Vain. Over the years, mostly for fun, I’ve tried to think up alternative versions of this and have some very odd sentences scribbled down in various old notebooks.

But on this particular day, I was thinking about the fact that the rainbow is traditionally divided into seven colours and that there are seven letters in the word, rainbow. And very pleasingly, the first colour of the rainbow starts with the same letter as the word rainbow. It was a very short step from there to trying to find a nemonic in which each word was in some way linked with the colour it was being used to relate to.

Red was easy. I suppose I could have gone with rose, or russet, or something, but I wanted to keep things simple, so I stuck with red. And after that most of the others just fell into place. Obviously, blue could stay as it was, amber is a perfectly good alternative to orange (as per traffic lights), green and indigo were kind enough to end in the right letters for me, and only yellow and violet gave me any trouble. But again I was in luck, as both words (basically) sound the same after replacing their first letters for the ones I needed.

So there it was: Red, Amber, Iellow, Neerg, Blue, Ogidni, Wiolet. It was a terrible mnemonic, not in the least bit catchy and even harder to remember than just learning the colours in the first place. But it was a fun concept and I wanted to use it for something, so I decided to make it a poem. At the time I was writing a lot of obscure and experimental stuff, playing with form and concentrating on the look, rather than the content, of the finished work. Rainbow would fit in perfectly.

But it had to be more than just a list of words. I wanted there to be some point to it, even if that point was a fairly small, or blunt, one. When I read the list, it reminded me in some ways of a child’s drawing, where the artist hadn’t been able to find the exact colours they wanted and so had mixed various pigments together to get something like the required result. I liked this image, and so tried to convey something of that idea with the title.

My first attempt was Sellotaping the Rainbow. It reminded me of the title of the Richard Dawkin’s book, Unweaving the Rainbow, and also brought to mind the idea of someone having tried to stick the rainbow back together but not quite managing it properly. I kept it like this for a while, but decided to change it when it was pointed out to me that Sellotape was not generally called that outside the UK and people might not know what I was talking about.

So I changed the title to Repairing the Rainbow. And then Recycling the Rainbow. And then Secondhand Rainbow. And then Rainbow Collage – which is where it is at the moment. But I’m still not happy with it, and it will almost certainly keep being revised until I find those words that perfectly convey everything I want to convey and in exactly the right way.

Replacement Rainbow. A Child’s Rainbow. Rainbow Soup. I Can’t Sing a Rainbow. It Was Like That When I Got Here. Running Out of Colours. Rainbow Collective. Rainbow by Committee. A Patchwork Rainbow…

The second poem isn’t really a poem at all – or at least it wasn’t when I first wrote it. I was putting together a collection of odd little experimental pieces and used it as a made-up quote at the start of one of the sections. It was written in the form of a brief note, addressed to Ziauddin and signed by Ptalabeh.

I’ve included it here because it fits neatly into the same category of playful form poetry as the uncertainly-titled rainbow piece and was unlikely ever to get an entire PotW slot to itself, but it’s really just a bit of fun, and not intended to be profound or meaningful in any way. You could almost think of it as just a writing exercise.

Here I’ve set it out more like a traditional poem, moving Ptalabeh (just an anagram of alphabet) up to be the title and breaking it up into small stanzas. I’m not convinced this improves it though, and if it ever sees publication I think it will most likely be in its original form.

I’ve written a few 26-word alphabet stories in my time, but this one is easily the best so far. The others were all written using the alphabet the right way round and I found that although there are a few letter chains that allow for some interesting phrases to emerge, having to end with X, Y, and Z generally leads to awkward finishes and gives all the stories a similar feel.

Here I just really liked the word, xebec, and decided to build up from there. It made me think of Phoenician merchants plying their trade across the Mediterranean in ancient times and so I decided to run with that.

With X out of the way, I decided I wouldn’t worry too much about Z, but just make sure I had plenty of options for the other awkward letters. Q is normally reserved for something like quick, quite, or quiet, but keeping with the maritime theme I realised I could push the boat out (pun intended) and go with quay. And why not make it a royal quay while I was at it?

I chose Smyrna over Sidon or Sparta, simply because I like the look of the word, and I added in fortifications because it helped maintain the feel of the piece. The same was true of clandestine, and being able to finish with ashore seemed entirely appropriate.

And that’s about it. A lot of background on two very slight poems (if you can even call them that) but maybe it will spur you to trying something similar yourselves. It’s fun. Try it. Honestly.