Poetry Challenge 6: The Marshes of Glynn

It’s Tuesday: the perfect day to launch another poetry challenge/workshop. It’s been too long, folks.

Recently I was reminded of how much I love my favorite poem, “The Marshes of Glynn,” by Sidney Lanier.

Lanier was a southern poet who wrote after the civil war. I find him particularly interesting because he had an original theory about poetry. For him it was important that the poet should use language musically, and he studied music to imitate its effects in his literary work.

As you read The Marshes of Glynn, you may find as I did that it has the spirit of a grand symphony. It starts off low and musing, builds to a climax, and then resolves at the end. He never lets the flowing quality drop. Like a Rubenstein symphony, it buoys the reader in a stream of sound and feeling until the very end.

I encourage everyone to read or re-read this poem, as I did the other day with great pleasure. According to today’s standards some of the language will seem florid. Of course, those who set today’s standards are cynics. They don’t believe people should write that way because they believe it is impossible to feel as a person would have to feel in order to write that way honestly. Ultimately, they are witnessing to the sad state of their own souls rather than spinning actual literary theory. They are shut out from the more profound and noble pleasures of life: reduced to eulogizing tampons, calling their mothers breeders, and publicly wondering if Prozac is a metaphor for something or other.

Back to The Marshes of Glynn. Most importantly, it’s formal without adhering to a previously-determined form. I admire formal poetry of all kinds, but my own poetry follows Lanier’s pattern more often than not.

Unless it’s a metrical hymn, most music does not follow strict repetitive patterns. And yet it’s rhythmic. It ebbs and flows.

When you write a poem in such a manner, the first line must be inspired, and the form must grow, with the words, in the words, by and of the words, from that first line. You use rhyme or other sound effects, and rhythm, because you are hearing music in your head – and not because the form tells you that the next syllable must be stressed.

Of course this results in a lot of nonce forms. And yet it’s not so simple as just writing nonce-form poetry. The challenge of writing this way is that it is not music, really – it is still a form of literature and so you are still required to write intelligibly. And yet you are trying to be as musical as you can within those bounds.

The challenge I’m setting myself for the next fortnight – and I hope others will join me – is to write a poem, of any length, that is rhythmic but not metrical, that is intelligible and hopefully a little profound, but in a way that makes as much use as possible of the musical effects that language is capable of.

In order to narrow this down a little bit (which can make things easier) I am taking Lanier’s subject as a hint, and decreeing that our poems must be written about a body of water. (Water naturally represents emotions and feelings and other inner states.)

Sounds delightful, right?

Since the requirements for this challenge are broad I shall be very broad in my criticism as well, as I hope others will be of me. We are primarily looking for virtues, not defects, although as you all know I am a Terminator of a line-editor when it comes to that.


  1. I’m working through these challenges and I’ll be posting soon. “The Marshes of Glynn” is stunning. I think this was my favorite bit: “Sinuous southward and sinuous northward the shimmering band / Of the sand-beach fastens the fringe of the marsh to the folds of the land.” Or possibly this bit: “Ye marshes, how candid and simple and nothing-withholding and free / Ye publish yourselves to the sky and offer yourselves to the sea!” I need to spend some time with this beautiful poem. Is it still your favorite poem?


    • Ah, those are indeed beautiful passages! And the second one you quote is also one of my favorites. My other is the bit about the marsh-hen and the greatness of God. It’s gotten me through some moments.

      I do think it’s still my favorite, yes. It’s romantic without all that unnerving and self congratulatory indulgence, if you know what I mean. It feels like what romanticism and love of nature were supposed to be.

      If you get a chance, check out The Crystal by the same poet. I posted it somewhere here on this blog. It always surprises me, like a good short story with a twist ending.


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