All Night, the Labyrinths



Poor Johns

Experiments on Standard Forms

Pardon the mess, still under construction

Poems in extreme and experimental forms, including notes and formulas.

Raymond Queneau defined Oulipians (members of the OULIPO group) as “rats who build the labyrinth from which they will try to escape”. My interest in the OULIPO has at many points and at various phases been useful and inspirational. Though I would not presume to call the following forms/labyrinths I have invented Oulipian, I acknowledge my debt and register my gratitude. For those interested, provides a basic introduction “Into the Maze: OULIPO” which might inspire some readers to investigate more.

All Night, the Labyrinths


All night I draft the labyrinths, lay stone,

myself, for every angle, curve and line.

And then I plot escape from each design.


No minotaur awaits; I am alone.

No princess there provides a ball of twine.

All night I draft the labyrinths, lay stone,

myself, for every angle, curve and line.


I strive against myself, the risk my own.

I play: Will I escape? or walls confine?

Both victory and loss at once are mine.

All night I draft the labyrinths, lay stone,

myself, for every angle, curve and line.

And then I plot escape from each design.



Leaves, Lines and Rhymes


“Leaves, lines and rhymes seek her to please alone….”

         -- Edmund Spenser, sonnet “Happy ye leaves!”


The page’s brightness mirrors her skin’s own;

the letters beg her voice to sing and tease:

leaves, lines and rhymes seek her to please alone.


She pauses at the window: frost vortices

in air and rays on glass; the oak’s reds stir.

Leaves, lines and rimes seek her to please.


Pen poised, the virgin paper will demur

save strokes and tones endeavoring sublimes.

Leaves, lines and rhymes seek her.


On Beauty’s alabaster, this vine climbs;

each curve’s defined as each brushed tendril twines:

leaves, lines and rhymes.


Though she’s unmoved by our devices, signs,

still our discipleship to that unknown

leaves lines.


Poor Johns: Intro and Formula


I encountered the following poem sometime during my undergraduate college years, and it immediately stuck with me – one of those pieces of verse that I memorized without especially taking any time to do so (this gift of mine apparently limited to silly verses).


Poor John is dead; we see his face no more,

for what he thought was H2O

was H2SO4.


The author was the prolific Anonymous. Some more recent research has turned up that the form has a fairly long history, going back to the late 1800s, with the protagonist going by different names, including Willie and Johnny and even Darby. And the verse form and specifics, except for the H2S04, changed as well. It seems to have been passed around by chemistry students through the generations.


A great many years later, I was reminded of the piece and was struck with the idea of writing my own. As I studied the piece, I realized the form itself (the form I first encountered the verse in) was quite a little machine. In many versions, there is no mention of the face, which is quite essential of course to the grisly comic effect of the piece, the initial meaning being replaced by the more horrible implication at the end. In addition, the 5 foot, 4 foot, 3 foot progression of lines isn’t the way many other versions are set up (many are essentially 4 foot quatrains or ballad stanzas). But the shortening of lines also seemed essential to me to get the slight acceleration toward the end – the short 3rd and 4th lines of limericks operate in similar ways to create acceleration toward the final punch line. And, of course, line 1 and 3 rhyme, accomplishing what rhyme can do in a comic poem, but also providing a fair number of feet between the rhymes to allow for the articulation of the plot. I also saw one way to “improve” on the form. Why not give the subject a name that would increase the irony and humor?


The resulting “formula” is then as follows for my own version of the verse, which I have dubbed “Poor Johns”:


The topic of the piece, of course, is some unfortunate (and almost certainly fatal) accident, with some implication that the subject was foolish or careless in some way. Though some ideas came to me based on incidents I recalled on my own, or invented, a skim through the Darwin Awards did provide some inspirations.


Formula: The first five-foot iambic line opens with the “Poor X is dead” and followed by a statement which will have a fairly surface or conventional meaning, but will have a new meaning by line 3. The name of the character should in some way add to the effect and irony. The second line (4-foot iambic) sets up the situation, while the last line (3 foot iambic) finalizes the plot while altering the meaning of line 1. Line 2 and 3 can be considered a single unit, working together. Given the short span of lines 2-3, the last line can’t always be expected to carry the punch line (though I would consider that the ideal).


What follows are some of my more successful Poor Johns, which also appear in the Piezoeletric Piffle chapweb.

Poor Johns



Poor Lucy’s dead, a girl who shone so bright,

for smoking while she sprayed her hair,

now gives more heat than light.



Poor Chris is dead; he is forever grounded,

for the Christmas lights were not unplugged

as he earlier propounded.



Poor Grace is dead, we’ll miss her sense of style;

she rocked those four-inch platform sandals

but missed the broken tile.



Poor Blythe is dead, a girl so sweet and light;

she caught the feather on the ledge,

which did not help her flight.



The Sword-Swallower


Poor Pierce is dead, he topped his trick and split:

he smoothly swallowed an umbrella

but gagged, which opened it.





Poor Will is dead; he thought his thoughts could act.

He wished to halt the southbound train

which stopped him in its tracks.

Experiments on Standard Forms


Some of the poems on this site represent not new forms, but experiments with standard forms.


Sonnets: Poets have long created variations on the sonnet, so I am hardly in small company with my own variations; form-aware readers will no doubt spot such variations, and there is no need to mark them out. I would note two pieces I call “stretch sonnets” which have an extra quatrain before the final couplet (so, not Meredith sonnets which have an extra quatrain, but no couplet – thus stretch sonnets have 18 lines, instead of Meredith’s 16). The stretch sonnets are essentially Shakespearean sonnets, with the extra quatrain. Both of these poems appear in the Our Outcast State chapweb: “Apocalypse Can Be Fun” and “The Dog Years”. Perhaps it is not incidental that these are comic pieces.


Villanelles: I also have one “stretch villanelle” with an extra line in each stanza (making quatrains instead of the usual tercet). Villanelle’s have only 2 lines per stanza to advance an idea, and in that case, I needed more, so I broke the form. I think it is worth considering as a form, though, as it does still seem to have the villanelle’s strength derived from the repetons, but gives a poet a little more room to develop an idea. I would note, however, though I have written a few villanelle’s since, I have never felt the need to write another stretch villanelle. I have an example of a odd villanelle variation, the “villanoid” form devised by Ryan Peeters. In brief, it rotates the repetons. I found it a very nice match for a specific idea I had; the form might only be useful for very specific concepts, and would lack the flexibility of most of the traditional forms. It was an interesting experiment. “Upon Her Face Briefly Reflected in my Watch Glass” can be found in the Awakes My Heart chapweb.



© 1990-2019 Joel Lamore