Another day, another prompt from NaPoWriMo:

Today, rather than being casual, I challenge you to get rather classically formal, and compose a poem in Sapphics. These are quatrains whose first three lines have eleven syllables, and the fourth, just five. There is also a very strict meter that alternates trochees (a two-syllable foot, with the first syllable stressed, and the second unstressed) and dactyls (a three-syllable foot, with the first syllable stressed and the remainder unstressed). The first three lines consist of two trochees, a dactyl, and two more trochees. The fourth line is a dactyl, followed by a trochee.

It may be easier to hear the meter than to think about it – try reading a poem in Sapphics aloud to yourself, and you’ll see what an oracular tone it produces – the stressed beginnings of the lines produce a feeling of importance, while the unstressed syllables of the trochees keep the pace measured. Rhyming is optional, and if you begin to bridle at the strict meter, feel free to loosen it up!

This was quite a challenge, and I’m not sure if I’ve captured the ‘oracular tone’! Dactyls, trochees etc are a distant memory from the Latin classroom, but I’ve not really used them in English. It was an interesting exercise, a bit like a jigsaw or sudoku, and quite satisfying when I got the last piece to click. The poem is an adaptation of an earlier one I did which was inspired by Bruegel’s ‘Hunters in the Snow’.


Sapphic Hunters in the Snow

In the snows of January we go hunting
under chalk green skies and the crow-black branches
where the lake glints mirror-hard in low sunlight
as the day closes.

We return low-spirited, heads down, empty
handed with no meat to fill those who hunger,
and our dogs slink, sniffing the iron-cold footpath
where there is no food.

Yet there is frail warmth where the people gather;
skaters glide and crunch on the frozen rivers;
those who gather wood for the fireside embers
welcome us home now.