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Pattern is not an algorithm: on poetry and pattern

Pattern in poetry is not just an algorithm at work, i.e., ‘the poem that writes itself’. In fact, it might be said that anything that writes itself, whether it be a moral code, a way of handling people, an approach of giving a percentage of income to charity, is bound for trouble.

We live in an age where it’s useful to know that there is a lot of computer code, a lot of pattern, behind things we do everyday. We memorise non-memorable patterns for our numerous passwords for online services. The passwords must be non-memorable in the sense that they must not be predictable, must not be obvious. We must use not just raw key sensation, but some trick the light played on it, some apparently random association, and add that into our password choice. Or otherwise we must be able to remember strings of letters and numbers and punctuation marks, like having to remember a phone number from the fourth dimension. We don’t have to remember phone numbers now, but we do passwords, and with some of the same tricks of almost singing the sequence to ourselves, linking its abruptly different parts with the blithe insouciance of a dream.

In these things, language itself struggles against pattern. “The will to a system,” Nietzsche said, “is a lack of integrity”. When we are really enjoying being alive and forget our passwords, a kind of peaceful absence takes over, the serenity of a white page.

The poetry of pattern must be interesting poetry, interesting language. It can’t guilt-trip us to like it when we don’t, just because of its pattern. Keats said because there’s too much we might say that immediately decays, that most speech is immediately dull and boring. The noises matter – we can’t simply think and feel through wavelength and frequency.


The poetry of pattern must be interesting poetry, interesting language. It can’t guilt-trip us to like it when we don’t, just because of its pattern.


That all said, the reason poets pattern is that it is more likely to produce a poem we come often back to. When pattern has happened to occur in the first draft or two, or even just the first verse, unintentionally, we notice it and go with its… well, if not rhythm, then its dream. So we might say truth struggles with beauty, subject matter with form, but I’m not sure that’s really the case.

On my upcoming course, we’re going to be looking at how and why poets work with form and pattern. All poets are pattern makers of some kind: some work with rhyme, others alphabetise, make lists, write in syllabics, or follow complicated mathematical procedures. And while many poets would not consider themselves mathematicians, we are constantly matchmaking art with science. As Shirley Dent put it in 2009: ‘Both poetic and mathematical genius are rooted in the actuality of our world while taking our imaginations far beyond’.

As a preview, I’m not going to suggest a top five list of poems with techniques, but moments of pattern in poetry. I don’t, in other words, want to offer poems that have techniques one can emulate, teaching aids, which can overwork a poem, make it stuff. There is a terrific passage in one of Douglas Adams’ books where he describes the suspicious crash-landing of a spaceship on a planet without interstellar travel. The craft would not have been comfortable or even navigable much, Adams says, but it was the perfect prototype to strip apart and learn the mechanics of interstellar travel from. In other words: we can become so stuck when teaching the poetry of pattern that these are the poems we show to students, and they may exist precisely for the need of prototypes, and have little to do with qualities of memorability of language caught in pattern as I’m describing.

Some poetry pattern moments I like:



Donald Davie’s ‘Or, Solitude’. Davie first publishes the poem, about a boy on horseback in a deserted countryside, with the line:


the transcendental nature

of poetry, how I need it


He then revises this when he collects it in a book to


the metaphysicality

of poetry, how I need it


The revision comes from considering the whole poem. Where “transcendental nature” has a sad trotting plod, “metaphysicality” not only seems to caper and almost canter but it defies its own meaning. The sound of “physicality” leaps out, and seems to grin, in this world. Here, the choice of word, while apparently seeming almost a synonym, fits the whole sound pattern of the poem; it seems sonically beautiful, whereas “transcendental nature” seemed sonically ugly, in the lattice work of the whole. This is the danger of pattern work, that it becomes about detachment, about life writing itself.



All the “oo” sounds in Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Daddy’. This haunting cooing sonic pattern can never be quite explained as decided in advance, nor added afterwards. It’s not a structuring device, or an effect, but oddly bizarre, all part of the moment of revelation.


You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe

[…] in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue
In the waters off beautiful Nauset.
I used to pray to recover you.
Ach, du.

But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you

Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.



Returning to the previous paragraph, adding sentences and revising some of the sentences already used, is the hallmark of Ron Silliman’s ‘Ketjak’. Silliman uses a similar technique in his later prose poem ‘Tjanting’ and, for me, ‘Ketjak’ is the better piece. The sudden surprises of the work, and the sensuousness of the whole, is wonderfully maintained. Silliman has spoken often of having no real mathematical ability, despite using a simple mathematical sequence to work out how many sentences to add each time. He instead refers to the sense of being lost in the simple cycling form of Steve Reich’s minimalist piece ‘Drumming’, and trying to emulate it.



Folktales often work with refrains and repetitions, sometimes bursting into song. This has been a huge influence on twentieth century writing and can be seen clenched around stuck refrains in Gertrude Stein and played around with almost as an oral improvisation around spare refrains in Ezra Pound. An innocent bystander of all of this with his own take was Carl Sandburg, playing with patterning in his poems on the fly and working with educational didactic patterning in his extraordinary Rootabaga Stories:


“Ears, legs, head, feet, ribs, tail, all fixed out in diamonds to make a nice rabbit with his diamond chin on his diamond toenails. When I play good pieces so people cry hearing my accordion music, then I put my fingers over and feel of the rabbit’s diamond chin on his diamond toenails, ‘Attaboy, li’l bunny, attaboy, li’l bunny.'”

from ‘The Potato Face Blind Man Who Lost the Diamond Rabbit on His Gold Accordion’


Read more here:



Poets that work with echo and palimpsest, with being in thrall to a sound of a poem and trying to recreate its ambiance without being able to pin down analytically or formally what the source poem was doing, fascinate me. One can see this in Wordsworth’s ‘Prelude’ working in close emulation of Milton’s Paradise Lost. One can see it in Eliot growing ‘Burnt Norton’ into Four Quartets – a very different process, almost writing a sequel, almost self-emulation, of self in rapture – from Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts, a work more clearly planned in balancing sections.

Milton/Wordsworth, Eliot/Bunting – let’s stop there and consider what holding patterns we ourselves can shape.


Find out what makes a poet a pattern-maker alongside mathematician and poet Ira Lightman on Poetry and Pattern, a new online poetry course from the Poetry School. Book online or ring us on 0207 582 1679.

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neil banas