Wednesday, 9 May 2012

I'll be Dashed... if I Care about Poetic Form!

If I were to say that the famous poem, "The Dash" by Linda Ellis, if it is, as I suspect, an attempt at a poetic 'ballad', then it fails technically and, in several places, it's scansion is a tad clumsy and makes it sound like amateur poesy, would you think me a grudging old academic bore and a purist!

You'd be right if you did, because its sentiment, its message, its feeling for what I know most thinking writers will agree encapsulates a view on life, for taking time to live 'in the moment', will endure for ever, particularly of course at that special family gathering, the funeral, where sensitivity to poetic emotion is always high. Perfect poetic form will not endure without the right words.

For these reasons I think "The Dash" is therefore a great poem and shows that, in my view, poetic form on its own is not what counts; it is the choice of words, how you string them together and the 'X' factor - what lies between the lines, its aura, the je ne sais quoi - that have by far the greatest impact.

"The Dash"
I read of a man who stood to speak
at the funeral of a friend.

He referred to the dates on her tombstone

from the the end.

He noted that first came the date of her birth
and spoke of the following date with tears,

but he said what mattered most of all

was the dash between those years.

For that dash represents all the time
that she spent alive on earth...

and now only those who loved her 
what that little line is worth.

For it matters not, how much we own;

the cars....the house...the cash.
What matters is how we live and love
and how we spend our dash.

So think about this long and hard...
are there things you'd like to change?
For you never know how much time is left
that can still be rearranged.

If we could just slow down enough

to consider what's true and real,

and always try to understand
the way other people feel.

And be less quick to anger,
and show appreciation more

and love the people in our lives
like we've never loved before.

If we treat each other with respect,

and more often wear a smile...

remembering that this special dash
might only last a little while.

So, when your eulogy's being read
with your life's actions to rehash...

would you be proud of the things they 
about how you spend your dash?

Copyright: Linda Ellis 1996

In fact, on further analysis of this poem, setting aside the odd bit of clumsy scansion and its preachy feel, the principle of the Ballad, with its root in couplets written in heptameter, holds pretty well.

Whatever, I take my hat off to Linda Ellis, who struck a rich commercial vein of good fortune following the publishing of this poem. A lesson for us all, you never know as a poet, when your work will get noticed and it could surprise you that it may not be the poems you'd expect to become well known. Sometimes a poem takes on a life of its own. 

Give yourself time to take note of your life and it may surprise you!


  1. Clumsy scansion aside - What a beautiful poem.

    The beginning and end may mark our lives, but how we live the time in between is what really matters. Summing up one's life with merely a dash is quite brilliant. Sometimes days do seem to dash by.

    Thanks so much for sharing this, J


    1. I was sort of hoping this might open up a hornets' next and cause some debate, dividing the room down the middle, like Marmite! But it could be that everyone is too polite to comment if it's contrary. But I always know I can rely on you, come rain or shine.

      Thanks for your comment, EB.

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  3. The message is a good one, and, as Eden said, a brilliant concept. I have to confess that, even with all the tombstones I have seen, I never considered it that way, life as a dash, that line between the beginning and the end.

    I had never read this poem before, so I ended up reading it a few times just to try and get the proper feel for it, and the truth is the form of it, to be honest, ended up leaving me wanting.

    I can hardly be called a purist or a good poet for that matter but when I read it I find that it lacks something that style would have made up for in the sense that it lacks a certain sense of subtleness that makes you want to dig deeper and consider more. In a sense, because of it, that's why I probably read it those few times. I was looking for something a little more that was there, a message or a significance beyond just the words that were written.

    But then that's just me.

    1. Thanks for your significant comment and contribution to the debate I hoped would rage on this, Wyatt. It's funny what that Eden Baylee can achieve when she starts agitating! ;-).

      Life becomes more of a dash the older you get, but I'm inclined to agree with you in your last paragraph, the poem does wholly lack the 'je ne sais quoi' that really great poets bring to their script; crudely put, it's a bit of a jolly da-di-dum of a ditty; there's nothing that emerges from between the lines to leave you with a longing to go back and drink it's message again! I am, however, left with a fascination for why it apparently became so popular after it was published in 1996! Ellis is certainly a business woman, even if she can't be described as a poet, because she has milked this poem commercially way past where I personally would have pulled the plug on it, put it in my bottom drawer and tried to move on. You can't deny that it has obviously struck a chord with a significant number of people, who probably hear it read at a funeral and are impressed.. for that moment.

      Thanks again, Wyatt

  4. I think the main problem I would have with it is not that it doesn't hold up to the form, because, frankly, form can go and take a long walk of a short pier sometimes, but rather that there are lines in which the sounds don't flow together well. That is to say if you read it aloud it sounds clunky in places (yeah, I know - technical...). The central message is alright though - a bit preachy, as you say - but a nice sentiment.


  5. "Sounds clunky in places.." hits the spot, Nick. You are exactly right in that observation. And, Yes, prescriptive poetic form, whichever it may be, isn't a prerequisite for good poetry. Nonetheless, I have learnt that, however you start a poem - whether it's a ballad, a villanelle, a rondeau, a series of rhyming couplets, or one of the several sonnets - then I personally feel it is important not only to follow it though to the end, but also try to ensure it is consistent with that form and, perhaps above all - the point you make in your comment - it needs to join up and flow so it is readable, in a way, like good prose.

    There are a number of wider issues that surround this, which impinge on different parts of the poetic spectrum; have implications for the way that poetry is judged, how objectively it is viewed and how elitist any art form can become, if it is allowed to be left in the hands of an authority, who, being human, will inevitably have to come up with rules and yardsticks by which all art is to be measured. This is when it appears to become less accessible to Jo Public. There has to be a middle way, which allows excellence to thrive whilst encouraging new blood to express themselves without fear of derision.

    Thanks for putting your oar in, Nick. I hoped this would spark some debate, but clearly, no-one's in the mood for that at the moment.

    1. Many of my friends are studying English at university and at an event for our university theatre society one of them was reading my poetry volume which had just been released. There followed a discussion between two of these English students about what constitutes a poem (since a lot of my work is free verse), and whether or not metre was the essential component of poetry. I wasn't so much interested in the debate, since I wouldn't write what I do write if I was worried about metre and rules of form all the time, though it is useful to have those rules to construct an idea around. But it made it clear to me, more than I had already thought, that when you start worrying a lot about the rules and measuring art by rules and rules alone, you have essentially taken a person and ripped out the heart whilst trying to see how beautiful the person is. And undoubtedly that's what the public don't like - that and most people who do approach poetry without any 'anorak' interest are likely only to like what they like and nothing more.

      I'm sure we can find someone on the internet who would be up for a debate, but I'm not sure you want them here!

    2. "..but I'm not sure you want them here!" Yes I agree wholeheartedly with you there, Nick, and, in these early days of my retirement, I avoid conflict; it is so often self-defeating. But I had hoped that this would bring in a few of the bigger global group, of which I am a member (are you involved in the NWCU?), at least to offer some fodder for constructive debate.

      But, when all is said and done, I have believed from fairly early on in my poetic career (which is really quite short) that you have to be true to yourself, your heart and your soul. If we can't be that, then we are not poets. That's the beginning and the end of it, really. Thanks for spending time in the, albeit brief debate. There's more to come, I feel.

      As a PS, you might want to read my earlier blog post, in January this year, entitled "Writing Poetry... A Unique Perspective"

    3. Conflict is definitely self-defeating, I also try to avoid it when possible. I can't say that I am or even that I know what that is!

      Oh, definitely - poetry's all about self expression and the capturing of universal feelings; things that all people can understand.

      Thanks, I'll do that.

  6. Nice article, John. Thanks for posting. I agree with you saying "you never know as a poet, when your work will get noticed and it could surprise you that it may not be the poems you'd expect to become well known". It happened to me when, after a series of rejections for my poem submissions in a national magazine here in the Philippines, a poem I least expect to get noticed has gotten published. It's a great thing when you realize you still have the ability to surprise yourself from out your works. Makes you wonder what else you can do that you've forgotten about in a verse, or in the homespun rhymes and reasons of what you're, as a poet, capable of making.

    1. Thanks for dropping by Napoleon. And yes, as you've clearly discovered, our poems so often take on a life of their own. So much depends on the eye of the beholder, he feeling that the poem gives to the reader and whether it strikes a chord and resonates with enough people and, perhaps not to be forgotten, whether your poem is in the right place at the right time (i.e. the poetry editor's desk just when he's looking for it!

      Well done for getting a poem published. Is that poem anywhere that I can read it?

    2. John, you can read my poem on this link:

      The name of the magazine is Philippines Free Press, the Philippines' longest-running newsweekly. The literary editor of the magazine, by the way, is Joel Toledo. He won in the Bridport International Creative Writing in 2006 for his poem "The Same Old Figurative" and was the first Asian and first Filipino to win a prize in that presitgious competition in the United Kingdom since it was founded in 1973. You can read his winning piece on this link:


Don't leave without letting me know what this article made you think, how it made you feel ... good or bad, I'll take either.