Here I analyze one of my own poems. The author of a work and a critic of a work necessarily have different viewpoints. It’s valuable to have both, and I think it’s too bad that poets usually tell us so little of what they were thinking. Well, in many cases poets can’t tell us what they were thinking, because they don’t know. Most of the decisions that go into a poem must be made intuitively and unconsciously. But I am a thoughtful poet and a properly-educated Westerner, so I can easily confabulate logical-sounding reasoning.

I selected this poem, Tsiolkovsky Outbound, because it is simple enough that I can explain it. It’s short and it took me only five days to write.

Look aside if you are squeamish; I’m about to kill a frog.

Tsiolkovsky Outbound

Sodium light is the ship’s sky,
Mercury light its green thumb.
Our former address, the blue eye,
Blinks in the light of the old sun
But shelters her gaze from no one.


The rhyme is ordinary, ABABB. The meter is new to English, as far as I know: / x x / x / /. See Sculpted Meter for the broader class.

The lines are short and end in heavy double stresses. This meter is suitable only for short poems, and even then it requires special handling to work well.


The poem repeats a standard science fiction trope. The interest is in how it speaks, not what it says.

An extra-sharp reader might understand the setting after the title and the first line. But I expect that most people will read repeatedly to understand what’s going on. The poem reflects that assumption; unlike some of my poems, there is no planned order in which you’re supposed to realize different points. It’s a single pill of structured information that you swallow whole.


Tsiolkovsky, the early rocket theorist and space travel visionary, is of course a natural name for a generation ship to another star. If you imagine instead a long-duration mission within the solar system, “old” loses some of its meaning and the poem weakens.

“Sodium light” refers to high-pressure sodium vapor lamps (low-pressure sodium vapor lamps seem to be unusual nowadays and would not be as good for the purpose). For “mercury light” I am thinking of the pinkish-purplish fluorescent grow lamps for plants. Not many will pick up on this, but to me it’s significant that the spectra of the lamps are of opposite kinds: The spectrum of the sodium lamps is continuous with a black notch around the main sodium line, while the mercury vapor is at low pressure and has a line spectrum with a bright green line; high-efficiency phosphors may put a complicated pattern on top of that. The green line is behind two of my reasons to choose “green thumb”. First, mercury light is literally green. Second, the green line is useless for growing plants, which emphasizes the artificial situation of the ship.

Technical background: This is a low-tech generation ship to found a new colony. If they could build advanced electronics and deposit chemically-complex phosphors, they’d probably prefer white LED lighting. The tech level is low because they must continuously maintain all the necessary expertise in a small population. They simply don’t have enough people to keep many specialists. They probably have a big library so they can reattain high tech after arriving, when they expect to lift the population limit.

The “blinking” of the Earth could be taken as due to its rotation, as oceans and continents move in and out of view under the cloud layer. But I imagine that the view is from a great distance. I think of the blinking as the changing phases of the Earth as it revolves around the sun. That’s appropriate to the pace of change on a generation ship.

Word Choices

The ship is “it” but the Earth is “her”. The single most carefully chosen word is “old”, which means “former” and “ancient” with a suggestion of “familiar”.

Storytelling Manner

(I don’t think I know the right technical term for this topic.) The poem states nothing directly. Everything speaks through a layer of metaphor. The closest thing to a direct literal statement is “our former address”.

The concluding line not only adds a layer of metaphor, but is in essence a double negative, another kind of indirection. By using the indirection as a global device, I made a benefit of something that’s usually a writing no-no. It was fun.


To my ear, the light element “our former address” sets the tone. I think the poem should be read lightly and naturally, de-emphasizing the stresses; it is the opposite of a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem. It should sound not quite serious. The purposes of the light tone are to counteract the heaviness of the meter and to contribute by contrast to the emotional effect of the end.

Rhetorical Structure

The turn is in the last line. Everything else in the poem is ordered to shape and support the turn. The first two lines are parallel. The third line consists of fresh, unexplained elements, beginning a new thought. The fourth line resolves the new thought into a metaphor continuing the opening two lines. Everything hangs together, and then the final line makes the point.

My Goal

The rhetorical structure, with aid from some features of the sound that are explained later, divides the poem into segments that dovetail together yet have a sense of internal and overall movement. The double stresses in the meter form a rigid framework that the movement presses against. To my ear, the interplay creates an intensely lyrical effect. (I don’t know whether the free verse ear will hear it.) Creating that lyrical effect was my aim. It’s a limited ambition; the poem is successful as far as it goes, but it does not try to go far.

I discovered the possibility of this particular way of creating this particular effect in an experimental verse, a study whose purpose was to learn about sculpted meter. Having discovered it, I created “Tsiolkovsky Outbound” specifically to realize the effect as purely as I could.

A familiar subject with emotional resonance best fits my aim. I don’t promise that anyone other than me finds the subject familiar and resonant!


The aim requires that the lines be end-stopped; units of meter and units of meaning must be the same. Playing the metrical and syntactic units against each other is also interesting, and would be a good way to handle this meter, but the effect is completely different.

Line Endings

The double stresses of the meter emphasize the last two words of each line. They become critical words. Nearly all of these words are thematic. (“No one” is thematic as a unit. “Thumb” is not thematic. The thematic words in other positions are “light” and “gaze”.) Also, the sound is controlled. The A rhymes “sky” and “eye” have a front vowel. The B rhymes have a back vowel with a low-pitched consonant. The second-to-last words start with front vowels (“ship’s” and “green”) and move to back vowels (“blue”, “old”, “no”). The sounds create a movement in pitch from high to low, prefiguring the turn. The rhyme scheme, ABABB with a final couplet, and the assonance of “old” and “no” put extra emphasis on the last line, the line of the turn. The off-rhyme of “thumb” also adds emphasis to the exact rhyme at the end. Early drafts had an exact rhyme at that position, and it was not as effective.

Details of Rhythm

The poem does not follow its meter strictly. The variations are calculated. There are three line types; line two is regular, and the others are varied by the addition of a slack in one of two locations. Traditional meter is commonly varied much more than this. The more complex pattern, in a short poem, can’t accept as much variation.

/ x x / x x / /
/ x x / x / /
x / x x / x / /
/ x x / x x / /
x / x x / x / /
Sodium light is the ship’s sky,
Mercury light its green thumb.
Our former address, the blue eye,
Blinks in the light of the old sun
But shelters her gaze from no one.

The first line is irregular to create movement within the first two lines, the parallel lines, by return to regularity. This device is common in traditional metric poems. Presumably it is less effective when the meter has not been established yet. But to my ear the variation does create the sense of movement that I wanted.

The stress patterns that work for the first line are the one I used and / x / x x / /. To hear the second option, substitute “yellow” for “sodium”. It doesn’t mean the right thing any more, but it still sounds right. The extra slack before the double stresses creates the effect I want.

The third and fifth lines open with an extra slack because those are turning lines, where new rhetorical units begin. They both open with relatively unimportant words (no word is dispensable to either the meaning or the sound). To my ear, it heightens the turn by creating a moment of suspense. Line four repeats the pattern of line one for the same reason; it is shaping the move into the final turn. In the different context, it has a slightly different effect.

Word/Meter Alignments

The strong meter is not strongly varied. I chose to render all the double stresses as double monosyllabic words. The parallel opening lines make “sodium” and “mercury” parallel; both words align in the same way with the meter. So I considered it essential that the remaining lines show variety. Thus, after the three-syllable words in the first two lines, line three has two two-syllable words, line four is all one-syllable words, and line five has one two-syllable word.


In this poem I capitalize the start of each line. It’s so rare nowadays that some people have told me that they find it distracting or even hard to read.

I capitalize a poem’s lines when I want to place it in what I see as the continuous ancient tradition. Otherwise I follow the modern convention. You can read through all my poems to see how I place them.

Sound Texture

To my ear, the vowels all sound plain. There are no “oi” sounds, or “ow” except in the de-emphasized “our”. There is an interesting pattern in the duration of the vowels. When I speak the poem, I pronounce “green”, “blue” and “old” as long in duration, and all other vowels as short. “Sky” and “eye” with their glides are also a bit longer than other vowels, but the time is swallowed by the pause at the end of the line. The consonants also have a slightly unusual texture, though I can’t identify it. Unlike all the decisions above, these subtle features of the sound texture are not deliberate. But now that I notice it, to me the vowel sounds symbolize the archetypal nature of the myth, and the pattern of long and short contributes to shaping.


Compared to other poems I wrote around the same time, this is a medium-density poem. Nothing is superfluous, but there are only a few interesting double meanings. I see the level of density as appropriate to my goal. Instructions from the Clan Chief packs in two or three times as much meaning per word; it is dense with sound symbolism, internal cross-references, and layers of implications.

People still talk about compression as a virtue, but I don’t notice many practicing it. Poems nowadays are more often discursive, achieving density by drawing in more and more allusions rather than by compression.

First posted 13 April 2010.