The Versanelle: A Verse Form With a Punch
Malcolm M. Sedam
Often employing the usual poetic devices, the versanelle is a crafty little form whose elements include brevity, narration, critique of human nature, and a punch line.
Despite the fact that this poetic form has been employed from the beginning of poetry creation, a specific term for it has existed only since 2008, when I coined the term and began using it in my poetry commentaries. I have coined several other terms, such as "versagraph."
Definition/Description of the Poetry Form, "Versanelle"
This definition/description of this important little verse form also offers examples from some of the master versanelle creators.
The versanelle is usually quite short with 13 lines or fewer. However, depending on the verse's other elements, it might extend upwards to 20 lines. A traditional sonnet, which depends on 14 lines and an English or Italian rime scheme, may take on some of the attributes of the versanelle, but poets usually shy away from a sonnet/versanelle synthesis.
(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")
The epigram, which is a quick retort, is the closet form to the versanelle; however, the epigram is even shorter than the versanelle even though it does offer the clever remark that informs the versanelle.
A fine example of the power of the versanelle is Robert Frost's "Dust of Snow":
The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.
The speaker in Frost's versanelle is narrating a little story about being outside on a snowy day. He was in a melancholy mood that day, but after some snow fell down on his head, knocked down by a bird, his attitude changed. As a matter of fact, the bird's effort actually saved a part of the day for him.
The versanelle almost always narrates a very little story. Another prominent example of the narrative element in that form is the poem "Silent Treatment" from The Man in Motion by the master of that form, Malcolm M. Sedam:
I would not speak
as a matter of fact
I was determined
not to give in this time
because I was By God Right!
and I was,
I did not speak
though I did smile
as I carried her up the stairs.
In nine lines, the speaker has told the reader a little story about winning an argument to his own satisfaction and seemingly to that of his opponent's.
Stephen Crane, 1899
Comment on Human Nature or Behavior
The form's key purpose is to make a comment about human nature, and it often makes a scathing observation about human behavior. Poets, not unlike philosophers, often fancy engaging in the assessment of the human condition, which includes the delicious toil of criticizing the conduct of fellow human beings. Thankfully, most poets appreciate that they are not above the frailties they blast.
Stephen Crane's "The Wayfarer" offers a leading example of the versanelle's ability to make a major critical analysis of human behavior. Again, in a scant eleven lines, the speaker universalizes the moral laxness of humanity as he flings a decided frown upon that vice.
The form employs the poetic devices of metaphor, simile, image, personification, and others in the same way that all poetic forms do. In Crane's "The Violets," personification is the dominant poetic device: the violets not only speak but engage in bloody battle until the last one is dead.
The ending of the versanelle usually offers up a clincher like a punch line in a joke. It draws all the elements together. The narration is often mysterious yet tantalizing as it draws the reader into its possibilities.
The colorful language sparks the reader on and suddenly the punch line snaps the reader's attention to the point. William Butler Yeats' "Death" exemplifies the faultless punch line to a versanelle: "Man has created death."
The Importance of the Versanelle Form
The versanelle, despite its brevity, or perhaps because of that element, continues to be a staple in the poet's bag of tools for offering crisp commentary while maintaining the poetic expression to which all poets are addicted.
Because most of the widely read poets have tried their hand at a versanelle or two, the form has century after century become one of the poet's most useful forms. Its quick, clever delivery remains a significant reason for its popularity. This timeless form is likely to thrill poets and readers as long as the poetic art exists.
Malcolm M. Sedam
Life Sketch of Malcolm M. Sedam
The late poet, Malcolm M. Sedam, exemplifies the Socratic command implied in the oft-quoted, "The unexamined life is not worth living."
Malcolm M. Sedam served in World War II as a fighter pilot, flying bombing missions in the Pacific theatre. Then he settled down to a life in business and started a family. His war experience served to enervate him, and he began to question the efficacy of devoting his life solely to making money.
Mr. Sedam asked himself, "How many suits can a man wear in one day?" So he decided he had to make his life about more than business and money. He returned to school, and, as William Stafford would say, he revised his life.
Mr. Sedam traded in his life as a successful businessman to become a teacher to make his life more meaningful. He taught American history, English, and creative writing at Centerville Senior High School in Centerville, Indiana, from 1962-1964.
After receiving his M. A. degree from Ball State University, he taught at an extension of Miami University at Middletown, Ohio, until his death in 1976. Miami-Middletown offers a Malcolm M. Sedam English scholarship and awards in creative writing named for the beloved professor, the Malcolm M. Sedam Awards.
But Malcolm Sedam, called Mac by his friends, did not only serve as a teacher; he also wrote poetry and plays. He published three collections of poems: Between Wars, The Man in Motion, and The Eye of the Beholder. His play The Twentieth Mission has been performed at Playhouse in the Park, in Cincinnati, Ohio, and on many college campuses.
"It happened to me"
Mr. Sedam's second collection of poems, The Man in Motion, brings together an eclectic assemblage from the personal "Nostalgia" to the political "For Reasons Unknown." The book was published in 1971 by a small now-defunct Chronicle Press in Franklin, Ohio, but it is a smart, handsome publication, and the poems offer a delightful journey into the life of the man who flew fighter planes in World War II and then later became a teacher and poet.
In the preface, Mr. Sedam claims his poetic experience by stating, "Let me speak for my own poetry that it happened to me that I lived, enjoyed or suffered every scene and that these poems are the essence of these experiences." He was a passionate man, who demanded from himself that he live every moment to the height of its possibility.
Continuing his introduction, Mr. Sedam declares, "Hopefully, for art's sake, the poems will give pleasure and satisfaction both to the critic and the average reader, but in a test of belief, I seek that man, any man (critic or average reader) who values flesh and blood feelings above clever word manipulation." He strove always for the authentic, the genuine, to the best of his ability.
Tribute to Mr. Malcolm M. Sedam
Entering my junior year at Centerville Senior High School in the fall of 1962, I was privileged to study with a teacher, Mr. Malcolm M. Sedam, who employed collegiate pedagogical methods. His teaching style fostered critical thinking in addition to learning the facts about the subject.
The subject was American history. Mr. Sedam had served as a fighter pilot in the Pacific theater in World War II. He attributed his worldview that urged him live each moment to the fullest to his war experience; he wanted to pass that urgency on to students. Thus, he felt that critical thinking was the most important practice that high school students needed.
Conducting the required junior year course in American history as a college course, Mr. Sedam discussed each issue in detail with background information, including additional facts not dealt with in the textbook. He connected the dots, so to speak, and encouraged us to ask questions. He also allowed us to respond and make connections during class discussion. He required outside reading as well, with oral and written reports.
Testing consisted of two parts: short identification of five to seven terms and three essay topics; we were required to write on two of the three. This method required us to organize material and make connections to demonstrate that we understood what happened, how, and why—not merely when.
This method also forced us write complete sentences, instead of just selecting answers from a multiple-choice test or merely fill in blanks, as most high school tests were fashioned. This methodology gave us practice in expository writing that usually had to wait until college.
During that same school year, Mr. Sedam often ended a class session by reading his poetry to our class, and a number of students expressed interest in a creative writing class. Mr. Sedam was able to offer that creative writing class the next year, so as a senior, I again sat for a class with Mr. Sedam.
My specialty was poetry; I had dabbled in poetry writing since my grade-school days at Abington Township Elementary School. I had not really thought of what I wrote as poetry, but having a rôle model in Mr. Sedam awakened in me the aspiration to write real poetry. Mr. Sedam encouraged us to write in the genre that most interested; thus, I began my study of poetry, and I have continued studying it, writing it, and writing about it ever since those high school days.
I had the privilege of studying with Mr. Sedam for only two years in high school from 1962-1964. Mr. Sedam later became professor of English at Miami University at Middletown, OH. The following is a tribute to Professor Sedam from one of his Miami students; it appears on the Miami page titled 10 Reasons We Love Miami:
Professor Malcolm Sedam was an English professor at Miami Middletown. He taught the art of writing from the viewpoint of a life fully lived, and believed true written communication came from the soul rather than from the end of a pen. Whether he was at the head of the classroom or sharing a table in the student break area, Professor Sedam entertained us with his stories of flying P-51 Mustangs in the Pacific during World War II, his childhood experiences growing up in Indiana, and other adventures. My two years in his classroom became a place to express passionate perspectives - a skill that carried me through college, career, and life. – John Atkins '79, Stafford, Va.
It is with great appreciation for Mr. Sedam’s example and encouragement of my writing that I offer this memorial to my former American history and creative writing teacher.
Questions & Answers
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes