We’re going to talk about a Russian quatrain, but first we have to go to France. Stéphane Mallarmé was a French poet and critic who lived from 1842-1898. You know how poems sometimes do this on the page?
this on the
Yeah, it’s super annoying unless it’s gorgeous and it usually isn’t — sorry, aspiring poets but hey: I can’t make it gorgeous, either. Mallarmé was among the first to do that sort of thing and his influence on 20th century art was huge. I read a quote from Mallarmé a couple months ago that I loved so much, that rang so true, I melted into weepiness. I set about memorizing it and now when I’m falling asleep at night, I turn it over and over in my head because, well:
“Poetry is the expression, in human language restored to its essential rhythm, of the mysterious meaning of the aspects of existence: in this way it confers authenticity on our time on earth and constitutes the only spiritual task there is.”
I know, right? It’s not just a definition but a reason for poetry. Gah! Flutter, sputter, perish by art. And so it was with Mallarmé’s wisdom on repeat in my head that I set about researching a poem discovery: the chastushka.
The chastushka is a Russian form of poetry whose closest cousin in English is the limerick. “Chastushka” means “to speak fast.” Like the limerick, the chastushka rhymes, though with just four lines to the limerick’s five, it’s a straight ABAB or AABB rhyme scheme. The poem’s subject matter covers the breadth of human experience, but you won’t find a ton of chastushki about the beauty of the sunset; these poems usually focus on sex, politics, or your mother. Also, Chastushki are written in something called trochaic tetrameter, which sounds horrible but is simply the rhythm, or meter, of the form. It’s set. And here’s what it sounds like:
Peter, Peter, pumpkin-eater
Had a wife and couldn’t keep her
…or look at these two lines from William Blake’s “Tyger, Tyger”:
Tyger, Tyger, burning bright,
In the forest of the night;
See? You totally know what trochaic tetrameter is! And that’s a chastushka’s meter. Fun, right? Totally, and I wanted to try writing a few. And now, I present some chastushki for you on this wintry night. You should write a few. You’re not going anywhere. I will not post any chastushki about politics or your mother. That’s for the other blog. Just kidding — there is no other blog. Yet.
Fluffy goose-down pillow fight,
In the morning or at night,
I whup you upside your head,
We laugh and then go back to bed.
When Swanky Squirrel goes into town,
He dresses up and never down,
His suits are crafted by the best,
You should see his bespoke vest!