Poem: No Poet is an Island

My internet friend John Blake has decided that the year 2012 will be his year of the sonnet; he’s determined to learn the art-form of writing poetry that meets this challenging but flexible form, and I’m sure that he’ll succeed if he dedicates himself properly.

To help him dedicate himself properly to learning the sonnet, I’ve written this to encourage him:

No poet is an island girded round
with only cliffs and skelligs on his shores;
everywhere are harbors and beaches found,
where cargoes low and lawful reach the stores
of market towns, and bags on pedlar’s backs.
Every ship in sight is rummaged for words,
and turns of phrase hid deep in smugglers’ sacks.
No least wriggling thought is left for the birds,
until the custom-house exact its share:
Each least tariff grows the poet’s treasure,
as each word used makes poet’s realm more fair—
So… as he shares verse, the bard may measure
how his poems rule like garrisoned troops…
how his reach grows, though pirates take his sloops.

I wanted to get across how poets beg, borrow and steal words… but also how their written word inhabits the minds of others, and winds up causing others to join a particular empire or kingdom of a particular poet.  It’s worth noting that this poem, while being mine, also belongs in a sense of rulership or hegemony to the poet John Donne, whose ‘sonnet’ (while not actually a sonnet), is about much the same thing as this poem:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as a manor of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

So the poem is clearly mine, because I wrote it; and yet it belongs to John Blake, because I wrote it for him; and yet it belongs to John Donne, because I wrote it using ideas that I stole from his sloop, and some of his phrases.  There’s a elaborate commodities market and trade-network here, of words and ideas and themes, not least of which is the sonnet itself (which perhaps is an exchange, rather like the Bourse or the NYSE — a framework in which smaller exchanges of words and ideas happen between poets).

Perhaps I’m not making sense.  In any case, if your English teacher ever told you that poets were ever complete, solitary geniuses who never stole from each other… it’s a lie.  We steal from one another all the time. Sometimes we even know whose work we’re pirating, and why.

Liked it? Take a second to support Andrew on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!


  1. No man is an island – unless his name is Lewis.

    This post, which is my main breakfast-time reading today, interests me on two levels. Firstly because it is unashamedly aware of intertextuality. I used to be very jealous of my own work (I still am, to a large extent), but recently, in reaction to my increasing age and to the idea that when I am no longer here people will consider that there is a finite ‘canon’ of my work, I have become more interested in planting fragments amongst other poets, so the edges and boundaries between works, ownership, etc become blurred, and there emerges a continuously, continually creating community.

    Secondly, the sonnet has been my main editorial specialism over the past few years. I was associate editor of ‘Sonnetto Poesia’ magazine (recently closed due to the owner/Editor-in-Chief wishing to retire) and am associate editor of the forthcoming two-volume anthology of sonnets ‘The Phoenix Rising from its Ashes’. Also I used to write sonnets myself, by the skip-load!

    Thank you for an interesting post here today. Your sonnet is a good example of how to make use of an extended matephor.

    Marie Marshall

    • I appreciate your commentary on this poem. Thanks for the read and the notice. I appreciate it.

      I wrote a number of sonnets when I was last in Scotland — I’ll see if I can find some of those “American in the lowlands” bits, and flag them for you when I post them, if you’re interested.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.