How to Write a Glosa

Ever imagine that a medieval Spanish poetic form could help you get to grips with poems you admire? I’m exploring the use of the glosa, a courtly form that steals a quatrain from another poet’s work to structure a poem of your own, in the course of which you create a glosa – or gloss on that poet’s work. Tangling with with your chosen poet may allow her or his subtle influence to inform your tone and expand your expressive range.

THE GLOSA OR GLOSE is a form requiring:

a) A cabeza (or motto) – the quatrain borrowed from another poet, whose authorship must be acknowledged

b) Four 10-line stanzas, each ending with one of the lines in sequence from the cabeza.

c) A rhyme-scheme requirement that lines 6 and 9 rhyme with the final word of line 10.

Annie Finch, who in her cornucopian manual A Poet’s Craft, (University of Michigan Press, 2015) writes (pp34-36): The lines of these stanzas can be of any length; the point is that each stanza elaborates or explains one of the four lines in the cabeza, and incorporates it (sometimes as the final line, like a refrain). She adds This form concretely acknowledges the links between poets – the ways in which one poet’s work can spring from another’s.

She quotes PK Page: ‘I was introduced to the gloss through the ear. Its form, half-hidden, powerfully sensed, like an iceberg at night, made me search for its outline as I listened…I enjoyed the idea of constructing the poem backward – the final line of each stanza is in effect, the starting line…I liked being controlled by those three reining rhymes – or do I mean reigning? – and gently influenced by the rhythm of the original.’

There’s great scope for playing with this form, by varying the constraints. You could choose a different stanza length, write in free verse, in a metre of your choice, or in syllabics; dispense with rhyme or increase the amount of rhyme; use a different length of cabeza, or introduce the lines of the cabeza in different positions in your stanza.

The point of any formal constraint is primarily to put you under pressure to write a little differently from your default style, and in the case of the glosa, you’re forced to participate quite explicitly in the work of another poet, many new possibilities for writing differently can be magically released.

Below, one of my own trial runs is followed by examples by Marilyn Hacker, P.K.Page.

John Wheway

Objects, too, are important.
Some of the time they are.
They can furrow their brow,
even offer forgiveness, of a sort.
John Ashbury, Litanies (A Worldly Country)





Certain abstractions are mildly arousing –
but logic – doesn’t that seem mostly pedestrian,
invoking a pained frown in the listener
whose feet are being nailed to the floor
in too methodical a fashion
for him to chance an escape? You’ve watched
an ant ferrying fragments of an enormous leaf
along a dusty track, and been fascinated
by its singleness of purpose. It is evident
objects, too, are important

in your scheme of values, but you could learn
from the ant what’s worth preserving
and which of the things you put in your mouth
has a nice taste, and doesn’t just keep you alive.
I can’t teach you how to live, but we both know
self-indulgence is better than war,
and if you were a little less serious,
girls might not keep going to the bathroom
when you hold forth. They’d be yours to treasure –
some of them are.

In any case, if you’re happy playing Bach
in your imagination, who am I
to try leading you to the keyboard?
Do you as much as feel the texture of the keys
or are you so preoccupied with working out
which trope prophesies Mozart and which Brahms, and how
his counterpoint more than equals Leibniz
in mathematical complexity, that my solicitude
seems like the lowing of a pastured cow?
They can furrow their brow,

these women, in perplexity. And some might hang around
in the hope of understanding your important theory,
but most will be lowering their eyes,
not to imagine what’s in your trousers,
but to let their eyes go scouting round the room
for men who are less exacting in their thought.
She doesn’t want to stand there feeling stupid
just because she is, like all of us,
improved by your insights, which, because well-wrought,
even offer forgiveness of a sort.


Marilyn Hacker

The death of a sparrow has blackened the snow
But nothing consoled her
Who is the night among all nights ? she asked the owl
But the owl doesn’t think, the owl knows

Vénus Khoury-Ghata : «Borderland»
translated by M.H.


Dumb heat, not snow, sheathes Paris in July
and sheathes suburban Washington.
Planes rip through the fabric of a frayed
afternoon torn open
by words no afterwards will clarify.
Knowing what happened, no one will know.
There was a poet, and she had a son.
There was exile, its weight on a day.
There was the heart’s ice, its insistent glow.
The death of a sparrow has blackened the snow.

Trope upon silvered trope, of what might a mirror
remind her : copper, black silk , the eloquence
intelligence gives eyes ? Reflected terror
that conscripted all intelligence.
I am a great way off and cannot come nearer.
I do not know what the night or the mirror told her
or the sense of the words she wrote when nothing made sense,
or if they made a sense that seemed clearer and clearer.
The child raised his arms to be lifted, to be held, to hold her,
but nothing consoled her.

Put the morning away in the murk of myth :
not the unthinkable, but Radha’s dance
breaking her bangles, imploring the dark god with
metered and musical lamentations,
repeated measures meant to distance death
suggest a redemptive spiral for the soul
(child, child bleeding to death, no second chance)
in the containment of despair and wrath
within the peopled descent of the ritual.
(Who is the night of all nights she asked the owl.)

No dark god was there, and no god of light .
There are women and men, cruel or fallible.
No mild friend picked up the telephone at the right
moment ; some Someone was unavailable.
The morning which paled from an uneventful night
would have been ordinary, except that she chose.
Interrogate the hours, invent some oracle
flying overhead , read fate into its flight.
We think the snow was blackened by dead sparrows,
but the owl doesn’t think ; the owl knows.


PK Page

Whoever has no house now will never have one.
Whoever is alone will stay alone
Will sit, read, write long letters through the evening
And wander on the boulevards, up and down…

from Autumn Day, Rainer Maria Rilke





Its stain is everywhere.
The sharpening air
of late afternoon
is now the colour of tea.
Once-glycerined green leaves
burned by a summer sun
are brittle and ochre.
Night enters day like a thief.
And children fear that the beautiful daylight has gone.
Whoever has no house now will never have one.

It is the best and the worst time.
Around a fire, everyone laughing,
brocaded curtains drawn,
nowhere-anywhere-is more safe than here.
The whole world is a cup
one could hold in one’s hand like a stone
warmed by that same summer sun.
But the dead or the near dead
are now all knucklebone.
Whoever is alone will stay alone.

Nothing to do. Nothing to really do.
Toast and tea are nothing.
Kettle boils dry.
Shut the night out or let it in,
it is a cat on the wrong side of the door
whichever side it is on. A black thing
with its implacable face.
To avoid it you
will tell yourself you are something,
will sit, read, write long letters through the evening.

Even though there is bounty, a full harvest
that sharp sweetness in the tea-stained air
is reserved for those who have made a straw
fine as a hair to suck it through-
fine as a golden hair.
Wearing a smile or a frown
God’s face is always there.
It is up to you
if you take your wintry restlessness into the town
and wander on the boulevards, up and down.

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