Monday, October 14, 2019

Letter poems (10.14.19)

Let's try writing a verse epistle. Make your letter poem Horatian or Ovidian, whatever sparks your imagination. See below for what this means, for background, history, and my own thoughts about letter poems.

But write it to someone, some group or coterie. Your recipient can be very personal or remote, concrete (flesh and blood) or abstract.

Your subject can be anything--love, sex, death, art, poetry, politics, technology, work, daily living, conscience, belief, loss of faith--anything.

Your treatment of the subject can be how you feel about it, how you think your recipient feels, what you believe to be true and/or false, or an exploration of what the subject means.

For convenience's sake, and to get your motor running, I suggest you open with "Dear . . ."

Before you start making a poem, I also suggest that you take some time to think about your recipient. Analyze your audience. If it's a person, make some notes about the person, your relationship, what you know about him or her and how this person thinks, what she believes, etc. Consider why you are writing to this person, just as if you'd sat down to jot a normal letter--what news do you have to share? why do you want to share it? what are you asking the recipient to do, if anything, besides read your letter? This process will help you determine how intimate your verse letter is going to be, or how communal (for example: W.C. Williams' note to Flossie about eating the plums vs. Walt Whitman's letter to the generations of Americans to come after he is gone and is grass under our feet).

Some Background on Verse Epistle

The website of The Academy of American Poets defines "verse epistle" as "poems that read as letters." The Academy goes on . . .

"The appeal of epistolary poems is in their freedom. The audience can be internal or external. The poet may be speaking to an unnamed recipient or to the world at large, to bodiless entities or to abstract concepts."

For the Academy's discussion, plus examples, click here, verse epistle.

Historically, there are two kinds of verse epistle: the Horatian and the Ovidian. Read these names as placeholders for "moral and philosophical subjects" and "sentimental subjects," respectively. The implication is that there are two reasons to write a letter poem. The first is to explore a subject deeply, in a kind of thinking out loud to a correspondent. The second is to write a love letter. Ovid's approach was popular in the Middle Ages and Renaissance; think courtly love poetry, the troubadours, the great love sonnet sequences. Horace's innovation had traction in the Renaissance and Neoclassical periods. Pope, for instance, wrote his Moral Essays in the form of verse letters, as well as Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot.

The letter poem can be lengthy and developed into an extended argument--see Pope, and Sydney's Astrophel and Stella--and it can be shorter, more lyrical, as in individual sonnets within a sequence (see especially the first 18 of Shakespeare's group).  To be clear, though, the Sonnets are not voiced as letters, though they are messages/entreaties to a specific person.  Like letters, they imply an expectation that the recipient will take some kind of action--read the message, do as the message directs . . .

You'll recall that we touched on similar forms of direct address, like apostrophe (see my blog entry for 1.31.18), and poems written "in conversation with" or in reply to other poems (see entries for 6.13.18 and 1.20.19). But though these forms are similar, they are not identical, and for one very good reason. A letter not only points to a recipient, a specific reader, but to an action--a private reading--and possibly to another action--a reply. When you've written letters before, were they intended for a specific recipient and not to be shared? Paul's letters to the Corinthians were intended only for them. Love letters are troved away, then discovered decades into a marriage that did not create them, and we are injured (or entertained) on both sides.

Certainly, you have written a letter in anticipation of a reply? Common closings to a letter--"I await your reply . . ." "Please let me know . . ." "If I don't hear back from you . . ." "Write back and let me know how all are doing."

And even if no reply is expected, letters aren't one way communications (Dear John letters and letters to the editor aside). They may bring news, but they assume the recipient will be interested to know the news, will likewise find it informative, fascinating, funny, infuriating, odd, uplifting, tragic, etc. The writer will understand, or believe she understands, that her reader will react, and even imagine how the reader will react to what is put into the letter. These assumptions insure the two-way communication even if the recipient doesn't or isn't intended to reply.

But letter poems are not just personal letters with news to share. They are works of art and, as such, ask for an audience, not merely a recipient. An audience of a letter poem--even an audience of one--will read beyond the content to the form in which it is written, to its emotional affect, to its engagement with language. As works of art, letter poems are as much about themselves as made things as they are "about" their content, like any other poem. Speaking of emotional affect, a letter poem, because it's a poem, will express and try to communicate an emotion via all the tools and techniques we've studied at Wednesdays@One: image, metaphor, rhythm and meter, syntax, line, rhyme or its absence, allusion, point of view, voice, etc.

When I read a letter poem, I like the feeling that I'm listening in or that I am the one being written to: the lover, the cohort, the enemy, the friend . . . Reading a letter poem puts me into a unique position with regard to the poet, the persona represented in the poem, and to myself.

So, before you begin writing your letter poem, read through the examples below. Put yourself in the role of the person or concept to whom the letter poem is addressed (I am Flossie; I am America). Consider the subject, of course, but also give thought to how it is presented, the techniques, figures, cadences, stresses, etc. that are employed, and what tone of voice and emotion are elicited through these devices.


The poems that follow are "letters" in their several ways.  One or two aren't actually offered as letters, like the section from Song of Myself.  Some are formally so, opening with the standard salutation of "Dear . . .," and are equipped with a closing.  Others are simply messages, notes, postcards, like the Williams poem, which you'd imagine finding taped to the refrigerator door.  But they read "as letters" in that each is aimed at or addressed to someone or some group in an implied correspondence.  The Williams poem is simple, unironic, almost unadorned, as you'd expect from him.  The Bishop poem is deliciously nuanced and full of implication and sub-text.

This Is Just to Say 
--William Carlos Williams

I have eaten
the plums 
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably 
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

from Song of Myself (section 52)
--Walt Whitman

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place, search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

A Letter to William Carlos Williams
--Kenneth Rexroth

Dear Bill,

When I search the past for you,
Sometimes I think you are like
St. Francis, whose flesh went out
Like a happy cloud from him,
And merged with every lover--
Donkeys, flowers, lepers, suns--
But I think you are more like
Brother Juniper, who suffered
All indignities and glories
Laughing like a gentle fool.
You're in the Fioretti
Somewhere, for you're a fool, Bill,
Like the Fool in Yeats, the term
Of all wisdom and beauty.
It's you, stands over against
Helen in all her wisdom,
Solomon in all his glory.

Remember years ago, when 
I told you you were the first
Great Franciscan poet since
The Middle Ages? I disturbed
The even tenor of dinner.
Your wife thought I was crazy.
It's true, though. And you're "pure," too,
A real classic, though not loud
About it--a whole lot like
The girls of the Anthology.
Not like strident Sappho, who
For all her grandeur, must have
Had endemetriosis,
But like Anyte, who says
Just enough, softly, for all
The thousands of years to remember.

It's a wonderful quiet 
You have, a way of keeping
Still about the world, and its
Dirty rivers, and garbage cans,
Red wheelbarrows glazed with rain,
Cold plums stolen from the icebox,
And Queen Anne's Lace, and day's eyes,
And leaf buds bursting over
Muddy roads, and splotched bellies
With babies in them, and Cortes
And Malinche on the bloody
Causeway, the death of the flower world.

Nowadays, when the press reels
With chatterboxes, you keep still,
Each year a sheaf of stillness,
Poems that have nothing to say,
Like the stillness of George Fox,
Sitting still under the cloud
Of all the world's temptation,
By the fire, in the kitchen,
In the Vale of Beavor. And
The archetype, the silence
Of Christ, when he paused a long
Time and then said, "Thou sayest it."

Now in a recent poem you say,
"I who am about to die."
Maybe this is just a tag
From the classics, but it sends
A shudder over me. Where 
Do you get that stuff, Williams?
Look at here. The day will come
When a young woman will walk
By the lucid Williams River,
Where it flows through an idyllic
News from Nowhere sort of landscape,
And she will way to her children,
"Isn't it beautiful? It
Is named after a man who
Walked here once when it was called
The Passaic, and was filthy
With the poisonous excrements
Of sick men and factories.
He was a great man. He knew
It was beautiful then, although
Nobody else did, back there
In the Dark Ages. And the
Beautiful river he saw
Still flows in his veins, as it
Does in ours, and flows in our eyes,
And flows in time, and makes us
Part of it, and part of him.
That, children, is what is called
A sacramental relationship.
And that is what a poet
Is, children, one who creates
Sacramental relationships
That last always."
    With love and admiration,
    Kenneth Rexroth.

A Poem to Galway Kinnell
--Etheridge Knight

Sat., Apr. 26, 1973
Jefferson City, Mo. 65101
(500 yards, as the crow flies,
from where I am writing you 
this letter, lies the Missouri
State Prison--it lies, the prison,
like an overfed bear alongside 
the raging Missouri river--
the pale prison, out of which,
sonny liston, with clenched fist,
fought his way, out of which,
james earl ray ripped his way
into the hearts of us all . . .)

dear galway,
   it is flooding here, in Missouri,
the lowlands are all under water and at night
the lights dance on the dark water,
our president, of late of Watergate,
is spozed to fly above the flooded areas
and estimate how much damage has been done
to THE PEOPLES . . . .

dear galway,
    it is lonely here, and sometimes,
THE PEOPLES can be a bitch

dear galway,
    i hear poems in my head
as the wind blows in your hair
and the young brown girl
with the toothpaste smile
who flows freely because she has heard OUR SOUNDS . . . .

dear galway,
    OUR SONGS OF LOVE are still
murmurs among these melodies of madness . . . .
dear Galway, and what the fuck are the irish doing/
and when the IRA sends JUST ONE, just one soldier
to fight with say the American Indians, then i'll believe them . . . .

dear galway,
    the river is rising here, and i am
scared and lonely . . . . . . 

Mary and the children send their love
to you and yours


                          Imamu Etheridge Knight Soa

Letter to N.Y.
--Elizabeth Bishop

In your next letter I wish you'd say
where you are going and what you are doing;
how are the plays, and after the plays
what other pleasures you're pursuing:

taking cabs in the middle of the night,
driving as if to save your soul
where the road goes round and round the park
and the meter glares like a moral owl,

and the trees look so queer and green
standing alone in big black caves
and suddenly you're in a different place
where everything seems to happen in waves,

and most of the jokes you just can't catch,
like dirty words rubbed off a slate,
and the songs are loud but somehow dim
and it gets so terribly late,

and coming out of the brownstone house
to the gray sidewalk, the watered street,
one side of the buildings rises with the sun
like a glistening field of wheat.

--Wheat, not oats, dear.  I'm afraid
if it's wheat it's none of your sowing,
nevertheless I'd like to know
what you are doing and where you are going.

Letter to Bell from Missoula
--Richard Hugo

Dear Marvin: Months since I left broke down and sobbing
in the parking lot, grateful for the depth
of your understanding and since then I've been treated
in Seattle and I'm in control like Ghengas Khan.
That was a hairy one, the drive west, my nerves so strung
I couldn't sign a recognizable name on credit slips.
And those station attendants' looks. Until Sheridan 
I took the most degenerate motels I saw because they seemed
to be where I belonged. I found my way by instinct
to bad restaurants and managed to degrade myself
in front of waitresses so dumb I damn near offered them
lessons in expressions of disdain. Now, it's all a blur.
Iowa. South Dakota. Wyoming. Lots of troublesome deja vu
in towns I'd seen or never seen before. It's snowing
in Missoula, has been off and on for days but no fierce winds
and no regrets. I'm living alone in a house I bought,
last payment due 2001. Yesterday, a religious nut
came to the door and offered me unqualified salvation
if I took a year's subscription to Essential Sun Beam.
I told him I was Taoist and he went away. Today,
a funny dog, half dachshund, waddles through my yard.
A neighbor boy, Bud, poor, shovels my walk for a dollar
and on the radio a break is predicted. A voice is saying,
periods of sun tomorrow, a high front from the coast.
For no reason, I keep remembering my first woman
and how I said afterward happy, so that's what you do.
I think of you and Dorothy. Stay healthy. Love. Dick.

The Letter
--W.H. Auden

From the very first coming down
Into a new valley with a frown
Because of the sun and a lost way,
You certainly remain: to-day
I, crouching behind a sheep-pen, heard
Travel across a sudden bird,
Cry out against the storm, and found
The year's arc a completed round
And love's worn circuit re-begun,
Endless with no dissenting turn.
Shall see, shall pass, as we have seen
The swallow on the tile, spring's green
Preliminary shiver, passed 
A solitary truck, the last
Of shunting in the Autumn. But now,
To interrupt the homely brow,
Thought warmed to evening through and through
Your letter comes, speaking as you,
Speaking of much but not to come.

Nor speech is close nor fingers numb,
If love not seldom has received
An unjust answer, was deceived.
I, decent with the seasons, move
Different or with a different love,
Nor question overmuch the nod,
The stone smile of this country god
That never was more reticent,
Always afraid to say more than it meant.

Letter from an Institution
--Michael Ryan

I have a garden here, shaped
like Marienbad, remember?,
I lose myself
in, it seems. They only look for me
sometimes. I don't like my dreams.

The nurses quarrel over where I am
hiding. I hear from inside
a bush. One is crisp
& cuts; one pinches. I'd like to push
them each somewhere.

They both think it's funny
here. The laughter sounds like diesels.
I won't move because I'm lazy.
You start to like the needles.
You start to want to crazy.

A Letter from Tegucigalpa
--Mark Strand

Dear Henrietta, since you were kind enough to ask why I no longer write, I shall do my best to answer you. In the old days, my thoughts like tiny sparks would flare up in the almost dark consciousness and I would transcribe them, and page after page shone with a light that I called my own. I would sit at my desk amazed by what had just happened. And even as I watched the lights fade and my thoughts become small, meaningless memorials in the afterglow of so much promise, I was still amazed. And when they disappeared, as they inevitably did, I was ready to begin again, ready to sit in the dark for hours and wait for even a single spark, though I knew it would shed almost no light at all. What I had not realized then, but now know only too well, is that sparks carry within them the wish to be relieved of the burden of brightness. And that is why I no longer write, and why the dark is my freedom and my happiness.

Farewell, John Giorno, So Long, Good-bye

In the New York Times' obits today: John Giorno, free poet, friend of the Beats, lover of Robert Maplethorpe and Andy Warhol, husband of Ugo Rondinone, dead at 82. Check it out here: John Giorno obituary

And here's a piece of a poem he wrote in 2006, titled "Thanx4Nothing," quoted in the obit:

May every drug I ever took
come back and get you high
may every glass of vodka and wine I ever drank
come back and make you feel really good,
numbing your nerve ends
allowing the natural clarity of your mind to flow free,
may all the suicides be songs of aspiration,
thanks that bad news is always true,
may all the chocolate I’ve ever eaten
come back rushing through your bloodstream
and make you feel happy,
thanks for allowing me to be a poet
a noble effort, doomed, but the only choice.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

The habits of poetry - regular practice (10.1.19)

This is the fourth in a series titled "The Habits of Poetry . . ."  For reference, take another look at the entries for July 23, 2019 (honesty), March 28, 2019 (revising), and January 23, 2019 (practical observation).

This habit has to do with practice; I don't mean just the general activity of writing poems, as in "the practice of poetry," but rather and more pointedly, practicing writing.  And what does this mean?  Emulation.  It means mimicking other writers' styles, tones, line construction, rhyme schemes, diction, themes, and so on.  Or at least trying to write similarly to the styles, forms, terms, vocabularies, etc. that you encounter in your reading.

Why mimic?  For one thing, poetry has a long history of mimicry or emulation.  So called "schools" of poetry involve at least some emulative writing.  Think of the Metaphysical School with its emphasis on conceit.  Somebody wrote a poem that developed a difficult metaphor that was logical, balanced, subtle, extended, tightly controlled, rhetorically pure, and clever--a conceit.  Somebody else tried his hand at it and, with practice, produced another nice conceit.  Others followed suit, practicing, practicing, practicing.  Sooner or later, a School!

There is the Surrealist/Dadaist School where poets to this day write apparent "nonsense" (or so it seems to the Classically minded of us).  They are emulating what Baudelaire and Apollinaire did originally, who had practiced with the poems of Poe in mind.  But even the nonsense takes practice--an accomplished and practiced writer of the surreal knows how to use the unconscious to get to the poem.  The un- or under-practiced still tend to produce . . . nonsense.

The New York "school" of poets emulated one another through "action writing," that is, capturing the instant while still in the instant (think Frank O'Hara, Kenneth Koch) or through "meta" writing--that is, poems that are all about themselves as works of art made without revision or second thoughts (think John Ashbery, Barbara Guest).

Nearly every generation of poets produces a clique that emulates the poetry of Walt Whitman--messianic voice, extended line, blocky paragraph structure, repetitive diction.

For another reason, though, mimicking the work of other poets, periods, schools and so on helps you to (eventually) develop your own peculiar style.  Some writers might object at this point that no one needs to mimic other kinds of poetry writing; all you need to do is to "look in thy heart and write"--as Philip Sydney advised.  Maybe.  But even he didn't really do that.  Sydney knew the old forms because he was trained (practiced) in them, and so used them.  One of these was the Petrarchan sonnet sequence that he used (emulated) in Astrophyl and Stella.  Where he innovated, that is, didn't emulate so much, was in how he sourced his work: "look in they heart and write" is the same admonition as write about what you know.

Let's say you want to write a sonnet.  Okay, you can put SOMETHING on paper that has 14 lines.  Sonnet?  Probably not.  Probably, you've written 14 lines.  Let's say you advance your thinking and your experimentation a little by organizing those 14 lines into two sections: one containing eight lines followed by one having six.  Sonnet?  Maybe, maybe not.  You practice some more, stepping farther into the form: the eight line section establishes a problem or a theme or a question of some sort, and the six line section resolves the problem, comments on the theme, or answers the question.  Now you are in the zip code at least of "sonnet" in braces.  Then let's say you really warm to the emulation experiment and add rhyme: two quatrains for the eight-line section and two tercets for the six-line section.  And from there you practice with different types of rhyme: masculine, feminine, off, internal, rising, falling.  As you go, you're getting better at the plasticity of a supposedly strict form.

Are we there yet?  Maybe so.  Maybe you've arrived at a good approximation of a Petrarchan sonnet. But not unless the poem's theme is love--distant, unrequited, soul-killing, tear-jerking love.  Now we're talking Petrarch!  But then there is the Shakespearean/English sonnet, which takes on all kinds of subjects, including love, and which is built out of three quatrains of rolling rhyme followed by a couplet which delivers a kind of stinger, as country songs do.  Master that through practice, and then move on to the Spenserian sonnet, which also is built out of quatrains and an ending couplet, but the quatrains interweave the rhyme from stanza to stanza.  Next, try on Milton for a change in theme and topic, like the individual's role in the state.  Then move on to Shelley, Keats, and across the Atlantic to Poe (who mimicked the British, especially Spenser, in an early sonnet) and flash forward in time to Robert Lowell for a radical change in theme (himself and family history), form (unrhymed or near-rhymed) and line (sometimes metered, sometimes interrupted).


I can guarantee this much: if you practice writing all these kinds of sonnet, when you're done you'll be a sonneteer with your own unique understanding of what makes the form work, and have developed your own style and voice for sonneteering.

The point is practice, practice, practice.

If you want to become a better poetry writer overall, you'll commit to this kind of practice regularly if not often.  Plus, you'll practice working in other forms, including so called "free verse."  You'll practice adjusting lines and line length to rhythms and cadences by trying to write like Whitman, then Emily Dickinson, then Horace, then maybe Coleridge.  And you'll wind up knowing what emulative practice must have been like for Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, C. K. Williams, Albert Goldbarth, maybe others.

You can even practice tone, style, theme.  Try reading a half dozen or so poems by W. H. Auden, then emulating these.  You'll find yourself commenting politically and philosophically and emotionally on famous people, current events, and using personal local events (a marriage, a birth, a death, a retirement, a commencement, etc.) as springboards into deeper, grander social and civilizational topics and themes.  You might even begin to write ruminatively, as Auden often did.

All of this mindful practice will make you a better writer of poetry.  I guarantee it or your money back.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Two prose poems in The Dark Horse

Here's a bit of good news: the Fall/Winter issue of The Dark Horse just came out with two of my prose poems in its pages.  The Dark Horse is a classically high quality print publication, with very good design features and serious editing, so I'm proud to be represented there.  Here's the link to the new issue in electronic form . . .  

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Writing the elegy (9.25.19)

Elegy is as much mood as mode for the practicing poet.  It is feeling first, as E.E. Cummings said, and it is feeling last.  

The name comes from the Greek word elegeia, for "lament."  My Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics defines the term as a "lyric, usually formal in tone and diction, suggested either by the death of an actual person or by the poet's contemplation of the tragic aspects of life."  In other words, an emotion is prompted by an external event (someone's passing) or by introspection (the tragedy of life).  Whichever source, the Encyclopedia goes on to describe, the emotion "finds consolation in the contemplation of some permanent principle."

The first thing to note about elegy, in the Encyclopedia's terms, is that it is a lyric form, that is, not dramatic, epic, or narrative, but song.  We can extend that distinction: the elegy is never merely ironic or satirical.  Where irony's indirectness suggests cynicism, or a kind of fatalism, elegy's lament is often more direct and unfeigned.  Where satire points to a wrong in society that must be righted, elegy points to a truth, a "fact of life."

Typically, elegies don't develop plot or characters (as plays and novels do); they don't unfold over vast spans of space and time (The Iliad, The Aeneid); they are not symphonic (Song of Myself).  Like love poems, elegies sing intense emotions and address intimate topics.  Reading them, you should feel not like you're at a performance of King Lear or watching Apocalypse Now on the big screen, but listening in to an anguished soul in private, one on one.  You are experiencing a moment (with someone).

The second thing to note is that the death or "sad but true fact of life" that occasions an elegy is not the subject of the elegy.  It is the departure point where the real subject is the poet's feeling about these things.  Someone important to you dies--say a relative, a mentor, a friend, a beloved public figure.  Your elegy explores the meaning of that loss, to you and/or to your coterie or fellow citizens, etc.  If you write a poem that merely celebrates the deceased's life, you have created a eulogy, not an elegy.  Or you come upon a robin dead in your front yard.  Your elegy explores the life cut short, the vanity of human endeavor, the provisional nature of life, etc.  If you write a poem that merely describes the dead bird, you have created possibly a deep and abiding image, but not an elegy.

And the third thing to note in the Encyclopedia's definition is that it leads somewhere; it finds consolation.  So the best way to understand elegy as a writer of poetry is that you set out to make yourself feel better about some incontrovertible fact of life: someone's died, something's died, the center cannot hold, life is loss, etc.  That is to say, elegy seeks and elegy finds.  Or attempts to find.  

But is that all, just feeling?  Is there craft to elegy?  If you set out to write an elegy (spoiler alert!), where do you go after feeling?  How do you know that what you're writing isn't really something else?  And what does "lament" look like in poetic practice?

I have no answers to these questions.  Which is what makes me think this is a great project for us at Wednesdays@One--to try to discover the form by trying to write one.  Below are a few very basic guidelines (they're not rules, really) and some examples to get you started.  Have fun!

  1.  Keep your poem short, to a single page or less, if you can, and make it meditative.
  2.  Choose a subject: that person whose passing made you (still makes you?) stop and think about what was lost or what that death meant to you or your community.  Remember, try not to write an encomium or eulogy--your poem isn't really about that person, but what that person's death means.  Alternatively, choose something like that dead bird in your garden, or the abandoned house down the road, or the polar bear (whose extinction seems more and more likely), or Earth (whose extinction seems more and more likely), or Troy or democracy . . .  But remember this: you want to write an elegy, a lyric, not a political or religious diatribe, not a satire on Man's Folly, etc.  You want to use the subject to explore not just how you feel, but how to feel appropriately about the subject.
  3.  Find consolation, if consolation is to be found.  (Such as, this is how I ought to feel about this loss, death, fact of life, etc.)  That is, seek wisdom in the elegy, even if it's the most mundane kind of wisdom. That is, direct your poem to somewhere, make it move.

For W_____, Who Commanded Well, by Howard Nemerov

You try to fix your mind upon his death,
Which seemed it might, somehow, be relevant
To something you once thought, or did, or might
Imagine yourself thinking, doing. When?

It was, once, the most possible of dreams:
The hero acted it, philosophers
Could safely recommend it to the young;
It was acceptable, a theme for a song.

And it was wrong? Daily the press commends
A rationed greed, the radio denies
That war is right, or wrong, or serious:
And money is being made, and the wheels go round,
And death is paying for itself: and so
It does not seem that anything was lost.

Elegy for Jane, by Theodore Roethke

(My student, thrown by a horse)

I remember the neckcurls, limp and damp as tendrils;
And her quick look, a sidelong pickerel smile;
And how, once started into talk, the light syllables leaped for her.
And she balanced the delight of her thought,
A wren, happy, tail into the wind,
Her song trembling the twigs and small branches.
The shade sang with her;
The leaves, their whispers turned to kissing,
And the mould sang in the bleached valleys under the rose.

Oh, when she was sad, she cast herself down into such a pure depth,
Even a father could not find her:
Scraping her cheek against straw,
Stirring the clearest water.
My sparrow, you are not here, 
Waiting like a fern, making a spiney shadow.
The sides of wet stones cannot console me,
Nor the moss, would with the last light.

If only I could nudge you from this sleep,
My mained darling, my skittery pigeon.
Over this damp grave I speak the words of my love:
I, with no rights in this matter,
Neither father nor lover.

For a Coming Extinction, by W. S. Merwin

Gray whale
Now that we are sending you to The End
That great god
Tell him
That we who follow you invented forgiveness
And forgive nothing

I write as though you could understand
And I could say it
One must always pretend something
Among the dying
When you have left the seas nodding on their stalks
Empty of you 
Tell him that we were made
On another day

The bewilderment will diminish like an echo
Winding along your inner mountains
unheard by us
And find its way out
Leaving behind it the future
And ours

When you will not see again
The whale calves trying the light
Consider what you will find in the black garden
And its court
The sea cows the Great Auks the gorillas
The irreplaceable hosts ranged countless
And fore-ordaining as stars
Our sacrifices

Join your word to theirs
Tell him
That it is we who are important

In Memory of Senator Mitch McConnell, by Clark Holtzman

His obituary will read like a victory lap in Lexington,
garlanded with uncontested primaries, steady electoral landslides,
the squeaker after he had to take a tough stand on principle.

His children will wipe tears away as the Reverend,
in full battle dress, recounts the life of noble animosities,
harrowing retrenchments, and they will know

that, but for him, the country might have gone to hell.
That year, the Derby will be raced with him in mind
and the Senate Chaplain, choking back tears of his own,

will eulogize a lion, a pillar, a bulwark, a standard
before a packed chamber and respectful media, silent for once.
That silence will be death's, profound and dumbstruck.

So be it, that a man will see the world in a mirror,
and as only he can see it, as he can only see it:
each of us loves an invention that can only love us back.

So we'll push on into our still new, still strange century,
adjusting our admirations and expectations to the novelty,
and, whatever yesterday was, hope for tomorrow's better day.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Writing the Villanelle (9.5.19)

Villanelles are notoriously easy to write and hard to write well. So kudos to John P. for bringing his first effort to us at yesterday's salon. His poem is appropriately serious in subject and tone, and formally correct (five beat lines, exact rhymes). And thanks to Delaney, who gets it exactly right when he describes the villanelle as an "anthemic" form, for the villanelle's peculiar repetitiveness more than invites us to make big statements.

What is a villanelle? The original villanelle form was so named by a French prosodist* in the 17th Century. The form actually derives from Italian songs of the 15th Century. A villanello/a is a rustic song (you can see the roots for the Italian villa and French ville in the word). From about the 19th Century on, the form technically became this:

  • A more or less rigid form of five tercets followed by a single quatrain
  • Pentameter lines (often iambic petameter)
  • A rhyme scheme of a-b-a | a-b-a | a-b-a | a-b-a | a-b-a | a-b-a-a in which the rhymes are often exact
  • A regularized scheme of repetitions involving the first and third lines of the opening tercet

And for much of its history, the villanelle dealt in pastoral themes. But before I go further into any description of the form, read this famous example by Dylan Thomas . . .

Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

So you can see in this poem how the rhymes work and the lines repeat in strict order. Note that after the first stanza, the opening line contains a new rhyming word to be paired with the closing line or lines of the remaining stanzas (which means that the same rhyme sound is utilized throughout the entire poem). "Night" and "light" are the controlling rhymes. Matched to them are "right," "bright," "flight," "sight," and "height." Also note that the middle line of each stanza rhymes: day/they/bay/way/gay/pray. And note finally that all rhymes are masculine, meaning, words of one syllable, as well as nouns (with the exceptions of "they," a pronoun, in line five, and "bright," the adjective in line seven).

What's the effect of such simple nouns and rhymes? Seriousness, for one. Thomas redirected the form away from the pastoral to the more anthemic (to use Delaney's word again) and serious.** To feel the difference between using masculine and feminine rhyme, trying writing a few lines rhyming multi-syllable words. It's hard NOT to veer into light or comic verse. The poem's boom-boom cadence also lends seriousness to its tone, and of course the subject is mighty serious!

The other effect is control, or, if you will, pressure. The speaker is contemplating the father's death, the inevitable against which he builds a dike of pressurized language and sound-stress. You might hear in your mind how this poem might be recited just shy of a scream. Thematically, the speaker is addressing the approaching loss of a loved one, of course, but also his own mortality. He will not accept the human fate, universal as it may be. And so the language of the poem, the tight syllabics, the noun-rhymes, the drum beat from phrase to phrase and line to line, is resistance. The villanelle's repetitive format only enhances this drum beat quality.

Here's a less strident poem done as a villanelle, by Marilyn Hacker (anthologized in The American Poetry Anthology, ed. Daniel Halperin, 1975):


Every day our bodies separate,
exploded, torn and dazed.
Not understanding what we celebrate

we grope through languages and hesitate
and touch each other, speechless and amazed;
and every day our bodies separate

us farther from our planned, deliberate
ironic lives. I am afraid, disphased,
not understanding what we celebrate

when our fused limbs and lips communicate
the unlettered power we have raised.
Every day our bodies' separate

routines are harder to perpetuate.
In wordless darkness we learn a wordless praise,
not understanding what we celebrate;

wake to ourselves, exhausted, in the late
morning as the wind tears off the haze,
not understanding how we celebrate
our bodies. Every day we separate.

This poem is a riot of rhyme, rhythm, usage, enjambment, syntax and word choice. It breaks certain formal conventions: no capitalization exception at the beginning of a sentence; periods inserted mid-line; three- and four-beat lines; use of masculine and feminine rhyme. The poem also breaks a stylistic convention in being more "spoken" rather than "sung" (as in lyrical); it's made up of declarative sentences, rather than "lines," per se. The rhymes are a mixture of exact and slant, mono- and multi-syllable. Yet the poem is every bit as serious as the Thomas poem, and as mournful. It is a poem of the pain of separation--physically and metaphysically.^

I've probably spent more space examining these two villanelles than you'll find useful to write your own, but I want to make the point that the form presents challenges and opportunities at the same time. The challenges:

  • to come up with two good lines strong enough rhythmically and thematically to warrant this much repetition. Not easy! I get at this challenge by trying to write a good couplet. If I can accomplish that, then I have the first and third line of the first stanza and the last line of every other stanza. All I have to do after that is to insert a line between the couplets six times.
  • the first and second lines of stanzas two through six have to introduce new rhyming words and, inevitably, new content.
  • the new rhymes and content of each stanza will of course affect the meaning of each, and, in turn, the development of the meaning over the entire poem. This can get complicated.  To move forward, try letting each new rhyme direct you to possible new content that can then be "fitted" together with the recurring lines/content.
And the opportunities:

  • The constantly new rhymes and content are really a rewarding challenge, if you choose to go with the poem's flow. In fact, introducing the new content in the first two lines of each stanza will encourage a forward flow of thought and feeling, if you're paying attention and move deliberately through the writing process. You'll be surprised where your villanelle takes you!
  • The repetitive structure of a villanelle also encourages you to use the same words in different ways--different meanings, different parts of speech--throughout the poem. Look again at Marilyn Hacker's poem. She uses the word "separate" as both an adjective and a verb; needing a good and meaningful rhyme, given the theme she's developing in the poem, she also comes up with a humdinger of a word: "disphased."

Just one more example, on a lighter subject but still taking on a more serious and philosophical theme, by Gregory Orr, from his recent book, The Last Love Poem I Will Ever Write:

The Ferris Wheel at the World's Fair

The wheel swoops you up, swoops you down again.
The giddiest ride in the world, they swear.
When you're high, you're high, but where does it end?

You take your seat and then your seat ascends
And far below you: bright lights of the fair.
The wheel swoops you up, swoops you down again.

When you're high, stars and neon blur and blend
But don't get off, unless you walk on air.
When your'e high, you're high, but it will end.

They look so small down there, your former friends.
Like ants or insects. Who could really care?
But the wheel swoops up, swoops down again,

And when it does, when the big wheel descends,
You'll step off dizzy. You'll want someone there
When all your highest highs begin to end.

Fortune has a zero for a heart--defend
Against Her, whose wheel is noose and snare.
It swoops you up to swoop you down again.
It takes you high, but all highs have their end.

So then.  Have some fun with this project.  Spend a little time this week thinking up a couple of good lines--and marry them into a rhymed couplet.  Do that, and you're almost half the way home!

*A prosodist studies formal poetic elements like meter, syllabics, accentual verse, stress and non-stress in a line or phrase of verse.
**So did Edward Arlington Robinson a generation before Thomas, but in a slightly altered, less strict form, in "The House on the Hill."
^I admire the subtle, moving irony in the statement, "Every day we separate." If the lovers separate every day, they necessarily reunite every day as well, in order to separate again.  This works in the villanelle because it's in the repeated line.

Monday, August 19, 2019

How to critique a poem II (8.19.19)

In March, we talked at some length in Wednesdays@One about how to critique a poem, someone else's or your own.  Since that is part of what we try do week in, week out at W@1, everybody thought it would be a good idea to have that discussion.  I wrote a kind of short primer for the subject (posted here on 3.5.19) that I'd like to expand on now.

Something I've noticed at W@1 over time is that we tend to respond to a colleague's poem by trying to re-write it for the author.  (I have been as guilty of this as the next W@1-er.)  We suggest a different topic or a different take on a topic.  We point out certain aspects of punctuation that we'd change, or line length, choice of words, syntax, usage, grammar, rhyme or lack thereof, meter and rhythm, stanza format, tone, point of view . . . you get the idea.  Everybody responds somewhat differently to any given poem and, with the best of intentions, advises the poet how to rewrite it.  Sometimes, we even debate among ourselves how best to rewrite somebody's poem while that somebody sits on the sidelines and watches!  (I know I have been guilty of that.)

To a certain extent, this kind of critique can be helpful, especially if it's delivered at the right time.  It's the standard approach for most writing workshops I've experienced.  The poem is read aloud, there is a moment or two of silence as the hearers gather their thoughts, and then bam!  The threads are pulled until the whole poem unravels in a kind of shoulda-coulda-woulda critique.  I can't think of them at the moment, but I've read some pretty good poems by some pretty well-thought of poets about this very subject--enduring a workshop shark attack.

So long as the writer of the poem in question maintains a kind of esprit de corps with the critiquing group, and a thick skin, he or she can use what's useful in this kind of critique and ignore what's not useful.  But it's not always easy to separate the useful from the not useful when you're deep in a thicket of suggestions for rewriting what you've already spent a good many hours thinking about and revising.

Which is what leads me back to this subject.  How can W@1, as a group and a cohort, avoid the steady drumbeat of the pile-on, the "nice-effort-but-this-is-how-you-should-write-the-poem" comment?  First off, I'm not sure I want to suggest that we abandon even the picayune criticism, for nitpicking can help a writer see his or her poem through other eyes in ways that can sometimes be helpful--sometimes.  And every reader at W@1 (or in any workshop or salon) should feel not just free, but obligated to share his or her point of view in this respect.  Writers need the feedback whether they acknowledge this or not.

What I want to propose is a small change in how we critique each other's work.  I want to propose that we hold off telling a writer how to rewrite his or her poem to suit us personally; in fact, hold off telling the writer what we think the poem means or how we experience it or why it doesn't work as written (or, for that matter, why we think it DOES work as written).  Hold off, that is, long enough to ask the writer about the poem, how the writer conceived it, what obstacles or other difficulties the writer experienced trying to compose the piece, when and how the writer felt the poem begin to gel, why a certain image or word order or adjective or verb or other part of speech was chosen.  Indeed, hold off long enough to hear the writer tell why the poem was written in the first place!

What I am proposing is that we start by interviewing the writer of the poem we've just heard, so we can dig below its surface (the draft brought to W@1) for the writerly soil in which it came to be.  To that end, here are some questions that might help us all move in that direction in our next sessions.

  • Ask about the experience of writing the poem.  Did it unfold in one sitting?  Is this version a second, third or later draft?  Did a line or phrase come first, or a rhythm, or an image, an idea? Was it easy to write, was the writing stop-and-go?
  • Ask about the writer's understanding of the poem.  Did your "intent" change as the drafting progressed?  That is, did the creative process become a discovery process, too?  (Another way to ask this question: Did the poem turn out the way you expected?)
  • Ask how the writer feels about the poem now.  Now that you've read it aloud, and then heard it read back to you, are there any aspects of the poem that sound especially "right" to you?  Any that sound like they might need more work?
  • Ask about the origin of the poem.  Aside from the project in question, why did this poem (or subject) occur to you to write?
  • Ask about the form and figures of the poem.  Ask how or at what point certain figures (metaphors, similies, expletives, interjections, rhymes, modifiers, etc.) revealed themselves during the writing process.  Ask how or at what point lines, stanzas, paragraphs, meters, etc. began to take shape and to inform the writing of the poem.
You may have ulterior motives for asking such questions--perhaps you noticed an ambiguity, a difficult metaphor, a misaligned rhythm, an inconsistent tone, faulty grammar or usage.  Maybe you think the poem isn't yet a poem or that a line or stanza is unnecessary or detracts from the poem.  The writer needs to know your concern; but you need to know how the inconsistency or strange image or uneven rhythm or change in tone got there in the first place--because it's possible that you are misreading the poem!

Finally, before you tell the writer how to correct his or her work, consider two things:

  1. Does the item really need correcting (i.e., is it wrong, given the poem), or am I just insisting on what I think makes for a good poem?
  2. Would my suggestion improve the effort appreciably?
A big part of writing of any kind is the writer's motive--not necessarily what he or she or the poem "means," but what the writer is trying to accomplish.  When critiquing, it's better to start by trying to understand the writer's motive and experience before we suggest improvements.