Today’s Work

I have six Shetland sheep. They are pets so I named them all. Ruby and Tess are twins with beautiful brown fleece. They were the first sheep I brought home. Then I took a wether from my friend because he was going to be lamb chops, and I couldn’t stand the thought of it. I named him Pan. He is white but has cool black markings around his edges, that is, his face, hind quarters and belly. He’s got cool black horns. This summer I purchased another set of twin lambs with sweet little white faces: Bonnie and Sergeant Butterscotch. Their wool color is ever-changing. Shetland sheep do that. In fact, you never know after a shearing what color will grow in next. The sixth sheep is darling little Merlin, the black sheep of the flock. You can learn a lot from animals.

POEM:
Today’s Work

The first task I finished
was picking through the last
batch of wool, sheared from one
of the twins, my fingers lost
in the brown fleece, warm,
and greasy as I plucked fibers
to get to embedded seed heads
and timothy burrs, caught, carried,
and buried, small burdens
that had created so much work,
tucked inside such an unassuming
surface until I discovered each one
as a little lump and pulled apart
all that clung to it, pulled out
each tiny sun that no longer burned.

I do not recall what I accomplished
the rest of the day. It did not matter.

ELEMENT:
Assonance and Consonance in Poetry

One cannot talk about poetry without talking about sound. After all, poetry’s roots are in music and song and the definition of poetry encompasses elements of music: rhythm, meter, patterns of repetition. With sound comes additional meaning. Perhaps the repeated sounds within a poem create a particular mood. They certainly create pleasure for the listener. Rhyme – the repetition of end sounds – is often thought to be the key sound found in poems, but there is more than rhyme that meets the ear. Sound can also be emphasized in the repetition of vowel sounds found anywhere in the word. This is called assonance. An example can be seen in Robert Burns, “Song Composed in August”:

Now waving grain, wide o’er the plain…

This line does include internal rhyme (rhyming within the line: grain, plain), but it also includes that long a sound found in the word waving. Try substituting another word for waving and it doesn’t sound nearly as delightful. That long a sound works with the meaning of the word to expand the view of that plain.

Particular vowel sounds can create certain moods. The assonance when using the oo sound can be soothing. The repetition of ee can be creepy, eerie. In the above poem, “Today’s Work,” the short u sound kept cropping up. I try to pay attention when a particular sound presents itself a few times. Is it coincidence that the words I’m selecting have similar sounds or is what I’m writing conducive to certain words with those sounds? After I have the first draft (or two) of a poem, I reexamine it for sound. What is happening, sound-wise, at the beginning of this poem? There is the assonance in finished and picking, the assonance of task, last and batch, then that of fleece and greasy, followed by embedded and head – perhaps enough repetition to make it sound pleasant. But with the introduction of the phrase “much work” there is a long series of repeated u sounds: much, tucked, such, unassuming, discovered, one, lump, clung, sun. (A sound can be spelled many different ways). What is going on here? Why all these short u sounds? Some of them came into the poem naturally, but once I noticed a few I worked in more. Why? I don’t know. I thought it sounded good and then there was something about the chug, chug, chug of the tedious work it takes to pull out all those darn little seed heads from a large fleece. That ugly little u sound seems to emphasize the work.

Consonance – the repetition of consonants within and among words – is also a sound element that adds layers to a poem. Look again at the Burns’ line from above along with the line that follows it:

Now waving grain, wide o’er the plain,
delights the weary farmer…

We hear in these lines a repetition of the initial w sound in waving, wide, and weary, giving breathlessness to the lines and adding more emphasis to the grandeur of the farm and the exhaustion of the farmer. The repetition of the initial consonant sound in words is called alliteration. As Baron Wormser and David Cappella explains in their book, Teaching The Art of Poetry: The Moves, “Alliteration is a quickener, a stimulant…” (27). This is especially so when used in close succession to each other as in many nursery rhymes, tongue twisters, and jump rope songs.

In addition to the alliteration in the two lines of Burns above, we also hear the repeated l sound in the words plain and delights, which connect one line to the next, lulling us further into the song, or rather, poem. A third instance of consonance in the couplet above is the r found in grain, o’er, weary, farmer. This sound softens the poem, lets us linger on each word a little longer.

Where is the consonance in “Todays Work”? Well, there is alliteration in first, finished, fingers, fleece, fibers. And there is the consonance of the l sound in last, wool, lost, fleece, plucked. There is the consonance of the “hard c” or k sound in picking, plucked, caught, carried, created, tucked, discovered, clung and accomplished. Interestingly, the k and short u sounds are combined in four of the words just mentioned: plucked, tucked, discovered, and clung. These aren’t particularly pleasant sounds, especially when used together, but the repetition of them emphasizes the difficulty (another word that combines the two sounds) in ridding ourselves of burdens that no longer serve a necessary function, which, of course, is really what the poem is about.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, and Other Resources):
Each of these books offers chapters on the sound in poetry:
Teaching the Art of Poetry: The Moves, edited by Baron Wormser and David Cappella
To Read a Poem, Second Edition, edited by Donald Hall

Modern Times: What They Were and Are – this is a series of weekly essays that Baron Wormser is writing. He just started on September 1, so you don’t have many to catch up on!

And here is a book all about the sound in poetry:

The Sound of Poetry/The Poetry of Sound, edited by Marjorie Perloff and Craig Dworkin – this is an extensive and deep collection of essays that discuss the role of sound in poetic meaning. On the first page of the introduction we find this statement by Roman Jakobson, a Russian-American linguist and literary theorist:
“’Poetry is not the only area where sound symbolism makes itself felt, but it is a province where the internal nexus between sound and meaning changes from latent into patent and manifests itself most palpably and intensely.’” Indeed.

Fuego en la Noche

Yesterday was the 4th Annual Cambridge Music Festival here in Vermont. Between sets of great music, there were other things going on…

POEM
Fuego en la Noche
or, Chasing Away the Hooky Spooks

Last night in blackness, between
music while the bands went on break,
we gathered round in a semi-circle
just beyond the burning cups
placed in careful spacing,
intentional line not to cross.
The rain had stopped
though the sky still pressed
against us. Wet. The universe
lay compressed between ankles
and oppression just above
our heads, as self-contained
as a coffin. Music, low, floated
in and a bare-footed woman
picked up chains with burning
cups at the end. She spun
them as a spider would spin
a web of fire, swinging flames
behind her back, crisscrossing
chains, flashing light against
her shoulders, flinging fire
across saturated grass, streaks
of orange-red opening the night.
We may have glanced
at her face in concentration,
but we couldn’t keep our eyes
from following the slashes
of danger that chased away
los diablos. For a moment,
even the full moon glanced
at the earth, and –
I kid you not – the sun
returned in this morning’s sky.

ELEMENT
Poet Highlight: Christina Rossetti

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, and Other Resources):
Goblin Market, Christina Rossetti’s famous narrative poem.
Cirque de Fuego
Cambridge Music Festival - don’t miss it next year!

Stanzas

I haven’t written much this summer and am easing my way back into it, allowing myself the paradigm shift needed to return to living a poet’s life. This means slowing down to observe and reflect, stopping at the station instead of hurrying past it with engines working constantly, full steam ahead.

POEM:
Stanzas

Lucy and sheep in the field.

Lucy and sheep in the field.

I.
I dream of sheep, my sheep, locked in the barn and I,
unable to get to them
due to ice and hills, and a car crash thrown in for good measure, and they, silent in their patience, moving as sheep do, as one, around the inner perimeter
of their confines, waiting
for grass, light, air.

 

II.
Was that you I saw
with straw hat, kerchief
around the neck, long-pants
in the ditch with a scythe?

III.
I have closed the door on the dog.
Don’t worry; it is the bedroom door,
and although her fluffy doggy bed
is in here, she will sleep elsewhere,
on the couch or on Great-Grandma
Dugan’s antique loveseat,
quite comfortable, free
of remonstration, of guilt.

IV.
The ocean frightens me, makes me
want to head back to Iowa, lie
my body flat in between the stubble
of corn stalks or sit in a deep ditch
where, my mother once told me,
wild roses grew before the pesticides
of the 1950’s, where you can hide
from jumping tornadoes, where,
in my blue jeans and sweat,
the four-foot grass hid me,
and after the dust-cloud settled
from a passing car, I smelled
the ocean in an endless sky.

ELEMENT:
Stanzas

Recently I was reading Mouth to Mouth: Poems by Twelve Contemporary Mexican Women, edited by Forrest Gander (Milkweed Editions), and came to the poems of Elva Macias. In her section there were poems under the heading “Stanzas.” Longer, in general, than haiku, but shorter than one might expect a complete poem to be, I liked the short musings she offered such as this:

III.
The balcony frames the branches of the cypress,
an insect slips
through the blades of the fan
and the mosquito net is a small cloud
spilling over desire.

And this one:

VII.
The breeze parts the curtains,
kisses sea snails
that keep their doors wide open.
It lulls you.
Over the afternoon
your dream
is the same as yesterday
and you almost laugh.

Interestingly, Macias had shorter creations that she has titled and that stand alone as a poem:

Sunflower along the barn last week.

Sunflower along the barn last week.

Nostalgia
The sunflower
even torn from its stalk
still follows, attentive, the movement of the sun.

What is the difference between a stanza, a strophe, a poem?

Posted on the website Literary Devices, the stanza is “a division of four or more lines having a fixed length, meter or rhyming scheme. Stanzas in poetry are similar to paragraphs in prose. Both stanzas and paragraphs include connected thoughts and are set off by a space. The number of lines varies in different kinds of stanzas but it is uncommon for a stanza to have more than twelve lines. The pattern of a stanza is determined by the number of feet in each line and by its metrical or rhyming scheme.”

And according to the website Poetry Archive, the stanza is “a group of lines within a poem; the blank line between stanzas is known as a stanza break. Like lines, there is no set length to a stanza or an insistence that all stanzas within a poem need be the same length. However, there are names for stanzas of certain lengths: two-line stanzas are couplets; three-lines, tercets; four-lines, quatrains. (Rarer terms, like sixains and quatorzains, are very rarely used.) Whether regular or not, the visual effect and, sometimes, the aural effect is one of uniting the sense of the stanza into one group, so poets can either let their sentences fit neatly within these groups, or create flow and tension by enjambing across the stanza breaks.”

This is as opposed to a strophe, defined by Encyclopedia Britannica: “strophe, in poetry, a group of verses that form a distinct unit within a poem. The term is sometimes used as a synonym for stanza, usually in reference to a Pindaric ode or to a poem that does not have a regular metre and rhyme pattern, such as free verse. In ancient Greek drama the strophe was the first part of a choral ode that was performed by the chorus while it moved from one side of the stage to the other. The strophe was followed by an antistrophe of the same metrical structure (performed while the chorus reversed its movement) and then by an epode of different structure that was chanted as the chorus stood still.”

But enough definitions already. I like to think of a stanza as what its etymology tells us it is: a little room, station, stopping place. These are the roots of the word in Italian.

If I think of writing a stanza instead of a poem, a huge weight is lifted from my shoulders. Why? Because I can manage being in a little room. When I enter a room, or stop at a station, there are unknowns to deal with to be sure, but the space and duration of my stay are confined. Even if the room is uncomfortable or the layover long, I know there are boundaries; there is a finite time I’ll be there and a sure way out.

Now imagine leaving that safe little room. You’ve shut the door behind you and have stepped outside into the end of summer, as it’s getting to be now. Image yourself at the edge of a cornfield where the corn is as tall as you or even taller. In front of you is the entrance to a corn maze. Entering this maze is like entering a poem. Both can be quite overwhelming and there is risk involved. They both beg the same questions: Which way do I go? How many wrong turns will I take? What will I discover? When will I come out? Perhaps, when you find the exit, you will have found a little cottage constructed with sweet stanza-rooms, or a mansion full of richly filled stanza-rooms, or a tumbled down shack with pathetic stanza-rooms that needs to be razed and begun anew. One never knows at the beginning of a maze.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, and Other Resources):

What is poetry? Some interesting definitions of poetry. Where are the definitions by women?