Life Goes On

Last week I gave a workshop, “Reading (and Writing) Robert Frost,” which gave me the opportunity to re-immerse myself in Frost’s poetry and Jay Parini’s great biography of him, Robert Frost: a life. This weekend, I read a collection of poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay, thanks to my friend Jane who reminded me of Millay’s astounding work.  Between Frost and Millay, how could I not be thinking sonnet?

POEM:
“Life Goes On”

Frost, it was, who said it so succinctly
in summarizing all that he had learned
from death: father, mother, Elinor,
and four of his six children, almost killing
him before his work was done. We know it best
while in our bed, the most alive, flesh
pressed against flesh in yet another
transcendent, metaphorical death.

We hope the sun will no longer shine,
and rainbows, sunsets, and full moons exist
no more. The sky? It must collapse. The night?
Shroud living loves once we are gone.
In beauty, the worst cruelty is found;
Frost, with just three words, on this expounds.

ELEMENT:
The Sonnet

Sonnets are addicting. That’s probably why they’ve been around since the 13th century. Once inside your head, it’s hard to get rid of the da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM rhythm of iambic pentameter. (However, before the ten syllable line that Shakespeare developed, the sonnet line was commonly eleven syllables – hendecasyllable – or twelve syllables – Alexandrine). It’s difficult, too, to drop the challenge of explaining the world (or love or death) in fourteen lines.  Along with the meter of the line and the length of the poem in a sonnet, go particular rhyme schemes that are now often ignored in contemporary sonnets. These rhyme schemes of sonnets are typically classified as Italian (Petrarchan), English (Shakespearean), or Miltonic and information about these can be easily found on line, so I will not go into them here.

One note about meter before going on; you’ll find some lines in the sonnet, “Life Goes On,” not in iambic pentameter, or at least, they might not start out that way because the first syllable of the line is stressed instead of the second. Changing the meter intentionally adds emphasis on particular words. Which lines above reflect the variance from iambs?

Although nothing surpasses the beauty of rhyme scheme when done well, what interests me more is the division of the sonnet into sections. In general, the first eight lines or octave, which is often broken into two quatrains, sets up the situation, problem, or question. The next six lines (sestet, often broken into two tercets), presents a resolution.  The ninth line is considered the “volta” or turning point in the mood or tone of the poem.

What also interests me is the seemingly infinite ways to riff off the original sonnet form. I love both the strict traditional sonnet and the individual interpretations of the form, or rather how the form is a springboard for pieces that don’t quite sever the cord to it. Below I have included some of my favorite sonnets that I have come across in my readings over the past few years, some famous, some not. Included is a new one I discovered just today. It is a word sonnet, which has one word in each of its fourteen lines. After reading several of these, I think they are as much like haiku, maybe more, than the sonnet. But it doesn’t really matter what gets you there, as long as you arrive.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, and Other Resources):
Seven sonnets: Shakespeare, Frost, Millay, Walcott, Collins, Nelson, Kehoe
Shakespeare –
Romeo and Juliet
ACT I – PROLOGUE

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

Robert Frost
The Silken Tent
She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when the sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To every thing on earth the compass round,
And only by one’s going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightest bondage made aware.

Edna St. Vincent Millay
Sonnet II

Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane;
but last year’s bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide!
There are a hundred places where I fear
To go,—so with his memory they brim!
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, “There is no memory of him here!
And so stand stricken, so remembering him!

Derek Walcott
From “Tales of the Islands”
Chapter X/”Adieu foulard…”

I watched the island narrowing the fine
Writing of foam around the precipices, then
The roads as small and casual as twine,
Thrown on its mountains; I watched till the plane
Turned to the final north and turned above
The open channel with the grey sea between
The fishermen’s islets until all that I love
folded in cloud; I watched the shallow green
That broke in places where there would be reef,
The silver glinting on the fuselage, each mile
Dividing us and all fidelity strained
Till space would snap it. Then, after a while
I thought of nothing; nothing, I prayed would change;
When we set down at Seawell it had rained.

Martha Collins (click on name to read NY Times book review of Blue Front)
From Blue Front
track

might have been from the other side but here
the other side was a river on both sides trains
ran if you started out on the wrong if
you fell off if you lost you might not cross
a visible line but nevertheless wherever
you were there were ways to find to put
for example dogs to follow a path beaten
by or as by an animal say a scent
to make to move quickly in order to stop
in his own who might not cover to stay
on the right no question of getting off to follow
into the house the fields the woods by whatever
means a horse a hijacked train some wagons
to follow the indisputable evidence down.
 
Marilyn Nelson
Recurrent Dream

My father came back regularly, to see
how I was doing, long after he died.
He came in dreams in which he lovingly
explained that he’d returned to be my guide
through the important shadows. I awoke
and all day saw day’s light intensified.
The last time, in an aureole of smoke
that somehow shone, he stood outside my door.
I didn’t open it. Instead, I spoke:
“I’m grown up. I don’t need you anymore.”
He smiled and nodded, saying, “Yes, I know.”
Last night I had another visitor:
Love’s ghost, as though compelled by need, as though
it knew the way. My love, I’m grown. Let go.

Word Sonnet from “Foreplay: An Anthology of Word Sonnets
Untranslatable
John Kehoe

we
had
everything
but
language
holding
us;
confuse
me
again
with
whispers
of
love

Asea

I have to admit, I like to watch baseball. The rules, the power and agility of the athletes, even the superstitions are multi-layered. It was baseball, spring training, and watching all those fine athletes that took me to Clearwater Beach, Florida the end of February. Well, it was the warm weather and the beaches, too. But in the end, it was a mermaid whom I carried home in my thoughts.

POEM:
Asea

The mermaid lay on the beach
on her side, her chevron tail
as wide as a row boat, her fish knees
flexed and her back arched slightly
with one hand resting on her stomach,
the other buried in the sand. And yes,
her breasts exposed and just the right
size and shape. Her hair was a splay
of rays emanating from her head.
She stared into the sky with blank eyes.

My husband and I, out for an evening stroll,
almost walked past her, but stopped
a few feet from the tip of her fin,
not sure at first at what we were looking,
not sure if we were allowed to look.
We hesitated for just a moment, then
simultaneously and together, advanced
along the side of her, stopping to face
her at the shoulder. “How beautiful she is,”
one of us said. “She’s perfect,” said the other.

I made him take a photo of her, first
from the front side and then, discovering
her muscled, rounded backside, a photo
from that angle. Small fissures spread
across her hip. How much longer
could she last? How the sand must have
rubbed her delicate skin, how the fin
must have itched. I wanted to lift her
under the armpits and drag her back
into the water to save her. But I was afraid

of drowning, have been since I was five,
from swimming lessons where I had to dip
my face into a chemicaled pool. I still can’t
imagine the power of breathing under water,
or the confinement of legs fused together,
unable to run if stranded on land. There are
no mysteries of the sea in an Iowa lake,
where a man drowned when I was the age
of a mermaid. I sat on the porch as he called
over and over for help, just before dawn.

The Mermaid, Clearwater Beach, Florida

 

ELEMENT:
Endings
(This will be a brief discussion that I will update soon. I am in Boston, away from my resources that I would like to use, especially the notes that I took from a workshop given on endings by Pulitzer Prize winner, Stephen Dunn during my residency in Dingle, Ireland).

There is a lot to write about regarding the ending of a poem. I had no idea that this poem would take me where it did and yet through the process of drafting and revising this piece, I conjured up a memory long forgotten, one that – for one thing – reminds me of how powerless we are at times. I had forgotten about that night in Storm Lake, Iowa, decades ago, when a man went out in a boat on a hot steamy night. One of my brothers woke first to his calls, then my sister, and then me. By the time I was outside sitting on the front steps, the rescue crew was out on the water, yet they couldn’t save him.

One of the difficulties I have with my poems is the ending. I tend to not “write it out,” to not write further in order to experience where the poem might take me. Perhaps due to laziness but more likely due to impatience, I tend to wrap it up too early or too neatly or want the control that comes with explaining the meaning instead of trusting the reader to think for him or herself. Continuing the poem beyond the first inclinations to stop is where many of the revelations occur, where surprises pop up, where the “click” happens that Frost explained in his interview for The Paris Review, (Summer-Fall, No. 24): “All thought is a feat of association: having what’s in front of you bring up something in your mind that you almost didn’t know you knew. Putting this and that together. That click.” Often it is difficult to write long enough and revise enough to get that click. But what a sweet sound when it comes.

Side note: I only read this interview’s of Frost in The Paris Review for the first time last night. Before then, I had never heard about Frost talking about this click. The use of that word, “click” as the last word in my poem “Violins and Apple Trees” is a coincidence. I love it when that happens.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc.):
A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Act 2, Scene 1
Decima – I had no idea this form existed. I wish I could say that I had planned the 10 lines out in “Asea,” but stanzas more or less fell that way, so I went with it. But in looking up poems with 10 lines in each stanza, I learned of the Decima, a Latin-American form with 10  lines and particular rhyming pattern in each stanza and 8 syllables per line.  Here is another link: Rules of the Decima. And for your viewing pleasure:

 

And Even Now…

It has been over a month since I have posted, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been working on what became this post. As always, several circumstances converged for the creation of today’s poem, “And Even Now, Lightning Flashes in Mid-December.”  One contributing factor was a discussion on Christmas Day about the Vermont Poet Laureates: Robert Frost, Galway Kinnell, Louise Gluck, Ellen Bryant Voight, Grace Paley, Ruth Stone, and Sydney Lea. The second factor was the discovery of the cento, a poem that is created through the use of other poets’ lines. The third piece was the horrible incident at Sandy Hook Elementary School. This shook me to my core.

How do you process something like this? I did not have words for it. So I took the words of others, specifically the seven Vermont Poet Laureates. I decided to read a book (or two short ones) by each poet, noting which lines resonated in some vague way to what I wanted to express. I then went back through the books, typed up each line that I had chosen, and organized them by author, assigning a different color to each one. This resulted in twelve pages of single lines. From there, I began to group lines together and thus began the poem. After four weeks, I have just finished the first draft that I post here today. The title is a line from Ruth Stone’s poem, “And So Forth,” found in her book In the Dark.

Due to the poem being so long (ten sections and eight pages in it’s totality), below I only have the beginning lines of sections 1, 2, 4, 9, and 10. Sections 3, 5, 6, 7, and 8 are included in their entirety. To read the complete poem, you can click here. To see which lines belong to which poet, click here. And to see additional lines I had chosen but that did not make it into this version, click here. They could make up another poem (or several).

POEM:
And Even Now, Lightning Flashes In Mid-December
A Cento Poem in Ten Parts
I
What can I tell you that you don’t know
of this slipping shadow – this eclipse
won’t let go    I am alone,
remote body, trembling with the rush
into the raven-black cave of self…

II
Perhaps he’s only become quite shy.

It was the smell of that time, that neighborhood.
I’d never paid a lot of mind: the merest nod, a vague hello
in that vanished abode now far apart,
in the pre-trembling of a house that falls,
a certain disheveled neighbor…

III
Your personality like moth wings, shredding itself
that at once kept you burning low and hid you,
and the long shaft of darkness shaped as you
would be afraid if we should comprehend

but no one ever heard you make the claim.

There’s a lot yet that isn’t understood –

but the last choice is still the same.

IV
But the last choice is still the same.

This morning    a man –
in a secret wood, as the countryside lay stunned –
killed my gift, exposed
us with the sting of memory
the oath sworn between earth and water, flesh and spirit, broken –
suddenly there suddenly gone.
But weren’t the early gifts a promise
I held in my hands? …

V
One doesn’t notice wings when they’re at rest.
Snow    birds    the sun         caught –
lifting through the sky, their voices
shuddering across the black sky and vanishing,
never again would birds’ song be the same.

A flock of birds leaving the side of the mountain:
again, again, again, frail wings beat as they hover.
Does it matter where the birds go? Does it even matter?
They leave here, that’s the point.

Not a bird in sight, not a sound.

The last blackbird lights up his gold wings: farewell.

VI
And she who is born
of so much warmth and light,
her tenderness gathers them up
by countless silken ties of love and thought
and run[s] in little skips.

A child’s kisses, rise –

and kissed her from head to toe     The other one my son

were days so very few

and did I say enough to you?

Even this haunted room,
watery shapes in the shadows of the room,
almost the whisper of your voice.

I would alchemize the ashes of your cradle back into wood.

VII
Bring out the stars, bring out the flowers.
In your dreams the hours begin to sing,
impatient for sunrise,
and if our getting up to start the day
had stood still for us in the middle of heaven
that blows apart the mightiest of stars,
you can imagine my breath stopped    then.

Who cares but for the future of the bud
and the blossoms glittering in the sky?

As above: the last scattered stars
expend their bloom in vain.

VIII
The night isn’t dark, the world is dark,
and there is always more than should be said
as if clinging could save us. I think
this absence has a smell,
and what I pity in you is something human
like the shoes left behind.
Casket of the snow:
I’ve seen it breaking open.
I walk out from myself –
I think, do you hear me now?
I cannot touch your life, much less can save,
so the past is not a scar but a wound:
and Time which is nature as well will be a poor healer no matter.

I had only wanted to love.

IX
Politicians rattling swords
or worse: deliberate, someone’s “agenda”
is just a male version of dressing up.

Of our ancestors, it says nothing.

“Now all together, fellows
let’s give them a chorus they won’t forget!”

as the women and children who
will surely be in the way
clung to the male’s plumage, which turned
history, with its moral,
often convenient…

that goodwill and hope may count for nothing
for the future.

What do they care?

X
Once we gave the matter little thought
with faint headshakings, no more wise
till it ended here:
it has come to this.
There’s nothing but injustice to be had.

The quiet authority of culture,
the witness tree…

What dream would be mine? That life go on,
the loving’s made to hold each other like
all bodies, one body, one light.

No more than dream, of course, I know.

ELEMENT:

Cento

There’s not a whole lot to say about a cento. First appearing somewhere between the 3rd or 4th centuries, a “cento” is a poem that is made of lines from other poems. The name is derived from Latin meaning “patchwork” and it is considered a type of collage poem. The poetry of both Homer and Virgil contain centos. A true cento, such as “And Even Now, Lightning Flashes in Mid-December” has no original lines. In using others’ lines, I did, however, take liberty with punctuation and capitalization to make the poem read a bit smoother. Still, it is a collage poem and meant to feel as such, echoing the complexities of all of the issues surrounding our societal woes with guns, not just at Sandy Hook, but across the nation where people are murdered or hurt every day by them.

Poems from the following books were used to compose the lines of the cento, And Even Now, Lightning Flashes in Mid-December”:

Robert Frost: A Boy’s Will and A Witness Tree
Galway Kinnell: The Book of Nightmares
Ellen Bryant Voight: Kyrie and Messenger, New Poems
Louise Gluck: Meadowlands
Grace Paley: Fidelity
Ruth Stone: In the Dark
Sydney Lea: Young of the Year

My next cento challenge is to take only 14 – or 7 – lines from all of those pages I chose to write a poem on the same topic.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc.):
Vermont State Poet Laureate
Poetry As Survival by Gregory Orr – a must-read book for coping with trauma through poetry