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:

 

Running In The Woods

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If I showed you this poem:

The Runner

On a flat road runs the well-train’d runner,
He is lean and sinewy with muscular legs,
He is thinly clothed, he leans forward as he runs,
With lightly closed fists and arms partially rais’d.

would you guess that it was written in 1867 by Walt Whitman?  Whitman describes the runner exactly as we still see him or her today, the body, the clothes, the stance. Whitman is one of my favorite poets as is Tim Seibles, whom I met and worked with at the USM Stonecoast MFA program. I had the honor of hearing Seibles read his poem, “Renegades,” from his book Buffalo Head Solos on Bowdoin campus a few years ago.  This poem about running is, of course, not about running. As with all good poems, much more lies beneath the surface.

 

POEM:
Running in the Woods

Pulled into trees, lifting
knees, feet rebound
off rotting logs, my feet,
thump, slip in and out
of animal holes, homes.
Don’t see spider webs
grab at me, mask my
face with sticky lace;
I am not afraid,
cannot be afraid
running through the woods.
Faster now, the earth
starts spinning under-
neath me; I am leaping,
dodging, skimming mush-
rooms that glow white
in the underbrush, shine
red in the black earth,
even purple between
the ferns. Suddenly
I spook a grouse, my heart
thumps to its thrumming
wings and my feet speed
up, echo the beat;
the bird is gone. Can’t
be afraid. Listen.
It’s just the wind creaking
trees, clicking sapling
trunks together. I jump,
run, jump the forest’s
lumpy blanket, buried
stumps, decaying timber.
Sticks snatch clothes,
scratch legs, draw blood that I
won’t see until I’m home.
I trip as I look up.
Vines tangle, snake
around. I slip on leaves
catch myself with calloused
hands, scramble up
ridges, now slower, so
think: What if I
meet a moose, six feet
high at the shoulder?
I see its scat all over,
leap every pellet-
filled pile of it.
Run. What if I
meet a bear, fat,
scratching, waiting, ready
for winter weather? I see its
claw marks climb the beech
trees. Run. I cannot
be afraid when the sun
dips, stoops too low,
too low to help me through
darkened woods. I’ve
mistook that ridge before,
it’s not the last this side
of home. I have another
hill to climb, another
mile, another valley
to go before I’m home.
I’m not afraid. I run.

ELEMENT:
Repetition

Poetry is all about repetition: repetition of sound, word, line, meter, content.

The repetition of beginning sounds in words (alliteration), vowel sounds (assonance), and end sounds (rhyme) makes a poem sing.  Sound repetition lets you know what words to invite into the poem. After all, shouldn’t you always invite your relatives into the house? (Okay, maybe I shouldn’t use that analogy). But what I mean is an “o” sound as in “home” invites in another “o” word such as “alone” into the poem.  “Home alone” sounds a heck of a lot better than “home by myself.”

I love repetition in poems and songs, but other than the sound repetition, I find it difficult to incorporate successfully. Repetition of words only works if done enough and not overdone. Repetition is good at medium-rare. Too much and the meaning’s burnt, not enough and it’s undetectable, inedible, indigestible.

Meter is the repetition of a particular pattern of stressed and non-stressed syllables. While I can hear iambs and trochees, anapests, and dactyls in many of poems I read, it’s still a challenge to get the meter “right” in my own poetry.  I have to work at it, and hopefully I have the intended trochaic trimeter pattern in “Running In The Woods.” (After having finished this poem and rereading the chapter on trochees in The Exaltation of Forms, I was reminded that trochee comes from the Greek word “to run.” Of course this poem has to be in trochaic form!). I have to acknowledge Charles Martin here, who must have asked a hundred times in the workshop I had with him, “What is the prosodic convention of this poem?” I cannot start a poem now without hearing him say this, which was his intent, no doubt.

A great example, in my opinion, of perfect sound, word, line, and meter repetition is in Robert Burns’ poem “Song Composed in August.” I first heard this poem as a song many years ago on an album by Scottish singer and song-writer Dick Gaughan. I searched for the lyrics on line and learned it was a Robbie Burns poem written in 1783. During my recent trip to Scotland, I decided I’d memorize the 40-line poem while touring the country, and wrote each stanza until I had it memorized then moved on to the next. I hadn’t intended to learn so much about repetition in such an intimate way. By memorizing the poem, however, I saw the patterns of words, rhyme, and meter that I would have otherwise missed.

Which brings me to another point of repetition: repetition of content. It was Andre Gide who said, “Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But, since no one was listening, everything must be said again.”  I love this. It gives me free rein (free reign?) to say whatever I want to say, since we’re all just saying the same thing everyone else has already said. I read this quote most recently in the book, Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon. He discusses in a quick-light-cartoonish-way how to steal others material and make it your own. Repetition with originality.

 

 

Erica Vega, up and coming poet extraordinaire, gave an excellent presentation during our last residency at Stonecoast, which was titled “Cycling: The Influence of Another’s Fire.” During her presentation, Vega discussed that the “essence of inspiration is influence” and what we create is based upon who we choose to read, watch, and listen to. We repeat the work of others’ with our own twist. (Case in point: can you pick up elements of Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening” at the end of my poem above? It surprised me even, but there you have the dark woods, the additional mile to go at the end. I happen to love Frost’s work ). One of the ways in which we can learn and be inspired, Vega asserted, is through writing down the work of someone else, exactly, as Hunter S. Thompson did with the Great Gatsby. As Vega did with Salinger’s short story “A Perfect Day For Bananafish.” As I did with Burn’s poem. In writing down someone else’s work, I am not writing to copy it, but writing to learn, learn techniques, tone, vocabulary, sentence construction, mastery.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc.):
Teaching the Art of Poetry by Baron Wormser and David Cappella. Great chapter on repetition  in this book!
Quick Meter Reference Guide – iamb, trochee, anapest, dactyl, and spondee,
An Exaltation of Forms, Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of Their Art, edited by Annie Finch and Katherine Varnes
Sinnerman, traditional spiritual sung by Nina Simone. Great example of the power of repetition.