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?

“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.

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

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

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
John Kehoe


Driving Home

Poetry is certainly NOT dead in northern Vermont! In fact, it seems as though there are more poetry events than ever to attend. So many that I can’t get to them all even with my new non-teaching schedule. One event I did attend (on September 16 in Barre, Vermont) was a lecture entitled “The Music of Poetry” given by pianist Michael Arnowitt. Using an eclectic array of both musical pieces and poetry, Arnowitt discussed the similarities and parallels found in music and poetry. If you were unable to attend, you can catch some of his other lectures and concerts. See his calendar here.

What does Michael Arnowitt have to do with today’s poem? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps everything. The poem today is about – surprise – death. Or you could say it’s about – surprise again – the human body. And maybe that does connect the poem to Michael Arnowitt. After all, poetry and music are two of the highest expressions of our bodies’ mind and senses.

Driving Home

The problem is our bodies,
is in our bodies, that is
having bodies. And then
not having a body. How
painful this inaccessibility,
jarring enough to be
nearly, sometimes totally –

as in the case of my mother-
in-law who died of heartbreak
two days after her sister,
orphaned as young girls
as they were, inseparable
for the rest of their lives –


What we cannot stand
is to not see the body
reach out to raise a glass
of water to the lips or not
be able to watch the slap
of the cap on top of the balding
head, routinely cock-eyed
in that irritable way,
or not hear the laugh
in little snorty spurts like spastic
hiccups, interrupting our seriousness
for a moment. So much easier

on us if we could just cut out
this segment, that is, this part
where we are encased
in the crapshoot of flesh.
How much simpler to just skip
the body altogether to reside
in heaven, hell, the white light,
nowhere, or wherever, and deal
with each other on another plane
with no bruises to remember,
owing nothing to a kiss.

The Musicality of Poetry

As a pianist, Michael Arnowitt is very conscientious and concerned with sound. Poets need to be as well.

Here are some points that I found interesting from Arnowitt’s lecture, some of which I have elaborated upon:

  • Both music and poetry are organized sound and rhythm.
  • Rhythm and rhyme have a time element to them. A true rhyme must have the same time element. For example, complete and compete are true rhymes while complete, obsolete, and meet are not due to the varying number of syllables, hence time.
  • Sounds are important to the meaning of words; they have an effect on us – think of the poem “Jabberwocky” or James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, or Scat that is sung. All of these contain “nonsense” syllables, yet we can derive meaning and feeling from the sound and its context. If you don’t believe me, check out this haunting excerpt of a performance of sorts reviewed in an article in the Irish Examiner (if only I were in Dublin next week!):
  • Both music and poetry are built upon the repetition of small groups – for poetry it’s the phoneme, word, line, stanza. For music it’s the note, motif, phrase, melody.
  • We control time with white space on the page and rests or holds in the musical score. The lack of white space speeds up a poem’s rhythm and the presence of white space slows it down. Think of stanza breaks.
  • Alliteration and assonance, like repeated motifs in music, give both unity and diversity to a poem. The repetition of a sound gives the unity and sets up the ear to also notice when that sound isn’t there. We notice the absence of a particular sound only after a pattern has been established, and that absence, then, is something to pay attention to (if it’s intentional and not just a mere coincidence – although sometimes while writing we seem to select a word by happenstance, but it is our ear that is selecting it. Sometimes, though, we don’t go back and listen to each word’s impact and have missed wonderful sound opportunities.
  • We can speed up or slow down the pace of a piece of poetry or music with particular sounds (phonemes or notes). Vowel sounds slow our spoken language (and are more important to an English word’s meaning than consonants), while consonants speed it up.

Language, its sounds and language acquisition have always fascinated me. I have always noticed how lyrics fit (or don’t fit) their musical scores. (I believe Joni Mitchell to be one of the best poet/musicians ever – see the youtube of “California” at the very end of this post). It was no accident that I was drawn to foreign languages in college and majored in Modern Languages and Linguistics, after almost switching to Speech Pathology. If only I had had a great singing voice!

All of this brings me to something else that Mr. Arnowitt mentioned and which I find absolutely fascinating. That is how spoken sounds are categorized. Three categorizations that Arnowitt mentioned (there are many more and those mentioned can be broken down into smaller groups) are fricatives, plosives, and nasal sounds.

Here is the experts’ explanation of fricatives: “Fricatives are consonants that are formed by impeding the flow of air somewhere in the vocal apparatus so that a friction-sound is produced. Because of the way the flow of breath is heard in producing fricatives, fricatives are also called spirants. Fricatives may be voiced (vocal cords vibrating during the articulation of the fricative) or voiceless (vocal cords not vibrating during the articulation of the fricative).” This is taken from Furman University website and is found at

More simply put, the fricative sounds are
1. /f/ (the phoneme spelled f in fine)
2. /v/ (the phoneme spelled v in vine)
3. /q/ (the phoneme spelled th in thistle)
4. /ð/ (the phoneme spelled th in this)
5. /s/ (the phoneme spelled s in sue)
6. /z/ (the phoneme spelled z in zoo)
7. /s</ (the phoneme spelled sh in shore)
8. /z</ (the phoneme spelled z in azure)
9. /h/ (the phoneme spelled h in hot).

At the website above, it explains further in depth the different types of fricatives, but this is surely enough for here and now. To illustrate the use of fricatives in poetry, Arnowitt used a line from Shakespeare (The Tempest, Act 1, Scene 2).
Full fathom five thy father lies:

If we look at this line, we quickly see the initial consonant alliteration in the words full, fathom, five, and father. But if we look at (or rather listen to) the fricative alliteration, we can also add the “th” sound in fathom, the /v/ sound in five, the “th” sound in thy (which is different than the than the “th” sound in fathom), the “th” sound in father, and the /z/ sound that the letter s makes in the word lies. This gives a total of nine fricatives in six words. Shakespeare, of course, doesn’t keep this up in the immediate subsequent lines; doing so would be ridiculous, comical almost, but this line is rich and delicious in itself and in its context:
Full fathom five thy father lies:
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them – Ding-dong bell.

Of course, I have nothing like this in “Driving Home,” but there are some repeated fricatives, in particular the /z/ sound at the end of many words, the /v/ sound found in the middle of words, and the /s/ sound found in the words “inaccessibility” and “sometimes,” all in the first stanza.  I believe they give a unity to the stanza and emphasize the problem I’m dealing with: “is bodies.”

Plosives, another group of phonemes, are explained in The World Atlas of Language Structures Online (what a find!): “Plosives are the kinds of sounds usually associated with the letters p, t, k; b, d, g, in which air flow from the lungs is interrupted by a complete closure being made in the mouth.” The hard /ch/ sound also fits into this category. Notice the words with plosives in the Shakespeare example above, in particular “Ding-dong bell.” A great example (mine, not Arnowitt’s) of the plosives doing their job is in the Edgar Allan Poe poem, “The Bells,” which this segment of Shakespeare brought to mind. Not only is “The Bells” a study in meter, it’s a study in the use of sounds and how sounds and the repetition of sounds build meaning. It is a must read-ALOUD.

Lastly, I’ll briefly mention the nasals.  There are only three nasal sounds in English – the /m/, /n/, and / ŋ/ or ng as in the word “sing.” Nasals give us a humming or buzzing sound.  A good example of this is found in the last two lines of Tennyson’s poem, “Come Down O Maid.”

The moan of doves in immemorial elms
And the murmuring of innumerable bees.
In the last two lines of “Driving Home” there are three words with nasals: “remember…owing…nothing.” These words connect the two main words of the lines, “bruises” and “kiss.” I find it interesting that “bruises” and “kiss,” both begin with plosives and end with fricatives. Perhaps coincidence. Perhaps not.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, and Other Resources):
Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson – an entertaining, quick biography
A Teacher Writes – an interesting, resourceful website written by British teacher Melanie Kendry. I haven’t perused this as thoroughly as I want to yet, but will.
Sound In Poetry – I don’t agree with everything this author says, but he makes some interesting points.
Check out this poetry event!

And here’s that very early rendition of “California” –