Another Poet & Children’s Writer

Just noticed a new netizen blogger – Karin Gustafson. I like her for three reasons. First, she writes traditional poetry, which is to say, she tests herself against the disciplines of rhyme, meter and form.  Second, she writes children’s stories. Subway SonnetI do too. In fact, I have a Master’s Degree in Children’s Literature. So.. I really do like this art form. Third, she writes fun posts and has the same last name as a favorite high school teacher (way back when). Her latest post is Subway Sonnet (as of Sept. 24, 2009).

She dispenses with meter, but almost keeps to the rhyme scheme of the typical Shakespearean Sonnet. What she experiments with (which is why I say almost to the rhyme scheme) is the number of lines. She adds a fifteenth “half line” to the sonnet. It’s only nominally a “half line”, since there’s no meter in the poem. If she had written the poem using Iambic Pentameter, for example, a half line, conventionally, would be Iambic Trimeter. As it is, the sonnet could either be a modified Shakespearean Sonnet (both because of the extra line and because there’s no meter) or a nonce sonnet (which is simply what you refer to a poem whose form is unique to the poem and the poem’s author). Here are the last lines:

Today, I’m by the sea,
and water, vaster than pools, sparkles
under light so immense it cannot be
broken down for parts, yet its particles
raise up the non-molecular part
of me, what refuses to lose heart,
no matter–

The sonnets volta (which not all sonnets have) is her shift between yesterday and today, between observation and a sort of philosophical summing up. Also, check out her sonnet Post-Eden, it’s quite good. As with the sonnet above, she dispenses with meter, but unlike that sonnet she retains the rhyme scheme of the Shakespearean Sonnet (there’s no half line).

For a poem written in 8 line stanzas of four rhyming couplets, check her post: The Burden of Specialness – Firely. She’s a new blogger. 1 MississippiShe’s a good poet. And did I mention she writes for children? A book she wrote and illustrated was published by Backstroke Books, called 1 Mississippi. So, if you’re looking for poetry, take a look at her blog. If you have kids learning to read, try out her book.

One last thing, if you love Robert Pattinson, the painfully soul-drenched vampire of Twilight, you will find a soul-mate in Gustafson. (She can be forgiven, my wife was also smitten by the smolder.)

I love Robert Pattinson.  I also love Walt Whitman, W.B. Yeats and Virginia Woolf, so please don’t judge me too harshly.   Though I’ve actually been quite amazed by my love for Pattinson.  It is not just his looks (okay, it’s his looks), but also an inherent, seeming, sweetness.   The casual smile, upturned lips, harassed hair, truly harassed self.

The Animal Tales! • The Ninth of Several Fables

9. No Death Worse

A fable that follows: What’s Sweetest

Fox & Cooked GooseThe wolf paced atop the hill. “Why should the fox eat well and not me?” After some thought he went to the magpie with a plan. The magpie would distract the farmer’s wife with talk while the wolf ate chickens. “What should I say?” the magpie wondered, trying one subject after another. The wolf answered: “That would do…” or “Yes, that will work…” or “That’s a very good subject…”; but ideas, for the magpie, were like fish out of water, impossible to hold.

The farmer’s wife heard the magpie halfway to the farmyard and well warned, she planned a little surprise. “I think I shall smoke ham today!” When the magpie arrived later, she found the farmer’s wife at laundry. She straightaway struck up a conversation with the woman as the wolf snuck into the coop.

Ham hung from the ceiling! The wolf jumped and jumped and jumped! The ham was strung too high and worse!—the coop was filling with smoke and worse!—the door had locked behind him! When the magpie finally returned to coop, she gabbed and gabbed about her gab with the farmer’s wife. How the wolf sweat! All night long he sweat and sweat as the magpie gabbed and gabbed! And the next morning, when the magpie finally thought to open the door, half the wolf had been smoked away! The animals shook their heads and said,

“No death worse than talked to death!”

Be it known that this fable is followed by: The Higher the Horse

The Rhyme and Meter of Tang Poetry

Turner's Blog PageAnyone who enjoys Chinese poetry might enjoy Frederick Turner’s new translation of the Tang Dynasty Poets. The translation is unique in that he attempts to reproduce some of the Chinese formalism. He’s offering it for free (in digital form).

Although the formal genius of Tang poets is frequently described, translators rarely try to capture that facet. It’s a puzzling omission; but rhyme and meter have been denigrated by generations of free verse writers, sometimes vehemently. Content is the alter at which free verse worships. Rhyme and meter are seen as needlessly ornamental. But when written with genius, the formal aspects of a poem, it’s aural effects, are part of its content. My own opinion is that if a translator ignores a poem’s technical content, then it’s not a true translation – this includes the many free verse translations of Rumi, Homer and Virgil.

However, for those interested in what constitutes meter in Chinese, Turner’s introductory discussion of Chinese poetry’s formalism is bizarrely amateurish and uninformative – a peculiar oversight since the uniqueness of the translation is premised on its formalism. Turner states that “to my ear” he can hear “a regular stress pattern of alternating strong and weaker stresses”.  This would give one the impression that  Chinese is an accentual language (like English) which it isn’t – not remotely. He goes on:

The normal Tang poem has eight or four lines. To my ear—this feature is not often discussed by scholars—the lines are  stressed TUMta TUMta TUM for the five 20 syllable line, TUMta TUMta, TUMta TUM) poetry dictionaryfor the seven syllable line. p. 20-21

To the uninitiated, he might as well be describing trochaic trimeter or tetrameter. When I asked him how he was qualified to judge the meter of a Chinese poem, he veered off into the twilight zone by responding that he was good at recognizing meter in German and Hungarian – both of which are accentual languages (English is a Germanic Language) but have nothing whatsoever to do with Chinese.

Thank god for poetry dictionaries. Here is how John Drury, author of the Poetry Dictionary, sums up meter in Chinese poetry.

Chinese Forms

Whether or not Turner is right in hearing what he thinks he does,  my advice is to consult other resources. What constitutes meter in Chinese, at the very least, is not what Turner is describing.  That said, the only meter available to English is an accentual one. A translator can’t reproduce Chinese meter, but he or she can attempt  to reproduce a  commensurate formalism. This is what Turner has done. Here is one of Du Fu’s Poems (spelled Tu Fu by other translators):

Spring Night with Happy Rain
Du Fu (712-770)

A good rain knows the season when it’s right,
In spring, on time, it makes things sprout and grow.
Follow the wind, sneak out into the night:
All moist things whisper silently and slow.

Above the wild path, black clouds fill the air,
The boatlamp on the flood the only glow;
At dawn you see wet mounds of crimson where
The heavy flowers of Chengdu hang down low.

P. 79

Du Fu, according to the Chinese, was the unrivaled formalist.  (I’ve always wondered what it must be like to read the original.) Though Turner’s translation is probably only an approximation, it’s a refreshing attempt and reproduces what all free verse translations gloss over. It also makes the poem feel less like the product of the 20th or 21st century (an aesthetic with which Tang poetry has almost nothing  in common). As far as the poems themselves go, I hope more translators follow Turner’s lead. (Scribd’s interface leaves something to be desired. I downloaded the book in Adobe Acrobat. It’s also available as a .doc or .txt file.)

CALENDARS by annie finch

  • September 18 2009 • Cleaned up typos. Oddly, Firefox keeps mucking up WordPress Javascsripts. I’ve switched to Google Chrome. This is the  third time I’ve had to correct the same typos.

How the Book Faired

Not many reviewers hold poetry books to the same standards I do. In fact, none that I know of.

I am unique among reviewers.

Annie Finch CalendarsLet me begin by stating that I received the book straight from the publishers. The copy that I ordered was hardcover. The book was beautifully wrapped in a fine tissue paper and lacked only a wax seal. The care taken in its presentation leaves the reader with the impression that this is a book (and poet) that the publishers are proud of.

After receiving this beautiful book, I promptly left it on the roof of my car and drove off. Several hours later, I recovered the book from the off-ramp of I-91. This alone is remarkable. The book was able to stay on top of my car for some 23 miles at speeds of just over 70 miles per hour. This bespeaks a slender volume with subtle curves able to withstand gale force winds.

I then put the book next to my favorite chair.

Whereupon one of my little girls knocked over my freshly filled glass of ice tea (I had just been preparing to review the book). CALENDARS was soaked (along with some other books). I then did what I do with all my books that get caught in lemon iced-tea downpours.

I put it in the oven (which has a pilot light) underneath my 1940’s edition of the Columbia Encyclopedia.

I then forget that the book is in the oven and crank the oven to a pizza-ready 475 degrees. As any good lit major knows, paper burns at 451 degrees, hence Fahrenheit 451. Fortunately, the smell of broiled Columbia Encyclopedia and roast Finch alerted me to the impending book burning. I removed the books. Very hot. Very dry. Very bent.

I noted that the binding and glue had withstood both gale force winds and a controlled propane explosion. I promptly placed the roast Finch under my beloved 1938 Webster’s Encyclopedia (all 11 or 12 pounds of it) to straighten it out. Finch is small. Webster’s is big. I forget about the roast Finch until last week. Upon recovering Finch from her premature burial, I discover that the book is straight and, to the untrained eye, looks good as new.

So, I can now say without reservation that the quality of the book is outstanding and highly recommended.

Printed by Tupelo Press.

About Annie Finch

A brief biography of Annie Finch states that she was born in New Rochee, New York in 1956. She studied poetry and poetry-writing at Yale. (I’m not sure of the distinction between poetry and poetry-writing, but then I didn’t go to Yale.) Of interest to me is her collection of essays called The Body of Poetry: Essays on Women, Form, and the Poetic Self (2005),  A Formal Feeling Comes: Poems in Form by Contemporary Women (1994) and After New Formalist: Poets on Form, Narrative. And Tradition (1999). She’s a formalist. (I normally don’t care for the term because I am not formal, but Finch uses it.) Finch is currently directing the Stonecoast Masters of Fine  Arts program in creative writing at the University of Southern Maine. And of final note: Calendars was shortlisted for the Foreward Poetry Book of the Year Award.

Annie Finch is incredibly productive.

Now to the Poetry:  Understanding Them

Reading Finch is a bit like reading Yeats in the following way: They are both steeped in a spirituality that uses “code words”, symbols and associations that the average reader may or may not be familiar with. Anyone who does a little research on Finch will learn that she’s Finch Study Guidea practicing Wiccan and that to more thoroughly understand her poetry is to more thoroughly understand her spirituality. Fortunately for readers of Yeats, a reader’s guide is available and indispensable. But what if you’re reading Finch? Well, as it turns out, the publishers have provided what they call a “study guide“. Clicking on the image at right will download a PDF from Tupelo press.

If you download it, you will find that the guide consists of a series of leading questions for each of the book’s poems. The questions are meant to provide readers with avenues of investigation that will presumably provide clues to or reveal the poem’s associations, symbols and meaning. By way of  example, here is the first poem (normally I wouldn’t reprint an entire poem, but readers might enjoy following the text as Finch reads the poem in the video below):

Landing Under Water, I see roots

All the things we hide in water
hoping we won’t see them go—
(forests growing under water
press against the ones we know)—

and they might have gone on growing
and they might now breathe above
everything I speak of sowing
(everything I try to love).

Here is the first of the two questions found in the study guide:

Finch dedicates this poem to Rita Dove in the “Acknowledgments” and has mentioned during readings that this poem came to her after reading Dove’s verse play The Darker Face of the Earth. The play, which retells the story of Oedipus among slaves on a nineteenth-century plantation, concerns the influence of a family’s past history on the present. Are these themes reflected in “Landing Under Water, I See Roots”?

Is one to assume that one must read “Acknowledgments” in order to fully appreciate Finch’s first poem? This seems to be the implication. How many readers are going to want to pursue this research? I, for one, am not. I have a whole pile of books yet to read, all on the floor next to my chair, all ready to soak up my next glass of iced tea. I generally don’t care for poetry of this sort. My own bias is to believe that a poem that isn’t self-sufficient, whose meaning can’t be plumbed without the aid of footnotes or endnotes, hasn’t done its job. It’s unfinished. But that’s my bias. I know that other poets enjoy this kind of poetry, as do many readers.

And here is the poet reading the poem:

As it stands, Finch’s first poem is beautifully written (if obscure). Who hides things in water? I don’t. And if we don’t take it literally (which I don’t think we’re meant to) how exactly are we to interpret “water”? Another reviewer, Tim Morris at the University of Texas at Arlington, has this to say:

Annie Finch’s work consistently makes us read a line twice. You are never sure just where a line or a thought is going. But in contrast to one dominant poetic school in America at the moment, descended from John Ashbery, where the reader does not know or for that matter care where the next thought is going, in Finch’s poetry one always cares.

I would modify that second sentence just a little: You are never sure just where a line or a thought went.

OK, never is too strong a word, but perhaps you take my point. There can be an opaque quality to Finch’s poetry, the feeling that you just had to be there. Finch’s poems can be like sentences without nouns where one is never quAnnie Finchite sure what’s being described or conveyed. I’m dubious but, as Morris asserts, Finch’s associative leaps pale in comparison to an Ashbery. There are readers who enjoy this sort of opacity and  I do think it is possible to enjoy Finch’s art without fully understanding her references. In no way do I want to dissuade readers from reading her poetry. My reactions are to be taken with a grain of salt.

But besides that, what’s with the study guide anyway? A whole host of questions beg to be asked.  Was it thought to be necessary? If so, why? Is the text to be considered complete without it? Why wasn’t it included with the book? Doesn’t it imply a certain level of presumptuousness? Is Annie Finch so established that her poetry now comes with study guides? Are readers obligated to read the study guide alongside her poetry? I’m certain she and the publisher would say no, but there it is. I must admit, I would probably have a near death experience if my own poetry were issued with a study guide, but I would also be just a little embarrassed. Shouldn’t I be dead before this happens? Mind you, only some of these questions relate to the quality of her poetry. That said, they’re questions I inevitably ask myself. If a book of poetry comes with (or requires) a study guide, what’s missing in the poetry?

All the same questions could be asked of Yeats, but then Yeats was Yeats. He was writing, unapologetically, for the Irish. Who is Finch writing for? – other women who happen to be wiccans? It’s a question that will occur to some readers through the course of the book and in poems like The Menstrual Hut, Without a Bird, Summer Solstice Chant. None of this, by the way, is a criticism so much as a description of what you will find.

On the other hand, not all of Finch’s poems are so oblique.

A Wedding on Earth is rich with earthy exuberance. At Religioustolerance.org the Wicca religion is described as  neopagan, earth centered religion. Finch’s poem is nothing if not earth centered. It’s imagery is concrete, sensuous, and erotic, reveling in the fecundity of the earth. There is no “earth as it is in heaven”. Heaven is earth.  Religious Tolerance, by the way, defines neopaganism as the following:

A Neopagan religion is a modern faith which has been recently reconstructed from beliefs, deities, symbols, practices and other elements of an ancient religion. For example, the Druidic religion is based on the faith and practices of the ancient Celtic professional class; followers of Asatru adhere to the ancient, pre-Christian Norse religion; Wiccans also trace their roots back to the pre-Celtic era in Europe. Other Neo-pagans follow Hellenismos (ancient Greek religion), Religio Romana (ancient Roman religion), Kemetism (ancient Egyptian religion) and other traditions.

Unlike with some of her other poems, it’s not essential to know that she’s a Wiccan or to know what Wicca entails, but it does inform the poem.

And as each fruit that drips down the earth’s strong chin
spills new sugar over an ancient face,
we all hold seeds that vibrate alive within,
and every hardened pod pulls the world’s embrace
from a new hiding place.

This is from the first stanza. The rich imagery and Whitmanesque rhetoric continue, unabated, through the entirety of the poem. Not all of the allusions or images make sense:

…bring
sand to emptiness, memory to the full..

Sand may have some Wiccan connotation of which I’m unaware. Without knowing, lines like this sound a little like words for the sake of words. They are like the witch’s chants – more incantation than meaning – creating a sort of sound and wall of imagery that’s meant to be like sounds and color. Like a magic spells, the words aren’t quite meant to make sense but to create a mood. The poem works. She moves in and out of incantation and exhortation:

Let your bodies make a body of bodies – cool
with the pores of a question, rich and warm
with answers quickening to beat and roll and spool
through the lost space anchored only by love’s vast charm,
where pools of kiss and hope and remembering meet,
crossed in a sculpting heat.

While we’re talking about content, you might not notice Finch’s mastery of form. And that’s the way it should be. Of all the poets who still write in the aural tradition, which is to say she uses meter and rhyme,  she is the most skillful. Her lines are rich with enjambment. This is a poet who can think beyond the line ,whose inventive powers move over many lines at once. One doesn’t get the sense that she writes line by line – as one does with so many other formalist poets. Her thought and meaning move through the form – that is, Finch gives the illusion that the form is accidental. The poem feels as though it has created the form rather than the form creating the poem.  Her poetry is mercifully free of metrical fillers and archaisms (in terms of word choice and grammar) that so frequently mar the efforts of other modern formalist poets. This is Finch’s singular gift and mastery.

The study guide provides a brief explanation of the meters and a sample scansion of all the poems in Calendar. Of the Wedding on Earth, the study guide writes:

This invented stanza uses the same line lengths, with the rhyme pattern of the Spenserian stanza. As befits a meter related to the Sapphic stanza—a meter that does not lend itself to Wedding On Earth Scansionsubstitution, since a particular pattern of different metrical feet constitutes its identity—this invented meter does not usually use substitution within the line. However, it does tend to leave off the final unstressed syllable of a line, lending the poem a more insistent, drumlike and ceremonial quality.

Notice the emphasis on the insistent, drumlike character of the meter – all in keeping with the feeling of the poem as incantation. This aspect of the study guide is especially useful and one wishes (or at least I do) that the publishers had included an appendix in the book itself – though I can understand why Finch, the publishers, or both opted not to. I fully admire Finch’s passion for the aural tradition, along with the varied exploration of the moods the different meters rouse in her. One gets the sense that the various stanza forms and meters are like musical keys to her. Different composers reacted differently to C Major, C# Minor or E♭major; and one gets the same sense that the different meters evoke commensurate moods and subjects in Finch.

And speaking of the study guide, I find some of its scansions puzzling.

For instance, the study guide scans the first poem as follows (trochaic tetrameter):

Landing Under Water ScansionNotice that the second and fourth line of each stanza shows a missing unstressed syllable. This implies that the meter is what’s called Long Meter, which has a syllable count of  8,8,8,8 . In other words, the ballad meter should be read as Long Meter with a missing syllable in the second and fourth line. In fact, Finch’s ballad meter is a trochaic version of 8s, 7s. A wealth of examples can be found here at the Fasola web site.

I might be accused of quibbling.

The study guide adds: Line 2: The rest or omitted syllable, very unusual in the middle of a trochaic line, creates an emphatically strong stress on “won’t.

I wouldn’t scan it that way. If this was Finch’s intention, then she didn’t quite pull it off. The tug of the trochaic meter pulls too hard against her intentions. At best, one might scan the line as follows:

spondaic Finch

This would make the second foot spondaic. However, I suspect many readers would read it as follows:

weak spondaic Finch

This scansion makes the word won’t more of an intermediate stress. If Finch had created some syntactic pause after won’t, I think readers would be more apt to heavily stress the word. But such is the art and science (the nitty-gritty) of writing meter. And I love Finch for trying.

Finch’s poems are full of metrical niceties like these and even if I’m dubious as to the success of some of them, I’m in no way criticizing her. Her poems are richer for the effort and the scansions available in the study guide give the interested reader something to think about. Did it work?  Did it not work? If so, why?

It’s refreshing to read a skilled craftsmen and, in effect, have her share her thoughts and poetic ambitions with the reader. In the hands of a master, the tools of the aural tradition add a layer that free-verse  simply can’t reproduce. And Annie Finch is a master.

Her Imagery

Finch’s imagery is curious. It is primarily visual.

She rarely touches on the sense of smell; and when she does, it’s only in the most conventional way. In A Wedding on Earth, for example, she refers to the “fragrant dust” – a rather abstract allusion that carries few, if any, associations. Her sense of touch is also muted – which is strangest of all (especially for a poet so devoted to the Earth). She rarely goes beyond the most conventional descriptions. A stone is rough, the earth is damp, lips are soft, or hands are warm, for example. Other than that, she will frequently use the verb touch (in many of her poems), but rarely explores the sensation other than to say that she or something was ‘touched’.

Taste and Sound (Aural) are also muted. It’s really quite remarkable. I wasn’t able to find a single example of taste in any of her poems. However, I’ll concede that I wasn’t looking for this when I first read her poems and have only quickly thumbed through the poems the second time round. Maybe I missed something. The closest we come, again, is in “A Wedding on Earth” She writes:

And as each fruit that drips down the earth’s strong chin
spills new sugar over the ancient face…

But even here, the sense of taste is suggested but nothing more. The mouth appears frequently in her poems, but Finch rarely, perhaps never in Calendar, actually explores the sense of taste. In Butterfly Lullaby she refers to the “sweet question mark”, but the word and the word’s usage are so conventional as to flirt with cliché. It hardly connotes the sense of taste.

A sense of hearing is also missing from her poetry except in the most conventional usage. The closest she comes may be in the poem Belly, where she refers to the “Humming sparrow touching my breast…” There’s the sense of touch again, but the imagery is abstract. Is she describing sound? Is she describing an inner sensation akin to touch? Even in her poem Faces with Poulenc, ostensibly about her reaction to the composer and his music, the sense of sound is conspicuously absent. Her poem, it might be said, recreates her experience of sound through visual motion. And this is what most characterizes Finch’s imagery.

Motion.

Her poetry is full of verbs, adverbs and present participles. Inks interpenetrate. The Sun tucks its way through the ground. Spirals bend into flame. There is whirling, spiraling, breathing, touching, meeting, curling, fish-rushing sparks, floating, evenings ravelling of slats to emerald. The wisteria raises its inchworm head. “Delve for me,” she writes, “delve down.” Then later: cradle the concrete ground till it softens. Things vine and sink and hide and pour. The sky is grass-moving. Consider the following lines: Indian grass lapping up the spattering sun; a great building that breaths under sunlight, currents of earth linger; You reach through your mouth to find me – Bursting out of your body. In the poem Churching she will “stay here looking” with her blood, she will “stay here holding up” her blood and “will stand here with” her blood but she won’t smell, taste, touch or hear it.

Hers is the visual imagery of constant motion. The verb reaching appears in poem after poem. The verbal imagery lends her poetry energy and richness but also, to me, gives them a monochromatic feeling.  Each poem seems written in the same key. Taken one after the other, they begin to feel breathless and hyperactive. As I say, it’s a curious effect. And to be fair to Finch, she is not alone in overly favoring one sense. I can look back through my own poems (most of them on this website) and see that I seldom explore all five senses. In some, like my All Hallows’ Eve, I made a deliberate effort to exploit taste, touch, sound and smell, but that was a much longer poem. I suppose one might wish that she modulated the pitch of her imagery the way she varies the poems’ formal aspects.

To Whom She Writes

Traditionally, the poetry loved by the most readers (the poetry that is considered universal) is the poetry in which the poet, in effect, disappears.  It’s the poetry in which the reader can say to his or herself: If I could have, that’s how I would have said it. The great poets help us find our own voice, help us express our own ideas and dreams. Guy that I am, I  just don’t see myself ever wanting to recite The Menstrual Hut or Chain of Women while I’m bucking logs. To read Finch’s poetry is to see the world the way see she’s it – to experience the earth and spirit the way she experiences it. Hers is a very personal poetry.

The downside is that sometime the poet’s reveries are so full of personal significance, oblique chants and imagery, that the reader will feel excluded. They might feel as though they are watching a self-involved ceremony that is both strangely secretive and exhibitionist.

And, as I wrote before, the reader might feel as though they just had to be there. Her various chants give that impression: Lammas Chant, Summer Solstice Chant, Winter Solstice Chant, the Imbolc Chant. I suppose they ought to be treated as part of a larger performance. (The book, after all, is called Calendars.) On the other hand, I think it’s fair to wonder at their intrinsic value. She herself writes:

Some are poems I decide I want to write for a certain occasion (“Elegy for My Father,” “A Wedding on Earth,” “A Carol for Carolyn,” the valentines, which are an annual tradition for my husband, and the five seasonal chants); in the elegy and the wedding poem, for example, I wanted to provide an earth-centered religious context for certain rituals of marriage and death.

You just had to be there.

Poems like the chants are probably best enjoyed for the mood they evoke.  Enjoy them and her other poems for their rich rhythms and masterful control. Enjoy her poems for the incantatory spell they can cast on you. I wouldn’t recommend reading the book in one sitting. Read it like you would read the calendar, a day at a time. Then you will especially enjoy poems like Lamia to Lycius and the almost metaphysical conceit of The Intellect of Woman (a kind of companion or response to Wilbur’s poem Mind.  You will savor her metrical skill, the subtlety of her enjambment and the vibrancy of her imagery.

She’s one of the best.

So the intellect of woman will not mind
the sight of where the diamond’s edge has moved.
Perfection’s habit opens us to find
cuts in a window we have never loved.

The Intellect of Woman

Note: I don’t recommend her book in any recipe, ovens or cauldron.

Annie Finch reads American Witch (not from Calanders)

But is it Poetry?

My 2¢

I couldn’t resist..

The Observer, as mentioned in the previous post, published an article entitled Poetry guardians reject modern verse. The Observer writes:

Members of the [Queen’s English Society – QOS], set up to defend the ‘beauty and precision’ of the English language, have turned their attention to contemporary poetry and poets, arguing that too often strings of words are being labelled as poems despite the fact they have no rhyme or metre.

What defending the “beauty and precision” of the English Language has to do with defining poetry is unclear. After all, there are any number of free verse “poems” Observer Linkcontaining English that are both beautiful and precise. If the Queen’s English only wants a beautiful and precise definition of poetry, then I assume that the Encyclopedia Britannica’s editors probably live in the same neighborhood.

It seems, however, that they had already decided what that definition should be:

‘A lot of people high up in poetry circles look down on rhyme and metre and think it is old-fashioned,’ said Bernard Lamb, president of the QES and an academic at Imperial College London. ‘But what is the definition of poetry? I would say, if it doesn’t have rhyme or metre, then it is not poetry, it is just prose. You can have prose that is full of imagery, but it is still prose.’

The campaign is being spearheaded by Michael George Gibson, who said it was ‘disgraceful’ that the Poetry Society had failed to respond properly to his demands for a definition. ‘For centuries word-things, called poems, have been made according to primary and defining craft principles of, first, measure and, second, alliteration and rhyme,’ said Gibson. ‘Word-things not made according to those principles are not poems.’ True poems, he said, gave the reader or listener a ‘special pleasure’.

While I may be mildly sympathetic to their angst (if not their goals) stating that “true poems” give readers “special pleasure” is hardly a beautiful or precise definition. Everyday my WordPress Spam filter weeds out hundreds of comments promising “special pleasures”. Were they all poems? – beautifully nubile, inviting and precisely suggestive? I’ll have to turn that filter off…

The Poetry Society's Definition of Poetry?

The Poetry Society’s Definition of Poetry?

On the other hand, the Poetry Society’s response was equally ridiculous, if not more so:

The Poetry Society has responded to the criticisms. One trustee told Gibson: “There is poetry in everything we say or do, and if something is presented to me as a poem by its creator, or by an observer, I accept that something as a poem.”

This is the kind of airy fairy poetry definition that makes the Queen’s English Society look good. If the Poetry Society truly responded that everything is a poem just because somebody told them so, then they are brain dead. If nothing else, their poetry “trusteeship” isn’t to be trusted and should be revoked. Try telling your local journal editor that your Aspirin bottle’s ingredients list is a poem. (Evidently, that would be good enough for the Poetry Society.) There’s a reason colleges rake in millions of dollars from MFA programs. And it’s not because anything and everything is a poem.

Another trustee, Ruth Padel, dropped back and punted a T.S. Eliot:

Ruth Padel, a prize-winning poet who used to be chair of trustees at The Poetry Society, added: ‘As for “what poetry is”: in The Use of Poetry TS Eliot said, “We learn what poetry is – if we ever learn – by reading it.”‘

Apparently, her prize-winningness doesn’t do well with definitions of poetry. Padel, in effect, is putting words into Eliot’s mouth. What Eliot meant and what Padel meant could have been two entirely different things. But we’ll never know because Eliot isn’t around to clarify (which is why you should always quote the dead). My own opinion is that Eliot’s quote doesn’t help her cause. The poetry that Eliot would have read and learned from didn’t  include the free verse of the 20th century (which he thought had gone too far). Rather, it included the very poetry that Gibson and QOS would consider… well… Poetry.

Michael Schmidt, whose “word things” Gibson and the Queen’s Snark refused to consider poetry, responded thusly:

Schmidt, professor of poetry at the University of Glasgow, argued that for centuries poets had added variations to patterns and rules. ‘It seems a primitive and even infantile notion that there are rules poetry must obey,’ said Schmidt, who accused the QES of placing poetry in a ‘straitjacket’. ‘Poetry that follows the rules too closely is bad poetry. I think every form of verse, free or metrical, establishes a pattern and plays on variations of it.’

To which one can only respond: “It seems an equally primitive and even infantile notion that there aren’t any rules poetry must obey.”

The Queen's English Society's Definition of Poetry?

The Queen’s English Society’s Definition of Poetry?

Of course, Schmidt immediately contradicts himself. (It’s hard to be consistent when you don’t have a definition.) He says: “Poetry that follows the rules too closely is bad poetry.”

Quoi?

That is, Schmidt admits that there are rules that should be obeyed, but not too closely. OK, so he thinks there are rules but they’re not really “rules”. But wait a minute, Schmidt then muddies the mud. He says that “every form of verse… establishes a pattern… and plays on it.” And just what pattern would that be? And is a “pattern” the same as a rule? And who decides on the pattern? It seems, once again, that a poem is whatever the author wants it to be. Hieronymus Bosch anyone?

So, where does that leave us?

My own feeling is that arguments about the definition of poetry are futile (but a great spectator sport). The term Poetry, during the last 100 years, has been applied to everything. In certain ways, the Poetry Society is correct (though not in their intended sense). The word Poetry is meaningless. It means whatever you want it to mean. I can understand how that would depress or enrage some connoisseurs of poetry and the English language. The word Poetry has caché. It’s got class. Everybody wants a piece of it and everybody got a piece of it. In the latest issue of Poetry, cartoon strips are now considered poems – albeit with the appellation conceptual.

A Subtle Truth…

You know how women poets resent being called women poets? – as if they were a subset of real poets (read men). If you really want to get under their skin, keep saying things like: “Yeah, she’s great for a woman-poet.” Well, the same thing works for writers of free-verse. If you really want to get under their skin, consistently refer to them as free verse poets, as though they were a subset of real poets (that is, poets who write rhyme and meter).

The subtle truth is that there is already a name for the “word things” that word thingers have been writing for the last century. It is called free verse. The next time you meet a word thinger who tells you that he or she writes poetry – ask whether they mean free verse or poetry. Keep a lawn chair close by. You’ll want to be comfortable.

Gibson should take comfort from the fact that the average reader makes a distinction, rightly or wrongly, between poetry and free verse. Ron Silliman has gone on at length railing at this subtle injustice (conspiracy). It’s one of the reasons why he futily attempts to break down poetry into schools. If he could just pull it off, then all schools of poetry would be on  equal footing. There wouldn’t be Poetry and/or free verse. There wouldn’t be Poetry and/or the avant-garde. One could point to any given poet and say (succinctly, beautifully and precisely) that he is a member of this or that school. Finally, all poets would be equal.

Poetry and/or Free Verse

But there’s a reason to distinguish between poetry and free verse poetry. As I wrote in a previous post, The Art of  Rhyme and Meter, poetry began as an oral tradition – and many free versifiers have studiously eschewed that tradition.

Consider Homer’s Odyssey. The original tale is probably far older than Homer and may have been handed down for centuries from one storyteller to the next. Each storyteller probably added details and expanded the story until, by the time Homer learned it, the epic was a real feat of memorization. And as every reader of Mother Goose knows, a ditty or poem that has a rhythm or rhyme is easier to remember than one that doesn’t. And the rhythm of the Odyssey is the  Dactylic Hexameter. The meter made the epic easier to remember.

But even before Homer, the tightly wound relationship between dance, music, rhythm and sound was demonstrated by recently discovered poems from ancient Egypt. National Geographic's Egyptian Poetry DiscoveryIn a book called The Ancient Egyptian Culture Revealed, Moustafa Gadalla writes:

The Egyptians perceived language and music as two sides of the same coin. Spoken, written, and musical composition follow the same exact patterns. Both poetry and singing followed similar rules for musical composition. Poetry is written not only with a rhyme scheme, but also with a recurring pattern of accented and unaccented syllables. Each syllable alternates between accented and unaccented, making a double/quadruple meter and several other varieties. Patterns of set rhythms or lengths of phrases of Ancient Egyptian poems, praises, hymns, and songs of all kinds, which are known to have been changed or performed with some musical accompaniment, were rhythmic with uniform meters and a structured rhyme. ¶ Ancient Egyptian texts show that Egyptians spoke and sang in musical patterns on all occasions and for all purposes–from the most sacred to the most mundane. [p. 155]

This oral tradition continued with the very first works of the Anglo Saxons, the alliteration of Beowulf, right up until the start of the 20th Century, when poets like Frost, Cummings, and Yeats, continued to imbue their poetry with the sounds and rhythms of its oral, storytelling ancestry.

Maybe its controversial to suggest that free verse is a new genre (only tangentially related to the poetry of the previous 2000 years), but the assertion isn’t to the detriment of free verse. Free verse practitioners have themselves, to varying degrees, deliberately avoided the traditional rhythms of a regular meter; have eschewed rhyme; have avoided alliteration; and whole schools have rejected techniques like metaphor. All these techniques grew out of an oral tradition – frequently, or so scholars think, as mnemonic aids or for musical accompaniment.

Free verse is the child of the 20th Century printing press (which isn’t to say that free verse can’t be read aloud and enjoyed as such). And it’s not to say that free verse doesn’t borrow techniques from the oral tradition, but free verse doesn’t do so systematically (Poets, like William Carlos Williams, studiously avoided anything short of what he considered plain speech or plain English and the avant-garde is premised on the avoidance of anything that smacks of traditional poetry.) It was the explosive availability of the printed word that made the visual cues of free verse possible. Aurally, there is frequently nothing that distinguishes free verse from prose.  Cleave Poetry, for example, is defined by its visual appearance  (rather than any aural cues).

Free verse declares itself poetry on the page. (No listener could reconstruct the poem by ear.)

The poetry of rhyme and meter declares itself poetry in the listener’s ear. The roots of traditional poetry are in music, song and lyric. (The attentive listener could, with a good memory, reconstruct a poem’s shape.)

In short, free verse didn’t evolve from the poetry of the oral tradition, it replaced it.

But is Free Verse Poetry?

Yes, but it’s the poetry of the printed page. It’s a different genre.

If all the printed records of free verse were lost and if all we had were audio recordings, only a handful could ever hope to be reconstructed on the page (depending on how pointedly the poet paused after each line break). What traditionally distinguished poetry from prose was regular linguistic patterning, not length or subject matter. Without any kind of regular linguistic pattern, there is nothing to distinguish  free verse from a paragraph of prose. If free verse isn’t printed, the genre provides no clues as to how it should be lineated.

Put Paradise Lost into one long prosy paragraph, and I will relineate it exactly the way Milton intended. Do the same with any of Shakespeare’s sonnets and I, or any one familiar with the sonnet form, could put them back together.

So, if the Queen’s English Society really wants to pursue a beautiful and precise definition of poetry, let them start there.

Just give me time to get my lawn chair.

❧ September 15, 2009 from up in Vermont.

Ryme & Meter Online • September 13 2009

  • Slowly recovering from my August vacation.
  • Many discussions on various forums which, though interesting, are too changeable to reference.
  • If any readers would like to recommend sites or blogs please do! Feel free to recommend your own blog or poem if you like but please don’t post your poem in the comment field (provide a link and the first lines).
  • Search terms used to find these posts: Rhyme, Meter, Formal, Formalist, Poetry

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Poetrybay: An on-line magazine for the 21rst Century

FALL 2009

X.J. KENNEDY AND WALT WHITMAN

Walt Whitman is considered the American progenitor of the wide, expansive ‘free verse’ style of poetry that puts aside rhyme and rhythm in favor of a more muscular, natural form of verse. So one would think that when a national poet is chosen to serve as the poet in residence at the Walt Whitman Birthplace in West Hills, they’d choose a free verse style writer.

Not in 2009.

In choosing X J Kennedy as writer in residence at the WWBA, the association chose one of the key figures in the world of formal verse since he first began publishing in the late 1950s, and a man for whom advocacy of poems that use rhyme and meter has been a fundamental mantra.

Not that Kennedy sees any conflict in that. “In American poetry there are many mansions,” said Kennedy earlier this year, as he prepared to take on his duties as Master Poet and Poet In Residence at the WWBA. “I have admiration for someone who can write good free verse.”

Things have not always been so cordial…

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George Kalogeris on C.P. Cavafy’s Collected Poems
The Sensuous Archaism of C.P. Cavafy: A review by George Kalogeris

…What Auden most likely meant by Cavafy’s unique tone was an irreducible trace element in the poet’s signature style, and not the tone of individual poems, each of which is dependent upon intricate effects of prosody.  In his deeply instructive, excellent introduction to his new translation of Cavafy’s oeuvre, Daniel Mendelsohn reminds us that Cavafy’s poems are “unmistakably musical”, and that one of the goals of his book is to restore some of the richness of Cavafy’s linguistic  texture through close attention to prosody, and specifically to matters of diction, rhyme, and meter…

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IZZY THE LIZZY, BY RENEE RIVA
Gail D. Welborn
Published 08/30/2009 – 7:07 a.m. CST

…Washington author, Renee Riva, writes with a catchy rhythm and fanciful sounding rhyme and meter. The rhyming Izzysounds will engage children and encourage their imitation of this humorous read-aloud book.  A book that features qualities not usually found in the animal kingdom, such as traits of  kindness and compassionate mercy.

Steve Bjorkman’s captivating illustrations portray Izzy Lizzy’s kind expressions and colorful dress. With umbrella in hand, she sports a large straw hat, as she slithers down the bayou. Jeb is bright yellow with black bee stripes and gossamer wings to complement Anastasia, the light purple spider. Filled with colorful flowers, foliage, trees and water, Bjorkman’s illustrations will capture and delight children’s imaginations….

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Joel Nelson · Alpine, TX
Cowboy Poet

Interview by Josephine Reed for the NEA

…I had a good background in poetry. I had two wonderful literature teachers in high school who caused me to really fall in love with the sound of the words written and rhyme and meter, just the way that poets like Robert W. Service and Edgar Allan Poe and Rudyard Kipling assembled their words just fascinated me. They had such command of the English language and they could express an idea so eloquently and do it in rhyme and meter without detracting from the thought. And that takes a great command of the language to be able to do that…

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International Examiner

“Breaking the Map”
By Na Young Kwon

…Lieberman describes herself as a “mixed-race Amerasian… growing up in a bilingual, bicultural home which shaped [her] basic understanding of the world.” While the poet favors prose-like stanzas for more structured forms that may utilize rhyme and meter, Lieberman does employ the Breaking the MapVietnamese “ca-dao”— “a genre of popular Vietnamese poems that stems from oral tradition, a sort of cross between folk song and nursery rhyme”— which she learned from songs her mother and grandmother sang to her. The ca-dao comprises a fixed form of “luc-bat” or “6-8,” which is marked by an alternating syllabic count for every couplet with rhyme patterns and tonal emphasis. The subject matter typically reflects themes of agricultural life—nature, seasons, animals and folk proverbs. The first section of “Four Folksongs” is a translated version from this genre…

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Los Angeles Times

Nicholson Baker: Inside the author — and his alter ego

His new book, ‘The Anthologist,’ is a novel within an novel featuring a character who sheds light on his creator.

Baker is not Paul Chowder, for Chowder is in the thick of a crisis. He’s a poet in America in the beginning of the 21st century, problem one. The AnthologistHis girlfriend has just left him, mainly because he’s a pathological procrastinator. His one potential source of income, the introduction to a poetry anthology, eludes him day after endless day. But boy, does he love poetry. The novel is a course in meter, rhyme, inspiration; some well-known poets, some lesser known…¶

“I grew up writing poetry with meter and rhyme,” Baker recalls. “This is not good for one’s career. We’ve gone through this phase of childish experimentation when it comes to poetry. Now we’re having to relearn those finer things, things Tennyson and Swinburne knew at 14.” It’s not that he dismisses free verse entirely. So many poets he loves — Louise Bogan, W.S. Merwin, Mary Oliver — write in free verse. “I want them to be subversive and they can’t be if the orthodoxy is free verse,” Baker says, in a characteristic jitterbug with history. Clearly, his ideas for “The Anthologist” have been marinating for a long time…

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BOOK REVIEW

Susan Wheeler
Assorted Poems
reviewed by Will Cordeiro
143 pp. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Hardback. $25.00. 9780374258610 hardcover

All That Glitters

Susan Wheeler Assorted Poems…It’s as if all we are left with are snatches of distorted song on a broken jukebox. This typical freewheeling stanza has the giddy verve of language spun in a cyclotron, throwing off new, short-lived, unstable semantic particulates.

The same process, however, begins to spin the day-to-day laws of macro-level sense-making out-of-control, caroming everything back into an undifferentiated cosmic alphabet soup.  The whole is held tenuously together by the thread of sonic association, the bumptious almost-meter and the loopy half-rhymes structuring its happy-go-lucky semblance of story along with the obsessive repetition at the end of the line.  It has gusto aplenty.  —But what the hell does it mean? (…)

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  • Google must have just indexed this page. The article dates from 2005, but the topic interests me, so I’ve included it here.  In some previous posts, like those on Donne, I’ve speculated as to the way the Elizabethans might have pronounced our words.

The real sound of Shakespeare? (Globe theatre performs Shakespeare’s plays in Shakespeare’s dialect)
BBC News  | Joe Boyle

Posted on 07/19/2005 10:36:29 AM PDT by nickcarraway

Ever been baffled by the bard? Vexed by his verse? Or perplexed by his puns? London’s Globe theatre thinks it has the answer: perform Shakespeare’s plays in Shakespeare’s dialect.

In August the theatre will stage an “original production” of Troilus and Cressida – with the actors performing the lines as close to the 16th century pronunciations as possible.

By opening night, they will have rehearsed using phonetic scripts for two months and, hopefully, will render the play just as its author intended. They say their accents are somewhere between Australian, Cornish, Irish and Scottish, with a dash of Yorkshire – yet bizarrely, completely intelligible if you happen to come from North Carolina.

For example, the word “voice” is pronounced the same as “vice”, “reason” as “raisin”, “room” as “Rome”, “one” as “own” – breathing new life into Shakespeare’s rhyming and punning.

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The New York Times

Def Poetry
By BAZ DREISINGER

Published: September 8, 2009

…To that end, the first half of the book is a triumph of jargon-free scrutiny. Bradley takes on rhythm — from the Book of RhymesGreek rheo, meaning “flow,” which is apt: flow is what rappers possess — and dissects rap’s “dual rhythmic relationship,” its marriage of rhymes and beats (with the beat defined as “poetic meter rendered audible”). Next comes rhyme: “the music M.C.’s make with their mouths.” “A skillfully rendered rhyme strikes a balance between expectation and novelty” — e.g., “My grammar pays like Carlos Santana plays,” per Lauryn Hill — and for rappers, rhyme “provides the necessary formal constraints on their potentially unfettered poetic freedom.” The chapter entitled “Wordplay” is the strongest, and that’s appropriate, since play is what hip-hop does best. We’re treated to lyric upon juicy lyric — not just from the usual suspects, to Bradley’s credit — filled with similes, conceits, personification, even onomatopoeia (“Woop! Woop! That’s the sound of da police,” KRS-One rapped)…

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Alan Nordstrom’s Blog

Alan Nordstrom's BlogWhat you’ll find below is an upside-down anthology of sorts: a journal of my frequent nightly musings from January 2008 till now, in reverse order.

Much of what I write here is verse in traditional rhymed iambic pentameters, old fashioned in form but contemporary in topics and idiom. It asks to be read aloud so that the effects of rhyme and meter may be felt.

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Poetry Guardians Reject Modern Verse

…While I was at Vermont Studio (VSC), I met Kevin Young.  He said my poetry was sing-song-ey and that I should write prose poetry instead.  I told him that I grew up with ballads and beautiful poetry that rhymed so that is my preferred method of expression.  Mr. Young said my rhymes were obvious; however, I highly doubt that as I have always used creative and abstract methods.  I would suggest that VSC match incoming artists to appropriate writers as I really didn’t benefit from the workshop with him…

  • The article mentioned by the Poetry Verse blog is also linked below.

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Poetry Guardians Reject Modern Verse

‘A lot of people high up in poetry circles look down on rhyme and metre and think it is old-fashioned,’ said Bernard Lamb, president of the QES and an academic at Imperial College London. ‘But what is the definition of poetry? Poertry GuardiansI would say, if it doesn’t have rhyme or metre, then it is not poetry, it is just prose. You can have prose that is full of imagery, but it is still prose.’

The campaign is being spearheaded by Michael George Gibson, who said it was ‘disgraceful’ that the Poetry Society had failed to respond properly to his demands for a definition. ‘For centuries word-things, called poems, have been made according to primary and defining craft principles of, first, measure and, second, alliteration and rhyme,’ said Gibson. ‘Word-things not made according to those principles are not poems.’ True poems, he said, gave the reader or listener a ‘special pleasure’.

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Paradise Tossed

…I’m one of those rare persons who greatly prefers formal poetry to modern free verse. I know I’m a minority, and I’m not here to argue the merits of each over the other. I simply want to offer up some resources for those who, like me, are of the formal school or for those who prefer free verse but would like to get better acquainted with formal poetry—especially fellow poets who would like to write some. One of the arguments I’ve heard against formal poetry is that it’s obsolete, antiquated, a relic of the past. On the contrary, the movement is alive and well, and there are a number of modern technological resources available to anybody with a computer. With the following five, I believe anybody can come to understand, enjoy, and write formal poetry…

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Formal Feeling
Posted on August 31, 2009 by Annie Janusch

When translating closed form poetry, the formal elements (meter and rhyme) are often the first thing the translator abandons. It’s common to read sonnets in translation, for example, that dispense with the rhyme and meter of the original. I’m no neo-formalist, but when a translator comes along who’s able to convey not only the sense of the original, but an approximation (or recreation) of the rhythm and rhyme, I pay attention. George Szirtes, a prolific writer and translator born in Budapest, who has lived in Britain for most of his life, is that kind of poet…

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“Breaking the Map”

By Na Young Kwon

Millay’s Sonnet 42 • What lips my lips have kissed

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Sonnet 42

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning, but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Edna St. Vincent Millay, for a great many poets and critics, challenges notions of greatness. What defines a great poet? – What in her person and what in her poetry?  One almost wishes photographs of Millay had never been taken or never survived. In her New York Review of Books review of Millay and Millay’s reviewers,  Lorrie Moore quotes some of Daniel Mark Epstein’s (What Lips My Lips Have Kissed) more lascivious biography:

Epstein Book Cover[Epstein] is a little startling, for example, on the subject of Millay’s naked breasts, about which he exults–photographs of which he has apparently poured over in the files of the Library of Congress (which cannot authorize their release and reproduction until the year 2010).  When he gives us his own feverish descriptions, readers may become a little frightened, but eventually he moves on, and I do believe everyone recovers. Such an instance does not , however, prevent him from other periodic overheatings (“Her coloring, the contrast between her white skin and the red integuments, lips, tongue, and more secret circles and folds her lovers would cherish, had become spectacular after the girl turned twenty.)

On the one had, one might argue that Epstein is writing about Millay’s Loves and Love Poems and so is entitled to this sort of fetishistic “field research”, but one has to wonder whether Epstein would apply the same zeal to the skin color and “secret folds” of Robert Frost or E.E. Cummings were he to write a book about their love poetry.

What a writer like Epstein conveys, wittingly or unwittingly, is the bewitching effect Millay’s self-evident beauty had on both men and women (who were also among her lovers). Would her poetry have received the same attention if she had looked like Tina Fey on one of her comedic bad days? Would estimation and discussion of her poetry’s greatness (which some refute) be any different?

As it is, discussions of her poetry almost always includes discussions of her personality, beauty, and love affairs (including this post). And, to be fair, Millay’s life and poetry are intricately intertwined in a way that is not as evident with other poets. One always gets the sense that her poetry is mischievously auto-biographical. She writes about herself. And the best poets, in my opinion, are frequently the ones with skeletons in their closets. In Millay’s case, the plush carpet between her bed and closet is well worn. If I had been around during Millay’s youth, I probably would have been just as smitten as the rest of them (and hanging in her closet).

Moore, at the start of her NY Review of Books article, writes:

She was petite, in-tense, bright, witty, romantic, freckled, auburn-haired, self-dramatizing and beautiful. (As a poet friend recently remarked to me, “Why has Judy Davis not yet played her in the movie?”) At one time arguably the most famous living poet in the world, her work lauded by Thomas Hardy, Elinor Wylie, Edmund Wilson, Sarah Teasdale, and Louse Bogan, Millay lived stormily and wrote unevenly, so that her place in American letters was in descent even in her lifetime. In her day she was hailed as a feminist, lyric voice of the Jazz Age, yet she went largely unclaimed by the feminism of subsequent decades. She owned, perhaps, too many evening gowns. And her poems may have had an excess of voiceless golden birds (she did not strain her metaphors… Her work could be occasionally modernist, but only occasionally, and so was not taken up by the champions of modernism…

But Millay has her champions and continues to have her admirers. Deservedly so. She lived life large. She was unapologetic about her proclivities and a fiercely independent woman when, in many ways, women were still treated like guileless children.  She was the poet’s poet. She spoke directly and truthfully in her poetry, anticipating the women poets of the later 20th century.

Millay’s Legacy

This is my third go around with this section. I think, like many other readers, poets and critics, I ask myself: Why am I reading her? Is she a great poet who wrote mediocre poems, or was she a mediocre poet who manged to write some great poems?

Now that I’m rewriting this for the third time, I think I’ve got a fix on all of this. Lorrie Moore, in her NY Review of Books article, refers to Millay as a “skilled formalist”. Skilled is  probably a good adjective. Micheal Haydn (the composer and brother of the genius Joseph Haydn) and JC Bach (the son of the great JS Bach) were both skilled composers. They both wrote some incredibly catchy and occasionally, deeply expressive music, but neither was a genius and neither will ever be counted among the greats. Not familiar with classical music? Take REM. REM is a skilled rock band. They may have written one or two great songs, but nobody, fifty years from now, will include them among the great bands. And I’m not the only one who holds that opinion.

Millay with FlowersSo, skilled is a measured way to describe Millay’s formalist abilities.

She could write the perfect sonnet. She was an avowed master, and I do mean master, of the rhyming couplet, most typically in the form of the epigrammatic sting that frequent and succinctly closes her Shakespearean Sonnets.  No other 20th Century poet even distantly approaches the sly and witty ferocity of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s rhymes. But her skill as a formalist only went so far.

She rarely modulates her formalism to suit the subject matter. One gets the feeling that she paid more attention to the prettiness of the line, than to its aptness. Despite the mood, whether it was rage, sorrow, delight, or fear, there is a sameness of voice to all of her poems. By way of comparison, compare Robert Frost’s Mending Wall to Birches. While there is a certain sameness to every poet’s output, some poets are able to master a greater technical range than others. Birches and Mending Wall both sound like Frost, but both show a distinctly different approach in imagery and, more specifically, formal devices. When at his best, Frost modulated his voice to suit the subject matter.

One doesn’t get the same sense from Millay.

And that has a curious effect, at least to me. The skilled and elevated diction of her formalism makes her trivial poems  seem better than they are, and her more profound gestures feel less profound.  So, in my own appraisal of Millay, I would consider her  a major poet, though not great. She was a skilled formalist, but possessed a very limited range.

And it’s in that respect that I disagree with criticism that calls her style anachronistic. Returning to Moore’s NY Review of Books article, she writes:

A gifted formalist and prolific sonneteer, a literary heir to Donne, Wordsworth, Byron, and, well, Christina Rossetti, Millay today has been admired only slightly or reluctantly, if at all, her poetry viewed, sometimes by its detractors as well as its devotees, as anachronistic, unreconstructedly Victorian, sentimental, recycled. Even the critic Colin Falck, who writes in his ardent introduction to her Selected Poems that the “occulting of Millay’s reputation has been one of the literary scandals of the twentieth century,” nonetheless finds only a quarter of her poems worthy enough “to entitle her to consideration as one of the major poets of the country.”

Millay was born in 1892 which means, like other poets of her generation, she grew up with the poetry of the great Victorians ringing in her ears. Tennyson died the same year she was born. Robert Browning had only been dead three years. Christina Rossetti lived until 1894. Their legacy and presence was still profoundly felt. In short, when Millay began writing, the 19th century’s aesthetic was not anachronistic.

Millay’s shortcoming was not that she was writing formal poetry when the vast majority of her generation (and later) had adopted free verse. Her shortcoming was that her formalism defined her voice, rather than her voice defining her formalism. It can be difficult to discern which of Millay’s poems are her mature poems and which are the poems of her youth.

The Scansion

As is my habit, all unmarked feet are Iambic. The color coding is a visual aid, meant to help you quickly see how the poet has varied the given meter (in this case, Iambic Pentameter).

What Lips My Lips Have Kissed by Millay - Scansion

About the Meter and Structure of the Poem

Millay’s sonnet is firmly in the tradition of the Petrarchan Sonnet. The Sonnet is split into the Octave (the first 8 lines) and the Sestet (the last 6), both “halves” of the sonnet characterizing the traditional volta or turn of the Patrarchan Sonnet. The Petrarchan form is well suited to the contemplative subject matter. There is no argument. There is no epigrammatic summing up or sting (such as we find in a Shakespearean Sonnet).

The sestet deliberately avoids close rhymes creating, to my ear, a diffuse music that nicely matches the poems’ tone. The final rhyme more feels like a distant echo of before, like the echoes of her lovers. The more diffuse rhyme scheme also serves to further differentiate the sestet from the octave. The octave speaks to the loss of lovers. The sestet speaks to a deeper loss – her fading memory of them. “I cannot say what loves have come and gone…” she writes. The diffuseness of her memory is nicely echoed by the rhyme scheme (intentioned or otherwise).

The metrical style is characteristic of Millay. There are only three definite variant feet in the entirety of the poem. The first variant foot, which I marked as |I have| could also be read as an Iambic foot |I have|. I’ve searched for a recording of Millay reading this sonnet  but haven’t found any. I have a hunch she would have read that first foot as an iamb. She was very conservative in her metrical daring.

In that respect her temperament is entirely that of a late Victorian, rather than that of an Elizabethan (with whom the sonnet form originated). The Elizabethans were always restlessly stretching and violating forms. They were the great explorers, both at sea and in literature – in just about everything they did. In that respect, Millay’s sonnet has almost nothing in common with them but a rhyme scheme.

And it’s in this respect that some critics wish Millay had stretched herself. I suspect she could have but preferred the contemplation and quiet dignity of an uninterrupted iambic line. Her rhyming is equally conservative, especially in light of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. The eye rhyme pain/again was probably pronounced as a full rhyme when Millay read the poem. (She was nothing if not affected when she read her poetry.) I considered reading this poem myself but I just can’t get beyond the absurdity of a man’s voice behind her words.

Here is Millay reading Sonnet 121:

Oh Sleep forever in the Latmian cave,
Mortal Endymion, darling of the Moon!
Her silver garments by the senseless wave
Shouldered and dropped and on the shingle strewn,
Her fluttering hand against her forehead pressed,
Her scattered looks that trouble all the sky,
Her rapid footsteps running down the west-
Of all her altered state, oblivious lie!
Whom earthen you, by deathless lips adored,
Wild-eyed and stammering to the grasses thrust,
And deep into her crystal body poured
The hot and sorrowful sweetness of the dust:
Whereof she wanders mad, being all unfit
For mortal love, that might not die of it.

[Audio=https://poemshape.files.wordpress.com/2009/09/millays-sonnet-121.mp3]

What does the poem mean?

The poem is beautiful in its simplicity – an effect that is surprisingly difficult to master.

But, having said that, I can’t help but wonder at another meaning. I’m not sure at what point in her career she wrote this sonnet, but I wonder if she’s not also describing her poetry. Think of the lads as poems and kisses as the act of writing the poems. If one reads the poem this way, she writes as poet who feels her powers waning.

Read in this light, the final sestet feels especially poignant. Millay stands as the tree in whom poetry used to flourish, but whose birds have flown, one by one. She can’t even remember what loves have come and gone. The inspiration of her youth fails her. The poems that used to come budding to her lips have all but vanished. She writes: “I only know that summer sang in me / A little while, that in me sings no more.”

The Sonnet Before the Sonnet

And now for some of that unmatched ferocity that Millay could summon up. When reading Sonnet 42 (when lost to its wistful beauty)  it’s best to keep in mind the Sonnet that immediately preceded it. Which is the real Millay? Both, no doubt. In real life, biographers tell us that 41 would have come after 42.

Sonnet 41

I, being born a woman and distressed
By all the needs and notions of my kind,
Am urged by your propinquity to find
Your person fair, and feel a certain zest
To bear your body’s weight upon my breast:
So subtly is the fume of life designed,
To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,
And leave me once again undone, possessed.
Think not for this, however, the poor treason
Of my stout blood against my staggering brain,
I shall remember you with love, or season
My scorn with pity, — let me make it plain:
I find this frenzy insufficient reason
For conversation when we meet again.

An Interesting Video Inspired by the Sonnet