The Beautiful Changes

the word exchange

Last week, April 28th, I drove up to Burlington to listen in on a reading by Greg Delanty, Major Jackson, SMC poet/professor Greg Delanty, and SMC Associate Professor of English Kerry Shea. The poets were celebrating the publication of The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation. The reading was sponsored by The Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers.

The weather worked in their favor. Burlington was beautiful and, at last, showing some signs of spring. Finally, in Vermont, the grass is turning and the first buds are greening the trees. The evening was warm. Any other poetry reading I might have skipped for a date with my longboard, especially in Burlington.

But there’s something I love about Anglo Saxon poetry. It’s beautiful, to my ears, in the same way that some of the earthiest poetry of New England is beautiful. The best Anglo Saxon poetry speaks with a directness and simplicity you won’t often find in the sophisticated and cosmopolitan utterances of the Roman poets. And though stark, the Anglo Saxon temper also comes with a rugged humor and gamefulness typical of poetry in simpler and less self-conscious cultures. You have to go back to Sappho’s time and the earliest Chinese poets to find the same sorrow, laughter, nobility and raw sexual humor. The Anglo Saxons were also avid riddlers and story-tellers, to a degree, perhaps, that is unique to them. (Their riddles keenly interested and influenced J.R.R. Tolkien.) They wrote Beowulf. Many of their shorter poems retell the dealings of Thanes, Kings and Cheiftans – good and bad.

The book orders the poetry into subject matter and content. Here’s what you will find (in order):

  • Poems of  Exile and Longing
  • First Riddle Hoard
  • Poems about Historical Battles, People, and Places
  • Second Riddle Hoard
  • Poems About Living
  • Third Riddle-Hoard
  • Poems About Dying
  • Fourth Riddle Hoard
  • Biblical Stories, Lives of Saints
  • Fifth Riddle-Hoard
  • Prayers, Admonitions, and Allegories
  • Sixth Riddle-Hoard
  • Remedies and Charms
  • Final Riddle-Hoard

Seems to me the table of contents alone could sell the book. Who wouldn’t want to read the Remedies and Charms? — a strange collocation of Christianity, Witchcraft and Paganism. I wonder if our contemporary poet, Annie Finch (self-proclaimed Wiccan), hasn’t read these remedies and charms?

Of all the categories, The Biblical Stories, Lives of Saints, are to me the least interesting or compelling. All the rigor seems to drain out of the Anglo Saxon inkwell when they write about a distant, dysfunctional tribal people, the Israelites, and their obsession with real estate and a fitful God. The whole of it was utterly foreign to the Anglo Saxons and the poems feel pro forma (even if through the lens of their own experience). Better to include them, I suppose. Missionaries were fussily converting the Anglo Saxon pagans, but the poems still feel like book reports. Fortunately (for us and the rest of the poems) the Anglo Saxons get right back to betrayal, rings, sex, swords, a good joke and, above all, grim, hard deaths. They were a people who lived life in the bone and were much better when Christianity was subservient to their own ethos.

old English þrosoðy and translation

Worth noting is that there is no single translator. Each of the poems has been translated by a different poet and this brings up a subject I’ve discussed before. I disagree with the notion that a poem’s form doesn’t need to be translated: it’s rhymes, rhythm, meter, stanzas, etc… There are translators who denigrate such attempts. The results, they say, frequently contort syntax, word order and meaning for the sake of form. However, I find their arguments self-serving. The genius of poetry, up until the 20th century, was not just in its content but also in the patterning and beauty of its language. Like the earliest Chinese poems, many scholars believe Anglo Saxon poetry may have been written to the tune of this or that melody – certainly many believe they were likely to have been sung or chanted. Their poetry doesn’t rhyme, but it is patterned through the use of stress and alliteration.

Anglo Saxon prosody works like this: Each line is called a stich (pronounced stick). And every Anglo Saxon line, or stich, is divided in two – a first half and a second half. Each half is referred to as a hemistich. Each hemistich has two stressed syllables. There can be any number of unstressed syllables. (If you’re not sure of the difference between stressed and unstressed syllables, you can check out my guides to Iambic Pentameter.) Each half of the line (each containing two stressed syllables) is divided by a caesura — a pause.

  • Stressed syllables! // Strong verse!
  • Oh stressed syllables // make strong my verse!
  • Stressed will be the syllables // that make strong my verse!

Each line would be permissible, each containing two stressed syllables. There can be any number of unstressed syllables. The second requirement for an Anglo Saxon line is alliteration. Alliteration is when the consonants of each stressed syllable are the same or sound alike. In the lines above, the S sound is repeated in the first and second stressed syllable of the first hemistich and in the first syllable of the second hemistich. One more important rule: the second syllable of the second hemistich never alliterates except in the rarest of circumstances. So, if a is an alliterating syllable and b is a non-alliterating syllable, the possible combinations are as follows (based on The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics):

  • a a // a b
  • a b // a b
  • b a // a b

And that’s that. A commonly referenced modern example from Richard Wilbur, his poem Junk, can be found here. I love the poem, but Wilbur doesn’t follow the rules (the second stressed syllable in the second hemistich alliterates in many of his lines). A fun modern pastiche can also be found at asu.edu, a poem called Beocat. However, this poem, like Wilbur’s, bends the rules by alliterating the second syllable of the second hemistich. So much alliteration just seems too much for the modern poet to resist (not made from the stern stuff of the Anglo Saxon poet).

Anyway, trying to convey the formal aspects of any poem in translation is, indeed, difficult. But if the original poet thought it worthwhile to sweat over and struggle with, then why shouldn’t the translator sweat? Why is the translator exempt? Why do some translators make excuses and rationalizations? In my opinion, the translator who only translates the content of a traditional poem, is only translating half the poem. When Mandelbaum translated Dante’s Divine Comedy, he didn’t try to recreate the rhyming tercets of the original, but he did recreate the feeling of form and structure by writing blank verse. Mandelbaum also used blank verse to translate Ovid. (The accentual-syllabics of blank verse was foreign to the quantitative verse of Latin poetry.) I’m not suggesting that modern poets should always try to recreate the alliterative verse of the Anglo Saxons, but I do think there’s value in recognizing the traditional beauty of the original poem and language by recreating it’s rigor in our own.

At first glance, two poets out of the several dozen contributing poets, Derek Mahon and A.E. Stallings, managed to approximate what an Anglo Saxon might have heard. Here are the opening lines to the poem Durham, translated by Mahon:

Is ðeos burch breome     geond Breotenrice,
steppa gestaðolad,    stanas ymbutan
wundrum gewæxen.     Weor ymbeornad,
ea yðum stronge,       and ðer inne wunað
feola fisca kyn          on floda gemonge.
And ðær gewexen is    wudafæstern micel;
wuniad in ðem wycum    wilda deor monige,
in deope dalum      deora ungerim.

Known throughout Britain, this noble city
Its steep slopes and stone buildings
are thought a wonder; weirs contain
its fast river; fish of all kinds
thrive here in the thrusting waters.
A great forest has grown up here,
thickets throng with wild creatures;
deer drowse in the deep dales. (….)

  • If you want to hear Durham read in the original, Michael D.C. Drout, Prentice Professor of English at Wheaton College is heroically reading the entire corpus of Anglo-Saxon prosody. He reads Durham here.

And here are the opening lines to The Riming Poem, translated by A.E. Stallings (whose opinion on translating are like my own):

Me lifes onlah       se þis leoht onwrah
ond þæt torhte geteoh,    tallice onwrah
Glæd wæs ic gliwum,      glenged hiwum
blissa bleoum,      blostma hiwum
Secgas mec segon,     symbel ne alegon
feohgiefe gefegon;     frætwed wægon

The Lord lavished life on me               I had it all
Blessings were rife for me                    honor in hall,
Clad in the gladsome                               cloth of the looms
Dyed with the handsome                      hues of the blooms,
Men the looked up at me,                      friendship reigned
Filling the cup for me,                            wine never waned.

  • The riming poem is unusual in that it also rhymes in the original Anglo Saxon (which may be why Stallings was asked to translate it). One wonders if the original poet was excited by what he or she had written. By the standards of the day, it’s a tour de force performance. Professor Drout reads the poem here.

While many of the poets in the Word Exchange dispense with formal structure, writing free verse, (words are exchanged but there’s no verse exchange), I was nevertheless pleased to see that equally many tried to honor some sense of the original. (I was disappointed not to see Annie Finch. If she was overlooked, a pity.) However, the benefit of so many contributors, as Greg Delanty likes to stress, is that we are reminded that Anglo Saxon poetry doesn’t consist of one author or voice but of many (whose names have been lost). We are also made aware of the many different ways a poem can be translated, a kind of tour in and of itself, and what different poets value in translation.

the great  variety

One of the poets who read at the The Word Exchange was Major Jackson (someone I was finally able to meet). Jackson opted for free verse (by his own account, he originally attempted to introduce some traditional elements into his translation). Jackson translated The Gifts of Men. I’ve just been reading Walt Whitman and I couldn’t help but be struck by the Whitmanesque breadth of Jackson’s translation and, by extension, the Anglo Saxon original.

Fela bið on foldan    forðgesynra
geongra geofona,   þa þa gæstberend
wegað in gewitte,    swa her weorude god,
meotud meahtum swið,    monnum dæleð
syleð sundorgiefe,      sendeð wide
agne spede,    þara æghwylc mot
dryhtwuniendra     dæl onfon.
Ne bið ænig pæs    earfoðsælig
mon on moldan    ne pæs medspedig,
lytelhydig,      ne þæs læthydig,
þæt hine se argifa   ealles biscyrge
modes cræfta   oþþe mægendæda,
wis on gewitte   oþþe on wordcwidum,
þy læs ormod sy   ealra þinga,
þara þe he geworhte    in woruldlife,
geofona gehwylcre.

Behold God’s prevailing gifts on earth, discernable
to all souls! His unique powers are bestowed
and apportioned widely to every woman and man.
None are so wretched, unfortunate, or feeble-minded
to believe that the Giver of all has not endowed them
at least with a living breath, speech, and a smart mind
to appreciate their wordly abilities in this life.

With this broad-hearted beginning, the poet proceeds to a list of all the peoples and their avocations.

Sum in mæðle mæg modsnottera
folcrædenne   forð gehycgan,
þær witena biþ   worn ætsomne.
Sum mæg wrætlice   weorc ahycgan
heahtimbra gehwæs;   hond bið gelæred,
wis ond gewealden   swa bið wyrhtan ryht,
sele asettan,   con he sidne ræced
fæste gefegan   wiþ færdryrum.
Sum mid hondum mæg   hearpan gretan,
ah he gleobeames   gearobrygda list.
Sum bið rynig,    sum ryhtscytte
sum leoða gleaw,    sum on lande snel,
feþespedig. Sum on fealone wæg
stefnan steoreð…

One is a visionary statesman and effective member of the parliament.
One is a master architect of high-ceilinged buildings, a deft hand, disciplined and judicious, drafting expansive halls that last.
One skillfully plays the harp.
One flies swiftly round the track, one makes a good shot, one is limber, one is swift, first to finish a foot race.
One maneuvers a ship over harrowing waves.

  • Professor Drout reads Gifts of Men here. Drout also provides a complete prose translation.

Jackson’s rendition, for me, conveys some sense of the original poet’s joy and pride in his life and people, again reminding me of Whitman. There is a capaciousness that is unmatched, to my knowledge, by any other poem in any other ancient language: Greek, Latin, Chinese, Japanese.

The Anglo Saxons seemed to love a riddle and, like the rest of us, couldn’t get enough of sex. Put the two together and humor was inevitable. The following poem was read several times, at the meeting, both in Modern English and Old English:

Riddle 25
Ic eom wunderlicu wiht,    wifum on hyte,
neahbuendum nyt;    nængum sceþþe
burgsittendra,     nymþe bonan anum.
Staþol min is steapheah    stonde ic on bedde,
neoþan ruh nathwær.      Neþeð hwilum
ful cyrtenu    ceorles dohtor,
modwlonc meowle,    þæt heo on mec gripeð,
ræseð mec on readne,      reafað min heafod,
fegeð mec on fæsten.     Feleþ sona
mines gemotes,          seo þe mec nearwað,
wif wundenlocc.        Wæt bið þæt eage.

  • Professor Drout’s reading is here.

Call Me Fabulous translated by Gerry Murphy

Call me fabulous,
that rare thing,
a woman’s delight.
Ever ready in the kitchen,
harming none but those
who would harm me.
Standing tall in my own bed,
my talk rigid on its hairy root.
That haughty girl,
the churl’s beautiful daughter,
deigns to take me in hand,
fribbles me to distraction,
stashes me in her sanctum,
weeps at our union.
Not a dry eye in the house.

The following riddle is my personal favorite:

Hyse cwom gangan,  þær he hie wisse
stondan in wincsele, stop feorran to,
hror hægstealdmon,     hof his agen
hrægl hondum up,     hrand under gyrdels
hyre stondendre    striþes nathwæt,
worhte his willan;    wagedan buta.
þegn onnette,      wæs þragum nyt
tillic esne,      teorode hwæþre
æt stunda gehwam     strong ær þon hio,
werig þæs weorces.    Hyre weaxan ongon
under gyrdelse      þæt oft gode men
ferðþum freogað      ond mid feo bicgað.

Marcia Karp’s translation begins:

A boy came walking to where he knew
she would stand for what he would do.
He stepped from afar to her in that corner.
…………His hand raised his shirt.
…………He pushed under her skirt
his stiff I-know-not-what and he horned her.

To read the rest of the translation you will have to read the book. Drout’s reading can be found here. The answers to these riddles can be found on line and in the back-matter of the book.

One of the great Old English poems is The Wanderer, a plum among the many and one that Greg Delanty plucks for himself — a substantial poem of loss, grief and the passage of time. We read a poet’s lament from a thousand years ago, thinking of his own sense of loss and how his own life briefly passed, and can’t help wonder at who will read our words a thousand years for now and wonder at the briefness of our own lives.  You can read his translation and hear the poet himself here.  The Ruin, translated by Yusef Komunyakaa, is another poem in a similar vein and puts our own sense of loss and time in perspective. I’m reminded of Frost’s The need to be versed in country things.

For a clear-eyed vision of death and decay, something the Anglo Saxons were well acquainted with,  read The Damned Soul Addresses the Body:

“Listen, mudball, how come you abused me?
You skinbag, all shriveled up at alst,
You paid little heed, in your hunt for pleasure,
To the hard future in store for your soul
Once it had been banished from the body.
Am I the offender? Isn’t it you, worm-fodder?

Or read The Riming Poem:

….The day for me     comes arrow-swift
With deadly aim     as it approaches,
And just the same     the night encroaches
That won’t condone     my tenant’s terms,
Abode of bone.   Wassailing worms
Feast afresh     where limbs lie slain
Devouring flesh:    only bones remain….

It’s humbling to read this passage. From our perspective the poet’s passing was a few words and silence. So were the thousand plus years between us and him; and so will be the next thousand years. That said, there’s a painting in Cornwall-on-Hudson. It might still be at the 2 Alices, one of my favorite cafés when visiting upstate New York. It says something like: Each minute, your life is a minute shorter. I thought about it and decided the minutes were more enjoyable if considered this way: With each minute, your life is a minute longer.

The Anglo Saxons had a word for the wondrous world, it’s Wundorworuld.

In the poem The Song of the Cosmos, not only does the poet convey their joy in the wondrous world, but one can’t help be reminded of Tennyson’s great poem Ulysses. The poem begins:

Wilt þu, fus hæle,    fremdne monnan,
wisne woðboran   wordum gretan,
fricgan felageongne   ymb forðgesceaft,
biddan þe gesecge    sidra gesceafta
cræftas cyndelice    cwichrerende,
þa þe dogra gehwam   þurh dom godes
bringe wundre fela    wera cneorissum!

Hard-striving soul, greet  the wayfaring stranger,
To the keen-sighted singer give welcoming words,
Question to the questing one of all the worlds before,
Implore him to tell of incalculable creations,
The innate artful forces forever quickening
That day after day under God’s dominion
Bring wonders laid bare to fairing generations.

When I read Shakespeare, I think that he had more in common with his hard-living and stern-skinned Old English forebears than with the prim and decorous Restoration poets who were to follow. The thing to know about the Anglo Saxons is that they are our poets. They are the first poets of our English language. They loved the same words we love. And if any of your ancestors are from the British Isles, the blood of these poets runs in your veins. When you read the poetry of the Anglo Saxons, you are truly reading the poetry of someone from whom you descend.

In some sense, what the Book of Songs is to the Chinese, the poetry of the Anglo-Saxon poems is to our culture. Read it and know what the first speakers of your language grieved, loved, laughed at, and enjoyed.

Further Links:

The Poetry of Dana Gioia

interrogationsDana Gioia published Interrogations at Noon in 2001.

He is primarily known as an essayist and critic and is especially known for his defense of Formal Poetry. In his Notes on the New Formalism, he wrote: “the real issues presented by American poetry in the Eighties will become clearer: the debasement of poetic language; the prolixity of the lyric; the bankruptcy of the confessional mode; the inability to establish a meaningful aesthetic for new poetic narrative and the denial of a musical texture in the contemporary poem. The revival of traditional forms will be seen then as only one response to this troubling situation.”

He was a contributing poet to the anthology “Rebel Angels”, which I hope to review at some later date.

Selections of his poetry can be found at his web site.

With Interrogations at Noon, Gioia is true to his preference for meter and rhyme and offers a variety of verse forms and rhyme schemes. The first poem, Words, appears to be an accentual poem. Whereas the number of syllables per line vary, one could read each line as having 5 stressed syllables. I think, to most readers, the poem would feel and read like a free verse poem. (Accentual verse is frequent in nursery rhymes, where the accentual rhythm is more easily discerned in the shorter line lengths.)

The world does not need words. It art-ic-ulates it-self
in sun-light, leaves, and sha-dows. The stones on the path
are no less real for ly-ing un-cat-alogued and un-count-ed…

The artfulness of writing accentual verse is not so demanding as accentual/syllabic, accentual verse being closer to free verse. So the poem succeeds or fails in its use of imagery, phrase and content.

And in this first poem we are greeted by many of the traits that typify the poems that follow. Gioia does not possess the same gift for imagery & language as his contemporary, A.E. Stallings. His imagery, such as it is, is generally abstracted and literary, lacking sensuality, texture, smell, feeling. One very seldom wants to linger over a given image or combination of words. His imagery and language tends to be on average, pedestrian, sometimes verging on cliche.

Even calling it a kiss betrays the fluster of hands
glancing the skin or gripping the shoulder, the slow
arching of the neck or knee, the silent touching of tongues.

There is the abstraction of “articulates itself/ in the sunlight”.

Such phrases as “glancing the skin”, “gripping the shoulder”, “slow/arching of the neck or knee” are the stuff of every day prose. The phrase “silent touching of tongues” flirts with cliché. The poem concludes:

The sunlight needs no praise piercing the rainclouds
painting the rocks and leaves with light, then dissolving
each lucent droplet back into the clouds that engendered it.
The daylight needs no praise, and so we praise it always —
greater than ourselves and all the airy words we summon.

The sun “piercing” anything is a stock image. We have some poetic language in “painting the rocks… then dissolving each lucent droplet..” but there is no color, sense of touch, motion, sound or even sensation in any of it. Neither does one see the world in new ways as when Frost writes: “But I had the cottages in a row/ Up to their shining eyes in snow.”  Such moments of transcendent imagery are a pale rarity in Gioia’s palette. Gioia’s imagery is straightforwardly visual and the language conceptual and intellectual: as in: “The daylight needs no praise, and so we praise it always…” which has an elevated, antique ring to it, though not so archly archaic as A.E. Stallings’ excesses. Gioia generally avoids the archaisms favored by Stallings.

Reading Gioia, one hears the voice of a skillful essayist writing poetry. What do I mean by that? Read Robert Frost’s essays and you will hear the voice of a poet writing essays. Frost’s essays are like his poems – indirect, playful, coy. He would write lines like the following: “”Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.” Gioia’s poetry is like his essays – direct, intellectual and explanatory. (When I was dating, I once played the piano for a girl I was trying to impress. Her friend sniffed: “He plays the piano like a typewriter.”)

Gioia, in a nutshell, frequently writes poetically, but does not write poetry.

~

The verse form I am most passionate about is blank verse. Gioia offers us a sampling of his skills in the poem Juno Plots her Revenge.  The poems first lines are as follows:

Call me sister of the thunder god.
That is the only title I have left.
Once I was wife and queen to Jupiter,
But now, abandoned by his love and shamed
By his perpetual adultery,
I leave my palace to this mistresses.
Why not choose earth when heaven is a whorehouse?

Even the Zodiac has now become
A pantheon of prostitutes and bastards.
Look at Callisto shining in the north,
That glittering slut now guides the Grecian fleet.
Or see how Taurus rises in the south,
Not only messenger of spring’s warm nights
But the gross trophy of Europe’s rape!
Or count the stormy Pleiades — those nymphs
Who terrorize the waves, once warmed Jove’s bed.
Watch young Orion swaggering with his sword,
A vulgar upstart challenging the gods,
While gaudy Perseus flaunts his golden star.

My first reaction is to find Gioia’s blank verse very conservative. For instance, most of his lines are end-stopped, 16 out of these first 19 lines, (meaning that the end of the lines are either marked by punctuation or reflect a normal pause in speech patterns or phrase). And this is a pattern which is representative. Not even pre-Shakespearean writers of blank verse were as conservative with enjambment. The attribute marks a poet who is either an inexperienced writer of blank verse or one who is simply very conservative. It marks a poet who isn’t at ease with the form. His thoughts don’t move freely through the lines, but instead march line by line, each thought fitted therein. His skills have not transcended the verse form.

In the first seven lines there is only one line, the first line, that disrupts the iambic rhythm, the first two feet being trochaic. Some might read the first foot of the seventh line as being trochaic, but it could as comfortably be iambic. The line ends with a feminine ending – one of the few variations. The next twelve lines, like the first seven, posses only one line which varies the iambic beat. All in all, when one also considers the end-stopped lines, the effect produced is stodgy and wooden. The natural rhythms of the language which skillful poets use to counterpoint the iambic rhythm, are missing in Gioia’s conception of the form. Too much efficiency.

Lastly, one meets with the same sort of imagery as in the first poem of the book. There is an over-reliance on adjectives and, inasmuch as he uses adjectives, they are repetitive (as in the 4 line proximity of “warm nights” and “warmed Jove’s bed” and they are unimaginative – gross trophy, stormy Pleiades, young Orion, vulgar upstart, gaudy Perseus, golden star. These adjectives all serve their purpose, but they are stale and overused. They evoke nothing. One feels, after a point, that they are more for metrical padding (making sure there are enough syllables in a given line). One hopes that if Gioia writes more blank verse, he eschews such adjectives. The effect might be to add more flexibility to his line, favoring enjambment.

A more successfully attempt at blank verse can be found in Descent to the Underworld. The Iambic Pentameter shows greater flexibility in its flow of thought – which more freely overlaps from one line to the next.

At first the way is not
Entirely dark. Some daylight filters down
And gives the cave that same bleak iridescence
The sun shows in eclipse. But gradually
The path descends into undending twilight.

The iambic pentameter is till relatively conservative (perhaps too much so) but by Gioia’s standards, even here, there is some loosening.

There are no grassy meadows bright with flowers,
No fields of tassled corn swaying in the wind,
No soft green vistas for the eye…

Goya probably means to elide the word swaying so that it is read as one syllable, but a trochaic fourth foot is a daring departure for Gioia.

~

Gioia’s rhyming poems give a similar impression – of the poet who writes line by line. In the two poems considered, The End of the World and The End of Time, all the lines in both poems are end-stopped.The former poem begins:

“We’re going,” they said, “to the end of the world.”
So they stopped the car where the river curled,
And we scrambled down beneath the bridge
On the gravel track of a narrow ridge.

This first poem is written in heroic couplets – though some prefer to reserve that term for longer, narrative poems. (It is written in rhyming couplets.) The latter poem follows an ABAB rhyming pattern. Because each phrase and grammatical unit ends neatly with the end of each line, the flow of the poems wants to pause with each line, as though each line were its own independent accomplishment. The natural ebb and flow of the language is overrulled by the demands of the form – the very sort of writing that prompts scorn from poets who prefer free verse.

Gioia is at his best in shorter, pithier poems. And he is at his best when writing in that indistinct syllabic poetry or accentual poetry that exists somewhere between free verse and formal verse. He is at his best when he doesn’t have to hew to a meter or rhyme scheme. Pentecost is just such a poem.

Neither the sorrows of afternoon, waiting in the silent house,
Nor the night no sleep relieves, when memory
Repeats its prosecution.

Nor the morning’s ache for dream’s illusion, nor any prayers
Improvised to an unknowable god
Can extinguish the flame.

We are not as we were. Death has been our pentecost,
And our innocence consumed by these implacable
Tongues of fire.

Comfort me with stones. Quench my thirst with sand,
I offer you this scarred and guilty hand
Until others mix our ashes.

This is the poetry of a direct and unpretentious voice. Freed from the constraints he imposes on himself in other poems, he speaks directly and simply. His thoughts move freely from one line to the next. The poem, written on the death of his son, is poignant in its directness. This is Gioia at his best. Other poems like this: After a Line by Cavafy, Accomplice, (and my favorite) Homage to Valerio Magrelli – a series of verses, each short, written in free verse, unpretentious, direct and well-turned. While his imagery is not transcendent, while there’s nothing that makes one want to pause with admiration, he can nevertheless be sensitive to just the right description:

…stranded in thought,
on the lonely delta of the spirit
as entangled as a woman’s sex.

Or

..in the equilibrium of their design
untouched and overlaid like the wooden pieces
in a game of pick-up sticks.

Gioia’s ability to hew phrase and thought to any given structure is skillful but not surpassing.

He is a poet able to shape his thoughts to the demands of whatever form he undertakes, but he fails to create the illusion that the form has grown organically from the unforced working-out of ideas. Writing formal poems successfully requires a flexible and creative mind able to both follow and lead the demands of the chosen form.

Gioia is at his best when writing just a little outside the constraints of formal verse.

The Poetry of A.E. Stallings

A.E. Stallings recently published HAPAX, her latest book and published in 2006.

HapaxAmong contemporaries, Stallings makes for some of the most enjoyable reading. Her skill with language and form is foremost. Too few contemporary poets stick out their necks like Stallings, preferring the ease of free verse.

Stallings poetry is clever and that can be taken in its complimentary or pejorative way. Her poems can be compared to Wilbur’s and especially to Edna Saint Vincent Millay; in certain respects, Dorothy Parker. They are cogent, masterfully fitting theme to form. When Stallings is off, though, she only writes prettily. Her language feels studied and affected; and she can’t help remind readers of the Victorian poets in the thrall of Greek myth. Most of all, few of her poems exceed the sum of their parts. One wonders if there are not more profound or deeper emotional experiences she is not sharing or if the formality of her poetry is a kind of barrier. The risk in formal poetry is in letting the formality become the matter of the poem, intentionally or otherwise.

First, consider the poem “An ancient Dog Grave, Unearthed During the Construction of the Athens Metro.” It begins:

“It is not the curled up bones, nor even the grave
“That stops me, but the blue beads on the collar…”

The first facet of Stallings’ writing is her easy and regrettable use of linguistic archaisms like “nor”. “Nor” just isn’t used in common parlance and I wonder why she felt compelled to use it except that she likes the archaic, literary sound of it. She could have written:

It is not the curled up bones, not even the grave…

Her usage is especially odd in a free verse poem. (One could not successfully argue that this poem is blank verse.) Formalist poets frequently resort to literary archaisms because they’re needed for metrical padding but they are a form of laziness.

Stallings imagines the dog’s wandering after death, making its way to the river Styx and crossing it. The poem is sensitive and touchingly asks why the owner put the collar on the dog. “A careful master/ Even now protects a favorite, just so./ But what evil could she suffer after death?” Stallings never ventures an answer. Instead, she’s emersed in the underworld walk of the dog that may or may not have something to do with the collar. The poem closes with a kind of cleverness.

A shake as she scrambles ashore sets the beads jingling.
And then, that last, tense moment–touching noses
Once, twice, three times, with unleashed Cerebus.

Is this the evil the dog might suffer? Was Stallings’ question only a rhetorical one? Touching as the poem may be, one wonders why anyone would read it to a friend. There is no psychological insight. The symbolism does not reach outside the poem. It does not offer anything beyond its own bemusement. It is one of those poems whose ‘whole’ fails to exceed the sum of its parts, charming and clever though it is. It sits like a still-life, justified by its own beauty. And for some readers this may be enough.

Alicia StallingsConsider the poem “Noir”. The reader is met with the following lines:

“Late at night,
“One of us sometimes has said,
“Watching a movie in black and white,
“Of the vivid figures quick upon the screen…”

Once again that word, which only belongs in fairy tales — upon — makes its appearance. It is the bane of formal poets. There is no reason for Stallings to use it except for iambic appeal. There is also the matter of the archaic diction. There is no reason for the grammatical inversion of “figures quick” (rather than “quick figures”) except to preserve the iambic patter. It is a form of laziness. Another example appears in the line “…lisping in tones antique…” One might argue that this “antique” diction is intended as a kind of joke except that it is a pattern that appears in other poems.

One of my favorite poems is the modest “Lullaby near the Railroad Tracks”. Almost every line offers up what’s best in Stallings, an elegance of language that rivals Richard Wilbur.

“A freight train between stations
“Shook you out of sleep with all
“Its lonely ululations.”

One couldn’t ask for a more effortless and prefect verse than this. The rhyme of station and ululation, two contrasting words, is inevitable and natural, perfectly suggesting the child or baby’s own crying. The final lines close with a lovely image:

“Here comes the freight train nosing west,
“Pulling the dawn behind her.”

This is Stallings at her best. Even if it does not carry the psychological complexity of a Frost poem she is a poet’s poet when she writes like this. There are no archaisms. She skillfully weaves rhyme and verse with meaning, such that the building of the poem appears inevitable. The formal poet is at his or her best when the formal structure of the poem isn’t noticed.

“Aftershocks”, a Spencerian Sonnet and justifiably the first poem of the book, also holds out Stalling at her best, while “Bad News Blues” plays on Stallings’ sly, sardonic humor.

Overall, there is the impression that either there are very old and new poems mixed together, or Stallings is of a split person when she writes. Among the most individual and compelling poems are “Aftershocks”, “Bad News Blue”, “Lullaby near the Railroad Tracks”, “Alice, Grown-up, at the Cocktail Party” while other poems like “Acteon”, “Empty Icon Frame”, “Mint” and “The Modern Greek for ‘Nightmare’…” or “Noir” are too clever, frequently archaic in diction and contrived in their rhyming.

But she is among my favorite poets.

She fully takes to the various arts unique to poetry — rhyme, meter, metaphor, simile, verse structure. She is a rarity. I’ll be buying her next book as soon as it comes out.

[Addendum: At my previous site (which I think has finally been deleted by the powers that be), readers vehemently objected to my assertion that nor was archaic.  Consult any dictionary, though, and part of the word’s definition will be “archaic”. Specifically, dictionary.com defines the usage of nor when used without neither, as an archaic usage. Definition no. 5:

  • Archaic. (used without a preceding neither, the negative force of which is understood): He nor I was there.

A more meaningful objection is in whether poets should hesitate to use archaic words or diction. I think they should, but others will disagree.]