September Revisited II


No pictures this time.  I shared pictures from an afternoon reading I did for my new book soon after it happened in September (see “We Had A Party” posted September 28).  There was also an evening reading, which was not so well suited to photographs.  Instead, I got a poem out of it.

The poem is in a form developed by Allison Joseph. She calls it a sweetelle.  The form is ten lines of fourteen syllables each, with the first, fifth and tenth lines identical.


Thank you for this fine occasion to read from my new book
though this is a dark corner and the microphone will not
stay put.  I’m stalling in the hope that others will appear.
Vain hope, false promises; it’s past the time we should begin:
Thank you for this fine occasion to read from my new book.
But it’s not new to me.  More than a year in production
since I signed that contract.  No additions since.  Take a look
at the cover, another’s work.  Inside, it comes to this:
I’d like to introduce you to some friends from former years.
Thank you for this fine occasion to read from my new book.

At first, I thought the name “sweetelle” meant that the subject should be sweet – something I’m not very good at. It has since occurred to me that the name may have been chosen to point out that this is a form with repeated lines which is not to be confused with the “villa(i)nelle.”

I learned about this form through a post which Joseph mistakenly posted on her CRWROPPS list, and then explained. The acronym stands for Creative Writers Opportunities list, which can be found at: https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/CRWROPPS-B. If you are a writer, especially a poet or short fiction writer, you will find this a great resource.


Thinking About Form, II

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Robert Duncan, The H.D. Book

I don’t recall what review comment spurred me to ask for Robert Duncan’s The H.D. Book for Christmas.  It has been a long read, full of stimulating ideas about poetry and poems.

Duncan has an interesting take on form, shaped by his notion of what the work of poetry is.  The H.D. Book places H. D. in the context of her two colleagues, once close, later moving in different directions, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams.  Duncan sees each of these as working in poetry not as a life’s work in the sense of a career, but as life work.  The driving force is this: “that in our concern to redeem, to save or keep alive the wholeness of what we are alive, we discover the work to do.”

Duncan describes the overall work of H.D., Pound and Williams as an organic process: “They move in their work thru phases of growth towards a poetry that spreads in scope as an aged tree spreads its roots and branches, as a man’s experience spreads; . . .”  This organic property appears also in individual poems, the poet committed to the poem until it reaches the shape that belongs to it.

Structure, Duncan writes, “is not additive, but is fulfilled only in the whole work.”

He contrasts the work of Marianne Moore, using “He ‘Digesteth Harde Yron’” as his example:

The number of stanzas is arbitrary.  The poem presents examples of itself, a series that may be “complete” at any point because, otherwise, it is extensible as long as the poet’s rationalizations continue.  The form of the whole in conventional verse does not rest in the fulfillment of or growth of its parts toward the revelation of their “life” but in the illustrations of the taste and arbitration of the poet.

Is Duncan asking too much?  In his desire to lift up H.D. and her work, has he overstated the case?  Or is he simply explaining why it is that the truly great poets are intimidating as well as inimitable?

His approach challenges the reader to take her own creative work with utmost seriousness.

Thinking about Form and Content

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I have long been of two minds – or more―about the relationship of form and content.  Which comes first?  Which, in a poem, becomes primary?  They’re linked, but how?

I’ve found an explanation worth sharing from Paul Horgan and a stunning example of how they can work in satisfying tension from Ellen Bryant Voigt.

Paul Horgan, in Approaches to Writing (rev. 1988) connects form and content organically, saying that the initial impulse (idea) can only become a finished work

if as early as possible it begins to find, in the writer’s imagination, the precisely appropriate from for its fulfillment.
Once that is glimpsed, even incompletely, the subject, the idea, is safe . . .

In other words, the planned form gives the idea (content) staying power in the writer’s mind.

In Kyrie Ellen Bryant Voigt took an unusual subject for poetry, the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919, and combined it with a tight form: a series of sonnets and near sonnets.  The structure is able to carry the confusion, fear, anxiety of the time, as well as a variety of characters and crises, and to keep them in a frame; the contrast increases their power.  I think it must have helped greatly in the composition process as well.  Here is my favorite of the sonnets:

To be brought from the bright schoolyard into the house:
to stand by her bed like an animal stunned in the pen:
against the grid of the quilt, her hand seems
stitched to the cuff of its sleeve―although he wants
most urgently the hand to stroke his head,
although he thinks he could kneel down
that it would need to travel only inches
to brush like a breath his flushed cheek,
he doesn’t stir; all his resolve,
all his resources go to watching her,
her mouth, her hair a pillow of blackened ferns―
he means to match her stillness bone for bone.
Nearby he hears the younger children cry,
and his aunts, like careless thieves, out in the kitchen.

Though there are no end rhymes, this follows the sonnet form of four quatrains of increasing intensity and a final couplet which wraps up the poem in what goes on outside of the boy: all of it painful for the him.  We never learn the boy’s name, but he will appear in other pieces, trying to cope with the changes after his mother’s death.  This is powerful work.