If I wrote in a sonnet form, I would be distorting. Or if I had some great new idea for line breaks and I used it in a poem, but it’s really not right for that poem, but I wanted it, that would be distorting.
By Sharon Olds
The doctor said to my father, “You asked me
to tell you when nothing more could be done.
That’s what I’m telling you now.” My father
sat quite still, as he always did,
especially not moving his eyes. I had thought
he would rave if he understood he would die,
wave his arms and cry out. He sat up,
thin, and clean, in his clean gown,
like a holy man. The doctor said,
“There are things we can do which might give you time,
but we cannot cure you.” My father said,
“Thank you.” And he sat, motionless, alone,
with the dignity of a foreign leader.
I sat beside him. This was my father.
He had known he was mortal. I had feared they would have to
tie him down. I had not remembered
he had always held still and kept quiet to bear things,
the liquor a way to keep still. I had not
known him. My father had dignity. At the
end of his life his life began
to wake in me.
I wonder what the divorce rate is among poets? In particular how many first marriages survive? No matter what a poet writes, whether autobiographical or not, there is a tendency for readers to think it is, particularly family members. It’s why poems written in the style of confessional poetry, in first person, can be difficult reading, there is little wiggle room for the reader, unless you view every poem as fiction, a product of imagination. Who is the greater exhibitionist; the painter or the nude, the poet or the reader, the artist or the gallery?
I find it interesting that Olds views the sonnet form as stifling and I find it liberating. I like structured verse because it provides a canopy under which I can get out of the bright sun and allows fiction to mingle with experience more readily into a nice rosy shade of pink reading glasses.
There are many sides to every failed marriage, particularly if there are children involved and the marriage went on and on, well into their young adulthood; then every member of the family will have their opinion on the matter. When a poet eulogizes their failed marriage in poetry, it takes on a whole new level of sentimentality, there becomes multiple deaths, the death of possibilities. I wrote a number of poems about my failed marriage. None of them were any good. I am not as talented a poet as Olds in that regard. Poetry of failure is not as inspiring as the poetry of discovery, but maybe it’s equally as important. The poetry of failure serves as a glue, to remind us all, that life is complicated. We all fail in our lifetimes, particularly in our marriages. Its just a matter of degrees. Olds’ poem below was a good reminder to myself, to not be so quick to burn the past without forethought as to the portent of the memories that go up in that rich smoke of the lives that were worth living long ago. Even those lives that ended in divorce.
by Sharon Olds
When I build a fire, I feel purposeful – proud I can unscrew the wing-nuts from off the rusted bolts, dis- assembling one of the things my ex left when he left right left. And laying its narrow, polished, maple bones across the fire, providing for updraft – good. Then by flame-light I see: I am burning his old easel. How can that be, after the hours and hours – all told, maybe weeks, a month of stillness – modelling for him, our first years together, smell of acrylic, stretch of treated canvas. I am burning his left-behind craft, he who was the first to turn our family, naked, into art. What if someone had told me, thirty years ago: If you give up, now, wanting to be an artist, he might love you all your life – just put your gifts into the heart’s domestic service. What would I have said? I didn’t even have an art, it would come to me from out of our family’s life – what could I have said?
From weariness I looked out on the stars And there beheld them, fixed in throbbing joy, Nor racked by such mad dance of moods as mars For us each moment’s grace with swift alloy. And as they pierced the heavens’ serene deep An envy of that one consummate part Swept me, who mock. Whether I laugh or weep, Some inner silences are at my heart. Cold shame is mine for all the masks I wear, Belying that in me which shines and sings Before Him, to face down man’s alien stare— A graceless puppet on unmeaning strings, I that looked out, and saw, and was at rest, Stars, and faint wings, rose-etched along the west.
by Léonie Adams – 1899-1988
When I stepped homeward to my hill, Dusk went before with quiet tread; The bare laced branches of the trees Were as a mist about its head.
Upon its leaf-brown breast the rocks Like great grey sheep lay silentwise, Between the birch trees’ gleaming arms, The faint stars trembled in the skies.
The white brook met me half-way up, And laughed as one that knew me well, To whose more clear than crystal voice The frost had joined a crystal spell.
The skies lay like pale-watered deep, Dusk ran before me to its strand And cloudily leaned forth to touch The moon’s slow wonder with her hand.
Be it dark; be it bright; Be it pain; be it rest; Be it wrong; be it right— It must be for the best.
Some good must somewhere wait, And sometime joy and pain Must cease to alternate, Or else we live in vain.
To My Wife
by Alexander Posey
I’ve seen the beauty of the rose, I’ve heard the music of the bird, And given voice to my delight; I’ve sought the shapes that come in dreams, I’ve reached my hands in eager quest, To fold them empty to my breast; While you, the whole of all I’ve sought— The love, the beauty, and the dreams— Have stood, thro’ weal and woe, true at My side, silent at my neglect.
Traveling – It leaves you speechless, and then turns you into a story teller.
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
The railroad track is miles away, . . And the day is loud with voices speaking, Yet there isn’t a train goes by all day . . But I hear its whistle shrieking.
All night there isn’t a train goes by, . . Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming, But I see its ciders red on the sky, . . And hear its engine steaming.
My heart is warm with the friends I make, . . And better friends I’ll not be knowing; Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take, . . No matter where its going.
by Janice Gould
BEYOND the East the sunrise, beyond the West the sea, And East and West the wander-thirst that will not let me be; It works in me like madness, dear, to bid me say good-bye; For the seas call, and the stars call, and oh! the call of the sky!
I know not where the white road runs, nor what the blue hills are; But a man can have the sun for a friend, and for his guide a star; And there’s no end of voyaging when once the voice is heard, For the rivers call, and the roads call, and oh! the call of the bird!
Yonder the long horizon lies, and there by night and day The old ships draw to home again, the young ships sail away; And come I may, but go I must, and, if men ask you why, You may put the blame on the stars and the sun and the white road and the sky.
“Getting old is like climbing a mountain; you get a little out of breath, but the view is much better!
Now We Are Six
by A. A. Milne
When I was one, I had just begun. When I was two, I was nearly new. When I was three, I was hardly me. When I was four, I was not much more. When I was five, I was just alive. But now I am six, I’m as clever as clever. So I think I’ll be six now for ever and ever.
Now We Are Six-ty (for Carmen)
by T. A. Fry
When I was ten, I was afraid of men. When I was twenty, I had doubts a plenty. When I was thirty, A powerful thirst. When I was forty, I was terribly sporty. When I was fifty, I was carefree and thrifty. But now that I’m sixty I’m true to my form, Decidedly sexy, And deliciously warm.
Why has our poetry eschewed The rapture and response of food? What hymns are sung, what praises said For home-made miracles of bread?
University of One
by Franz Wright
And I’ve lost my fear of death here, what death? There is no such thing. There is only mine, or yours– but the world will be filled with the living. Mysteriously (heavy dear sky-colored book), too, I have been spared the fate of those who love words more than what they mean! My poem is not for example a blank check in pussyland anymore, nor entry in the contest for the world’s most poignant suicide note. Now I have to go–, but meet my friend Miss April snow.
by James Wright
All right. Try this, Then. Every body I know and care for, And every body Else is going To die in a lonliness I can’t imagine and a pain – I don’t know. We had To go on living. We Untangled the net, we slit The body of this fish Open from the hinge of the tail To a place beneath the chin I wish I could sing of. I would just as soon we let The living go on living. An old poet whom we believe in Said the same thing, and so We paused among the dark cattails and prayed For the muskrats, For the ripples below their tails, For the little movements that we knew the crawdads were making under water, For the right-hand wrist of my cousin who is a policeman. We prayed for the game warden’s blindness. We prayed for the road home. We ate the fish. There must be something very beautiful in my body, I am so happy.
It’s practically my subject, my theme: solitude and community; the weirdness and terrors of solitude: the stifling and consolations of community. Also, the consolations of solitude.
Everything Is Waiting For You
by David Whyte
After Derek Mahon
Your great mistake is to act the drama as if you were alone. As if life were a progressive and cunning crime with no witness to the tiny hidden transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely, even you, at times, have felt the grand array; the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding out your solo voice. You must note the way the soap dish enables you, or the window latch grants you freedom. Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity. The stairs are your mentor of things to come, the doors have always been there to frighten you and invite you, and the tiny speaker in the phone is your dream-ladder to divinity.
Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the conversation. The kettle is singing even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots have left their arrogant aloofness and seen the good in you at last. All the birds and creatures of the world are unutterably themselves. Everything is waiting for you.
There has always been a link between diplomacy and poetry. The exultation of a greater community, done beautifully, artistically crosses the boundaries of understanding, the essence of effective politicians and poets. The list of poet diplomats goes back to Chaucer, Thomas Wyatt and extends to Gabriela Mistral, Saint-John Perse, Pablo Neruda, Czeslaw Milosz, Saint-John Perse and Octavio Paz. That no contemporary poets are on my list is more a function of my ignorance of modern conflicts and writers, as I am sure there are a host of poets waging diplomacy around the world, at least I hope there are. War, love and poetry are constants of the human condition. It’s a bit of rock, paper, scissors, how they are connected, cause and effect, effect and cause, I’ll let you decide which conquers which, but it the art of poetry and art of diplomacy share the same language.
Derek Mahon was born 2 years after W. B. Yeats death. Mahon left Belfast and studied and worked in England, France, the United States and Canada throughout his life, only returning to Ireland late in life. These two poems are bookends of the poetic mindset of the quote above. War has a way of reminding us of the wish to become a hermit at the same time we humbly appreciate the blessing that can be community.
Spring in Belfast
By Derek Mahon (1941 – 2020)
Walking among my own this windy morning
In a tide of sunlight between shower and shower,
I resume my old conspiracy with the wet
Stone and the unwieldy images of the squinting heart.
Once more, as before, I remember not to forget.
There is a perverse pride in being on the side
Of the fallen angels and refusing to get up.
We could all be saved by keeping an eye on the hill
Ah, that Time could touch a form That could show what Homer’s age Bred to be a hero’s wage. ‘Were not all her life but storm Would not painters paint a form Of such noble lines,’ I said, ‘Such a delicate high head, All that sternness amid charm, All that sweetness amid strength?’ Ah, but peace that comes at length, Came when Time had touched her form.
Peace cannot be kept by force, it can only be achieved by understanding.
I Do Not Murmur At The Lord (“Ne narikaiu ya na Boha”)
by Taras Shevchenko
Translated by John Weir
It’s not that I’m of God complaining Or any other person blaming. I just deceive myself. I trow. And even sing the while I plow My pauper field forlorn and fallow! I sow the word. Good crops will follow In days to come. Yet will they? No! Myself alone, I have the feeling, And no one else am I deceiving… Unfold, my field, fold in furrows, Black earth set for seeding! Hill and valley plowed in furrows, Sown with seeds of freedom! Unfold, my field, cultivated. Green with verdure covered, With gold grain inseminated, With good fortune watered! So unfold in all directions, Spread, my fertile meadow,
Seeded not with empty gestures But with wisdom mellow! Folks will come the crop to garner…. Oh harvest of plenty!… So unfold, with green be covered, My field poor and scanty!! But am I not myself deceiving With fancies of my own conceiving? I am! Because it’s better so, To strive, though it should be but vainly, Than make my peace with bitter foes And idly keep or God complaining!
Some might find it an odd pairing, Ogden Nash and Sir Thomas Wyatt. But the two could not be better mates in my opinion as poets, as each loved a bit of a riddle, mixed heavily with their rhyme. I find more humor when I look for it; in life and in poetry. Why must sonnets be stuck with the reputation as “serious” poetry? What stodgy English department proclaimed that the sonnet has to be “classic” verse? It’s only because we allow ourselves as readers to be buffaloed into believing such a thing, that we accept it to be true. We the reader are the one placing lofty expectations on the fourteen line form because we have been misled into thinking that’s what we are required to do. Generations of high school and college literature classes have boxed the sonnet into a corner. Maybe it’s time we unpacked the sonnet from it’s historical baggage, time to set the sonnet free.
There is a solution for friends of the sonnet; read the sonnet above through a different lens, a lens that you are reading a comedy, it may be a tragic comedy, but a comedy. Have you ever written a sonnet or tried to write a sonnet? If you have, you can speak from experience there is a moment during its creation where you recognize the silliness of it all – 10 syllables, 14 lines, rhymes all in their proper place. How could it not go off the rails a bit from drama into comedy, if for no other reason than to break the tension? Next time you are inspired to write a sonnet, trying doing it with your tongue set firmly to one side of your mouth as you write to remind yourself of the absurdity of it all and see if it yields a comedic gem along the way.
Most great sonnets have at least one great one-liner contained within them. The question is whether that one line is drama, action adventure, romance, horror, sci-fi, rom-com or stand up comedy? It may be all of them depending on your whim as a reader. But don’t limit your options. Trying reading Shakespeare’s sonnets sometime with the eye of looking for the punch line and then go ahead and laugh at the silliness of it when you find it. Don’t force Shakespeare to be so serious. It’s lots more fun slogging through old English, looking to be inspired by its brilliant comedy, than trying to sleuth out something weighty and intellectual; Oh, where art thou? And like all good comedies, the audience laughs the hardest when it releases the tension of something more serious, something darker. Just look at Ogden Nash.
Progress might have been alright once, but it has gone on too long.
by Ogden Nash
Behold the hippopotamus! We laugh at how he looks to us, And yet in moments dank and grim, I wonder how we look to him.
Peace, peace, thou hippopotamus! We really look all right to us, As you no doubt delight the eye Of other hippopotami
There are, it seems, two muses: the Muse of Inspiration, who gives us inarticulate visions and desires, and the Muse of Realization, who returns again and again to say “It is yet more difficult than you thought.” This is the muse of form. It may be then that form serves us best when it works as an obstruction, to baffle us and deflect our intended course. It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.
The Peace of Wild Things
by Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
In recent years there has been a population explosion of Trumpeter Swans in the lakes around central Minnesota. Once a rare bird, Trumpeter Swans are now commonplace in wetlands with just a touch of wildness. On the small shallow lake north of where I live there is a nesting pair every year, raising 2 to 4 signets. But come fall, the lake becomes a central point of congregation before freeze up, with as many as 75 to 100 swans preparing to move south. This year, temperatures have been warm enough that most of the Mississippi river near Elk River has yet to freeze and the swans are using that open water to stick around longer than I can ever remember. The huge birds are like small boats floating in the fast current and remarkable sight in the midst of winter. The reverse happens in March, as small patches of open water emerge, the swans and ducks congregate, eager for warmer temperatures to allow them some privacy.
Do you have a wild species in your area that you have noticed that has gone from rare to commonplace?
A Warning To My Readers
by Wendell Berry
Do not think me gentle because I speak in praise of gentleness, or elegant because I honor the grace that keeps this world. I am a man crude as any, gross of speech, intolerant, stubborn, angry, full of fits and furies. That I may have spoken well at times, is not natural. A wonder is what it is.