All you have to do is write one true sentence. The truest sentence you know.
Edna St. Vincent Millay saw the tides of public sentiment regarding her writing wax and wane during her lifetime. She straddled the era of classical poetry and the emergence of new voices, a new poetic language. The writing of Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, just to name a few, was evolving the accepted poetic style that would bring free verse to the forefront of American literature.
To the literary critics who stabbed and slashed at Edna’s prose in search of some kind of retributive analysis; I say phooey. I have no interest in literary critique as character assassination. I think the critics of her day suffered from the same character flaw strong independent women face today; criticism that hides behind misogyny. I prefer to invest my time as unabashed fan of Millay who brings a sense of humor and humanity to her poetry. Millay’s writing is filled with true sentences which stick with me long after the cover is closed.
Sometimes When I Am Wearied Suddenly
Edna St. Vincent Millay
Sometimes when I am wearied suddenly
Of all the things that are the outward you,
And my gaze wanders ere your tale is through
To webs of my own weaving, or I see
Abstractedly your hands about your knee
And wonder why I love you as I do,
Then I recall, “Yet Sorrow thus he drew;
“Then I consider, “Pride thus painted he.”
Oh, friend, forget not, when you fain would note
In me a beauty that was never mine,
How first you knew me in a book I wrote,
How first you loved me for a written line:
So are we bound till broken is the throat
Of Song, and Art no more leads out the Nine.
The state of being obsessed with someone or something.
An idea or thought that repetitively preoccupies or intrudes on a person’s mind.
The judgement of others who believe the person obsessed is spending an excessive amount of time on something.
English Oxford Dictionary
A true confession. The wonderful thing about an honest obsession is the depth of wonder it constantly evokes, connections that one either uncovers like mini-mysteries, threads woven into the common consciousness or imagines out of whole cloth for one’s own entertainment. To an outsider, another’s obsession may seem odd, repetitively annoying, bewildering, or taken to the extreme, a mental illness. I haven’t given this much thought, how my sonnet obsession might appear to others; harmless, eccentric, needlessly academic, outdated, nerdy all jump to mind. Fortunately, as of yet, it has not proven to be the cause of social ostracism or source of embarrassment to my children. However, I’ve only just begun this blog; stay tuned..
One of the things I quickly uncovered about sonnets is the ubiquity of their influence on writers of all stripes throughout the ages. Sonnets lend themselves to the obsessive mind because of their seemingly unlimited connections within literature, a backbone of the cosmos of poetic ideals that are inherent to the human psyche’s pursuit of artistic expression.
I have not, as yet, uncovered a sonnet written by Earnest Hemingway. If someone reading this blog knows of one, be so kind as to share it. The title to Hemingway’s novel, A Farewell to Arms, is likely lifted from George Peele’s sonnet of the same name. The themes of the novel and the sonnet are very much connected; exploring the noble ideals around the concept of service – service to country first as soldier, then, when no longer able to sustain the ravages of war, service to others, friends, family, lovers or Queen.
Reading Peele’s sonnet the first time sent me scurrying to the dictionary, unsure if I truly understood the meaning of the word beadsman. I’ll save you the trip. What I learned is in the 1500’s it was common for royalty, nobleman and wealthy benefactors of churches or castles to hire alms men or woman to pray for their well being. An interesting thought, that the rich believed someone else could pray their way to either earthly success or something more eternal. I suppose that’s the cynical view of a concept I have no modern equivalent. A more generous assumption would be that with no social security as safety net, the wealthy shared a modest pension to those that had loyally served them when young, to provide a modicum of support in their waning years. I’ll let you decide. Regardless, Peele’s sonnet speaks to the ideals of faithful service to a cause that is worthy of something greater than himself.
A Farewell To Arms
HIS golden locks Time hath to silver turn’d;
O Time too swift, O swiftness never ceasing!
His youth ‘gainst time and age hath ever spurn’d,
But spurn’d in vain; youth waneth by increasing:
Beauty, strength, youth, are flowers but fading seen;
Duty, faith, love, are roots, and ever green.
His helmet now shall make a hive for bees;
And, lovers’ sonnets turn’d to holy psalms,
A man-at-arms must now serve on his knees,
And feed on prayers, which are Age his alms:
But though from court to cottage he depart,
His Saint is sure of his unspotted heart.
And when he saddest sits in homely cell,
He’ll teach his swains this carol for a song,–
‘Blest be the hearts that wish my sovereign well,
Curst be the souls that think her any wrong.’
Goddess, allow this aged man his right
To be your beadsman now that was your knight.
By Ernest Hemingway The age demanded that we sing And cut away our tongue. The age demanded that we flow And hammered in the bung. The age demanded that we dance And jammed us into iron pants. And in the end the age was handed The sort of shit that it demanded.
Do you want to change your life? Screw up your courage sit down and write..…poetry. Any kind will do; Rhyming, free verse, limerick, haiku, Silly, serious or a song. Then do something even braver, Share it with a total stranger, And neither shall be strange…. for long.
By T. A. Fry
I was a glass blower before I became responsible. It wasn’t a passing fancy. I committed several years to the mastery of the craft, honing skills both difficult and routine once muscles memorize the ability to mold a uniform layer of molten glass around a bubble of air at the end of a four-foot long pipe that is red-hot on one end, cool enough to handle with bare hands on the other and a blister waiting to happen in the middle.
I lacked several important character traits to make the jump from art student to artist. The first was skill. Though my skills were good enough to create beautiful functional items, there was a level of creativity, flare, precision and execution that separated me from the very best. With practice, better equipment and a more united studio, I could have narrowed that gap. But, I realized there was still going to be a gap and that gap is everything if one wants to be the kind of artist that makes a living from their art.
The second thing I lacked was far more important to any real aspiration on my part in becoming an artist; a belief that my work was in fact art. I took pride in being a craftsman. I saw the things I created as functional vessels, intended for the purpose of the shape in which I created them, whether it was as vase, bowl, platter or chalice. I took pride in their form and function. I did not see them as art.
Several years ago I was having a drink at the Grand Cafe on 38th and Grand Avenue in South Minneapolis. The cafe is located two blocks from where I had lived for 8 years in a duplex during my glass blowing days 30 years prior. I funded a year of college through the sale of my glass out of the duplex, mostly to friends and family, when I finally declared a major and started my academic study to become an agronomist.
I was sitting at the bar, when the owner, an old friend who I had worked with in the restaurant business, came up to me and said she wanted to introduce me to someone; a friend of hers and regular customer who wanted to meet me. I said sure, but had no clue as to what this was about. The woman came up and introduced herself and said she wanted to let me know how much she had enjoyed over the years the piece of glass that I had created. She told me it was her favorite piece of art because it sat in a place that when she came home in the afternoon, the light came through the window and made it glow. It made her feel like she was home.
I blushed. I was at loss at how she even came by the piece. It had been years since I had even thought of myself as a glassblower. This stranger, bestowed to me a gift, as her kind words made me feel, for the first time, like an artist. The oddest part was that the work she described was so unlike the vast majority of things I made in those years. It stood out because it was created largely to appease a professor as part of an assignment to create something original.
The piece was one of a series of the most un-functional glass creations in my years of blowing glass. I learned a technique where I would elongate a neck off the pipe by twirling it around like a baton while the glass was glowing orange hot and fluid. This is not by itself an unusual technique, it’s a step used in creating lots of different types of vases. I would then reheat the end farthest from the pipe and expand the air pocket so that it looked like the 1960’s vases with a big bulbous bottom and long thin top. Next, I would heat up the over sized base again, making the second half of the bulb farthest away from me hotter than the lower half and rather than put more air in, I would suck all the air out, so that the glass bulb collapsed in on itself creating two relatively thin layers of glass at the top of a long neck. It took me many attempts to figure out the right combination of gathers, reheating in the glory hole, the proper expansion of the air bubble and then contraction to create the form I envisioned. After several weeks and 20 or so attempts, some of them started to turn out. I would fashion the collapsed plate-like top into a rough approximation of a very large jack in the pulpit, with a long tapering glass stem base.
These pieces were soaked in frustration and uncertainty. They were only worked off the pipe, there was no second step on the punty rod to shape the top which in reality became the bottom. The pieces were asymmetrical at the finished end, which doesn’t work particularly well in glass blowing so I soon learned I had to work these pieces fast and on the cold side, right on the hairy edge of breaking on the pipe to keep the shape intact to enable working the top. Because of this, I had to work these pieces fast. I would break off the piece from the pipe with a scratch line from a hack saw, when it was ready to go into the annealing oven and sometime the base would shatter or chip beyond repair, meaning it would be discarded moments from completion, with no way to salvage it.
Color in hot glass is something both controlled and uncontrolable, as you never really know what the piece is going to look like until it comes out of the annealing oven several days later. Color is something a glass artist develops a feel for over time through experience and trial and error in learning how to prepare colored glass combinations in hopes that it turns out like your vision. These pieces contained even more uncertainty because they had two layers of glass that added to the unpredictability in how colors would merge and work together or against one another.
After many failed attempts, I finally crafted 3 or 4 pieces that worked, both in terms of form, concept and colors. I ground the stems of those pieces so that they would balance elegantly on their spindly bases. These pieces were completely impractical, there was no opening facing up, they couldn’t hold anything in the folds of glass at the top because their narrow base, was by its design, tippy. The were top-heavy and easily knocked over. The point of them was only the beauty of the glass and their form. I created them for the challenge of trying to figure out the technique and a grade. But I wasn’t that fond of them and discarded all the failed attempts. I never displayed in my home the three or four that were presented in class for the assignment and critiqued by my professor and classmates. I don’t remember getting a particularly good grade on them or enthusiastic feedback. I thought they were funky and I stopped making them after the assignment was over. I wound up selling a couple at the final glass show. I really don’t know what happened to the rest. As a glass blower, you can’t keep that much of what you make or it would overwhelm you. I gave away as gifts or sold 98% of what I made over those years and only later realized I failed to keep for myself some of my favorite forms.
The one she has in this series I remember distinctly. The piece is blue and white, with bits of red and yellow. It is mostly opaque but has clear dark cobalt blue patches throughout its long slender base and portions of the top. It’s top was the size of a small dinner plate with graceful curves arching up in the back of the piece and swooping down in the front. It had a swirl of white around the outside edge. It stands more than 12 inches in height and is heavy, heavier than it looks.
That the piece still survives and has given someone joy all these years embodies the miracle that surrounds creative acts. I believe humanity is bound together less by governance, rule of law or morality, but more by the respect for beauty we find in shared creativity: whether its creation of a meal, an article of clothing, a painting, a building, a film, a book, pottery, a photograph, a glass vase, a garden, a poem, or a baby, the list is endless. Entropy brings destruction and disharmony to everything and everyone with relative ease over time. Destruction is part of the natural order. But so too is construction. It is in creation that I find courage. Creation is where genius lies in wait to pounce on me when I least expect it and maybe in most of need of it.
What binds together this tale of glass and poetry? Where does this story connect to the poem at the beginning? My chance meeting with a woman who owns a piece of art I created long ago and forgotten about, was a reminder that the power of creation is only truly achieved when it is shared with someone else. It reminded me that even pieces that I create and might not be that fond, may turn out to enhance the life experience of someone, who sees something in them, that I have failed to see, and might only later, truly appreciate, through their eyes. I believe that all art finds its own water level. And some art is created for an audience of one, which searches for its proper place if set loose within this world.
I wrote the poem Change as a title page to a small chap book I hand bound and gave away for Christmas presents a couple of years ago. It has grown on me over time and is a proper clarion call of what this blog project is all about.
Is there a poem or piece of art you created, and set loose, that impacted someone else in ways you couldn’t anticipate? Start a conversation and share your story of creation and transformation.
A completely genuine word of encouragement occurred after a writing workshop by another writer. He said, “what you are trying to do isn’t easy. But I can’t relate, because I have never been able to write what I want to write in the structure that a sonnet imposes.”
He summed up in many ways the very reason why I write sonnets. I find being forced into a structure of ten syllables a line and fourteen lines empowering and reassuring. Sonnets require me to think clearly. I enjoy rhyming poetry, both reading it and the challenge of writing it. For me, it feels like my writing becomes simultaneously both more accessible and genuine through a sonnet’s structure.
I find writing sonnets a process of discovery. It requires that I not fear the rhyme. I explore ideas first and look to uncover rhyme and structure later. I strive to write poetry that is pleasing to read aloud and has what I call good mouth feel. I believe strongly poetry should be read aloud, whether alone or better yet, with someone else to share the experience. I have found, if I am patient and let the sonnet go in unexpected ways, even let the rhyme have the upper hand once in a while, my subconscious steers my writing in productive and interesting ways.
Here is an example where the rhyme guided, rather than obstructed the writing. It draws on imagery from one of my favorite poems in the Tao. It was inspired by the bravery of a friend.
Cry my brave warrior; peace tears like rain. Let them fall freely; nourish your heart’s threads. Each able to share the source of its pain. Awash in the wisdom of roads you have tread. Sob my brave fighter, each rasp a sad song. Don’t hold it in. Give it back to the soil. Each gasp a lyric of when you were wronged, The blood tragic score of all of your toil. Give me your tears and I’ll settle my dust, Soften my glare, blunt what was pointed. Each shines my soul and rids it of rust. With every one shed our friendship anointed. Bless me or curse me, whatever shall be. Cry in my arms and set our hearts free.
If you had told me when I turned 50, that I would find myself writing a blog about sonnets, I would have been incredulous. I am not a literary scholar or published author. I am a regular guy, who had up until that point in his life, only a modest interest in poetry as a reader and even less interest in writing poetry. As a writer, to this day, I am an inaccurate speller, lousy at punctuation and stubbornly ignorant of the rules of grammar. So what business have I in writing what could be considered by many one of the most structured of poetic forms- the sonnet? Good question..
There is both a long and short answer to that question and they are the same – I don’t know. In this blog I hope to share my genuine enjoyment for what feels like a somewhat unwelcome guest of modern poetry journals – the formality of rhyming poetry and in particular – sonnets.
My foray into writing sonnets began after several months as a fledgling writer, working on a poem that was rudderless and frustrating. I finally figured out the poem was actually two poems, unmercifully mashed together. One of them, after I stripped it out and gave it it’s own proper space, had a rough construction that looked something like I remembered from high school advanced English as a sonnet. Being curious, I Googled “Sonnet Structure” and soon realized it wasn’t even close to being a sonnet. However, that simple act of exploration got me suddenly reading sonnets. And once I started reading sonnets, I realized they are everywhere in our shared experience of literature and artistic expression.
Over a month later, an unexpected inspiration occurred. One Thursday morning, I awoke early and started writing, like I often do in the mornings, and suddenly to my surprise emerged from my typing fingertips a sonnet. It sprang from my subconscious, nearly fully formed in the first draft. It contained truths I wouldn’t understand for many months and to this day, surprises me with its genuine imagery of hope.
This was the beginning of my obsession with writing sonnets. Three years later it is still going strong…..
Oh Darkest Night
Oh Darkest Night, tell us your mystery. Come like a thief to steal restless minds. Take only the parts of life’s sordid history, Which free our regrets from their deepest confines. Oh love be a locksmith, open our hearts. We’ll guard what is found as rare mortal treasure. Love’s masterful thievery will form a new start. Forgive our past trials as no final measure. Out of this blackness we’ll create a new day. A boundless void we’ll fill with pure light. Dreams! Savage Hope! Sweet Naiveté! Restore the magic of love to our sight. Hold back the sunrise. Stay by my side. Nothing before us and eyes open wide.