Formal Matters: Sestinas

A love of poetry does not necessarily require knowing much about what is going on under the hood–formal concerns, rhyme, meter, and the like. Perhaps because I was a music major, it’s always been an interest of mine: like sonata form, poetic structures have their own low key, fascinating dazzle. For example, the verse form of the sestina.

Poetry Foundation gives a definition:

A complex French verse form, usually unrhymed, consisting of six stanzas of six lines each and a three-line envoy. The end words of the first stanza are repeated in a different order as end words in each of the subsequent five stanzas; the closing envoy contains all six words, two per line, placed in the middle and at the end of the three lines. The patterns of word repetition are as follows, with each number representing the final word of a line, and each row of numbers representing a stanza:

1 2 3 4 5 6
6 1 5 2 4 3
3 6 4 1 2 5
5 3 2 6 1 4
4 5 1 3 6 2
2 4 6 5 3 1
(6 2) (1 4) (5 3)

Got that?

And yet, some poets manage to create miracles out of these ridiculous strictures:

First David Ferry, who has recently turned out a stunning version of The Aeneid.

The Guest Ellen at the Supper for Street People
By David Ferry

The unclean spirits cry out in the body
Or mind of the guest Ellen in a loud voice
Torment me not, and in the fury of her unclean
Hands beating the air in some kind of unending torment—
Nobody witnessing could possibly know the event
That cast upon her the spell of this enchantment.

Almost all the guests are under some kind of enchantment:
Of being poor day after day in the same body;
Of being witness still to some obscene event;
Of listening all the time to somebody’s voice
Whispering in the ear things divine or unclean,
In the quotidian of unending torment.

One has to keep thinking there was some source of torment,
Something that happened someplace else, unclean.
One has to keep talking in a reasonable voice
About things done, say, by a father’s body
To or upon the body of Ellen, in enchantment
Helpless, still by the unforgotten event

Enchanted, still in the old forgotten event
A prisoner of love, filthy Ellen in her torment,
Guest Ellen in the dining hall in her body,
Hands beating the air in her enchantment,
Sitting alone, gabbling in her garbled voice
The narrative of the spirits of the unclean.

She is wholly the possessed one of the unclean.
Maybe the spirits came from the river. The enchantment
Entered her, maybe, in the Northeast Kingdom. The torment,
A thing of the waters, gratuitous event,
Came up out of the waters and entered her body
And lived in her in torment and cried out in her voice.

It speaks itself over and over again in her voice,
Cursing maybe or not a familiar obscene event
Or only the pure event of original enchantment
From the birth of the river waters, the pure unclean
Rising from the source of things, in a figure of torment
Seeking out Ellen, finding its home in her poor body.

Her body witness is, so also is her voice,
Of torment coming from unknown event;
Unclean is the nature and name of the enchantment.

Of course Elizabeth Bishop could seemingly toss them off…

Miracle for Breakfast
by Elizabeth Bishop

At six o’clock we were waiting for coffee,
waiting for coffee and the charitable crumb
that was going to be served from a certain balcony
—like kings of old, or like a miracle.
It was still dark. One foot of the sun
steadied itself on a long ripple in the river.

The first ferry of the day had just crossed the river.
It was so cold we hoped that the coffee
would be very hot, seeing that the sun
was not going to warm us; and that the crumb
would be a loaf each, buttered, by a miracle.
At seven a man stepped out on the balcony.

He stood for a minute alone on the balcony
looking over our heads toward the river.
A servant handed him the makings of a miracle,
consisting of one lone cup of coffee
and one roll, which he proceeded to crumb,
his head, so to speak, in the clouds—along with the sun.

Was the man crazy? What under the sun
was he trying to do, up there on his balcony!
Each man received one rather hard crumb,
which some flicked scornfully into the river,
and, in a cup, one drop of the coffee.
Some of us stood around, waiting for the miracle.

I can tell what I saw next; it was not a miracle.
A beautiful villa stood in the sun
and from its doors came the smell of hot coffee.
In front, a baroque white plaster balcony
added by birds, who nest along the river,
—I saw it with one eye close to the crumb—

and galleries and marble chambers. My crumb
my mansion, made for me by a miracle,
through ages, by insects, birds, and the river
working the stone. Every day, in the sun,
at breakfast time I sit on my balcony
with my feet up, and drink gallons of coffee.

We licked up the crumb and swallowed the coffee.
A window across the river caught the sun
as if the miracle were working, on the wrong balcony.

And finally Donald Justice, overlooked, but one of my favorites:

Sestina: Here In Katmandu

by Donald Justice

We have climbed the mountain.
There’s nothing more to do.
It is terrible to come down
To the valley
Where, amidst many flowers,
One thinks of snow,

As formerly, amidst snow,
Climbing the mountain,
One thought of flowers,
Tremulous, ruddy with dew,
In the valley.
One caught their scent coming down.

It is difficult to adjust, once down,
To the absence of snow.
Clear days, from the valley,
One looks up at the mountain.
What else is there to do?
Prayer wheels, flowers!

Let the flowers
Fade, the prayer wheels run down.
What have they to do
With us who have stood atop the snow
Atop the mountain,
Flags seen from the valley?

It might be possible to live in the valley,
To bury oneself among flowers,
If one could forget the mountain,
How, never once looking down,
Stiff, blinded with snow,
One knew what to do.

Meanwhile it is not easy here in Katmandu,
Especially when to the valley
That wind which means snow
Elsewhere, but here means flowers,
Comes down,
As soon it must, from the mountain.


Some help on how to write your own, with yet another fine example from Anthony Hecht.

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Poetic Words: Edward Thomas

Wanderer in the Storm by Julius von Leypold

Cold and wet in Boston and DC (my two homes). So a topical bit of Edward Thomas (doomed WWI era poet, if only he had taken Robert Frost’s invitation to come to the U.S.)

 

 

Rain

By Edward Thomas

Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into solitude.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying tonight or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead,
Like a cold water among broken reeds,
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be towards what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.

Poetic Words: Thomas Hardy

In my long-ago college days, Hardy the novelist was celebrated, and Hardy the poet was–other than a few well-anthologized poems like The Darkling Thrush–passed over without comment by the faculty and the English majors. He was too Victorian, too prolific, a relic, and flat.

I’m glad to say that bias has passed, and the craft and depth of his poems are now valued (in concert with, rather than in opposition to, what else was going on in the early 20th century poetically).

Here’s one, chosen in honor of the gentle dust of white on our sort of suburban, even rural, back patio.

SNOW IN THE SUBURBS

        Every branch big with it,
	Bent every twig with it;
       Every fork like a white web-foot;
       Every street and pavement mute:
Some flakes have lost their way, and grope back upward, when
Meeting those meandering down they tum and descend again.
     The palings are glued together like a wall,
     And there is no waft of wind with the fleecy fall.


A sparrow enters the tree,
	Whereon immediately
       A snow-lump thrice his own slight size
       Descends on him and showers his head and eyes,
	And overturns him,
	And near inurns him,
 And lights on a nether twig, when its brush
Starts off a volley of other lodging lumps with a rush.

      The steps are a blanched slope,
      Up which, with feeble hope,
A black cat comes, wide-eyed and thin;
	And we take him in


 

Winter Words

Still cold in Washington, so some pics and a poem by Mark Strand. We’ll be ushering in more seasonable weather this week I hear.

Rock Creek Park

Lines for Winter

by Mark Strand

for Ros Krauss

Tell yourself
as it gets cold and gray falls from the air
that you will go on
walking, hearing
the same tune no matter where
you find yourself-
inside the dome of dark
or under the cracking white
of the moon’s gaze in a valley of snow.
Tonight as it gets cold
tell yourself
what you know which is nothing
but the tune your bones play
as you keep going. And you will be able
for once to lie down under the small fire
of winter stars.
And if it happens that you cannot
go on or turn back
and you find yourself
where you will be at the end,
tell yourself
in that final flowing of cold through your limbs
that you love what you are.
A neighborhood front yard.

Memorial Day

So easy to think it’s just another three day weekend, but some reminders courtesy of the NYPL of the origin of this day.

www.nypl.org/blog/2013/05/20/memorial-day

 

And one of the poems that this day evokes for me…

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.


 

And there is that line from Auden’s “The Unknown Solider”

When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.


 

Pause and remember.

 

arlington

Poetic Words: Sharon Olds

poetryBoth Poetry Daily and Knopf Poem of the Day do celebrations of National Poetry Month (April, of course, the ‘cruelest’ month). Sharon Olds was one of Knopf’s selections, and she has always resonated with me, perhaps never more so than in this poem.

Directly

Then, one late afternoon,
I understand: the harm my father
did us is receding. I never thought
it would happen, I thought his harm was stronger than that,
like God’s harm—flood, or birth without
eyes, with mounds of tissue, no retina, no
pupil, the way my father on the couch did not
seem not to be using eyes
but not to have them, or to have objects
for eyes—Jocastal dress-brooches.
But he had not been hated, so he did not hate us,
just scorned us, and it is wearing off.
My son and daughter are grown, they are well
as if by some miracle. The afternoon has a
quality of miracle, the starlings all facing
the west, his grave. I come to the window
as if to open it, and whisper,
My father’s harm is fading. Then,
I think that he would be glad to hear it
directly from me,

so I come to where you are, bone
settled under the dewed tangle
of the blackish Northwoods moss like the crossroads
hair of a beloved. I come to you here
because it is home: your done-with body
broken back down into earth, holding
its solemn incapable beauty.


Perhaps all writers make use of their family first and foremost, but few do it as fearlessly.

Commonplace Book: Charles Wright

caribouEnjoying poet Charles Wright’s 2014 collection Caribou, notably the poem “Ducks.”

Gasoline smell on my hands, perfume
From the generator’s toothless mouth,
Opening swallow from the green hose,
Sweet odor from the actual world.

There’s an old Buddhist saying I think I read one time:
Before Enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.
After Enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.
The ducks, who neither carry nor chop,

Understand this, as I never will,
Their little feet propelling them, under the water,
Serene and stabilized,
                                         from the far side of the pond
Back to the marsh grasses and cattails.

I watch them every night they’re there.
Serenitas. I watch them.
Acceptance of what supports you, acceptance of what’s
Above your body,
                                 invisible carry and chop,

Dark understory of desire
Where we should live,
                                         not in the thrashing, dusk-tipped branches—
Desire is anonymous,
Motoring hard, unswaying in the unseeable.

buddha

Robot Words: Albert Goldbarth

The poet and essayist Albert Goldbarth collects robots and rocketships. He  gave a charming interview to Poetry Foundation about them.  Reminded of this by a photo I took last week of a toy store in window in Amsterdam.

robots
From the end of the interview:
Is there anything you’d like to tell me about your collection that I didn’t ask?
I guess for me some of these robots are beautiful. Some of them have a kind of futuristic look that I really appreciate. They’re part of the future that was promised us, that wonderful future where we really were going to be living on other planets, zipping around to work with little jet packs on our back and changing our personal weather by turning a dial in our homes, telebeaming to one another from the moon, to Mars Port, that beautiful innocent very optimistic and expansive promise-ful future. Of course, it became the world we’re living in now—AIDS and overpopulation and terrorism—but these robots are part of that alternative future. That’s quite lovely to me.

But also when I look at robots, I see heavy manual labor. To a large extent, we imagined that as mechanical creatures they would do our work for us. They would go into the mines on the moon, and they would be the ones to wield the picks to take out all the moon metal. The word “robot” comes from Karel Capek’s early play R.U.R., Rossum’s Universal Robots. Robot, for him, means labor or some heavy manual laborer. But when I look at these rocket ships, these anti-gravity vehicles, these things the size of 12 battleships put together, that nonetheless can zoom off the surface of a planet as if through the pure power of wishing, I think of the exact opposite of manual labor. For me, I think space and spaceships imply a world of immediate wish fulfillment. A kind of technological version of Peter Pan’s flight. And I wish I could articulate well for you how absolutely and deeply beautiful they are to my eyes.

Check out his funny, perceptive poems as well.