Thursday, August 28, 2008


Watership Down

I'm beginning to think I'm living in a fantasy world ruled by rabbits. Rabbits breed like, well, rabbits. They have no interest in the neighbor's traps. And why would they when their world is filled with luscious goodies? The guy who designed/installed our landscaping said I should consider them natural pruners. Surprisingly, though there seem to be more rabbits nestled into the neighborhood this year, the plants generally seem to be heartier and healthier than in previous years. I can only assume the garden is enjoying its natural pruning.

Monday, August 25, 2008

More on the Sonnet

In An Exaltation of Forms: Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of Their Art, Marilyn Hacker notes about the Italian sonnet "that all these versions of the sonnet almost predicate a poem whose "argument" divides into two parts, a premise set out in the octave (first eight lines), with the sestet contradicting it, modifying it, or giving a concrete proof."

The volta, or turn, seems to be the essential element that makes a sonnet a sonnet. Meter might vary, a couple lines might be added or subtracted, rhyming might be slant or varied or even non-existent, but most poet-critics suggest the turn is a requirement.

Hacker also says (specifically about sequences of sonnets):

Its Italian form is very like a mixture of the two most flexible and utilitarian "blocks" of verse narrative: the quatrain and terza rima.

And she summarizes the sonnet as (in regards to its origins and contemporary applications):

a poem in "popular" language that could be read or written by anyone (not only clerics and scholars) and that incited its writers to fresh examination of their evolving languages' interactions with the human world.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Sonnet

I have two sonnets in need of revision, of re-envisioning; thus, one thing I'm contemplating lately is the form of the sonnet. What constitutes a sonnet, or "little song?" How can I develop my sonnets into fully realized poems while maintaining their sonnet qualities?

Tony Barnstone writes in A Manifesto on the Contemporary Sonnet: A Personal Aesthetics (featured in The Cortland Review, December 2006):

Poets set sail like Columbus, unsure whether they would sail forever, sail off the waterfalling edge of a flat world, or encounter India or other new worlds. There is something comforting about knowing the destination of your journey. Sonnet-mariners know they will arrive at a port after a voyage of fourteen lines. With free verse, one travels into the fog, and must map the world again with every poem. With free verse one has to ask each time, "What makes this a poem?" Why should I break my line here and not there? What sort of stanza shape and length should I have? What voice shall I speak in, with what attitude, with what rhetoric, with what image structure? We have to come up with organic ways of making it poetry, because the mechanic form has been dispensed with.

Working in form (sonnets or otherwise) gives me a compass and the comfort that there is a destination ahead. I'm envious of the free-verse poets who can write beautifully and clearly without maps. Recently even my poems that end up in free verse tend to start in form. Without some breathable shape, my writing borders on prosaic thoughts broken into lines. Furthermore, form helps write the poem. Rhyme, in particular, leads me to what the poem is trying to say. I might arrive at the same place in free verse, but form tends to get me there in a more direct, unexpected, and interesting way. (Bardstone's essay addresses rhyme and rhyme devices in detail...worth reading if you're interested in that sort of thing.)

Barnstone proposes a number of ways of approaching the sonnet, one of the most interesting being to "transform sonnets in English into sonnets in English":

I found that approaching the sonnet as a translation game was a very generative creative mode. The translator wears the skin of the author. It is a kind of spirit possession. In my own work, I have learned much about traditional form by wearing the skin of the Chinese sonneteer Feng Zhi, of Petrarch, and of Borges. In addition to learning their techniques in the process of translating their poems into sonnets in English, I have developed a technique of transformation that I have attempted to apply intralingually as well as interlingually. I might, for example, work from one of Shakespeare's sonnets, using some of his rhymes and filling in my own lines, or write poems in direct conversation with the imagery of a source poem.

I think I may be too far along with my two sonnets in question to start from the translation/transformation approach, but I think it is an interesting approach to play with to generate new poems.

What I need to do is study my sonnets--map out the routes they took, look at the destinations they arrived at--then see if I can improve upon the routes and destinations.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Archaic Torso of Apollo

Archaic Torso of Apollo

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast's fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

-Rainer Maria Rilke

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Secret Garden

I realized I haven't written about the garden recently, which is probably largely due to the fact I haven't done much work in the garden recently (because the garden hasn't needed much work recently). It's probably also because there are no "star" bloomers right now, no plants that draw attention away from all the others. But as I was sitting on the swing this evening, it dawned on me that the garden hurries on, even when I'm not noticing. As I've been enjoying fresh strawberries, reading on the swing, watching hummingbirds zipper and butterflies coast through the sky, chancing upon a praying mantis guarding the fuchsia in a hanging basket, it's been happening. Summer is marching to its inevitable end. The school buses have returned. The ornamental grasses are gathering their plumes. The sun puts on its nightly show earlier each evening. Here's to being mindful of the show.

The Love Letter. A Dying Art?

I came across this article about love letters by way of the Arts Journal. There's something about a love letter. But maybe that's just because I'm a writer. I like the idea of love transcribed on stationery--handwritten exclamations (or subtle declarations) creased and stuffed in an envelope, dropped in the post (perhaps after much deliberation), and shuttled across distance to bring together two people.

I remember being so tickled when I found my parents' love letters, written so many years earlier when my parents were not my parents but two young kids testing out their romance, my father pursuing my slightly aloof mother (and--gasp--there was a chance I might not be born). Reading those innocent letters felt part archeological dig, part invasion of privacy, and part exhilaration at being privy to, however remotely, the development of a relationship (particularly one so important to me).

I suspect, as the article suggests, that the love letter, written on honest-to-goodness paper, is a thing of the past (still, S. and I met through letters written while we were at different schools, and though that's in the past too, it doesn't seem quite so far in the past). But, then, I suspect letter writing in general is a thing of the past. Why write a letter when you can send an e-mail or text message? Don't get me wrong...I love the electronic age. But there's nothing like opening the mailbox to find something other than bills and catalogs. There's nothing like holding a letter in your hands and later storing it away in an old shoebox. There's nothing like reading words inked in the penmanship of someone who loves you. There's nothing like sitting down to write back.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Artistic Space

The other day, Lori-Lyn wrote a post on her blog The Dream Life about writing spaces and it has stayed with me. I tend to float around from room to room, as projects develop or seasons shift or my mood changes (my cat does this too, finding a favorite spot for a few weeks at a time). The age of the laptop makes this even easier, though I wonder why I don't roam even farther, to the patio outside or library or local coffee shop, instead choosing to stay somewhat anchored inside the house.

When I'm daydreaming about the "perfect" house, it usually has a large shed (small barn?) at the back of the lot, a place separate from but close to my living space. It would have windows (natural light is a must in my daydream), at least one wall of solid, beautiful bookshelves, a comfy, oversize chair for reading, a large table to work at with plenty of space on top to spread papers out and plenty of space below for my legs (I'm constantly knocking my knees on my current desk...perhaps that's part of the reason I move around the house), and of course wi-fi connectivity for that laptop I drag around.

While having a good and beautiful place to work is nice, I try to remember it is not necessary to write. Writing happens anywhere we make it happen.

Still it's fun to daydream. So...what's your artistic space, whether real or imagined?

Friday, August 15, 2008

Personal Narrative V. Lyrical

Recently I've been thinking about the differences between, for lack of better terms, the personal narrative poem and the lyrical poem. What I mean by personal narrative and lyrical is: poems that surface from personal experience/events and poems that do not surface from personal experience/events, respectively (which leads me to ask, Isn't every poem personal to the poet, but now I really am rambling).

Though I've mostly written the personal narrative, I've had an underlying desire to move away from the narrative to the lyrical, and in the last few months my poems have moved in this direction. The question that follows is, Why? Why do I think this shift might lead to better poems? Why do I mistrust the personal narrative? Why has my work shifted in this direction, because I'm willing it or because it's a natural progression?

Some initial thoughts:
  • Sometimes I have a hard time believing my personal narrative could be universal. As with all artists, poets are trying to speak to a wide audience, to connect with them, to transform their personal ideas and experiences into something that resonates with a multitude of readers/listeners. A tiny voice sometimes chips its way into my head, suggesting no one is interested in reading about my experience dealing with my mother's cancer. Still, it is frequently the personal narrative poetry of other poets that I'm drawn to.
  • I'm often labeled a women's poet, for good or for ill. A woman's personal narrative is sometimes discounted. (I realize this is a very general statement that is likely to incite intense emotions, thus my reason for not expanding on it. It is too unwieldy for me to deal with at this time, but it is a thought I've had so I wanted to record it.)
  • The personal narrative, rising from real life experience, does something to the memory of that real life experience. In writing experience down, attempting to bring some permanence or insight, the writer inevitably changes the memory of the experience. Of course, even without writing, memory is never the same as the actual experience. But the process of writing, purposefully revisiting and reshaping, further alters the memory. I find it comparable to taking a photograph. In one sense it helps preserve the experience. On the other hand, as the memory/writing gains energy and power, the actual experience loses that energy/power.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


Raised Catholic, I continue to be intrigued by the tradition and ritual of the Catholic church, its saints and sacraments, its popes and Purgatory, and on and on. The imagery of this tradition frequently appears in my creative writing. So here's a writing prompt--good for writers of all genres--that rises from this intrigue.

Write a confession. It might be a first-person narrative or dramatic monologue. It might be heavy or humorous. It might be a long-kept secret or widely known fact. It might be directed to someone specific or the world at large. It might be none of these things. The goal, as with any prompt, is to play, to follow whatever trails the writing leads us to.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Black Swan Pas de Deux

For my senior-year performance, I danced the role of Odile in the Black Swan pas de deux of Swan Lake. Recently I've been thinking about the role and the ballet once again as I've been working on a poem off and on for some months about Odile. She's a tricky character to get right, both on the stage and in this poem. Perhaps watching the dance repeatedly will generate new sparks.

Added: American Ballet Theatre
Gillian Murphy as Odile, with Angel Corella
Marcello Gomes as Von Rothbart


While hiking in the Red River Gorge this weekend, I surprised myself with my world-wonder. Everything seemed new. Everything seemed camera-worthy. I probably frustrated S. with my frequent stops to snap a picture of some mushroom or tree or river rock.

Hiking this year has been markedly different from last year. Last year we had an extreme drought and consistently hot, humid days. This year the weather has been lovely, the best summer the area has had since we moved here. Though precipitation is still below normal, it has not been as drastically low as last summer.

Following a stream into the forest, crisscrossing the little creek several times, we hiked a trail that was new to us. The trail smelled of damp forest floor and smoky, smoldering campfires from the night before. At the top of a bluff, we stopped and lounged on a rock, our hunger fed by granola bars, our thirst quenched by water, our restlessness quieted by the peace of the place. The breeze rippling through the trees sounded so much like the water running through the stream below.

During the first half of the hike, we crossed paths a couple times with a man from Lexington. I'm guessing he was in his seventies. Bravo! I thought as some of the terrain was quite steep and challenging.

At a certain point we knew we'd have to turn around and backtrack out since continuing forward would be far too long for us, given the time, food, and water we had remaining. I was despondent. I wanted to see new parts of the trail, new mushrooms and trees and rocks. However, I was also fatigued and famished by this point. The second granola bar and more water would have to do, and my thoughts returned to the man in his seventies, driving his walking stick into the ground before him, moving forward. When the energy kicked in, I realized I was still moving forward too, one foot in front of the other, and to my delight, the return trip was new. How did I miss that yellow flower growing out of the stream edge the first time through? How did I miss those water skimmers clipping across the water's surface? How did I miss that particular music of our boots shifting the river rocks as we crisscrossed the creek? How could I think my world-wonder would leave me?

Friday, August 8, 2008

Ghost Forms

If you have about an hour and are interested in how traditional form influences free verse, listen to Katie Ford's talk "Ghost Forms: Using Traditional Form in Free Verse." You might have heard similar points made before (such as how the turn is essential to sonnets and nonce sonnets), but the contemporary examples Ford cites make the presentation original (at least for me). The title of her talk is borrowed from what Roethke had to say on the subject, which I think bears repeating:

Behind every free verse poem there is the ghost of a form.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Mammoth Cave

What is the attraction of a cave? S. and I went to Mammoth Cave and toured through part of the cave system open to visitors. Early guide Stephen Bishop called the cave a "grand, gloomy, and peculiar place," and that's about as good a description as any. On the four-mile, four and a half hour Grand Avenue tour, we walked through gypsum lined passages, narrow canyons, underground hills, large rooms, and areas with dripstone formations. We experienced dry caves and wet caves. We saw cave crickets and bats. We learned about the geology, ecology, and history of the cave system.

Long have humans been fascinated with the cave, given the names of past visitors on cave walls, those from the mid-nineteenth century that had been charred on the cave with candle smoke and those from more recent periods that had been etched in the limestone, as well as given the artifacts that have been found, including Native American tools and bones.

I think I would have enjoyed the cave more if we could have explored it on our own, although I understand the reasons the group tours are a necessity (cave preservation and visitor safety). I found it hard to appreciate the full effect of the cave in a group of 80. Two of my favorite moments on the tour were when the lights went out. The first time was accidental as we were walking through Cleaveland Avenue. The second time the rangers turned out the lights and requested silence for a moment while we were seated on benches in a large room (Aerobridge Canyon, I think). That is when I came closest to understanding the cave: in total darkness, enveloped by the earth, nearly 300 feet below the surface, with only the sound of my own blood rushing through my body.

Perhaps there is some connection to why I'm a writer. I get a similar thrill writing--entering darkness and solitude and silence, where I must rely on my imagination to reveal the light and the sounds of humanity.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Donald Hall

I finally got around to reading a Paris Review interview with Donald Hall, which I came across on the magazine's web site and bookmarked several months ago. The interview is from 1991 (so I'm further behind on my reading than I thought), but parts of the interview speak to what I've been pondering lately. I'm particularly interested in what Hall had to say about his process:

...I begin with a loose association of images, a scene, and a sense that somewhere in this material is something I don’t yet understand that wants to become a poem. I write out first drafts in prosaic language—flat, no excitement. Then very slowly, over hundreds of drafts, I begin to discover and exploit connections—between words, between images. Looking at the poem on the five-hundredth day, I will take out one word and put in another. Three days later I will discover that the new word connects with another word that joined the manuscript a year back.

Hall, a devoted reviser (hundreds of drafts!), also says:

First drafts of anything are difficult for me. I prefer revising, rewriting. I’m not the kind of writer like Richard Wilbur or Thomas Mann who finishes one segment before going on to another. Wilbur finishes the first line before he starts the second. I lack the ability to judge myself except over many drafts and usually over years. Revising, I go through a whole manuscript over and over and over. Some short prose pieces I’ve rewritten fifteen or twenty times; poems get up to two hundred fifty or three hundred drafts. I don’t recommend it, but for me it seems necessary. And I do more drafts as I get older.


Today when I begin writing I’m aware: something that I don’t understand drives this engine. Why do I pick this scene or image? Within the action of kicking the leaves something was weighted, freighted, heavy with feeling—and because I kept writing, kept going back to the poem, eventually the under-feeling that unified the detail came forward in the poem. The process is discovering by revision, uncovering by persistence.

Yes! I sometimes think there's an overemphasis on creation and not enough attention to revision, which is just as magical, if not more so.

Hall also talked about the passage of time and its effect on him as a poet:

I’m more patient now. When I was in my twenties, I wanted to write many poems. I had goals; when I reached them, they turned out to be not worth reaching. When you begin, you think that if you could just publish a few poems, you’d reach your desire; then if you could publish in a good magazine; then if you could publish a book; then . . . When you’ve done these things you haven’t done anything. The desire must be, not to write another dozen poems, but to write something as good as the poems that originally brought you to love the art. It’s the only sensible reason for writing poems. You’ve got to keep your eye on what you care about: to write a poem that stands up with Walt Whitman or Andrew Marvell.

Okay, so I'm still impatient and I still desire publication of my book. However, there are moments of simplicity when the outside world (its charms and lures, its criticism and cold shoulder, its fleeting praise) falls away and I'm only concerned with the work at hand, with writing a poem that can stand up.