Fifteen by Fifteen
Helen Adam, Ballads, Annie Finch
BALLAD OF HELEN ADAM
Helen was a ballad singer (heavy as the moon).
Night moved over her and killed the sun.
Spell her a low song (heavy as the sun).
Her roots moved into the earth far down.
It smothered her words to a guttering wick.
Nothing answered but the slivered moon.
Spell her a low song (heavy as the sun).
Her roots moved into the earth far down.
It smoothed her with an Anubis rune.
Her voice was blood, and blood still runs.
Spell her a low song (heavy as the sun).
Her roots moved into the earth far down.
Deep rock shakes from dusty words.
Her voice was blood. Her voice still runs.
Louise Bogan, The Blue Estuaries, Lorna Knowles Blake
I first encountered Louise Bogan's poems in my middle years, after I had begun to write verse of my own, following two inhibited decades limited to poetry in translation and the occasional literary prose. There I was in a workshop, thrust into a vortex of possibilities: metrical verse, vers libéré, forms that were as fun as they were maddening, and into this mid-life encounter, in the form of a writing prompt, came Bogan's poem, "The Dream."
I was immediately drawn to the poem because of its formal brilliance, but also because of its deep psychoanalytic honesty. Mary Kinzie writes that "...[Bogan] knew when, and how, to loosen out her line." Bogan's lyric gift is exactly that tension between formal dexterity and metrical greatness, coupled with an assurance that both will be subordinated in confident ways to the psychic demands of any particular poem.
Making up for my years of ignorant neglect of Louise Bogan, I've personally gone through at least three copies of The Blue Estuaries and have pressed many others into the hands of friends. I usually have one close by, dog-eared and spine-wrecked.
I've searched and searched for the exact citation of a quote I ascribe to Bogan, "She disliked books that had no weather in them." I can't find it, but I trust that it describes what I love about her poems--the house is sturdy, but floorboards creak, windows rattle and gusts howl through the walls: her words always--always-- have some weather in them.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnets from the Portuguese, Terri Witek
A Shape almost "drew me backward by the hair" (sonnet I) when, as an adult, I finally read Sonnets from the Portuguese all the way through and witnessed the poet's practically sweat-inducing lover's struggle with the form. By teasing in a virile Beloved to rhyme with her own sly sad-sack I, EBB thrashes into being what outlasts them both: a Shape that in the poem's last clanging quatrain reverses fate: our mortal end via sonnet = "not Death, but Love."
Much pleasure lies in what flings the lovers then snaps them back: the exchange commodities of switched locks, a striptease of letters (the last, most intimate unquoted), the rhyming, the repeated lines, the wonderful clasp knife that becomes the leaning pair, the wings that "strike" in sonnet III then return as 4 stiff , transgendered wings in sonnet XXII--their tips ecstatically "break into fire." The lovers, who stand in for all unlike things determined to inhabit the same space, are likewise magnetized by the poems' many enjambments and emphatic mid-line caesuras--these often rock the lines so powerfully that hanging on becomes a bracing challenge.
We know that EBB first planned to publish her sonnets as fake translations, and there's another sly wink in the reverb with that sexy literary fake, Letters from a Portuguese Nun. But to me the real news is not only mastery (expected) but bravura sexualized display. The end of sonnet XXXVII offers both. Can you believe EBB claims this snorting creature is a lesser god/good?
As if a shipwrecked Pagan, safe in port,
From hair to erect and joyfully artificial tail: within the templed Sonnet Shape, reader, consider yourself yanked.
His guardian sea-god to commemorate.
Should set a sculptured porpoise, gills a-snort
And vibrant tail, within the temple gate.
Wendy Cope, Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, Marilyn Taylor
One could say that the exquisite hilarity of Wendy Cope's Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis--the English poet's first full-length collection (1986)--has been surpassed only by sober-sided responses from several of her critics, who simply don't get the joke. Cope's wonderful, readable book is a compendium of mostly formal poetry that borrows, with joyful abandon and extraordinary skill, the most recognizable poetic conceits and devices of the last few centuries. Efforts to relate this work to various academic "isms"-- and there have been many such attempts-- are virtually doomed.
To begin with, the book has little or nothing to do with Kingsley Amis, the writer. As Cope herself explains: "It was a dream I had last week / And some kind of record seemed vital. / I knew it wouldn't be much of a poem/But I love the title. " (Small miracles like this, as we all know, actually happen to poets occasionally.) Even so, considerable ink has been squandered on creating ostensible connections between Amis and Cope, such as: "Making cocoa for well-known male poets suggests subservience" and the like.
Instead, insightful lyricism abounds, along with an array of unforgettable literary parodies that range from ersatz Shakespeare ("Let me not to the marriage of true swine / admit impediments") to lampoons of latter-day haiku masters ("The cherry blossom/in my neighbor's garden--oh!/It looks really nice.")
It's gems like these--in tandem with clear-sighted wisdom and inordinate prosodic skill--that have earned Wendy Cope a prominent place among the great comic writers of our day.
Babette Deutsch, Collected Poems, Moira Egan
Babette Deutsch (1895-1982) was a renowned poet, translator, novelist, children's book author, and all-around woman of letters. Her poems artfully combine a fierce intellectuality with fine attention to sensual detail, as well as a deeply engrained sense of history and political engagement.
Her Collected Poems wear her learning lightly, yet resoundingly. One hears the influences of the Masters, and in her touching "Lament for the Makers: 1964," she honors these voices, from Yeats to Thomas, MacNeice to Roethke.
"How many will death take tomorrow, or this year, certainly?...There is no end to grief. Nor no end to poetry."
In a wonderful poem dedicated to Robert Frost, "Heard in Old Age," she describes the young, who "make love, make war, make music, the common tongue / of private wounds," and then asks if there is "a song left, then, for aged voices? / They are worse than cracked: half throttled by the thumbs / of hard self-knowledge."
Miss Deutsch was also associated with Imagistic tendencies, and her poems in this vein sing of the beauty of the world: "Leafless morning / Reigns in the cold street like a sycamore / Clothed in its leopard skin, the golden pallor / Blotting out shadow."
No beauty without darkness, these poems bespeak a painful awareness of the horrors of history: "Streets opening like wounds: Madrid's" opens her poem "The Museum," which ends with "things the nightmare spawns / are pictures at an exhibition. We / look, having viewed too much, and cannot see."
A formidable translator as well, from many languages, she has one of the best versions of Baudelaire's much-translated "Correspondences." The Collected Poems of Babette Deutsch should be read and remembered; hers is a voice to be reckoned with.
Rhina Espaillat, Her Place in These Designs, Nausheen Eusuf
Rhina Espaillat's Her Place in These Designs captures what Elizabeth Bishop might call our small abidance: such minute details of the world as a leaf shivering in the wind, a squirrel scurrying off with its prize, a coin spinning until its orbit wobbles to its rest. But it is not just the physical world Espaillat observes; she captures, too, the drama of the human world through snatches of overheard conversation, searing dramatic monologues, and portraits painted with deep sympathy. Her themes are as old as the timeless agon between love and loss, life and art, body and soul--and yet she finds ways to reinvigorate them and make them urgent and new. Espaillat's poems derive their wisdom from the ordinary and the quotidian, but sometimes even childhood games portend the darker episodes of human history, and minor occurrences lead to knotty problems of theodicy. Quietly allusive and gently elegiac, these poems are tinged with nostalgia but never sentimental, formally inventive but never ostentatious. The ease and grace of her lines makes them seem natural and inevitable, yet the wry humor of her ars poetica reminds us of the care and craft that goes into shaping them. I chose this book for this feature because I find Espaillat's work inspiring and instructive--like Frost or Wilbur, but in a different key, one that's closer to me.
Marilyn Hacker, Winter Numbers, Erica Dawson
An editor once told me the restrictions of formal poetry "always stifle the emotions of a poem." Every time I revisit Marilyn Hacker's 1994 collection, Winter Numbers, I remember how I laughed in that editor's face. Hacker's gut-wrenching explorations of death harbor so much emotional weight, I feel burdened by the anxiety and sorrow she carries in poem after poem about the Holocaust, the AIDS epidemic, and her own battle with breast cancer; but, I'm more than willing to shoulder the weight with her. "Cancer Winter" (a crown of sonnets comprised of fourteen sonnets, where the last line of stanza one becomes the first line of stanza three, the last line of stanza two becomes the first line of stanza four, and so on) delivers scene after scene of the most intimate moments, I can't help but imagine myself as her daughter, her lover, or even Hacker herself as she cries, "O let me have my life and live it too!"
Her poems are so intensely honest--it's not simply a collection of poems, but the collected complexities of one woman attacked by her femininity, history, and mortality. The book's final image illustrates this multiplicity: the late sun enters without comment / eight different sets of windows opposite. Reading those final lines, you know it's just not enough to admire Hacker's poetic prowess. You have to admire the woman she is and her willingness to share her with you.
Charlotte Mew, The Farmer's Bride, Alexandra Oliver
Whilst I now own Charlotte Mew's Collected Poems and Selected Prose, I think the original version of The Farmer's Bride (or rather, the 1921 edition I was given as a teenager) packs the greatest emotional wallop. It's a brief read, disturbing and exhilarating.
Mew is a poet so easily overlooked. Some of her diction is sloppy and borderline bombastic, but when she shines, she does so brilliantly and unnervingly. Reading her work aloud is like listening to a Debussy LP whilst continually warping the sound by putting your finger on the record. Her line lengths vary wildly (she initially asked that the poems in the volume be printed horizontally, so as to accommodate these variations); I chalk this up not to a lack of technical ability, but rather to a desire to convey fluctuations of emotion and perception as vividly as possible. The effect almost gives me vertigo, each time I reread her. One gets the sense of someone casting out lifelines of differing lengths in a desperate bid to get pulled back to shore, as this quatrain from "The Quiet House" illustrates:
Deeper than any knife:
Mew lived in morbid fear of mental illness (which ran in her family) and was compelled to smother her own sexual desires for women. Her work has obsessive qualities I relate to; she returns to the same images again and again: graves, roads, roses, hair (especially loosened or tossed). She combines abandon and paranoia in equal measure. Mew is able to mine incidents, memories, and dreams for elements that are by turns comforting and seductive, but she also feels the rumblings of the sinister. When I was younger, I knew "In Nunhead Cemetary" by heart, and relished these particular stanzas:
And the crimson haunts you everywhere--
Thin shafts of sunlight, like the ghosts of reddened swords have struck our stair
As if, coming down, you had spilt your life. (34-37)
There is something horrible about a flower
There is something terrible (in the best sense of the word) about Charlotte Mew and her work. The explosive, queasy urgency I feel when I read The Farmer's Bride is why I come back to it again and again.
This, broken in my hand, is one of those
He threw in just now: it will not live another hour
There are thousands more: you do not miss a rose.
One of the children hanging about
Pointed at the whole dreadful heap and smiled
This morning, after THAT was carried out.
There is something terrible about a child.
Edna St. Vincent Millay, Fatal Interview, Anna Evans
The facts are clear: In 1923, Edna St Vincent Millay, thirty-six, met George Dillon, twenty-two, at a poetry reading in Chicago, and they embarked on a love affair which inspired her famous fifty-two sonnet sequence, Fatal Interview. But for those like biographer Daniel Epstein, determined to draw direct correspondences between Millay's poems and her life, much remains nebulous. Is the sequence, which delineates the arc of a typical relationship where one party falls out of love, ordered as written? Was the penultimate sonnet for Millay's husband, Eugen Boissevain? I say, "Who cares?"
Fatal Interview is so much more than biography. I accept criticisms that the sonnets can be tonally archaic ("liefer"?) and self-indulgently classical. I say again, "Who cares?"
The sonnets are passionate, contradictory, and ruefully self-aware in turn. In other words, whatever relationship they have to the truth of the affair, they are utterly and heartbreakingly true to the fluctuating state of mind of an older married woman enthralled by a younger single man, who admits "that it is folly to be sunk in love" (XIX), hopes that they can be "two, who lived and died believing love was true" (XXXI), but fears "you will leave me, and I shall entomb/ what's cold by then in an adjoining room (XL).
Reading Fatal Interview, I fell in love with the sonnet, and also a little with Millay herself, who gave me permission to strip my own self naked in fourteen lines, "shaking the nerves with memory and desire" (XLIII).
Marilyn Nelson, A Wreath for Emmett Till, Kim Bridgford
A Wreath for Emmett Till is successful on so many levels, and that's why it's one of my favorite formalist books by a woman. As a writer of sonnet crowns, I am dazzled by the technical choices and construction of Nelson's sonnet magistrale, the series of fifteen sonnets making up this poem, ending in the ur-sonnet that is also an acrostic: "RIP EMMETT TILL." As a reader, I am compelled by the imagery and voice. As a person struggling with issues of forgiveness (as we all do), I am humbled by the textured ways in which Nelson goes through the stages of response to Emmett Till's murder. She also performs the difficult feat of making her poem accessible to young adult as well as adult audiences. Philippe Lardy's illustrations are compellingly beautiful, and serve as a fitting complement.
In the world of formalism, poems can be beautiful performances, with witty moves and gorgeous runs of imagery. By blending narrative and history with her technical prowess, Marilyn Nelson expands the appeal of her poem. Nelson's poem not only makes us remember the relevance of our reading, but she makes us remember. The difficult responses in the poem carry over into our own lives. Do we nurse our anger? Do we break the cycle? As Nelson writes, "Let me gather spring flowers for a wreath: / Trillium, apple blossoms, Queen Anne's lace, / Indian pipe, bloodroot, white as moonbeams." She encourages us to do the same.
Jacqueline Osherow, Whitehorn: Poems, by Jehanne Dubrow
When I began my studies of formal verse, learning to draft poems within the sharp enclosures of rhyme and meter, I looked (as any young poet does) for role models. First, this meant reading American poets writing in form. Then, contemporary American formalists. Then contemporary American female formalists. And, as I came to realize the important of Jewish identity in my own poems, I searched for contemporary American Jewish female formalists.
Jacqueline Osherow has always functioned as one of my poetry-guides. Her most recent collection, Whitethorn, is a lesson in how an artist--one who has already proven her formal expertise--must remain ambitious, still pushing subject matter, still experimenting with rapid shifts of voice, bringing together the erudite and the accessible.
In the book's title poem, a sonnet, Osherow deromanticizes a familiar Romantic trope: a speaker interacts with the natural world and, as a result of that interaction, experiences some kind of epiphany about the self. Mistaking an acacia shrub for "discarded tissues…scattered in a hedge," Osherow's speaker realizes that she is always making such errors and that even the rebirth of spring looks like little more than a "dingy whiteness," a "stingy bloom." These are elegies of the garden, sad with "[l]arkspur and delphinium" but, as with Osherow's previous collections, they mourn in the great cities as well. How seemingly effortless this work, how comfortable navigating the tradition of terza rima, villanelle, and sonnet. With Whitethorn, Osherow continues to explore the legacy of the Shoah, traces of Jewishness in the New and the Old Worlds, the problems of Biblical interpretation, but the poems also read as intimate engagements with sadness. Osherow's latest collection proves what I often tell my own students--that a poet needs only two or three obsessions to have enough material for a life's worth of beautiful, textured words.
Sylvia Plath, The Colossus, Jane Satterfield
Singling out a favorite Plath book reminds me of the fig tree section of The Bell Jar: Esther Greenwood, reflecting on life options, fears that "choosing one meant losing all the rest." My Plath shelf is filled with choices: two versions of the "old" Ariel too annotated to read; the "restored" edition bought on publication day in 2004; a first-edition Winter Trees battered by M-bag travels across the Atlantic; and three copies of The Colossus (a 1981 Harper & Row, a Faber & Faber bought in Toronto, and a Vintage International edition with a photo of Plath posed on a stone wall in Yorkshire, typewriter in her lap--ModCloth's first poetry book of the month!).
It is a truth universally acknowledged that The Colossus--this work of diligent apprenticeship--showcases the formal craft underpinning later poems. Plath's deployment of meter and her homage to forebears (Modernist and otherwise) are strikingly evident. Plath once confessed that her early poems "quite privately bore me." Yet The Colossus may be loved in its own right: exploring personal history through the lens of myth, visual art, and fairy tale, the poet forged a specifically female voice. The book's finest ekphrastic poem, "The Disquieting Muses," critiques the proprieties expected of dutiful daughter-writers. Painterly landscapes contrast the world's natural beauty with industrialization's toxic effects. One Goodreads reviewer's quip: The Colossus is "not as awesome as Ariel." Yet, like Ariel, it was liked by 97% of those who read it--clearly, lucky readers are finding this classic's rich rewards.
Kathleen Raine, Collected Poems, Marly Youmans
Kathleen Raine set her face against the age. Sometimes I put down her Collected Poems, feeling that a mystic door has been sealed against me; later I pluck up the book again, fascinated by unfashionable attempts to ensnare the divine.
Her intense feeling for nature and for the sacred life hidden within or behind it allures, as does her lyric loveliness: shells "sleep on the ocean floor like humming-tops"; Yeatsian "lovers out of present days / Float back upon the body's dream / Of a green branch that dips and sways, / Caught in the current of a stream." She regarded herself as a disciple of Yeats and Blake, whose accents can also be heard: "You came in anger, and at night / And in my grief and pain / The words of love I could not find."
Among early, more formal volumes, I particularly like The Year One (1952), governed by "spells," simple and strong nonce forms relying on parallelism, repetition, stanza, refrain, and sound play. Vigorous, swinging, less meditative than many of Raine's poems, the spells are reminders of her mother's Scots folksongs. Occasionally ballad influence sounds elsewhere in her work, reminding me of Charles Causley: "I saw the sun step like a gentleman / Dressed in black and proud as sin."
Kathleen Raine's poems are evidence of deeply-felt vocation. Her work has a lyric purity that comes from the unremitting pursuit of divine energies and nature, eschewing jargon and fashion.
Christina Rossetti, Complete Poems, Jennifer Reeser
I was at a writers' conference once, engaged in conversation with a learned friend, when I quoted the poet, Christina Rossetti, from her poem, "No Thank You John," in the process, citing Rossetti as the author. My friend--a respected literary professor with a doctorate from one of the most reputable universities in the world--immediately interrupted, claiming Rossetti had never written such a poem. He was dogged and insistent, unwilling to yield on the issue, thus our discussion ended with his challenge, that I produce this poem once I arrived home from the conference, and then, that I mail it to him, which I did. To his great credit, he was most gracious about the error, apologizing with civility, and thanking me for bringing the poem to his attention--a poem which, he went on to add, he liked quite well.
I lay no blame on my friend for his mistake. Rossetti's complete works are vast, and the poem, "No Thank You John" is a minor accomplishment, indeed, beside pieces such as "Goblin Market" and the Monna Innominata. Reflecting on this incident, however, I cannot help but consider how indicative it is of a deeper symbolic truth concerning the criticism and understanding of Christina Rossetti's legacy.
Beyond doubt, she is my favorite female poet of formal devices. My reading of Rossetti's writing goes back nearly as long as my existence--to the time when I had first begun to sound out loud, around the age of five, when my maternal grandmother gifted me with an edition of the World Book Encyclopedia, Childcraft, first published in the 1940's. Rossetti's simple, captivating verses therein enchanted me from the first, paired with beautiful, old-world illustrations. Flanking entries such as Shakespeare's song of Ariel, their charm surely met with no resistance, thus my most primitive approaches to poetry were formed upon the sounds of Rossetti's rhythm and rhymes, as well as her world-views, attitudes, and manner of expression.
As I matured, the allure remained, despite my on-again-off-again relationships with the poets who had accompanied her in those pages. There is something ever new and increasingly intelligent to be discovered with her work, as on an "Uphill" road--some formal device one had missed, some musical accomplishment unregistered on the ear before, some "trifle" which--like the aforementioned poem in the conversation--had seemingly slipped through the cracks. When I read criticisms of Rossetti's corpus of work being without range, without brilliance, I cannot help but think of the experience with my learned friend, the professor, and attribute such statements to ignorance, however well-meant. Her phantasmagoria captivates me equally with her realism. Like the critic, Harold Bloom, I am frequently frightened by her poetry. Like Sara Teasdale, I find her dexterity incomparably superior even to such a masterful songstress as Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I count among contemporary woman readers as one in "reconsideration" of Rossetti as a major poet in English literature, rather than simply as an important writer of her time.
A. E. Stallings, Hapax, Angela Alaimo O'Donnell
In her poem, "Song for the Women Poets," A.E. Stallings urges her literary sisters to pursue their art by any means necessary:
Sing, sing, because you can.
Descend in murk and pitch.
Double-talk the ferryman
And three-throated bitch.
In Hapax, Stallings' second collection of poems, she heeds her own advice. Hapax is full of finely-honed songs--from sonnets to limericks, rhyming triplets to heroic couplets, terza rima to 12-bar blues--all of them showcasing the poet's characteristic deftness, compression and formal wit. The volume is also full of "double-talk," as the play of paradox, the duet of double-entendre, and the art of ambiguity are evident in every poem. "Thyme," for instance, a piece apparently about the herb, is also about its homophone, "time" and proves a meditation on mortality: "I have some it of still." In "Sine Qua Non," the speaker claims "Your absence, father, is nothing. It is naught" at the start of the poem, but by the end redefines that nothing-ness as nothing-less than all-- "The zero that still holds the sum in place." In "First Love: A Quiz," the speaker (who is both Persephone and not) offers the reader a multiple choice rendering of reasons she has run off to a dark, dangerous place with a dark, dangerous man, concluding the list with a final choice that undermines the whole poem: "e. all of the above."
The songs in Hapax do, indeed, descend in "murk and pitch," for poets are nocturnal creatures who "find their way by calling into darkness." ("Explaining an Affinity for Bats"). Hapax reenacts The Harrowing of Hell depicted on its cover, with the Poet in the role of the Redeemer, dragging the dead into the light of day. Yet she also identifies with the newly resurrected, especially Eve who grieves "the sinister loss" of her hand, the one that once plucked forbidden fruit. Stallings revivifies old forms and old mythologies--Christian and pagan--finding relevance in them, for our lives and her own. She is both subject and object in her verse, the sought and the seeker, the observer and the observed. In the closing stanza of "Song for the Women Poets," she celebrates this dual role that seems peculiar to women as they write in a genre whose conventions have been (mostly) governed and whose stories have been (mostly) invented by men--until now:
And part of you leaves Tartarus,
Divided as she may be, as both Orpheus and Euridyce, the woman poet possesses a complete vision--one that is binocular, bilocated, and fully human. Hapax offers poems that discern the best of both genders distilled into Stallings' singular song.
But part stays there to dwell--
You who are both Orpheus
And She he left in Hell.