10: Canzone

Canzone  – Literally “song” in Italian, the canzone is a lyric poem originating in medieval Italy and France and usually consisting of hendecasyllabic lines with end-rhyme. The canzone influenced the development of the sonnet – poetryfoundation.org

Spring (to H.D.)

Past the long and unkind embrace of winter,
Now is brutal rebirth of Spring, that dirty
Ragged flailing of life to fill the empty
Broken ground and choke up the sky with reaching,
Gasping hunger for heat. The wind rampages
And the nakedness snow had clothed now shivers
Under turbulent clouds, by swollen  rivers.
I, too, abhor that goddess myth of preaching
Modernists, with their boy’s idealism bleaching
The deep cruelty of Spring, because your vision
Taught me. Yours were the words, the cool precision,
Made so lasting a mark upon my teaching
That now, when Spring becomes, I feel the shred
Of roots, I see the blood in maple’s red

So when I looked up hendecasyllabic lines, wikipedia told me that no-one really uses them in English. It turns out that’s because they’re stupidly hard to write. However, because I am stubborn, I stuck with it, except for the last two lines because that’s structurally justifiable.

I also had a hard time settling on something to write about this time, since the form is so open in terms of themes. It was originally just going to be about the Spring, it being finally not a frozen wasteland here, but ended up shifting into engaging with H.D.’s representation of Spring, which was formative for me. I was reminded as I was looking through one of my old poetry anthologies that I wrote an essay on H.D. at some point in undergrad. I like the idea I was going for in this poem, even if the execution is not great.

9: The Bop

A recent invention, the Bop was created by Afaa Michael Weaver during a summer retreat of the African American poetry organization, Cave Canem. Not unlike the Shakespearean sonnet in trajectory, the Bop is a form of poetic argument consisting of three stanzas, each stanza followed by a repeated line, or refrain, and each undertaking a different purpose in the overall argument of the poem. –  Poets.org

The Program

We come because of love, because we are promised
A life in union with these works, these ideas,
These people – a convent for the lower-case word.
And we do love, we love as some love the books themselves –
The tactile reassurances, the familiar gestures,
As warm and safe as a lover’s body in the dark

But that unrequited love will not nourish us.

Despite the promises Hollywood makes us,
Love will not mend minds and bodies worn and broken
On the rocks of genteel poverty and imposter syndrome,
Abuses of power, mundane and bizarre, committed by crusaders
For justice and equality, and knowing that we are
At best numbers in a system and at worst a joke,
A punchline about laziness and uselessness and weakness.
We are fighting for too few lifeboats here

And this unrequited love will not nourish us.

But what if we are not drowning? Who told us
We were but the people already in the lifeboats?
And we believed them and believed each other.
It is possible to drown in a few inches of water.
It is possible, too, to find ones feet, to stand,
To wade in to the shore that was, after all, so close,

Because this unrequited love will not nourish us

 

It was nice to have a form so comparatively free of constraints this week – no meter, no rhyme scheme. This form, like the blues, is more about the content than the form itself – here, the working through of an issue. I ended up writing out some of my discontent with the US academic system here and the way it’s built on a raft of icky (and sexist) assumptions about emotional labour and the way it operates within an environment of anti-intellectual capitalism. The anti-academia piece is a genre in its own right these days, too, though it’s usually done in essay form. I happened on this as I was thinking about the way that the problem, problem solution format was – I assume – designed for writing about social justice issues. It certainly works well for that purpose anyway.

8: Blues Poem

One of the most popular forms of American poetry, the blues poem stems from the African American oral tradition and the musical tradition of the blues. A blues poem typically takes on themes such as struggle, despair, and sex. It often (but not necessarily) follows a form, in which a statement is made in the first line, a variation is given in the second line, and an ironic alternative is declared in the third line. – Poets.org

Broodhollow Blues

Well, selling encyclopedias was getting him down
Yes, selling those big Brittanicas was getting him down
Because no one’s buying
with a depression ‘round

So the letter from Broodhollow seemed like good news
So the letter from Broodhollow seemed like good news
That inheritance was
just the cure for his blues

But that town is more trouble than it seems
Oh, that town is more trouble than it seems
With bats and ghosts and ghouls
In and out of his dreams

Now his mind is going, he’s got to find the clues
Now his mind is going, he’s got to find the clues
Or he’ll be stuck forever
with those  Broodhollow blues

I struggled with this one because I just couldn’t think of anything to write about – my life is just not very bluesy (which is awesome for everything except trying to write the blues). I finally hit on writing about Zane, the main character in Kris Straub’s fantastic cosmic horror webcomic Broodhollow (it’s a wonderful mix of sweet, funny and horrifying and the art is gorgeous).

This was a tough one, too, because the tone is far outside of my usual wheelhouse. I think it came out fairly well considering but I wouldn’t try it again.

7: Ballade

The ballade was one of the principal forms of music and poetry in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century France. Not to be confused with the ballad, the ballade contains three main stanzas, each with the same rhyme scheme, plus a shorter concluding stanza, or envoi. All four stanzas have identical final refrain lines. The tone of the ballade was often solemn and formal, with elaborate symbolism and classical references. – Poets.org

February Ballade
(to Janet Frame)

You admired the icicles, their hardness
A sign of their courage, a holding true
And, for you, their melting was a sadness.
You felt their form integral, their selves too
Fragile to survive that state change. You knew
About losing identity – the blow
Of the leucotome always behind you –
But I’m glad to see the icicles go.

I find them lovely, gleaming in darkness
Or brilliant against the afternoon blue –
Austere consolations for day’s shortness.
Yes, I love those suspended falls that grew
Along desire lines of gravity – who
Wouldn’t? And that well-worn winter tableau
Is a comfort when our comforts are few,
Yet I’m glad to see the icicles go.

Those hard hearts are brittle, sharpness
Is a refusal to be made anew,
And those inborn tears are not sad softness
But second, third, nth selves overdue.
Melting is the common fate: youth, flesh, dew,
And such, the sum (less entropy) zero.
For me, the self is a turning into
So I’m glad to see the icicles go.

I’ve been thinking about Janet Frame’s “The Icicles” a lot over the last few months, with the snowy/icy winter we’ve had and the tendency of my current apartment building, which is very poorly insulated, to have huge icicles (see photo). I took the ballade as my chance to clarify these thoughts., trying to honour Frame’s poem while articulating my own interpretation. I read “The Icicles” here in term’s of the now-famous story about Frame’s narrowly averted lobotomy (a leucotome is the instrument used to perform the procedure, the “blow” being when the instrument is driven through the skull into the brain). Frame had struggled with mental health problems for years and was scheduled for a lobotomy, which was cancelled only days out when Frame’s first book won a major literary prize. Perhaps it’s presumptuous of me to read this in, but it seems to me that someone who’s been days away from losing a significant part of themselves – in the most concrete, literal way – would have good reason to prize coherent identity and lament the loss of self.

By far the toughest part of the poem was rhyming so heavily on the same sounds, especially the twelve “B” rhymes (lines 2,4,5 & 7 of each stanza) – which is why there isn’t an envoi stanza. I really like the sound effect of all that repetitive rhyming though, so I think it was worth the effort. Rather than classical references I have scientific references, which seems to me a reasonable updating of world-views.

Also, desire lines isn’t a poetic turn of phrase – it’s a technical term for a path created by foot traffic, usually representing the shortest path between two points, so those bare lines you see across parks or institutional lawns where everyone cuts across. Desire lines are the neatest and I’m really glad I found a place for them in one of these poems.

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6: Ballad

A ballad is a form of verse, often a narrative set to music. – Wikipedia

Five Miles In
(a retelling of Raymond Carver’s ‘So Much Water So Close to Home’)

It was a hot, weary Friday—
They didn’t think it a sin
To go fishing for the weekend
So they walked five miles in

Those four family men
They didn’t think it a sin
To camp by the Naches river
So they walked five miles in

They found her in the river then
(who wouldn’t think it a sin?)
Dead and naked in the water.
Oh, they’d walked five miles in

They talked it over, what to do
They didn’t think it a sin
It was late and they were tired
And they’d walked five miles in

To leave her body floating there
They didn’t think it a sin
So much water so close to home
But they’d walked five miles in

Her poor, bare flesh washed by the tide
They didn’t think it a sin
The water was terribly cold.
Oh, they’d walked five miles in

On Saturday they fished and drank,
They didn’t think it a sin,
Washed their dishes by her body
Oh, they’d walked five miles in.

On Sunday the men slept in late
They didn’t think it a sin
They drank, they fished, and packed up camp
Then they walked five miles out

They left her on the riverbank,
They didn’t think it a sin,
Fishing line tied around her wrist
Because they’d walked five miles in

They called the cops at a payphone
They didn’t think it a sin
Told them where to find her body,
On the river five miles in

To leave her body floating there
They didn’t think it a sin
So much water so close to home
But they’d walked five miles in

Ballads are such fun – they popular stories, essentially, but with all the fun of also being poems. I went with a murder ballad because I especially love that branch of the tradition, the one that dates back to broadside ballads about current crimes and that has carried cryptic, haunting and brutal stories like “The Knoxville Girl”  or “Lamkin.” I think one of the things that attractive about the murder ballad is the way they seem to sidestep any real explanation of the events, yielding to simply representing their violence as a kind of natural force – a pre-Enlightenment, pre-Freudian take on horror.

The repetitiveness of the form is great too, letting phrases and ideas slowly build and shift over the course of the narrative, like the son’s request to lie down in “Lord Randall” or the revelation of the origin of the refrain at the end of various versions of the “Twa Sisters” ballad.

I didn’t really feel comfortable writing about anything real and horrific so I did an adaptation of the Raymond Carver story, “So Much Water So Close to Home.” I really like this story and I’ve taught it a bunch of times (it works really well in units on feminism). The opaque mystery of the men’s awfulness at the center of the story is perfect for the ballad form. I chose the “excuse” of how far they were from the car as one of the refrain lines, with the idea that it became less and less plausible the more it was repeated.

As a bonus, here’s a video adaptation of the opening scene that one of my students made for a class project.

5: Univocalic lipogram (single-vowel poem)

A univocalic is a type of lipogrammatic constrained writing that uses only a single vowel, “A”, “E”, “I”, “O”, or “U”, and no others. – Wikipedia

Hens

Remember
the nestled sleep,
the feed’s smell,
the eggs’ feel.

This form initially struck me as shallow and gimmicky, so I approached it with the goal of finding some way to work meaningfully with this constraint, some way to make it about more than just being clever enough to do it. I read Christian Bök’s Eunoia, which is made of five chapters – one for each vowel – and exhausts, apparently, 98% of the available vocabulary for each vowel. Eunoia, though, only reinforced my dislike the form, being, to my mind, clever without being intelligent or wise (and also weirdly orientalist and misogynist for someone as young and well-educated as Bök). I got the impression that Bök was expecting me to be clutching at my pearls because his book wasn’t, I don’t know, Billy Collins or Tennyson. I’m all for a bit of the old épater le bourgeois but I feel like the particular bourgeois who would be shocked by Bök’s poem are long dead. But Eunoia sold well and got prizes, so other people clearly liked it.

I ultimately failed to find a way into this form, sadly, so I opted to write something as concrete and unpretentious as I could – to resist the tendency of the form to abstraction and cleverness. The only way to to do this is to keep the poem short enough to actually focus on some real referent. I chose hens because I was inspired by Anna’s lovely take on alexandrines, where she leverages the humbleness of the hen against the loftiness of Romantic ideals.

I also got some bonus anaphora in here because I guess that’s what happens when you’re working with a severely limited vocabulary.

4: Anaphora and aubade

The term “anaphora” comes from the Greek for “a carrying up or back,” and refers to a type of parallelism created when successive phrases or lines begin with the same words, often resembling a litany. The repetition can be as simple as a single word or as long as an entire phrase. As one of the world’s oldest poetic techniques, anaphora is used in much of the world’s religious and devotional poetry, including numerous Biblical Psalms. – Poets.org
Aubade: A love poem or song welcoming or lamenting the arrival of the dawn. The form originated in medieval France. – Poetry Foundation

Super Bowl Sunday

The skyline is rimmed with a fierce orange paling into a yet-dark sky
And the trees are ink-sketch fractals, bleeding into one flat tangle bridging the dim white      below and the dim blue-black above
And the snow is blank, inert, a solid whiteness erasing so much
And the streetlights echo the scattered houselights echo the brilliant rim of sky
And there’s a few cars, even this early, out on Dodge
And I make a pot of tea, the power light of the kettle burning a dim orange in the muted rental neutrals of my kitchen
And there’s a cloud – a knife, an eel, a battleship – drifting up from the southwest
And smoke from chimneys is blown, dense and heavy with the cold, in falling plumes
And the sparrow that’s nested beside my a/c window unit is my own small dawn chorus, its voice petulant, hoarse and breaking sweet
And the clean wheeling of ravens breaks the geometry of the trees, black against black, as their cries tear the silence
And it’s light enough to trip the automatic cut-off for the streetlights and to dull the houselights down so the sky alone is bright
And at first the sun could be taken for a belated streetlight, a dense orange wedge in a tangle of tree limbs
And it climbs and it pales and it stains the snow, the smoke, my hand around the teacup with gold

 

I’m doubling up anaphora and aubade this week, since I just ended up writing a poem about the dawn when I was looking for something to do with anaphora. I had started writing a poem about going back to NZ, having bought my plane tickets this week, which would have worked cleverly with the Greek meaning of “anaphora” – carrying back. It wasn’t really coming together though and I ended up writing this poem instead because I happened to be up early and saw a lovely sunrise. The great thing about sunrises (and sunsets) in winter here is that you get some colour back in the world. The snow is pretty and all but, as the picture below shows (the view from my living room), it can also be stark and drab.

I like the anaphora form for the aubade because the repetition of the “and” (which I love so much in the KJV bible), I think, captures the strange, breathless fastness and slowness of dawn, the way that it both rushes past too fast to fully experience it and yet seems to take so long to finally turn into day.

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3: alexandrine

Alexandrine: In English, a 12-syllable iambic line adapted from French heroic verse. – Poetry Foundation

Spenserian stanza: The unit of Edmund Spenser’s long poem The Faerie Queene, consisting of eight iambic pentameter lines and a final alexandrine, with a rhyme scheme of ABABBCBCC. – Poetry Foundation

Solaris

(Kris)
A change in orbit and we are weightless,
But humanity was not meant to float:
Osteoclasts would eat my bones porous,
I’d break like ice under the hunter’s foot,
And my heart would waste autumnal without
The embrace of earth to fight. I circle
You, instead, like the planet you are, doubt
Burnt out. I do not have the will to kill
You again and again: let me rest, at last still.

(Hari)
Somehow familiar to be weightless,
Here where everything is new except you. You float,
Defy your heavy flesh, but I am porous –
Your solidity runs through me.  I woke barefoot,
Scared and ashamed because I am nothing without
You – a mirror has no face. The small bruised circle
Of my original’s death is the seed of a doubt
That burns me. Though I have the will to kill
Myself again, again, let me rest, at last still.

Metric verse isn’t something I’ve never really done a lot of. Mostly because it’s hard and it’s a skillset that you can easily get by without. Not that you necessarily should get by without it, but it’s possible. I decided to go with a Spenserian stanza as a way to try out alexandrines, since they seem – at least in English – to be used mostly as a light seasoning line in with the bread-and-butter of iambic pentameter. This also prompted me to actually read some of The Faerie Queen, which is awesomely violent and weird (at least as far as I’ve read) and not all the dull discourse on virtue that Spenser makes it out to be in his introduction.

I was reading up on alexandrines and thinking about appropriate subject matter. There’s aslowness to the alexandrine, a pausing (especially with the caesura). It’s also, through Racine in French and Milton and Shakespeare in English, associated with tragedy. I settled on writing about Tarkovsky’s Solaris, particularly the zero gravity scene in the library. I’ve always found that scene very moving, very tragic in ways I’ve found difficult to articulate, so the poem here is my effort to work some of that into words. The scene itself is, like, the alexandrine, a slowing and a pausing within the film itself – a space that exists, quite literally, without the pressures of Earth. The character of Hari also works well with the Spenserian stanza, given all of the characters who magically take on the appearance of others.

A bit of weird mishmash of stuff going on here, then, but it was fun to play around with and it’s always good to have a reason to rewatch Solaris.

2: acrostic

An acrostic is a poem or other form of writing in which the first letter, syllable or word of each line, paragraph or other recurring feature in the text spells out a word or a message. – Wikipedia

To James K. Baxter

At Hiruharama, I did not visit your grave.

Moonlight in the bellied clouds,
As I waited out teenaged insomnia,
Drunk on your intoxication with the life I lived:
Macrocarpa, chooks, the hopelessness of couch grass,
And the flicker of eels in muddy water. For me,
Not the drama of your head-long penance but simply home.

At Jerusalem, I did not visit your grave.

Never a believer, I still thought
Of lighting a candle for you in the Sacre-Coeur
But, abashed somehow by the violence
Of your late-found faith,
Did not. Walking past St Mary’s, I often imagined
You beating at the door I never even tried to open.

At Hiruharama, I did not visit your grave.

Running short on time, I guess,
And not sure where it was anyway, we
Called it a day at Jerusalem and went
On to Oakune. It was not malice,
Not disenchantment that kept me away. It was just
That I was busy living and you were dead.
Enough to let you sleep
Under that gentle, hill-choked sky,
Reading your words half a world away.

 

I can see why acrostics don’t get much use. They seem simplistic and silly, something children do as a trick, but lacking in beauty or meaning. What is the relation between the two elements of the acrostic and the lines themselves? A mutual reinforcement, like the use of “HEAR” in Blake’s “London” for lines about the sounds of the city, seems sort of redundant, especially given how easy it is to not notice the acrostic at all (unless, as with the beautiful Christian poem in the Wikipedia article, it’s typographically marked.)

What I like about them, as a form of constrained writing, is precisely that they do disappear – that they form an invisible backbone to the poem, supporting and determining its shape. It not surprising, then, that two of examples cited in the Wikipedia article [relinky here] are devotional poems. This mechanic also works for the way that writers who influence us are folded silently into our own work. As such, I chose to use a quote from James K. Baxter, a poet who a read a lot when I was younger, as the acrostic here. The quote, “a madman, a nobody, a raconteur,” comes from the first of Baxter’s Jerusalem Sonnets, Baxter speculating on how his Catholic God sees him.

Here’s a photo of me at Hiruharama, on a road trip I took with my sister, when I did not visit Baxter’s grave. Judging by the unfortunate hair, I think I would have been 17 or 18.

Me at the Hiruharama sign

1: Abecedarian

The abecedarian is an ancient poetic form guided by alphabetical order. Generally each line or stanza begins with the first letter of the alphabet and is followed by the successive letter, until the final letter is reached. The earliest examples are Semitic and often found in religious Hebrew poetry. The form was frequently used in ancient cultures for sacred compositions, such as prayers, hymns, and psalms. – See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5767#sthash.8pQKX6Bn.dpuf

Chicago, to the letter

Across an arctic-blasted city, at last athaw,
Blows a blast that bores through the bustling
Coats of crowds, cocooned closely against the cold.
Dirty drifts dapple the drab dusk,
Evening dropped, clang! down early,
Fallen for the frames of flying
Glass, glowing with grapeshot gleams.
How heavy the heights here,
In irregular irruptions
Jagged into heaven! It’s a jazzed-up
Knife-set, knit out of knowledge,
Lifting in lurching, lilting
Merriment or maybe menace.
Nocturnal narratives, nacreous-nascence,
Open out in obscure oases, offering
Perhaps a place of peace for these packed people, panting,
Quivering for a quantum of quiescence:
Rest.
Sidewalks satinned by rain quickly run into Saturday,
Treacherous tableaux of tarnished technotopia
Undermined underfoot by ugly
Vermiform ice. Versatile
Winter, who wears so many weapons –
Xeroxed and xenogenic alike –
Yanks at the young and yellowed alike with yesterday’s
Zealous zephyr.

 

Although there are lots of ways to do an alphabetical form, I settled on this because I thought 26 lines would be manageable and because it gives me a chance to double up with alliterative verse. Alliterative verse is so much fun and sadly neglected now. Of course, doubling up with alliterative verse made the form much harder – but that’s the fun of formal poetry, right? Contrary to expectation, I actually found the weird letters (Q, X, Z) easier than the more common ones – having fewer options made it clearer where those lines needed to go.

I used Chicago as my subject because I was there last week. I don’t think my poem does anything close to living up to its title, but I do like the idea of a list-like, discontinuous form like this for such a huge and sprawling subject.

As I was writing, I found myself shifting towards a more impressionistic, sound-based mode of writing – extended images or conceits (or even proper sentences and grammar) were just too hard for me. This reminded me of George Starbuck’s style, which I think I ended up imitating here. I’m wondering now, having written this poem, if some of Starbuck’s terrifically fun, free-wheeling manner was developed out of his work with very involved formal poetry.