Sonnets: John Keats’ 64 Sonnets

The 64 extant sonnets of John Keats make for a very interesting read for anyone interested in formal verse. Not only do we have the poet developing his skills and The 64 Sonnets by John Keatsexpression in the last five years of his short life (he was 18 when he wrote his first sonnet, and died at 23), but he consciously experimented with the form, outlining in his letters the shortcomings that he saw in the Petrarchan and Shakespearean versions while he looked for a better structure.

This collection has a useful but insufficient introduction by Edward Hirsch and incompetent notes by Gary Hawkins. Hirsch writes of the development of Keats’ themes, but fails to tie the poems into the details of his life. I suggest reading at least the Wikipedia entry on Keats to get a fuller sense of what was going on in his mind, his life, his environment.

The notes by Hawkins appear to have been thrown together without either care or insight. There is a facing page of three or four comments for each poem, and there is a further note on the rhyme scheme in an appendix at the back. The appendix catches four of the lengthened lines (6 or even 7 feet in a line) but misses three of them; and notes one of the shortened lines but misses another. Worse, the analysis of the rhyme scheme for the technically most interesting sonnet (“If by dull rhymes our English must be chain’d”) fails to understand the structure Keats was creating, despite quoting his comments in the letter containing the poem.

Hawkins gives the structure as
abc ad (d) c abc dede (tercets, quatrain)

This is wrong on so many levels… First, the fifth line’s rhyme is b, not d. Second, there is no quatrain at all. Third, Keats has shown how to analyze the sonnet – which is a single sentence – by breaking it into tercets with the use of semicolons to clarify the structure of his thought. Its structure is
abc; abd; cab; cde; de.

That this doesn’t fit into Hawkins’ categories of Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets is precisely the point Keats makes in his letter (“I have been endeavouring to discover a better sonnet stanza than we have”) as well as in the sonnet itself (“Let us find out, if we must be constrain’d, / Sandals more interwoven and complete / To fit the naked foot of Poesy;”)

Hawkins also makes errors of fact and interpretation in the notes facing the sonnets themselves. The very first sonnet, written in 1814, references “the triple kingdom” which Hawkins explains as “Great Britain, composed of England, Scotland and Wales.” Wrong. With the Act of Union of 1801 the three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland were united, as represented by the simultaneous creation of the Union Jack with its combination of the crosses of the three flags. Wales was not a kingdom but a principality, and its flag never figured in the larger national flags.

In the sonnet “How many bards gild the lapses of time!”, Keats writes “A few of them have ever been the food / Of my delighted fancy.” Hawkins annotates this as “namely, the epic poets Milton and Spenser.” Oh really? How about Shakespeare, whom Keats addresses directly as “Chief Poet!” in another sonnet. And this is quite apart from sonnets addressed to Byron, Chatterton, Hunt, and Burns.

I have to smile at Hawkins’ interpretation of “artless daughters”:

Happy is England, sweet her artless daughters;
Enough their simple loveliness for me,
Enough their whitest arms in silence clinging:
Yet do I often warmly burn to see
Beauties of deeper glance, and hear their singing,
And float with them about the summer waters.

Hawkins interprets the “artless daughters” as “Scotland and Wales”. Oh come on! Keats could fall in love at a girl’s glance, at a stranger pulling off a glove. I don’t think he meant Scotland and Wales – he meant girls, classic “English rose” girls, and contrasted them with what he might find in the Mediterranean. Where he went, and died.

Few of the sonnets are near as memorable as “On first looking into Chapman’s Homer” or “When I have fears that I may cease to be”, but they are all readable and rereadable, and to have them as this collection is a treat.

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Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins

Hopkins being difficult to read, this edition with very insightful introduction and notes by 20th century English poet James Reeves is about as good as it gets.

That said, most of Hopkins’ poetry is uninteresting in content except to a religious person, or to a person interested in poetic technique and the elasticity of the English language. His ‘sprung rhythm’ work and his use of alliteration and assonance draw on Anglo-Saxon rather than Norman French roots, though he frequently uses the sonnet and other rigid structures. His phrasing of his thoughts, however, is idiosyncratic and often dense to the point of unreadability.

His best-known poems date mostly to 1877, when he suddenly felt free to express an ecstatic joy in nature – God’s Grandeur, Pied Beauty, and The Windhover. Spring and Fall (“Margaret, are you grieving / Over Goldengrove unleaving?”) dates from 1880, As Kingfishers Catch Fire a year or two later. Living an isolated and unappreciated and religiously constrained life, his health and emotional balance became ever weaker and his poetry ever bleaker. His last two completed poems, Thou art indeed just, Lord, and To R. B. (Robert Bridges), were written in despair shortly before his death in 1889 at age 44.

His output was not extensive, but half a dozen of his poems posthumously charged and changed English verse forever.

The End of Publishing

Reblogged from George Simmers a decade ago… and still true, back and forth, as it was then. Enjoy!

https://youtu.be/Weq_sHxghcg

 

Snakeskin's Blog

Here, thanks  to Dorling Kindersley, via Pages to Pixels and Bruce Bentzman, is a neat version of publishing’s future.

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New Poem: “My Eliza”

The latest issue of The Lyric is out – although I won’t get my copy for weeks or months yet, depending on the Bahamas Post Office’s mood and inclination – and apparently “My Eliza” has been awarded the Leslie Mellichamp Prize (with $100, no less!). Judge Michael Ferris wrote: “A smart and charming love poem with island images (I learned some new words) that finishes on the striking picture of two sea otters drifting hand in hand.” Of course I’m delighted! So here it is:

My Eliza

As through Canada I wandered,
Winters cold and summers cool,
Companionship precipitated
Out a girl wild, beautiful.

Come, she said, share games and reading,
Come and play and let’s share beds;
Let’s move south for warmth and business,
Raise our children, use our heads.

Eliza with the hair like lightning,
Hair like ragged moonlit clouds,
Like a cloud of wild mosquitoes,
Junkanoo’s drunk noisy crowds.

Sexy, vital, dogged, honest,
Game designer, engineer,
Eliza: genius aphantasic,
A no-see-um who sees clear.

Now like two strays by the roadside,
Like two potcakes on the beach,
She and I will scrap and forage,
Take the treasures in our reach,

Clean up beaches, plant some flowers,
Read all books and plan things grand,
Roam through cities and through seascapes,
Drift like otters hand in hand.

Sea_otters_holding_hands

Sea Otters holding hands

Poetry Resources: Light Verse Magazine

Light, the “journal of light verse since 1992”, has just published its Winter/Spring 2019 edition (online), with poems from over 40 light formal verse poets, and insightful book reviews of new books of formal verse (not all of it light verse). It is worth getting on Light’s email list, not only for the semiannual issues, but also for the half dozen poems on current topics that they publish every week – get a quick chuckle from a rhyme-rich twist on the week’s headlines.

This specific issue is of interest because of the book reviews: of the five reviews, two are of books by authors already published in our Potcake Chapbooks (Ed Conti and Alicia Stallings), and a third is a review of the chapbook series itself:

Potcake Chapbooks, edited by Robin Helweg-Larsen. Sampson Low Ltd.

A new source for pocket-sized light-verse collections just rode into town as well. The Potcake Chapbook series is a collection (three, so far) of pocket-sized anthologies smaller than many cell phones. These books appear to be made specifically for Light readers in that the series “subscribe[s] to the use of form, no matter how formless the times in which we live,” the poems are selected to achieve that lovely balance between wit and sweetness—and sometimes outright belly laughing—that is the hallmark of so much good light verse, and the poets in the first two volumes are nearly all road tested and approved by Light‘s editors. Rogues and Roses covers love and sex in a surprising number of variations for thirteen short pages, and Tourists and Cannibals ranges from local holiday spots (Terese Coe) to escaping the heat others come specifically to find (A. E. Stallings) to learning languages (Robin Helweg-Larsen) to a hat-tip to one’s homebound god when in a temple on the other side of the world (Gail White). Careers and Other Catastrophes just came out. I haven’t seen it yet, but if it matches its sisters, it’s worth getting the whole trio.

The Potcake books include lovely little three-color illustrations, and for less than the cost of a latte (plus postage from England) you can amuse yourself or give a truly unexpected gift. Either way, the mix of poems and the quality of the work will delight and surprise. This series should continue and thrive.”

Light is a non-profit organization, and signing up is free. Personally, I think it should be a mandatory part of English lessons in middle and high schools – we need more people reaching adulthood with the ability to enjoy the strengths of verse in the English language, and its integral part of our culture.

 

Poetry Resources: Bewildering Stories

Bewildering Stories is a weekly magazine of sf and speculative fiction (mostly) and poetry (some), created and managed by Don Webb and half a dozen others. Because it does a Quarterly Review and an Annual Review of the editor’s choice, it produces about 47 issues a year of original material (or predominantly original – it allows previously published material). It is now coming up on issue number 800. I’ll leave it to you to figure out how long it has been in existence… for an online magazine, it is truly venerable.

I often have a poem in Bewildering Stories, and this week is no exception: “When at the End – Wishful Thinking“:

“When at the end of life we who by swords, axes, cleavers
go as heroes to Valhalla, the rest go to Hel.”

“When at the end of life we the true believers
go as saints to Heaven, the rest go to Hell.”

“Our memory is all that we are.
When at the end of life we are remembered,
we still exist for as long as our memory lasts.
Remember us! We are no more than memories of our pasts.”

When, at the end, the helmet of this life is lifted away,
the Virtual Reality of “human” fades to grey,
will you find yourself in a world fresh, rich and deep,
an environment more meaningful, truer, greater?
(And is it somewhere you go even now, in sleep?)
Surely behind the simulation must be a Simulator.

It accepts formal and informal verse, being more concerned with the speculative nature of the ideas than with an aesthetic preference. The poem above is pretty much a sonnet, though the scansion is uneven, the rhyme scheme unorthodox and the rhymes themselves iffy (beginning with rhyming Hel with Hell). So not a very aesthetic product, but full of speculation – which is the priority.

The editorial board is diverse, Don being based in Canada but drawing on others in the UK and US. Submissions of course can come from anywhere. And another nice thing that Don does is to include “Challenge questions” about a number of the pieces in each issue. The answers from readers are not typically shared, but it is a nice way of provoking more thought.

Altogether a worthwhile magazine for poets as well as fiction writers.

 

Formal Launch: Potcake Chapbook 3 – Careers and Other Catastrophes

The launch of the third Potcake Chapbook brings us a passel of fresh Potcake Poets into the Sampson Low list, a couple of returning friends, and a slew of new art from Alban Low. Good news all round!

Careers! We’ve all had one or several of them, for better or worse. Marcus Bales and Daniel Galef review the frustrations of shopfloor sales and professions, while Annie Drysdale gives an exhilarating view of farmwork. From the newcomers (Gerry Cambridge, Martin Elster, Brian Gavin, Susan McLean, Rob Stuart, Tom Vaughan and Mindy Watson) we have everything from office workers and cafe proprietors to a madame ageing out of her profession and a hangman lamenting his obsolescence.

But really, there are no “newcomers” here. As always, the chapbook features poets who are very well-known as well as extremely skillful and experienced with formal verse.

And whether the writing of verse should be considered a career, or merely another catastrophe… well, that’s for future discussion.

Meanwhile, enjoy this for a couple of quid or have a copy mailed to someone who needs a fresh perspective on life.