Monthly Archives: August 2019

Sonnet: “Out Island Town in the Early Morning”

Harbour reflection

Harbour reflection

Before the sun is up, the people are.
Fishermen have gone out, for noon’s fierce light
Will punish them, and their desires are slight:
To sell their catch, drink cold beer by a bar.
The workers hitch rides with some early car
That will go fairly near their building site.
Women prep kids’ meals, feeling it’s not right
To have to leave to clean some tourist spa.

Only the unemployed and office staff
Still sleep while roosters crow and seagulls laugh,
And the light rising in its eastern glow
Shows Harbour houses in a double row,
One on the Cay, the other upside down
Painted on windless glass, a mirror town.

This sonnet was first published in The Hypertexts, the massive poetry collection assembled by Michael R. Burch. There’s not much to say about the poem… it’s a love poem to Governor’s Harbour, my home town.

But sonnets in general have a charm for many people. They seem just the right size both to hold a description or a complex thought that has tendrils in various directions, and to be small enough to be memorised. They are a good tool for high school classrooms, containing a richness of thought for analysis and an opportunity to develop memory skills. They allow a learner to absorb and express the power of the language’s potential for rhythm and rhyme. A good education will have made you familiar with dozens of sonnets, and they and their organising principles remain deeply embedded somewhere within you all your life.

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Review: “Selected Poems” by Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks

“Selected Poems” covers the best of Gwendolyn Brooks‘ poetry from her first book in 1944 up to 1963. It is vibrant, amusing, angry, always insightful – sometimes formal, sometimes experimental, always rich, always quotable. To me (with British sensibilities) this is some of the greatest American poetry of the 20th century, on a par with Frost and cummings.

Born in 1917, Brooks’ poetry dealt with the real world – the black experience in Chicago and throughout the US, with a strong feminine sensibility. The opening poem “kitchenette building” of her first book (A Street in Bronzeville, published 1945) sets the tone:

We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,
Grayed in, and gray. “Dream” makes a giddy sound, not strong
Like “rent,” “feeding a wife,” “satisfying a man.”

But could a dream send up through onion fumes
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms

Even if we were willing to let it in,
Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,
Anticipate a message, let it begin?

We wonder. But not well! not for a minute!
Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now,
We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.

Dreams and reality were both important in her upbringing. Her father had given up on medical school and become a janitor in order to get married and raise a family. Her mother was a school teacher and concert pianist. Reading and recitation were high priorities in the family, and Brooks started writing poetry very early. Four of her poems were published in a local paper when she was 11, and her mother encouraged her, saying ”You are going to be the lady Paul Laurence Dunbar.” Material was all around her, and she dealt with it unflinchingly. The second poem in the book was called, with deliberate irony, “the mother”. It begins:

Abortions will not let you forget.
You remember the children you got that you did not get,
The damp small pulps with a little or with no hair,
The singers and workers that never handled the air.

Children in several poems are trying to find their place in the world. “a song in the front yard” begins:

I’ve stayed in the front yard all my life.
I want a peek at the back
Where it’s rough and untended and hungry weed grows.
A girl gets sick of a rose.

Brooks uses form very fluently, choosing form for the mood of the poem: from near nursery rhyme:

Maud went to college.
Sadie stayed at home.
Sadie scraped life
With a fine-toothed comb.

to pages of iambic pentameter with frequent rhyme for “The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith”:

Inamoratas, with an approbation,
Bestowed his title. Blessed his inclination.

And this first volume ends with a dozen sonnets, all with slant (or near) rhyme. It was wartime, but the issues of race were in the military as elsewhere. One of the sonnet titles barely needs its poem: “the white troops had their orders but the Negroes looked like men”.

“A Street in Bronzeville” brought her two years of Guggenheim Fellowships and other awards. Her second book, “Annie Allen” made her the first black writer to win a Pulitzer Prize in any category. Next came a novel, then a volume of poetry for children, and then in 1960 her third book of adult poetry, “The Bean Eaters”:

They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair.
Dinner is a casual affair.
Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood,
Tin flatware.

Two who are Mostly Good.
Two who have lived their day,
But keep on putting on their clothes
And putting things away.

And remembering…
Remembering, with twinklings and twinges,
As they lean over the beans in their rented back room that is full
of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths, tobacco
crumbs, vases and fringes.

Civil rights. Mississippi. Arkansas. That all became part of her poetry, moving on from Chicago. The lynching of Emmett Till. The integration of a high school by the Little Rock Nine. All in her poems:

And true, they are hurling spittle, rock,
Garbage and fruit in Little Rock.
And I saw coiling storm a-writhe
On bright madonnas. And a scythe
Of men harassing brownish girls.
(The bows and barrettes in the curls
And braids declined away from joy.)

I saw a bleeding brownish boy…

The lariat lynch-wish I deplored.

The loveliest lynchee was our Lord.

This review can’t even mention all the truly memorable poems in the book, but it covers enough to show Brooks’ range of styles and interests. She became increasingly active in black issues, and she continued to write and to rack up awards and prizes, up until her death in 2000. But this “Selected Poems” only goes up to 1963 because she left her original publisher, Harper & Row, in order to work with a black start-up publisher in Detroit. Not a problem. This “Selected Poems” alone places Gwendolyn Brooks in the very forefront of American poetry.

Poem: “Camelot at Dusk”

P1010102

(Photo: Castle by epredator)

From under low clouds spreading from the south
The red sun drops slow to night’s waiting mouth.
Rush lamps are lit; the guards changed on the walls;
Supper will not be served in the Great Halls
With Arthur still away. Each in their room,
The members of the Court leave books or loom
To say their Vespers in the encroaching gloom.

Lancelot, up in his tower,
Sees the sunset storm clouds glower,
Feels his blood’s full tidal power,
Knows he has to go.
In her bower, Gwenivere
Puts a ruby to her ear,
Brushes firelight through her hair,
Feels her heartbeat grow.

Guard, guard, watch well:
For the daylight thickens
And the low cloud blackens
And the hot heart quickens
To rebel.

From his tower, caring not
For consequences, Lancelot
Crosses courts of Camelot,
Pitying his King.
In her bower, Gwenivere
Feels his presence coming near,
Waits for footfalls on the stair,
Lets her will take wing.

Guard, guard, watch well:
If attention slackens
When the deep bond beckons,
Evil knows Pendragon’s
In its spell.

And as the storm clouds, rubbing out the stars,
Deafened the castle and carved lightning scars,
Drenched Arthur rode for flash-lit Camelot
Where he, by Queen and Knight, was all forgot.

“Camelot at Dusk” was originally published by Candelabrum, a now-defunct poetry magazine in the UK which appeared twice-yearly from April 1970 to October 2010. Candelabrum provided what, in the 1970s, was a very rare platform for British poets working in metrical and rhymed verse.

Technically, the poem uses a variety of forms. The opening and closing passages use iambic pentameter with simple sequential rhyme for a level of detachment (and the only times Arthur is mentioned by name). The passages with Lancelot and Gwenivere use shorter trochaic lines with denser rhymes for more intensity. The passages of warnings to the guards… well, they have a shifting but repeating structure all their own.

Because of the bracketing of the more emotional passages by the more detached opening and closing, the piece feels very complete. As a whole, it is a nonce form. Whether I can ever repeat it successfully, I don’t know. I have tried, but not been as satisfied with the result.

“Camelot at Dusk” can also now be found in The Hypertexts, which thereby gives it a very respectable Seal of Approval.

Poem: “Eight Legs”

Eight Legs

Odin had a spider
In a web above his throne.
“Out!” he said; it came to him.
“And up!” he said; it grew.
“Legs go this way, legs go that!”
The wind began to moan.
Odin touched a spur to Sleipnir,
Through the storm they flew.

This little poem was published in Anima, a magazine of “Poems of Soul and Spirit” which is now, as they say, quiescent (though it continues to publish books). Odin is very much a god of magic, transformation, journeys, knowledge and poetry – as well as of war and death.

To get hold of the Mead of Poetry, which was in three vats guarded in a mountain cave by a giant’s daughter, Odin changed into a snake to get inside the cave; changed into a handsome young man to persuade the giantess to give him three sips in exchange for sleeping with her for three nights; drank each vat in a single sip; and changed into an eagle to fly back to Asgard where the other gods had prepared a big cauldron for the mead. Chased by the angry giant (also in the form of an eagle) and slowed down by all the mead inside him, Odin was so scared that he shitted some of it out as he flew – but he made it to Asgard, and disgorged the bulk of the mead into the cauldron. This is the gift that the gods give when they want to make someone a good poet. And  bad poetry? That’s when you’ve been consuming the stuff Odin shitted out.

Technically, you could discuss whether “Eight Legs” is in flawed trochaics, and whether the line break between the first two lines is in the right place, and so on… But if you read it aloud, I think you’ll find it has strong stresses, weak stresses, and unstressed syllables – or else consider it as quadrisyllabics (one stressed and three unstressed syllables). I would read it as:

Odin had a spider in a web above his throne. (pause)
“Out!” he said; it came to him. “And up!” he said; it grew. (pause)
Legs go this way, legs go that!” The wind began to moan. (pause)
Odin touched a spur to Sleipnir, through the storm they flew.

Not too different from

I had a duck-billed platypus when I was up at Trinity
With whom I soon discovered a remarkable affinity
– Patrick Barrington, The Diplomatic Platypus

or

I am the very model of a modern major-general
– W.S. Gilbert, The Pirates of Penzance

or

Not always was the kangaroo as now we do behold him
– Rudyard Kipling, The Sing-Song of Old Man Kangaroo, in The Just So Stories

Poetry is very close to song; or, song is the bridge between poetry and music. Reading poetry aloud is very important for its appreciation, to bring out its rhythm (and sometimes even musical notes that flow into it naturally). That’s why poetry can be set to music, and why songs are invariably printed out in poem format.

In that context, even the line of spondees in Samuel Coleridge’s “Metrical Feet” has, like all the other lines, four stresses:

Trochee trips from long to short.
From long to long in solemn sort
Slow spondee stalks; strong foot yet ill able
Ever to run with the dactyl trisyllable.
Iambics march from short to long.
With a leap and a bound the swift anapests throng.

… because poetry in its origins (in the preliterate times of both the tribal fire and modern nursery) is designed to be memorised, so it can be chanted or sung or otherwise recited.

Poem: “Driving Rain”

We drive through West Virginia’s driving rain
And even I turn down the cruise control
And stay below the limit. At the toll
We count coins, ask how many tolls remain.
One sleeps, one drives, to get back home tonight.
Wendy’s is closed “because of rain”? That sucks.
The waterfalls look lovely on the rocks.
A bridge has lots of people, flashing lights.
We’ll reach home 1 a.m. if Google’s right.
The wipers go full speed; fog-free a/c.
You have to watch for mud – what’s that, a tree?
Oblivious to all but road, all night.
We make it home and fall into our bed.
And next day hear about the dozens dead.

This sonnet was originally published in Better Than Starbucks in the formal poetry section that Vera Ignatowitsch edits. I wrote it after Eliza and I drove from Toronto to Chapel Hill, NC, on 23 June 2016. It’s a 12-hour haul, a little under 800 miles, but doable in a day. The weather wasn’t great when we started out, and got worse as we came down the I-79 past Pittsburgh. By early evening in West Virginia it was really pouring, but we made it home that night. How dangerous and disastrous the night had been, we didn’t know at the time.

Technically, the sonnet is passable but not perfect. It rhymes abba cddc effe gg, which is neither Petrarchan nor Shakespearean but a hybrid. This structure is referred to as a Bowlesian or Australian sonnet, but giving it a name doesn’t elevate it to the level of the other two. However, as after the intro each line is a separate thought and a separate sentence (mimicking the bitty thought process when having to concentrate in difficult driving conditions), the structures of octet and sestet, or of three quatrains and a closing couplet, are irrelevant and the rhyming is sufficient. Even if one of the rhyme pairs is poor.