Tag Archives: modern

Using form: alliterative verse: A.M. Juster, ‘Three Visitors’

Mist on moonspill as midnight nears.
Adrift but not dreaming our drowsy son
is covered and kissed. At the kitchen door
our old basset is barking; coyotes out back
are standing like statues down by the dogwoods.
Across the crystal of crusted snow,
they search for stragglers to startle and chase.
Their vigil reveals no victims this night.

Trash would be trouble; they trot away
unbothered by bloodthroated growling and baying.
No star distracts their stealthy march.
As the highway hums they howl through the calm,
then savor new scents that spice their path
in this world awash in wonder and wrath.

*****

Editor’s comments: “Alliterative verse is a form found across the old Germanic language family including Old English, Middle English, Old Norse, Old High German and Old Saxon. It relies on a chant-like use of stressed syllables and does not count all syllables in the way that Romance poetry tends to; and it relies on alliteration rather than rhyme as its key memory-aid for recitation. Although there are many regional variations in the structure, most include these key points:
each line is divided into two halves by a heavy caesura;
each half has two heavily stressed syllables (“lifts”) as well as some unstressed ones (“dips”);
the two lifts of the first half alliterate with the first lift of the second half, but not with the second.
There is a good article on alliterative verse in Wikipedia which goes into more detail and also quotes or references a range of modern poets who have experimented with the form: Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Auden, Richard Wilbur, Ezra Pound, Heaney… and Alaric Watts for his alliterative abecedarian ‘Siege of Belgrade‘. Alliterative verse can work smoothly and powerfully in English.”

A.M. Juster writes: “After translating the anonymous long Old English poem ‘The Phoenix‘ for a stalled book, I became interested in the possibilities for original alliterative verse—this poem is the first of those poems. A reader should also be able to detect the ghost of a sonnet in it due to the length of the stanzas, the turn, and the closing rhymed couplet.
“The poem started in my mind with the real invasion of coyotes in our suburban Boston neighborhood, but as I struggled with the poem it seemed to be situated in a beautiful place I have never seen—a fusion of our house and the house my bride’s parents used to have in Vermont (where I set an experimental sonnet in my first book).
“Although I think the religious undercurrents are fairly subtle, Micah Mattix & Sally Thomas did include the poem in their recent Paraclete Press anthology of Christian Poetry in America since 1940.”

A.M. Juster’s poems and translations have appeared in Poetry, The Paris Review, The Hudson Review and other journals. His tenth book is Wonder and Wrath (Paul Dry Books 2020) and his next book will be a translation of Petrarch’s Canzoniere, which W.W. Norton will release in early 2024. He also overtweets about formal poetry @amjuster.

Photo: “LZGC coyote” by animaltourism.com is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Review: ‘Archaic Smile’ by A.E. Stallings

‘Archaic Smile’ was the debut poetry collection by A.E. Stallings, an American who moved to Athens, Greece, a couple of decades ago. Published in 1999, it won that year’s Richard Wilbur Award and its opening poem, ‘A Postcard from Greece’, is perhaps my favourite of all her work. It is a sonnet with slant rhymes describing a car accident:
Hatched from sleep, as we slipped out of orbit
Round a clothespin curve new-watered with the rain,
I saw the sea, the sky, as bright as pain
That outer space through which we were to plummet.
Stallings lives in the modern world of cars and planes and thinks in terms of orbits and outer space; the Greece of this poem is not there yet – there is no guardrail on the cliff-sided road, the only warnings are the memorials to those who have died there, who
sliced the tedious sea once, like a knife.
Luckily, her car hits an olive tree on the edge of the cliff and they don’t go over.
We clung together, shade to pagan shade,
Surprised by sunlight, air, this afterlife.
And so the ancient world steps in to save her from rash modernity, and in this first poem she weaves the present and the past together, living as a pagan shade in a refreshed existence. And the rest of the book, and indeed all her work, carries on this integration of past and present.

The first section of the book is titled ‘Underworld’, appropriate for that near-death event, but mostly being poems such as ‘Hades Welcomes his Bride’ and ‘Persephone Writes a Letter to her Mother’ – there is a lot of Greek mythology in Stallings’ work, but filtered through a modern sensibility:
Death, the deportation officer,
Has seen your papers and has found them wanting.

In the second section, ‘A Bestiary’, she writes of her American experiences of animals and birds, in life and death and freedom and captivity, with her customary detached amusement. Take ‘Watching the Vulture at the Road Kill’:
We stopped the car to watch. Too close.
He bounced his moon-walk bounce and rose
With a shrug up to the kudzu sleeve
Of a pine, to wait for us to leave.
She observes that most other birds have to get in and out in a hurry, whether raptors or prey, and draws a lesson from it:
There is no peace but scavengers.

The third section, ‘Tour of the Labyrinth’, returns to Greek themes, but again weaving past and present, as in the reaction to an antique pot being broken. The final section is ‘For the Losers of Things’, echoing the sense of loss or near-loss in the rest of the book, but staying in the present – ‘Watching the News After the Tornados’ – or even the far future, with another of my personal favourites, ‘The Machines Mourn the Passing of People’:
The air now is silent of curses or praise.
Jilted, abandoned to hells of what weather,
Left to our own devices forever,
We watch the sun rust at the end of its days.

As can be seen from the excerpts quoted, Stallings is a formalist, and very comfortable with whatever form and metre is appropriate for the particular piece she is producing. ‘Archaic Smile’ is a superb collection, readable and rereadable, memorable, quotable. Her subsequent collections have been equally impressive. If there is a better poet currently writing in English, I haven’t run across them.

Photo of A.E. Stallings by Milos Bicanski

New Poem: “Modern Cars”

So, following up on the previous post about Lighten Up Online, I get my own short, light things in there once in a while. Tucked in as one of the Seven Sixes, in the current issue I have “Modern Cars”:

Dealing with the modern automobile
is like a farrier fixing a steering wheel.
Forget your happy thrills
with metal tools, familiar skills.
This is no horse and carriage.
Just take it to a garage.

Yes, my American and Canadian friends, that last word rhymes… at least in the UK… at least to some people. I suspect that’s one of the reasons I wrote the poem (together with expressing the futility of trying to fix modern things oneself). I enjoy hearing all the variations of the word “garage“!