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Mike Snider's Formal Blog at the Sonnetarium

Friday, August 31, 2007

I think I don't write enough verse.

Not because I think the world would be better with more of my verse in it, but because my poems would be better if I wrote more verse. Here are a few reasons:

  1. Making verse is a skill, and, like any other skill, it requires some effort just to stay at a given level of competence. Getting really good means writing a lot of verse.

  2. Solving the kinds of problems encountered in writing verse often suggests a new direction for the poem in progress.

  3. Solving the kinds of problems encountered in writing verse often suggests ideas for a future poem.

  4. Solving the kinds of problems encountered in writing verse sometimes suggests further kinds of problems to be solved, which feeds back into the first three reasons.

  5. The facility gained from continued practice makes it possible to pay more attention to what the poem ought to do rather than to how to get to the end of the line.

  6. Far from contradicting reasons 2-4, 5 means that because of 2-4 there are multiple strategies ready to hand, and those not chosen for this poem may suggest future work. It is a positive feedback cycle.

  7. Writing rhyming verse can make a poet more sensitive to the nuances of meaning which distinguish dictionary synonyms.

You probably noticed that I make a distinction between verse and poem. Verse is one tool for making poems, neither sufficient nor necessary. But it is the only one I know that can be taught, and the only one which seems to me to produce the kind of positive feedback into the process that I mention above.

You probably also noticed that I didn’t actually answer my fiancée’s question, though I hope I implied a partial answer, so let me try again.

I think I’ve written some very good poems, some of them as good as nearly anything out there. Here are a few I’m pleased with, and I think 44 Sonnets (blush-making review here) and NAPOWRIMO 2006 are solid collections.

I doubt I’ve written any great poems, and no one will know for a long time whether I ever will, but it’s no coincidence that the poems in those two collections were almost entirely written while I was writing verse daily. If I am ever able to write poetry people remember, it will be because I’ve written a lot more verse.


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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

My good friend Mary Anne in Kentucky wrote to me about my latest Weekly Sonnet and gave me permission to reproduce the brief discussion between us, which I’ve indented usenet style below. Since the poem there is supposed to change weekly, I've made a pdf of this week’s available here.


It’s a nice sonnet, but

Fabricius watched a star vanish and come back,

MUST scan better. Did Fabricius have another form of his name, as so many scientists did in those days? Don’t lose the zodiac rhyme. Too nice.


He was German, and Fabricius is latinized Faber. First name David.


[snipped spouting from me justifying “Fabricius”—I should have known she’d spotted the real kink]


Yeah, Fabricius works--but I thought a different name might allow you to address the problem with “come back."


For me the possible prosodic problem is in the last two feet, “VANish / and come BACK,” with trochaic and anapestic substitutions. That puts 3 metrically unaccented syllables in a row, something I’ve heard claimed to be impossible, and they certainly can’t be exactly unstressed to the same degree. I think Tim Steele might mark those five syllables’ relative stress as 4 2 1 3 4, and I hope he’d put the foot break in the same place. The rest of the poem is so relentlessly iambic that I think it likely.


Hmm. If I try to read it “vanishandcomeback” with no stresses it works better, but it still feels awkward.


The line was only emended once, from “Fabricius saw” to “Fabricius watched.” Perhaps I could have redone the first half to allow conventional scansion — “x VAN / ish AND / come BACK” — at the end. For example, if I had managed to get the star’s name in early (and I wish I had — that will probably be a focus of my revisions going forward) I could have written “FaBRI / cius SAW / it VAN / ish AND / come BACK.” But I’m not sure I’d change this particular line anyway. I rather like the way the meter vanishes and comes back,


Good save!


reflecting what Fabricius saw and looking forward, perhaps, to the establishment of a regular period for the star’s fluctuations in the 1630s. I do know that I’m too often fond of what seems to me (only me?) to be cleverness.


And that leads to the question my fiancée asked last night: “What do you think of your poetry?”

Tune in next time!


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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

I’ve lived a good part of my adult life without a TV because every time I turn one on it’s suddenly three hours later and I’ve done nothing—I just can’t ignore the damned things. When I have had one, I seldom spent that three hours watching MTV—not much jug band or jazz. But along with the cable modem comes cable TV, and now MTV’s got John Ashbery. Hmmm …

Nah. Not gonna do it, and I can’t offer any advice for Ashbery newbies. Meghan O’Rourke can.


Update: Ashbery’s on MTvU, which is broadcast only on college campuses. Now I want to watch, just because I can’t.

Update 2: But there’s MTvU.com, so I’m safe again!


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Well, the week’s more than out—but so is the new sonnet, despite tearing down and setting up the PA three times last weekend for a gig, a recital, and a practice, and then having my desktop computer’s power supply die.

Let me know what you think, and send suggestions for next week’s sonnet.


I forgot! Drafts are here—but my style sheet didn’t work for Blogger. Everything is double-spaced. :-p


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Sunday, August 19, 2007

I’ve got a new template at the main Sonnetarium and a new sample from 44 Sonnets. Let me know what you think, and look for the restart of Weekly Sonnets before this week is out!


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That’s what it’s felt like.

For more than a year I’ve depended on borrowed dial-up, a cell-phone modem with severe bandwidth restriction and spotty connectivity, and occasional raids on the Blue Wind wifi—the food and wine would have had me there anyway. There’s net connectivity at work, of course, but I seem to have acquired a work ethic somewhere, and even without one of those there are serious limitations on what one can do on such a network.

But, gloriosity, we’ve got cable modem now! For the first time in a year I can use my desktop machine, I can read the blogs I want to read, I can see many windows at once, I can look for a quote and find it before I’ve forgotten what I was looking for. I’ve spent the last few days updating software and reconciling data between my desktop and laptop, and I’m finally ready to resume a nearly forgotten part of my life.

No more excuses!


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Wednesday, August 8, 2007

My last post (so few they are now!) led me to climb up to the attic looking for Anthony Hecht’s masterful essay “Sydney and the Sestina,” collected in his last book of criticism, Melodies Unheard: Essays on the Mysteries of Poetry (wonderfully reviewed here). Of course, as distracted as I am these days, I just carried the book around for a couple of weeks or so until this evening I reread in reverse order the final two essays, “The Music of Form” and “On Rhyme,” and the latter set me down to this.

Now, I’m not quite sure what this is, beyond late ramblings. Hecht calls his own essay “no more than an assemblage of disorderly ideas about a topic that defies taxonomic treatment” and proves it by mentioning that in Washington D.C. he met a building contractor who rhymed niche with MacLeish. But those “disorderly ideas” are enormously suggestive. A few samples are in order, the first from Hecht as Devil’s Advocate:

we must … consider the fact that partly, perhaps, because because much poetry secures its rich and powerful effects without rhyme … rhyme is relegated to the province of decorative adornment, an inessential luxury …

And in reply, considering the “constraints” of rhyme as a useful psychological devices

that, astutely linked with metrical patterns, can provide the raising of expectations, … the calculated delay or even disappoint of such expectations, … surprise at the fulfillment of the rhyming sound … [or] simply a way of preoccupying some part of the poet’s mind, liberating it to unconscious fluencies or filling it with unforeseen suggestion? Can Christians and resistance taken together propose some line of thought?

And when he proposes that rhyme may satisfy some “deeply human craving for a formal order that is meant in homage to some some universal order we need to posit, if not out of reverence, then out of dread of its possible absence?” he quotes Byron, from Beppo:

And so we’ll call her Laura, if you please,
Because it fits into my verse with ease.

Hecht spends nearly a page considering just what Byron meant by that—he never rhymes Laura in the poem and there are myriad women’s names to fit the meter—because the topic “deliberately raises the issue of how formal considerations may require the poet to reorganize the literal world to make it conform to artistic goals.”

Now, it is trivial to say that the literally “literal” world—the world as presented in writing—is reorganized to suit a writer’s purposes, whether artistic or not, and it is absurd to claim that the laws of physics are altered by any writer’s purposes, but there is a very interesting sense in which the notion is neither trivial nor absurd: our relationships with the world we encounter, including other people in the world, are very much shaped—not determined!—by our namings.

From rhyme back to sestinas, here is Kenneth Sherman’s Partisan Review essay on Hecht’s “Book of Yolek,” the text of which is included. After Hecth’s death, Kent Johnson claimed in email that “a well-known writer” asked him "The larger question A. Hecht poses is: Is the proper response to Auschwitz a sestina?" Kent’s known for his hoaxes, but the question is not so different from Hecht’s. Sam Gwynn replied “Is the proper reaction to Genesis a blank-verse epic?” That answer is not so different from Hecht’s, either.
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