Literary Criticism

Narcissus at 80

Sometimes, especially if I’m tired of reworking a poem for the enth time, or lack a stimulating idea for a new poem, I find it helpful to use formal poetic structures to elicit unplanned expression that emerges from the principled compression of rhythm and rhyme. I believe this has a salutary benefit when later crafting free verse. As Eliot once quipped, no vers is ever truly libre. I often surprise myself by writing lines (e.g., in iambic pentameter) that would not have occurred to me otherwise. The difficulty, given the restrictions of regular rhythm and rhyme, is bestowing a natural flow upon the poem and avoiding the archaic and artificial. Too often I find, because of the entrenched literary history of the form and my associations with it, that I easily fall into the trap of reverting to sentence structures and words that are vaguely reminiscent of something written hundreds of years ago.

A few years ago I tried my hand at the sonnet form with a poem modeled on those of Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, the great English sonneteers I had studied at Oxford. The finished product, after many drafts, was commendable for its conceits and the way I had developed the theme, but it certainly sounded like a throwback to the earlier sixteenth century expression, partly because I chose a theme that a sixteenth century reader would recognize, i.e., where the courtly code of social intercourse, which regarded emotional restraint and good manners as their standards, was used as a foil to a woman’s tears.

Social Intercourse

To draw first blood with dripping violence
Will cause a man to fight or flee the force.
Your tears were armed aggression, not defense:
What has become of social intercourse?
If ill tempers belie gentility
Its messengers will soon announce the wars;
A tear is herald to hostility,
But arms at ease are welcome visitors.
Ambassadors of love I would prefer,
Allaying your most potent armory.
Beneath white cloth I trust we can defer
The launch of your next crying infamy,
When I pronounce affections more profuse
And gain the peace before you break the truce.

The Elizabethan sonnet, based on the Italian sonnets of Petrarch, Guido Cavalcanti, Dante and their progeny, was generally a poetic love letter whose reader was the subject of the poem. The standard form featured fourteen lines in iambic pentameter, consisting of three rhymed quatrains (rhyming a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d and e-f-e-f) ending with a heroic couplet (g-g). There were many variations to the standard form, chiefly in the rhyme scheme, but also in the way the rhythm was altered by use of enjambments and the introduction of trochees, spondees, dactyls and anapests. Another variation was the Alexandrine sonnet in hexameter, rather than pentameter. The Elizabethans also loved to indulge in wordplay, puns and poetic conceits, where simile and metaphor were used to compare and contrast (and thereby wed) disparate subject matter. The conceptual framework was to develop an “argument” by setting forth the facts, usually biased in favor of the writer’s point of view, and pose a conclusion in the couplet.

In “Social Intercourse,” the play on the words “arms” and “armory,” the idea of tears being used as a weapon (“dripping violence”) and “herald to hostility,” and the lover’s “arms at ease” serving as “ambassadors of love,” even the saucy pun on “peace,” are poetic devices that the sonneteers might have used. The form itself forced me to think in terms of the poetic conceits that would develop the theme of the poem in the manner of the Elizabethans. The stream of thought is linear, but still allows for creative leaps of the imagination that spur a reader’s continued interest. Even though I did not strictly observe the form with three perfectly enclosed quatrains (the traditional form from which English writers also departed on occasion), the sonnet form forced me to forge my ideas in a novel way that I had not previously experienced. What I learned was how hard it was to make the verse satisfy the demands of formality while still normalizing the expression.

Later, I tried another form, iambic pentameter quatrains with couplet rhymes, again, a difficult form to work with in a “modern” voice. Free verse has become such a standard of expression that anything with a regular rhythm and rhyme, unless you are a master like Robert Frost, is going to sound somewhat stilted and old-fashioned. Nevertheless, I wanted to treat the Narcissus theme in connection with our passing into old age, a variation of Thomas Wyatt’s famous “They flee from me that sometime did me seek,” where Narcissus as an old man (I am not there yet, but expect someday I will be) is staring into the mirror and reacting to what he sees. The poem, though, is addressed to the reader as much as to himself:

Narcissus at 80

What god bestowed its loveliness and grace
And coined it in your lake? Medusa’s face
Itself would just as likely turn to stone
If she could see yours sloughing off the bone.

You once flew orbits of habitual ease,
And through your universe blew galaxies,
Of star-struck ass, whose spheres saw their eclipse
within the brighter light of younger lips.

Whom Love enlists glass by glass, let none
decry that morning when the drink is done.
For Love’s neither bowman nor myth of Eve:
The fruit falls prey; the devil takes his leave.

Wordplay and thematic figuration are prominent in this poem, which variously expands upon the subject of the deleterious intoxication of vanity, venery and the vain pursuit of love. I like the neo-Narcissus’s unrepentant scorn for himself and those of the same ilk who think their lot in life is different. Here, Narcissus refuses to kid himself or the reader.

Yet, I confess that there is something that smells of the musty old drawing-room about this verse which I had hoped wit would rescue. Nevertheless, for any wit to be appreciated, it would require a reader who was familiar with the myth of Narcissus (who fell in love with his reflection in the lake and wasted away), the figures of Medusa (whose face could turn the viewer to stone), Cupid (the “bowman” whose arrow strikes down its prey with Love) and Eve (as in Adam and Eve). Most readers today did not grow up in a world that regularly trafficked in the magic of these myths, as did poetry readers of a hundred or more years ago. The allusions are clearly dated (as are the words “decry” and “equivalence”). Even when William B. Yeats occasionally used ancient Greco-Roman myth in his poems, he was hearkening to his poetic forbearers rather than reflecting the true expression of his own times, which by then had moved to more modern myths and explain, in part, his own turn to home-grown Irish folklore. Lastly, in “Narcissus at 80,” what faded wit doesn’t doom, stilted iambic expression and uneven diction (perhaps too patrician?) do. There are few lines that breathe the air-conditioned comfort of our own times.

Nonetheless, we are left with the problem of how to make a fixed poetic form sound contemporary. First and foremost, contemporary poetic technique is all about the invisibility of frame, pretense and craft. If the New York “school” gave us anything, it was to afford us an escape from the old metaphor, simile and other figurative elements that so obviously made it sound like “poesy” as Ezra Pound sarcastically called it. Even when formal meter and rhyme are used, the trick is to conceal these elements as much as possible. For example, in “One Art,” Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle is so masterful that the form is utterly transparent, and so we feel the poem as a recursive meditation whose slightest variations accrete to increase its emotional impact. This transparency is best achieved in the interplay between dramatic intonation and the “accent of sense,” as noted by Robert Frost: “The living part of a poem is the intonation entangled somehow in the syntax idiom and meaning of the sentence. It is only there for those who have heard it previously in conversation.” This observation is priceless, for Frost tells us that tonality in poetry is largely a feature of the way words are used in a living language that imports all the quirky ways people express themselves. It’s where dialect, manners and irony come home to roost. That is why Frost’s metric formality seems to disappear into the common everyday language of his poems.

If you want to use rhyme, rhythm, figurative language and the modern myths, there also has to be a contemporary sensibility underneath it, like someone who can wear the “tightest jeans” as Frank O’Hara referred to it in his “Personism, A Manifesto” (which also contains many other observations on the writing of contemporary poetry).  Stay away from the clever puns and wordplay which were in vogue in the days before Popeye, Bugs Bunny and post-WWII cartoons made them largely passé (they are only effectively used today as the emotional equivalent of a comedian’s dropped mike). Variation of the form or being able to come “out of character” (like Alice Fulton’s “street” persona) helps to convey to the reader that you walk among us and know your way around the block. Note also that a modern sensibility, which often forsakes a linear train of thought for a more expressive albeit disjunctive one, is de rigueur today. [Read, for example, the poetry of Frederick Seidel and Michael Robbins, both of whom use jaunty, jazzy rhythms and surprising, sometimes dissonant, rhymes as necessary stitching to underpin the sensibility of a contemporary poète maudit.]

Seamus Heaney has written many sonnets in contemporary translations of the form, particularly in his 10-sonnet sequence, the “Glanmore Sonnets.” The theme he explores is as much about the art of writing as about a life in reflection. The rhythm is comfortably paced to imitate contemporary speech, which is helped by Heaney’s skillful use of enjambment. The meter is not really straight iambic or pentameter, but not free verse either; the structural schematic is not strictly rhymed or enclosed quatrains; there are internal (assonantal) rhymes and rhymes with masculine (stressed) endings joined with feminine (unstressed) endings. Indeed, the discourse sounds wholly contemporary in every sense of the word. I urge you to read the rest of Seamus Heaney’s “Glanmore Sonnets” (at the Poetry Foundation’s website) as I conclude this post with Sonnet I:

Vowels ploughed into other: opened ground.
The mildest February for twenty years
Is mist bands over furrows, a deep no sound
Vulnerable to distant gargling tractors.
Our road is steaming, the turned-up acres breathe.
Now the good life could be to cross a field
And art a paradigm of earth new from the lathe
Of ploughs. My lea is deeply tilled.
Old ploughsocks gorge the subsoil of each sense
And I am quickened with a redolence
Of farmland as a dark unblown rose.
Wait then…Breasting the mist, in sowers’ aprons,
My ghosts come striding into their spring stations.
The dream grain whirls like freakish Easter snows.


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