Wednesday, April 7, 2010

This Poem Wants to be a Sonnet. Dammit.

While I was working on my MFA at Spalding University, when workshopping it became a running not-always-funny joke that when being workshopped by jeanie Thompson and/or Debra Kang Dean, if your poem was hitting a note but not as clearly as it could have, if it was a relatively shorter piece with a punch at the end, one of the Master Poetesses would murmur (or state very baldly):

"This poem wants to be a sonnet."

Imagine the nodding heads all around. Now imagine the screaming inner voice of the poet whose work is being discussed. Imagine the thoughts: "Oh my dear sweet flying spaghetti monster, a sonnet? Are you (very talented) bishes crazy? Shakespeare was a sonnetteer. Edna St. Vincent Millay. Elizabeth Barret Browning. Hopkins, Heaney, Peacock. But yea, though I love the saints of poetry and form, I fear the dreadful, work intensive, harsh mistress sonnet." Sprinkle a few more curses in there liberally, plus a whitening of the face, some weeping and gnashing of the teeth and a wish to drop into the floor, and that's about right.

The killer of it was, Jeanie and Debra were right. It took a few semesters, quite a bit of study, and the luck of having friendly, un-scary sonnetteer Molly Peacock as a workshop leader, but eventually I got a small sense for the sonnet. I rarely turn to form, and I am a clumsy sonnetteer for the most part, but it has helped me on occasion, and I've even had a few sonnets published in Sixty Six; The Journal of Sonnet Studies, which was a great surprise.

I am thinking about this tonight as I work on revising some poems I wrote with my brother in mind. He was recently honorable discharged from the US Marine Corps after multiple tours through Iraq and Afghanistan, and occasionally he drops tidbits of information or stories that I find fascinating and want to explore. And so These Terrible Sacraments was born. I intended for it to be a chapbook, and it's about 35 pages now. However, I keep thinking of new facets I want to explore, which may well end up giving me a full length manuscript. Of war poems, which I am quite sure will die a lonely death, since I imagine no one wants to read a themed collection on that. but I'm going to write it anyway, because it's been a hell of a ride so far.

In any case, These Terrible Sacraments is my attempt to understand war from through my brother's stories as well as from the perspective of those of us left behind - sisters, brothers, mothers, wives. My hope is that it neither glorifies nor demonizes war and those who fight it, but concentrates on the immense emotional undertaking war becomes.

It is this emotional turmoil in most of the pieces that is turning me toward form. I began the collection as a series of free form free verse pieces. As I've been revising them, some that had the momentum and friendly line breaks turned into tercets. Some of the slower more contemplative pieces have become poems in couplets. I have one or two where I think I see a villanelle poking through. But there are a number of poems, particularly the shorter - say, 13 to 18 lines - poems with a definite turn near the end, or well into the second half, that have been crying "sonnet" to me. At first it was a whisper-hint. Now it's more a cowbell-clanging.

My reaction was "this is going to suck and I will be cursing a lot." For me, sonnets require complete concentration, vigorous revision, and a ruthlessness towards the original that I rarely exercise. But the emotional content and the movement within the poem seems to call for it. And so, honoring what I've learned about my craft, and quashing my fear with the memory of merry Molly expounding upon her love for the form and it's many incarnations (intextations?), I will be hammering, cajoling, and begging sonnets to come forth from the freeform chaos of some current poems. It can be done, and as I've noted in the past, the effort is always worth it.

Honestly? It's daunting. But if I'm going to make this collection the best it can be so that I can be proud to present it to my brother, it needs must be done. *rolls up sleeves* Here, sonnet sonnet...

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