I asked the Poet Laureate of Rockland, Maine, Carol Bachofner, to write about a poetic subject important to her. In this piece (which I am posting in two parts–today and then next Thursday), she explores her journey re-creating herself as the sort of poet she envisioned. Maybe all artists have to search to redefine their artistic identities to remain creative. See what you think.
by Guest Blogger Carol Bachofner
In the early 2000s, I faced myself coming and going in a kind of convergence between form and something “not form.” I needed expansion. I was fortunate at that time to have poetry mentors who sit cleanly in the “new expansionist” camp: David Mason, RS Gwynn, Dana Gioia, and BH Fairchild to be specific. I would describe myself as a new expansionist and count these poets as friends and mentors still. Having said that, I do see myself and my writing now as breaking ground — if only with a tiny hammer. I have not lost sight of my familial roots either, which have led back to ancestor William Dunbar (Scots poet of the 1600s). Despite the age and depths of my roots as a poet, I find myself searching for small breaths of innovation to keep myself and my poems moving forward. I see my contemporaries doing the same, thus debunking the criticism that new expansionists just want to make it old. I wanted to be “that poet,” one who would write the most memorable of poetry, find something new and exciting for my writing life. But instead I settled into a rather ordinary poetic life, satisfying and full, but pretty ordinary.
A breakthrough came for me in 2001while I was living in London. I spent time several days a week in the British Poetry Library located on the 5th floor of the Royal Festival Hall. One day, I came upon a children’s book that changed my writing. It was not a book of great acclaim or literary merit, but it had some language that, for me, was haunting. The story, about a hare in winter, was written by a Scots writer whose tale was poetically told, in a kind of verse that seemed to be prose and poetry combined. I decided to write a poem using some of the author’s rich language approach. I made my first pass at the poem, based upon translation and a parallel presentation, putting together a Scots language version with my translation side by side on the page. Although I did not (still do not) speak the language, I set about doing a translation, one phrase at a time. I still look at that parallel structure from time to time to please myself as a “translator.” As the messages of the story began to unfold in translation, so did the poem itself. I share it here in its final version, minus the original Scottish:
What does one do but look
in a poem to what goes on out there …
Roland Jooris (Flemish poet)
White, cold white
stinging every bare unsheltering hill
Earth you dressed yourself up to be bare
watching snowfall, pleating snow
under doors, over meadows, over moors
The gusts of our longings dizzied us.
We warmed each other,
but the day did not endure
O’ to be in the circle ‘round the hearth!
The skies are bruised in their seasons
Threads of breath from snowdrifts
travel for miles through the silence
shining white secret, it’s tinkling murmur,
well, that won’t be silent
White waves of stars at time of darkest moon,
a flag of truce for all tribes of the universe.
We are waking.
Then I Chose the Sonnet
Over time, the sonnet form has been adapted into something other than the form we were taught in school, something we can to choose to remake or reinterpret for a contemporary setting. We can open it up and break it into parts, shapes, and employ any manner of contemporary poetic gestures in so doing. Gerald Stern somewhat famously rendered the sonnet “American” by expanding it to more than 14 lines and abandoning obvious rhyme and meter. That got my attention, for its very boldness if nothing else. I found myself more and more attracted to the sonnet. To be honest, I had avoided the kind of regulation the sonnet took beyond what I needed to learn the mechanics of the form, the academic nuts and bolts. But here I was now, drawn to it like a moth to a streetlamp. I spent time, years, reading as many sonnets as I could reasonably do, from Shakespeare to Millay. I began to write sonnets. I wrote traditional ones (mostly terrible ones) and a few break-out ones. I was ready to accept another breakthrough moment.
What can form and an open attitude do to get you out of a rut in your poetry writing? It can redefine your aesthetic, give your writing system a jolt of energy. For me, it keeps me from writing the “same” poem even when focusing upon a particular topic over time. I recently sent off a manuscript that is rife with fractured forms and the whole seems to me to be a most pleasing concoction of what I am capable of doing with words. If I can please myself, I have at least a decent chance of pleasing my readers. Oh, certainly I do want to please you!
I have dared to bend, break, and reassemble form. Let’s look at this a bit in detail. I chose the sonnet, a form I’d rejected for the first half of my writing life. I thought the form stuffy. I hated the way all the sonnets I was reading felt artificial. I admit that my resistance comes a bit from “old stuff” in early college days when New Criticism was fading and free versifying was breaking down those walls. There is no doubt in my mind that I have pretty much always been teetering on the edge of a kind of cosmic divergence between constrained form and free form. If only…
My very first experience with breaking open and “reassembling” a form occurred not long after this experience with translation. The resultant poem has somewhat traditional rhyme, a turn at line 9 (breakout from rhyme scheme included), and a rhyming couplet that is not exactly a couplet but rather part of a rhyme scheme that morphs into a couplet (fgfgg). Before sharing the broken open form, here is how the poem I wanted to write would look in traditional style (as a block of writing). Take a few minutes and look at all the tradition in this sonnet. There is meter, rhyme that is not entirely predictable, and the look of it screams SONNET! Ordinarily, I’d be proud to have this be my final draft. I’d be told it was a “good” sonnet.
But, for some reason it is not all that satisfying to me. It needed my further attention. You be the judge here. I trust you to see what I saw in the light of innovation and adventure.
Snow, a sonnet
From gardens of the fertile sky, a
fall blossoms made of air b
It’s God’s design that we might sigh a
as we see them sifting here. b
Each flower cut, is folded, sent c
flying stringless, pure, white kites d
to soften up the firmament c
with their muted spiraled light. d
Even the saints will try to shake e
the rumors they’ve been told f
of death that overtook a child g
who wandered in the dazzling cold f
blinded, lost and then beguiled g
by winter’s flowery, frozen smile. g
I think you can see how constrained the subject is due to the structure. It did not feel the way I felt doing the translation. Not at all. It was (is) tight, bordered, and rigid, with the possible exception being the rhyme break at line 9. More on that later when you have looked at the fractured version. The structure needed, wanted to be less rigid. Grief is not rigid. Snow is not rigid. I needed to do something so the poem could say its message. I needed to fracture and reset the bones of the poem.
Let’s look at what opening this poem up on the page did for it:
From hidden gardens of the fertile sky.
fall showy ice-spun blossoms made of air.
It’s God’s design
that we on earth might sigh
as we watch them sifting silently here.
Each pristine flower cut, is folded, sent
flying stringless, pure.
Latticed crystal kites
drift soft across the star-blank firmament.
From deep within the muted spiraled light,
saints and angels try to shake the news,
the frightful rumors they’ve been told:
that overtook a child of two
who wandered out
into the dazzling cold,
blinded, lost, and then beguiled
by winter’s flowery, frozen smile.
If you look closely at the broken version of the poem, you will find the structure of the sonnet there (the “couplet” is there in its own way). It (the message) drifts down and settles, as snow does. It doesn’t overwhelm the message, but instead allows the message to settle on the reader as well.
Can you find the places where the rhyme lives? What about the turn? Does the turn happen somewhere different from the traditionally-structured version? What do you see as successful or not in this second version? Which pleases you and your particular aesthetic about sonnets? Does the breaking of form unsettle you? Is the second a sonnet at all? Only you can decide. But it pleases me to present it to you here.
Come back next Thursday for the rest of Carol’s essay.
Do you think that all artists have to search to redefine their artistic identities to remain creative?
About the guest blogger:
Carol W. Bachofner, MFA Poetry Vermont College of Fine Arts, is currently Poet Laureate of Rockland, Maine (2012-2016). She founded (2010) and directs the annual Poetry Month Rockand, a city-wide celebration of poetry. An indigenous woman (Abenaki), she writes with a strong sense of place through narrative poetry. Her poems have appeared in such notable journals as Prairie Schooner, CT Review, Main Street Rag, Bangor Metro, The Comstock Review, Crab Orchard Review, The Cream City Review, Naugatuck River Review, and others. Bachofner teaches poetry in her community and “on the road” via workshops and conferences. She has four published books of poetry: Daughter of the Ardennes Forest, 2007; Breakfast at the Brass Compass, 2010; I Write in the Greenhouse, 2011, and Native Moons, Native Days, 2012. In 2011, Bachofner was a runner-up in the Maine Literary Awards, one of three finalists in the short works/poetry category. Visit her web site www.carolbachofner.com for links to her blog, and her facebook page or to contact her for workshops. or contact her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.