Thursday, April 28, 2011

NPM: The Hardester Poem

So my inbox is still empty. If you want to collect your special haiku prizes, please email me and let me know where I can send them to. Or don't, of course -- no skin off my neck, really. Stamps are getting expensive.

National Poetry Month is only three more days away from ending. It's been fun, but I could use a rest. Perhaps I could also invest the time I've been putting towards compiling, transcribing, formatting, and introducing other people's poetry towards writing some verse of my own. But after a solid month of poems, I sorta just want to draw comics. We'll see.

By the way, I lied to you yesterday: the villanelle isn't Maniac Mode for poets. That honor belongs to its close cousin, the sestina. That image at the top there? That's a visualization of the sestina form.

Once again, your tired host turns to Jay Parini for an explanation:

The form consists of thirty-nine lines: six 6-line stanzas and a 3-line conclusion called an envoy or envoi. In English, these lines are often (but not always) in some form of pentameter. There are no specific rhymes in a sestina; rather, the six final words of each stanza are repeated according to a specific pattern, and so repetition takes the place of rhyme. The crucial six words must also appear in the final three lines, with two of them occurring in each line.

I have written one sestina. It is terrible, I don't know what happened to it, I'm not going to go searching for it, and I'm probably not going to try writing another in the foreseeable future. I don't think I'm ready for it yet.

Mr. Parini again:

Every poetic form is a kind of instrument, representing a discreet range of tones and intellectual possibilities. The sestina, being a kind of poetic spiral, has a lovely shape, and the repeating words create their own insistent music. Key to the sestina's magic is that a poet must choose six words that work together to create an argument, even a story. The repetitious nature of the form is less significant. One hears the poet-speaker sounding these words over and over, enlarging the context for these word. But to what effect? The answer will be different in each case.

Given its complex shape, the sestina attracts poets who want to structure the reality of their poem in intricate ways. Ideally, the complicated form of the poem enhances the theme; with subject and form working together, a splendidly rich and nuanced music may be produced.

Bravo and let's go! (Please read these! I slaved all evening over a hot laptop copying and formatting them! We're almost at the end!)

Sestina of the Tramp-Royal
By Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)

Speakin' in general, I 'ave tried 'em all,
The 'appy roads that take you o'er the world.
Speakin' in general, I 'ave found them good
For such as cannot use one bed too long,
But must get 'ence, the same as I 'ave done,
An' go observin' matters till they die.

What do it matter where or 'ow we die,
So long as we've our 'ealth to watch it all —
The different ways that different things are done,
An' men an' women lovin' in this world —
Takin' our chances as they come along,
An' when they ain't, pretendin' they are good?

In cash or credit — no, it aren't no good;
You 'ave to 'ave the 'abit or you'd die,
Unless you lived your life but one day long,
Nor didn't prophesy nor fret at all,
But drew your tucker some'ow from the world,
An' never bothered what you might ha' done.

But, Gawd, what things are they I 'aven't done?
I've turned my 'and to most, an' turned it good,
In various situations round the world —
For 'im that doth not work must surely die;
But that's no reason man should labour all
'Is life on one same shift; life's none so long.

Therefore, from job to job I've moved along.
Pay couldn't 'old me when my time was done,
For something in my 'ead upset me all,
Till I 'ad dropped whatever 'twas for good,
An', out at sea, be'eld the dock-lights die,
An' met my mate — the wind that tramps the world!

It's like a book, I think, this bloomin' world,
Which you can read and care for just so long,
But presently you feel that you will die
Unless you get the page you're readin' done,
An' turn another — likely not so good;
But what you're after is to turn 'em all.

Gawd bless this world! Whatever she 'ath done —
Excep' when awful long — I've found it good.
So write, before I die, "'E liked it all!"

by Elizabeth Bishop (1911 - 1979)

September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.

She thinks that her equinoctial tears
and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
were both foretold by the almanac,
but only known to a grandmother.
The iron kettle sings on the stove.
She cuts some bread and says to the child,

It's time for tea now; but the child
is watching the teakettle's small hard tears
dance like mad on the hot black stove,
the way the rain must dance on the house.
Tidying up, the old grandmother
hangs up the clever almanac

on its string. Birdlike, the almanac
hovers half open above the child,
hovers above the old grandmother
and her teacup full of dark brown tears.
She shivers and says she thinks the house
feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.

It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
I know what I know, says the almanac.
With crayons the child draws a rigid house
and a winding pathway. Then the child
puts in a man with buttons like tears
and shows it proudly to the grandmother.

But secretly, while the grandmother
busies herself about the stove,
the little moons fall down like tears
from between the pages of the almanac
into the flower bed the child
has carefully placed in the front of the house.

Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house.

Sestina: Bob
By Jonah Winter (1962 - )

According to her housemate, she is out with Bob
tonight, and when she’s out with Bob
you never know when she’ll get in. Bob
is an English professor. Bob
used to be in a motorcycle gang, or something, or maybe Bob
rides a motorcycle now. How radical of you, Bob —

I wish I could ride a motorcycle, Bob,
and also talk about Chaucer intelligently. Bob
is very tall, bearded, reserved. I saw Bob
at a poetry reading last week — he had such a Bob —
like poise — so quintessentially Bob!
The leather jacket, the granny glasses, the beard — Bob!

and you were with my ex-girlfriend, Bob!
And you’re a professor, and I’m nobody, Bob,
nobody, just a flower-deliverer, Bob,
and a skinny one at that, Bob —
and you are a large person, and I am small, Bob,
and I hate my legs, Bob,

but why am I talking to you as if you were here, Bob?
I’ll try to be more objective. Bob
is probably a nice guy. Or that’s what one hears. Bob
is not, however, the most passionate person named Bob
you’ll ever meet. Quiet, polite, succinct, Bob
opens doors for people, is reticent in grocery stores. Bob

does not talk about himself excessively to girlfriends. Bob
does not have a drinking problem. Bob
does not worry about his body, even though he’s a little heavy. Bob
has never been in therapy. Bob,
also, though, does not have tenure — ha ha ha — and Bob
cannot cook as well as I can. Bob

never even heard of paella, and if he had, Bob
would not have changed his facial expression at all. Bob
is just so boring, and what I can’t understand, Bob—
yes I’m talking to you again, is why you, Bob,
could be more desirable than me. Granted, Bob,
you’re more stable, you’re older, more mature maybe but Bob . . .

(Months later, on the Bob-front: My former girlfriend finally married Bob.
Of Bob, she says, “No one has taken me higher or lower than Bob.”
Me? On a dark and stormy sea of Bob-thoughts, desperately, I bob.)

by Caleb Emmons (b. ?)

Definition 1:  To achieve the poetry form
               Celebrated for its symmetries
               And known far and wide as the sestina
               The concluding words of the first six
               Lines must comprise a distinguished group,
               Ending subsequent lines in prescribed

Definition 2:  What precisely is meant by permutations?
               The set of rearrangements of n objects form
               Sn, the so-called symmetric group
               Which captures all finite symmetries.
               (Previously we chose n = 6
               When we defined the sestina.)

Question:      If we distill from a sestina
               The sestets' corresponding permutations
               (Of which there are six)
               And out of these form
               A subgroup of symmetries
               Have we recovered the whole group?

Theorem:       Working in the symmetric group
               If we reduce a sestina
               To its bare symmetries
               And gather those permutations
               The subgroup they form
               Is cyclic of order six.

Proof:         Let τ be the cycle (1 2 4 5 3 6).
               By mapping integer k to group
               Element τk-1 it’s easy to check that we
               A bijection from the sestets of the sestina
               To their corresponding permutations.
               (The work can be reduced by noticing

Corollary:     Because of these symmetries
               If you've written only two sestets of six,
               With their rigidly fixed permutations,
               Nonetheless, you may shift this group
               To elsewhere in your sestina
               And retain their form.

Erratum:       In all our discussion of permutations and
               poetic symmetries
               We neglected to mention that the form has,
               in addition to the six
               Sestets, another group of lines: a final
               tercet to complete the sestina.

Confessional Sestina
by Dana Gioia (1950 - )

Let me confess. I'm sick of these sestinas
written by youngsters in poetry workshops
for the delectation of their fellow students,
and then published in little magazines
that no one reads, not even the contributors
who at least in this omission show some taste.

Is this a matter of personal taste?
I don't think so. Most sestinas
are such dull affairs. Just ask the contributors
the last time they finished one outside a workshop,
even the poignant one on herpes in that new little magazine
edited by their most brilliant fellow student.

Let's be honest. It has become a form for students,
an exercise to build technique rather than taste
and the official entry blank into the little magazines—
because despite its reputation, a passable sestina
isn't very hard to write, even for kids in workshops
who care less about being poets than contributors.

Granted nowadays everyone is a contributor.
My barber is currently a student
in a rigorous correspondence school workshop.
At lesson six he can already taste
success having just placed his how sestina
in a national tonsorial magazine.

Who really cares most about little magazines?
Eventually not even their on contributors
who having published a few preliminary sestinas
send their work East to prove they're no longer students.
They need to be recognized as the new arbiters of taste
so they can teach their own graduate school workshops.

Where will it end? This grim cycle of workshops
churning out poems for little magazines
no one honestly finds to their taste?
This ever-lengthening column of contributors
scavenging the land for more students
teaching them to write their boot-camp sestinas?

Perhaps there is an afterlife where all contributors
have to workshops, a tasteful little magazine, and sexy students
who worshipfully memorize their every sestina.

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