IPM 2MXI – Rhyme’s Reason: the lure of form

Since my tumble for the Romantic poets in high school, I had been writing in Free Verse, not the kind that gives poetry a bad name:

“a kind of free verse

without any special

constraints on it except

those imposed by

the notion – also

generally accepted – that

the strip the lines

make as they run

down the page (the

familiar strip with the

jagged

right-hand edge) not

be too wide”

John Hollander from Rhyme’s Reason: A Guide to English Verse

But the kind that any poet with half a wit will recognize as taking a bit of work: with internal rhyme, intentional rhythm, and subtle resonances within the meaning of words from line to line. I wouldn’t own any of it now, but that is more because of the subject matter: painfully romantic and introspective… impossibly beautiful loves, broken hearts left, battered and beating in lonely silence. Not that one shouldn’t write about those things; it’s just that one has to do so really well in order to overcome the built-in triteness waiting to clog up the poetry with a nasty mix of sugar and blood. I wasn’t that good.

I abandoned Byron and  found a new love: William Carlos Williams. I scrawled out his poem This is just to say on part of a paper grocery sack and stuck it to my boyfriend’s refrigerator knowing that he would understand it as the passionate expression of affection that it was. I flirted with Dylan Thomas, Rilke, and Neruda while maintaining an abiding respect for the acid bite of Dorothy Parker and the amazing craftsmanship of Edna St. Vincent Millay. When the same young man left both me and his refrigerator to go off to art school on the east coast it was her : “Not in a silver casket cool with pearls, that I gave him (along with my broken heart) as a parting gift.

I got older. I kept writing. I turned 30.

Somewhere in the late 90’s I got bored with my life (work, eat, watch TV, shop, do the same things with the same friends: repeat); so, I started taking ‘extension courses’ at Southern Methodist University. I signed up for: Introduction to Philosophy, Intermediate Conversational French, Organic Landscaping. The classes were at night, after work; there were no grades. It was another way to use the only reward that I got for working so hard at my job: money.

It seemed like a good investment. For $74.00 I got a few hours of interesting information and conversation two or three days a week for six weeks. Introduction to Philosophy was fascinating, exhilarating; Organic Landscaping helped me cure the bald patches in the lawn of my rental house and left it smelling of tropical islands and pancake syrup. I had though I might have been overreaching  with Intermediate Conversational French but found that none of the other students even knew the passé composé and I ended up both bored and feeling a bit sorry for the professor.

A new brochure for the next round of courses came out: Writing Poetry in Metered Verse. I was excited, I would learn how to construct a sonnet: then if I wanted to I could. I would meet other grown-ups who were interested in doing the same (an audience!). We were in 14, the professor was Martha Heimburg. She helped us work through the text:   John Hollander’s Rhyme’s Reason: A Guide to English Verse and shepherded us into the world of the Deep Ellum poetry slam (a profound disillusionment for me) and submitting our fledgling work to literary journals. More importantly for me, she introduced us to the work of Sharon Olds and Wallace Stevens. I looked at the poems of these writers not with adoration but with curiosity.

I wrote my first sonnet, my first roundel, my first shaped poem. I met with a firey-haired fellow student at the Inwood Bar and drank martini’s while writing exquisite corpse poetry on cocktail napkins. I sent envelopes full of poems off to prestigious and not so prestigious literary journals and in due time got them back with polite and not so polite rejection slips. I switched the poems out and tried again. I kept writing. They came back again. I took a class in book-making, compiled my own work into a small book, made 14 hand-bound copies which I gave away to friends and family. I fell out of love with poetry. I still liked it but who needed the heartache? Occasionally I rearranged the words from my magnetic poetry kit on the refrigerator.

Then, in the middle of the road of my life, I met HIM…I mean, I’d run across him before but I’d been too young to see how attractive he really was: charmingly fragile and filled with self-doubt, bitterly intelligent, and he’d built this huge, fabulous thing, designed it and tied the words to it…and it SANG, and then something inside of me broke and sang back; it hurt. And then it made me blush with the pleasure of reading language tied so intimately to form.

It changed me, unhinged the order of things, made me stop trying to force the language to ‘do what I wanted it to do’ and to start forming an intimate relationship with words and structures in which publication and attention were no longer a goad/goal. I was overcome with desire, a desire and a curiosity as real and as visceral as that one kindled by a lover’s first kiss…