The afternoon is wide open, and despite ungodly winds out in the city today, there is sun and beauty and warmth. I am feeling, for the first time in a while, that I have several constructive things to do that I actually want to do and share, and the time/energy to do them. First and foremost of these is to do another (gasp!) Refinery post, so I don’t forget about doing it for the week. And, to re-iterate what Margo said on her blog: pretend I don’t have a list to work through, and send me stuff still, please! For now, we have:
“The Golden Trees” by Marian Veverka
My favorite poems of Marian’s are the ones which are sweeping and elegant; she does better long-form and formal poetry than many other poets I’ve seen on the blogosphere. (Not to say her other work, an example of which has appeared at Curio, is lacking; I just prefer the lengthier, structured poems.) What I’ve seen of her work often touches upon the natural and the personal at the same time, so this poem should not come as a surprise:
Along the roadside’s graveled edge
A row of poplars lift their limbs and spread
Their roots to where secret water hides
In the shallow pools of dried stream-beds.
A thirsty summer, hot and dry
With sudden storms that made green leaves fly
From nervous branches, all shaken down
Beneath the scorching sun in an empty sky.
Today, as the heat-stricken hours fade
Each tree now casts its golden shade
water trickles through the once dried stream
Clouds arrive, but few will stay.
I stand, immersed in the golden glow
Beneath the poplars’ royal row
Through long winter nights I’ll return in dreams
While the poplars sleep in their robes of snow.
It’s rare that the issues I pull out of a poem are balanced carefully between form, style, and theme, but I think this is a case where I find on each, so that’s how I’m going to tackle it:
- Let’s talk about form first. This is very close to/counts as a ruba’i poem, with AABA rhyme scheme stanzas and (usually, in English) an iambic tetra/pentameter rhythm. What I would tweak from a form perspective, because it’s usually the easiest thing to fix in formal verse, is the consistency. There are some playful takes on the scheme with near-rhymes, and the rhythm is flexed at various points. But I think the issue I have with these two aspects is that the experimentation itself doesn’t feel certain. When I read the first stanza, rhyming edge, spread, beds, I think, okay, this will be a poem of not-quite-rhymes. But then I see dry, fly, sky, and I second-guess myself. Then, I notice that hides connects the first stanza to the second as a near-rhyme; and then that link is not repeated from the second to the third; and then the B line in the third and fourth stanzas near-rhyme. Similarly, the syllable count in each line varies a little bit too much for me to tell if it’s supposed to be a particular metre or not. Some tweaking would be good, I think, to make it more clear what the poem is doing: it doesn’t have to be rigid and uniform, but when you bend the parameters of a received form like this, keep it going!
- Now, style. This has a very Frost-y feel to it, in my opinion; Frost used a lot of ruba’i structure, and often had those nature-meditation moments in his poetry. But I would like to see more metaphor, more risks taken in the presentation of the imagery. A caveat: I think that it depends on how you want to approach the theme. If you’re going for a very straightforward snapshot, the literal might be preferable, but as I’ll get to in a moment, I think Marian is digging deeper, especially with that last stanza. There are several words in here that could use some alteration, which might in turn help with the consistency of the metre. Some of these veer close to cliché: scorching sun, for example. (I’m a fan of folk songs that use this phrase, but I think we can do better in modern poetry.) Or shallow pools: what about teaspoon pools or withered pools or something? The words poplar, tree, and golden come up again and again; find synonyms and other characteristics to describe in the subject! You don’t need to be overly florid to find more interesting ways to describe an image. Remember that part of the charm in poetry is to put together two words that haven’t been put together before (or at least, enough).
- And as for theme, which might be the hardest nugget to crack, I find myself wondering how personal the poem is trying to be. Most of the piece is a meditation on the appearance of the poplars, but we have all these value words describing the trees and their surroundings that gives it a specifically anti-haiku quality. And then this “I” appearing in the last stanza: we have a poem that shows the polarity between an object and its observer. What I’d like to see is more deepness to this “I”, because once she is introduced, it immediately adds another layer to the poem that isn’t nearly as thick as the rest. The “I” could appear earlier, or the descriptions of nature could even more specifically imply an observer. (A hot summer is impersonal; a thirsty summer, like we have here, requires a presence to give the season personality; an oppressive summer does the same, but adds a relationship between the speaker and the object.) Aside from the relationship needing some intensity, I’m also a little uncertain what the speaker is trying to get across: it seems to be a reflection on the beauty of these trees enduring through the change of seasons and into memory, but I’m not sure. It could use a bit more expansion, perhaps!
OK, enough critique. Let’s go to the other end of the spectrum:
- There are some subtle sound things happening that I like here, some alliteration and internal rhyme (stricken and trickle is a great pair) mixing with just some wonderfully-chosen words (which balance out the examples I was picking out earlier). Probably secret water and royal row sound the most lyrical to me. I don’t think it would be hard to extend that feeling through more of the poem without losing the meter and rhyme that gives it so much of its structure. And I love that sentence Clouds arrive, but few will stay. I might suggest tweaking it a little bit, but it has an elegant simplicity that I think sums up the whole poem.
- Keying off that, the theme is one of those tried-and-true ones I like to talk about. There are countless poems about the transience of nature still being beautiful, probably because it echoes the knowledge of our own mortality. The trap with this theme is risking a hackneyed approach to the theme. I don’t think this one falls into that trap, but only because it hasn’t deepened its own voice enough. If Marian goes back to edit this, and does develop that theme, I would say be careful not to get too clichéd with it: take risks, approach the concept in a way that is rarely explored. That may require lengthening the poem or messing with its structure a little bit, either for space reasons or to create a point using the sound of the poem itself.
- And of course, the challenge of doing a form at all is often to be commended. I used to consider myself a pretty stolid New Formalist, looking for the potential of a sonnet in every prompt, but have, in recent years, headed away from that. It’s always a pleasure to see a received form executed well, without fanfare: this is not as long as Omar Khayyam, nor is it one of those bite-sized forms full of repetition like the kyrielle. It has meat and an idea, I just think that it needs to trust itself more within the confines of its structure to clarify what it wants to say.
A few bits and bobs:
- Some of the enjambment isn’t working for me, particularly and spread / their roots.
- This is a goofy idea, but I would suggest using Monet as inspiration, maybe even wholly considering this an ekphrastic poem. Changing the title to something reflecting Monet (who did painting after painting of poplars) would add a layer of allusion (is the speaker standing in a museum? is the speaker Monet?) and at least remove one instance of each of golden and trees…
- …because really, some of that repetition does drag me down.
- If I had to pick one stanza to follow its lead, I’d choose the first one. It’s the most solid, followed by the fourth one.
- Previously, I talked about the use/overuse of adjective + noun pairings, and how variety is good. This could use some variety in the length of descriptive phrases: we have a wall of one adjective + one noun in the middle of the poem.
Marian, I hope this was useful to you, and I hope that you’ll share any revised version of the poem with us! And for all the non-Marians out there (it sounds like I’m picking favorites in some kind of Christian philosophy debate, doesn’t it?), here is a prompt based on the poem to whet your appetites:
Write a poem in a traditional received form (sonnet, sestina, rime royal, whatever) that is at least fourteen lines. Focus on your relationship with a particular object in nature and how it sums up a larger opinion/feeling about Nature with a capital N. Include the words “secret”, “arrive”, and “sudden”. Use only the senses of sight and touch for your descriptions.
Cheers! See you all for the next one…