Damn, have I really not posted since Tuesday? Apologies for that. I have been in the midst of the huge work-project (79 documents into Southeast Asian languages, this time), and haven’t come up for air since then, it seems. But now that it’s the weekend, I have… well, okay, not that much free time. A bit of free time. Somewhere in all the hubbub I will, someday, find occasion to sleep and have absolutely Nothing To Do one day. (Last Saturday was pretty good for that; I need another of those.)
This week: “les trois mots magiques“
I hope Viv appreciates this. :) In honor of Bastille Day/La Fête Nationale, we’re going to have a French-inspired prompt. The title is from historian Mona Ozouf in reference to the French Republic’s three-part motto, liberté, égalité, fraternité. (Or, if you are not Francophone, liberty, equality, fraternity.) These are often considered to be reflected in the French flag: blue for liberté, white for égalité, and red for fraternité. It took time after the Revolution for all of this to be standardized, but any French student who gets past beginner level probably has it ingrained in their heads these days. (I certainly did.) And it helps that there’s an excellent trilogy of films to cement the concept.
So, we’re going to try to reflect these themes in a poem. Or rather, three poems. I think this one is pretty straightforward, though it’s high-volume and might take as much time as a short poem with wiggly requirements. Here’s the battle plan:
- Think about what each of the three concepts means to you. Is liberty more of a political right or a personal quality; does it relate to physical being or the soul; do you consider it more religious or social? What is your experience with (in-)equality; how do you see its place in history and your daily life; what is your reaction to its balance and imbalance? With whom do you experience the most understanding and fraternity; how did you develop those closest relationships; what are the places you do and do not expect to find kinship?
- Come up with a unifying theme across your interpretation of these three concepts. It could be a single situation or character weaving through all three, it might be a single line that is repeated, or maybe just a certain motif that appears to link them together. The idea here is that they should be recognizably part of the same voice and experience.
- But at the same time, allow them to be different. Maybe you want to vary that repeated line slightly, or that motif. (Maybe in each poem you have some kind of bird as a symbol: the eagle, the swan, and the crow; or maybe the bluejay, the dove, and the cardinal.) Let the variations of your poems’ connective tissue take on characteristics of the qualities they symbolize. For example, in the poem about liberty, let your symbolism veer towards freedom, whether expressed or denied. Do you want that eagle in a cage or soaring overhead?
If I roll with this bird imagery, I might end up with snippets like this:
…the eagle rolls its gold eye and clacks its
hooked beak, dragging its broken foot with the air of
a broken king…
…sunset, gold poured on the water, a pair of swans
knowing better than to ask for more of a perfect moment
than they already have…
…and before the storm births itself out of
gold-bellied clouds, a hundred crows lift in time, drawing
graphite omens along the ricepaper sky…
Or something like that. “Gold” is repeated over and over, though it’s a very different gold each time; and the birds show up in each part, but with a variety of meanings. You don’t have to make these poems very long, but make them long enough to show the clear distinctions between the three themes. You also don’t have to write them all at once (maybe tackle one per day for three days), but it might be helpful to do them in one go, since you’ll be able to keep the connecting threads clearer in your mind. If you prefer to think of this as one poem in three parts, you can do that too.
For those who want an additional challenge, you can try to represent the concepts of the three-word motto, and the number three in general, in the forms of the poems. The way you do this is up to you, but for me, I would suggest free verse for liberté, some kind of regimented meter (with perhaps an equal number of syllables in each line?) for égalité, like blank verse, and something with a formal rhyme scheme (lines that are, wait for it, fraternal in how they end) for fraternité. You might also want to represent the number three by doing stanzas in tercets, or even taking on a form like the terza rima or terzanelle to truly dazzle your readership.
You could also, for a truly epic undertaking, try a triptych poem, where the three poems are side-by-side, and can be read one at a time straight down, or across each line. (This similar to the quantum poetry we worked on a little while ago.) This is a difficult undertaking, but can come up with some astonishing results. Samuel Menashe did one of these that you might find inspiring, but for my money (and I hope she doesn’t mind me linking to it), Nicole Nicholson writes the best triptych poems I’ve seen yet out on the Web, like this one here. They’re beautifully crafted, and I hope they’ll be a good kick-off point for you. You can even try using the three words of the motto as the first line. (A formatting note: you may have to do the poem in Word and make an image file of it before uploading, or use tables in your blog post: three columns is a pretty tough format to preserve on the Web.)
And of course, bonus points if you work in something about France and/or its history into your work, for a meta-thematic kind of thing. But I’m easy on this point: I’m probably going to the Upper East Side for a celebration later on with the Fellow, so I’ll have my fill of that. Que vous écriviez bien!