Nine more days before the start of my New York Writers Workshop class, and I have four sign-ups. The class needs six to run, so I'm casting around for ways to make the numbers. I've sent out pest emails, posted on craigslist, blanketed Cornelia Street Cafe with homemade flyers for three Fridays, recruited friends to spread the word, and left a flyer with the neighborhood falafel shop.
Preparing for the first class on sonnets, I remembered Molly Peacock's lovely poem about the shoulders of women, a sonnet as it turned out. I read it first in Raw Heaven, and liked it still more when I read it again in her Cornucopia: New and selected poems.
The Shoulders of Women
The shoulders of women are shallow, narrow,
and thin compared to the shoulders of men,
surprisingly thin, like the young pharaohs
whose shoulders in stick figures are written
on stones, or bony as the short gold wings
of cranes on oriental screens. Lord, how
surprising to embrace the shortened stirrings
of many bones in their sockets above breasts! Now
what I expect, since I’ve long embraced men,
is the flesh of the shoulder and the cave
of the chest and I get neither—we’re so small.
Unwittingly frail and unknowing and brave
like cranes and young kings, the shoulders of women
turn to surprise and surprise me again with all
their gestures of renewal and recall.
A 15-line sonnet, with a turn after the octave, and a concluding couplet. I like to think the additional line makes this a bony sonnet.
The sonnet, in Cornucopia, is a subset of the dominant form. Most of the poems are written in one block, rhyming ababcdcd etc. When I first encountered this, I was excited about a poet's discovery of a flexible personal form in which to communicate a range of experience. But even during that first reading, I felt relieved when Peacock broke out of that mould to write longer and more varied poems. Sometimes the mould just does not fit the experience, and, when the experience is pressed into the mould, it sticks out in awkward enjambment and rhyme.
The problem is not merely one of craft, I think, for Peacock's craft is evident and subtle. The problem seems to lie in the identification of a particular poetic form as one's signature style. After a while, the form feels less like a map and more like a manner. The same feeling came to me when I was reading Kay Ryan's poems in POETRY, a while back. Having enjoyed The Niagara River, especially her deft handling of short line and sly rhymes, I was disappointed when I came upon the same lyric form in the POETRY poems. To individuate oneself by implementing an individual style (here, most concretely, in a poetic form): such an undertaking looks too limiting to me, and speaks too solemnly. It is missing the wit that, for me, characterizes the use of poetic form. Wit acknowledges that, great though poetry is, greater are we and the world.
Peacock and Ryan have distinguished poetic forebears in this drive to individuate one's style, most obviously, Whitman and Dickinson. Whitman was path-breaking, but often I don't want to follow him down the long and winding path of his lists; I get bored. Dickinson stuck to the hymn stanza, and made many great poems, and many not-so-great ones. Her ellipses, dashes and gaps can be read as ways of overcoming the limitations of using the same form: they punch a hole in the wall to look out into eternity; they crack the floorboard holding up the poem; but they also risk the shock of, not electricity, but eccentricity.
When I think of the English poets who use the same poetic form for at least a stretch of their career, the form is not individual, but of an age. Pope and the heroic couplet. Shakespeare and the sonnet. The English poets who migrated to America also did not feel the compulsion to individuate their style by means of a particular poetic form. Auden and Gunn used traditional forms but did not make any one a signature. The signature cannot be in a form--I can forge my own signature by copying it on tracing paper--but in the spirit animating each time I sign off.