Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Influence of Satire in Renaissance Pastoral Poetry

To today’s reader, Pastoral poetry and theatrical works from the English Renaissance may remind us more of fairy tales and fables than pieces of great literature. The plays and poetry from this period are often relegated to the world of kitsch alongside porcelain shepherd and shepherdess salt and pepper shakers or the mediocre oil paintings of impossibly idealized bucolic country sides, second cousins to oil-on-velvet paintings of sad clowns and Elvis Presley. At first glance, the pastoral’s ruffle-clad shepherdesses and pan-flute-playing shepherds generally fail to garner much of our literary respect or stir much of our interest, however “first glance” may not be a close enough inspection of this particular genre. These seemingly quaint fables are not in fact what they at first seem. The very fact pastorals occupied some of the greatest poetic minds of the Renaissance should, but doesn’t always, imply the form at one time spoke to something deeper and more substantial than a pan flute, courtly shepherd, or velvet Elvis ever could.
But the Renaissance pastoral might be better understood within a context of the rich and more widely embraced literary traditions which preceded it. If we give the form its proper place in the history and evolution of literature, the pastoral seems less an enigma and more a continuation of the rich satirical tradition of Medieval and Early Renaissance writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and Thomas More. Before the pastoral gained widespread popularity, satire was already an established staple in Medieval and Renaissance literature. Satirical poetry is believed to have been popular in England as early as Chaucer’s time although little has survived. “The Canterbury Tales” served as Chaucer’s platform to satire blind religion and the thoughtless bigotry of his day. When viewed as a continuation of the satirical tradition the pastoral poem may be greater appreciated for its sense of wit, style and daring.
Pastoral literature is in some ways synonymous with utopian literature, and from its inception utopian literature has been a stronghold for the imaginative use of satire. In his Utopia (1516), Thomas More criticized the religious and political views of his contemporaries by obscuring his true intentions through the use of satire. Modern readers have come to understand a “utopia” as a paradise, a world built on higher ideals where the lamb lays down with the lion. As such, it would be natural to assume that in this book More had explained his designs for a more perfect world, with his own religious, political, and moral beliefs fulfilled. But in fact, the word “utopia” (which was coined by More himself from Latin) would be literally translated as “no place”. By calling his dreamland “Utopia” More is betraying his story, showing it is a made up tale; he is literally calling it a place which does not, and presumably cannot, exist. He further betrays his true view by the names he assigns to various characters and places within the story.
Thomas More wrote his “Utopia” as a satire on his contemporaries’ religious and political thoughts. The positive light given to religious, political and philosophical ideas diametrically opposed to those of the author, the presence of ridiculous wordplay in the names, titles and locations within the piece, and the pseudo Renaissance-humanist air given by setting the work in Latin, all reveal More’s satiric intent.
The Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines satire as:
“A literary composition, in verse or prose, in which human folly and vice are held up to scorn, derision, or ridicule, satirical writing or drama often scorns such folly by pretending to approve of values which are the diametric opposite of what the satirist actually wishes to promote.”

Some of the Renaissance’s greatest writers drew upon the satirical traditions of their predecessors while approaching the pastoral. In “Arte of English Poesie” George Puttenham argues the pastoral is a literary form especially designed "not of purpose to counterfait or represent the rusticall manner of loves and communication: but under the vaile of homely persons, and in rude speeches to insinuate and glaunce at greater matters, and such as perchance had not bene safe to have beene disclosed in any other sort." Strand and Boland note how the pastoral spoke to poets of the Renaissance period and their “deep European unease about power, urbanization, and the demands made for a new centralization”, citing the pastoral as “one of the true intellectual engines of [Elizabethan] poetry”.
One central feature of the influential Renaissance humanism movement was a commitment to study the primary sources of the best writing from ancient Greece and Rome. This commitment was summarized in the Renaissance humanists’ motto “ad fontes”, which means “to the sources”. Renaissance humanists glorified the ancient civilizations and sought to both imitate and recreate the ideals of ancient literature. From this aim, the Renaissance pastoral emerged as a direct descendant of works by the Greek writer Theocritus, who may have drawn on authentic folk traditions of Sicilian shepherds. His bucolic poetry represented the life of Sicilian shepherds living in an idealized natural setting reminiscent of the Golden age of Greek mythology, the highest in the Greek spectrum of Iron, Bronze, Silver, and Golden ages. Theocritus’ shepherds lived in a time of peace and stability. He wrote in the Doric dialect but in dactylic hexameter, which had previously been associated with the Greek’s most prestigious poetic form, epic poetry. This melding of simplicity and sophistication would later play a major role in the history of pastoral verse in the hands of Renaissance writers. The devices of these early pastorals were later adopted by the Roman poet Virgil, who adapted the genre into Latin with his “Eclogues”. Virgil wrote about a more idyllic vision of rural life than Theocritus had done and was the first to set his poems in Arcadia. Arcadia, although an actual location, became highly idealized within the realms of literature and developed into the most popular location for ancient pastorals. Virgil introduced elements of political allegory into the pastoral, implementing the practice of exploiting the pastoral form to make clandestine insinuations about contemporary problems. Virgil’s “Eclogues” contained a blend of visionary politics and eroticism, and his work was met with popular success in the Roman theatre, catapulting Virgil into fame and establishing him as a celebrity and a legend among his contemporaries.
First in Latin with the work of Petrarch, Pontano and Mantuan, and then in Italian vernacular with the works of Boiardo, Italian poets led the way in a 14th Century revival of pastoral form. The pastoral became fashionable throughout Renaissance Europe. Because of the satire’s popularity in England during Medieval and Early Renaissance times the pastoral’s appearance there carried a new satirical bent. In 1579 Virgil's “Eclogues” inspired Edmund Spenser's “The Shepheardes Calendar” (a series of twelve eclogues, one for each calendar month) and ushered the pastoral form further into fashion. But Spenser’s creation was more than just a collection of colloquialisms. A study by Robert Lane interprets “The Shepheardes Calender” as criticism of the Elizabethan hierarchy and how society exploited and neglected society's underprivileged. According to Lane, “The Shepheardes Calender” undermines the courtly role assigned to Elizabethan poetry and capitalized on such pop culture mainstays as woodcuts, proverbs, fables and the calendar format to further
drive its point home.
Renaissance writers such as poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe contributed to the pastoral’s evolution. Marlowe made the pastoral his own by introducing exaggerated imagery and sexuality to the form. Shepherds in the pastorals of Theocritus and Virgil had expressed love as a deep longing without sexuality, but in his pastoral poem “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” Marlowe’s shepherd asks a woman to share an idealized romantic relationship. However, the shepherd’s proposal is actually more ridiculous than idyllic, possibly indicating Marlowe’s intent to satirize the traditional pastoral form. The shepherd offers his love:
“Fair-lined slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold . . .”

While a pretty promise, these and other claims in this poem are far from anything an actual shepherd could afford to bestow upon anyone. The poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard had previously utilized the country life as a refuge for rejected suitors, but Marlowe’s shepherd is not concerned about rejection or whether his social or financial status is acceptable to the girl; his only concern is the desire for immediate pleasure:
“And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me and be my Love."

William Shakespeare used the pastoral form to explore the realms of political and social commentary. Shakespeare frequently exploited poetic form and theatrical convention to provide a vehicle for his legendary wit, so it may be safe to assume his use of the pastoral was also intended to “glaunce at greater matters”. He made frequent use of the pastoral both through brief examples within plays and as the framework for complete works. His poem “When icicles hang by the wall” from the play “Love’s Labor’s Lost” may at first glance appear quaint. In this piece the country folk go about their daily work, subjected to the harsh and cold winter. They carry firewood into the hall, watch the sheep, milk the cows, all the while dealing with the bitter cold. But the owl represents more than a common bird; Shakespeare’s owl represents the wealthy of society who watch over the poor, oblivious of the plight and singing a “merry note”.
It is no stretch to assume Shakespeare’s owl played an allegorical role in this pastoral. Shakespeare frequently used the owl for similar purposes. A blog post entitled “The Birds of Shakespeare” points makes several observations about the bard’s use of the owl (
For example, as Lady Macbeth prepares to murder the king she is startled by the shriek of an owl:
“Hark! - Peace!
It was the owl that shriek’d, the fatal bellman
Which gives the stern’st good-night.” [Macbeth - II, 2]

Prior to the assassination of Julius Caesar an owl was reported:
“The bird of night did sit,
Even at noon-day, upon the market-place
Hooting and shrieking.” [Julius Caesar - I, 3]

Further, in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” Puck says of the owl:
“Now the wasted brands do glow,
Whilst the screech-owl, screeching loud,
Puts the wretch that lies in woe
In remembrance of a shroud.” [A Midsummer Night's Dream - V, 1]

Since Shakespeare often associated the owl with death, its use here may very likely represent the pending death of such rustics as cataloged within the poem. Also noteworthy is the owl’s disregard for their situations throughout this poem, singing his merry song in spite of their toil. Given the satirical tendencies of the Renaissance pastorals, the owl could easily represent the wealthy officials who go about their merry way oblivious of the common man’s trials.
Shakespeare drew from existing pastoral literature for the subject matter in "As You Like It", specifically Lodge's pastoral romance, "Rosalynde". The play's Phebe and Silvius appear in Lodge's novel, but are stock pastoral figures as well. Within the classical pastoral, conventional shepherds and shepherdesses had occurred in pairs with names like Phoebe and Silvius or the alternate Phoebus and Silvia. In these traditional roles, the shepherd is lovelorn while the shepherdess is disdainful. The lovelorn shepherd laments the loss or disdain of his lady, either in solo lyric or eclogue (a dialogue between shepherds about the simple life). In “As You Like It” Silvius complains to Corin about his love’s rejection and the lovelorn Orlando hangs lyrics about his own love from all the tree branches. Again true to the classic pastoral form, Phebe supplies the customary elegy for a dead shepherd by quoting Marlowe:
“Dead shepherd, now I find thy saw of might,
‘Who ever lov’d that lov’d not at first sight?’”

As a departure from the pastoral form, in "As You Like It" Shakespeare tempers the idyll of the sweetly picturesque pastoral scene with the adversity of the malcontented Jacques, as well as the unlikely pairing of Touchstone and Audrey, ensuring neither court life nor pastoral idyll is presented as either too sweet or too adverse. But most of all, Shakespeare tempers the pastoral with an injection of his customary wit and intelligence, riding on the shoulders of the public’s love for satire, to transform the pastoral into the world of social and political commentary. In the Arden Shakespeare edition of Shakespeare’s pastoral play “As You Like It”, editor Juliet Dusinberre comments:
"Social and political realities would not have been far from the minds of its first audiences in 1599, whether at court or in the public theatre. Beneath an impeccably sunny surface ‘As You Like It’ touches on troubled territories."

In the Arden Shakespeare edition, “As You Like It” is represented as a multi-layered chronicle of late English Renaissance culture and of all the various social and political conflicts marking the final decade of the sixteenth century. Dusinberre outlines how the play functions to “glaunce at greater matters”. She cites Jaques's indebtedness to the period’s vogue for satire and the faction-ridden politics occasioned by the Earl of Essex's career and his rivalry with Sir Robert Cecil.
In the real world, literature never springs forth fully developed like Venus in the half shell. The development of literary forms requires a complex process of evolution, with each step in that evolution entirely dependent upon what has come before. To remove a form such as the pastoral from its place within the context of history severely compromises our ability to understand that form at any particular stage of development. Ignoring the satire’s popularity in Medieval and Early Renaissance Europe may cause us to forget how the stage had been set when the pastoral rose to popularity in the 16th century.
Because the original Greek and Roman pastoral literature had presented an idealized bucolic countryside, its later appearance in Renaissance England could easily have been associated with the utopia of Thomas More. Following in the shadows of the popularity of such well-loved writers as Geoffrey Chaucer and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, the pastoral could naturally have leaned toward a satirical interpretation by Renaissance readers and audiences. Studying the works of Renaissance writers like Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare we can see compelling evidence that pastoral poetry and theatre of that period were viewed as vehicles for political and social commentary. With this in mind, and although the references may likely be obscured with the passing of time, interpretation of the pastoral poem enters a new realm of understanding. Instead of relegating these pieces to the world of kitsch and quaint, we may now be compelled to dig below the surface, blowing away the dust to uncover a treasure, and in doing so are likely to at least appreciate, if not enjoy, the wit of the pastoral form’s
most famous practitioners.
Works cited.
More, Thomas. Utopia. New York: Penquin Classics, 2003.
Pastoral in Shakespeare's Works: Introduction. Shakespearean Criticism. Ed. Michelle Lee. Vol. 89. Gale Cengage, 2005. 2006. 24 Jan, 2009 .
Shakespeare, William. The Arden Shakespeare As You Like It. Edited by Juliet Dusinberre. London: Thomson Learning, 2006.
Shepheards Devises: Edmund Spenser's 'Shepheardes Calendar' and the Institutions of Elizabethan Society. Renaissance Society of America, 1995. The Free Library. 2006. 24 Jan, 2009 .
Strand, Mark, and Eavan Boland. The Making of a Poem. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canturbury Tales. New York: Penquin Classics, 2003.
The Passionate Shepherd to His Love: Introduction. Poetry for Students. Ed. Marie Rose Napierkowski. Vol. 0. Detroit: Gale, 1998. January 2006. 31 January 2009. .
The Passionate Shepherd to His Love (Style). Notes on Poetry. Answers Corporation, 2006. 01 Feb. 2009. .

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Prose Poetry and Al Zolynas ' " Our Cat ' s Fascination With Water "

"Our Cat’s Fascination With Water" by Al Zolynas utilizes strong images to describe the established morning routine of the speaker and his cat. Reading it we detect the presence of metaphor, vivid imagery, as well as emotional and personal viewpoints. All these things are familiar elements of poetry, and yet the piece looks like prose. It could easily pass as a paragraph out of a longer piece of writing or an example of micro fiction.

Zolynas has told us a story. We picture him turning on the faucet for his cat’s entertainment and learn this has happened almost every morning for the last two years. The narrative covers the present and gives us a bit of history. To some extent there is even a plot; we can easily follow the sequence of events. These are all elements of narrative, but on the other hand the piece has the unmistakable feeling of poetry.

Some argue prose poetry is a poetic form, others see it as a type of prose which draws upon poetic elements. Still others view it as an entirely separate genre. In the first issue of The Prose Poem: An International Journal, editor Peter Johnson explained, "Just as black humor straddles the fine line between comedy and tragedy, so the prose poem plants one foot in prose, the other in poetry, both heels resting precariously on banana peels."

Prose poetry by its construction and nature invites a discussion on the definition of poetry. To be a poem, are short lines required? Do we need verses, stanzas, meter and all of poetry’s trappings before something poetic can take place? Where is the dividing line between prose and poetry, or can the two be melded together?

The prose poem is generally said to have emerged from France in the 19th century when the strict Alexandrine form dominated poetry. The form was adopted by the British Decadent movement in the late 19th century, but the Decadent’s association with homosexuality delayed the prose poem’s widespread acceptance in England.

Zolynas compares his cat's excited pupils to a black flame. The image of silver water is echoed in the mirror’s silver reflection, and we are compelled to compare the piece’s use of color. The chain of water which interests the cat every morning could easily represent something about life, or perhaps the thread of life itself. As the speaker narrates, watching and interpreting the cat's movements and reactions, there is a feeling of detachment as well. Like the omnipresent third party narrator, the speaker’s own image watches from within the mirror.

This third party in the mirror may shed some light on Zolynas' choice of form. While the images are clearly poetic, the presence of a third party who is watching and somehow involved in the narrative, brings the piece into the realm of prose. With this combination, neither fully poem or fully prose, the piece seems most at home balanced on banana peels in the precarious world of prose poetry.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Haiku Form in Anna Poplawska ' s " so many headstones "

so many headstones:
so many more blades
of grass

Anna Poplawska

In her article "Zen and the Art of Haiku", Anna Poplawska calls haiku "an expression of egolessness in which the poet turns outward to fully experience and capture the essence of being in a particular moment at a particular place".

However, the simple description of something ordinary can also go beyond capturing that particular place and moment and allow an object or event to transcend itself and represent something universal. Poplawska's "so many headstones" haiku seems to capture a thought which might pass through our minds while standing in a graveyard. There are so many headstones, but also there are so many more blades of grass. A contrast is drawn between the dead and the living. In twelve syllables, nine words, or three lines, Poplawska conveys a message of hope and comfort for those who might be grieving; yes, some have died and left us but look how many live and grow around us.

Like most contemporary English haiku, this piece stands in contrast to William Wordsworth's statement "Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility." (Preface to Lyrical Ballads, 1798) Poplawska's poem gives a more objective message, following ideals of the early 20th century imagists; this piece intensifies objective reality and largely avoids the poet's subjective observations. It follows haiku master Matsuo Basho's advice, "you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself, otherwise you impose yourself on the object, and do not learn."

Structurally, this piece does not follow the traditional haiku syllable count for each line. But as Poplawska points out in her article, shorter lines are typical of haiku written in English because an economy of images is required. English can often use fewer words to convey an idea than is possible in other languages, and strict adherence to the traditional syllable count might introduce too many images into the simple haiku format.

The colon after the first line could possibly be viewed as a form of the Japanese kireji, a category of words which are a requirement in traditional haiku. There is no equivalent of kireji in English, but may be represented by punctuation like a dash or ellipsis. The kireji may separate two contrasting ideas or simply provide a more finalized ending to a single line. At the end of the final phrase the kireji is intended to create a circular pattern, drawing the reader back to the beginning. In English the colon can be used to separate contrasting ideas, the part after the colon sometimes illuminating the part before. So Poplawska's use of the colon seems an appropriate equivalent to the kireji, even if it isn't in wide use among English poets.

This haiku is very relevant to me right now because I will be attending a funeral tomorrow. I can imagine standing in the graveyard and realizing that although death is all around me there is so much more life. I don't know if I will be able to share the wisdom of this poem with anyone, I don't want to sound trivial or insensitive. But I know the thought behind this poem will comfort me.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Shakespeare ' s Use of Pastorals

William Shakespeare made frequent use of the Pastoral, both through brief examples within works such as "Love's Labor's Lost" ("When icicles hang by the wall") or sustained examples like the play "As You Like It". Other plays by Shakespeare contain individual pastoral scenes, such as the bandits in "The Two Gentlemen of Verona". Each of these cases speak to the "deep European unease about power, urbanization, and the demands made for a new centralization" mentioned by Strand and Boland in "The Making of a Poem" (207).

While many of Shakespeare's more popular plays contain readily apparent themes which an audience can easily relate to, the pastorals seem more elusive, are less popular, and are produced less often. It is difficult to feel sympathy for a group of characters who find refuge in nature, such as in "As You Like It". "When icicles hang by the wall" at first glance seems similarly quaint, reminding me more of a fairy tale or fable than a piece of great literature. But there is the secret, rarely are these quaint fables actually what they seem.

In today's world, at least in America, we live in little or no fear when we ridicule the government or speak out against "progress". But the pastoral gave those less fortunate a venue to play with questions "which verged on a philosophical subversion of traditional religious themes in poetry" (Strand and Boland, 208).

With that in mind, possible interpretations for these plays and smaller pastorals like "When icicles hang by the wall" begin to open up. In this piece the country folk go about their daily work, subjected to the harsh and cold winter. They carry firewood into the hall, watch the sheep, milk the cows, all the while dealing with the bitter cold. But at the same time the owl watches them, singing his "merry note". A question comes to mind, who or what does the owl represent?

The owl appears frequently in Shakespeare. A blog post entitled "The Birds of Shakespeare" points makes several observations about the bard's use of the owl (

For example, as Lady Macbeth prepares to murder the king she is startled by the shriek of an owl:
"Hark! - Peace!
It was the owl that shriek'd, the fatal bellman
Which gives the stern'st good-night." [Macbeth - II, 2]
Also, prior to the assassination of Julius Caesar is was reported:
"The bird of night did sit,
Even at noon-day, upon the market-place
Hooting and shrieking." [Julius Caesar - I, 3]
Further, in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" Puck says:
"Now the wasted brands do glow,
Whilst the screech-owl, screeching loud,
Puts the wretch that lies in woe
In remembrance of a shroud." [A Midsummer Night's Dream - V, 1]
Since Shakespeare often associated the owl with death, its use in "When icicles hang . . . " may very likely represent the pending death of such rustics as listed in the piece. Also apparent is the owl's disregard for their situations, singing his merry song in spite of their toils.

Given the double-meaning of early pastorals, since Strand and Boland cite the pastoral as "one of the true intellectual engines of poetry" (207), the owl could easily represent the wealthy, the officials who go about their merry way oblivious of the common man's trials. Whatever the meaning, the use of such imagery within the seemingly-innocent pastoral is often overlooked and this misunderstanding of the form has contributed to the way many of us fail to take it too seriously.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Blank Verse in William Shakespeare ' s Plays

At various times throughout my life I have had the good fortune to view, participate in, and even direct plays by William Shakespeare (or whoever wrote them, but that's another topic entirely). These plays have a well known little problem, the language. Early on I thought I had this little problem licked; I decided to read the lines as though they were simply written in prose. In other words, run all the lines together. The rule I made was simple, if you did have to pause anywhere (since actors sometimes do have to breathe), do it anywhere but at the end of one of those lines of verse.

Unfortunately this technique saw me through the performance of a few different plays and the reading of several others.

But often as we get older we start to realize the original way of doing something might actually be the right way, so I studied how to "do verse" when an opportunity to direct "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" came my way.

What I learned about Shakespeare's iambic pentameter lines, also called "blank verse", revolutionized my understanding and appreciation of the form. The metered language isn't even supposed to sound like natural speech, it is heightened language, but here's the kicker, if you let the blank verse do its job and you simply go with the duh-Duh, duh-Duh, duh-Duh, duh-Duh, duh-Duh (or whatever the established pattern may be) the language is actually easier for the listener to understand. I'm not just talking about the meaning of the words, but actually being able to hear what the speaker is saying.

I've been to many performances of Shakespeare where the actors adopted my early methods and tried to speak "naturally". As the listener you're not only struggling with the language but you're also struggling to even understand what words are being spoken. Turns out iambic pentameter carries well through the theatre, much better than the typical blasts and burps of words we often hear at performances of Shakespeare.

Not only that, but if you know you have five feet in a line it's a great memory aid. For example, in "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" Proteus can hardly say anything without getting quite wordy. I don't know if I could have ever learned all his lines without an understanding of blank verse.

Antony's famous speech from Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" is written in blank verse, with five feet in each line (a foot is one duh-Duh). If you come across a line which seems to have more or less than five, you probably need to adjust your pronunciation. For example, "ambitious" is pronounced with four syllables and not three like we use today, and "interred" has three syllables as well. But if you allow the form to flow, without fighting the rhythms, not only is it easier to hear the lines, but you begin to hear Shakespeare's own acting directions, like which word is stressed and therefore important; often the stresses in a line can change or at least clarify the meaning.

The stress given to the word "ambitious" throughout the speech, both by the number of syllables and the frequency of repetition, is underscored by the rhythm. We see this is a speech about ambition, but not necessarily about the ambition of Caesar. Because it is stressed, and repeated, then followed by "Yet Brutus is an honorable man" we get the idea Antony might actually be saying Brutus was the ambitious one, and not Caesar.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Ballad Form in Emily Dickinson ' s Stanza " I died for Beauty - but was scarce "

Emily Dickinson's "I died for Beauty - but was scarce" is at first glance a "Stanza", however it borrows from the ballad form as well. Its place as a Stanza is secured by the isometric line lengths, although line lengths in a Stanza may be unequal as well, and by its ability to stand as a self contained entity. However, what Strand and Boland (The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms) refer to as "a suppressed narrative" tells a story with hidden levels, of two people whose similar actions in life have created a bond between them in death. This hidden narrative draws the stanza into the realm of the Ballad.

Like a traditional ballad, "I died for Beauty - " delivers its short story in four-line stanzas. Also borrowed from Ballad form is a first and third line in each stanza with four stresses in iambic tetrameter, followed by second and fourth lines with three stresses, or iambic trimeter. Typical of the Ballad, Dickinson's piece uses an "a-b-c-b" rhyme scheme. Also, its themes are among the favorite of balladeers, death and the supernatural. Although not necessarily a staple of the Ballad, Dickinson makes use of dashes instead of traditional punctuation, creating both a flow and additional rhythm.

So the question remains, "Why would Dickinson's piece be considered a Stanza and not a Ballad?" From a technical view, the piece could very well be called a Ballad. But Dickinson's story moves beyond the communal, folk story realm of the Ballad and becomes a macabre scene which speaks to our deeper fears and desires. It reminds us how every aspect of life, our identity, companionship, and even idealism will eventually end in death. Where the Ballad merely relays a story, perhaps the story behind "I died for Beauty - " is taken into waters too deep for the traditional balladeer.

The poem speaks of the futility of martyrdom, how life ended for a cause ultimately ends in both the martyr and the message being forgotten. In this poem two recently deceased souls exchange reasons for death. The narrator died for one ideal and the companion died for another, but the two ideals are related and for their similarity as well as the martyrdom, the companions share a kinsmanship.

In death, the two enjoyed their idealistic connection. In the parallel world outside their tombs it is possible both were remembered for their idealism and how they followed it to their graves. But in time the moss grew to cover up both their lips and their names, making the two of them both mute and forgotten. Although they had "talked between the rooms" for a time, and presumably enjoyed their unity in idealism for awhile, in time death brought an end to these things. In a similar way the message behind their deaths, along with even their names, were likely forgotten in time by the outside world.

It is possible Dickinson is referring to the idealism behind her own poetry. John Keats' "Ode to a Grecian Urn" had been written about 60 years before and Dickinson might be imagining herself buried next to Keats, who died before his poems became famous. If his idealism was for truth and hers for beauty, perhaps Dickinson believed both of them would be forgotten in time and their efforts would both have been futile.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Form Behind " Pantoum of the Great Depression " by Donald Justice


In "The Making of a Poem", authors Mark Strand and Eavan Boland call the pantoum, like the villanelle and sestina, "game-like forms that circle in on themselves, changing the event as they narrate it" (53). The pantoum requires repetition, as do the villanelle and sestina, but where the villanelle demands the frequent repetition of two particular lines and the sestina repeats six end-words in a pattern called "lexical repetition", the pantoum gives us a rolling pattern of repetition which results in a rhythm reminiscent of an incantation.

In "Pantoum of the Great Depression" by Donald Justice, these rolling patterns result in a feeling of forward movement, almost against our will. Each repetition digs to uncover yet another layer of meaning in the poem’s opening statement, "Our lives avoided tragedy simply by going on and on". Then after nine stanzas of four lines each Justice gives us a single-line stanza to complete the opening line's thought, "And there is no plot in that; it is devoid of poetry."

Justice adheres somewhat to the pantoum's structural constraints; the second and fourth lines of each stanza are dutifully repeated as the next stanza's first and third lines. However, the expected "a-b-a-b" rhyming pattern of each quatrain is ignored entirely. Justice for the most part ignored the rule that says the pantoum must begin and end with the same line, instead closing the final complete stanza with an expanded paraphrase of the poem's opening line. Justice used varying line lengths of varying rhythm throughout the piece, possibly to echo the varied and unordered events of life during the Great Depression.

Strand and Boland said Justice used the game-like pantoum form to create a feeling of irony against a powerful and menacing event. It also seems pairing this poetic form against America's Great Depression served to minimize this tragic event much like many of its survivors will downplay that tragedy in their lives. The fourth stanza says:

"At no time did anyone say anything in verse.
It was the ordinary pities and fears consumed us,
And if we suffered we kept quiet about it.
No audience would ever know our story."

A former student of Donald Justice, the poet and critic Tad Richards, said "Donald Justice is likely to be remembered as a poet who gave his age a quiet but compelling insight into loss and distance, and who set a standard for craftsmanship, attention to detail, and subtleties of rhythm." (Richards, Tad. "Donald Justice". Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Poets and Poetry. Greenwood Press, 2005.)

In this pantoum, the narrator's voice comes across as a stout survivor of the Great Depression, but as Richards found in Justice's writing in general, we do find some insight into the profound feeling of loss experienced by the narrator. The slow-moving incantation of the pantoum form, forced upon it by stringent repetition, creates a perfect marriage with how the text speaks about life plodding along without color or event.

"We gathered on porches; the moon rose; we were poor.
And time went by, drawn by slow horses.
Somewhere beyond our windows shone the world.
The Great Depression had entered our souls like fog."

It feels as though if not for the Depression the narrator believes life would have been a more colorful place. There was nothing said in verse. There was a fog in our souls. But we managed, "simply by going on and on".

Emapathy=Maturity in Zindel's "The Pigman"

In The Pigman , author Paul Zindel follows many expected tropes in young adult literature: coming of age, wild exploration, passion, etc. Ho...