February 23, 2020

Existentialist, Karl Jaspers: A Quote

“To decide to become a philosopher seemed as foolish to me as to decide to become a poet.”


Karl Theodor Jaspers (1883 – 1969)

Born 137 years ago on this day, I first came to know Jaspers after having read his cross analysis of Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, and Jesus. I remember delighting in the fact that he was a sort of existential psychologist, and one who was willing to embrace theological considerations within his philosophical worldview.

Jaspers helped reinforced in me the idea that existentialism was by no means the philosophical endeavor of atheists (a claim latently implied by some of the French existentialists); and that, as Aristotle might say, it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.

February 22, 2020

Hope's Epoch


Hope’s Epoch

How amazing to me the dawning light
Gilding with rosy flames the purple clouds
As His children below head out in crowds
To front another day with renewed might.
Fairer still, there below that amber height,
My varied kin wandering to and fro,
Blessed with many joys but besieged by woe:
These I love who conquer their daily plight …

These people my brothers and sisters are,
Whether known or unknown, or near or far.
May our common enemy, hate and fear,
Slip into oblivion’s lasting state
Til alas we with love will deem each dear,
And finally take hold of a noble fate.

-jwm


Of the Poem

Inspired by the poet Edward Robeson Taylor, and the many beautiful sonnets of his that I have recently come to know and appreciate (his classical style is for me refreshing beyond expression), I thought that I might humbly attempt one myself.

To my regret, I believe I may have written no more than a handful of sonnets over the last decade, and of these the poetic form that I chose was that of an English sonnet—otherwise known as a Shakespearean sonnet.

Taylor, who arduously experimented with the sonnet form, seems to have favored the Petrarchan model as typified by the French poets—a form whose poetic parameters seem to have been largely overlooked here in the United States. If you are visiting this page and have any interest, there is a recent article I posted which talks about the unique parameters of a French sonnet (other major sonnet forms are also highlighted there).

Inasmuch as my attempt at a French sonnet was concerned, and the subject of it, I initially began the first half of the octave praising the beauty of the sunrise as it occurs in my hometown of Aurora, Colorado. The second half of the octave was supposed to elaborate on the grunginess and beauty and diversity of the people of Aurora—all of whom I love and wanted to boast about.

My initial endeavor was to personify Aurora as a sort of mother’s beauty brooding carefully over her children as a new and renewed day approached them.

How amazing to me your dawning light,
Gilding with rosy flames the the purple clouds,
As your children below head out in crowds
To front another day with renewed might …

… children “bedeviled about by so many cares” and just desiring happiness. But the poem took a turn as a result of other things I was studying.

I was reading a powerful poem written by Jamaican poet, Claude McKay. The poem, which is a sonnet and a must needs read, is called If We Must Die. It is a poem about brutal oppression, the inability to tolerate it anymore, and an invocation to fight violently against it. The poem was essentially a response to a series of violent races riots that occurred in 1919, a period known historically as the Red Summer.

After having read about these terrible events a sort of hopelessness and grief lingered with me, a sadness within me that we humans have it in us to be so hateful—murderously hateful—toward one another. It never seems to end, and when I begin to believe that humanity is progressing toward some higher goodness, invariably it seems that some next-level, monumental evil comes in and eclipses that hope. Still, I had to remind myself, if any of us wants to see change we cannot stop hoping for it, and the only way of effecting change is to change ourselves.

It was on this thinking that I began to edit the octave of the poem I began about my hometown and the diversity of its people, and began to ‘universalize’ it. I had the poem open with a new day, a new dawning light as the world (His children) sets out to face and make something of it.

Note the human condition as laid out in the octave: ‘fronting existence’, wandering to and fro (as if lost), besieged by woe, and yet still having within ourselves many joys. Note also how the narrator deems the diversity of the human race (my varied kin) as more beautiful (fairer still) than even that of the dawning morning sky—he especially has love for those who endeavor to overcome their plight (i.e. the human condition).

In a French sonnet the volta or turn in the poem occurs in lines 9 and 10 where a rhyming couplet is employed. In the case of this poem, the volta is an open acknowledgement that all people, whether known or unknown, are as close family to the narrator, and that this perspective must be held if effective and meaningful change is to occur in the world (as the following lines indicate).

The quatrain which then follows concludes with the idea that the enemy we face is not one another, it is xenophobia (fear) and prejudice (hate), and that these must of necessity be lifted if there is to be any hope for humanity. Indeed, the narrator suggests, it is only by banishing these in ourselves that one can even engender the kind of disposition that can love others as if they were our closest kin and family.

Imagine if this were the general disposition or creed of the American population of 1919, one could hardly imagine that the race-hating atrocities which occurred that year would have happened as it did, or at least not to the scale that it did. Imagine, what if this were the general disposition of people globally? What a difference it would make … we might even be able to change our fate.

If you are visiting this page and read this article, I would love to know your thoughts. How did you come to find interest in poetry? Have you written a French sonnet (or any other sonnet types)? How do you like the poem posted in this particular post? Any views on xenophobia and/or prejudice that you might have seen? If you are from another country, what kind of racial issues occur where you are from, and what solutions are being employed there to reduce it? I could go on and on. Nevertheless, I would love to hear from you. Thanks for stopping by.

February 15, 2020

A Poetic Fragment by Lt. Commander Data: A Sunset Bloom


The last two stanzas of a poem written by Lieutenant Commander Data (2338 – 2379), from Star Trek (The Next Generation): Schisms, Season 6 Episode 5

A SUNSET BLOOM

Then we sat on the sand for some time and observed
How the oceans that cover the world were perturbed
By the tides from the orbiting moon overhead
"How relaxing the sound of the waves is," you said.

I began to expound upon tidal effects
When you asked me to stop, looking somewhat perplexed
So I did not explain why the sunset turns red
And we watched the occurrence in silence instead.


Of the Poem

Stanza Type: Quatrain 

Meter: Anapestic tetrameter (i.e. four sets of "two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed" one per line)

Rhyme scheme: aabb ccdd 

Composition: Stardate 46154.2

It is said that, in reality, the poem was written by the visual effects artist of Star Trek (The Next Generation), Clay Dale. Others believe that it was written by Star Trek producer and writer of the above episode, Brannon Braga. Whoever wrote these stanzas, my hat is off to you. Very enjoyable read, and I especially enjoyed hearing Data read them on that episode. I only wish that I could have read the poem in its entirety, or heard the Lieutenant read it.

If you would like to hear Data recite a poem in full, Ode to Spot, click on the link and check out a post I did some years ago.

February 09, 2020

A Widely Unacknowledged Sonnet Form


Intro: A Touch of Astonishment After having read a significant number of poems written by poet and sonneteer, Edward Robeson Taylor, I began to see that of the many varieties of his sonnets, there was one in particular that he was employing which I had not been aware of (at least not as a sonnet); a form that seems to have gone by either unnoticed, neglected, or unacknowledged—at least here in the U.S. I felt somewhat ashamed that I had been unaware of this sonnet form, and was equally disappointed that, upon searching the internet for various sonnet types and their structures, this particular one had been overlooked. Turns out that, equally overlooked, Edward Robeson Taylor seems to have been the only American poet who actively utilized this form to express rich and mesmerizing poetic ideas—and did so prolifically.  But how can this be? How is it that I have never heard of Taylor spoken of in mainstream poetic circles? How have hundreds and hundreds of classically themed poems written by this man gone unnoticed by the American literary community for over 122 years? Astonishment is the only emotion that seizes me when I consider these questions. This oversight seems impossible to me, and yet not a single soul I know has heard of this master poet.  I briefly mentioned this unacknowledged sonnet form in a post I did on one of Taylor's poems, Ulysses and Calypso. I intend to post more about Taylor and his works, but first, in this post, let us talk briefly about sonnets, and perhaps rediscover a sonnet form that has been overlooked for far too long. Sonnet Types First, a few things about sonnets. All sonnets have 14 lines. Their metrical structures are typically that of an iambic pentameter (i.e. ten stressed and unstressed syllables per line). Sonnets usually have a sudden shift or turn in their subject or story. This shift or turn is called a volta, and usually occurs toward the midsection or end of a sonnet depending on the type. To the popular understanding, there are four primary sonnet forms (others might include more, and that is totally fine). It is important to know, however, that what primarily makes sonnet forms different from one another is the rhyme scheme they employ—the Miltonian sonnet being the exception. Let us, therefore, list below these particular types along with their particular rhyme schemes and other devices. Petrarchan or Italian Sonnet
The name ‘sonnet’ comes from the Italian word sonetto, meaning ‘little song’. The oldest known sonnet form, to my knowledge, emerged around the thirteenth-century within the Sicilian School of poetry headed by Giacomo da LentiniThe form seems to have been standardized by the time Tuscan poet, Guittone d'Arezzo (1235 – 1294), adopted it. The sonnet would eventually be named after the famous fourteenth-century Italian poet, Francesco Petrarch, who mastered the form with great beauty and eloquence.  A Petrarchan sonnet, also called an Italian sonnet, consists primarily of an octave (i.e. an eight-lined stanza written in iambic pentameter, sometimes called and octet) coupled with a sestet (i.e. a six-lined stanza likewise written in iambic pentameter).

An Italian quatrain consists of a closed rhyme scheme of abba. That is, the end-rhymes of a given quatrain might look like this:

O joyous, blossoming, ever-blessed flowers!
‘Mid which my pensive queen her footstep sets;
O plain, that hold’st her words for amulets
And keep’st her footsteps in thy leafy bowers!

In a Petrarchan sonnet the octave consists of two Italian quatrains combined: abbaabba. So, therefore, it might look like this:

O joyous, blossoming, ever-blessed flowers!

‘Mid which my pensive queen her footstep sets;
O plain, that hold’st her words for amulets
And keep’st her footsteps in thy leafy bowers!
O trees, with earliest green of springtime hours,
And all spring’s pale and tender violets!
O grove, so dark the proud sun only lets
His blithe rays gild the outskirts of thy towers!


This is what the octave of one of Petrarch’s sonnets looks like, as translated by Thomas Wentworth Higginson. The octave usually represented the ‘proposition’ of a given subject, while the sestet represented the ‘response’ to it. 

One might say that a sestet is a combination of two tercets—a tercet being a three-lined stanza. I suppose this is fine. However, it should be noted that in an Italian sonnet the rhyme scheme of a sestet often varied. That is to say, it could be cde cde or cdc dcd, or perhaps some other combination. In the sonnet we are using, Higginson translates the original poem’s rhyme scheme: cdcdcd.

O pleasant country-side! O limpid stream,
That mirrorest her sweet face, her eyes so clear,
And of their living light canst catch the beam!
I envy thee her presence pure and dear.
There is no rock so senseless but I deem
It burns with passion that to mine is near.
And so, in this example, a Petrarchan sonnet will have a rhyme scheme corresponding to the following: abbaabbacdcdcd. Shakespearean or English Sonnet
By the sixteenth-century, the sonnet, as typified by Petrarch, was introduced to England by both Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey
The most popular and most recognizable sonnet form in English was developed by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, but was popularized by William Shakespeare and named after him. 
Following the basic parameters of a sonnet (14 lines, iambic pentameter, a volta), a Shakespearean sonnet differs from a Petrarchan sonnet in that it combines three quatrains for the body of its story and concludes, often quite dramatically, with a rhyming couplet.
The parts of a Shakespearean sonnet would therefore look like this: abab cdcd efef gg (example below).
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm'd;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

I have always loved Shakespeare’s use of the couplet, especially in his plays! Powerful device.
It should be noted that, although this sonnet form was made popular by Shakespeare, of his 154 sonnets, there are a few that do not correspond to his standard sonnet structure. For example, sonnet 99 opens with a quintain, and only then is followed by two quatrains and a rhyming couplet—15 rather than 14 lines. Sonnet 126 is written in iambic pentameter, but consists of six couplets and is only 12 lines long. Sonnet 145 is a strange creature: three quatrains and a rhyming couplet (14 lines), but all written in iambic tetrameter.
All this tells me is that Shakespeare, like any true artist, was experimenting with various forms while refining his own style. Spenserian Sonnet
Edmund Spenser (1552–1599) created a sonnet style that is an interesting variant on Shakespeare’s. It shares the common parameters: 14 lines, iambic pentameter, and a volta. Like Shakespeare’s sonnet, Spenserian sonnets have three quatrains and a concluding rhyming couplet. But as was said before, what makes sonnet types different are their rhyme schemes.

Spenser’s sonnets have an interlocking rhyme scheme, where the last end-rhyme of the first two quatrains carries over into the following stanza: abab bcbc cdcd, so that the rhyme scheme of the quatrains looks like this:

One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washed it away:
Again I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.
"Vain man," said she, "that dost in vain assay,
A mortal thing so to immortalize;
For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eke my name be wiped out likewise."
"Not so," (quod I) "let baser things devise
To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:
My verse your vertues rare shall eternize,
And in the heavens write your glorious name:
And then, of course, the concluding couplet:

Where whenas death shall all the world subdue,
Our love shall live, and later life renew."

Miltonic Sonnet

In the seventeenth-century, John Milton wrote Paradise Lost, a wonderful epic poem written entirely in blank verse—that is, verse written in iambic pentameter and having no end-rhymes. One of the primary poetic devices used when writing blank verse is enjambment. Milton hands down perfected the use of enjambment.

In poetry, enjambment occurs when a sentence in a line of poetry continues unimpeded by the end-rhyme (if the poem rhymes) while adhering to regular syntax. Often, when the sentence terminates or resolves, it does so in the center of the following line rather than comfortably at the end. The next sentence then picks up where the previous one ended, and so on. An example, written in blank verse (iambic pentameter, no end-rhymes), can be taken from Shakespeare’s, The Winter's Tale.

I am not prone to weeping, as our sex
Commonly are; the want of which vain dew
Perchance shall dry your pities; but I have
That honourable grief lodged here which burns
Worse than tears drown.

Note how the sentences carry over to the following line without any ‘poetic regard’ for the end-point of each line. Also, highlighted in blue, note how the sentences pause or resolve ‘within’ each line. This is what an enjambed line of poetry looks like.

Now, back to Milton.

Milton adopts Petrarch's sonnet form: an octave (abbaabba) combined with a sestet (cdecde), but what he adds to it is a heavily enjambed sonnet. Note how Milton employs this technique throughout one of his most famous poems.

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg'd with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait."

So, three things. Note the Petrarchan rhyme scheme (in highlights). Note how the sentences often carry over to the following line without terminating on or yielding to the end-rhymes (I count nine times). And finally, note how the enjambed end-points occur almost unpredictably within some of the lines throughout the poem (all underlined).


Terza Rima Sonnet


Some have considered Robert Frost's poem, Aquainted With the Night, to be a sonnet form. I suppose it could be. Did Frost claim it to be? It consists of four terza rimas (three-lined stanzas) with a concluding rhymed couplet (14 lines). The rhyme scheme is laid out like this: aba bcb cdc dad aa. Each stanza is interlocked with the following stanza until, at line 11, the initial rhyme of lines 1 and 3 are taken up again and form the basis of the concluding couplet’s rhyme. Here it is, what do you think?

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.


The Unacknowledged French Sonnet

Given the structure and parameters of the sonnets we reviewed above, it would seem that there are at least four intrinsic properties that every sonnet, in the traditional sense of the word, have:

1. A total of 14 lines (no more and no less, despite other claims)
2. A metrical structure based on an iambic pentameter
3. A given rhyme scheme
4. And finally, a punctuated shift or turn within the poem—that is to say, a volta that is usually connected to the aforementioned rhyme scheme

A brief note on the volta. One could argue that almost every poem contains, to a greater or lesser degree, a shift within it that alters the directional mood of it. To call what seems normal for most poems an intrinsic feature for a sonnet seems a little overkill. Still, the way the octave and sestet intermingle in a Petrarchan sonnet, and the way that the three quatrains and concluding couplet ‘speak with each other’ in a Shakespearean sonnet, almost necessitates a shift.

In a Petrarchan sonnet, for example, the transition from octave to sestet is a transition in tempo. One finds it hard to believe that, superimposing a subject onto that tempo, there would not be a change there as well. We would be hard pressed to find a sonnet unaffected by a palpable shift in both tempo and subject.

Now, as early as the sixteenth-century, French writers began appropriating the sonnet structure as it was laid out by Petrarch. The oldest dated French sonnet was written by Clément Marot between June and July of 1536.

This appropriation of the Petrarchan form took an interesting turn in French hands. They kept Petrarch’s opening octave, but made a significant change to his sestet. Rather than using a variant of cde cde as is customary with Petrarch’s sestet, the French poets used a rhyming couplet (cc) and followed this by one of two quatrains whose primary rhyme variants were:

deed
dede

For example, we can see the Petrarchan octave at play in the opening of Pierre de Ronsard’s poem, His Lady’s Tomb (as translated by Andrew Lang):

As in the gardens, all through May, the rose,
Lovely, and young, and fair appareled,
Makes sunrise jealous of her rosy red,
When dawn upon the dew of dawning glows;
Graces and Loves within her breast repose,
The woods are faint with the sweet odor shed,
Till rains and heavy suns have smitted dead
The languid flower, and the loose leaves unclose,—

The octave of the French sonnet is then followed by a rhyming couplet which constitutes the poem’s volta (below):

So this, the perfect beauty of our days,
When earth and heaven were vocal of her praise,

This fundamentally changed the rhythmic tempo of the poem so that the volta, beginning at line 9, is much more punctuated by the double-barreled rhyming couplet. The power of the couplet to do this—to mark a shift or palpable turn—can be easily seen in the English sonnet. The couplet’s power to do this is so much so that Shakespeare even used them to conclude passages that were entirely composed of blank verse:

                                  “The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil: and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me: I'll have grounds
More relative than this: the play 's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.”

—Hamlet Act 2 Scene 2

Following the couplet in the French sonnet, two primary quatrain types help to either rapidly descend on the poem’s conclusion (dede), or to softly alight thereupon (deed). The first has a sort of boxing tempo to it: ‘right, left, right, left’; the second almost seems to contemplatively slow down, mimicking the broad rhythmic gaps of the octave’s combined quatrains. If you think about it, the design is pretty clever and user-friendly: a subject platform expressed through an octave (abbaabba) that abruptly transitions with a couplet (cc), this followed by a quatrain which the poet can use to speed the poem’s subject to its conclusion (dede), or to slow it down (deed). Pierre de Ronsard’s poem concludes with the latter:

The fates have slain, and her sweet soul reposes;
And tears I bring, and sighs, and on her tomb
Pour milk, and scatter buds of many a bloom,
That dead, as living, she may be with roses.

And so the rhyme scheme of Ronsard’s sonnet would follow this pattern: abbaabbaccdeed.

Some have argued that the English sonnet may have in fact been influenced by the French rather than the Petrarchan model. We know for certain the Wyatt and the Earl of Surrey translated French sonnets, including those of Ronsard’s. Indeed, it only takes placing the couplet at the end of a French sonnet, and then converting the octave into two standalone quatrains with their own rhyme schemes, before you have a English sonnet. One wonders, if the English sonnet was influenced by Petrarch, where did the use of the couplet come from?

I wish I could say that I was fluent in the French language, that would of course be untrue. I have no idea how popular a form the French model of the sonnet currently is in France, but I do know that from Clément Marot to the Parnassian poets of the nineteenth-century, this sonnet form was employed frequently in that country.

An internet search for ‘sonnet forms’ almost never mentions the French model. Is it perhaps because of a language barrier that the English speaking world is cut off from the use of the French sonnet? This would make little sense to me. One could argue that that form is easier to employ in the French language, and is a difficult one to achieve in English. I would have to deny that claim as well.

American poet Edward Robeson Taylor is the only English speaking poet that I am aware of who used the French model with prolific frequency and with remarkable talent. Others, like Dante Rossetti for example, have employed this model as well, but hardly to the degree we find in Taylor’s.
An example of the French form may be seen in one of my favorite poems of Taylor’s, Gethsemane (note the rhyme pattern and how the volta functions within the poem).

Gethsemane

Thou Mount of Olives, what a crown is thine,
In splendor growing since that night when He,
Within thy lonely, gloomed Gethsemane,
Besought His Father’s will in prayer divine.
The bitter cup, Renunciation’s wine
Would fill to brimming at the fatal tree,
He nerved His soul to drain, nor cared to see
Aught but the fulgence of heavenly sign . . . .
O Lord, on this thy crucifixion’s day,
At thy pierced feet in humbleness we pray
That we our own Gethsemanes may bear;
That thy great message we may newly scan,
And in the bosom of thy boundless care
Learn what it is to love our fellow-man.

Such a beautiful poem. Notice how the ellipsis in line 8 anticipates the volta of line 9? If you scroll back up to Ronsard’s poem you will see an em dash functions the same way. And note also how in line 9 the poem goes from the octave’s contemplation of that Gethsemane night to a direct prayer and appeal to the Lord? Conclusion: An Appeal The French sonnet is a wonderful poetic form to play with. I mentioned this before, but Taylor has written hundreds of these, and the diversity of poetic ideas capable of being expressed through this form is inexhaustible. It would be a terrible shame, at least here in America, to allow this sonnet form to disappear into oblivion. An internet search for the diverse types of sonnets should easily include the French form as one of the primary forms that exist, and English writers would do it justice to employ it in a few of their own works—I certainly have and intend to more.
Moreover, the French sonnet ought also to be formally named. Petrarch was not the inventor of the Italian sonnet that bears his name, nor is the English sonnet the creation of Shakespeare’s for whom it is named. We may not know for absolute certain who wrote the first French sonnet, but it would be a memorial to France and her people if the French sonnet form bore the name of one of their own. What do you think?

The Poets

As of April 9th, 2010