Mike Snider's Formal Blog and Sonnetarium :
Poems, mostly metrical, and rants and raves on poetry and the po-biz.
Updated: 1/24/06; 10:22:03 PM.



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Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Several weeks ago Mary Agner sent me her fine chapbook in trade for my 44 Sonnets, and I've been more than remiss not to mention her work before now.

The beginning and ending poems of Ancient Alternatives are drawn from or reference the Classical tradition and are written in a variety of forms, from pentameter ("Ellen in Egypt") to free verse (the wonderful "Penelope Speaks") to unmetered rhymed couplets ("Warning"). All are deftly handled, but I'm particularly fond of the alliterative sequence "The Eightfold Year" at the center of the chap. I love the delicacy — so difficult to achieve in alliterative verse — of the opening lines from "Litha":

We depart in the dimness before dawn,
our picnic basket packed with asparagus, peaches,
bread, and cheese, bound for the beach,
the sunshine, golden as a strawberry seed,
reaching over the horizon. Our ritual …

Another favorite, "Middle Night," is an interpolation of lines from Sappho which mention the Pleiades, long very special to me for reasons I don't really understand. It's easy to see why the poem is special, even though the moon's apparent full trip across the sky in only half a night is, to my mind, a problem (italicized lines are from Mary Barnard's translation of Sappho):

I lean back to steady myself. The sky, older
than I, yet freshly crushed velvet. I watch the moon
rise, rub out the stars, pass overhead, pass
under into out-of-sight. Next, an oval, a cluster
of blurred light: the Pleiades.

The night is now half-gone, youth goes
with these sisters, hands decorated by callouses,
dark curls framing dark eyes, skin bronze
even in the blackness, arms linked
through another's, airy and smooth in embrace,
fire and tendon to those who pursue them.

The night is now half-gone, youth gone,
the sisters set. I am in bed alone.

Mary tells me she still has copies available. Get them all.

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Yesterday, in a state of astonishment that sonnets were favorably mentioned in an academic journal, I called David Bromwich's essay "American Sonnets" "pretty darned good." And, in fact there's much good there — but, as I was reminded on the New Poetry mailing list, there's no mention of Edna St. Vincent Millay, who wrote some of the best sonnets in English, including this one:

Oh, oh, you will be sorry for that word!
Give me back my book and take my kiss instead.
Was it my enemy or my friend I heard,
"What a big book for such a little head!"
Come, I will show you now my newest hat,
And you may watch me purse my mouth and prink!
Oh, I shall love you still, and all of that.
I never again shall tell you what I think.
I shall be sweet and crafty, soft and sly;
You will not catch me reading any more:
I shall be called a wife to pattern by;
And some day when you knock and push the door,
Some sane day, not too bright and not too stormy,
I shall be gone, and you may whistle for me.

It's a shame that only three of her sonnets and nine of her poems altogether (and only two poems from Elinor Wylie, neither one a sonnet) are included in the 4th edition of the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, edited by Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter, and Jon Stallworthy. That was the last reasonable edition: the current one is an abomination.

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2006 Michael Snider.

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