There’s a wacky Jonah Winter poem I love dearly called “Sestina Bob.”  In terms of poetic form, it’s only really a sestina in name only, because instead of creating a system of repeating end words, Winter just puts “Bob” at the end of every line. For example:

According to her housemate, she is out with Bob
tonight, and when she’s out with Bob
you never know when she’ll get in. Bob
is an English professor. Bob
used to be in a motorcycle gang, or something, or maybe Bob
rides a motorcycle now. How radical of you, Bob—

I wish I could ride a motorcycle, Bob,
and also talk about Chaucer intelligently. Bob
is very tall, bearded, reserved. I saw Bob
at a poetry reading last week—he had such a Bob-
like poise—so quintessentially Bob!
The leather jacket, the granny glasses, the beard—Bob!

and you were with my ex-girlfriend, Bob!
And you’re a professor, and I’m nobody, Bob,

And on the poem goes, filling out the exact number of lines a sestina requires.  Even in the concluding envoi, “Bob” is repeated three times per line, where the traditional sestina repeating words would normally be located.  The effect is very manic.  Beyond the silliness, the reader is essentially engaging with an obsessive voice — clearly, the speaker of the poem is very preoccupied Bob and how he feels insufficient in comparison.    Sometimes, with comic poems, this sort of repitetion works like a charm.  As mentioned earlier, it speaks to an obssessive, crazy mind — because obssessive crazy types often repeat themselves over and over and over again.

But this brings up another issue.  Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of old poetry predating the ascent of modernism and post-modernism to the contemporary norm — poets like Walter de la Mare, Oscar Wilde, William Butler Yeats, Madison Cawein, and many others.    (As I side project, I’m putting some sort of book project together, but forget that I wrote that).  Still, in reading these poems from long dead writers, one thing struck me clearly.  Some older, traditional forms do not translate well into modern psychology.  Sure, some forms will never go away, like the good old trusty little box of song, the sonnet.   Some of the more repetitive forms, however, just don’t work well a century or more later.  Think of Jonah Winter’s “Sestina” while reading the following excerpts.  First up,  Algernon Charles Swinburne and “Faustine”:

Lean back, and get some minutes’ peace;
Let your head lean
Back to the shoulder with its fleece
Of locks, Faustine.

The shapely silver shoulder stoops,
Weighed over clean
With state of splendid hair that droops
Each side, Faustine.

Let me go over your good gifts
That crown you queen;
A queen whose kingdom ebbs and shifts
Each week, Faustine.

Bright heavy brows well gathered up:
White gloss and sheen;
Carved lips that make my lips a cup
To drink, Faustine,
And this poem goes on and on and on and on and on — 41 stanzas, and all of them end in “Faustine.”   I really cannot guess how Swinburne’s readership took the poem in his century, but I’d wager to guess about readers in the Twenty First.   The speaker really does sound a lot like Jonah Winter in “Sestina Bob” — obsessive.  Sure, there may be formal considerations that dictated how Swinburne had to write this, but those formal considerations didn’t age very well.
To that end, I’m reminded of one of the many times I attempted writing a love poem to my wife.  I was trying my hand at ghazals:
I will love you even under blue-gray skies,
and sometimes, I wonder if I knew gray skies.

I haven’t wings and I know nothing of flight
but together, we’ve been through gray skies…
I actually cringe retyping that CRAP here, but if one wants to be a writer, you have to intellectually own the tossed aside garbage just as much as the published material.   However, after I had written a draft of that poem, I had an “ooh! ooh!” moment and rushed to my wife, who dutifully put American Idol on mute to listen to my poem.  I could tell by her facial expression that she was trying hard to respect “the feeling” expressed, but had a hard time with the poem itself.  I quickly caught on, because reading it out loud, something didn’t seem right to me.   At the end, I said, “I don’t know — it was fun to write, but I guess it didn’t work.”  She agreed, and then said something very perceptive about poetry in general:

Sometimes, when you’re repeating yourself in a poem, it’s like you’re beating cerimonial gong; what you’re repeating has to live up to the solemn effect that was probably intended, originally.

I agreed and returned to the computer.  She went back to watching American Idol.  Years later, I still know for a fact that she’s 100% correct.   Swinburne’s “Faustine” doesn’t work for me, because of this.  “Faustine” as a repeated word, a motif, or a “struck gong” just doesn’t work.  It could be the bevity of the stanza, the fact that the “gonging” of “faustine” goes on for 41 stanzas, or a hundred of other reasons.  Swinburne was likely going for solemnity, but ends up sounding obsessively silly.  At least Winter intended to sound silly and crazy.

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