Refresshyng myndys the Aprell shoure of rayne;
Condute of comforte, and well most souerayne;
Herber enverduryd, contynuall fressh and grene;
Of lusty somer the passyng goodly quene;
(Refreshing minds the April shower of rain;
Conduit of comfort, and well most sovereign;
Herber enverdured, continual fresh and green; “Herber enverdured”: herb garden covered in greenery
Of lusty summer the passing goodly queen;)
Last year was a pretty good one for writing, but there must have been a superior, secondary, annual echo, because about a month ago, the goodly passing queen halted, pulled up a chair, and flourished a Midsummer birch wand. Someone must have whispered my need in her ear.
One-time featured TNB poet Heather Fowler runs an annual poetry marathon in July. Each day she posts a new theme, and a new poetical form on Facebook, writes a suitable poem or two, and then invites other poets to join in. I dipped in a toe a bit diffidently at first, but by the time the month was out, I found I’d written over forty poems, with a surprising level of concentration. Along the way I learned and re-learned a few things about my own poetic impulses.
Along the way I also put to use something I claimed in my article “Poetry for the Nervous, Vol 2: What’s useful?”
“I’ve found that the more poetry I have coursing through my veins, the faster I write, the less I suffer writer’s block, and the more readily I marshal all the latent intellectual resources at my disposal. That doesn’t just go for literary writing. I also write a lot of technical articles in my professional career, and as a businessman I write a lot of commercial correspondence. It is a real gift to be able to do so very efficiently, focusing less on the mechanics of writing than on the technical and business problems at hand.“
July was a hell of a month for business problems at hand.
I co-founded my company with three other partners, and as with all small business, it’s a perpetual strategic balance to maintain a sound footing. We’ve grown over the years, which is good, but there have also been emerging stresses on how best to achieve this strategic balance, and the stresses reached a breaking point in late June. The month was an imposing wall of meetings with and proposals to departing and prospective partners; corporate administrative matters; calls to employees to ensure they could remain productive despite all the furore, and so on. There was real urgency provided by the fact that my wife is due to give birth in August. I did not want the mess to seep into August. The upshot: a lot of writing, and a lot of reading, including at one point the full statutes deriving from the Virginia Limited Liability Company act. There was enough water in July to form a wicked drowning pool. Let the bodies hit the floor, for sure¹.
The first of July came along with circumstances that really made me worry about the future of the company. The call was unmistakable to roll up the sleeves. I embraced the weekend like a final, large gulp of air before submerging into that pool for who knew how long. For this reason the first poetic challenge I could swing into was July 4th. “Write a quatern on the theme ‘Oubliet/tte’.” “Forgetting” sounds nice. Oh snap! Quatern!
I started seriously writing poetry late in secondary school. As soon as I got to University, as I’ve related in my inaugural TNB piece, I ran into a formidable culture of wordsmiths. Many of my new poet friends loved exercise in forms, and wrote sonnets, villanelles, heroic couplets and more. I went along with all that, of course, but my love for French poetry was really burgeoning, so I also went in the direction of the various rondel variations, triolets, quaterns and such. Since leaving Nigeria I’d largely gotten away from heavy experimenting with forms, because this is an activity so much more pleasurable in poetic companionship with others, which I’d lost once I arrived in the US. I’ve become used to my comfortable old shoes—iambic tetrameter quatrain, and odd, invented forms of my own.
Here I was tickled back towards the quatern. Not a bad bomb bursting in air for July 4th. “Oubliette” of course made me think of an old favorite, Corbière’s “Sonnet de Nuit”
Qui me renferme…dehors!
(Bolted up dungeon
Which encloses me…outside!)
I started to translate this into an English quatern, but I kept hearing in the back of my mind an opening echo from Neruda:
Si tú me olvidas, quiero
Que tú sepas una cosa.
(If you forget me
I wish you to know
So my quatern began:
The cell is ten dreams by ten nights
I’ve paced forever to its zero
”Si tú me olvidas, quiero
Que tú sepas una cosa”: my light
Gutters against your fading picture
The cell is ten dreams by ten nights.
Once I found the right fount, in Neruda, the poem flowed effortlessly into the form. July 4th. After a frightfully sapping weekend I posted my completed poem and basked in a corona of new-found energy more spectacular than any of the municipal rocketry displays in earnest progress. Off I went to the other family activities planned for the long weekend.
Tuesday started with the expected wallop, and also settled the pattern for July right away. I’d wake up to feverish sequences of e-mail in the morning (many of my colleagues are two timezones ahead). Over brunch I’d read Heather’s main note, and ponder the theme and form a little while. Back to work I’d go. When I finally turned my back on office matters in the evening, I’d grab my pen, despite being nearly crushed with exhaustion. I’d start writing and to my surprise, the poem would flow almost autonomously. Sometimes I’d find myself writing two or even three poems. The resulting burst of energy would serve me in leaving the troubles behind as I spent time with the family, and as I participated here on TNB, and with the others sharing poems with Heather. Each day would drain me, and each poetic evening would revive me with amazing sureness. It was like driving my Prius through the continental divide mountains. The uphills would use up all the hybrid battery juice, and the engine would be squirreling the last miles to the crest of the pass, then the downhill would recharge the batteries to the electronic display’s lime green brim.
I tried my hand at forms I’d never ventured in before: fibonacci sequence, ethere, cinquain, ghazal. I’d always wanted to try my hand at ghazal, but no poem had ever presented itself to me to write that way. July 18th, my hand was forced: “write a ghazal to the theme ‘lucid dreaming.'”
My doom marked once I get the sign I crave
Sly look my way casting that shine I crave.
From reverie to rest I hire your form
For scenes on sets whose design I crave.
My tongue on, my lips press those sweet nipples
Round which sweep the fleshly line I crave.
“From reverie to rest” of course a half line from Jonathan Swift’s “The Day of Judgment” that popped into my mind upon the phrase “lucid dreaming.” July 18th Heather set us to terzanelles, a new form for me, a cross between a villanelle and terza rima. I used to write villanelles, but beyond teenage I’d found them too cloying. The terzanelle variation mixes just enough spice into proceedings. I was smitten. I wrote one, then another, then another. A friend posted a line on Facebook and mused that it looked like something I’d turn into a poem. I duly turned it into a terzanelle. I listened to Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh), and before I knew it I was writing a terzanelle for each song.
Satisfaction and desire cross
Timelines like lazy jet trails against blue
Background of embrace, creation, loss.
Even hesi braves strict ordeal ruled…true;
Concentrating on music, lover and babies
Timelines like lazy jet trails against blue
Willing happiness away from maybes
(Whisper one…two…three…CLAP! One…two…three…CLAP!)
Concentrating on music, lover and babies.
Often the day’s theme, or Heather’s starter poem, would stir into consciousness some memorized poem, or poem fragment. During the work day, the feelers would start to creep into my consciousness, and I’d have to reluctantly shake them shake off and focus. But did these truncated tendrils continue to weave their mesh into complete poems in my subconscious? July 20th. “Write a huitain on the theme ‘dancing.'” I was airport bound, then hurrying to the gate, flight to Washington DC. Bounding in my head as I went along, Ezra Pound’s “Dance Figure”. I got to the gate as it was boarding, and almost held up the plane, writing a poem that spilled out onto a piece of scrap paper balanced on my knee.
Dark eyed, woman of my dreams,
Burnt jewel perfection, regal date,
Your hands on me like frosted streams,
Like winding sheet of goddess fate.
The month went on with the drama playing out at work. World cup final day I watched the game with a bunch of my francophone friends, several of whom are also entrepreneurs. Marc (name changed) has been involved in a lot of business and investing drama on his time. At half time we’re chatting about my corporate problem. He gives me a telescoping look and says “do you want me to put in a serious, but low-ball bid on the company to skew valuation in your favor?” I actually hesitate a moment before laughing it off, and we turn back to the game. July 25th. “Write a cleave to the theme ‘Oranges Are Not,'” a variation of a theme I’d suggested, in honor of Holland: “Clockwork Orange.” Half lines from World Cup finals day sifted into that diabolical form in the requisite two columns.
almost time for the game slow, sultry afternoon
relish the unstripping sunlight off bare skin
to don the Oranje and sudden occlusion
frisson of excitement fingertip under trim of cloth
cresting wave of build-up electric junebug of static stroke
crashes into early attack smart of unexpected discharge
and sudden dry clarity and sticky examination
tang of the sour core of hothouse grape gambit
clockwork orange so much for tactics
Junebugs. That came from an off-hand complaint by Becky Palapala. Scraps, snippets, ingredients shaken into a confetti cannon and blasted into the air, all were coalescing under the influence of a strange field of gestalt.
But what was the source of the field? Is this what happens at poetic workshops? I’ve always scorned workshops, from my second-hand knowledge of them. My impression of them is of reductive, depersonalizing experience. I suppose it probably depends on the participants. Perhaps it was just the rhythm of writing something every day, combined with the fact that I’d be surprised by theme and form each day, further combined with other events in my life that heightened the rush from poetic release, fueling a beneficial addiction. Or maybe it was all a special moment, and I shouldn’t worry too hard about figuring out how to bottle it.
We resolved the situation at my company right at the end of the month. The resolution was fair, but also favorable to our continued success. It was a huge weight off my shoulders that we settled matters before I had to turn my attention to the new household arrival. I’ve observed to my wife that poetry helped me focus. That it probably saved my company. So much for people who scoff that poetry doesn’t have its applications. That it has no place in the practical world.
My practical world in July was a marbled texture of hard economic realities and the aethereal, courtly spell of Erato, of Summer’s goodly queen. The hard stuff was always prone to shatter, leaving a wreck of sharp-edged pieces, without the unexpected grace of soft poetic lining.
It’s a lesson that might be worth contemplating more broadly, living as we are in times perhaps too clogged with sharp-edged pieces of hard economic reality, while too bare of the soft, protective lining of poetry and her sister arts.
¹ Considering this is TNB I considered using an allusion from the MacDonald novel “The Drowning Pool” instead, but nah, the band gets it closer to the mood.
Note: all verses quoted in this post are fragments of complete poems.