In Praise of Small Spaces

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“‘This is fine,’ replied Candide, ‘but we must cultivate our garden.'”

-Voltaire, Candide

Click for Photos“It’ll be like living on a boat,” a friend remarked upon hearing of our plans to move to a tiny cottage in rural England. Looking out my office window at the expanse of field and garden stretching beyond the horizon, it now feels more like a toy submarine, at the depths of what my wife’s Aunt used to call, “England’s green aquarium.”

This is not the first time we have downsized — going from California to London was a huge lifestyle shift. But when I tell American friends that our Victorian cottage in the countryside now measures 500 square feet in total, they understandably laugh, since they often have bigger garages than that.

But then, when I describe our narrow strip of garden that stretches back almost 300 feet, in several stages, past apple trees and tall poppies to a honesuckle-clad archway leading into a final, secret garden with its Monet-like profusion of wildflowers and a single wooden bench — well, then they want to come visit. As an American poet, the Walden-like aspect of retreat also appeals to me immensely.

Furthermore, I know that creativity often springs from constraint. Force your thoughts into the tight little “rooms” of a sonnet (which is what “stanza” literally means in Italian) and the language becomes more interesting than if you give yourself indefinite space to ramble on. A concise poem is a more elegant poem. And, as I am discovering, a life with conscious constraints is often a more elegant one, too.

One definition of “elegance” might simply be quality over quantity. When we had lots more space, we had greater potential to unconsciously accumulate lots of stuff. But then I found myself spending more time managing the stuff around me than I wanted to, instead of focusing on the stuff within me.

And so I am learning to take pleasure in the little cultivations of a simple life. A poem comes present line by line, and a garden takes shape snip by snip. Already the results of this recent fierce pruning are beginning to bloom.

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Notes on Form in Poetry

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In preparing for a upcoming workshop on poetic form, it occurs to me to ask (and answer) the question: why should form matter to poets in the twenty-first century? After all, the majority of poems written in English today are written in free verse. Certainly it is important to have a grasp of form in academia, if one is studying verse written before the Second World War. Most poetry written in English, from Beowulf to Wilfred Owen, employed elements of form, and could rightly be called verse. But poets nowadays write poems which often seem to have little connection to the strictures of the past.

What, then, can poets writing today, in the vers libre form that has dominated the past sixty years of poetry, gain from studying English-language forms that moved in and out of fashion over the previous thousand years?

One answer is that the poet can gain a sense of connection to poetic lineage. Discovering that poets have been re-inventing our relationship to language for thousands of years can be deliciously humbling. Perhaps this is what Emerson meant when he said that poetry must be “as new as foam, and as old as the rock.” Even more than this important universal perspective, though, I feel that I have also gained personally as a poet through studying form.
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The Trouble with Sonnets

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I have been reading The Penguin Book of the Sonnet, edited by Phillis Levin. I skimmed through the introduction and read the first sixty pages to reacquaint myself with old friends from my undergraduate days at UC Berkeley: Petrarch, Sidney, Spencer, Wyatt, Dante. It occurs to me just how wildly popular this form remained, largely unaltered, well after Shakespeare wrote into being some of the highest realizations of the English Renaissance sonnet form. Sonnets were a showpiece in courtier times, a means to political mobility as much as artistic merit. The lack of innovation on the form, up until the Romantics, reminds me of the current saturation of our modern poetry “marketplace” with the same cookie-cutter forms of sentimental personal lyric.

Both forms lend themselves naturally to turns of rhetoric and reflection upon a personal subject (be it love or the death of a loved one), and both forms, done badly, often seem to repay the author’s narcissism far more than the reader’s interest. The challenge with the personal lyric is to overcome the limitations of the deeply personal to reach some unique and universal truth. The challenge of the sonnet, especially in modern times, is to overcome the stringent limitations of the form to approach something transcendent. Far too often, it seems poets are content to write lyric poems that simply matter to themselves and their friends or, as with the sonnet, to simply plough through the form, capitalizing on all its traditional advantages and enduring its limitations.
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