In honor of Labor Day, a meditation on how much work it takes to write a poem.

People who think that poets are simply inspired to write what they do, dashing off masterpieces on cocktail napkins or in wild sprees of creativity, are just wrong. Even Walt Whitman, whose poems appeared completely spontaneous (he wrote a poem called “Spontaneous Me,” for goodness’ sake, where he described his poems as being “plucked at random from myself”) in fact worked on his poems for years, revising, rewriting, crafting. I like to tell my students that he spent his entire life writing a single book–Leaves of Grass–which came out in six different editions between 1855 and 1892. Poetic geniuses may very well have existed. But mostly, poets are hard at work just like everyone else. So here’s a toast to the fruits of labor–artistic and otherwise.

I mentioned in my last post how difficult I found it to write terza rima (description at the end of this earlier post). I thought it’d come more naturally than a sonnet, because it has a much looser structure. I also thought it would be fun to write a poem that had a more narrative “flow,” which terza rima lends itself to because the rhymes move from stanza to stanza (aba bcb cdc and so on). But I found it impossible to finish–it ends with a rhymed couplet (abaa) and that last couplet, I realized, had to be a strong couple of lines. Bang bang–like a good joke. Those of you who know me know I’m terrible at telling jokes. (Some of my students reminded me of this on their course evaluations this semester. Thanks, guys.)

I also had problems with the meter. I started the poem twice, once using iambic pentameter, but kept coming up with lines that were iambic tetrameter (lines of 4 iambs rather than 5). I also found the subject of the first poem (the shifting seasons) pretty trite, especially once I’d been working on it for a while. So I gave it up and tried another, in iambic tetrameter. Ironically, once I did, all the lines I kept coming up with were in pentameter! So much for the muse. Well, I made it work, eventually. I think.


The scene was wide—it didn’t stop.
A quiet watercolor view
Of Paris painted from rooftops.

Six pages from a sketchbook, glued
From edge to edge, as if she’d started
One painting, then found she needed two.

And more: her sight a curtain parted
The morning light that reached so far,
Beyond the first sketch, a half-hearted

Attempt, an exercise, no more.
The roofs went on: their peaks reached out
Toward the lightening sky, but dark

Were windows, shutters closed without
Against those just across the way.
Their inside dreams and outside doubt

Were figured in the walls. They say
A panoramic eye takes in
A single view, a single day,

But pieced-together sheets begin
To show our sight has pieces too.
Horizons matter, but they’re thin.

The wider, deeper scene includes
Perspectives, more than one or two.
The joints remind us what we lose
With just one view. I’d rather choose.

I think probably this poem would improve with two more stanzas, one with a more detailed description of part of the painting, and another about the idea of sight, panoramas, views, and choice. But it’s what I’ve got for now.

Incidentally, it occurred to me that this poem is not only an example of terza rima, but also ekphrasis: a poem describing an object, commonly, an artwork. Some famous examples of ekphrasis include Homer’s description of Achilles’ shield in the Iliad, Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” and John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray could also be considered ekphrastic. The genre, if you can call it that, began as a way to describe things that couldn’t be easily seen (or were simply imagined), but since the Renaissance it has become a way to propose relationships between different modes of perception, or to consider the relationship between a work of art and its reader/viewer. Just as the poet views and responds to the work of art, the reader of the poem is responding to another work of art. So it’s also a kind of poem that is about communication itself. In the words of the immortal John Hollander: “modern ekphrastic poems have generally shrugged off antiquity’s obsession with elaborate description, and instead have tried to interpret, inhabit, confront, and speak to their subjects.” (And their readers, I might add. It’s a very “meta” kind of form.)

My poem takes its cue from a painting we have in our bedroom, which caught my eye when it was on display at the salon where I get my hair cut (Sprout in Hampden, if you’re in the area. I highly recommend it!). I decided to buy it, and found out, much to my surprise, that it had been painted by a rising junior at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), whose campus borders the neighborhood I live in. The artist’s name is Emma Popp–I foresee an illustrious career in her future! (Here’s her 2013 scholarship portfolio. Good stuff.)

Here are a few photos of the painting, including two showing the glued-together seams that ended up being the focus of my poem:

Untitled landscape by Emma Popp, watercolor, approx. 8"x 50," 2012 (?).
Morning in Montmartre, Paris, by Emma Popp, gouache, 7″ x 30,” 2012 (?).
Detail of landscape.
Detail of landscape.
Another detail.
Another detail.

I guess I can excuse the lateness of my Weekly Poem by saying that it actually is two forms–thus counting for two weeks! Yes!

Given my problems with in meter and rhyme over the past few weeks, I am going to diagnose the problem as “versification fatigue” and shift to a different kind of poetry for a few weeks: poems based on syllables rather than metrical patterns or rhyme scheme. They are, logically, called “syllabic forms.” Everyone’s familiar with the haiku, which is what I’ll start with. But after that, we could move on to the tanka, and others I currently don’t know about :-).


One thought on “Weekly poem project: terza rima

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