I said early this year that I wanted to try a poem in heroic couplets. I’ve been meaning to get to it for weeks, but I’ve been doing a lot of writing on my book (I finished a draft of a chapter last week– that means I’m four down, 2–maybe 3– to go!) and so I just haven’t had the mental space or time.
While I haven’t gotten around to writing a poem myself, I wanted to share one with you. In fact, it was reading this poem, “Madonna and Child,” by Rafael Campo, that inspired me to try writing a poem in heroic couplets. Which I will do eventually. I promise.
Like the sonnet, heroic couplets are a poetic form that anyone who has completed high school should know: rhymed pairs of iambic pentameter. I’ve always thought poems written in heroic couplets are, in a word, BORING. Alexander Pope, of “Rape of the Lock” fame, is my favorite whipping boy on this subject.
What dire offense from am’rous causes springs,
What mighty contests rise from trivial things,
The poem begins. Trivial, indeed. Sparknotes claims that Pope’s couplets are not boring, “flowering instead with a rich rhythmic variation that keeps the highly regular meter from becoming heavy or tedious.” Well, you can put that on your midterm exam, but I won’t give you extra credit for saying it.
Recently, someone who was interviewed by my department for a job in U.S. Latino/a literature spoke to us about Rafael Campo. I’d not heard of him, not being a big fan of poetry (until recently, of course), and so after the job candidate’s presentation I searched around the web to find out more about him and to read more of his poems. If you have any English professors in your life, you probably have heard us complain about how awful the job market is for English Ph.D.s. There are lots of horrible things about the whole process for getting a job as an English professor, but as someone who has crossed the River Jordan to the other side of tenure, I can say that one really cool thing about interviewing people for professorial jobs is that it gives you a chance to see what’s new and cutting-edge in literary studies, especially if you are teaching somewhere (as I do) where you don’t work with grad students or work with lots of cutting-edge scholars. I always learn a lot from the candidates we interview, whether it’s about literature I’ve never read or even heard of before, or literature I thought I knew very well, or about ways to teach students about literature of any kind.
In reading about Campo, I discovered that he is not only a poet, but a physician. He continues to practice and teach medicine, even as he publishes award-winning books of poetry. That’s pretty amazing. It was especially cool to discover that he works at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Boston, where my dad did his residency–and where I was born.
I think Campo, much more than Pope, imbues the heroic couplet with “rich rhythmic variation” that avoids heaviness and tedium. See if you agree:
Madonna and Child
By menopause, it’s not just estrogen
my mother lacks. She’s lost her eldest son—
that’s me, the one who’s queer—the doctor who
once made her very proud. These days, I do
my own wash when I’m home, I cook for her
so she can take a break from all the chores
she now refuses to assign to me.
She sits, half-watching Ricki through her tea’s
thin steam, her squint of disapproval more
denial than it is disgust. She hears
much better than she sees—it’s easier
to keep out vision than it is to clear
the air of sounds—and yet I know it’s age
that stultifies her senses too. Enraged
because she’s lost so much, I understand
why suddenly she looks so stunned
as from the television: “. . . Bitch, she stole
my boyfriend, my own mother did! . . .” I fold
a towel noiselessly. I know she thinks
it’s garbage, sinful, crap—just as she thinks
that taking estrogen in pills is not
what God intended, no matter what
the doctors say; or that I’m gay is plain
unnatural, she can’t endure such pain.
The oven timer rings. The cookies that
I’ve baked are done. I’ll make another batch
though she won’t touch them: given up for Lent.
My mother’s love. I wonder where it went.
Now if Alex Pope had written heroic couplets like these, I might still be reading. I love how natural Campo makes the couplets sound, and how he uses this most rigid and artificial of forms to express his anguish at his mother’s rigid perceptions of what is and is not natural. And how he modifies this most masculine and supposedly heroic of forms to speak as a “queer.”
I’ve tried a couple of times to write something in heroic couplets, and I think what trips me up is that the form is so predictable that it is almost impossible to say anything that actually sounds natural as a result. Those rhymed couplets plod along like a trite pop song performed badly. Everything I write sounds like a parody of itself. I suppose that’s why so much doggerel is written in heroic couplets– the heroic pose it takes automatically sets it up for a fall; it’s a form that embodies hubris. Stated self-referentially:
The poet marches on and beats his drum,
Declaiming lines not aimed at anyone,
But speaking universal truth in verse,
A truth that might be someone else’s curse.
Ha– did you see that? I did it! I am more than glad to leave the heroic couplet behind. I’ve learned by thinking– a lot– about it, and trying it, and reading Campo, that sometimes these simple forms are the hardest of all to write. And this results in my having gained a new–if grudging–respect for Mr. Pope. So I will give him the last word, from his “Essay on Criticism”:
True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance.