Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Garden of Verse: The Search for the Truth of America and Other Poetic Journeys

           The prose introduction to Dick Allen's poem "I Was Eighteen" in the March issue of Verse-Virtual is a poem by itself: "So in the summer of 1958, I hitchhiked, train rode, bus rode, and walked about our nation. Ever since, I’ve doubted any truth about America that doesn’t stumble on rural dirt roads and stand under inner-city streetlights."  
          The poetry of names rides along on this villanelle's refrain:
Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska—
           when I was eighteen I hitch-hiked across them,
trying to find out the truth about America.

            I love this poem's candor and expansive innocence. The poet simply hitchhikes across the country "In sunlight and storm" -- imagine your son proposing to do that today? -- asking himself and those he meets for the "truth about America."
            The innocence of the boy -- "But I was eighteen, naïve as clam chowder" -- reveals something about the nobility of the quest, and the country in which he pursues it, even if by itself it does not lead to wisdom. In the poem's final stanza that last line becomes:
 they just smiled when I asked them the truth about America.           

            In  the villanelle "So Easily Do Women Weep" by William Greenway, the formal repetitions of the refrain reveal meaning through shades of emphasis. Is the poem truly about how easily women weep, or is it (as the developing stanzas indicate) about what men hide from women? The first stanza foregrounds the alleged ease, and copiousness, of women's tears, and appends the reflection on male tears in a subordinate clause, the second of the two refrains.
So easily do women weep

you wonder why the seas don’t overflow

and though a man may sorrow just as deep

          But the emphasis shifts in later stanzas to: 
the depth of grief we keep

is something she must never know 

so easily do women weep.

            That ease of women's tears turns into men's excuse for keeping their grief unshared. (Face it, guys, we know this is true.)
            Joyce S. Brown's  "Villanelle to a Golfer" turns the form into a dialectic. At the start we learn "To me life seems more Hardy than Voltaire." She stakes out Hardy country by walking through the storm, while the golfer dresses for the links.
            Later, when the golfer exhibits some vulnerability, we learn:
            Now you’ve become more Hardy than Voltaire.
            But at the end poet and golfer are living in the universe after all:
            the dark, the light of Hardy and Voltaire.
            ​ Margaret Hasse's "Divorce Proceedings" modifies the refrain of the antagonistic couples -- "They burn with anger as they slam the door" -- to spell out the necessary corollaries of a couple who, as the poem says, "banish their better angels./ No,
they cannot live the life they had before." Every aspect of their prior life together goes out that slamming door: 
A signed decree and marriage is no more.              
Wedding china, photos, the blue tent—go.

            The final version of the refrain is the necessary conclusion of the "burning anger" we heard about in the first stanza, using most of the same words repurposed:
They can never live the life they had before
everything burned and they closed the door.

             The moral? Don't shut the door on the flexible value of the villanelle. You can read the rest of these poems, and all the others, at