Monday, November 2, 2020

The goal is to avoid staring at polling charts.

I'm getting my hair cut today, and tomorrow morning I'm driving north to meet a friend from the homeland for a walk along the Kennebec. So that's two distractions.

I'm still waiting for my editing project to resume. In the meantime I'm reading Childe Harold and a Trollope novel. I might clean out some dresser drawers. I've got to figure out a way to stay calm-ish. I doubt I'll be able to write but that's fine. This is probably a good time to fall back on mindless pap such as crossword puzzles and the British baking show.

I kind of wish my dirt pile was arriving today, and then I could spend hours and hours shoveling. That's exactly what my pinging brain needs.

Here's the little essay I wrote a few weeks ago about political poetry. It first appeared in Teresa Carson's weekly poetry letter, so you may have already seen it. If not, maybe it will give you the urge to write a political poem yourself. I doubt I'll be able to write today, but I hope you can. 

* * *

England in 1819


Percy Bysshe Shelley

An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King; 
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow 
Through public scorn,—mud from a muddy spring; 
Rulers who neither see nor feel nor know, 
But leechlike to their fainting country cling 
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow. 
A people starved and stabbed in th' untilled field; 
An army, whom liberticide and prey 
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield; 
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay; 
Religion Christless, Godless—a book sealed; 
A senate, Time’s worst statute, unrepealed— 
Are graves from which a glorious Phantom may 
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day. 





Structuring Fury: Form and Politics in Shelley’s “England in 1819”


Dawn Potter


Almost exactly two hundred years ago, the poet Percy Shelley wrote a sonnet excoriating England’s ruling class—a poem that today feels unnervingly modern. It’s easy to transpose the screed’s characters into our own contemporary nightmares: a “despised . . . King”; “Princes, the dregs of their dull race”; “A Senate, Time’s worst statute.” Too many of us are still browbeaten with “Religion Christless, Godless”; too many still “starved and stabbed in th’ untilled field.”

            In real life, of course, the parallels between Shelley’s time and ours are not exact. In 1819, Great Britain was essentially a military state. During George III’s reign, which began in 1760 and lasted until 1820, the nation was almost constantly at war: with France, with its own colonies, with the new United States, with the Napoleonic empire. State money poured into military coffers, swelling an “army, whom liberticide and prey / Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield.” As the military strutted, and the underclass starved, and the king’s madness forced the establishment of a regency government under the deeply unpopular Prince of Wales, the ruling powers—regent, Parliament, cabinet, and church—flaunted their indifference.

            Most of us are already familiar with a contemporary version of this king: he’s the same one that Lin-Manuel Miranda satirizes in Hamilton. I have no way of knowing if Miranda is familiar with Shelley’s sonnet, but his musical certainly draws sardonic parallels between that epoch and ours. Artists are good at making metaphoric leaps, and the politics of the Georgian era are a rich feeding ground for anyone who gets het up about class inequities, the military-industrial complex, the decadence of government, or the hypocrisy of the church.

For me, Shelley’s fury echoes, in large part, because it feels like my fury. But when I’m trying to make a poem, a focus on fury and metaphor isn’t good enough. That’s why writing a political poem can be so hard. When my anger is hot and my metaphorical pen fluid, I tend to lose control of my steering. I veer from one extreme to another: into flippancy, bathos, cynicism, schlock. The ride is exhilarating; but when the poem gets out of the car, it looks pretty sick.

Here, I think it’s important to remember that the best poems aren’t written primarily for readers. Poets write them for themselves. They write and rewrite and revise and tinker and experiment in order to figure something out. If the resulting poem reaches a reader too, well, that’s icing on the cake. So I find it helpful, and also a comfort, to imagine Shelley in process: fiddling with his grammar and syntax, his images and metaphors, his rhymes and rhythms . . . and, along the way, framing his own comprehension of his own beliefs.

My friend Carlene Gadapee tells me that she often teaches “England in 1819” to her high school students because she loves its combination of “control” and “outrage.” I agree: Shelley’s compression of opposites is magnificent; and as a striving poet I want to learn how to create that sensation in my own political poems. So when I ask myself “how did Shelley manage to corral his fury so brilliantly in this poem?” I find myself zeroing in on its structure.

As I’ve mentioned, “England in 1819” is a sonnet. In other words, Shelley chose to force his volatile emotions into the shape of an extremely demanding poetic form. Not only does the form require a specific number of lines and a specific rhyme scheme, but it also obliges the poet to serve up a compressed and logical argument. If he’s writing a sonnet, Shelley can’t just rant; he has to present a reasoned defense of his position. Sure, a poet’s reasoning is not a political scientist’s reasoning: no one expects Shelley to write an objectively argued treatise. Nonetheless, by choosing a sonnet, he challenges himself to use the permutations of thought as a way to bind together high emotion.  

            Yet even though Shelley chose a traditional form to encase his anger, he bent that form to his will. The fourteen lines of “England in 1819” don’t fit into any of the sonnet’s usual rhyme-scheme variations: Petrarchan, English (Shakespearean), or Spenserian. Rather, Shelley allowed his ear to guide him into an idiosyncratic pattern. “England in 1819” begins with a sestet (ABABAB), follows with a quatrain (CDCD), and ends with a pair of couplets that repeat the quatrain rhymes (CC DD). By inventing this pattern, the poet was able to hammer down on a particular cadence—words featuring long e’s and long a’s—and create a stream of powerful, driving repetitions that intensify, in the final couplets, into what might as well be gunshots. I hear them as the Romantic era’s equivalent of Jimi Hendrix’s rapid-fire repetitions in “Machine Gun.”

            Thus, as he sat down to write, Shelley, chock-full of vitriol and eager to shout, made at least two important decisions about how to allow the poetic tradition to teach him to write this particular political poem. He deliberately trapped his fury inside a small fenced yard, one with strict rules about rhyme, meter, and clarity of explanation. He then deliberately bent those rules. As a result, he was able cram his anger against the confines of an adapted space—one that holds it, but just barely. Look at the words that begin and end each line, and see how brilliantly he places “King,” “slay, “blow,” and especially “Burst.” Listen to the cadence of the line “But leechlike to their fainting country cling”—the slow, terrible rhythms of his scorn. The poem enacts its theme. It  feels like an explosion.


Ruth said...

That line "The best poems aren't written primarily for readers....Poets write them for themselves. They write and rewrite and revise and tinker and experiment in order to figure something out." So true

nancy said...

Love this: "He deliberately trapped his fury inside a small fenced yard, one with strict rules about rhyme, meter, and clarity of explanation. He then deliberately bent those rules."

Your use of "het up" made me smile -- I felt like I was back on my NH grandfather's porch, as we rocked the day away with slow talking.

I cannot keep my mind or body still today. I have a few minutes before students arrive, and I feel woefully inadequate to do even a half-assed job.