Arts & Culture · Poetry

Poetry Sunday: "Advent," by Mary Jo Salter

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor
Becky_author photo_cropped_7-12-14From Mary Jo Salter’s book titled Open Shutters, today’s poem offers a microcosm of the images that title conveys. In “Advent,” a real shutter blows off a real house, a gingerbread house wall splits into outward-swinging doors, a calendar’s secret worlds lie beneath hinged paper flaps, and even the experience of reading the poem is like peering through a pane of glass into a mise-en-scène inside.
Salter is sometimes called a “New Formalist” poet, and so I want to begin with how form is worked out in this poem. “Advent” presents 20 three-line stanzas—tercets of mostly three-beat lines that set the measure and pacing and frame Salter’s ideas about the reality of the holidays in contemporary times. Of the poem’s 60 lines, about two-thirds are in regular iambic trimeter, each sounding and feeling like te-TUM, te-TUM, te-TUM. A few lines unbalance themselves by tacking on an extra unstressed syllable. This is perhaps most obvious in stanza 11 where, for example, line 31 reads as “a line or two of Scripture” and scans as ~/ ~ / ~/ ~ , three iambs and an orphan foot with one unstressed syllable. A wobble at the beginnings of lines is seen in those that keep the iambic beat but invert the first foot into a trochee (/ ~) or a dactyl (/ ~ ~). Some lines are trochaic all the way through, as in line 11’s “characters in a fable” (/ ~ ~  / ~  / ~). The effect of these metrical shifts is unsettling, contributing to a feeling of unpredictability and subtle unease that pervades the poem.
Rhyme is likewise mercurial, showing up in some form at least once in each of the 20 stanzas but not according to any discernible pattern. We see it first as assonance in line 2’s “in winter,” whose nasal “in” repeats in “think,” “until,” “spins,” and “down” of succeeding lines. Sometimes rhyme is internal (“deck in back” in line 7) and sometimes it happens across lines and even stanzas as in the oxymoronic “closed” and “exposed” (23,25), and “surprise” and “improvise” (13,17). In rare instances, rhymes are full and end proximate lines, as seen in “read” and gingerbread” (29-30) and in “eyes” and “cries” (47-48). Another sound repetition in “Advent” is alliteration, sometimes seen as consonance (“Wind whistling” in line 7, “stunned,” “safe,” and “sorry” in lines 9-10, “somehow split” in line 14, “magi in the manger” in line 27).  More subtle consonance bridge stanzas in “floor/five” in lines 21-22 and “shingled/sugared” in lines 54-55. Assonance (repeated vowel sounds) is also at work, for example, in “expects” and “exposed” in lines 28-29.
These sound repetitions (rhyme, assonance, consonance) are frequent and fluctuating. The unpredictability reinforces “Advent’s” refusal to sugar- (or glitter-) coat the holiday season, instead acknowledging that for many people, struggle is the only constant in an uncertain reality that is, if anything, worse at this time of year. Also contributing to the feeling of unease is Salter’s clear vision of what Elizabeth Bishop once called the “surrealism of everyday life” and her steadfast refusal to take easy opportunities for emotional closure. The disturbing image of a shutter torn from a house in a storm is rendered near-bizarre by the allusion to the “Wizard of Oz” story. And, as we will see below, the poem raises several examples of things-falling-apart without offering false reassurances that, even during the warm and cozy holiday season, everything will turn out okay in the end.
“New Formalism” describes a community of contemporary poets dedicated to infusing formal verse with a new energy and suppleness. About it, Salter says:

I prefer the term “formal poetry,” because there’s no agenda buried in it: it’s just a neutral description of poetry that is especially indebted to devices like rhyme or meter. I’m temperamentally suited to that sort of writing, but I have often profited from reading others who write differently. I do think poets always profit from the study of form, whether or not they choose to use it. [Failbetter, Issue 18, “Mary Jo Salter Interview,” Aug 20, 2005.]

Salter is less interested in labels than in developing the fluency with rhyme and meter that can maximize her capacity for expression.

I’m interested in trying to find .  .  . an appropriate way of saying something. So, for me, temperamentally, rhyme and meter are pleasing. They help me say what I want to say .  .  . I’m trying to let rhyme lead me to what I want to say, and I’m also trying to manipulate rhyme so that it doesn’t master me. [The Fiddlehead, “The Poetry of Mary Jo Salter,” Aug. 20, 2016]

Salter also takes note of the redemptive qualities of sound in poetry, the idea that “if we hear certain sounds that chime for us, they provide a subliminal consolation even if the subject can be quite dark.”

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