Arts & Culture · Poetry

Poetry Sunday: ‘After the Divorce, I Hold a Yard Sale,’ by MaryAnn Corbett

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

I guess this is shaping up to be another formal poetry month—July’s columns featured a sestina and a pair of villanelles, and this month features a sonnet, a sonnet parody, rhyming quatrains, and (next week) a nonce form called the “Ghazanelle.” I wrote these columns in June, the same month as the 20th West Chester Poetry Conference, where I was lucky to be a Resident Poet. The longest-running formal poetry conference in this country, WPC offers classes, workshops, panels, and readings featuring formal and narrative verse each summer. If you’d enjoy an intensive learning experience in an atmosphere that feels like a sleepaway camp for grownups, you might consider attending next year’s conference on June 6-10.

I like to remind readers now and again that even free verse is not, strictly speaking, “free,” and is subject to its own set of rules and governing principles. All poetry, being by definition a “made” thing, assumes a form that bears the mark of its maker. This is true even of language and other experimental poetry that strains mightily to throw off the yoke of convention. When I say “formal” poetry, though, I am talking about poems that are metered, rhymed, or patterned in a fixed or received form such as the sonnet, villanelle, sestina, pantoum, rondeau, ghazal, narrative poem, and the like. This week’s poem is in rhyming quatrains—four-line stanzas that alternate rhyme: abab, cdcd, efef, and so on. Each stanza follows the same metric pattern: regular iambic tetrameter (four beats in a rising cadence) in lines 1-3, then dimeter (two beats) in the last line. A common variation on this form rhymes only the first and third lines or the second and fourth lines of each stanza, sometimes changing rhymes with each stanza and sometimes carrying the same rhyme every other line throughout. Today’s poem has eight stanzas and 32 lines, but one advantage of writing in quatrains is that there is no length specification; you can write as many stanzas as you like.

Let’s begin with the title, longer than many we’ve seen. Titles are supposed to do more than just sum up a poem or tell us what it is “about.” They are expected to pull their weight, and the best ones do so much work that without them the poem fails or is at least a lesser accomplishment. “After the Divorce, I Hold a Yard Sale” performs the task of summary narration and sets the scene for the rest of the poem. From it, we know the speaker to be a divorcee selling off things acquired during the marriage. Besides introducing the speaker and a bit of her backstory, the title also neatly slides the stage set into place, freeing the author to focus, at least at first, wholly on the objects laid out and tagged for sale. The title’s heavy lifting reminded me of James Wright, a poet known for using titles—sometimes quite long—to set up his poems. “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” sets up the unforgettable last line, “I have wasted my life.” Other well-known examples are “As I Step Over A Puddle At The End Of Winter, I Think Of An Ancient Chinese Governor” and “Autumn Begins in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio.”

After the title does its work, placing us squarely among the tables and jumble of items at the yard sale and introducing us to the speaker and her dilemma, today’s poem focuses on what is seen there. The objects tell their own stories of the birth, life, and death of a relationship and the people in it. We join the potential buyers, impassively and somewhat self-consciously walking among tables bearing items in a display that, “sad and awkward,” betrays “earthly failings.” And not just the big failure of the divorce, but also of the couple’s (and our) more “venial sins:” exercise equipment gone unused after having been purchased on impulse (“in a gust of hope”), wildly impractical color schemes (“whites and creams”), a computer cover gone yellow with age, appliances whose bolts are rusted and wires coming loose. The junk is a metaphor for the embarrassing transience of human relationships and the effects of mortality on human beings, who subside from youthful optimism to adult practicality and acceptance and whose bodily decay is uncomfortably evoked in the “yellowish cast of rotten teeth.” Because of the divorce, the things acquired during the marriage get put on public display, and each one has a story to tell, sometimes one that is quite personal and humiliating.

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