Poetry

Poetry Sunday: “Fig,” by Amy Glynn

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor
Becky_author+photo_cropped_7-12-14 Readers of this column will have figured out by now that I’m partial to formal poetry. But what I love even more is poetry that’s as free to express itself without as within form. The freedom I mean is not “anything goes” but freedom firmly grounded upon a mastery of form and technique—the kind seen, for example, in the later work of Donald Justice. To borrow an analogy from another art form, jazz improve demands of its players a deep understanding of music and fluency with its patterns. It’s one thing to make the artistic decision to syncopate a quarter note and quite another to play notes randomly or with no attention to what other musicians are doing onstage; the first creates jazz, the second creates noise. Poetic form is sometimes criticized as rigid and dead, but in the hands of a virtuoso it becomes elastic and alive, allowing expression of the ideal “organic form” that grows from (rather than being imposed upon) content. If a poem’s best expression is as a villanelle, the most gifted poet in the world will be unable to write it if she does not know what a sonnet is. Finally, mastery of form necessarily includes mastery over basic elements crucial even to the freest of free verse: rhythm, sound repetition, pacing, and figure. With them you can develop a poetic ear that allows you to improvise while avoiding false notes. Without them, you risk writing line-broken prose.
There’s no doubt about it, line-broken prose describes some of the poetry being written today, and with so many books now being published—reportedly more than 5,000 last year—it can be difficult to find the good stuff. But now and then a new book shines like a lighthouse in fog, and one of these is Amy Glynn’s A Modern Herbal. It’s a gorgeously-produced hardback with woodcut engravings of the plants it presents, but more importantly, its poems are the work of a poet as comfortable in fixed form as she is out of it and brilliant in both contexts.
The book delivers what the title promises: an annotated list of herbal plants including “coffee,” “olive,” “stinging nettle,” and so on. But in place of clinical descriptions of plants and their uses, Glynn gives us poems. Some are in free verse while others follow intricate rhyme and meter patterns and are sometimes in traditional fixed forms like the villanelle or the sonnet. Still others are in nonce forms invented by the poet, and today’s poem is one of these.
“Fig” is in one long stanza of 42 lines ranging from short (eight words) to very short (one word). Meter is strongly iambic in a prevailing unstress/stress pattern that sounds like te-tum, te-tum, te-tum. Frost might call the meter “mixed iambics” because it combines iambs with anapests, mixing single with multi-syllable words to create sounds more subtle, lively, and complex than simple iambs could produce. For one example, look at line 12:

“apart / from a gen / er-alized / unread / iness”

Here, “apart” and “unread” are iambs (scanned as ~ /) and “from a gen” and “-eralized” are anapests (scanned as ~ ~ / ). The last two syllables in the line (“-iness”) make up an “orphan” foot missing its closing beat.
The line lengths vary widely with, for example, four stresses in line 1, two in lines 2 and 3, one in line 4, and so on, and for this reason, the poem cannot be assigned a meter. But if you mark the stresses, you’ll see mostly iambs and anapests, and if you listen to the poet read “Fig,” you’ll hear a rising inflection. It occurs to me that, had she wanted to, Glynn could easily have arranged these lines into iambic tetrameter or pentameter. Her decision not to exemplifies the freedom arising from the mastery I was talking about earlier, and the result is a poem that is far more interesting than my own experiments in arranging “Fig” into regular pentameter and tetrameter lines.
Glynn’s approach to rhyme is likewise informed by but refreshingly untethered from tradition. End rhyme in “Fig” is complex and subtle, with a few full rhymes and many slant variations on those rhymes, as in the way “limbs” (line 17) rhymes with “swims” (20) and then modulates to “blooms” (41) near the end of the poem. Every end word in the poem has a sonic echo, and many are echoes of echoes—instances of full rhyme leading to assonant or slant-rhyme variations that then lead to their own variations in an ever-branching array of sonic repetition.
Let’s follow one such sequence all the way through the poem. Line 4’s end word “slow” sets up a series of full rhymes with “oh,” “so,” and “no” that are themselves assonant with “grandiose,” a word that in its turn generates full rhymes with “overflows,” “suppose,” “knows.” That series of full rhymes then generates its own series of slant rhymes in “headiness,” “unreadiness,” “yes,” “possessed,” and “this.” Those words are later full-rhymed with “kiss,” whose short “i” sound paves the sonic way for “limbs” and “swims,” and, finally, to “blooms” in the penultimate line. This theme-plus-variations technique elaborates rhymes in a pattern as dense and intricate as the spreading limbs of a tree. A fig tree, perhaps.
The way sound recurs is not according to a strict pattern, at least not one I could discern. It seems to arise more organically in an effect visually akin to the growth of the tree I mentioned, or intricately branching underwater algae, or a daisy chain. Sonically it reminds me of bees, whose individual buzzes coalesce into one rich, multilayered sound we hear as a hum. Clearly well-versed in the techniques and possibilities of meter and rhyme, this poet plays with both, varying line lengths and elaborating rhyme with the complexity and speed of a kaleidoscope.
Against these rapidly-modulating flashes of rhyme are interposed the short and shorter lines, lending a sense of extension, of attenuation or stretching things out, as the poem proceeds column-like down the page, and the two forces working against each other establish the poem’s tone of extreme satiety and languor. In a way that mimics the figs letting go to fall from the tree, we are made to wait, wait, wait all the way to the poem’s very last word to get the “fruit,” but by the time we get there, we are replete.
If you have time, do listen to Glynn reading the poem on the link provided or read it aloud yourself, lingering at the ends of lines and savoring the sound and feel of those juicy words in your mouth. “Fig” is a wonderful lyric to a fruit that, at least in Glynn’s treatment, becomes the epitome of extreme satisfaction, the perfect poem to offer up the Sunday after many of us have just enjoyed our annual Thanksgiving feasts, and one for which I am very thankful.]]>

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  • Molly Fisk November 28, 2016 at 8:56 pm

    This is so wonderful — read it alongside AE Stallings “Olives” before dinner and that is a double grace.

    Reply
  • Molly Fisk November 28, 2016 at 8:56 pm

    This is so wonderful — read it alongside AE Stallings “Olives” before dinner and that is a double grace.

    Reply
  • Judy Anderson November 27, 2016 at 6:46 pm

    A luscious poem. I read it hungrily, like I might bite into the fig, then swoon with the depth and texture of it. Delicious. Thank you.

    Reply
  • Judy Anderson November 27, 2016 at 6:46 pm

    A luscious poem. I read it hungrily, like I might bite into the fig, then swoon with the depth and texture of it. Delicious. Thank you.

    Reply