Arts & Culture · Poetry

Poetry Sunday: 'Lucifer at the Starlite,' by Kim Addonizio

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor


This parody is an example of a sonnet variation undertaken so often over the centuries since the sonnet’s first appearance 400 years ago that it has been subsumed within the sonnet tradition. As mentioned in the Poet’s Note, Addonizio’s poem was written with this poem by George Meredith in mind:
 

  . . .. . .. . Lucifer in Starlight

   On a starred night Prince Lucifer uprose. 
   Tired of his dark dominion swung the fiend 
   Above the rolling ball in cloud part screened, 
   Where sinners hugged their spectre of repose. 
   Poor prey to his hot fit of pride were those. 
   And now upon his western wing he leaned, 
   Now his huge bulk o’er Afric’s sands careened, 
   Now the black planet shadowed Arctic snows. 
   Soaring through wider zones that pricked his scars 
   With memory of the old revolt from Awe, 
   He reached a middle height, and at the stars, 
   Which are the brain of heaven, he looked, and sank. 
   Around the ancient track marched, rank on rank, 
   The army of unalterable law. 

I find this an interesting choice of poem to parody, because Meredith was himself an innovator, known for Modern Love, a book of sonnets written in 16 instead of the typical 14 lines. His “Lucifer in Starlight,” though, begins as the most conventional of Petrarchan sonnets, with strict envelope rhyme in the octet (abbaabba). The sestet is the place where such sonnets often show variation, with three rhymes that typically vary as efgefg but can appear in other configurations. Meredith rhymes his sestet cdceed, inserting a rhyming couplet into it. He also introduces a variation on the meter, regular iambic pentameter until the last line, which contains only four beats, or three, depending on whether you stress the last syllable of “unalterable.” Overall this sonnet is conventional, particularly in its theme: the triumph of good over evil, here allegorized as the triumph of God’s army of stars and immutable law over the winged, roving Satan.
The common definition of a parody (also known as a spoof, takeoff, or send-up) is a piece of art that is an imitation of the style of a particular writer, artist, or genre with deliberate exaggeration for comic effect. It’s a form of ekphrasis, art that necessarily depends upon the existence of another piece of art to inspire it. Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” parodies the writing of social commentators who provided “solutions” to humanity’s ills in an essay that adopts a mock-serious editorial style to propose killing and eating infants as a way to end hunger. Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” adopts the heavy style of a Homeric epic to lampoon the trivial issues of morality and etiquette so important to the higher echelons of society. In rhetoric, parody is defined as seeking to subvert or overturn the meaning of the original piece of art or writing.
Addonizio adopts Meredith’s style–the sonnet form—and subject—the struggle between good and evil in the world. Although his poem is serious and hers is satire, both are purportedly spoken by the winner of the battle. Meredith’s poem uses omniscient third person (sometimes called the “God” point of view) to tell a very serious story about Satan vanquished by God’s army of stars and immutable laws; Addonizio’s poem is entirely rendered in dialogue spoken by Satan himself.
Addonizio challenges the poem’s form, first by starting out with a Shakespearean rather than Petrarchan rhyme scheme; the first 8 lines alternate rhyme (ababdcd), and that very last “d” rhyme is slant rather than full (grinding/rising). After that, the poem goes off traditional rails and rhymes in couplets (eeffgg). The meter is mostly regular iambic pentameter, offering five beats per line in the expected unstress/stress pattern, but it stutters somewhat on feminine (unstressed) line endings in the “grinding” and “rising” of lines 6 and 8 and then again in the penultimate line, which offers only four strong beats and also ends with a feminine inversion of the typical iambic pattern.
But where Addonizio really subverts Meredith’s poem is in its message. In her poem, Satan recasts himself as the good guy, and even if we see through his irony, he is still at least not the guy who invented the evils that now plague humanity. In the world of Addonizio’s poem, evil triumphs in the form of war that “grind[s]” up young men and women (“sand” cues us that it is the current wars in the Middle East that are being pinged here), air pollution (“methane”), and global warming (“retreating ice shelves”). Satan appears as a corrupt but low-level Pol, the kind of guy who promises the chicken-in-every-pot he can’t deliver, here styled as a place in the stable for every “thoroughbred” and a place under the table for every drunk worker. Where Meredith’s Satan finds himself cast down in the face of capital-A Awe, Addonizio’s finds himself the victor, able to cast “a shadow over every starlit thing.”

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  • Sally Bliumis-Dunn August 14, 2016 at 3:36 pm

    Feels like a collection of these poems and essays would make a great book. Just sayin’.

    Reply
  • Sally Bliumis-Dunn August 14, 2016 at 3:36 pm

    Feels like a collection of these poems and essays would make a great book. Just sayin’.

    Reply
  • Sally Bliumis-Dunn August 14, 2016 at 3:27 pm

    Really enjoyed both Kim’s poem and the careful commentary. This Sunday Poem will make good teaching fodder for those at a college level. Thank you, Becky.

    Reply
  • Sally Bliumis-Dunn August 14, 2016 at 3:27 pm

    Really enjoyed both Kim’s poem and the careful commentary. This Sunday Poem will make good teaching fodder for those at a college level. Thank you, Becky.

    Reply
  • Sherry Donovan August 14, 2016 at 10:29 am

    Thank you,Rebecca Foust for sharing Addonizio’s poetry this morning. Stunning, thought provoking, it stays with you.

    Reply
  • Sherry Donovan August 14, 2016 at 10:29 am

    Thank you,Rebecca Foust for sharing Addonizio’s poetry this morning. Stunning, thought provoking, it stays with you.

    Reply
  • Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. August 14, 2016 at 8:38 am

    Well, this is certainly a Sunday poem that produces thought! Becky,
    thank you for introducing me to this unsettling poem and to its author. I am ordering her books now. We are so very fortunate to have you as our Poetry Editor where you teach and expand the knowledge of average readers who want to read poetry in more substantial ways. Thank you.

    Reply
  • Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. August 14, 2016 at 8:38 am

    Well, this is certainly a Sunday poem that produces thought! Becky,
    thank you for introducing me to this unsettling poem and to its author. I am ordering her books now. We are so very fortunate to have you as our Poetry Editor where you teach and expand the knowledge of average readers who want to read poetry in more substantial ways. Thank you.

    Reply