Poetry

Poetry Sunday: Poems by Lee Harlin Bahan

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor
In previous columns, I’ve identified the two prevailing sonnet forms in English as Shakespearean and Petrarchan, identifying rhyme schemes for each and talking about how those patterns affect the unfolding of thought and release of energy in the context of each form. This week we will delve more deeply into the Petrarchan form, given rich and fresh expression in Lee Harlin Bahan’s new book, A Year of Mourning: Poems 271-322, which re-imagines Petrarch’s Rerum vulgarium fragmenta, also called Il Canzoniere and illuminated in early versions like this one:
 

According to Wikipedia, Rerum vulgarium fragmenta consists of 366 poems, mostly sonnets whose central theme is the poet’s love for Laura, a woman Petrarch allegedly met on April 6, 1327, in the Church of Sainte Claire in Avignon. Bahan’s new book translates 52 of these sonnets as one coherent unit, specifically poems written to commemorate a year’s worth of weeks spent grieving for the poet’s lost love. As Bahan points out, it’s easier to get a grip on 52 poems than 366 of them, and offering this excerpt allows something else to emerge: a narrative arc or through-line that makes the poems more accessible, relevant, and memorable for contemporary readers. What I admire most about Bahan’s translations is what distinguishes them from others I’ve read: they are less decorous, and more muscular, demotic, and laced with deep wit. It’s the rose with the thorn, the spirit with the body, the wine with the next day’s hangover. Tony Barnstone, an accomplished translator and poet, nails it in his praise written for A Year of Mourning:

What if that lovelorn Italian sonneteer Francesco Petrarca was a wisecracking guy named Frank Petrarch from Indiana who fell in love with his neighbor’s wife, Laura, and then turned to poetry in sorrow when she died young of an infectious disease? The result might be something like Lee Harlin Bahan’s translations and transformations in this sonnet sequence. Here, the corset tightened until the bones crack has been loosened to allow for a natural diction, syntax, and idiom that allows that old ghost, Petrarch, to speak to us as if he were alive today. The loosened but elegant meter and occasional harmonic rhymes pay homage to the form, but the real interest here is in reflecting Petrarch’s stark emotion structured into wit and rhetorical play. The result is readable, rewarding, and exciting. This is one that belongs on your nightstand.—Tony Barnstone, author of Pulp Sonnets

                                             [Image Source: https://en.wikipedia.org]

 
Classic Petrarchan rhyme scheme, diagrammed as abba cde, employs envelope rhyme [abba] in the two quatrains making up the octet in the poem’s first eight lines and employs alternating rhyme [cde] in the sestet (last six lines). All three of today’s sonnets follow this scheme, with variations. “Bad Trip” substitutes a few slant (indicated by prime symbols) for full rhymes in its octet or first eight lines: abba’ a’bba’. “Castiglione” introduces new rhymes into its second quatrain [cddc’], but the “d” rhymes also slant-rhyme with the “a” rhymes in the first. Its sestet is classic Petrarchan except for a slant rhyme in line 12 [efg e’fg]. “Laura in Disguise at Sunset” follows form (with slant rhymes) in its octet [abba’ a’bb’a’] but shows considerable departure from the form in its sestet [cdc dcd’].
The poems are in iambic pentameter (five beats per line with a preponderance of feet containing iambs stressing the second syllable [~ /] and they feature rich internal rhyme, assonance, and consonance, evident in the first five lines of “Laura in Disguise at Sunset” where “decked” in line 1 rhymes with “speak” in line 4 and has assonance with “kept” in line 2. “Crimson plumes” is a lovely example of internal slant rhyme, also found in line 5’s “sweet rootstock from which I grew sick,” where “sweet” slant-rhymes with “root,” and “stock” slant-rhymes with “sick.” Initial consonant alliteration occurs in “sweet” and “sick,” and in line 4’s “sigh” and “speak.”
I highly recommend A Year of Mourning for readers interested in translation or the sonnet form, as well as anyone suffering the pangs of unrequited love. What I most appreciate about the book is what Tony Barnstone highlights in his blurb: Bahan’s ability to capture the essence of classical love sonnets in language fresh enough to make them relevant and moving for readers today. Successive readings of these poems yield new etymological and other delights, revealing ever more to admire in terms of wit, succinctness, and layers of meaning. I also enjoy the interplay between present and past in Bahan’s witty titles. And, all three sonnets have killer closing lines. In “Bad Trip,” Bahan uses syntax both to give us those “pretty lights” and then, at the last moment, yank them away—devastating! The closing line in “Castiglione” yields many levels of meaning. Petrarch’s making Laura “famous” can be read as both a good thing (he’s memorialized her through time) and a bad thing (a devout woman like Laura might view any fame as infamy). Likewise, “good” can mean Laura improves Petrarch’s soul but equally that she supplies him with a great writing subject. The entire line can be taken either seriously or ironically; that is, we can believe Petrarch to be grateful for what Laura has given him, or resentful and feeling he’s gotten the short end of the bargain. Bahan just recently signed a contract to publish another chunk of these translations, and I for one cannot wait to see what she does next.]]>

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  • Ivette February 25, 2018 at 8:46 am

    Hi, love reading these amazing poems which describes so much of each writer. I am not a poet yet I love to express my inner most feeling in writing and just yesterday I wrote a few lines that cam from my heart as a poet. Am I a poet? I don’t know.
    Where can I post some of what I wrote and can someone tell me if they constitute as poetry?

    Reply
  • Ivette February 25, 2018 at 8:46 am

    Hi, love reading these amazing poems which describes so much of each writer. I am not a poet yet I love to express my inner most feeling in writing and just yesterday I wrote a few lines that cam from my heart as a poet. Am I a poet? I don’t know.
    Where can I post some of what I wrote and can someone tell me if they constitute as poetry?

    Reply