Poetry Sunday: “Prepositional,” by Lorna Knowles Blake

One argument against calling today’s poem accentual is that it does not show the degree of strong initial consonant alliteration that characterizes Anglo-Saxon verse. When I scrutinize the poem, though, I can identify subtle alliteration binding its distiches, and them to each other. To understand this, let’s start by recalling that alliteration includes more than just the initial consonant alliteration we are most used to seeing. Consonant alliteration, though, is of two types: repeating consonant sounds either at the beginning (initial consonance) or ends (terminal consonance) of words, or syllables. “Tribe” and “treat” in the first line above show initial consonance, while “him,” “game,” “comes,” and perhaps even “camp” are examples of terminal consonance. Note that in initial consonance, the repeated consonant sounds can also come at the beginnings of syllables within a word, especially stressed syllables.
Another form of alliteration, assonance, repeats vowel sounds, as in “my tribe” and “if,” will,” and “kill” in those same lines. Finally, many contemporary writers routinely rely on internal rhymes and slant rhymes in lieu of or in addition to conventional alliteration to bind words in and across distiches. This practice is in fact the source of my special delight in Alexander’s translation of “Wulf and Eadwacer”—look at all the rhymes and near rhymes (indicated in color below) in just the first few lines:

In the same way, “Prepositional” uses understated alliteration and assonance to knit its distiches. In the version of the poem below, color designates full and slant rhymes, and underlining designates alliteration—some assonant, some initial-consonant, and some terminal-consonant. Note also that a full rhyme, even if not underlined below, is by definition a form of assonance and hence of alliteration.

I hope the diagram makes clear that some form of alliteration is present both within every half-line and also across them in each line, my final argument for today’s poem being in accentual verse. The greater point beyond labeling, of course, is that this sonic binding, in equal parts meticulous and mercurial, is what makes today’s poem so haunting and evocative.
The primary source of “Prepositional’s” structure is its Anglo-Saxon-inspired metrical pattern, but there are other binding agents as well. End rhyme is not one of them, for there is none except for the faint echo between “sky” in line 2 and “tides” in line 14. Something that does connect successive distiches, though,  is word repetition across lines: “ceiling” (1,2), “table” (4,5), “bread” (5,6), “wandering” (7,8), “beneath” (9,10), “meadow,” (9,11), “quicksand” (10,11), “in” (12,13), “something” (12,13), “you” (4,12), “me” (4,13), and “us” (6,9,10,14). Another connective element is the anaphoric use of parallel construction (prepositional phrase +  comma) at the beginning of each line. Parallel construction is especially conspicuous in the “In you” and “In me” that open lines 12 and 13. Those phrases set up a unit of three: “In me,” “In you,” and culminating in “beyond us”—a trinity I interpret as the “us” superseding and subsuming both individuals.
When I see any poem in 14 lines I have to ask myself whether it could be called a sonnet. Can there be such a thing as an Anglo-Saxon sonnet? I don’t see why not, and if memory serves, you will find examples in some of the books of forms out there—my favorites are Lewis Turco’s The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics (UPNE 2000) and Patterns of Poetry: An Encyclopedia of Forms, Miller Williams (LSU Press 1986). For my money, and the Norton Anthology of English Literature seems to agree, a poem is a sonnet so long as it includes enough sonnet indicia to make the poem as a whole feel in that form. According to my notes, Norton calls this having a “sonnet experience.” In today’s poem, a volta does occur at the beginning of line 7, close to where we’d expect to see one in a Petrarchan sonnet; the poem is in present until then and with “Before this” switches to past. But because it returns to present again in the very next line, the volta does not feel fully realized. Significantly, there is no end-rhyme pattern or other way for the poem to accumulate energy in stanza-blocks the way most sonnets do; instead, it accretes line by line in a decidedly nonlinear progression. I also notice the shape the poem makes on the page—columnar rather than, as Annie Finch says, able to fit in the palm of my hand, and so to me the poem does not feel like a sonnet.

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