Poetry Sunday: ‘Variations on an Old Standard,’ by A. E. Stallings


Variations on an Old Standard

Come let us kiss.  This cannot last—
Too late is on its way too soon—
And we are going nowhere fast.

Already it is after noon,
That momentary palindrome.
The mid-day hours start to swoon—

Around the corner lurks the gloam.
The sun flies at half-mast, and flags.
The color guard of bees heads home,

Whizzing by in zigs and zags,
Weighed down by the dusty gold
They’ve hoarded in their saddlebags,

All the summer they can hold.
It is too late to be too shy:
The Present tenses, starts to scold—

Tomorrow has no alibi,
And hides its far side like the moon.
The bats inebriate the sky,

And now mosquitoes start to tune
Their tiny violins. I see,
Rising like a grey balloon,

The head that does not look at me,
And in its face, the shadow cast,
The Sea they call Tranquility—

Dry and desolate and vast,
Where all passions flow at last.
Come let us kiss.  It’s after noon,
And we are going nowhere fast.


First appeared in The New Criterion, April 2003. Copyright c. 2006 by A. E. Stallings. Published in Hapax in 2006 by TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved. Ms. Stallings most recent book, Olives (TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press 2012) can be ordered here.


AE Stallings Book Cover_Olives_screen grab_3-8-16

E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia and has lived since 1999 in Athens, Greece. She has published three books of poetry, Archaic Smile (1999), which won the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax (2000); and Olives (2012) and a verse translation of Lucretius (in rhyming fourteeners!), The Nature of Things by Penguin Classics (2009). She is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation. She lives with her husband, journalist John Psaropoulos and their two argonauts, Jason and Atalanta. Her website is http://aestallings.wix.com/aestallings.


Poet’s Notes

“Variations on an Old Standard” is an old poem, from before we moved to Greece even (in 1999), so it feels quite distant in time and space to me now.  In a way it is my take on the “To His Coy Mistress” theme (a favorite poem), from a less male perspective.  I remember being very pleased with the cleverness of “noon” as palindrome–maybe it is too clever, though I wouldn’t change it.  (And I rather like throwing in some heavy-weight diction in a folksy song setting, but realize that is idiosyncratic.)  I still have a penchant for grammatical puns as metaphor (the Present tenses).  And I see a nod to Housman (channeling Sappho) in “The head that does not look at me.”  I still have a fondness for clichés that are jolted back to life (going nowhere fast).  It’s a poem I probably couldn’t write now, but I am glad to say I still like it.


Notes on “Variations on an Old Standard”

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

I met A. E. Stallings at the West Chester Poetry Festival I attended in 2009 and I since then I’ve taken every opportunity possible to attend her workshops or hear her read: West Chester two more times, then a class on the Dolnik at the Poetry by the Sea Conference last May and a Translation Workshop at Sewanee Writer’s Conference in July. All three are summer poetry terrific conferences—check out their websites at the end of these comments. Stallings is well known for her remarkable, seemingly effortless mastery of formal poetry as well as for her much-praised Latin and Greek translations. She is also a wonderful teacher—demanding, witty, and utterly charming—and it was no surprise to me when last year she became the first ever woman ever to be nominated for the prestigious position of Don of Poetry at Oxford.

What is the “Old Standard” referred to in this poem’s title? Stallings’ notes indicate that it refers to what has come to be known as “Carpe Diem” (Seize the Day) poetry whose best-known examples include Andrew Marvell’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” (also known as “Come live with me and be my love) and “To His Coy Mistress.” Others are “Let Us Live, My Lesbia, and Let Us Love” by Catullus, and “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” (also known as “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may”) by Robert Herrick. The phrase “Carpe Diem” originates in Horace Odes 1.11 and embodies a philosophy seen in contemporary idiom in the “Live in the present moment” message ubiquitous in our popular culture. According to the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetics, its injunction to “seize the day” typically “is pronounced amid warnings about the transience of life, the uncertainty of the future, and the inevitability and finality of death.” (Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetics, eds. Alex Preminger and T.V.F. Brogan, University of Princeton Press 1993, 171.) Ways of seizing the day typically include eating and drinking and making (or exhorting someone to make) love. Carpe Diem poems commonly draw from examples of passing time in the natural world like seasons, sunsets, phases of the moon, and the evanescence of bloom.

All these elements are present in today’s poem. It’s injunctive in form, telling us what to do: “Come let us kiss” (1, 26). It warns of the transience of life: “Too late is on its way too soon” (2), and of the uncertainty of the future: “we are going nowhere fast” (3, 28). It draws from nature for examples to press the point that time is passing: a setting sun, bees hoarding pollen for winter, a moon whose face is “Dry and desolate and vast” (25). And its way of capturing the present moment is in the time-honored practice of love.

How does the poem deviate from (make a variation on) the “old standard”? One way is by having a female speaker. In the traditional Carpe Diem poem, a man enjoins a woman to relinquish her virginity. Although there are no gender markers here, we know the poet is a woman, and the very absence of gender markers is itself a variation; look again at the list of well-known examples of Carpe Diem poems above, with their references to “virgins” and “mistresses,” and you’ll see what I mean. For another example of a woman poet who claims the tradition as her own, see Annie Finch’s witty reply to Marvel “Coy Mistress.

But there is another “old standard” that this poem makes variations on, and that is the terza rima form. It’s characterized by a rhyme scheme of tercets that rhyme aba bcb cdc ded efe fgf, and so on, and ending with a single line or couplet rhyming with the previous tercet’s middle line.  Note how the rhyme scheme is interwoven; the first line of each stanza rhymes with the second line of stanza that precedes it. Dante invented this interlocking form for use in his religious epic, The Divine Comedy, but poets like Chaucer quickly caught on to its power and put it to secular use. One famous example of a poem composed in terza rima is Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” five sonnet-length sections each rhyming aba bcb cdc ded ee.

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  • Meryl Natchez April 25, 2016 at 7:24 pm

    She is wonderful, thanks for this.