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

If you diagram the rhyme scheme of Stallings’s poem, you will see that it follows the terza rima form exactly, with full rhymes in all the prescribed places: aba bcb cdc ded efe fgf ghg hah aaba. Stallings’s variation is to make the whole thing circular by returning in its last two lines to the rhymes that closed the poem’s opening stanza. Beginning with stanza 6, she also supersaturates the sound pool by repeating rhymes heard previously in the poem. For example, stanza 6 could be diagrammed as fgf, but since its end word (“moon”) also rhymes with the word ending the second line of the first stanza (“soon”), it could also be diagrammed as fbf, also true of stanzas 7-9.

None of the most famous examples listed above is written in terza rima, so that may itself be another variation on the Carpe Diem poem. The decision to use terza rima was, you can be assured, carefully made by this poet well known for her fluid mastery of form. One quality imparted by terza rima is its “powerful forward momentum,” and another is its evocation of “processes without beginning or end, a perpetuum mobile in which linkage and continuation are seamlessly articulated.” (Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetics, eds. Alex Preminger and T.V.F. Brogan, University of Princeton Press 1993, 1271.) Thus, the form itself enacts the theme of the poem: time’s inevitable forward movement and how to outwit it.

Other things to note about this poem are its strict meter (tetrameter, four beats to a line) and its rich internal rhyme—look, and you will find at least one instance of assonance, slant or full rhyme in every single line. There are also in-line repetitions of words like “too” in lines 2 and 14, as well as other sound repetitions like the image-supporting “[w]hizzing by in zigs and zags” of the bees in line 10. A poem’s strict adherence to meter and rhyme is one thing, but to accomplish that, as here, without artificiality or loss of tension is simply wonderful. What are some of the other devices at work that keep this poem fresh, taut, and not in the least stilted? Well, for one thing, word play is smart and highly inventive. After being set up by the words “flies” and “at half-mast” the sun, itself a flag, “flags” in line 8. “Noon,” a verbal palindrome that can be read forwards as well as backwards, also functions as one in a day, the moving-both-ways hinge between afternoon(“too late”) and morning (“too soon”) (4-6). In a witty pun on verb tenses, a personified “Present tenses, [and] starts to scold” (15).

But my favorite aspect of this poem has nothing to do with form or meter or clever language, and that is its remarkable use of imagery. In one allusion to Emily Dickinson, “The bats inebriate the sky” (18). What could be better than that? Well, maybe what follows: “And now mosquitoes start to tune / Their tiny violins.” It’s not just the images that delight here, it is also the diction. “Inebriate” seems just right—and new—for describing the way bats dip and swoop at night; the buzzing of a mosquito in one’s ear is exactly like the sound—not just of a tiny violin—but of the less melodious tuning of that imagined instrument. And to make it even better, sound meets sense in that image with the series of slant-rhyming nasals so like a whine in “tune,” “tiny,” and “violin.” That is all parts of a poem working together to make a whole greater than their sum: a bravura performance proving that formal poetry is alive and well in here in the twenty-first century.

Editor’s Note: If you are looking for a poetry conference to attend this or next summer, I’ve recently attended and highly recommend the following:

The Frost Place Poetry Conference (July 10-16, 2016) and The Frost Place Poetry Seminar (July 31-Aug 5 2016)
Poetry by the Sea Conference (May 24-28, 2016)
Sewanee Writer’s Conference (July 19-31, 2016)
West Chester Poetry Conference (June 8-11, 2016)


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Paradise Drive book coverRebecca Foust’s fifth book, “Paradise Drive,” won the 2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry and was reviewed in the Georgia Review, Hudson Review, Huffington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Review of Books, and elsewhere. Recognitions include the 2015 American Literary Review Award for Fiction, the 2015 James Hearst Poetry Prize, the 2014 Constance Rook Creative Nonfiction Award, and fellowships from the Frost Place, MacDowell Colony, Sewanee Writer’s Conference, and West Chester Poetry Conference. “Paradise Drive” can be ordered at www.press53.com. For more information visit rebeccafoust.com.


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

    She is wonderful, thanks for this.