Poetry

Poetry Sunday: 'Why Publish?' by Rhina Espaillat

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor


I found today’s poem in Irresistible Sonnets, an anthology of sonnets edited by Mary Meriam (see feature in March 2016) and called by Pleiades reviewer Katherine Hoerth “smartly put together, at once respecting the long tradition of the sonnet and invigorating it with both contemporary sensibilities and hybridity.” Ms. Espaillat’s name caught my eye because I’d met her at the annual West Chester Poetry Conferences in 2011 and 2013, and I was looking forward to meeting her again in her role as Poet Emerita of the 2016 Conference, “Exploring Form and Narrative.”
If you’ve been reading my columns, you know I’m partial to sonnets and that the poems in my last book were all variations on that form. I teach about the sonnet’s agelessness and elasticity and enjoy pointing out that for nearly every “rule” or sine qua non, it’s possible to find an example that departs from the rule and yet remains undeniably a sonnet. In fact, breaking the rules has itself become so much a part of the sonnet tradition that challenging or at least playing around with the form is often listed as a criterion. I agree with Poet Mona Van Dyun who has said that of all forms, the sonnet strikes her as the most susceptible to deconstruction.
But I also admire very much classic examples like today’s Shakespearean sonnet ringing out in iambic pentameter, with its full alternating rhymes in three embedded quatrains and a closing couplet. Traditional Shakespearean or Petrarchan rhyme schemes can be varied by using other patterns (e.g., rhyming couplets or terza rima) or by changing the nature of the rhyme: slant or near for full, repeating entire words instead of their sounds, reversing the rhymes, and a host of other innovations including no rhyme at all. Traditional rhyming meters can also be varied: sonnets are routinely written in nontraditional meters such as monometer or dimeter or entirely without meter. These variations account for the astonishing tenacity and flourishing of the form over the centuries, but they can also be an excuse for not taking the time to find the best-words-in-the-best-order that excellence requires. In other words, it’s easier to write a good sonnet that forgoes strict rhyme and meter than it is to write a great one that adheres to the form. When I’m writing sonnets, I constantly struggle with the question of whether my variations actually improve the poem or are instead just a consequence of my inability to find a word or words that fit. And it makes me greatly appreciative when I encounter masterful contemporary examples of the form like today’s poem.
The rhyme scheme in “Why Publish” is a classic Shakespearean (also called Elizabethan or English) sonnet rhymed ababcdcdefefgg. This poet chose not to break out the stanzas, but you will observe that the scheme imposes a structure that divides the poem into three quatrains (abab cdcd efef) and a couplet (gg), which in its turn imposes a very distinct logic on the poem, one that differs from, say, the logic in a Petrarchan sonnet whose form divides it into an octave (abbaabba) and a sestet (efgefg, or variations).
The Shakespearean form lends itself naturally to an argument, with the first quatrain available to state the case or thesis, the second to state its refutation or antithesis, and the third setting up the resolution of the argument that comes in the final couplet, and with the volta or “turn,” typically found in, or just before, the rhyming couplet. Let’s see how that works out in today’s poem. In the first quatrain, the speaker imagines a reader one or two centuries in the future taking her volume of poems down from a shelf. That, together with the title, can be said to state the thesis or problem of the poem: why do we publish (as opposed to just write) our work? The second quatrain speculates on who the future reader might be, predicting or hoping that his motive (ambition) or hers (awareness of mortality) for reading the old book is something shared with its author. At this point, then, we have two possible reasons for publishing: fame or immortality. The third stanza goes some way towards answering the question, musing on the transitory qualities of a writer’s fame (“he will forget my name”) as opposed to universal and more lasting qualities inherent in family relationships. In this way we are prepared for the conclusion stated in the last two lines: the speaker publishes her work in order to find commonality with the rest of humanity (not just contemporary but all humanity, past and present), something that “endures” and transcends the limits of her earthly span.

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  • Jacqueline Lapidus August 8, 2016 at 3:02 pm

    Would you believe, I feel just the inverse about my poems: If nobody else sees them, why bother writing them? I don’t know why I feel the urge to write poems, it’s just hard-wired in me, but I have never written “for the drawer.” The work comes from beyond me and must be sent out to the world beyond me, even though I may never know whom, if anyone, it has touched.

    Reply
  • Jacqueline Lapidus August 8, 2016 at 3:02 pm

    Would you believe, I feel just the inverse about my poems: If nobody else sees them, why bother writing them? I don’t know why I feel the urge to write poems, it’s just hard-wired in me, but I have never written “for the drawer.” The work comes from beyond me and must be sent out to the world beyond me, even though I may never know whom, if anyone, it has touched.

    Reply