Poetry

Poetry Sunday: 'Why Publish?' by Rhina Espaillat

In contrast to what we see in today’s poem, Petrarchan sonnets, said to be less logical and more suited to the development of emotional and expressive themes, use envelope rhyme to knit the first two quatrains into one unit (the octave) and a variety of other rhyme schemes to fuse the last six lines into one unit (the sestet), with the volta typically taking place in or after the eighth line. Because Shakespearean sonnets evolved in the seventeenth century from Petrarchan sonnets invented in Italy in the eleventh century, it is perhaps not surprising that Shakespearean sonnets sometimes contain turns in (or near) both the 8th line (sometimes called a “demi-”  or even a “shadow” turn) and in the last two lines. We see this in line 9 in “Why Publish,” which turns from observation (watching the young woman or man of the future paging through the speaker’s old book of poems) to speculation (hypothesis about what the poems will mean or not mean to readers of the future). The full turn in today’s poem, signaled by the disjunctive “but” in line 11 and completed in the final couplet, resolves the problem posed by the poem’s title—the speaker publishes to find what she has in common with others and what will outlast her individual mortality.
If you look closely, you may notice that the end words in lines 9 and 11, “life” and “wife,” are also near rhymes with the end words of lines 1 and 3, “shelf” and “myself,” so that we could diagram this poem’s rhyme scheme as ababcdcda’ea’eff. This reduces the number of rhyming end words from 7 to 6, condensing and intensifying of sound repetitions. Shakespeare was famous for doing this. For a more contemporary example, see Robert Frost’s “Acquainted with the Night,” which supersaturates its terza rima rhyme scheme to the point that there are only three basic end rhyme variations, and nearly every phoneme in the poem—not just every word—has a slant or full-rhyming partner. One thing that strengthens today’s poem is the integrity of its full end rhymes, not just in sound but also in sense. Any one of those pairs, excised from the poem and examined on its own, gives rise to a wealth of associations that undergird the meaning of the poem. The first rhyming pair, “shelf/myself,” makes me think of the speaker’s confessed fear of being forgotten, or shelved. That it slant rhymes with later line end words “life” and “wife” adds in sociopolitical connotations of married life for women, how theirs sometimes becomes a sequestered, interior existence. I love the rhyming pair “name / same” for its paradoxical quality, because when one makes a “name” for oneself, it is a mark of distinction and a way of not being at all the same as everyone else. Have a look at the other rhyming pairs—grand/hand, me/prosody, found/ground, and yours/endures—and you will see how precisely the poem’s diction has been faceted to reflect its meaning.
What do we know about the speaker? The poem is narrated in omniscient third, but the speaker refers to herself in the first person three times (“myself” in line 3, “me” in line 5, and “my” in line 7) and offers a few other clues. We know she is ambitious—her “motives” are the “same” as the hypothetical young man’s and she dreams big by hoping her book will last not just one but two centuries. We also know she has a self-deflating sense of humor about it: “Let dreams be grand” (line 2). We know she is “growing old,” and we know also that during her life she was a “mother, wife / [and] daughter,” roles that she realizes will speak to posterity more powerfully than fame (“my name”) as a writer. The reference to “antique prosody” in line 7 is true within the logic of the poem—anything she’s written will “a century hence” be old by definition; it is perhaps also a sly reference to the contemporary preference for free verse over (and in some cases a downright antipathy to) the sonnet and other “received” forms. Because of her insistence that the future reader of poetry may as well be a woman as a man aspiring to write their own verse, we know she is a feminist. What I found interesting was the extent to which Espaillat was able to make this very personal poem—why she, in particular, writes—into a question of universal application and significance. One way she does that is in the modulation of pronouns, which develop from singular and personal (myself, me, my, he, she, his) into plural and inclusive of the reader (yours, ours).
How funny that I found this poem by being and doing exactly what it predicted—“a woman, growing old” browsing a book—not yet an antique but paying homage to and sometimes thumbing its nose at a very old and revered fixed form! I found myself identifying with that reader of the future as well as with the poem’s author, and even with the young man who catches glimmers of shared ambition.
 

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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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  • 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