Secrets of the Sonnet

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Nov 252013

Intro and Endnote to an afternoon of “Dueling Sonnets” conducted between Chris Bogart and Gregg G. Brown in the Late Spring of 2013.


This “duel-to-the-deaf,” cooked-up at Chris’ instigation, is a good moment to reflect on the combative nature of poetic friendship. There is the dare, the challenge, of two eagles sparking each other to higher cloud-cliffs, or the raucous oboe-music of two bullfrogs boisterously bellowing out their over-proud self-renown in the echo chamber of a mud pond. Always there’s a glance at “what the other guy is doing” when writing, when flirting with Fame. The current crop of rappers and “slam” poetry contests takes this energy for what it is–an evolutionary imperative. Be we bullfrogs or banded eagles, we expand or soar to what loudnesses and heights our time of trial allows.

May 22, 2013
Gregg Glory
[Gregg G. Brown]

Secrets of the Sonnet

Anguish gives us that to call our own–our littleness in the immensity. And it is this littleness that we, still reasoning with fate, sing. And it is in the sonnet that this “anguish of reason,” of needing to need reasons, finds its singing voice. So congenial is the sonnet for the purpose of striking off an attitude of thought, and then briefly turning it around for consideration, that it is itself an essay-in-little, a quantum of human sensibility, a unit of our vast humanity.

A sonnet holds a pillow’s-worth of dreams, a santa’s-sack of infinity. How could it be otherwise? Like Dr. Berhen’s execrable x-rays, the sonnet shows a lump of heart amidst a ghost of bones.

The sonnet is an able instrument. At times, it seems a wispy lyre, no more than an adolescent’s inaugural mustache. At other times, as with Milton, it seems a pocket cannon, Dirty Harry’s .357 magnum blasting out Justice. Often the form seems to encourage the play of quickened wit, thrusts and parries, both of image and of sound, with much more variety and activity than so small a string quartet seems like it should be able to provide.

The sonnet has been the library of such scintillating variation and is, I think, the closest that English verse has come to a jazz form–open to all subjects and moods. The very fact that it drips with unstated implications (because of its enforced brevity) and, at the same time, demands careful development of a theme (because of its long history of use, and not just in english), no sonnet sings in a vacuum. Even Robert Lowell’s unusual fourteeners of blank verse play out their game in the context of sonnetry, so wrestler-wiry is the tradition.

Sometimes a sonnet is a plain pocket of worsted poesies, a very dry handful of desiccated violets. Like a compact mirror, it is portable enough to show any face; a pocket kaleidoscope of Lon Chaney faces. In argument, the sonnet has “a sting to do his foes offense.” In loving, no tool but the lover’s native virility is more efficacious in making fruitful the demurest vale. It is a Caliban of enmity, and an Ariel of loveliness. It cannot be sung, properly speaking, but is best composed as a sort of talking-song, often with a very specific, even singular, audience in mind. In Wordsworth’s hands, it has amplified private meditation and carried out loud that part of public discourse.

One secret of the sonnet that I know, is its approachability. No writer fears the sonnet, and almost all writers try their hand at taming or maiming it. A mistake is more easily forgotten than forgiven–and especially so with the sonnet; the bad ones die off without a murmur, and the good ones maintain a freshness unique to the form. Look at Millay’s triumph; her voice in the sonnet is out of tune with her time, but the goodness she put in her sonnets is still seen as good. A counter-example are Robert Frost’s lengthy Horatian declarations–quite good, really, (and perhaps, of their type, present-day exemplars) but unforgivably out of key with the times, and so they lack a sympathetic audience beyond a few ruminative souls.

Another good secret is how a sonnet, with all its twists, can be held in a single contemplation or experience of it as a performance in such a way that the content and form are balanced in the reader’s mind. It is small enough and open enough to invite your own further speculations; in fact, its success depends upon your participation. And so, when a sonnet catches you, it is like an answered prayer; you remember the deity of your own percipience. A sonnet can draw a picture, or snip a snapshot, but you supply the vital memory that brings the thing to life. The sonnet demands this of you, talks you into dreamy collaboration with its therapeutic life-process; it is the “talking cure” writ small.

Gregg Glory
[Gregg G. Brown]

American Songbook Note: BRIEF DISSERTATION

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Oct 302013

This poem was written on the occasion of my friend’s completion of his doctoral dissertation at Rutgers. The dissertation, far from being brief, is many hundreds of pages long, and it deals with matters many hundreds of years old. I had no gift to bring to the gathering, and in the process of stopping along the Garden State Parkway to versify myself out of my embarrassment, I was able to give some poor blighter a can of motor oil so that he could tool on home with his toddler. The man was relieved, and my friend was gracious in his acceptance of my scribbled gift. May every verse in this volume find such welcome receipt in the breasts of my readers.

American Songbook Note: COME, MY DREAMS

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Oct 302013

The basic intention of this book is laid out in its headnote, but reaching those headwaters from which all else flowed itself required a journey. I had spent much time in meditation of my approach, which was to find clear touchstones of the “American character” in fact and myth, folktale and dream. We have no long-winded epic, no vast leaves spilling from a forest of folklore; our gods are Greek, and cribbed lessons from the Bible, some Appalachian ballads that owe more to the Scottish Highlands than the American Heartland, and certain Roman stoics who were the fad among our founders. Somewhere in the middle of the ninetieth century, our literary desire to find heroes and define our inchoate longings turned decidedly humorist. No Dante would spring fully-formed from the misadventures of Pecos Bill, the silly hillbilly feuds of the Hatfields and McCoys. I had to sit and think awhile, and so I went to where the wind and water form and everlasting mist along the Jersey Shore. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, I had seen the landscape of my childhood transformed by the indifferent violence of nature; many of these shore communities will never reconstitute themselves again, and their local tales have been washed away, their common history scattered to the tearing wind. I knew that other forces were tearing at the fabric of our common memory, and that a similar devastation may already have worked its will. No epic would do, nothing comprehensive could be found for our diversely voiced nation and its multiplicity of circumstance. I recalled W.B Yeats’ maxim “You can refute Heigl, but not the Song of Six Pence,” and toyed with the idea of writing a volume of nursery rhymes, as I had done when I was sixteen. I put this notion aside, but allowed my dreaming eyes to rest on a similar prospect; I had wanted to write something “irrefutable” in terms such as Yeats had suggested, something “beyond cold right or wrong,” and such bedrock can be found only in universal dream and man’s endless desires.

American Songbook Note: A TALE IN ACADIE

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Oct 302013

References Longfellow’s narrative poem, “Evangeline,” which tells of the British expulsion of the French Acadians from Canada. Many of these Acadians settled as a group in Louisiana and are the ancestors of the Cajuns. Longfellow’s story tells of two lovers who are parted by the British attack, and find each other only by accident many decades later when the man is hospitalized, and the woman has become a nurse in a religious order. Their last moment of life is one of recognition, where they feel their love has stayed true, and then the man dies. The eternal search for desire, the quest for what our heart as seen, as if in a vision, and fidelity to that quest: what else can create a trajectory of meaning in our transient lives, but this manifestation of the immaterial? The man burdens himself with recriminations that he could have kept them from being separated in the disaster, and spends his days wandering throughout the country seeking his sweet Evangeline. The world itself begins to fade, or become an opposing force, as his desire grows ever brighter, ever stronger, ever more real. Either love or faith by themselves are mighty centers of action, drawing meaning after them in their cometlike wake; together, the comet must make landfall and crater hearts.

American Songbook Note: THREE TRINKETS

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Oct 302013

A prominent merchant in St. Paul, Minnesota, Joseph Forepaugh, built an elaborate Victorian mansion for his family; but success begat more misery than happiness. Forepaugh had a tryst with their Irish housemaid, Molly, making her great with child. When confronted with his infidelity by his wife, he swore off the affair and he moved the family to Europe to avoid a scandal. Molly, distraught and alone, hung herself before her good name could become ruined by her indiscretion. Joseph Forepaugh moved the family back to the St. Paul area after a few years away and built his loyal wife another mansion. But, he was so haunted by the sad death of his young lover Molly, he developed insomnia and eventually took his own life in the darkest hours of the night. The poem takes place on one of these endless nights of his heartbroken vigil. Joseph and Molly’s ghosts are often seen haunting the mansion, drifting disconsolately through the walls.

American Songbook Note: RUNNING IN THE RYE

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Oct 302013

Another difficulty of the project on which I have embarked, is that of finding folktale and exemplar full enough of life in the twentieth century. Who are our heroes, the ones that say something of universal value, or that touch a root nerve so deep the great oak must shiver? Who, from our last century, do we, as Americans, carry within us? The process is made more difficult yet with the resignation of writer and artist from the hero-making business. Now, I hate jingoism and smarmy claptrap as deeply as any man (except when singing patriotic songs on the Fourth of July); but, the forging of national identity–even the search for that identity–is a frowned upon activity, scoffed at in intellectual journals, and dismissed by the popular press. The mass media prefer to have heroes as disposable as fashions, and for the same reason: to increase sales. The moral curiosity of a Hawthorne, seeking the expiation of sins, or the commemorative wish of a Francis Scott Key to recall battle-sacrifice with a song are not the norm anymore. Our bibles are printed on toilet paper, our national ideals become ephemeral. In any case, the guilty self-exploration of Holden Caulfield seems to have stuck for some fifty years, and I am claiming his adolescent angst as one of our defining visions of ourselves to have emerged and added itself to the roll call of American heroes. Holden is a bit symbolist and fin-de-si


 American Songbook, Endnotes  Comments Off on American Songbook Note: PHILLIP FRENEAU ADDRESSES NAKED LIBERTY ON HIS KNEE
Oct 302013

Freneau is known as “the poet of the Revolution” with such works as “The Rising Glory of America” and was an early exponent of Romanticism. Here, the opinionated Matawan, NJ resident is playing pat-a-cakes with pretty Liberty, as a good anti-Federalist ought to do in his spare time. In his poem “Death’s Epitaph,” Freneau put these words into Death’s mouth: “slaves and Caesars were the same to me!” It is a sentiment I think the Princeton-educated Freneau could probably have been heard to utter as he downed his rum at the old Poet’s Inn–now a Mediterranean Cuisine eatery.

American Songbook Note: MAJOR ANDRE’S BAD ADVICE

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Oct 302013

Major Andre was Benedict Arnold’s “handler” as we might say of a modern spy and his spymaster. Corrosive vanity, as with the gifted Alcibiades, was all that Arnold had left of his sense of personal honor. Much of the same hero-victim attitude permeates our contemporary celebrity and sports culture. “I am the best at what I do,” becomes a demented demand for special treatment and privilege–a demand that erodes the unity of a free people, creating special classes of individuals. In contrast, Andrew Jackson famously held the celebration of his Inauguration inside the White House, and when the festivities got too rowdy, he had the party whiskey barrels rolled out onto the lawn to remove the crowds; after all, the White House is “the people’s house.” Major Andre, in the poem, is encouraging the slighted ego of Benedict Arnold into an exacerbated state of self-inflicted suffering. In such a state of mind, one’s personal wishes for acknowledgement out-weigh all duty, all glory of a noble goal, all pledges given to a losing cause. One may gain the world, but lose himself in the indulgence of such a mood.

American Songbook Note: OUR BELOVED SOUTHLAND

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Oct 302013

Many of the phrases of this poem were inspired by Martin Luther King’s justly famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The orderly argument for disobedience, which goes through Socrates and Thoreau and Ghandi to break into non-violent flower in the mind of Dr. King, is a most interesting exercise in the influence, the reality of non-material concepts in the life of humanity. The refrain (“My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.”) is from a reported protester whom King mentions expressed herself with “ungrammatical profundity.” Seventy winters on her head, she joined in a bus-riders boycott to protest segregation, where black Americans would be forced to ride in the rear of the bus while white passengers rode up front with easiest access to entrance and egress. There was no question in her mind that the several miles walk to purchase necessities was worth whatever weariness; her soul’s rest was at stake. King himself draws several powerful parallels in his letter written to his fellow clergymen, drawn from both American history and the Bible; from the Boston Tea Party, to the jewish counselors of Nebuchadnezzar who, when they refused to bow to his golden image according to the dictates of their consciences, were thrown alive into a fully-stoked furnace. When the royal Nebuchadnezzar glanced after them to verify their punishment with the wicked lust of all those in power, he saw–not their destruction–but their shadows walking undestroyed in the flames; their righteousness had protected them. John Brown and Nat Turner took a violent path to try and end slavery, each fostering rebellions against an evil institution and paying the penalty of being hanged as law-breakers.


 American Songbook, Endnotes  Comments Off on American Songbook Note: THE POET ABANDONS HOPE FOR HIS NATION IN TIME OF MINOR WAR
Oct 302013

Confusion and wailing are all our politics; the rending of garments, and the distraction of demagoguery are everywhere in our public speech and national stances. The old “root, hog, or die” attitude of self-reliance, the “get off’n my porch” reply to the Federal Revenuer, and even the possibility of such self-reliance, or such flip temerity in the face of authority, are dwindling in our landscape beyond the manicured precincts of today’s high-rent, medievally “gated communities.” As in Indra’s net, all things connect to all things. With no rhymes to remind us of who we are, our geopolitical impact will lessen. “The kingdom was lost, all for the want of a horseshoe nail.” The horseshoe nails of Japan, among other anchors, are haiku; it can be a thing as small and forever as that. Basho re-branded Japanese self-consciousness through his own, deeply historical, sense of values. The tales we tell ourselves about who we are and what we must be can open or close possible futures to our activity. In the TV show “Dr. Who,” the good Doctor most often solves dilemmas in a world that resembles current-day London to a remarkable degree; other times are, perhaps inevitably, less real to those writers. It is the expectations the imagination permits that shapes such choices. Here, the poet laments that such sayings no longer apply to his nation, that the folklore that could have grown up around the civic religion of our founding documents has waned toward silence. The Revolution that occurred first “in the minds of the people,” has faded from their lips. The artist’s duty to carve out unforgettable rhymes that ring true for generations has gone untended; our native hills “echo naught of those old patriot tales.” The mechanical, political adherence to the letter of the Constitution chunters on loudly and deafly, tangling America in the world’s woes as the upholder of world order and an increasingly vague “symbol” of the rights of the individual. We prosecute tendentious wars, but sing no songs of patriot lore:

"No onward story among their aged seams repeats,
 Nothing but blood is added to what was great."