Saturday, February 28, 2009

Sestina (Blame Stephen Fry)

I made a new year's resolution this year to write every day. I've mostly kept it. I can't say I've got a huge amount of work done on my main projects as a result, though. I'm writing more frequently, but not necessarily for very long each day. One thing I have been speeding ahead on, though, is working my way through The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry. This is a great little book for anyone who wants to learn or review the formal side of poetry writing. Well, maybe not anyone. Parts of the book are not suitable for children, thanks to Fry's naughty sense of humour, and the exercises are definitely at an adult level. But for all you mature would-be poets, it manages to make the elements of poetry transparently clear while being entertaining at the same time. It is like a tour through the world of poetry by a knowledgeable and witty guide, except that you aren't allowed to just stand and admire things. There are exercises.

I have found the exercises really valuable, and not too onerous. I have generally taken the view that exercises are not for writing brilliant verse, but for building the skills of writing verse. As a result, I have had fun with the exercises, but have mostly produced insufferable doggerel. This morning, however, I had a surprising experience.

The assignment was to write a sestina. I had read up to the exercise last night, and given a little thought to topics and words to go at the ends of my lines. This morning I thought about it some more as I lay in bed. I came up with a first stanza, which I thought was a little too cute to really use. I couldn't imagine actually getting five more stanzas plus an envoi out of it. But since I hadn't come up with anything better, I started thinking a bit about where I could go with it, and came up with a couple ideas. By the time I got up, I had decided I might as well try it. I wrote down my cutesy first stanza, and fitted the ideas I had so far into my second one. Then, well, it just sort of got going. I was really surprised by the things that came out as I went on. I wrote the whole thing in about an hour.

So, here it is. I suppose if I was a professional poet I would want to do some revision before I considered this poem finished, but I think as it is it makes an interesting example of how ideas can grow organically. Consider it a specimen.

This is the house that someone built
Not on the rock, but on the sand,
Not out of brick, but out of straw.
This is the heart that always fed
Not upon trust, but upon hope,
Not upon truth, but upon dreams.

Some years don't offer much but dreams.
Some years tear down all that is built,
And leave behind only the hope
Of better days. Wait. While the sand
Runs from the glass, the goats are fed
Not upon hay, but upon straw.

At times she said, "It's the last straw.
I'll do no more." But night brought dreams,
And somehow she kept the children fed -
All but one lived. For him she built
A little cross and piled white sand
Over the grave. She tried to hope

He was in heaven. But it was hope
And not belief. She grasped the straw
And lost it thinking of the sand
Above his head. He lived in dreams,
And out of dreams his mother built
A world inside. Her spirit fed

Compulsively on lies. She fed
The growing children. They found hope
In newer lands. Far off they built
Houses of sod with floors of straw
And filled the fields with all their dreams,
Numberless as the grains of sand.

This is the mouth that tastes the sand
Of death even when it is fed
On sweets. These are the lonely dreams
Of an old woman. Still her hope
Is for the child with hair like straw
To come again. What has she built?

It shifts like sand. Her weary hope
Grows thin. She's fed up with the straw
Figures of dreams, torn down, rebuilt.

1 comment:

Eoasph said...

That's so sad, in that annoying "uplifting story" sort of way.

Are you writing Christian inspirational poetry now? ;)