More on the Influence of Form

Not long ago, I posted about the influence that poetic form has on the effect of a poem.   At that time I said that I intended to do further experiments with translation of a poem from one form to another.   Here is my next attempt.

The starting point is a light verse I posted almost at the beginning of this blog.    The original is a Shakespearean sonnet, which may be thought of as a sequence of seven couplets.   The first translation is a series of seven cinquains; the second is a series of seven haikus.  I will provide a  brief analysis at the end.

Consider, friend, the paradox of life:
It’s all you have, and all you’re sure to lose.
All that you do – grow up, pick out a wife,
Owes more to Chance than I, for one would choose.
Fear not! The answer is Philosophy.
And if, at that, your heart fills with gladness,
Remember that all thought is Sophistry,
And thought is the certain way to madness.
These days, with all there is that’s puzzling,
I think as little as I can.
I work with my hands! That’s the only thing
That fits with God’s simple, earnest plan.
I work hard, and for relaxation, I
Try to pass camels through a needle’s eye.

(The last couplet is an irreverent reference to Matthew 19:24)

Translation into Cinquains:

My friend,
Consider the
Paradox of life; it’s
All you have and all you surely
Will lose.

All that
You do – grow up,
Meet someone and marry,
Owes more to Chance than I, for one
Would choose.

Fear not!
The answer is
Philosophy, and if,
At that, your heart fills with gladness,
Beware.

All thought
Is Sophistry.
So stop thinking so much,
For thought is the certain way to
Madness.

These days,
With all there is
That’s puzzling, I try
To think as little as I can,
Or less.

I work
With my hands, the
Only thing that fits God’s
Simple, earnest plan for we puny
Mortals.

I work
Hard, and when I
Relax, I try to pass
Camels through upright needles by
The eye.

 

Haiku translation:

Consider, friend the
Paradox of Life – all you
Have and all you’ll lose.

All that you do in
This life owes more to Chance than
I, for one would choose.

Fear not, the answer
Is Philosophy, which may
Fill you with gladness.

But remember, all
Thought is sophistry, and thought
May lead to madness.

These days, with all of
Life’s puzzles, I try to think
So very little.

I work with my hands
That’s the only thing that fits
With God’s simple plan.

And for relaxation, I try
To pass camels through the eyes
Of my needles.

 

All three versions say essentially the same thing, but the effect each has is different.   To help understand this, a little background on the various forms will help:

The Shakespearean sonnet has 14 ten-syllable lines (occasionally a syllable may be dropped for effect ) which rhyme according to the pattern :abab cdcd efef gg

Each five line cinquain has the following (unvarying) syllabic pattern:

2 syllables
4 syllables
6 syllables
8 syllables
2 syllables

Each three line haiku has the following (unvarying) syllabic pattern:

5 syllables
7 syllables
5 syllables

In summary then, each couplet of the sonnet has (usually) 20 syllables; each cinquain has 22 syllables and each haiku has 17 syllables.   I believe the difference in the number of syllables is the primary cause of the difference in effect.   The original sonnet is full of intellectual wordplay and has in the end a slightly off-putting comic effect ( off-putting because you ave to work too hard).  Some of the individual cinquains do a better job than the original couplet, of delivering meaning; others have a prosaic quality, because of the extra syllables.  Overall, the cinquain version is noticeably less cohesive.  The haiku version, on the other hand, feels more cohesive, but its oracular quality  (due in part to fewer syllables) dampens the humor.

 

 

 

 

 

My Father’s Face

I wrote the first version of this poem around twenty years ago in San Antonio, Texas. My late wife, a city councilwoman at the tine, was attending a National League of Cities convention, and I had accompanied her.

My father and stepmother drove up for the day from their home in Kingsville, about 180 miles to the south.   I hadn’t seen him for the best part of a year, and I was shocked by the change. True, he had grown more and more sedentary since he retired, but, despite some heart trouble, he had always seemed vigorous and healthy. He was almost eighty now, and for the first time he looked his age. His gait was halting; he needed a cane; and he seemed to have lost his interest in life’s pleasures.

The poem is a sonnet, the form that I usually turned to in those days to document troubling emotions. I was trying to understand what was going on.   What I didn’t know until after he died a few years later was that his heart condition was much more serious than he had been letting on to the family. (My father was a master of denial).   What I didn’t suspect until I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, was that he may have shared the condition. The “sudden, pointless stops” described in the poem were one of my major symptoms before I received treatment.   It would have been just like my father to notice new symptoms in his body and never bother to tell his doctors.

 

MY FATHER’S FACE

My father’s face looks like a rumpled sock;
His feet are slippered; in his hand a cane.
His gait is slow, with sudden, pointless stops.
I cannot watch him without shock.
“I’ve chosen this,” I expect him to explain.
Instead, he finds the nearest chair, and plops.
And I think: “Is this my fate? To live by pill?”
“To sit and wait for passing time to kill?”

And yet, when he begins to think,
I see the brilliant person that I knew.
When ideas clash, he does not shrink
From combat; he takes the field anew.
And when he looks at death, he does not blink.
He faces it; considers it his due.

Story Poem 2 Perhaps Surprise Would Please Her More

I distinguished between story poems and autobiographical poems here.  The small sonnet that follows is from 1969.

 

Perhaps Surprise Would Please Her More

The house is old, and grey, and tall.
Her room is on the upper floor.
He starts to ring, but, after all,
Perhaps surprise would please her more.
His feet raise little clouds of dust,
As he ascends to where she lives.
That pleasant aching must be just
The satisfaction drama gives.

He starts to knock, but then, before,
He listens closely to the door.
Laughter. Voices unaware.
The crispy creaking of a bed.
Softly, he descends the stair,
And for a moment, turns his head.

A Rock

The following poem was my reaction to the Kent State Shootings in 1970.  It is yet another sonnet ( I seem to have written a lot of them).  If I were writing the poem today, I would make the secret urge line more ambiguous, and I would make the link to Kent State more explicit.  ( The shooters at Kent State were National Guardsmen, not police.)  But on reflection, I think the little verse does a good job of focusing on the right issue.

                     A Rock

A rock – no harmless little thing to throw.
My sister’s hit me once – I have a scar.
Today, an urged-by-anger youth I know
Threw his own rock, not very far.
Not far, but hard and straight, and at a man
In blue, a man who had his job to do.
His job – to put down riots if he can,
Despite his secret urge to kill a few.

And now, the youth lies bloody-red on stone,
And all the satisfaction he had known
When he threw the rock, must ebb away.
Perhaps the man in blue did well, you say.
I say, the picture says what must be said:
One man in blue, the other: glistening red.

Story Poem 1

Sometime back, I announced that I was going to post autobiographical poems on this site from time to time.  You can expect more of them in the near future.

This post is the first of a series of poems that I call story poems.   The difference is this: an autobiographical poem tells a story about me that is true; a story poem tells a story about me that appears to be true, but isn’t.

Afterglow
They say the spirit lingers after death,
Or so I hope – there’s so much more to say.
They say that with your final, fleeting breath,
You see your life, but distant, like a play.
If so, I’ll see you once, and once again –
That day we met, that day that first we kissed,
That day you left – forever that day when
You went back to the world that I have missed.
Back to the life of marriage and a child,
Back to him from whom you could not part.
And as for me, I am now reconciled,
I live alone, alone, without my heart.
But when I die, I’ll find you. You will know
I’m there. I’ll linger in your afterglow.

An anti-war sonnet

(from 2004-2005)

Old men, not young, should go to war.
The young are fearless, older men
have learned acceptance.  Even when
They’re faced with death, it cannot mar
The record of the life they’ve led.
They’ll fight with calm, the almost dead.
Young men will often go too far,
Old men, not young, should go to war.

But, soft, that argument is wrong.
Old men enjoy a summer’s day
As much as any callow youth.
Young men, though fearless, brave, and strong,
Need time for laughter and for play.
We all should stay at home, in truth.