July 12, 2011 God’s Secretary

Two years ago a friend gave me a copy of POETRY magazine, and it was a real treat because, although of course I’d known so many things about the flagship journal since high school, I’d never seen or read an issue! The friend passed it on because there was an interview with Seamus Heaney at the back, and he wanted to know what I thought. Well I don’t know what I think, but it now seems appropriate to use Mr. Heaney’s answers as a way to introduce a theme for our reading, and then read a poem that fits into that theme, and let our readers help me know what to think. We’ll be doing that over the next few weeks. So here’s his answer on formal poetry (the interviewer is Dennis O’Driscoll), followed by a sonnet by “new formalist” R.S. Gwynn, whom we’ve discussed on this forum before. Do you like formal poetry? Do you find form distracting, or do you find yourself not noticing? Is form a crutch, or the opposite? Finally, if Heaney is right, where does this poem succeed–can you see it moving by its own logic, not just the logic of the stanza template? (Note, by the way, that Heaney’s answer completely discounts the existence of the Shakespearean sonnet form–cracks me up…) -ed.

DOD: You mentioned earlier that a poem will come more quickly if there is a form. Would you be offended to be called a formalist?

SH: I wouldn’t be offended but I think it would be a mistake. “Formalist” to me sounds like a kind of doctrinaire position. I totally believe in form; but quite often, when people use the term, they mean shape rather than form. There’s the sonnet shape, fair enough, but it’s not just a matter of rhyming the eight lines and the other six; they happen to be set one on top of each other like two little boxes, but they’re more like a torso and pelvis. There has to be a little muscle movement, it has to be alive in some sort of way. A moving poem doesn’t just mean that it touches you, it means it has to move itself along as a going linguistic concern. Form is not like a pastry cutter–the dough has to move and discover its own shape.


Her e-mail inbox always overflows.
Her outbox doesn’t get much use at all.
She puts on hold the umpteen billionth call
As music oozes forth to placate those
Who wait, then disconnect. Outside, wind blows,
Scything pale leaves. She sees a sparrow fall
Fluttering to a claw-catch on a wall.
Will he be in today? God only knows.

She hasn’t seen His face–He’s so aloof.
She’s long resigned He’ll never know or love her
But still can wish there were some call, some proof
That He requires a greater service of her.
Fingers of rain now drum upon the roof,
Coming from somewhere, somewhere far above her.


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