Monthly Archives: March 2013

March 25, 2013 Night (analysis)

Dear readers,

Well, no one wanted to take a stab at the formal analysis game, so let’s take a look together, eh? Here is last week’s poem in its entirety:
NIGHT
Night is a thief. He creeps and he skulks,
like a tireless carnivore stalking its prey.
He snatches at shadows
or remnants of daylight.
He tucks them in sacks, then hides them away.

Night is an artist who spurns all color,
a craftsman whose nightmares haunt him by day,
a master who sculpts
in stygian stone,
a painter whose pallet is muted and grey.

Night is a vandal who lives in my bedroom
he creeps up my bedpost and into my head
where he works his great mischief,
and just before morning
crawls back to his sanctum, under my bed.

“Night,” said I to the wordless intruder
“I tire of your silence, your shadows I dread.
Enough of your torment,
your gloom and your madness;
give me my slumber,” I wearily pled
(from the safeness of bedsheets
drawn up to my head).

But night is a thief, a vandal and worse
his darkness a cancer
. . . his silence a curse.

He gives me no answer
—just nods his bleak head
and vows me more hours
of torment instead.
Leaving me sweating
and cold in my bed,
. . . restless and sleepless
enfeebled with dread,

. . . in the arms of the darkness
alone in my bed.

Now I’m willing to be corrected here, but it seems to me that Mr. Chaplin has invented his own stanza form. There are 7 stanzas total, and the first 4 of them follow the same rhyme and rhythm pattern. The rhyme scheme is ABCDB, meaning that for stanza one, the rhyming words are labelled thus:
 skulks, (A)
prey. (B)
shadows (C)
daylight. (D)
away (B)
Every time you see a new sound, you assign it a new letter, thus “B” in the schematic represents the repeating sound of prey/away. The pattern starts over in stanza 2, but interestingly the poet actually chooses the same “B” rhyme, this time the words are day/grey. “B” takes on a new end rhyme in stanza 3 (head/bed), which is likewise repeated in stanza 4 (dread/pled). And then stanza 4 has two extra 2-footed lines, the second of which repeats the end rhyme (head).
Rhythmically, those four stanzas use a combination of anapests and dactyls, which are 3-syllabled poetic feet. He uses them in rapid succession, and every once in a while leaves off an opening syllable or tacks one on the end. An anapest puts the accented syllable last (bum bum DUM), while a dactyl puts it first (BUM dum dum). So you can hear the dactyls in this line:
NIGHT is a VANdal who LIVES in my BEDroom
BUM dum dum BUM dum dum BUM dum dum BUM dum (dum)
and the anapests in this line:
i TIRE of your SI-lence your SHADows i DREAD
(bum) bum DUM bum bum DUM bum bum DUM bum bum DUM
You can see that those lines have four accents each, and are thus written in tetrameter. The “vandal” lines are dactylic tetrameter, the “silence” lines are anapestic tetrameter. And now we’ve done a basic rhyme and meter analysis.
Luckily, Mr. Chaplin is not done having fun, as he then throws at us a tercet, a 3-line stanza, that slows down the proceedings a bit: he introduces a new rhyme (worse/curse), he puts only 2 accents in each line, and he uses ellipses… Then, he throws us yet a new stanza form, this one a tumbling lament that really hits that “B” rhyme hard (head/instead/bed/dread), and includes only 2 accents per line, giving it a headlong, rushed feel. The vocabulary heightens the sense of anxiety.
The poet uses ellipses three times in the poem, and their appearance near the end of stanza 6 and the beginning of stanza 7 land us lightly on his concluding couplet, which is basically anapestic with a an extra unaccented syllable in line 1, and an unaccented syllable chopped off of line 2. The chopping off of an unaccented syllable is called catalexis; if there’s a word for the addition of an unaccented syllable, I’ve forgotten it or never knew. Note the enigmatic, lovely paradox of those concluding lines.
Now these terms and dissections are not meaningful in themselves, but with practice they do help one take apart the poem and see the choices the writer has made. And obviously, the formal choices relate to what is being said (diction/theme), and in what sequence (syntax/repetition). The approach in Mr. Chaplin’s poem is pretty simple. Night is a thief, night is an artist, night is a vandal, and here is what he does to me. Definition, followed by description, followed by subjective expression. It’s quite Romantic in its way, Romantic with a capital R.
But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe those aren’t anapests and dactyls at all. Maybe they’re iambs and trochees that have been subjected to syzygy! Discuss? -ed.
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March 18, 2013 Night

Dear readers,

It’s very sneaky when someone becomes a published poet by submitting their letters to the editor in verse form. But I’ve stumbled upon someone who’s done it at least twice! Last week I was reading an article in the Times about sleep disorders, and came across the following entry in the “comments” section. No longer reading the comments section is a resolution that I have adopted, and failed at, for 3 years running. But this was some good stuff.
For obvious reasons, a short biographical sketch of the author will not be possible. However, Mr. Chaplin (a resident of my birthplace) is clearly a fan of formal verse. Anyone want to take a stab at describing the rhyme scheme and meter here? Perhaps you could analyze it while up late one night? Have a good week, this most glorious week of the year. -ed.
NIGHT
Night is a thief. He creeps and he skulks,
like a tireless carnivore stalking its prey.
He snatches at shadows
or remnants of daylight.
He tucks them in sacks, then hides them away.

Night is an artist who spurns all color,
a craftsman whose nightmares haunt him by day,
a master who sculpts
in stygian stone,
a painter whose pallet is muted and grey.

Night is a vandal who lives in my bedroom
he creeps up my bedpost and into my head
where he works his great mischief,
and just before morning
crawls back to his sanctum, under my bed.

“Night,” said I to the wordless intruder
“I tire of your silence, your shadows I dread.
Enough of your torment,
your gloom and your madness;
give me my slumber,” I wearily pled
(from the safeness of bedsheets
drawn up to my head). 

But night is a thief, a vandal and worse
his darkness a cancer
. . . his silence a curse.

He gives me no answer
—just nods his bleak head
and vows me more hours
of torment instead.
Leaving me sweating
and cold in my bed,
. . . restless and sleepless
enfeebled with dread,

. . . in the arms of the darkness
alone in my bed.


-Stephen Chaplin
Richmond, VA
2013

March 11, 2013 Convalescing

Dear readers,

I’m dedicating today’s poem to my co-workers at the Pennsylvania Immigration Resource Center. I suppose pride isn’t the most commendable of human qualities, but I am proud to have stood shoulder to shoulder with you for two years. The poem itself is a pithy, earnest lyric that probably needs no commentary from me.
Jack Gilbert, like every great person in the history of the world, was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He died in 2012. He failed out of high school and exiled himself to Europe for 20 years after publishing his first book of poems, and thus inhabited the role of “outsider” within the modern American tradition. But his poems were always well-received and won many prizes over the years. He described himself as a “serious romantic.” -ed.
CONVALESCING
I spend the days deciding
on a commemorative poem.
Not, luckily, an epitaph.
A quiet poem
to establish the fact of me.
As one of the incidental faces
in those stone processions.
Carefully done.
Not claiming that I was
at any of the great victories.
But that I volunteered.
-2011

March 4, 2013 Useless Landscape

Readers,

You’ll have noted that over the weekend poet D.A. Powell won the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry, honoring his 2012 book Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys. Remember that kid in sophomore English who said that poetry was gay? Well, I’m sorry, he was right. Powell’s new book is about growing up and growing up gay, and some of his previous books have been said to form an “AIDS trilogy.” Cocktails, for example, from 2004, made a pun out of the things an HIV patient can take to dull the pain. Lucky for me there was plenty of description of real, boozey cocktails in that book, so that I, a drifting, dipsophiliac, semi-professional could read them with wicked self-conscious delight at Cambridge and Somerville bars after my working hours. Since Powell was then teaching and I was slinging books at an academic library, I was fortunate enough to meet him one day.
I like Library Journal‘s description of his writing: “Poems by Powell are the Apple products of the literary world: sleek, urbane, well-designed marvels. . . . Powell is as good a technician as anyone in the business, and his latest book, both smart and accessible, will have award panels queuing up to sing its praises.” Here’s the title track of his award-winning book, well-designed, urbane, and accessible. -ed
USELESS LANDSCAPE
A lone cloudburst hijacked the Doppler radar screen, a bandit
hung from the gallows, in rehearsal for the broke-necked man,
damn him, tucked under millet in the potter's plot. Welcome
to disaster's alkaline kiss, its little clearing edged with twigs,
and posted against trespass. Though finite, its fence is endless.

Lugs of prune plums already half-dehydrated. Lugged toward
shelf life and sorry reconstitution in somebody's eggshell kitchen.
If you hear the crop-dust engine whining overhead, mind
the orange windsock's direction, lest you huff its vapor trail.
Scurry if you prefer between the lime-sulphured rows, and cull
from the clods and sticks, the harvest shaker's settling.

The impertinent squalls of one squeezebox vies against another
in ambling pick-ups. The rattle of dice and spoons. The one café
allows a patron to pour from his own bottle. Special: tripe today.
Goat's head soup. Tortoise-shaped egg bread, sugared pink.
The darkness doesn't descend, and then it descends so quickly
it seems to seize you in burly arms. I've been waiting all night
to have this dance. Stay, it says. Haven't touched your drink.

-2012