Mar 12, 2014

Posted by in All Nine Muses, Poetry | 3 Comments

Looking at a Sonnet from the Inside

Constraint begets creativity, and the particular demands of the sonnet form are conducive to the kind of poetry that I am drawn to write, with a focus on vivid images or states of mind. A finished poem, if successful, feels complete; it’s hard to imagine it being other than it is – and so I’ve decided to write about the revision of a sonnet of my own, one that has its merits but, in the end, doesn’t quite work.

This particular poem was sparked by my reading about the end of the NASA shuttle program, with the last flight of the Space Shuttle Atlantis. As someone who grew up reading science fiction and watching sci-fi television, I felt like this marked the end of an era, and sought to capture something of my mood in this poem.

Here is the first version.

My childhood’s future sent us to the stars,

To unknown worlds, strange and new frontiers

And empires, strife, and interstellar wars.

Even in space we can’t outrun our fears.

We fell back to the earth, and farther still,

To inner space, where on the nano scale

We thought we could remake, by force of will,

Ourselves. We saw our technomancy fail

To give us what we need: firm ground to know

What kind of thing we are. We’re not machines;

The siren song of space won’t let us go,

And worlds we’ll never see still haunt our dreams.

One day we might look up, and take a chance

And seek to join the stars in joyful dance.

This is not a terrible poem. There are some things I like about it; ‘technomancy’ and ‘my childhood’s future’. It’s not entirely satisfactory, though. I submitted it to a poetry journal and was asked to revise it. It still wasn’t accepted (and rightly so, I think now) but the result was an improved version:

My childhood’s future sent us to the stars,

To unknown worlds, strange and new frontiers,

To empires, strife, and interstellar wars.

Even in space we can’t outrun our fears.

We fell back to the earth, and farther still,

To inner space, where on the nano scale

We now subject our selves to our own will.

But we have seen our technomancy fail

When what we seek is not to shape but know

What kind of thing we are. We cannot chart

The fractal currents of the soul; we go

From dark to dark, and in the hidden heart

We’re searching still. For are we yet machines

If worlds we’ll never see still haunt our dreams?

 What did I change, and why? In the middle of the poem, the awkward “We thought we could remake, by force of will, / Ourselves” has been replaced by “We now subject our selves to our own will.” Better? Maybe. The meter is clunky and forced, although there’s the potential for some interesting double meaning with ‘subject’ (verb) over against ‘subject’ (noun).

Form, sound, phrase, and meaning in a sonnet are all inter-related: the revisions I noted above necessitated a change in the next line. “But we have seen our technomancy fail” is, I think, an improvement; it has a better sound to it, and the ‘but’ reinforces the sense of loss that I’m trying to achieve. However, it’s still unsatisfactory in terms of meaning, because it glosses over the question: Fail at what? In neither version is the next line satisfactory. Version 1 has “To give us what we need: firm ground to know / What kind of thing we are.” Version 2 has: “When what we seek is not to shape but know / What kind of thing we are.” Both answers are dodges: abstract, with no punch.

In version 2, however, there’s a genuine improvement in the following lines. I’ve ditched the stale “siren song of space” and have found the vivid image of “We cannot chart / The fractal currents of the soul.” I like that image, and if I were to re-work the poem now, I’d focus on it, to draw out some of its potential.

The closing couplet has a substantial change. The close of version 1 is too easy, even saccharine: “One day we might look up, and take a chance / And seek to join the stars in joyful dance.” Blah. In the revision, I converted the statement “we’re not machines” in the middle of the poem into a question at the end: “For are we yet machines / If worlds we’ll never see still haunt our dreams?” This is better, because it raises the unsettling possibility that maybe we have, in fact, become machines – have we gone too far, lost some essential part of our humanity? Note also that the rhyme is no longer exact. In the first version, the full rhyme of chance / dance exacerbated the easy, pat feeling of the closing couplet; in version 2, machines / dreams is less precise and thus works better with the note of uncertainty that I’m trying to achieve here.

As I look at this poem now, a couple of years on and with more experience, I can see why even with the revision, it doesn’t quite work.

First, it’s too abstract. My strength as a poet lies in concrete details, in using specific, clear, vivid imagery. Precision, precision, precision.

Second, it’s too grandiose. I make sweeping statements in this poem because they sound good, not because I’m articulating a genuine insight. What do I mean by “we go from dark to dark” or “in the hidden heart we’re searching still”? I didn’t know then, and I don’t know now. I can’t hide behind the idea that it’s a rich image that contains more meaning than I am consciously aware of. That can happen, but I can tell the difference now. Here, it’s a case of me using a nice-sounding phrase that I didn’t think too much about.

Third, the sound patterns don’t suit my voice. Some poets can and do make excellent use of full rhyme (Malcolm Guite, for one). But I’ve found that my poetry is more natural, and more effective, when I use slant (half) rhyme, sometimes so very much slant that it’s more like 1/16th rhyme than half rhyme! So it’s interesting to look back on this poem and see that one of the genuine improvements from version 1 to version 2 involved shifting slightly away from full rhyme in the couplet.

Good writing is not something that just ‘happens’. It is hard work and involves a great deal of practice, revision, experimentation, failure, more practice, and more revision. Discovering one’s voice and developing it is also a process that takes time; there are no short-cuts. But the good thing is that, as G.K. Chesterton said, anything worth doing is worth doing badly. One has to start somewhere, and one’s early work is always going to be imperfect or even really awful. Even as an experienced writer, there’s always room to grow; and knowing that, I think, makes it easier to get started. Want to write a sonnet? Go for it. Write a bad sonnet! Then write a better one. Repeat. Learn. Enjoy.

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I wrote this piece for Kelly Belmonte’s excellent blog All Nine Muses, as part of a series exploring the sonnet form. You can read the other pieces in the series over on All Nine.

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Dr. Holly Ordway is the chair of the Department of Apologetics and director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms (revised and expanded second ed. forthcoming 2014, Ignatius Press). Her work focuses on imaginative and literary apologetics, with special attention to C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.

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  1. Elizabeth Sunshine says:

    This was very helpful for me. I write poetry, but I always have trouble revising my work because of the constraints of the form (if you change one line, you often have to change two)and because I don’t yet have a good sense of what makes a poem “work” or not. It’s helpful to see how a more experienced poet evaluates and revises her work so I can learn how to do so for my own poetry.

  2. Very interesting and helpful to see the revision process and the reasoning behind it. Holly, what books do you recommend on writing poetry?

  3. Holly Ordway says:

    Thanks, Jean E. There are a couple of books worth looking at: Ted Hughes’ “Poetry in the Making” is good on the creative process side of it, and there’s a Norton anthology called “The Making of a Poem” that provides a good overview of different kinds of formal poetry. Generally my recommendation is to pick a form that is appealing, read lots of poems in that form, and then practice, practice, practice the actual writing of poems in that form, until the structural conventions stop feeling like rules and start feeling like the structural elements of the poem, its bones.