with critique by Jendi Reiter
We came for love
When the light was fleeing
Under the arbor, by a tree.
We sat in silence
On my coat of leather
Under the sky, near the earth
The night was tender
Warm and bright
With you and I, the garden wall.
We came for love
When life was fleeting
Under the arbor, by a tree.
Our ageless day
Yet the inevitable night
Has entwined us forever
With a longing for life.
Copyright 2005 by J.T. Milford
Critique by Jendi Reiter
This month's critique poem, "Under the Arbor" by J.T. Milford, has the timeless quality of an old English ballad. Though not strictly formal verse, the poem develops a song-like cadence through the use of repeated speech patterns and grammatical constructions in each stanza.
The style and theme of "Under the Arbor" reminded me of Lord Byron's "We'll go no more a-roving". What gives these deceptively simple lines so much power? Perhaps it is the immediacy and sincerity of the feelings that the poet shares with us. There is no self-conscious drama, no aesthetic affectation. No matter how many poets and lovers have made the same observations, the ecstasy and the loss are felt afresh by everyone who falls in love.
Similarly, in "Under the Arbor," the scene becomes more poignant for its lack of detail. The lovers are every lover, the arbor is every pastoral scene where the changing light and turning seasons reminded us of life's fragility. This theme comes through in Milford's deft reworking of the first stanza in the fourth: "When the light was fleeing" becomes "When life was fleeting."
The poem uses just the right amount of repetition to create a musical structure without becoming monotonous. The first two lines of stanzas 1-4 have two stressed beats each, but the number and pattern of syllables varies slightly. Lines ending in "silence", "leather" and "tender" relieve the pressure of having each line end on a stressed syllable, which can give a poem a leaden tread. The third line of stanzas 1-4 feels like two shorter lines because it falls into two parallel halves, usually a pair of prepositional phrases. But the poet breaks that pattern slightly in the third stanza, "With you and I, the garden wall," allowing the heart of the poem, "you and I," to stand out more from its context. The three-line structure creates the sensation of two halves joined to form a greater whole in the third line.
I was less enamored of the concluding stanza, which deviated from the pattern of the preceding stanzas without a clear rationale, and lacked their careful pacing. I also felt that the move from physical details (the arbor, the light, the wall) to more abstract images ("ageless day," "longing for life") diminished the impact of the scene. In the first four stanzas, I was seeing through the poet's eyes, whereas in the last stanza, he was telling me what he thought. Sensation is more powerful than second-hand interpretation.
More importantly, I wasn't sure what he was trying to say. The "ageless day" and "inevitable night" appear to contradict one another. These lines could be read as saying that their love made the day seem timeless, yet all along they know night is inevitable. But how has the coming of night "entwined [them] forever/With a longing for life"? Is it that they cling more tightly to each other because they know that the passage of time brings loss? If the point is that they are united forever by love, the last line pulls the reader in a different direction: are they longing for life, or each other?
My suggested rewrite below flows more naturally from the preceding stanzas, while preserving most of the images and clarifying the main idea:
We longed for life
Though night descended
Entwined forever, in ageless day.
The last line could bear a double meaning. The lovers' bond makes day out of night, and night and day are also entwined, just as the lovers' ecstasy is always intermingled with awareness of mortality.
Where could this poem be submitted? These upcoming contests came to mind:
Firstwriter.com International Poetry Competition
Entries must be received by October 1
Top prize of 500 pounds plus a free subscription to this useful resource site for writers. Submit online only
Hastings International Poetry Competition
Entries must be received by October 21
Top prize of 150 pounds and publication in First Time, a UK literary magazine
Lucidity Poetry Journal Awards
Postmark Deadline: October 31
Free contest offers $50 for poems in any form dealing with people and interpersonal relationships, from an enjoyable journal whose mission is to publish well-crafted "understandable" poetry
Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Annual Poetry Prizes
Entries must be received by November 6
Top prize of $10,000 plus numerous other cash prizes for "lyric poems celebrating the spirit of life." Brevity is encouraged.
This poem and critique appeared in the September 2005 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter. If you'd like a chance to be critiqued, please email your poem to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send your poem in the body of your email, rather than as an attachment. One poem per month only, please.
Several of our critique poets have asked me whether their poem would be considered "published", and therefore ineligible for most contests, after appearing in our newsletter. My guess would be yes, but check with the contest coordinator just in case, because some publishers may treat print and online publications differently.