with critique by Jendi Reiter
I'm easing home across the hills and angling west to a sinking sun,
When suddenly in a clash of wills two hawks are at it, one on one,
With flashing wings and slashing bills—to fight all night for pride won't run.
They wheel and rise and go much higher, then turn and peel into a dive
That streaks the sun with a flash of fire; they swoop on up that each may strive
To make the cast they each desire—could either one remain alive?
But just as swiftly as the fight began one was struck with a telling blow
And then as vanquished turned and ran, a desperate glide to the void below
Far from the sun and the eyes of man—to the haven only darkness could bestow.
But the victor rose once more on high, to salute in triumph the fading light,
As though into the sinking sun to fly, to cut its rays with glistening might,
To stake his claim to all the sky—then turned and streaked beyond my sight.
As I turned to follow the homeward trail the red of the sun was almost done,
But that clash of hawks, one strong one frail, had asked of me would I be brave or run,
Would I in the clash of life prevail—to make my glory flash in the sinking sun.
Copyright 2006 by John R. Sabine
Critique by Jendi Reiter
I chose this month's critique poem, "The Clash of Life" by John R. Sabine, for its skillful use of rhyme and meter and its dramatic imagery. Sabine's is an old-fashioned poem, not just stylistically, but also in the boldness with which the author delineates the moral lesson that we should take from nature.
Nineteenth-century writers were especially fond of such exhortations and inspirational conclusions in their nature poetry. Examples include Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "Seaweed" (urging the strong-willed poet to seize and preserve fleeting moments), William Cullen Bryant's "To a Waterfowl" (the bird returning safely to its nest gives him assurance of heaven), and William Blake's "Auguries of Innocence" (seeing our mistreatment of animals as a sign of original sin). Emily Dickinson also frequently compared herself to small creatures such as birds, insects, or flowers, to remind herself to be content with the crumbs of happiness that God gave her. (See, for example, #230, #335, #442.)
With the decline of traditional religion among the intelligentsia, and the advent of Darwinism, this type of poem fell out of fashion because it was no longer taken for granted that nature revealed God's moral order. We see glimmerings of this doubt in Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "In Memoriam", from which comes the famous phrase "nature red in tooth and claw", and the skeptical tone of voice had become well-established by the time of Robert Frost's "Design". However, the popularity of contemporary poets like Mary Oliver suggests that there is still an audience for optimistic, inspiring pastoral verse.
Sabine's poem displays some of the characteristic strengths and weaknesses of the genre. On the plus side, humanity has always sensed that the animal world contained spiritual wisdom. Most of us have known the feeling of kinship with a creature whose struggles and passions seemed to mirror our own. This moment of recognition, similar to what we feel when a work of art touches us deeply, somehow ennobles our personal drama by suggesting that it is connected to a universal story. On the minus side, poems that draw a neat moral from nature can be unsatisfying because they leave out too much of the strangeness that makes nature so awe-inspiring. Sometimes her lessons are neither clear nor heartwarming.
"The Clash of Life" takes this very precariousness as its subject. Sabine shows us the fearful glory of the hawks' battle to the death. Nature is beautiful but also terrible. In fact, it is nature's lack of compassion for weakness that pushes these creatures to heroic extremes of strength and skill. Though the awareness of danger and uncertainty fits the modern sensibility, this poem harks back to the Victorians in its confidence that the human observer can be the master of his fate. It does not end with a message of submission to natural law or the superior sensitivity of animals, the way contemporary nature poetry often does, but with acceptance of "survival of the fittest" as a principle of self-improvement.
The lack of moral ambiguity in this poem—the defeated hawk does not get a lot of sympathy—for me makes the lesson somewhat less realistic and compelling. On the other hand, Sabine's unabashed celebration of a victorious warrior strikes a nice note of contrast to the maudlin sanctification of the underdog that afflicts much contemporary poetry about politics or the environment. Every era has its characteristic extremes.
Despite the cautionary words above, I wouldn't advise Sabine to change the poem much. My main edits would be to tighten the phrasing of some lines so that the meter flows more smoothly, because the beat plays such a key role in transmitting the energy and tension of the scene.
I was also perplexed by the phrase "to make the cast they each desire". Since the hawks are probably not auditioning for a play, I assumed they were fighting over prey, "casting" the way a fisherman casts a line. "Cast" here would mean something like aiming correctly to hit their target. The unusual use of the word makes the storyline unclear, though, and I would change it to something like "seize the prey" if that is what Sabine is trying to describe.
The template for each line of this poem is eight iambs, with the rhymes on the fourth and eighth stressed syllables of each line in the stanza—basically an ABABAB rhyme scheme without the line breaks after the A's. Omitting those line breaks emphasizes the hawks' headlong, high-pressure race to survive.
If Sabine wanted to make the meter of the first line more regular, he could eliminate the word "west" because we already know that the sun sets in the west. "Angling toward the sinking sun" would convey the same information. Since the first two stanzas follow the meter quite precisely, this change is optional. Slight variations (as in line 2, with the extra unstressed syllable in "suddenly," or the two-syllable rhymes "higher/fire/desire") help avoid a sing-song intonation.
The meter becomes more careless in the third stanza, and here I feel that editing is more necessary. Fortunately, most of the key words and phrases can be preserved. I would rewrite it along these lines:
"But swiftly as the fight began, one hawk sustained [or "was struck"] a telling blow
The last line is still a bit wordy, but I like the rhetorical pattern of the first half enough to retain it. The reversed verb order in the second half is old-fashioned, but that does not seem out of place in this poem.
And then as vanquished turned and ran, a desperate glide to the void below
Far from the sun and the eyes of man—for darkness its haven to bestow."
The first line of the final stanza could be rewritten as "the reddening day was almost done". This avoids the repetition of the word "sun" and the excessive internal rhymes using that sound. In the next line, I would tighten the meter again by omitting "of me".
I'm having a hard time with the final line, because it has 20 syllables rather than the correct 16—a bagginess that lessens its impact in a poem that just has to end with a bang—yet the phrases themselves strike just the right note, and I'm hesitant to pick them apart. "To make my glory flash in the sinking sun" has at least two too many syllables, but every word is necessary. The "sinking" sun suggests that the window of opportunity is brief, and that death overshadows even the victor. This tragic irony is essential in a poem that could otherwise feel too triumphalist. Possible rewrites are "Would I in the clash of life prevail—my glory flash in the sinking sun" or "a glorious flash in the sinking sun", but perhaps these are less satisfying in terms of meaning. Such are the tough choices that formal poetry requires! I commend Sabine for telling a compelling story in natural-sounding contemporary language, while remaining mostly within the constraints of his chosen form.
Where could a poem like "The Clash of Life" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Morton Marr Poetry Prize
Postmark Deadline: September 30
Competitive award from Southwest Review offers $1,000 for formal poetry by authors with no published books
Firstwriter.com International Poetry Competition
Entries must be received by October 1
Prizes up to 500 pounds for poems 30 lines or less (published or unpublished), from UK-based writers' resource site; enter online only
Edgar Bowers Prize
Postmark Deadline: October 15
One of several Georgia Poetry Society contests offering $75 for unpublished poems, this prize commemorates Georgia poet Edgar Bowers (1924-2000), whose compact and rigorous formalism defined the spirit of his work
Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Annual Poetry Prizes
Entries must be received by November 6
Many large prizes up to $7,500 for short lyric poems based on personal experience that "celebrate the spirit of life"; entrants must be under 40
Soul-Making Literary Competition
Postmark Deadline: November 30
Prizes up to $100 for poetry and prose that illuminates humanity's search for the sacred and the drive to realize one's potential; sponsored by the National League of American Pen Women (Nob Hill Branch) but open to both men and women
Other publications that might welcome a poem like "The Clash of Life" include The Raintown Review; Measure: An Annual Review of Formal Poetry (successor to The Formalist); and the e-zine The HyperTexts.
This poem and critique appeared in the September 2006 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free). If you'd like a chance to be critiqued, please email your poem to email@example.com. 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.