Concerto of Snow and Pelagic Zone
CONCERTO OF SNOW by Ryan Sauers
the symphony of a falling snowflake
plays like a lone violist
secluded in a moment
one single flake
drifts back and forth
in a soft rhythm
heard only in my head
a soft melody of snow crystals
unfolds within me like
an ageless hymn
of quietude and tranquility
a night sky nearly blank
adds to the serenity
like canvas to an artist
here at this street corner's
lonely stoop I focus upon
one single crystalline fleck
with even smooth strokes
through tree tops the little white
sparkle somehow misses every branch
hovering in a crisp night's breath
like soft notes in a gentle chord
only to land upon a snowman's nose
this humble moment blanketed
with a warm and tender silence
one opus ends for another to begin
as a second crystal descends
Copyright 2010 by Ryan Sauers
PELAGIC ZONE by Joan L. Cannon
In the deeps, where memory's the record keeper,
All our truths are subjects now of sea-change—
Wrought by tides of time and waves of green experience.
Where grey grotesques reveal their nacre only after cleavage,
Rosy anemones disguise the moray's lair
And lure to numbing extinction all the small unwary.
Relics huge and impotent, bedecked with useless trinkets,
Are duned by the million million sifting grains of everyday details,
Their bulk and history sleeping, forever obscured by trivia.
In these mermaid caves, where lurk the myths? Where's the real?
Echoes reflect in patterns peacocked with iridescent hues;
Facts ephemeral as the uttered word, now ambered in silence—
Prism'd entities that mirror endlessly the mind's compounded masquerade.
Copyright 2011 by Joan L. Cannon
Critique by Tracy Koretsky
In the October 2010 Critique Corner, I highlighted how two poets conveyed meaning in their poems by using extended metaphors. This month I will demonstrate, in a very practical way, just how that's done, with the help of two poems: Ryan Sauers' “Concerto of Snow” and Joan L. Cannon's “Pelagic Zone”.
Let's begin with “Concerto”. In this poem, it is easy to see how a metaphor can be extended by using a diction family—words that are related. Here, the predominant family is, of course, music: both its forms, such as concerto, symphony, hymn, and opus, and its qualities, like melody, rhythm and chords.
The repetition of the word “soft” might raise a flag for the poet interested in revision. In this case, however, the poet has used the repetition to bring the words “rhythm” and “melody” into parallel. Notice, too, how Sauers has underscored his metaphor by selecting a second diction family of words that communicate music's opposite: silence. Indeed, he has utilized space throughout the piece to emphasize its pauses. I wonder if you can't identify a third diction family? Words that conjure aloneness: secluded, lone, only in my head, etc.
By interweaving these several families, Sauers complicates his poem and adds interest. In fact, the poem's weakest section is where he digresses from these three main diction families with:
a night sky nearly blank
adds to the serenity
like canvas to an artist
These lines introduce a new diction family which the rest of the poem does not ultimately support.
Not only does the use of diction families unify the poem, but also, in the end, they provide something that every poet needs: a way out. Beginning with his third repetition of “soft” in “soft notes”, Sauers gathers words from his various diction families: “chord”, “silence”, “one”, and “opus”, thereby creating a pleasing cadence.
With Joan Cannon's “Pelagic Zone”, with its lush and consistently interesting language, we see a somewhat more challenging example of the same principle. Ms. Cannon writes, “I want metaphor to carry the message, and most of the time I have message in mind.”
I don't know about you, but if I am going to understand the first thing about this poem, I will need to look up the phrase “pelagic zone”, which turns out to be any water in a sea or lake that is not close to the bottom or near to the shore. If a reader must look up words to enter a poem, does that make its diction obscure? No. Rather it makes it specific. Obscure diction is actually just the opposite: words selected to make their true meaning harder to discern. There is a place for intentionally obscure diction in poetry, but this poem is not an example of it.
To the contrary, Cannon tells us unequivocally in her first two lines that memory and truth are the subject of her poem, the subject about which the pelagic zone will act as metaphor. Meanwhile, also in those first lines, she establishes that she intends to continue borrowing from the diction family of oceanography to extend that metaphor.
Take, for example, her use of the word “deeps” (as opposed to “depths”). As the third word of a poem, this unusual, though specific, choice is something of a risk. After all, she has not yet earned the reader's trust or respect. Now, risk within a poem is not a bad thing; often it is something to be admired. However, presented in a poem with a grammatical inversion in line two, it might give the impression of someone less than comfortable with English.
To repair this, Cannon need not deviate from her carefully selected diction. Instead a simple repair of the inversion in line two:
All our truths are now subjects of sea-change
resolves the issue without altering her meaning in any way. Read in the light of the title, the reader is now alerted to the particularity of the diction we are to expect in the remainder of the poem, words like “nacre” and the skillful use of metonymy with the word “moray”. By exploiting the diction family of oceanography, Cannon extends her metaphor to take us beneath “tides” and “waves”. See how the colors of the sea become a small family of diction in themselves? At last she brings us to the treasure—that message she has always had in mind—the effect of memory and truth buried in the sands.
Notice how, beginning with the last two lines of the first stanza and then throughout the rest of the poem, Cannon takes nouns, turns them into verbs and presents them in the past tense: dune'd, peacocked, ambered, prism'd. This uncommon construction creates another sort of diction family and unifies the poem's second half.
This is a formal poem—the sort of poem where the tone supports esoteric language and atypical grammar. To recognize this at first glance, one only need note the use of capital letters at the beginning of each line. Identifying the poem as such offers perspectives for its revision. I see that it is built in unrhymed couplets, each pair containing a complete idea. The one exception is the final line of the first stanza. I question the line. Does it provide new information? For the first time in this poem I feel as if I am being told as opposed to shown.
Formal poetry, like every other type of poetry, is, quite frankly, subject to fashion. Though this may seem frivolous, a freshening of its presentation will probably help its reception without a single revision to its text. Cannon might take a look at online journals such as Mezzo Cammin, Able Muse, or The Barefoot Muse, and study how lines are broken and stanzas shaped in contemporary formal poetry.
Extending metaphors is perhaps the most essential skill every poet must master. It is poetry's logic, the way it operates. Even more than repetition, rhythm, or rhyme, it is metaphor that distinguishes poetry from every other type of writing. Fortunately, as this month's poets have shown us, using diction families make it easy to do.
Where could a poem like “Concerto of Snow” be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
The University of Derby's literary festival sponsors this contest with prizes up to 300 pounds in adult category, or book tokens (gift certificates) in youth categories
Tiferet Writing Contest
Entries must be received by April 1
Prizes up to $500 for poetry, fiction, and nonfiction from ecumenical journal of spirituality and the arts; enter online only
Writer's Digest Annual Writing Competition
Postmark Deadline: May 2
Competitive award from national writers' magazine offers $3,000 for best entry across all genres, plus prizes up to $1,000 in several poetry and prose genres
Dancing Poetry Contest
Postmark Deadline: May 15
Artists Embassy International offers prizes up to $100 plus opportunity to have your poem presented as an interpretive dance at festival in San Francisco
New Zealand Poetry Society International Poetry Competition
Entries must be received by May 31
Prizes up to NZ$500 for poems in various genres and age categories; open to international entries; no simultaneous submissions
Where could a poem like “Pelagic Zone” be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Sentinel Literary Quarterly Poetry and Short Story Competitions
Entries must be received by March 20
UK-based magazine of world literature offers quarterly contests with prizes up to 150 pounds per genre; enter online or by mail
Writecorner Press Annual Poetry Award
Postmark Deadline: March 31
Writers' resource site offers prizes up to $500 and online publication for unpublished poems up to 40 lines
These poems and critique appeared in the March 2011 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).
Categories: Poetry Critiques