Life is long when you are young
Life is short when you are old
Life is long when songs are sung
Life is short some days I'm told
Life is gone when you are dead
Life is done the graveyard said
Life's a question asking why?
Lively blossoms fill the air
Life's a heartbeat pulsing by
Life is maidens soft and fair
Life of dawning days will end
Life's a yawning viper's grin
Life's a calling whippoorwill
Life's a melody of rides
Life's a falling star until
Lifeless crater she resides
Life is good but sometimes odd
Life's a life then life subsides
Life is from the breath of God.
Copyright 2012 by Wesley Dale Willis
Critique by Laura Cherry
Form and content should touch and talk to each other like a pair of dizzy lovers, or dance and sing together like a well-honed vaudeville act. The poet can start with either one, and find that his or her choices are guided, coaxed, informed and sparked by the other; ideally, this interplay happens throughout the creation of the poem, and these two components strengthen each other like the members of any good team. To see how this works in action, let's look at what can happen when the poet starts with a particular form in mind.
Paradoxically, rules and guidelines can work as a stimulant to creativity; they can provide just the right kind of distance to guide an idea out of chaos and into words. In particular, heavily weighted emotional content can be easier to manage when it is poured into a container rather than onto the open floor of the white page. While one part of the poet's mind is occupied searching for rhymes or counting beats in a line, another can be shaping those emotional raw materials. The swamp of emotion becomes a project—an elegant building or bridge—rather than a morass.
There is a whole tradition of forms to choose from, of course, but inventing a form can be an extra feather in the cap! The invented form, of course, has the additional advantage (and challenge) of allowing the inventor to set the rules him- or herself, based on what sort of tickle will provoke the muse of that particular day. In “Life”, the poet, Wesley Dale Willis, uses an invented form he calls a “sonnadeucearima”, whose form we'll examine closely in a moment to see how it works and plays with its content.
Invented forms have an appropriately quirky history. They're often, though not always, created for fun, and sometimes for the sake of a single poem. Some notable invented forms include the clerihew (a whimsical, four-line biographical poem invented by Edmund Clerihew Bentley) and the roundel (a variation of the French rondeau, invented by Swinburne). The Pollock (John Yau) and the Rothko (Bob Holman) are invented poetic forms inspired by painters. Another recent example is Billy Collins's paradelle, which he invented as a parody of complicated, repeating French forms like the villanelle. Though it began as a sort of literary joke, other poets have actually embraced the paradelle, even producing an anthology of poems in the form.
Like any form, of course, the invented form must be examined to see what qualities and effects that form itself produces. A villanelle, for example, with its patterned repetition of lines at the end of each stanza, is an excellent way to examine the same idea, theme, or image from a number of different angles, or with a deepening perspective (as in Dylan Thomas's classic “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”). Such a form would not be a good choice to tell a long or complex story—the repeated lines are too circular to proceed clearly and narratively through scenes and plot points.
Willis's sonnadeucearima uses a rhyme scheme of abab, cc, dede, ff, ghgh, ihi, with additional internal rhymes in the couplets (gone/done, dawning/fawning), and has seven feet per line, four stressed and three unstressed. It's also worth noting that the poet says that his poem was written after and about his father's death: hence the emotional content mentioned above. Where, then, does Willis's created form lead the content of his poem? The rhyme scheme, together with the short lines, lends itself to a deliberate simplicity, as in a lullaby, which provides an intriguing tonal contrast with the poem's themes: death, impending death, fear of death, and acceptance of death. This, in turn, leads the poet to a songlike repetition of the same word (or variants of that word) at the beginning of each line. And the lines themselves offer clichés turned on their heads and intermingled with fresher imagery. The next question to ask is: how effective is each of these strategies in conveying this heavy freight of content?
To my mind, the strategies employed in this poem are each at least partially successful. The lullaby simplicity of the poem not only provokes images from childhood (and confounds them with its theme), it echoes works in the canon like Blake's “Songs of Innocence and Experience”. That said, it can be difficult to manage simplicity in a poem without tripping into oversimplification. In “Life”, for example, I enjoy the clear statement, “Life's a calling whippoorwill”, but the line “Life is maidens soft and fair” seems more tired, less vivid, and somewhat archaic. It's worth avoiding archaisms in a poem whose form already so strongly harkens back to another era.
Repetition can be used for a number of different effects: to provide emphasis to a particular word, phrase or line; to set up expectations for sound and meter and potentially to subvert them; or to connect different ideas or moments in the poem. In other words, repetition has implications for both the thematic content and the music of the poem, working in concert on both aspects. Rooted in the oral tradition, repetition and rhyme once made long poems and songs easier to recall and retell. We don't often memorize and declaim poems these days—at least, most of us don't—and so our poetic effects are aimed at different targets, but a striking use of repetition can still remind us of its historical usage.
The repetition of “life” as a stressed beat at the beginning of each line gives it clear pride of place within the poem. The subject is life (and its opposite), and the poem had better live up to it! As with the other effects, the technique of repetition provides both an opportunity (to explore different aspects or facets of the same idea) and a challenge (to do this while maintaining conceptual movement and verbal interest over the course of the poem). Willis does diversify the ideas and images in each line, again with some success. “Life's a question asking why?” is something like placeholder philosophy and is much less interesting to me than a line like “Life's a heartbeat pulsing by”, the rhythm of which brings to mind an actual beating heart, as well as the temporal meaning of “heartbeat”. Repetition can truly shine in its variations, which stand out and focus the reader's attention. To zero in on these, the two lines that do not start with “Life” or “Life's” are:
Lively blossoms fill the air
(Life's a falling star until)
Lifeless crater she resides
These lines show the kind of flexibility that even a strict form can provide. Of these two variants, I prefer “Lively blossoms fill the air” (though I'd love to see the language punched up a bit, made more strange and wild). In the second variation, while I appreciate the juxtaposition of “Lively” and “Lifeless”, and find the image of the star and crater compelling, the sudden personification of the star as “she” is another archaism. The device jars me because it is not echoed or supported elsewhere in the poem.
Playing with cliché is a valid, but dangerous, poetic tactic—all too often it can fall short of the mark and come across as the very cliché it means to subvert. For that reason, my recommendation for this poem is to maintain the repetition and form, with their effective simplicity, and further tweak the imagery of the poem so that each line contains a surprise for the reader. “Life is short when you are old” reads as received wisdom, with nothing in it to wake the reader up. By contrast, “Life's a melody of rides” has a lovely newness and resists easy interpretation.
The final tercet, or three-line stanza, functions in much the same way as the final couplet in a Shakespearean sonnet: to wrap up both form and content with a last, perhaps summarizing, flourish. This tercet provides a strong end to the poem that could be made even more powerful. In “Life is good but sometimes odd”, I very much enjoy the understatement of “sometimes odd”, but see “Life is good” as a catchall phrase and missed opportunity. “Life's a life then life subsides” reads beautifully aloud and gets in three punches of the word “life”, as if in a final frenzied dance. “Life is from the breath of God” pivots on that word “from”, which torques what might be a religious cliché just enough to make it both strange and tangible.
Finally, a note on the title: while it underscores the repetition of the lines' first word, as well as the poem's apparent simplicity, it arguably takes that simplicity a step too far. Another possibility would be to use the title as a place to launch more freely from the poem. A title such as “What the Graveyard Said” is more likely to stick in the reader's mind than the perfectly apposite but less intriguing “Life”.
Where might a poem like “Life” be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Alabama Writers' Conclave Writing Contest
Postmark Deadline: April 20
Local poetry society gives prizes up to $100 for formal and free verse poems, fiction, and essays
Lucidity Poetry Journal Clarity Awards
Postmark Deadline: April 30
Twice-yearly neutral free contest gives top prize of $100 for poems about the human experience, by authors aged 18+
Writer's Digest Annual Writing Competition
Postmark Deadline: May 1
Competitive contest for poetry and several prose genres from Writer's Digest, a leading publisher of directories and advice books for writers, gives a grand prize of $3,000 plus prizes up to $1,000 in various poetry and prose genres; enter by mail or online
New Zealand Poetry Society International Poetry Competition
Entries must be received by May 31
Numerous prizes up to NZ$500 for poems in various genres and age categories; open to international entries; no simultaneous submissions
This poem and critique appeared in the April 2012 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).