Sea Constellations of the Northern Sky Offer No Consolation
Astride whale roads with barques poorly equipped,
scrawny sages descry immense high blue
circling views, decanting nature into
canticles of land, or sea, or air that
congeal at polar meridian to
northern marine lung of hibernal hue.
Bulleting sky in starry satellite,
Cetus congregates to fangles shapely
arrayed in a sea of constellations.
"Listen to the Logos as blue merges into white then black and magnitude dims."
The sages pray and contemplate Jonah.
Jonah, insignificant spume, blindly
susurrates hymns in asterisms of
autumnal tone. Held in aquamarine
cinctures, unrequited songs burst in pared
watery syllables. Belched onto strange
shores, harps unstrung, speaking in partial tongues,
finding empty habitation and no
relief, they turn to baboon-watch a squall:
scrying the altitude for another sign to gather around.
Copyright 2012 by Rich Hoeckh; contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org
Critique by Laura Cherry
Don't these lines just cry out to be read aloud? Rich Hoeckh's poem "Sea Constellations of the Northern Sky Offer No Consolation" plays a complex music starting with its title and sings sweetly through its last line.
The conceit of the poem—a group of seafaring (then shipwrecked) prophets look to the elements for divine communication—is conveyed through goofily archaic diction ("barques poorly equipped", "decanting nature into / canticles of land or sea", "scrying the altitude") and a veritable thesaurus of synonyms. In this poem, the important thematic elements are the sea ("whale roads", "northern marine lung", "aquamarine cinctures"), songs (hymns, canticles, "pared / watery syllables"), and constellations (asterisms, "starry satellite", "fangles shapely / arrayed"). The songs are a plea for a sign, and the sea and constellations provide the only available answer. The poet chooses a nonce form of nine-line stanzas, each followed by a longer single line that summarizes or concludes the preceding stanza.
What truly draws me into this poem, though, is its music. In calling a poem musical, or referring to its music, I mean everything that goes into its sound: its rhythm, meter, and the sounds of the words themselves, its chewy or hushed consonants, the way it clacks and swishes and pings.
When we think of poetry as music, we may first think of songs and song lyrics, whose primary sound strategy is usually rhyme. However, poems can make use of a whole range of less showy techniques for subtler and more nuanced effects. Just for starters, these can include consonance (the repeated use of the same consonant), assonance (repeated use of vowel sounds), alliteration (the repetition of initial sounds in the words of a poem), and sibilance (perhaps most easily described as repeated hissing sounds).
Check out the sibilance in this fragment, for example:
Scrawny sages descry immense high blue
circling views, decanting nature into
canticles of land, or sea, or air
The "s" and "z" sounds are carried throughout the poem and evoke the sounds of sea and air. These soft sounds are contrasted with harder clicking sounds like those in "canticles", "congeal", "congregates", "constellations", and "contemplate". These two strands of sound provide counterpoint for each other, and keep the poem lively and fun to read aloud. The strands come together at times, particularly in the later lines of the poem, in phrases like "harps unstrung, speaking in partial tongues" and in words like "scrying" and "squall".
Sound-play like this has a rich precedence, of course, and I'm glad to have a reason to mention some of my favorite sound-intensive poems. For superb canonical examples, see Dylan Thomas, "I See the Boys of Summer"; Sylvia Plath, "Dream with Clam-Diggers"; Gerard Manley Hopkins, "Pied Beauty"; or Wallace Stevens, "Sea Surface Full of Clouds". For a more contemporary example, take a look at Sarah Hannah, "The Colors Are Off This Season".
A different matter altogether, worthy of a full discussion of its own, is slam poetry, written not just to be spoken aloud but performed and judged by the audience. See, for instance, "Hip-Hop Ghazal" by Patricia Smith, whose work is rooted in slam poetry. (To learn more about writing in the ghazal form, see our August 2012 critique.)
Having discussed what I see as the main strength of Hoeckh's poem, how would I critique it for revision? I'd first assess it for technique. There are small moments here that throw me out of the world of the poem, disrupting its thrall.
"Baboon-watch" is one of those for me, standing out in both diction (plain) and sound (that lengthy "oo"). The baboon image does not fit easily into the tapestry that has been woven of sage-sky-sea-stars, and while diversity can be refreshing, the uniqueness of this particular image gives it more weight than I suspect it is intended to have.
Also, that archaic diction, while providing a wild ride, can be hard to follow: "blindly / susurrates hymns in asterisms of / autumnal tone" sounds magnificent, but comes close to breaking the poem's tenuous thread of sense. Also, a number of the line breaks in the poem fall after prepositions like "to", "into", and "of", which hobbles the line as a sense unit and squanders multiple opportunities for more interesting enjambment. I'd encourage the poet to take more care in crafting those breaks.
The second area I'd assess is my emotional connection to the poem as a reader. There are many poems I admire simply for their mastery of technique. However, the poems that mean the most to me are the ones that grab me and shake me viscerally. Plath is far better known for her poems of rage and despair and love (as well as technical mastery) in Ariel (see "Lady Lazarus") than for her earlier, more apprentice poems in which she employed that same mastery but kept a respectful distance from her subject matter (see "Parliament Hill Fields").
This poem keeps its characters and action miles further than arm's length. We do not enter into the experience of the sages, nor really care whether they are sailing or capsized, as long as their exploits are described charmingly—as they are. The poem's words and manner draw us in, not its subject matter.
I mention this particularly because I have noticed a trend in the poems submitted to this column for critique: those that are well executed technically are often either light or emotionally distant or careful. They are well constructed, but do not take any sort of emotional risk, presumably for fear of being charged with sentimentality. Beginning poets should indeed take care to avoid melodrama, but it seems important to me to point out that beautiful sounds and precise construction are not necessarily ends in themselves. I'd recommend to any poet that at some point, you take the risk and leap into the fiery emotional core of your poem. To give pleasure in its reading is enough for a single poem to do, and it is a significant thing to do, but it is not all that poetry can do.
Where might a poem like "Sea Constellations of the Northern Sky Offer No Consolation" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Abilene Writers Guild Contest
Postmark Deadline: November 30
Texas writers' group gives prizes up to $100 in a number of genres including rhymed and unrhymed poetry, short stories, articles, children's literature, and novel excerpts
Perform Poetry Magazine Competition
Entries must be received by November 30
British magazine with an interest in spoken-word and performable poetry awards 100 pounds for an unpublished poem on the theme of "seasons"; enter online
Soul-Making Literary Competition
Postmark Deadline: November 30
National League of American Pen Women contest awards $100 prizes for poetry, stories, prose poems, personal essays, humor, and literature for young adults; open to both men and women; previously published works accepted
Cecil Hemley Memorial Award
Postmark Deadline: December 22
Free contest open to members of the Poetry Society of America (we recommend joining) awards $500 for a lyric poem that addresses a philosophical or epistemological concern
Little Red Tree International Poetry Prize
Postmark Deadline: December 31
Prizes up to $1,000 and anthology publication for unpublished poems, from an independent small press in Connecticut whose motto is "Delight, entertain and educate"; enter by mail or online
This poem and critique appeared in the November 2012 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).
Categories: Poetry Critiques