In one poem included in these pages, Llyn Clague describes a traveler’s feeling of dislocation; in another, he argues that, even if his exterior circumstances are not exotic or unique, he feels like an alien. Bridget Seley-Galway describes the sadness of being held by some slip-knot of her childhood despite its fraying strands. Robert Johnson looks into the depths of his troubled identification with a woman whose face is almost completely concealed by a head covering. Marcia Karp obsesses about the unsuitability of masks (from a skin ailment or aging?) that assemble without warning or design.
The position of these authors is that they no longer know what they thought they knew, are pushed to question, have readied themselves to forgo certainty for surprise. Thus, the heading of this Poetry Porch installment, Voices Overheard, which emphasizes the author who does not want to be distracted, or appear distracted, from his vision by the demands of a prying audience. If a poem sounds strange, that is because we might be hearing the author arguing with himself in the next room, and if it sounds true, then we know that the author’s meditation has resonated with something deep in our own experience, and we are riveted by the recorded process.
Voices Overheard alludes to the aphorism by John Stuart Mill that states that eloquent writing is heard, but poetry is overheard.* It fascinates me that this is the last item in the list that defines the lyric poem.** This list alerts readers of the complexity of discussing poetry, that it might seem at times as if no one can say what poetry is for sure, but many can say how a good poem makes them feel. What Mill writes makes more sense for the literary society of his day than it does today, where everybody wants to be heard clearly, and being overheard suggests a lesser success. Still, the definition conveys an accuracy about poetry and the solitary that has not diminished over time.
Ted Richer’s story “Scriba” blurs Mill’s separations between prose and poetry. Richer relies on plot and dialogue, and while the dramatized action contributes to the whole, it is minimal and soon forgotten. Once the narrator unravels his subject through conversations with his father and a local scribe, his revelation is deeply personal. Our impressions at the end are of a man standing alone as his particular feelings are revealed and laid bare by his meeting with a man he has so admired.
Two essays on Spanish painters follow distinct methods of experiencing visual art: one with a book in hand, the other looking directly at the work. Patricia Callan’s essay on Dalí examines the man’s career as portrayed in his notebooks, where he records the influence of the masters and happenstance on his creations, while Gail Slater’s encounter with the famous work by Velázquez becomes an engagement with Spanish hospitality, in which the viewer imagines entering into the painting’s interior and joining its world.
This unfurling electronic length of The Sonnet Scroll presents Bruce Bennett’s poem on the loss of a friend, Elise Hempel’s sequence about twins, and James Nicola’s explorations of the artist’s life. Most of the sonnets that appear here are 14 lines, though a few have been included that are 10 lines, I have always thought of a sonnet under 14 lines as a curtailed sonnet, but now I see that, according to the Internet, a 10-line poem can be a sonnetina cinque, dizain, decastich, and more, each with its own specifications. I accept the appearance of many of these shorter poems as evidence of the appeal and elasticity of the sonnet tradition.
*Mill, John Stuart. “Thoughts on Poetry and its Varieties.” The original statement: “…eloquence is heard; poetry is overheard.”
** [A lyric poem] must necessarily be brief (Poe).
It must “be one, the parts of which mutually support and explain each other; all in their proportion harmonizing with, and supporting
the purpose and known influence of metrical arrangement” (Coleridge).
It must be “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” (Wordsworth).
It must be an intensely subjective and personal expression (Hegel).
It must be an “inverted action of mind upon will” (Schopenhauer).
It must be “the utterance that is overheard” (Mill).
Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Ed. Preminger. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974 (461).