The collection of original works on The Poetry Porch 2020 includes many poems in open forms,* as well poems in fixed forms,
a lot of narrative, and three examples of a fondness for fish.
The 2020 installment was nearly finished before the corona virus took hold in March. Like many, I was in denial about the spread of the virus
until I could deny it no longer. And so I hesitated about Merryn Rutledge’s poem “The Spanish Influenza, 1918” and Elizabeth Reeke’s “Conversations
with My Tears,” both in open form, that addressed the topical subjects of a previous pandemic and the current political strife. But now that these poems have been accepted as part of a group and their relevance has become apparent, I am doubly pleased to have them.
I was surprised to find how much I enjoyed the poems by Hilary Sallick, also in open form. The balance of seemingly straightforward description and
suspense-filled enjambment provides real momentum, in which every line compels the reader to keep paying attention. In her work “Ipharadisi,” the notion
that life can be carried like a slippery fish, and that the dead and the living are together somewhere, achieves a kind of rationality.
Cammy Thomas, who reworks the stuff of myth in her poems, also introduces the imagery of fish. In her poem “Spring,” she narrates a couple’s hunt
for a daughter in lines that stagger like stepping stones over water. Her poem “Feather” presents the story of Icarus from the mother’s point of view in
a natural cadence that she discovered modestly rather than invented deliberately.
David Miller’s poem “How Coffee Found Me” captures the dilemma of a narrator who comes to prefer coffee over tea. Finding humor in
juxtapositions of nouns and verbs, Miller makes inert subjects into agents through choice of verbs: “The summer that sealed the end . . .” and “hot tea
that flummoxed . . .” His unique syntax captures the bitter-sweet triumph of looking back on youth and acknowledging its limitations.
The open form creates the impression that the reader is in direct contact with the content of the poem and that the form has melted
away. That is not true of course, as examination reveals the careful attention to phrasing and syntax, without relying on rhyme, and
sometimes an absence of punctuation. Instead, echoes of sounds occur, and the use of empty space between words and phrases controls
the rhythm. These poems release their freedom of movement rather than provide containment. It might be the undetected structure
or their unique scaffolding that gives me the impression that these open poems are introducing insights that have not been dealt
Formal poems by contrast seem to contain their thoughts in exquisite proximity. Those who find confidence in the fixed forms
demonstrate the freedoms found within and do not press for the shock of the new. Rather they build upon what went before. Poems in
fixed forms seem to have dealt with the big subjects at a previous time and are taking their knowledge a step further, testing or
teasing us about what we think we already know.
The most formal poems here are found on The Sonnet Scroll. There, Bruce Bennett takes an ironic view of the well known
song in his sonnet (of the same title) “On the Street Where You Live,” as if to suggest what might happen if one lover meets the
other where she lives and just keeps walking. In another sonnet, “Duck Dignity,” he examines a stubborn, somewhat repulsive
bird in his care who seems averse to the sympathy he wants to give. David Landon structures his sonnet “My Magic Pond” by juggling
images of ponds, fish, and brain activity. Like Thomas and Sallick, he employs images of fish to embody life, in which they teach him
how to activate his imagination through mimicry of their movement. These sonnets show a security in iambic pentameter and the sonnet
tradition and seem effortless where they create surprise. We hardly notice the mechanics of the premise, turn, and resolution,
so intent are we on the pleasure of the metrical music, the vibrant imagery, and the quiet joke between the lines.
It has taken me a long time to reach a level of proficiency with iambic pentameter. Composing my poem “The Ritual Bath”** as
a series of seven sonnets in the pattern of a sonnet crown, gave me the road map I needed to keep going as I wrote about the death of a
good friend who elected to die by starvation. (This is legal in Massachusetts; his was not an assisted suicide.) I wanted to dramatize the
wife’s perspective, and now that she too has also died, I wanted to complete a conversation we had had about her experience with him, to
build upon something already verbalized. That is the value I’ve found working within the traditional forms, and I don’t want to lose it.
So why, with this new collection of poems on The Poetry Porch, why have I selected so many poems that operate in open forms? Why
did so many open forms come to the submission pile? I cannot say, other than to observe how the variety of poetic forms continues to jostle and
stimulate my preconceptions about them, one against the other, and I am enjoying the contest thoroughly.
We don’t know how the rest of 2020 is going to play out, but whatever happens — with the pandemic, the election, the weather — we
can be sure that our lives will be changed. As I look forward to the next season, and the next year, I hope to read more poems in open and fixed
forms, poems that rely on imagery, and that tell a story. They say that how well you can tell your own story is a sign of good health, even if the
details are about bad health. It is up to the individual artist to choose how he or she will celebrate, confront, or expand upon his or her
particular mode of utterance.
* I prefer the term “open form” to “free verse,” as it is also known.
** “The Ritual Bath” won a place on the Shortlist of Sonnet Crowns in the 2020 “Putting Chaos Into 14 Lines”
Sonnet Contest, Poetry by the Sea Poetry Conference, Madison, CT.