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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Sharpe chooses Gautier

Yolanda Sharpe, Neighborhood, encaustic
and mixed media on double panels,
48 by 43.75 by 4 inches, 2010

this time on THE LYDIAN STONES

Yolanda Sharpe is the chooser this week on The Lydian Stones. Please fly off there and leave a comment... Yolanda is a remarkable person who is a painter and longtime head of the SUNY-Oneonta art department. She is also a notable soprano and writes poetry to boot. I somehow could not hold her to one poem...


Once upon a time I had a mustard-colored copy of Understanding Poetry. Maybe you did, too, way back when. Garrick Davis has interesting things to say about the book and its authors, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren.

(And long ago I had a class on Faulkner with Brooks... He was elderly but in possession of quite sound marbles. Our first assignment was to do a timeline for the somewhat wayward Soldier's Pay. I did a maniacal, detailed version--and learned a lot as a writer about keeping time in line and how easily it can go astray.)


This was the official call for literature teachers across to the country to drop the scholarly pretensions of their profession, and return to literature. Though it seems a modest opening paragraph for a letter now, it was heard at the time as a rallying cry by the young, and a declaration of war by the old.  John Crowe Ransom, in a review of the book, said as much: “The analyses are as much of the old poems as the new ones, and those of the old are as fresh and illuminating as those of the new; or at least, nearly. What can this mean but that criticism as it is now practiced is a new thing?”


To open its pages now and compare it to our new textbooks is to suffer vertigo—our educational system has fallen from a very high place. (What would the authors have made of colleges that don’t require English Literature majors, even, to take a course in Shakespeare?) What they never set down was a reason why college undergraduates should study poetry at all. In our own, more dissolute, day—when the humanities have fallen into disrepute—we have need of such reasons. We have need of teachers like Brooks and Warren again, who would explain to us why freshman should always be forced to climb the summits of literature together. If you think that textbooks are invariably dull affairs, you owe it to yourself to find this book.


Update: Poet Maryann Corbett wrote me that the link wasn't working for her. For some reason it takes a minute to come up. I tried linking to other pages with the same result. Just wait, and it will come up instead of just giving an about: blank message.

If you are interested in formal poetry: I am dipping into Amanda French's online dissertation, Refrain Again: The Return of the Villanelle. And I am finding it enlightening.  Thank you, Amanda! Here's a snip:

It is in fact the case that the vast majority of poetry scholars know only as much about the villanelle as is to be found in handbooks such as Adams’s Poetic Designs–and the handbooks are all wrong.
Handbooks and anthologies and scholarly surveys–reference texts of any kind–that mention the villanelle almost unanimously assert or strongly imply that the villanelle has nineteen lines and an alternating refrain on the scheme A’bA” abA’ abA” abA’ abA” abA’A”, and that this scheme was fixed centuries ago in France through then-common practice, though it is now a rarity. Here is a sobering truth: only a single poet of the Renaissance wrote a villanelle by that definition, and he wrote only one. Jean Passerat’s “Villanelle,” also called “J’ay perdu ma tourterelle” (probably written in 1574), has come to represent a nonexistent tradition of which it is the sole example.


  1. I love poetics, and am interested to learn more about the villanelle (we're discussing One Art in class tomorrow...hope the students like it!).

  2. Hannah, the three section of the intro are quite interesting!. More nonce-y villanelles will no doubt erupt!

    She does talk about Bishop, too...

  3. I would dearly love to read French's dissertation in full, and I'm sorry to find that the link isn't working at present, at least for me. I hope it can be fixed. Another one I'd love to see is Julie Kane's dissertation, "How the Villanelle Found Its Form." (I hope I'm recalling that title correctly.)

  4. Wonderful to see that someone has written a whole tome on the villanelle! It is sobering how few really good works on poetry there are, when I look for criticism of a particular poem, as I did recently with Blake's "Tyger." I found the majority quite uninspiring.

  5. As Maryann points out, Julie Kane also did a booklength work on the villanelle...

    Well, deficiencies can be inspiring. Maybe you should write some analytical pieces!


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.