Q & A


POETRY: "Containment" is a sonnet. Christian Bök has written recently (on the Poetry Foundation blog, Harriet, of course!) that writing poems in form today has begun

to take on the character of a "conservation society," protecting an endangered form of poetry at the brink of its extinction, thereby preserving these "styles" for posterity, like a taxidermist stuffing dead owls.

And Joshua Clover has commented that:

specific forms rise and fall, not because they are discovered to be good or bad, nor because they do or don't have intrinsic interest, but because a given specific form is more or less attuned to a given historical moment.

Is there a way in which this particular poem of yours constitutes a kind of response, rebuke, or defiance of such views?

A.E. STALLINGS: I suppose writing a sonnet is perforce a response, rebuke, and defiance of such views. But that isn't its purpose. I don't believe in writing forms for their own sake—saying, OK now I am going to write a sonnet. And I don't want its "sonnetude" to be the first thing to hit the reader, I just want the reader to enter it as a poem. But the sonnet is a form of immense versatility, flexibility, and usefulness; it is in more ways than one very protean (in a literal, Odyssean sense—both in its changefulness and in how its true identity is paradoxically released by restriction.) As is often the case, I didn't set out to write a sonnet here. The poem did not even start out to be a rhyming one, which might be evident from its structure—there isn't an obvious rhyme in it until line seven. Halfway through the poem, though, it became clear to me that it was going to be sonnet-like, and rhymes started offering themselves, though occasionally I would nudge one into place. I have been experimenting a lot with these nonce sonnets, where there are pairs of rhymes often at great distances from one another, sometimes more vaguely sensed than heard. I tried not to force it—I have left child rhyming with child, for instance. The sonnet seemed the right form for this since sonnets are very often about either containment or the opposite, the inability to constrain or limit something—this is part of the sonnet's inherent self-referentiality.

P: You've said that:

simile is arguably a species of metaphor—one that uses "like" or "as" or otherwise is explicit about drawing a similarity ("My Love is like a red, red rose"), whereas properly metaphor only implies one (my love is a red rose covered in thorns). I think it is sometimes suggested in writing classes that metaphor is somehow superior, being more of an immediate jolt, and that simile is somehow prosy, discursive, dull.

Can you talk about how the simile "Distant frowns like clouds . . . " works in this poem?

AES: I guess I am more interested in the larger simile of the poem as a whole—I'm interested in how extended similes take on a life, a world, of their own, a sort of parallel universe. Another thing the simile does that the straight metaphor can't really do is compare two things that are already extremely close together, and bring out very subtle and nuanced vibrations of dissonance. Take Edgar Bowers's poem, "The Wise Men," for instance, where he compares the Magi to the Magi figurines in a nativity scene. You couldn't do that with metaphor. And I like similes that invert what is normally compared, or appear to be talking about one thing (the tenor, the thing being compared), but are actually more about what it is being compared to. Clouds are often said to brood and frown like faces, and faces to cloud over—here perhaps they conflate, and the expressions become a kind of weather under which the child must pass.

P: There's an extended simile in "The Catch"—something "rises like a fish" between the mother and father; that creature sounds like a cousin to the one described in Elizabeth Bishop's "The Fish." Your poem describes it "With its heavy head lolled back, / Its limbs hanging down." In Bishop's poem, "He hung a grunting weight, / battered and venerable / and homely." Though your "fish" is actually a child, are these poems in any way related?

AES: Hmmm. That I had not thought of. It's possible there is some relation, since the Bishop poem is certainly part of my mind's furni- ture, and is bound to be in the room when I allude to fish in a poem. Perhaps, though, the similarity of the two poems lies more in the real world experience of pulling up something heavy from the water . . . I am flattered to think there might be more of a relation than that (perhaps the title is a subconscious nod?), but I couldn't say.

P: The strictness of the rhyme scheme in "The Catch" seems to alter in the third stanza, where "down" is intended to chime with "drowned." Can you describe the effect you intended here?

AES: "The Catch," though not in standard ballad meter, has a balladic feel to it, and part of that to me was not being too exact, allowing for some rough edges. I didn't want it to feel too literary, but to partake more of performance, allowing for this kind of slant rhyme, which in fact stands out more on the page than in utterance. "Intended" might be too strong a word—it's the kind of off-rhyme that is extremely easy to "fix" but I didn't want it fixed here. There seems a lowering of sound too with the "d" on drowned; it sounds heavier, wetter, more of a dull thump. There is something more final to it perhaps. ("Arms" and "warms" is a more "acceptable" literary off-rhyme, though likewise it seems to me with a slight lowering of pitch and lengthening of syllable.)

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This poem originally appeared in the March 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

March 2008

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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