Q&A: Whereof the Gift Is Small

Your poem is making reference to, and using language from, “The Frailty and Hurtfulness of Beauty,” a sonnet by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. Can you tell us a little about that poem and how it came to inhabit yours?

Surrey’s poem is a real tour de force rhyming abab abab abab cc; it flows so easily that the reader is not conscious of the constriction till the whole poem is ingested. I don’t think any of us could duplicate his rhyme scheme, even given his archaisms of “peason” and “geason.” The poem warns that beauty is both frail and hurtful; fickle and dangerous; slippery, hard to come by; treasonous and inimical to youth “that most may I bewail”; and in the concluding couplet the seeker finds beauty like fruit ready for picking today, struck by frost tomorrow. I don’t know how I became fixated by it. I tend to read raggedly and omnivorously and every once in a while I get lucky.

It’s not unusual for poets to start or end a poem with lines from anotherpoem; probably many have encountered this as an assignment in the workshop setting. Here, your poem both starts and ends with lines from “The Frailty and Hurtfulness of Beauty.” Do you have particular ideas, cautions, or insights about this strategy?

Mostly I have cautions. It’s a “beware the Jabberwock” moment. Picking lines from others’ poems is hazardous and I don’t recommend it. Looking back over my ten drafts, I see that I started out titling the poem “Brittle Beauty.” I soon realized that I needed to withhold it for the ending. Surrey’s second line, “Whereof the gift is small, and short is the season,” resonates powerfully here with anyone who gardens in New England. I do feel that Surrey’s sonnet somehow gave me permission to itemize the “beauty” I observed around me.

Could you talk about the choice to render this poem a shortened, or curtal, sonnet rather than a sonnet in fourteen lines?

Working in form makes it possible for me to confront emotions I would otherwise avoid. Beauty, yes, but then beetles are at work underground devouring my horse’s body, a contrast which for me justifies writing the poem. This is the “jewel of jeopardy, that peril doth assail.” The poem dictated its own length; I felt that to say more would spoil what I had.

I’m struck by the word “gelding”: it refers to a castrated male horse, but also seems archaic in its feel—coexisting here in an interesting way with a phrase like “sneaker toes.” Can you say something about how you see the diction in this poem working?

It didn’t occur to me that “gelding” might have an archaic feel, as it is a term as familiar to me as “mare” or “filly.” But all the better as it plays off “sneaker toes.” I tried to list the indices of spring as I came upon them and to do so directly, without tarting them up. I desperately didn’t want them to be “pretty.” As for diction, the poem unabashedly uses alliteration, assonance, consonance, I hope not floridly.   

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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